Hiking With Kids - 20 Ways To Avoid Whining

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Right now is the perfect time to get your kids outside and onto the trail.  The snow is warming, the weather is warming and everyone seems to be itching for more ways to spend time in the great outdoors.  Want to get your kids outside and exploring on a hike,, but you’re not quite sure how to do it? The good news is that hiking is one of the easiest and safest outdoor adventures to do with your kids. After years of trial and error with my own kids, I can’t wait to share the tips I’ve learned that help everyone have fun on the trail together.

Hiking with Kids: 20 Priceless Tips

1. Let Your Kids Help Decide Where to Hike

boy jumping on red rocks

One of the best ways to get kids excited about hiking is to go somewhere that they want to be.  If you’ve got a child who has their heart set on seeing wildflowers, a hike through the desert probably isn’t your best idea.  In our family, we let the kids take turns choosing what kinds of hikes we do so that everyone has an input. When all else fails, we hike near water.  Hikes to a lake, waterfall, or alongside a river always make our kids happy and the presence of water seems to instantly get them excited to be out hiking (especially if there are rocks to throw). 

2. Hike With Friends

If your kids are struggling with getting excited about hiking, invite some friends to join you.  Trust me, your kids will love hiking more if they’re not alone! My kids rarely complain when they’re hiking with friends, and as a nice benefit, they usually hike faster and can go farther if they’re with other kids.  My personal favorite is to invite another family to come with us so that I can get the benefit of getting to chat with a friend on the trail, without the added stress of having to care for extra kids.  

3. Wear Good Shoes

hiking shoes kids

The shoes that you wear will make or break your hiking trip.  The most important feature for good hiking shoes is comfort and fit and after that, support and traction.  While it’s tempting to get your kids a new pair of hiking shoes for an upcoming trip, make sure you give them a couple weeks worth of wear to help break them in and prevent blisters or hot spots on the trail.  Good hiking shoes for kids are an absolute essential.

Make sure to check out our top recommended hiking shoes for kids review.

4. Play games 

Chances are, that some time while you’re hiking you’re going to hear one of your kids exclaim “I’M SO BORED”.  As soon as you hear that, it’s the perfect time to start playing a game. Some of our favorite hiking games are I Spy, Follow The Leader, and 20 Questions.  Sometimes we’ll spontaneously start a scavenger hunt and tell the kids to go find things along the trail (a rock with 4 different colors, a flower with 7 petals, etc). 

5. Tell stories along the trail

Another great boredom buster is story telling.  You can either tell your kids elaborate stories that you make up, or even stories from your own childhood.  Our kids really like a game we created called “Stick Stories”. We start with a stick and whoever is holding the stick gets to tell the story.  As soon as they pass the stick to someone else, they get to continue the story in any way they like. It’s a great way to get the kids connected AND to get lots of laughter going.

6. Prep Your Kids For The Hike

hiking with kids

Before you set out on the trail, I’ve found that it’s important to make sure that your kids are prepared for the hike.  Part of that is physical, because you don’t want to bite off more than they can chew. However, most of that is mental. If your kids think you’re going out for 20 minutes, but the hike is really 3 hours long, you’ll probably have some problems.  Let your kids know where you’re going, how far the hike is, and what some of the highlights might be. If your kids have a clear picture of what to expect, things will probably go smoother.

7. Go At Their Pace

hiking with kids and baby

This one can be a real challenge for adults, but remember that your goal should be to raise kids who LOVE hiking, so they can develop a love of the outdoors.  Especially with really young kids, make sure to go at their pace, or at least offer them breaks in a child carrier or on your shoulders. Before you know it, your kids will be faster and more capable than you are, so at least while you can, take hiking at their pace.  

8.  Let Your Kids Carry Their Own Gear

Having your kids carry their own gear gives them a feeling of independence and ownership.  Even my 2-year-old insists on carrying his own backpack because he wants to be just like mom and dad.  In our kids backpacks, we always put water and a couple of snacks. If the kids are bigger, I’ll have them carry their own lunch and also their own layers an packable rain jackets. We’ve compiled a list of our favorite backpacks for all ages in this article.

9. Carry Plenty of Water

kids hydration pack

Even if it might not seem like a hot day, dehydration is one of the fastest ways to get your kids whining and complaining, especially if you’re hiking at high altitude. Plan on taking at least 1 liter of water per person (even kids), and 2 liters or more if you’ll be hiking all day or if you’re in an especially hot area.

Our kids all love hydration packs, so we regularly use those when we’re hiking. It’s a great way for kids to carry their own water, and I find that my kids drink more when they have an easily accessible hydration pack than when they need to get their water out of a backpack. Head here for our favorite hydration packs for kids.

10. Pack Lots of Food

hiking with kids snacks

I don’t know just what it is about hiking, but whether we’re hiking 0.5 miles or 6 miles, my kids are always STARVING on the trail, and can instantly eat their own weight in granola bars and trail mix.  When determining how many snacks to take on a hike, I usually figure out what my kids will eat on a normal day, and then take TWICE that amount. Good snacks for hiking are granola bars, nuts, carrots, apples, and just about anything involving peanut butter!  Try to avoid lots of sugary treats since that tends to make it difficult for kids to regulate their energy. Our current snack favorites are these bars and our whole family is obsessed with the filling!

11. Bring Bribes

Yes, I know I just said not to give kids lots of sugar while hiking, but sometimes in the world of parenting, bribery is a necessary evil – especially when hiking. It’s pretty easy to tell when kids need a little bit of a boost in their motivation to keep going.  I carry a bag of small candies with me and whenever the kids start losing energy or start to get whiny, I take them out. Then, I simply pick a point up ahead (preferably at the top of a hill or after a difficult section) and tell the kids they can have a treat if they make it to the top.  

