Go Play Outside: 10 Tips for Hiking With Kids

Hiking with my kids is perhaps my favorite family activity. I’d take it over a walk downtown, over a romp at a playground, and easily over a trip to Disneyworld. Not only is hiking a fantastic way to exercise, it’s a fun way for me and my kids to burn steam. Living in the city, we need time away from the concrete jungle to beat our bodies against the earth and breathe in some fresh air. It’s good for the soul. Lately, my oldest kids (who share a bedroom and are homeschooled so they rarely spend time apart) have had a hard time getting along while we’re at home. But, the second we are outdoors–the moment there is a tree to climb or a trail to hike–they are best friends again.

For all these reasons, I try to get a hike in at least once a week for me and the kids, even in cold weather. Some of these hikes are in easy, paved areas, but I try to find more rugged, difficult trails if possible. And even though we have a few favorite spots, we’re always trying new areas to keep it exciting.

Even though we hike often, we still have a lot to learn and I still need to seriously amp up my personal fitness before I can consider myself a real hiker. (As a sidenote: for a serious hiking family check these guys out.) But, even if I can’t count myself among the real hiking fanatics, I have learned a few things along the way that I’d like to share. Specifically, ten quick tips for hiking with kids, especially when they’re very young.

So, here you go:

Hike often and hike year-round.

Consistency is key. Because we hike often, we have developed a bit of a rhythm and our kids know what to expect. There is no “But, Mom! It’s cold outside!” conversation at the start of the day. We do our morning at home as usual, then pack up our gear, a snack, and a picnic lunch and then head out the door. We might actually hike for only about an hour, but we leave time for exploring other areas and (usually) a picnic. Because we do this often and in all kinds of weather, it’s now as normal to my kids as a trip to the grocery store. It’s a part of our family culture and something familiar and consistent.

Dress for the weather.

With a few obvious exceptions, I think the adage is true that there is no truly bad weather, just a lack of proper preparation. Think smart–not just “warm.” Dress your kids in layers, not just bulky items. In even moderately cold weather, protect extremities–fingers, toes, and ears. A nice, warm head can easily make up for a few degrees of chill. Consider investing in waterproof hiking boots for the kids and a pair of nice wool socks, rather than expecting them to hike in rain boots when the ground is wet. Look for deals on fleece and wool (its natural counterpart) and quick-dry synthetic materials rather than jeans and cotton. (Why not cotton? Read here.) Keeping your kids comfortable in less-than-perfect hiking weather is key to a successful day out in the woods.

Wear the right shoes.

Your kids might not notice the difference between a $10 gently-used pair of hiking boots and a $80 new pair from REI, but you will. Eventually, cheap footwear takes a toll, so take care of your feet. Especially if you intend to carry one of your children for even part of the hike, don’t skimp on your footwear (or socks!). I have had a few awesome pairs of outdoor shoes in the past. These days, I gravitate toward either a) a pair of light-hiking, waterproof mid-ankle boots (like this) b) a breathable shoe like this, or c) a pair of strap-on Teva waterproof sandals, depending on the weather and where we’ll be hiking.

Invest in a good baby carrier.

If you want to include the littlest members of your family in the hike, invest in a decent baby carrier. Yes, most really great baby carriers will cost you a little money–between $40-150–so I really do mean “invest.” You probably won’t find a good one for $10 at the thrift store, but you can pick one up used on Craigslist or borrow from a friend until you find one you can afford. I bought a Beco Butterfly carrier (most similar to their new Soleil) when my son was just about two and I chose it for three main reasons: a) it was made in the US (not sure if this is still true), b) there were not extra infant pieces to buy like the Ergo and c) it can be used up to 45lbs. I have had the carrier for about 3.5 years now. I am now on the third child using it, and it is still in perfect condition. I use this carrier to carry my one year-old when I hike–usually on my front when she is napping and on my back while she’s awake. When she is a bit older, I will let her hike and use the carrier as a backup when she gets tired. Just a note: when my third child was a teeny infant, I used a Moby Wrap that a friend gave me and it was perfect, especially for chilly days. Also, I know some people use real “hiking carriers.” I’ve never had the budget for one, but I’ve heard good things about them especially on longer hikes or when you need a backpack on in addition to the carrier.

Learn what to pack (or not pack) in your bag.

