Adventuring as a family is one of my favorite parts of our family culture. Nature is good for the soul and I love the screen-free memories and conversations we have. We have a goal to go to every national park and we have so far been to 17 of the 61. As a large family, we also appreciate that hiking is (mostly) free, with an exception for minor park entrance or parking fees.
I won’t be all unicorns and rainbows though, I know it can be hard to get kids on board with hiking, especially older ones. We definitely have learned some things along the way. I hope these tips will empower your family and help them fall in love with adventuring as well.
Note: These tips do not include basic hiking safety rules like making sure you bring plenty of water, dress appropriately, have a map, bring a basic first aid kit, know local wild and plant life, etc. Please be safe as you hike.
1. Pick Your Trail Wisely
Picking a trail sounds like a basic place to start, but it is the foundation of the experience you will have. I cannot recommend enough the app AllTrails. It has a free version that we used a lot though the paid version is worth it to be able to download maps and ensure you aren’t getting lost. I can’t tell you how many times tracking our path on this app has saved us from the frustration and danger of getting lost!
Also, the trails on AllTrails are rated by other users and include the elevation gain and length of the trail. My boys are ages 9-17 now, but we started hiking regularly when my youngest was 3. If you’ve got little legs that insist on walking, pick a trail that is only 1-3 miles long and fairly flat with an elevation gain of less than 500 ft.
There are photos and reviews on Alltrails as well. The images help you get a feel for what the views are. The reviews give you important heads up like if the trail is closed, has poison ivy/oak, is flooded, not shaded in the summer, poorly marked, etc. so be sure to skim those from the last few months of hikers. Usually most trails with 4+ stars and 1,000+ reviews are good ones.
Consider what interactive things will be on the trail. My boy’s favorites are water they can either throw rocks in or get into and large rocks they can climb on. And then be sure to build time into your hike for touching, climbing, and playing.
2. Bring all the snacks
Oh we pull out the stops on snacks for hikes. This is an easy way to make things more fun, as well as avoids any hangry kiddos (or mamas). I like to bring things that are novel. Sure, we have the jerky sticks (Chomps are my fave!), nuts, dried fruit. But we also bring Smart Sweets, chips, frozen juice pouches (these will thaw as you hike and turn into slushies! Bring a small pair of scissors to cut them open and enjoy a slushy at the halfway point!), my chocolate fudge date balls, homemade cookies, popcorn, etc.
We always take a longer break at the midway point and eat a fun treat. When our boys were really not sure if they liked hiking, we had one waiting in the car for when we were done too. Hey, I am not afraid to dangle that carrot!
3. Play Trail Games
For the less interesting parts of the trail, games can help distract and engage your kiddos. My sister used to be a school teacher and was fantastic at teaching these to my boys. Here are some of our favorites, including an idea of what age range they would be good for:
- I Spy (ages 3-8): This age-old game needs no explanation and is easy for even littles to play. On the trails, however, a lot of things are just green and brown so we change it up by making it descriptive as well: “I spy something slimy” “I spy something fuzzy”.
- ABC game (ages 4-10): This is a common classic as well that has come on most trails with us. It’s the simple idea that each person playing takes turns naming something in order of the alphabet. We usually do a theme. So, if the theme was animals, the person starting would name an animal that starts with A “A is for alligator” and then the next person would name something that starts with B. Some themes we’ve used often are: animals, foods, places, people we know. Though I do have to say I was pretty proud of myself when I held my own during a round of Pokemon ABCs!
- “Rhymes with” game (ages 7-11): This one takes a little critical thinking and is fun with a little older aged child. The person who is it picks a 1-2 syllable word that has lots of words it rhymes with. The other players are trying to guess your word. The twist? They aren’t just saying words, they have to describe the word. Let’s say the word is “HAT”, the person who is it starts it out with “I’m thinking of a word that rhymes with CAT.” One of the players trying to guess might say, “Is it kind of like a mouse?” The person who is it: “No, it is not a RAT.”
- Scavenger Hunt (ages 3-11): Scavenger hunts help them focus on finding things vs. the walking. I recommend one that has photos and words to engage all ages of kiddos in your group. You can even consider giving a fun snack to those who complete it if they need motivation. Here, here, and here are some fun free PDF printables that make it easy!
- Close up (ages 5-12): My boys love taking photos with my phone and this is a fun guessing game around that. With no one watching, let someone take a close-up photo of something on the trail. Or they can take a photo and zoom into one part. Have everyone else guess what the item could be – it’s harder than you would think and really makes you see the world in a new way!
4. Start a Good Conversation
A good conversation can not only help you learn more about your kids but can make the time pass. My middle son adores a good conversation. But I get it, unless you are down to talk about Minecraft and Pokemon the whole way, sometimes what to talk about can be lacking. My hubby has been awesome at buying and bringing conversation cards. There are store-bought ones geared towards kids like these fun light-hearted ones here or these more thoughtful and our all-time favorite ones here. Or, you can print and bring these free 100 questions for kids here. Someone in charge reads the question and everyone takes turns answering.
These cards helped ask questions I had never thought to ask and gave me insight on how my boys tick. For a small example, we had the question, “What do you look forward to most in your day?” and my middle son immediately pipped up, “Dinner!” Ha, can you tell he’s a foodie?! That small insight has helped me be much more patient every day when he asks, “What’s for dinner?”
5. Memories is the Destination
Yup, I’m going there with the warm-fuzzy ending tip. I get it, sometimes kids still complain, walk too slow, or things go wrong. Once I full-on accidentally hiked my kids to an apparently well-known nudist bathing area on the river. OOPS.
But, focusing on “getting there,” pushing the pace or not letting them explore, is not going to help your kids want to adventure. I’ve definitely had to bite my tongue on hikes, remembering I set an important mood and can’t expect my kids to be positive and not complain when we are hiking up a mountain, it’s hot, or something goes wrong, if I’m not. Put your positive pants on and be the cheerleader or at least stay positive.
Do all my boys love hiking now that we’ve hiked 1000+ miles as a family over the past 5 years? No. I joke that one day my boys will be in therapy saying, “All they ever did was take us hiking!” HA! One of our boys does not enjoy hiking but through these tips and persistence, he at least hikes strong at the front of the group and doesn’t complain.
I love the conversations and moments we have when it’s just us in nature with no other distractions. I love experiencing new things together, especially this incredible world – nature is COOL y’all! And I love accomplishing things together – we have hiked up mountains, waterfalls, volcanoes, cliffs, and through desserts. After one especially challenging waterfall hike my 7 year old for the next year would say, when faced with a hard situation: “I can do this, I hiked up a waterfall!”
Other random tips to share:
- Hike with Friends: Bring some friends or hiking with another family can help make hiking fun and full of good conversation. Plus, the positive peer pressure does wonders for the complaining ; ).
- Check the weather and hike in layers: Unless you are hiking in a warm climate in the dead of summer, layers help everyone be comfortable. It’s hard to be positive when everyone is frozen without jackets (yup, we’ve been there – lightly snowing and we had no jackets…OOPS) or raining with no ponchos (been there too).
- Consider buying hiking poles: These are handy for any age with steep climbs and downhills. We usually bring two pairs and my two youngers just use one each. They are collapsible so you can stick them in your pack if no one wants them. We got two pairs of these affordable ones from Amazon and they have held up well.
Let me know other tips you would add or any follow-up questions. Here’s to all your future adventures!