How to Go Hiking With Your Kids

back view of two children wearing backpacks walking across logs in the forest

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Like all types of travel with kids, hiking with kids can be as rewarding as it is challenging. Parents who enjoyed hiking before they had kids can share their love of getting active in the outdoors, but it's important to consider how hiking with kids is different from hiking solo or with other adults. You may not be able to cover much distance with smaller kids but you can appreciate their joy in discovering new flowers or insects. If you have older kids, you may be amazed by how much stamina they have.

Parents know their kids best, and are likely to be the best judge of whether their individual kids will charge into hiking full steam ahead, or whether they will tire easily. That is to say, take any advice about what you can and can't do with kids with a grain of salt, as you know what will and won't work for your family.

How to Choose a Route that Suits Your Family

There are several factors to consider when choosing a hiking route for your family:

  • Your kids' age(s)
  • Your kids' experience with hiking
  • Your own experience with hiking
  • The season
  • Accommodation options (or lack of) at the start/end of the trail and en route
  • The availability of food and drinking water
  • Time limitations
  • Your destination and distance from home
  • Your budget

If You Have Toddlers

If your children are infants or toddlers, start experimenting by hiking closer to home, at a nearby state park or national park. That way, if things go (figuratively) downhill, you won't have the added stress of being in an unfamiliar environment.

If You Have Children in Grade School

Grade-school-aged kids are often full of energy to burn and are inherently curious about the world. If you're planning an out-of-state or international trip, this is a good age to add a hike or two into the itinerary. Swap out a day at the beach for a forest walk or make a trip out to a national park.

If You Have Teens

By the time your kids are tweens or teens, you should know their capabilities and interests. If you've prepped them well at a younger age, they may be up for more adult-level hiking adventures. Of course, some of the more extreme hikes (such as at higher altitudes or winter treks) may not be ideal for your family. But if you've had your eye on multi-day treks in iconic places, older kids may be just as capable of these as you are.

Consider Your Own Experience

Factor in your own experience level, too. If you've never hiked a significant distance before, trying it for the first time with kids might be too stressful. If you've never hiked wearing a baby hiking pack, start with shorter hikes until you know how comfortable they are. If you don't have advanced backcountry skills (such as crossing rivers or hiking above the tree line), it's best not to try routes that require these with kids in tow.

If your budget allows, hiring a guide or joining a group hike can be a good idea. These are generally more affordable and available in some developing countries. Parents won't have to worry about getting lost or what to do in an emergency, you may have help carrying gear, and kids (and parents) can learn from the knowledge and experience of a local.

man wearing red t-shirt holding a child in a dense forest of ferns

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How Long Should the Hike Be?

The short answer to this question is, whatever suits you and your kids. You can enjoy nature and the feeling of being outdoors on a hike for just a couple of hours. If you have small children who aren't used to walking, this may be preferable.

Multi-day hikes that spend the night in a tent or a cabin (or guesthouses/homestays in some destinations) might be ideal for families with older kids. It's not uncommon to see tweens and teens on longer distance trails in some countries, such as New Zealand or Nepal.

Gear to Bring

Parents of infants and toddlers may want to invest in a special hiking pack to place their child in. Smaller children naturally can't walk very far, and special hiking packs are much more comfortable for longer distances and rough ground than the types of baby carriers you may wear every day around town. Many types come with (or you can add on) a sunshade and a pocket mirror so you can check on your baby's comfort without taking the whole pack off. Like good backpacks, these hiking packs have thick and comfortable straps and hip supports so the weight of your child is evenly distributed. They also come with plenty of storage space for water, snacks, and diapers. If you have a partner, one person can carry the child while the other carries the rest of the gear. If you're hiking solo with a child you might prefer to limit yourself to day hikes.

Older kids don't need any special gear other than the things you need for yourself: a day pack, comfortable shoes or boots, a water bottle or hydration pack, a hat, and any other season or destination-specific accessories. Running shoes or sneakers will be adequate for many trails, and can be a better option than investing in expensive hiking boots for children that are still growing.

Preparing Kids to Hike

Many kids will respond better to a hike if they're used to walking some distance. Even if you live in a big city and rely on a car to get around, you can prep your kids for a hiking trip by walking them to school or taking them to parks or other natural outdoor areas for shorter amounts of time. If younger kids understand that you won't stop to carry them whenever they feel a little tired, a day (or more) of hiking will be much more comfortable for everyone.

blonde child in yellow t-shirt patting the nose of a brown horse in a mountain landscape

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Safety Tips

  • Hiking is not inherently more dangerous for kids as it is for adults, but it's understandable that parents may worry about safety on the trails. Particular concerns vary depending on the destination, but in general, if you as a parent feel well equipped to deal with potential hazards, you can be more confident hiking with your kids.
  • In many parts of North America, bears are a hazard on hiking trails. Before leaving out brush up on bear safety tips to learn what to do if you encounter a bear and how to prevent them coming close to your campsite (essentially by keeping food far from your tent).
  • In Australia and parts of the southern US (among other places), snakes can be a danger. Learn about the risks in the areas in which you're hiking and advise your kids appropriately. Staying on track and avoiding walking through overgrown grass is a good rule of thumb to follow.
  • If you're hiking in any mountainous areas, from Colorado to the Himalayas, quickly changing weather can pose the biggest hazard. A day may start out sunny and turn to snow later. Be prepared with waterproof and cold weather gear.
  • As mentioned above, hiring a guide can be a way to feel more confident with some of these concerns.

Other Tips

  • Horse trekking trips are a great alternative to regular hiking in some destinations. If your kids tire easily but are comfortable around horses, a horse trek will let you cover more ground in the backcountry. You could even walk while your kids ride a horse. These can be as short as a couple of hours or as long as several days, with camping accommodation.
  • Although it's debatable whether bribery is a sustainable parenting tactic in the long term, using small bribes or rewards on a hike may help oil the wheels. If kids know they have a tasty picnic lunch to enjoy at the top of the hill, they may be more likely to push on through a difficult stretch without complaining. You might even want to promise an ice cream or other reward at the end of the day for good behavior.