Hiking has seen a steady increase over recent years, with over 44 million people in the USA hitting the trail every year. There are many benefits to hiking; it’s a great combination of exercise and quality time either with your family or by yourself.
It’s also a great hobby to share with your kids. But in this age of smartphones and game consoles, how do you convince your children to join you when you go for a hike? In this article, we’re going to look at the benefits of hiking with kids, and how you can encourage them to enjoy their outdoor time.
The Benefits of Hiking
If you’ve hiked before you’ll know that getting out into the great outdoors and spending time in nature does wonders for your health and mood, and it’s no different for kids. Here are just some of the benefits of taking your children on a hike.
The Department of Health and Human Services recommends that children should get at least an hour of exercise per day, at a minimum. In our busy modern lives, kids often get taken to and from school in a car and then spend their evenings looking at a TV or computer screen.
But hiking provides more than just light cardio. Children also need to master their gross motor skills, and getting the chance to clamber amongst roots and rocks is the perfect opportunity to do that.
Hiking gives even the least athletic child the chance to feel that they have achieved something. Whether it’s setting a destination and reaching it, or just walking a little longer or further each time, there are many ways to make progress, which is great for children’s self-esteem.
Connecting with Nature
Spending time in nature is good for everyone’s health. It lowers blood pressure, boosts your immune system, and simply makes you feel good. The same is true with children. Being out in nature helps children to build a connection with the natural world, to find interests in things that aren’t just video games or YouTubers’ antics.
While you’re walking you can also learn environmental lessons, making sure that you don’t leave any mess behind or even cleaning up after others. This all helps to give young people a sense of responsibility and a deeper connection with the world.
Connecting with You
Walking, even in a small group, is a social activity. As you settle into the regular rhythm of a hike, the brain starts to relax and that brings different thoughts to the surface. This can be a great opportunity to listen to your child and find out about their life. Away from the hustle and bustle of home and school, children often feel more able to talk about things they wouldn’t normally bring up.
What Are Your Kids Capable Of?
Before you plan a route, you need to make sure that it is suitable for your children. Of course, all kids are different, but the refrain of, “It’s too far!” or, “I can’t carry this pack!” will give you less guilt if you know roughly what to expect.
Babies and Toddlers
Taking very young children out for hikes is unrealistic. If they’ve just mastered walking, a hike is going to be exhausting. That doesn’t mean that you can’t take them with you, but you will need to consider a baby or toddler carrier. Keep trips fairly short – around 2 miles is ideal – and pack drinks and snacks.
At this age (4-8), kids should be able to walk between 2 and 4 miles on their own carrying a light backpack. Make sure they’re carrying no more than 10% of body weight, including the weight of the backpack itself. An empty backpack to put their outer layers in if they need to take them off might be enough.
Remember that children are naturally curious, and if you want to foster a real love of hiking in them let them stop and investigate whatever takes their fancy. It’s best not to have a fixed destination in mind, but rather to let the child lead with what they want to achieve. Take regular rest breaks for drinks and snacks.
By around age 8, children are capable of walking for long distances, although how far will depend on the weight of the pack they are taking with them. Consider distances of 5-10 miles. Targets such as, ‘Let’s hike to X place,’ work well with kids of this age as motivation.
As they are building muscle at this age, they can carry up to 20% of their body weight. That will probably be a backpack, water bottle, snacks, and a waterproof jacket.
Basic Equipment for Hiking with Kids
You wouldn’t go out for a hike in your regular shoes or clothes, and children shouldn’t either. While it might be tempting to make do, as kids grow so quickly if you want your children to enjoy hiking then kitting them out with the right equipment is important. It will help avoid injury and unhappiness.
Walking shoes or boots
Basic First Aid Kit
Your kids will enjoy having the same equipment that you do, although child-friendly versions are available. This also holds true for any small pieces of equipment you might carry such as a compass, map/trail guide or pocket knife.
How to Make Hiking Fun for Kids
Unhappy children aren’t the best company on the trail. If they get bored, then they’ll start to notice the aches in their legs or how heavy their backpack is. If you want toencourage them to go the distance without too many complaints, here are a few ways you can make hiking more fun for kids.
Pick a child-friendly trail. You might go hiking to get to a great vantage point for a view, but children are more likely to enjoy trails that have boulders they can clamber over.
Take some friends. If you can go hiking with another family, then the kids will likely keep each other entertained. Alternatively, invite a school friend to join you.
Snacks are a great motivator. Having a special water bottle for drinking when hiking, and snacks that only get eaten on the trail, it adds a layer of special to the whole event.
Plan a stop. If you’re walking through woods, take some time out to explore. While you’re there you can build a den, make a piece of woodland art or build a small fire and make s’mores (check if this is allowed on the trail you are walking first).
Take a camera and ask your child to capture the hike. They’ll be focusing on their mission and you’ll get unique mementos of the day.
Find a Geocache. Using a GPS (or even an app on your phone) you might find hidden treasure on your trail.
Bird Watch. A pair of binoculars can open up the world of bird watching. Take a book for identification and engage your sense of hearing to track the birds; even common sightings will be exciting for a first-timer.
Bug Hunting is another fun activity. With just a few pieces of equipment, you can seek out and examine these amazing tiny creatures as you walk.
Go on a Treasure Hunt. Before you leave, create a list of things you think your child might find on the walk; types of leaves, flowers, rocks, birds etc. and tick them off as they appear.
Play Games. Cast your mind back and you’ll remember dozens of these from your childhood. I-spy, memory games, ‘Would you rather’, and more can help pass the time.
If the trail you are walking has a visitors center, you might find that they have a children’s trail activity of some sort. These often give the added motivation of a sticker or small prize if your child is able to complete them.
Safety Tips for Hiking with Kids
Before you leave, take some time to point out the key points on the route. The car park, the rangers station, and other important locations should be marked on the map and the reasons you might need them explained to your kids.
If there are any areas that have a particular danger, explain those ahead of time, too. Steep drops, deep or running water or the potential for wild animals are all things your child needs to have a healthy respect for.
Make sure that your child understands how far ahead you are comfortable for them to go. That might be, ‘Don’t go out of sight,’ or ‘Don’t pass a trail marker,’ but either way let them know if they forget that they should stop and wait, and blow their safety whistle. It helps to have a ‘family signal’ which you can all recognize.
Have an emergency plan too. If something goes wrong, what are you going to do? If you fainted, for example, what would you expect your child to do? Talk it over in advance, so everyone is prepared.
Things to Remember When Hiking with Kids
Perhaps the most important thing to keep in mind when you’re hiking with kids is that you want them to enjoy the experience. That might mean keeping your hikes short, taking your time on the trail, or only walking on easier trails for a while until your child is ready to take the next step.
It can pay to underestimate how far your child can walk, especially in the younger years. If they tire out, you will either have to deal with their unhappiness until you get back or have to carry them. Neither option is a lot of fun!
Teach your children to respect the environment by using the, “Leave no trace,” rule. Ask them to watch you, and let you know if you’ve messed up.
If they don’t like it, don’t panic! If or some reason, your first hike with kids might not go the way you wanted it to. If that happens, don’t worry. Just wait a while and try again. If you really enjoy something, your kids will see that and it will make it an appealing activity to them, too.
Sarah Dixon is a freelance writer and author who lives in York, England. A Couch to 10K veteran, she takes full advantage of the beautiful Yorkshire countryside to get outside, hiking, geocaching or just playing games with her two children