Since I know how important it is to not overload the kids on sugar while trying to keep them active and happy outdoors, it’s usually something small like a few skittles or gummy bears.  It doesn’t sound like much, but I’m always blown away by what my kids are capable of doing with just the promise of a little sugar.  

12. Take a First Aid Kit

When kids are out hiking on the trail, scrapes and cuts are almost inevitable.  While you don’t need an extensive first aid kit, make sure you have the basics covered. Band aids, antibiotic ointment, anti-itch cream, moleskin, ibuprofen, and antiseptic wipes are each a must and can easily fit inside a Ziploc bag. If you want to keep it simple, this mini first aid kit has everything you’ll need.

13. Have a Map

In this day and age, you don’t need to take along a giant paper map, but having a map of your trail downloaded on your phone is essential. Yes, making sure your maps are available offline is essential since you will likely be hiking in an area with little or no cellular service.  One great way to engage the kids in your hike is to let someone be in charge of the map. Show the kids how to read the map and how to identify if they’re going the correct way (and double check their map reading, just in case).  

14. Protect Yourself From The Sun

hiking with kids

Whether you’re hiking in the mountains or across the plains, your sun exposure while out hiking can be pretty intense.  At the trailhead make sure to apply sunscreen to everyone and then throw one of these sunscreen sticks in your backpack to easily reapply throughout the day.  Many people forget to protect themselves from the sun in the mountains because of the cooler temperatures, but the truth is that at higher elevations, you’re increasing your exposure to the sun, so protection is incredibly important.  In addition, hats are always important to wear, as is clothing that will protect you from the sun.  

15. Dress in Layers

hiking with kids

In the mountains, the weather can change FAST. It’s not uncommon to have sunshine and blue skies when you start out and 20 minutes later you could be stuck in the middle of a rainstorm with wind gusting all around you.  When we go out hiking, we usually wear a breathable short or long sleeve top, and pack layers to wear on top. One thing we always take along are our packable rain jackets, though in cooler weather, our kids almost always bring a fleece or down jacket as well.

16. Reward Your Kids At The End

At the end of the hike, we always give our kids some sort of a reward.  Usually we just buy a package of cookies and share it when we get back to the car at the trail head, however, sometimes it’s something bigger.  When we got for big hikes in the desert, we always have cold drinks waiting in the car. Other times, we look for specialty treat stores near where we’re hiking and take everyone out for a treat after our hike.  

17. Remember, Practice Makes Perfect

Okay, perfect may be a bit of a stretch, since no kid will ever be a perfect hiker.  However, keep your expectations realistic. Your kids aren’t going to be amazing hikers on their first hike, or even their first hike of the season for more seasoned hikers.  It takes lots of days on the trail before your kids find their groove and know what they’re comfortable with. For our kids, I’ve found that it helps to have a few regular trails that we hike often so that they’re more familiar with what we’re doing to help increase their confidence.  

The same is true of parents hiking with kids. On your first few hiking trips, you may feel out of your depth and unsure about what to do. It may take you too long to pack your day pack, and you’ll inevitably forget something. Give yourself some grace and know that there’s absolutely a learning curve for hiking with kids.

18. Start Early In the Day

hiking with kids

Plan to start your hike early in the day, for the best success when hiking with kids.  Not only do most kids have the most energy in the mornings, but leaving early will also help you avoid afternoon storms that are common in the mountains.  While leaving incredibly early may backfire, I find that giving my kids a healthy breakfast (eggs or oatmeal are our favorite pre-hike meals for energy), and then leaving shortly after works well for us.  We usually eat lunch on the trail and drive home in the early afternoon. As a nice bonus, younger kids will usually fall asleep while driving home, which is another big win!

19. Let Your Kids Explore

kids catching bugs

Don’t get so focused on moving your kids down the trail that you forget to give them time to explore where they are.  To kids, being outside is completely full of wonder and excitement, so allow them to enjoy that. Let them play with sticks, climb rocks, and collect rocks in their pockets.  If your kids are patient, take some time to quietly sit with them and just see what they can hear.

20. Enjoy The Journey

Hiking with kids can be exhausting, and it’s pretty common to not make it to the end of the trail (especially if you’ve got really little kids).  Instead of focusing on where you’re going, focus on the journey you’re taking to get there. Hiking is one of our favorite ways to unplug and connect as a family.  It’s an awesome opportunity to literally slow down and have wonderful conversations with your kids.

If you’ve got other suggestions for how to make hiking with kids more fun, please share them in the comments below.

Happy Trails!

4 thoughts on “Hiking With Kids - 20 Ways To Avoid Whining”

  1. Great tips! Hiking with kids is so much fun. We write a lot about taking our little one on the trails, and it really has changed the way we think about nature. It’s a beautiful change. Seeing our daughter actively engaged in fun and learning out on the trails is amazing. The tips are great, because many of them help facilitate both fun and learning!

  2. Wonderful list. I have two kids ages 7 and 4 and I can always use new suggestions. A game we have played is “Would you rather…” such as would you rather climb a mountain or raft a river. The kids love to use their imaginations think big. Keep up the good work.

  3. Your tips are always right. It is very necessary that when you are doing hiking with kids, then you should know their interest and ask them what they want to do in the journey. As a parent it is your responsibility to try to develop their interest. Try to convenience them in taking interest in hiking and also told them to discover new places.

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