6 tips to get your kids interested in hiking

It wouldn’t be a family vacation without at least one meltdown. Exhausted toddlers whine and parents an inch from cracking as they rush forward at unreasonable speed, all on the brink of self-destruction – it’s a recipe for the perfect storm. While it’s natural to want to stick to your carefully crafted travel plans and make the most of every moment, anyone who’s been through a similar scene knows it can lead to everyone’s dissatisfaction in the end. .

Hiking with kids can sometimes feel like this, especially if you have a little one who isn’t keen on spending time outdoors. But with the right approach, you can avoid feeling overwhelmed and get the whole family excited about going on a nature hike.

Whether you haven’t taken your toddler on their first vacation yet, or you’re trying to add more active adventures to your fourth-grader’s next national park visit, follow these six tips for making your next adventure a success. hiking.

Bryce Canyon National Park, Colorado. | Photo: Amanda Adler

1. Start young (or small)

Like anything you hope to incorporate into your child’s routine, hiking is best introduced at a young age. Add short outdoor adventures to your trips as early as possible, even if that means bringing a baby carrier to carry toddlers who are just starting to walk. Or, if your kids are already a bit older and unsure about hiking, start by researching short hikes near you to ease that transition.

Another option is to look for tracks that allow free-roaming exploration without having a set endpoint in mind. Goblin Valley State Park hoodoos in Utah are a great experience for all skill levels. Children can roam as much as they want without marked trails, and the landscape acts as a sort of playground. Garden of the Gods in Colorado Springs is another example that allows for endless hours of free play.

2. Choose your words carefully

As a parent, you already know how to adjust your language when forcing your kids to try something new, and we’ve all been less than transparent when sharing recipe ingredients with our kids at dinnertime. The same approach also applies when encouraging your child to go outside. For many kids, “hike” is a negative term, so try telling them you’re going for a “walk” or “explore.” My son likes to climb rocks, so I like to say we are going to “boulder”. Likewise, your child may enjoy geocaching or stacking rocks while you walk, and these terms are also great motivators to help them get out on the trail. A small wording change can make a big difference in how they think about the excursion.

Whatever language you use, it’s best to focus on the places you’re going to explore, with less emphasis on how much work it takes to get there. Share what the payout will be and keep your eyes on the prize.

a child wearing sunglasses and a hoodie stands near a sign saying
Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado. | Photo: Amanda Adler

3. Find the route

On any hike, it’s important to pack basics like water, snacks, sunscreen, insect repellent, and first aid supplies. But it is equally important in your preparations to research the terrain and the elevation of your hikes. These details can be found online, and many park maps also share this information. Often hikes are categorized in clear terms such as easy, moderate, or difficult, and it’s important to consider your child’s experience and skill level when planning a hiking route.

Looking only at the length of a trail can sometimes be misleading. For example, the seemingly short 1.6-mile Cathedral Spiers Trail at Custer State Park in South Dakota turns into a rock scramble at the end. This climbing challenge, coupled with 90 degree temperatures, left my 7 year old overwhelmed. A week later we tackled the Avalanche Lake Trail at Glacier National Park in Montana, which is a much longer 5.9 mile hike. However, the well worn trail and ample shade made this trip relatively easy for my child. Both trails were marked as moderate, but doing some field research would have helped me figure out which one was right for my family.

4. Be realistic and ready to adapt

Even the best-laid plans can be thwarted by unforeseen circumstances, so it’s important to be flexible with your schedule. A night of poor sleep can be especially difficult for toddlers. Traffic delays and weather conditions are always unknown factors. Whatever happens, keep a realistic view of what your child can accomplish given the circumstances, and be prepared to drop your plans altogether or change them. Don’t focus on something that might not work out and always have a family-friendly backup plan ready for such an occasion.

Too often I’ve seen a family attempt to press ahead with their plans despite less than ideal circumstances – and it rarely ends well. Pushing your child too hard to continue when they are not able or willing to do so could ruin your chances of getting them interested in future hikes. Instead, if there’s a particular hike that’s high on your wish list, be sure to plan it early in your trip so you can give it another chance later in the week if the first attempt does not go as planned.

a child sits on a red rock formation in front of a blue sky with clouds
Goblin Valley State Park in Utah. | Photo: Amanda Adler

5. Go at their pace and have fun

No matter how experienced a hiker you are, be sure to go at your child’s pace. That may mean you can’t complete the 5.2-mile Window Trail in Big Bend National Park in Texas, and instead tackle the much more manageable 1.5-mile trail in Santa Elena Canyon. Everyone will be more motivated if you slow down, give plenty of time to rest, offer encouragement, and reinforce wins along the way. Enjoy the journey by taking the time to stop and smell the roses, have a picnic, or skip rocks on a lake.

To help the time pass more easily, engage your child in a task while you visit. Go on a scavenger hunt and look for animal tracks, wild flowers or different types of birds. Keep your kids busy with activities like finishing a Junior Ranger book or learning more about local culture (through initiatives like North Carolina’s Cradle of Forestry program). These educational distractions help kids stay engaged and focused, while taking the worry out of their tired legs.

Related: Everything You Need To Know About The Junior Ranger Program

a child stands at a mountain lookout with directional signage pointing to seven states
Lookout Mountain, Georgia. | Photo: Amanda Adler

6. Reward great achievements

As adults, scenic beauty is our reward for an epic hike, but your child may need a little more incentive. Consider giving little explorers a prize to look forward to at the end of your trip. Tempt them with a token, like a pressed penny, to commemorate their triumph. Or give them a special treat of ice cream or pizza once they cross the finish line. A little keepsake will go a long way in keeping them motivated.

Consider choosing something that allows them to mark places they have visited. My son has a cane that he adorns with stickers to celebrate each successful hike. The stickers are inexpensive, but when added to his cane, they make a great centerpiece to his accomplishments.

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