Unless my husband is hiking with us to carry it, I don’t bother carrying a backpack since I’ll be carrying a baby. Instead, I let my five year-old carry any of our “gear” for the hike. Unless we’re on vacation away from home, our hikes are under 2 miles and we don’t need much more than the cursory emergency supplies. In his small backpack, my son carries: a water bottle that we can share if we need it, a small snack for emergencies, safety whistles (with built-in compasses) for him and his sister (sometimes they wear them), my car keys, a small first aid kit, a headlamp (mostly just for fun), and a set of binoculars. I carry my phone in my pocket (unless I don’t have a pocket!) and a trail map, if we have one. I’ve been looking for a small fanny-pack that I can wear with my baby carrier if I need it. And it’s almost time for my three year-old to start to carry a backpack, too. But, our car has a pretty substantial emergency kit stocked at all times, so we have things at our disposal if we need them when we arrive at our hiking location or back at the car after the hike (extra diapers, blankets, extra hats and gloves, emergency snacks and water, first-aid, phone charger, etc.).

Learn how to read a map, then teach your kids.

Before planning our hiking location for the day, I look up a trail map online and save it to my phone. This way, even if we don’t have cell phone reception in the woods, the map has been saved to my phone. I have a great sense of direction and am working on teaching my son basic orienteering so he can read the maps himself. Most Cincinnati and Hamilton County parks also have paper copies of their maps, so you can pick one up when you arrive. I usually try to pick a loop trail that will pass us by a ridge or creekbed and then back to our car.

Let your kids take the lead.

Whether they know how to read a map or not, let your kids lead the hike as much as they are inclined. When we hike, my two oldest trade off in the front and I stay last in line. I may remind them of things like poison ivy (when I spot it) or to slow down when the trail goes downhill or “Hey! Look at that!” when I spot something cool. But it’s a lot of fun to let them set the pace and explore on their own. It’s amazing the things they notice and find interest in. As their parent, take note of those things so you can follow-up at home or during your next hike. Don’t make it more “educational” than they can stand, but take moments to teach about edible plants, interesting natural phenomena, or other cool stuff like mushrooms or animal remains. Yesterday, we spotted an in-tact bird skeleton on the trail. Super cool. And, lately, my kids have been “hunting for Big Foot.” (I’ll let you know if we find him.)

Open your eyes; open your ears.

Stop every so often. Maybe stop and sit for a while. Look down; look up. Find something you’ve never seen before. Guess what it might be. Encourage the kids to close their eyes and listen. Our lives are surrounding by so much noise, it’s amazing the subtle sounds you can hear when the noise of life is absent. Birds. Falling acorns. Breeze. Distant city noise. Yesterday, we noticed that fall–Autumn–was literally happening all around us. We could tell by the bustle of the woods. It was busy!

Invite friends.

We hike alone quite a bit, but it’s always fun to invite friends to join us. A few years ago, I started a Family Hiking Club, but it was too hard for me to maintain a Saturday schedule for the hikes. I’m now toying with the idea of starting a new hiking club, specifically for people with babies (older kids and friends would be welcome to join, as well). But, you don’t need a “hiking club” to explore the woods with some friends. My kids love hiking with their friends and it’s nice to have another mom/dad/mom & dad to talk with while the kids keep busy. You can also share hiking tips and snacks and nature trivia as you go. Some of my best hikes have been with people who knew far more than me about wildflowers or bird calls. I still have a lot to learn!

Be a good example.

There have been times when I thought I was going to pass out on the trail (like when I was 8m pregnant with Number 3 and two year-old Number 2 insisted on being carried up that last hill). Your kids will take cues from you. Whine and complain, they will whine and complain; show fear when you spot a nasty, crawly insect, they will be afraid. But, let your sense of adventure and curiosity get the best of you and they will, too. Even if you aren’t sure you’ll make it up that next hill, spend more time encouraging them to “keep going” than worrying about yourself. You’ll all make it together. Practice responsible hiking, be smart, and take care of those hiking with you. Be a good example and your kids will grow into excellent, responsible hikers as they age.

 

It doesn’t matter if you’re pushing a stroller down a paved walkway or bolstering yourself for that final pass. Pack a bag, grab the kids, and head to the woods.

And then I’d love to hear more tips for hiking with kids, or hiking in general.
Share them if you have them!

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