As a divorced father with two kids, I’m in charge of activity planning every other weekend. Living on a single salary, I can’t afford to constantly drop money on arcades, trampoline parks, movies theaters, and other expensive activities.
The kids loved exploring a nature preserve close to their house and going on short hikes from one end of the property to the other. When the walks became too predictable, I scouted out other hiking spots within driving distance. Our hikes progressively grew more challenging each time out.
This past summer, we took a family vacation to Lake Placid and traversed the trails and mountains of the former site of the winter Olympics. I watched the kids dominate trails and climb mountains that would have seemed daunting just a year prior. Our hours spent roaming local parks turned my kids into adventure junkies, and they called the trip “the best week of their lives.” We’re already planning our hiking trip for next year.
Hiking is now a family tradition for the kids and me.
Are you thinking about going hiking with kids for the first time?
Prepare The Night Before
Waiting until the morning of a hike is never a good idea. The night before the trip, make a list of all the things you and the kids will need while wandering the wilderness. Bring along copious amounts of snacks (more on that in a second), binoculars, trekking poles, a small shovel for excavating, a notepad to write down items of interest, an extra pair of socks for each kid in case the terrain gets sloppy, sunblock, wipes, antiseptic spray, and some bandages. Pack a bag as though you’re going to live outside for a while.
The reason you’re better off packing the night before is that you’re more likely to remember everything during the extra time. Tossing items in a bag twenty minutes before piling into the car is a surefire way to forget essential items.
My suggestion is to overpack a bag while keeping in mind that the more stuff you jammed into a backpack, the heavier your bag will be on your back all day. Unless you’ve got older kids who can shoulder some of the load, you’ll be the person lugging the stuff around, so keep this in mind before filling your pack with unnecessary items.
Snacks Are Crucial
Packing enough snacks for an afternoon in the woods is essential when going hiking with kids. In fact, I’ll argue that not bringing enough food, drinks, and snacks can derail an otherwise fantastic day in the wilderness. Be sure to pack a wide variety of options – salty, sweet, and healthy – and bring along enough water to put out a small forest fire. The kids will be chugging liquids every time you stop to check the map.
Hiking is one of the few times I’m perfectly fine with my kids eating sugary snacks. Whatever keeps them hyper and ready to tackle more miles. I’ll also use candy and sugar as an incentive to keep going until the next stop.
Let the Kids Lead the Way
My son is constantly running in front of the pack. If it’s just the three of us, he’s always about a football field ahead. If there’s a group of us, I usually don’t see him until we get to the next resting point. It’s important to let kids think they’re in control of the adventure, even though they’re just following a man-made trail around in the woods.
Let the kids set the pace. Ask for their advice along the way about where to head next. “Should we take the blue trail or the yellow trail?” Allow them to make some choices for the family. Let them choose when and where to stop. Don’t try and push them along every time they stop to stare at rocks, weird bugs, funky-looking mushrooms, massive spiderwebs, and random creatures. Hiking with kids will involve A LOT of stopping, so be ready.
Speaking of stopping to take in the sights, use this time to commend the kids on how well they’re doing so far. Go above and beyond with telling your kid how they’re crushing this hike, how good they are at scaling the rocks and jumping over tree roots, and how strong they look. Be sure to use this positive reinforcement even if they’re not really doing that well.
Keep an Eye on the Miles
I made this mistake early on with the kids. I’d paid little attention to the amount of land covered on foot and never stopped to think about the younger kid getting tired quicker than the older kid. The three miles out involves three miles back, and tiny legs connected to kids with smaller attention spans can only handle so much.
If possible, pick trails with natural loops that bring you back to the starting point, preferably not far from the car. Occasionally, you might have to carry the youngest kid for a little while to cover some miles in less time.
Let Them Bring Home Souvenirs
My kids developed a love for wandering around in the woods at a young age. They spent summers at a camp that encouraged turning the woodlands on the property into a Lord of the Flies-type village. The kids were charged with gathering sticks, branches, leaves, and anything helpful in building shelters. Both kids are excellent at discovering tree limbs that make for perfect walking sticks, swords, or magic wands.
Naturally, those items have to come home with us. Being the son of two neat freaks, I had trouble allowing the kids to bring rocks and massive sticks into the house until I realized the kids were hanging onto these pieces of nature as a reminder of the day and not just to torture my OCD tendencies. My son can recall where and how he found every branch and rock in his collection.
Don’t Force Hiking on Them
A few years ago, I coached my son’s lacrosse team. The kids were ages 6-9. Before the season started, the league held a coach’s clinic to go over the rules. One of the league organizers gave this one final instruction to all parents and coaches in attendance. “You have one job this season — make sure the kids have fun and don’t hate the sport.”
The same is true for hiking. Just make sure the kids have fun and don’t hate wandering around the woods all day. You want the kids to have as much fun as possible. If things aren’t going according to plan, don’t freak out.
Hiking with kids is all about what you make of the time spent together. Make the experience as much fun as possible, and your kids will be begging to go
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