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Photo Credit: © 2019 James Frank

11 Tips for Hiking with Kids

One of the proudest moments in any hiking parent’s career as a hiker comes when they are first able to bring their little ones along on the trails with them. And with several scientific studies recently extolling the benefits of nature time for your kids’ mental and physical health, there’s now more reason to do so than ever.

But bringing your kids on your outdoor adventures is a little trickier than taking along a work colleague, friend, or adult family member, and involves a little more planning and forethought to avoid any of the many pitfalls and potential mishaps that await the unprepared.

Below, we offer eleven tips for hiking with kids to help you avoid those pitfalls and make sure your family outings in the wild are a success.

1. Choose your trail wisely

When choosing a hike to take on with your kids, it’s best to pick a trail that’s short, goes easy on the incline, and is full of fun or interesting features that will keep them engaged for the duration. With younger kids, it’s usually also a good idea to start off with paved or very well-maintained trails.

Hiking for kids is all about the experience, so impressive natural features like waterfalls, lakes, interesting flora and fauna, or scenic viewpoints could help boost your kid’s motivation and enjoyment. A picnic area, park restaurant, or a play park at the end of the hike probably wouldn’t hurt either…!

2. Dress for success

Dress your kids as you’d dress yourself on a hike—that is, with a view to comfort and protection from the elements. This means using a variation of the layering system for all members of the family, starting off with a breathable, non-cotton baselayer and carrying an insulating layer and shell layer to throw on as weather conditions require.

Footwear choices will ultimately depend on the terrain you’re tackling. If the path is paved, short, and relatively flat, then let your kids wear what is comfortable (sandals, wellington boots, or sneakers); for more “rugged” terrain, however, you may want to invest in some hiking boots for kids.

3. Plan ahead

As Ben Franklin once said, by failing to plan, you are planning to fail. The same holds true for hiking with your kids, when anticipating potential problems and packing accordingly is the key to a stress-free time.

Try to prep as you would for a normal, kid-free hike by packing the bare necessities of food, clothing, shelter, and other items from the list of the standard ‘Ten Essentials’ of hiking.

However, some items not on that official list could well turn out to be “life-savers,” such as a favorite cuddly toy, wet wipes, lip balm, and binoculars, magnifying glasses, and/or a disposable (or replaceable) camera to provide some entertainment or diversion if the natural scenery isn’t quite doing it for your kid!

Finally, even in fair weather, it’s always a good idea to call ahead of time to check on trail conditions in order to avoid any unwelcome surprises and change your plans if need be.

4. Allow plenty of time

Kids are naturally curious and less objective-oriented on the trails than us adults and, as such, are likely to spend a lot of time indulging their curiosity and discovering new things. Instead of seeing this as a failure of the perceived objective of “hiking,” try to view it as an integral part of the fun, don’t get hung up on reaching any destination within a certain time frame, and leave plenty of time to complete your hike before dark.

5. Make it fun

With most kids, motivation for any given activity and fun tend to go hand in hand. While the landscape and natural features on your hike should take care of some of the ‘fun’ part for you, it’s wise to have something up your sleeve just in case boredom should strike.

Some ways you can make your hike more amusing include doing a nature scavenger hunt by giving your kids a list of items to find en route or playing a good old-fashioned game of ‘I Spy’ or ‘What am I?’, which involves telling them you are an object or animal in the area and providing small clues about what you might be until they finally guess correctly.

6. Make it educational

Bringing along a little light literature can be another way of staving off disinterest and boredom should the natural scenery not quite cut it for your kid. Guidebooks or field books that help kids identify animals, flowers, trees, mushrooms, butterflies, insects, and birds are all good choices—just make sure they have nice illustrations and, to save your spine, opt for the soft-cover as opposed to the hardback editions!

7. Bivy shelter

Little ones usually have far lower tolerance levels for inclement weather than us adults. While you should always carry waterproof clothing for your kids in case weather conditions take a turn for the worse, it’s also a good idea to bring along a lightweight bivy shelter to pull out to provide a little respite in rain showers, blazing sun, or just to create a cosy little nook for lunch or rest stops.

8. Expectation management

Many parents are apt to overestimate how much trail time their kids can put in in a single day and in doing so run the risk of pushing them too hard. The solution is to accept that our kid isn’t going to become a hiking superhero overnight and to let them take to the new activity at their own pace. Just by getting them out, away from computer or cellphone screens and televisions for a few hours, you’ve already won a sizable victory.

9. Let them indulge their curiosity

Kids are like miniature explorers, botanists, zoologists, and Indiana Joneses packed into one. Instead of focusing on distance or time targets, try—within reason—to let them indulge their interests and do what they find most appealing, whether that be hunting for bugs, roaming through scrub, climbing rocks, splashing around in puddles, or simply tossing pebbles into a pond.

10. Bring a backpack carrier

While we’d all love our kid to take to the trails like a fish to water, there’s a high chance—especially with younger kids—that a lack of energy, strength, or enthusiasm is likely to have their little legs refuse to cooperate at some point along the way, particularly on the first few outings.

To play it safe and make sure you don’t have to carry your kid long distances in your arms, consider investing in a backpack carrier if you think hiking with your kid is likely to be a regular thing. Not only will this allow you to continue moving when your kid gets tired but is also a lot safer as it allows you to keep your hands free and keep an eye on your footing.

11. Positive reinforcement

Make a point of letting your kids know how proud you are of them and how well they’re doing. Not only will this boost their morale and increase their desire to carry on, but also make them more likely to want to take on another hike in the future. A simple little “you’re doing really well!” or “I’m so impressed by how strong you are!” can go a long way…

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