I get it. You saw this glorious photo of your friends and their young kids scampering down the trail, crossing some high alpine meadow, and you are thinking, “Wow, that looks amazing! I wish we did stuff like that.”
The truth is you can, anyone can. Hiking with kids doesn’t require super-mad-outdoor skills or awesome feats of fitness. And contrary to common commercial knowledge, it doesn’t require expensive, activity specific gear.
However, I want to share these tips before you hit the trail with your kids this summer:
- Start with a trail or area you are familiar with and keep it short, simple and relatively flat. Every time you adventure into new territory with kids can be sort of scary. This is true with hiking as well. Kids are by nature unpredictable and fickle. Will it be a good day or bad day? Will they poop their pants .5 miles down the trail? Or simply refuse to walk anymore? Will they start vomiting at the high mountain lake? (Every single one of these things has happened to us…) There are only so many things we can control. So when you first start hiking with your family, start with a hike or area that you are familiar with.
- If your spouse isn’t able to go with, ask a friend, family member or other mom/dad to join you. I am not saying hiking with one adult and the kids is a bad idea, I do it all the time. But there is so much more flexibility when two adults are involved. There are four hands to help struggling toddlers, two backs carrying extra snacks and water, and if one adult needs to assist someone with a potty experience, the other can watch over the other kids. Things just get more complicated when you go it alone.
- I am sure you’ve heard this before, but set aside your expectations. Hold the actual destination loosely. Realize the kids are going to want to climb every rock, possibly collect every stone (for you to carry), inspect every butterfly, and play in every water crossing. This is part of their expression of loving the outdoors. Celebrate it!
- At the same time, have a destination in mind. If you actually want to get somewhere, you need to have a plan of where to go! Many of our most failed hikes were times we hit the trail thinking, “we’ll just hike until we don’t want to anymore, and then turn around.” Our hike came to a quick end and most the parents were annoyed. An enticing goal like a lake, waterfall, overlook or mountain top helps the kids keep moving forward.
- Bring a lot of food and water. I don’t think I should need to explain this. But I’ve seen plenty of families out on the trail with one water bottle for the whole crew. For a 2-4 mile hike with the kids, we will bring at least one 16 ounce water bottle per person and pack a full lunch. (You can amend this, bringing more or less when you know your family’s needs better.)
- Check the weather. Bring more water on hot days, more clothing layers on cold or windy days.
- You don’t need special clothes or shoes. I’ve heard parents lament the cost of hiking boots for their toddlers. We’ve been around the globe, trying all sorts of shoes, and in the end I firmly believe that sneakers work best. When they were young we loved StrideRite, now they’ve moved onto Salomon trail runners. Simple running shoes and/or water sandals will work for short hikes, the key is comfort and lightweight.
- Learn to read maps/hiking guides. Check not only the mileage but the vertical gain! Yes, it may appear easy, but if the hike climbs a couple thousand feet, it is not easy. Our general rule of thumb is 500 ft of gain is similar (in exertion and time) to an extra mile in distance.
Lastly, GIVE IT MULTIPLE TRIES. I know many people who try hiking with their kids and after one session of complaining, or one kid in tears, just gives up. New activities take a while to catch on. It takes experience to “iron out the kinks.” Don’t be afraid of occasional tears, or moments of discouragement, or failing for the day. It happens to all of us, all of the time.
See you on the trails!