Hiking with Kids

Fresh air, fun, family time, and fitness: Hiking with kids has it all

Hiking with kids - girl walking on rural path
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Are you intimidated by the idea of hiking with kids? Don't be! You can start small, and slow, and still reap the benefits. Just ask Gary Bernstein. He is a father of three (all born within a year of each other) who started his kids hiking pretty much as soon as they could walk. 

Bernstein and his family love to explore the outdoors near their Northern California home. "We found a great spot that to you and me wouldn't be considered a hike.

It's a trail that spans 150 yards or so," he says. Where the trail ends, the kids stop and play and have snacks. They can pick up sticks, climb on tree trunks, and even wade in a nearby creek. For longer hikes, the little ones go in strollers or backpacks when they tire of walking. Whether on foot or not, they like to see trees, airplanes, dogs and other simple sights along the trail—no incredible vistas required.

Why Hiking with Kids Is the Best

Gary and his wife, Becky, are setting the stage now so that they can enjoy hiking with their kids for years to come. Kara Allen is a little farther down the trail and frequently hikes with her husband and their two school-age children. Their daughter went on her first hike in a backpack carrier at 11 months old. 

For the Allens and many others, hiking is a near-perfect family activity. In addition to the physical exercise, "it's a great way for us to all be together doing something that is low stress and where we can enjoy the outdoors.

We really get a chance to talk as a family when we are hiking," Kara explains. Plus, it's inexpensive—often free, aside from equipment such as shoes and water bottles.

Advice on Hiking with Kids

Most importantly, know your kids and know how far they can go. You do this by starting with short trails, and working your way up to longer and more challenging ones.

Don't be afraid to stop and pack it in if kids are running out of steam. It's much better to quit while enthusiasm is high than push too far.

It also helps to look for trails with features that appeal to kids. That could mean:

  • Anything climbable, like boulders or trees
  • Water, whether it's to look at or splash in
  • Caves or other hidden spots to investigate
  • Things to see—from impressive views to interesting bugs, plants, or birds
  • Clearly marked paths (these allow kids to lead the way and feel like they're in charge)
  • Educational extras, like a visitor center with interesting objects or programs

To find a trail, look for state parks or nature preserves in your area. They should have lots of options for hiking trails of varying lengths. Or try a service such as Trails.com or TrailLink (a service of the Rails to Trails Conservancy) to search for options nearby.

What to Bring When Hiking with Kids

Definitely, pack snacks and/or a picnic lunch. While food rewards are in general not a great idea, kids really get hungry during a hike! Looking forward to a particular snack can help keep them going just a little bit longer on the trail.

"Snacks and enough water are important. The kids enjoy sitting for a little picnic while looking at the scenery," says Tammy O'Keefe, who hikes with her family often.

Kara Allen says that her son and daughter like being in charge of the family snack. "Trail mix that we make at home is one of our favorites," she says. "The kids know the routine for getting ready for a hike: One packs a snack and one packs water bottles for everyone." Allen's kids also love to have hot chocolate at the end of a hike on a cool day (they bring hot water in a Thermos).

Along with the snacks and water, it's also helpful to bring along:

  • Trail guide or map
  • Hats, sunglasses, sunscreen
  • Insect repellent
  • Camera that kids can use
  • Whistles (in case you get separated)

Most important, though, is patience and a willingness to follow your children's lead.

"I love the outdoors. It has always been very important to my husband and me, so it is crucial to us to raise our kids to enjoy and appreciate the environment," says Tammy O'Keefe. "If the girls want to stop and play on the rocks or take some pictures or take a water break, we let them. We try to make hikes enjoyable." That is smart advice for parents with kids of any age.

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