Hiking is amazing. It’s an all-around excellent outdoor activity where even the most citified folks can stretch their lungs out in the open air while opening their eyes to the vision that is nature’s inherent beauty.
However, hiking with kids is a nightmare of epic proportions only to be rivaled by getting chased by a bear or being engulfed by a swarm of bees. And if you’re even considering hiking with young kids, drop what you’re doing, check yourself into the nearest self-help clinic, and return home when you’ve regained your sanity.
You think I jest? Well, I do, but it’s not far off. Early in my son’s life, we discovered together as a family that he hates anything to do with exercise. Running, basketball, soccer, these are not sports to him; these are merely forms of torture whose names must be synonymous with the iron maiden or the rack.
To this day, he hates putting any effort into breaking a sweat, and if I even hint at a suggestion for him to just “maybe try a little harder,” he recoils as if he had just experienced the most egregious form of child abuse known to man. One day wife and I tried to brainstorm about what sport we could trick him into doing without him even knowing he was doing it. Something so fun and adventurous, he wouldn’t have a clue that he was actually doing something beneficial for his body.
Since he loves a pool, we tried water polo. That was a mistake. And a pretty bad one at that. Although, when we asked him if he wanted to try hiking, he actually said, “Yes! Anything but water polo!” And so, my wife and I looked at each other in satisfaction over our accidental win. It didn’t last long, though.
Hiking with kids: How not to
The first hike we chose to bring our son on was a very cool one that was supposedly mostly in the shade. The moderate trail ended at the Griffith Park Observatory, a wonderful place to visit. It boasts breathtaking views of Los Angeles, a giant telescope, and a whole space museum for kids. For a first family hike, this would be a home run. Which it was—a home run of agony.
He hated it. To be fair, the hike wasn’t “mostly in the shade” as advertised by our now ex-friends. It was mostly in the sun. And that day, the sun was angry. Not only was this angry sun following us the whole way, but the whole way itself was also uphill. It was a tough hike for a seasoned adult hiker.
This trail was certainly not where you want to find yourself hiking with toddlers, let alone hiking with a baby. To top off the whole “adventure,” we didn’t bring nearly enough water. It was an unmitigated disaster. But in the end, we learned a lot about hiking with kids.
How to make hiking fun for kids
Make it fun. Easy, right? Well…not exactly. It takes some planning.
First, bring a friend. This simple step will make your kid’s hiking life 60% more fun. Unless the friend happens to hate hiking as much as your kid, in which case, you’ll find yourself going to some dark places about halfway through the journey. But I’m sure your kid has at least one friend who is a good influence on them who brings the fun and not an extra weight dragging you all down.
The next thing you should think about is accessories. A great way to get children to go all in on such activities is to buy kids hiking gear. Yes, it feels like you’re luring them into your bidding with a dangling bit of candy from the end of a stick, but hey, it works!
On one of our early family hikes, we made our son a dinosaur hunting backpack kit that had a little hammer, a small brush to clear debris, a magnifying glass, binoculars, and some bags to put his “samples.” It was a huge hit. Sure, we were stopping every 30 seconds to “discover a bone,” which ultimately led to my carrying my son’s eventual 30-pounds-heavier bag back down the hill. It was loaded with boulders, sorry, I mean “dinosaur eggs,” but you know what? He lasted a good 45 minutes on that hike, and for us, that was enough of a win.
So, buy your kids some fun hiking gear like hiking boots. Even just a new water bottle will get them jazzed. Think of outdoor adventure kits as an investment in their future. If you’re hiking with a baby, then even better, because any baby hiking gear you need to buy will be for you. You don’t have to spend a fortune on an REI baby hiking backpack if you can find this cool baby backpack for hiking that has multiple pockets for storage and can stand the test of time. You’ll look pretty awesome carrying your baby out.
After you have them armed to the teeth with new items, come up with a game. It could be a nature scavenger hunt, a challenge to find the leaf that looks the most like a US President, a trek to find the Lost Temple of (name of your neighborhood here); there is no limit to your imagination. The kids still might complain, but if you have a fun enough game for them to focus on during the hike, I guarantee that at some point, their focus will shift, and they will stay the course.
And if you discover that over time the happiest of problems arises when your kids declare that they have hiked the same trails so much they are getting bored, pick up a book to find more exciting and outrageous hikes. Find a great place to go nearby and make it an overnight camping trip. If your kids would like a hotel as an incentive, book a cool place and use that carrot to lure them into adventure.
I live about 7 hours from Arizona and wanted to know what hiking camelback mountain with kids would be like, so I picked up the book Arizona Hiking With Kids: 50 Hiking Adventures for Families. There are loads of other informative books about hiking with kids in places all over the country. If you looked around, I bet there’s a cool hike destination close by that you never even knew existed. What better way to discover it than as a family?
How to start hiking as a hobby with your family
We all say things like, “We have to do this more often,” or “we should make this a regular thing,” and then life gets in the way, and we forget that we were supposed to have been doing the thing all along.
There’s no secret to taking something you love to do and turning it into a hobby. You just have to actually do it. A hobby is a pastime. A pastime is an enjoyable way to…pass the time. So that means that a hobby like hiking needs to be a better way for your family to pass the time than playing Tiddlywinks or watching paint dry.
But I also think that to make something a hobby, it needs to start as a habit. If you believe in the 21/90 rule, which states that a habit forms after 21 days and that 90 days is required to make it a permanent lifestyle change, you might be starting to panic at this moment. Don’t worry, I’m not suggesting you quit your job and make it your goal to make your family hike the Appalachian trail for 3 months in order to cement your family hiking lifestyle.
Not only will your kids never speak to you again, but they also will never again be able to even look at a tree without breaking into a cold sweat. Which I think you’d agree would be counterproductive.
What I will suggest, however, is a nice plan for a weekly hike. Nothing crazy. No need to get up at the crack of dawn. Just pick a day of the week and commit to it. Always have your game plan in order and maybe make the reveal of the place and the game or activity involved part of the fun each week. I bet that over time, even the anticipation of the surprise will be enough to get them excited.
Yes, this suggestion does take your Saturday mornings away from you for a while. But isn’t it better to use that time for family fitness than doing that weekly Sudoku that you often fail to solve anyway? No judgment, just making a point.
Ultimately, you have to decide what’s best for your family. I can’t tell you how to hike with your toddler, you know what your kids and your spouse can handle and what tactics you can use to lure them into this kind of mild exercise, so just do that. The important thing is that you do it.
I wish you all of the luck on your adventures. I want to conclude with some quotes you can feel free to use to inspire your kids into hiking:
It’s not the mountain we conquer, but ourselves— Sir Edmund Hilary
There are no shortcuts to any place worth going— Beverly Sills
You’re off to great places, today is your day. Your mountain is waiting, so get on your way— Dr. Suess
We came all this way just to see a stupid waterfall?!”— My son (in Hawaii)