Hiking with young children and teenagers can be a priceless experience. The joy, wonder, and awe that the outdoors can inspire (especially for city folk) leaves kids with unforgettable memories and a deeper appreciation of their natural world. Wondering how to make sure your kids get the most out of your family hiking experience? Below are a few tips and tricks we’ve gleaned over the years.
Note: This post is geared more toward hiking with kids and teens, rather than with toddlers and babies.
Get kids excited well in advance
While many kids might be enthusiastic about an outdoors-focused RV trip, it’s natural for some children to feel a little apprehensive—especially if it’s a brand-new experience. Some children, our “worriers,” tend to avoid uncomfortable situations and are hesitant to try new activities because they’re afraid of failure. “Warriors,” on the other hand, embrace opportunities and jump into new situations with eagerness. How can you help a worrier become excited about an RV and hiking trip?
● Acknowledge their nervousness, but don’t let it consume them. Talk through what’s making them anxious, and then redirect that energy and turn the conversation toward what actually excites them.
● Emphasize achievements—remind them that trying something new in itself is a victory and something to be celebrated. Encourage taking reasonable risks to foster the bravery in your child.
Additionally, get your kids involved in the planning process: Ask them what they’d like to do while on the trip; solicit their opinions when making decisions; and provide the itineraries beforehand so they can look up all the fun stuff they’ll be doing!
Be prepared and pick appropriate hikes
This goes for any kind of outdoors trip, but it’s especially true with kids. Not only will you need the 10 hiking essentials, but you’ll also want to pack some “kid hiking essentials.” Though the weather forecast may indicate bluebird skies and warm temperatures, mountainous regions can be unpredictable; you’ll want to include a rain jacket and warm layer, just in case.
● A daypack for your kids to carry themselves. (You could get them a cool outdoors-inspired pack, but a school bookbag will work just as well.) Inside should be a snazzy water bottle, snack, games, and a rain jacket—enough items for them to feel like they’re doing their fair share, but still lightweight so it doesn’t overwhelm them.
● Wet wipes or tissues
● Binoculars or magnifying glasses
● Camera and journal
● Safety whistle
● Special snacks (see below)
● Activities (see below)
If you have younger kids who aren’t used to spending the entire day outside, ease them into hiking with a fun, easier walk with lots of scenery like waterfalls or wildflowers. For athletic teens or more outdoorsy families, a more challenging trek with a rewarding view at the end may be appropriate.
Bring plenty of refreshments (and a special treat)
Whether it’s a leisurely hour-long walk on a well-maintained trail or strenuous all-day hike up a mountain, you’ll want to have plenty of food and water. Decide whether you’ll need lunch or just snacks, and don’t skimp on water. (A good rule of thumb is to pack one liter of water per person to consume every two hours, though your family may drink more or less than that.) Get your kids involved in meal-planning and let them choose some of the goodies—as long as you have a mix of both healthy and “kid friendly!”
Remind kids and teens to drink water often; sometimes they get so wrapped up in what they’re doing that they forget to hydrate. (And nothing brings down the mood faster than cranky, dehydrated children.) Because sweat evaporates more quickly in arid environments, it’s important to keep electrolytes in mind. On hotter days, consider adding an electrolyte supplement like Nuun or Gatorade powder packets to your water bottles.
Doing a hike that requires a little extra physical effort, like climbing a mountain or crossing streams? Consider bringing a special treat that you know your kids will love, like a Snickers bar or fruit snacks, as a surprise reward.
Have games and activities ready
Almost every national park hosts a junior ranger program to encourage kids’ engagement in the natural world. The National Park Service has online activities to get your kids excited before they visit (also a great activity during this time of self-quarantine). Find out what your specific national park has to offer here.
While simply walking through the woods may be enough to enchant your kids’ imaginations for a day, consider some extra stimulation for their growing minds, like:
● A plant and animal identification guide to the area you’re in;
● A nature scavenger hunt;
● Playing cards;
● Or a book of riddles.
Take advantage of the great outdoors for physical games, too! Where appropriate, initiate a game of hide and seek or a good, old-fashioned round of tag. (Just make sure your kids don’t venture too far off trail and remind them to tread carefully.) Outdoors.org is a fantastic resources for games to play while hiking.
Let go of some control
This is the perfect time to let your kids practice decision-making. Give them a map and compass and let them navigate. Designate a “trail leader” who determines the pace and where you stop for lunch. For older kids, perhaps entrust them with a Swiss Army–type knife and let them cut the salami for lunch or whittle wood.
It’s also the perfect time to go with the flow. Hiking with kids can bring many unexpected pleasant surprises, and it can also upend a planned itinerary in an instant. Kids hike slower and take their time exploring their surroundings—let them! Encourage creativity and appreciation of nature, let your kids get a little dirty, and know that you’ll probably take a few more snack breaks than you even thought possible.