As someone who leads a lot of hiking outings with little kids, today I’m going to address a question I’m frequently asked by parents…. “How do I get my child to enjoy hiking?” Listed here are what I believe to be the five most important tips:
- Keep it short: The first thing you must do is give up the idea that you’ll be able to do the long hikes you used to do before you had children. Little kids simply don’t have the stamina. Begin with super short outings (1/2 mile to 1 mile) at nature areas close to home. Gradually build up to longer hikes. Also remember that your child might have a lot of energy at the beginning of the hike, and you’ll begin to think, “yes, today we’re going to get a longer hike in!” Keep in mind that you have to hike back to the car, and your child child will suddenly at some point run out of steam. If you forget to keep it short and go too far, you’ll end up with a whiny child who will insist on being carried all the way home. Even worse, you might end up with a child who hates hiking. Absolutely no forced marches.
- Avoid steep hills: Kids can have amazing stamina as long as a trail is relatively flat. When faced with a hill, however, children can become whiny little monsters pretty quickly. If hills are unavoidable, I’ve found carrying my child to be necessary, which is super hard the older the child gets. Before my son turned four, I kept my Ergo Baby carrier in my backpack or around my waste at all times for those moments when he refused to walk one more step. Want to avoid having to carry your child? Skip the hills until your child is older.
- Forget about the destination: Forget about the days when you’d plan your hikes around a destination, such as a beautiful alpine lake or that location with the gorgeous views. Little kids are all about the journey. For a child to fall in love with hiking, they must be given time to explore along the trail. If that means picking up a stick and playing with it for fifteen minutes, so be it. Give your child the time to experience the awe of nature. Let your child splash in that little creek along the trail. Squat down and watch the ants with your child. Lie down and look up at the trees. Climb on the rocks. Slow down and enjoy the views. Hiking with children is all about patience.
- Let the child lead: Hiking becomes a game when the child is allowed to lead. Try to make the hike into an adventure for the child. Ask, “what’s around the next bend in the trail?” You’re child will probably say, “I don’t know.” Your response? “Let’s find out!” … then run along the trail with your child. If you don’t have a destination in mind (see tip #3), and you come to a fork in the trail, let your child choose which direction to go. Children love exploration, and, well, isn’t that what hiking is all about?
- Bring lots and lots of snacks: Children burn through energy pretty quickly, so fuel is a critical component for successful outing with your little one. It’s fun to pack a picnic lunch, but it’s even more important to bring along quick snacks for the child to consume along the trail. When my boy turns whiny, it usually means he’s running out of energy. It’s amazing how quickly he comes back to life after a quick bite to eat. Our favorites? Mashups Squeezable Fruit, fruit ropes or fruit sticks, string cheese, chocolate-covered raisins, Clif Kid Z Bars, a bag of mixed nuts, and crackers. And always, always, always bring lots of water.