The Complete Guide to Hiking with Kids! How to prepare, what to pack, and how to make the most of your hiking experience with young children!
My husband and I love the outdoors. My ideal vacation is enjoying nature while interacting with as few people as possible (introverted much?). When we got married we registered at REI and backcountry camped on our honeymoon! Yep. We’re hardcore. We love the feeling of carrying everything we need on our backs and setting out on a great adventure. Nothing tastes better than instant mashed potatoes cooked over a small camp stove after a long day of hiking!
Before kids, we spent time in the backcountry every year. Once Bethany was born we realized our hiking experiences needed to change (I’m not packing out 5 days’ worth of poopy diapers, thankyouverymuch), but we knew we wanted to instill the love for the outdoors and adventure into our children. So I’ve created this “Complete Guide to Hiking With Kids” hoping that it will be a helpful tool to all my outdoorsy mommas out there! 🙂
Since we just went on our first mountain vacation as a family of 5 (woo hoo)! I thought it’d be fun to share our best tips for hiking with kids! Both our daughter Bethany & son Gabe could hike 3 miles when they were 3 years old! We have learned so many tricks, especially since moving to the lovely state of Utah where we can leave our house and be on the top of a mountain in less than one hour (hallelujah)!
So here it is! All of our best “Hiking With Kids” advice in one giant post! Because having kids doesn’t mean you have to miss out on amazing experiences or views like this… 🙂
Phase 1: Preparation
We start talking up our vacations months in advance. Expectations are key. How many times, as an adult…has a violation of your expectations left you grumpy? How much more can unmet expectations ruin an experience when little kids are involved?! Here are a few circumstances we prepare our kids for:
Long, strenuous physical activity
About one month before our vacation we turn our normal family activities into “hiking training.” On our walks around the neighborhood we discuss that hiking, just like walking to the park, is not always easy! We tell them that they will get tired, but they need to keep going or they won’t reach the very cool, totally awesome final destination! Really, anytime we’re doing something that’s physically demanding and our kids say they’re tired, we take the opportunity to exclaim that we’re so glad they get to practice persevering so they can be awesome hikers!. 😉
Real life experience: On this trip the longest hike we did was just over 3 miles round trip, with roughly a 500 feet elevation gain. Both Bethany (5) and Gabe (3) hiked the entire thing on their own! They were very tired by the time we finished, but it wasn’t anything that some great snacks and a swim in the crisp lake water didn’t cure! 🙂
Going potty in the woods
Seriously people this is HUGE. You do NOT want any accidents when you’re 2 miles (and 2 hours) away from your car! The first time we took our daughter hiking after she had been potty trained we forgot to explain the whole peeing outdoors thing…which resulted in a huge meltdown and a big scene in the middle of the mountains.
We spend so much time teaching our kids that those parts are private, to close the door when you go to the bathroom, and that wearing pants in public is an absolute necessity…so to turn around and tell a 3-year-old they need to drop their drawers and do their business is a total paradigm shift that needs to be coached beforehand. No, we don’t have them pee around our neighborhood. We just explain the mechanics of it all and tell them how awesome it is to go potty outside.
Funny story: On this trip Gabe peed on a rock and thought it was awesome. He exclaimed, “Somebody will come by and say, ‘Who peed on that rock?’ And somebody else will come by and say ‘Who peed on that rock?’ And somebody else, and somebody else, and somebody else, and all day people will come by and wonder ‘Who peed on that rock?’”
Your child will most definitely fall at least 100 times. They will scrape their knee on a rock. There will be blood. They will want to freak out. We talk about being tough on the trail before we get there. We explain that even if you get hurt you have to keep hiking (i.e. we’re not going back to the car for a skinned knee). Of course we hug the pain away, but then we remind them that hiking is tough business, that we need to keep going, and then distract them with the first creepy crawly creature we see!
Phase 2: Packing
There are so many things you could bring along to make your next adventure more fun. Here are a few items we consider must-haves:
#1) Carrying Backpack:If you are hiking with a little one (under age 3) you will want to carry them. We have a Deuter carrier with a sun roof and we absolute love it. It still looks brand new and it’s been through 3 kids in 5 years. It is an investment, but if you plan on hiking a lot it is totally worth it. When our babies are super little I carry them in the Ergo baby carrier. It’s so comfortable and great for extended use (Gabe literally lived in this thing for the first 6 months of his life)! There were hikes when we had two babies to carry, so having two different ways to tote them around was essential for us!
#2) Sun protection: Sunscreen, hats, long-sleeves or at least shirts that cover their shoulders are all highly recommended. I have multiple hats for each kid just because they do such a great job protecting their head, face & neck from the sun.
#3) Clothes that can get wet: If you see a stream, lake, waterfall, or puddle you want your kids to dive or splash on in! Having fun & cooling off will extend their cheery hiking dispositions. (more on this below)
#4) Change of clothes: We keep a change of clothes in the car in the case of #3.
#5) Hiking shoes: Any close-toed athletic shoe will work. I do NOT recommend letting them hike in open toed sandals/water shoes/keens. If your kids are anything like ours, you’ll have to stop every 5 seconds to remove rocks from their tiny little feet.
#6) Change of shoes: After hiking your feet are hot, sore and sweaty. There is nothing more glorious than ditching your smelly footwear and changing into sandals.
#7) Water! We use a hydration backpack and we bring extra water bottles. We carry the water because it’s heavy and our kids are so little. If you have older kids who are perfectly capable of hiking 3 miles (or more) while carrying something…having them carry their own hydration pack is definitely the way to go!
