5 Hiking Tips to Turn Your Kids into Little Trailblazers

Posted Travel Tips by Amy Whitley on December 7, 2014

Photo Courtesy of Amy Whitley

The first time my husband and I took our eldest son hiking, our baby was less than three months old. Like most first-time parents, we thought he (and we) were pretty amazing; after all, how many babies could say they’ve skirted Southern Oregon’s Grizzly Peak? Then, of course, our baby grew into a toddler, then a preschooler with opinions of his own, and we realized strapping an immobile infant into a baby carrier had been the easy part.

Young kids can dawdle on hikes, they can protest at the trailhead, and they can, on occasion, flat out refuse to move. Two more sons and 14 years later, we’ve seen it all, but we don’t regret our early years of hiking with (sometimes) less than enthusiastic kids. Why? The expectations for exercise and love of the outdoors we instilled in our children have paid dividends. Now all school-aged, our boys leave us in the dust on every trail we tackle. If you, too, have kids who usually prefer riding in the car to letting their own two legs carry them, I’d recommend trying any of the following hiking tips, which I’ve honed over the last decade and a half.

1) Always hike to a must-see destination

Forget the out-and-back hike or wooded loop. Kids need a destination worthy of their efforts. For young kids, picking a fun destination will be easier than most parents think: hiking to a swimming lake or creek to wade in can be enough, provided expectations are built upon by packing swimsuits or a picnic to eat lakeside. When hiking with older kids, consider seeking more unique destinations, such as fire lookout towers with amazing views at seemingly dizzying heights. One of my kids’ favorite hikes to date took us on a short trail to an authentic Bigfoot trap in the heart of the Siskiyou range. Yes, it’s as creepy as it sounds, and yes, they’re still talking about it.

Photo Courtesy of Amy Whitley

2) Make the journey as important as the end of the trail

For most kids, the prospect of a job well done or goal of achieving a personal best is not as enticing as simply having fun along the way. With toddlers and preschoolers, this means letting them stop. And stop. And stop. Hiking breaks are not for whining or sitting on a log and complaining, however: encourage young kids to play at their rest stops. Look for a ‘fairy house’ amid nurse logs, for instance, or pause for a game of sword play with tree branches (yes, irritatingly, they’ll have ample energy for these pursuits but not enough to walk another yard). Older kids can engage in their surroundings while on the trail by taking over the task of navigation, or by geo-caching along the way. Teach older kids to use topographical maps or GPS units and see what they can find en route.

3) Bring plenty of snacks

Who’s not motivated by food? Cultivate a culture of hiking fun by enlisting kids to help make pre-hike trail mix. We like to set out a trail mix buffet: line a table or countertop with bowls of nuts, dried fruit, granola, and few sweet treats and let kids create their own mix. While hiking, they’re in charge of doling out the snacks (and if a few stray nuts or raisins hit the forest floor, the squirrels win, too).

4) Consider backpacking or camping overnight

It may seem counter-intuitive to encourage a reluctant hiker to spend more time in the woods, but most children love the idea of setting up their own camp at their destination. Many kids (and adults) are simply uncomfortable in the wilderness; as they gain confidence through overnight stays, their reluctance to hike melts away. Planning an overnight backpacking trip is possible with even young kids, but beware…it’s habit forming!

Photo Courtesy of Amy Whitley

5) Lastly, teach kids wilderness safety, but avoid overwhelming them

Kids don’t need to know every outdoor scenario of things that could go wrong. Instead, they need to know just three things: 1. Always have a buddy and tell a parent where you’re going, even if it’s just to the next glade of trees, 2. Stop and wait at every trail intersection, even if they think they know which way to go, and 3. Always stay in one place should they find themselves lost. Kids are used to rules: simply remind them of outdoor expectations in the same manner you’d remind them about any other type of safety procedure in their daily lives.

Parents who hit the trail regularly, set an example of adventure. Remember that the journey is just as important as the destination, and you will find yourself with hiking enthusiasts in no time. The final challenge will be keeping up!

You can find other great resources on hiking with kids in this article from Makes and Takes. Looking for the right field guide? Edventures put together a list of 25 books that will help teach kids about nature along the way.


For more amazing tips and stories on exploring the outdoors with kids check out Amy's blog Pit Stops for Kids. You can also find her work at Trekaroo, a resource to help families plan their next adventure.