I honestly cannot think of a better experience to share with my children than exploring the outdoors. Hiking with your child is not always easy, but it is beyond rewarding in so many ways.
As a mom of twins, I was not a fan of the carrier options out there for two—though there are some nice ones for singletons—so my girls had to start their outdoor adventures on their own two feet, just a couple of months after they began walking. I got them the best sneakers for little feet I could find, and took them to the softest, flattest scenic trail in my area. There were tons of stops to pick up fallen leaves, inspect plants, and of course, take turns being held and given snacks. How far did we get that first time? It was a whole eighth of a mile round trip! It doesn’t sound like much, but for little legs and fresh eyes laying their first sights on the beauty of being engulfed in the woods, it was a big first step. That first hike was in the spring of 2019, and since then, we’ve worked our way up to five mile loops, some elevation gain, and a variety of terrain.
Take Your Time
There is no benefit to trying to rush kids into hiking. With my girls, the more I force something, the less they actually like it. We started very slowly. That first hike was absolutely painful for me to endure. It took forever for my new walkers to get anywhere, and I had to constantly talk myself out of calling it quits. I tried to at least hide how antsy I was feeling about moving at slower than a snail’s pace. Every leaf, stick, rock, and insect are learning experiences, and the more kids are encouraged to take in these experiences in their own ways, the more interested they become. By allowing them to take the time to inspect everything they notice it builds a natural curiosity, and that curiosity turns into the desire to do it again!
As an adult, it can be hard to adjust to a child’s pace, but there’s two things to think about to make it easier to slow down. First, remember this is the first time they have ever seen these things. What’s common to you is brand new and amazing to them. And secondly, I promise, they will eventually get faster.
See The Trail Through Their Eyes
This is the most important part of introducing your child to hiking in a way that makes them want to do it again. Those first few outings are going to set the standard for what hiking is to them, and so, need to be experienced through their lens. Embrace that this is the first time your kids are seeing, hearing, smelling, and feeling all of these things around them, and get into a frame of mind where you can take in these scenes from their perspective by living in the moment with them. Encourage feeling different surfaces, point out smells and sounds and tell them what they are, and talk to them about what they’re seeing.
I try to include four of the senses (I’m hesitant to encourage them to taste the trail) in every hike. It doesn’t matter how young your child is—include them in a conversation about the experience. If they’re too young to talk, just tell them about it. If they’re older, ask them questions and give them the chance to answer. The more interactive, the better—in my experience at least.
For example, something I like to do is start with asking them “what do you see?” This gets their head in the game, and they start glancing around as they walk looking for something to catch their eye. Usually they’ll find an acorn or a twig to check out, but if not I’ll prompt them by asking things like, “Look up, can you see the sky through the leaves on the trees?” If they don’t really care about looking around, don’t sweat it. Move onto something else, like asking them to sniff a flower, run their hand across an interesting rock or tree root, or listen closely for rustling and try to locate squirrels.
Make It A Game
Let’s say your child isn’t into any of the above, and you need to take a different approach. Make a game out of it! Create bingo sheets or a scavenger hunt list where they have to find things along the trail, like ants, chipmunks, fallen leaves, a smooth rock, animal droppings, and anything else you can think of. For younger kids, put pictures with the words to help them out, and for older kids make the lists more specific (certain type of flower, etc.) to keep them hunting.
Strategically Lengthen Their Hikes
Even the happiest of little hikers have days when they’re just not feeling it. On those days, don’t push! Save the loftier goals for higher excitement days, and make those days have the most wow factor you can find. If your child has been hiking a solid two miles at a time without issue and you want to move on from the old fast and flat routes you’ve been on, pick a day when they’re hyped to get out there and take them to the most scenic and exciting trail you can find in that next “level” up.
One of my daughters, Ava, gets bored without varying terrain, while the other, Isla, loses interest if she doesn’t feel she has something to look forward to. Find what they love and capitalize on it. If they love the excitement of ups and down and maybe even some simple scrambling, bring them somewhere they’ll get to use their hands a bit. If they love the views, pick a trail with an outlook or fire tower to give them that sense of accomplishment for getting there. When you give them a little extra fun tailored to their preferences, you can up the mileage a bit—odds are they won’t even notice! Rinse and repeat to build endurance and build a new baseline for them.
It may feel funny to fuss over walking, but the more you boost their confidence, the more they’ll want to keep going. For Isla’s first scramble, she was very unsure of herself. Of course she’ll scale the couches at home without thinking twice, but these rocks were intimidating to her. I had Ava stay back a few steps to give her sister space to think things through. Isla strategically ran her hands over the rocks and felt around with her feet to find her next move, and I quietly encouraged her by telling her she was doing great and to take her time. She pulled herself up her first little scramble, turned around, and looked at me for approval. This is when you have to pull out the pom poms and become their cheer team. “Amazing, you did it!” or anything your kid likes to hear will put a smile on their face and have them ready to do it again and again.
Even during less monumental events, it’s important to boost their spirits. A simple comment about how you’re impressed with how far they’ve gone so far, how they noticed something along the trail, or anything else you can think of can help keep them going.
Pack The Right Snacks
Arguably the most important part of a hike, for adults and kids alike, is the snack bag. I can’t even begin to count the amount of times I’ve said “Just a half mile more until you can have some M&M’s!” Of course be sure to pack actual energy-boosting foods for them as well, like dried fruit, nuts, and granola bars, but do not forget the power of a small bribe on occasion.
Focus On Your Relationship
Take every chance you can to use the experience to build your relationship with your children on the trail. In a time where day to day life feels endlessly busy, it is so easy not to notice the little moments, but hiking is a time when all of those little things come together to form the whole picture. Be hands on, build trust, help them, and let them help you. The feeling of togetherness with you will create a comfort zone for them outside, and they’ll come to cherish that time as much as you do. You’ll build memories, grow their confidence, and ideally set them up for success by the time they’re ready to hike without you.
It takes time, patience, creativity, and a willingness to live in the moment with them, but introducing your child to hiking and sharing the trail with them is an experience well worth the effort. The more fun it is for them and you, the more likely you are to be able to get them back out there time and time again.
Now get out there! Just remember to pack the essentials for your children as you do for yourself, and to lead by example by practicing Leave No Trace.