#8) Snacks: Oodles and oodles of snacks! Dried fruit, trail mix, granola bars, applesauce pouches, protein bars, etc. (more on this later)
#9) Biodegradable toilet paper. Just in case.
#10) Plastic bag: don’t be a littler-bug. It’s important that you respect the trails and pack out all your garbage.
#11) Fun bandaids: (see “Getting Hurt” in the Preparation section). It’s amazing how a Darth Vader band aid can make everything better.
Phase 3: On the Hike!
I can’t stress just how much my husband and I had to change our ideas of what a hiking trip should be once our kids came along. We used to do multiple hikes in a day. It was our mission to see how fast we could get to the top…we’d complete hikes that were estimated to take 4 hours in 2. Part of the fun for us was pushing ourselves physically. Let me just tell you that’s SO not the case anymore. We do one hike a day…and what is estimated to take 2 hours actually takes 2 hours. 😉
I know…you’re on vacation. But if a day of hiking is your goal, the earlier you start, the better–Especially in National Parks! Droves of tour buses and RVs start rolling into all the great hiking spots in the late morning hours. Also, you beat the heat if you start hiking in the morning. We always try to get to our trailhead by 8 am (or earlier if possible). We feed the kids a fun breakfast in the car on the way to save time!
Real Life: One morning we took a Ferry across a lake to our hiking destination. When we got there at 8 AM there were about 10 of us on the Ferry, and we stepped right aboard with zero wait time. We were the only ones on the trail, and got to enjoy the peace and quiet of undisturbed nature around us. When we were leaving around noon we went to ride the ferry back, and it was absolutely packed full of tourists coming to explore the same trail we just hiked–basically alone. We were so glad we chose to go early…SO glad.
Consider Elevation Gain
Many parents don’t think to consider the elevation gain when planning a hike for their family. However, it’s absolutely crucial that you know the type of trail you are about to embark on, especially with little kids. Many parents see the distance and think, “Oh, my kids can hike 1.2 miles! No problem!” But, what they fail to realize is that over the course of those 1.2 miles you hike 1,000 ft. straight up hill. YIKES. You want to be sure you choose hikes that your kids can complete!
Think about those short, stubby little three-year-old legs, and give your kids a break. Go their pace. Let them be the leader (and sing the song “following the leader” as you walk). Enjoy the scenery as you meander down the trail.
We want our kids to love hiking…not dread it because mommy and daddy are crazy. We pick up every stick, stop and look at all the (gross) bugs, throw rocks, jump in puddles, sing songs, eat so.many.snacks. Yes, hiking 1 mile will take you 1 hour, but it’s awesome.
Funny Story: It took Gabe an entire day to find his idea of the perfect hiking stick. He hiked with that thing every day and even asked if he could sleep with it next to his bed. Ritch whittled the rough spots down and it was perfect. In the beginning of every hike he’d take my hand and say, “MOM, if a bear or a lion or any animal comes I will hit him with this stick and cut him down to protect you from the bad animals.” I’d always express how grateful I was to have such a strong, brave boy hiking with me to protect his momma. 😉
If you’re a type A, schedule-making, never-miss-a-nap type of parent (my hand is raised high) then this may be the hardest part for you. You don’t want to spend your whole vacation in your hotel while your kids nap. Even if we have little ones who are still napping multiple times a day, we throw the schedule to the wind and let them steal sleep whenever they can. We do usually rest for an hour or two every day while we shower and clean up before dinner, but other than that naps happen at random times…and that’s O.K. (breathe). If they are tired enough…they will fall asleep… 😉
Ask & Answer Questions:
No doubt your kids will have 1.3 million questions. Answer them. They are learning all.the.time and soak things in like tiny sponges. Take advantage of your trip and teach them something about nature! While we were hiking the Tetons we saw really neat caterpillars’ nests. My son exclaimed “mom! Those caterpillars will go into their cocoons and then they will be butterflies like the one we saw before!” We praised him for remembering what we taught him and then asked him some more questions about caterpillars & butterflies. It takes more work to give a nature lesson while hiking, but they will remember so much more than you think!
We are all about the snacks when we hike. I bring a bag of something special (skittles, M&M’s etc.) and label it “Power Fuel.” If the kids are getting super tired and it’s not a great place to stop (e.g. no shade) I pull out the “Power Fuel!” I tell them that I brought this special treat just to give them energy when they think they’re too tired to keep going. Then, as we keep hiking, I ask if they can feel it working (they do!) and they start to get a second wind. Thank you placebo effect. Besides “Power Fuel” we just pack lots of great snacks. We usually pack sandwiches to eat at our final destination! You do NOT want hangry children…trust me! Whenever our kids say they’re hungry we let them eat! Their little bodies are doing so much more than they’re used to, and they need LOTS of fuel!
The most important part of your trip:
Quite possibly the most important thing to understand is…YOU set the tone for your vacation. Your kids will have as much fun as YOU do. If you are Eeyore with a raincloud following you around everywhere you hike, your kids will act the same way. Conversely, if you are jumping up and down and pointing out every cool bug and every beautiful view they will get excited too. If you sing songs and dance along the way, they will act goofy and have a blast with you. If you jump in puddles, let yourself get dirty, swim in the freezing water, and “skip-to-the-Lou-my-darling” they will too. If you choose to enjoy every little moment, your kids will follow suit. Channel your inner-child and make a fool out of yourself! I started doing cartwheels across one of the bridges and my kids thought it was hilarious.
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Was this helpful? Do you have any tips or tricks that you think should be added to this list? Any gear not listed that you couldn’t live without while you’re hiking?
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