Is it possible to enjoy hiking with kids?
Before kids, hiking was one of our favorite activities when we traveled.
We’d have adventures climbing mountains as high as 4,000 meters and we’d spend days hiking many forest trails. Despite the physical challenges, it was always one of the most relaxing and memorable things we’d do.
We now have a two page list of places we’ll return to when our kids are older and we can hike again at a proper pace, instead of the pace of a three year old. I just hope by then the knees aren’t made of metal.
Of course we haven’t given up hiking because we travel with kids. We still do it as much as possible and love taking Kalyra and Savannah along, we just do it in a different manner than when it was just us.
Their strength and stamina for hiking trails has definitely improved since we first set out on our Australian road trip in Oct 2013, and most of the time our kids really enjoy it.
We originally published our hiking with kids tips back then! It’s now 2022 and these tips haven’t changed at all.
All that has changed is that our hikes got longer and better, and became almost daily when we road tripped around the USA.
Now we have a teen (and we’ve hiked sooo much) our girls complain any time we choose to hike. I get it. But, I also know once they hit the trail, they slip into a certain kind of Zen that only the forest, stunning views, and peaceful connections can bring.
We do a lot of short hikes in Raleigh now AND instead travel to bustling cities like London, where we just returned from a two week, complain free trip!)
I know you may really want to hike with your kids but are unsure how to make it work. Our tips for hiking with kids will help you! Please share them with parents you know who will get a lot of benefit from them.
Why hike with kids? It’s all about the memories
I often think back to when I was a young child scrambling over rocks and walking through the bush with my parents.They are some of my fondest and strongest memories.
I think in doing it, my parents taught me a lot about walking as a fabulous tool for connecting, being present, and unwinding from the stresses and complications of life.
I hope I am setting my children up with the same gift for when they are older.
One of the most memorable days on our Australian road trip was our short 30 minute hike in Victoria’s Grampians National Park.It was part of the much longer and more strenuous hike to the Pinnacles, a 4.2 km return trip. The section we chose was easy and interesting with a couple of rock scrambles.
We reached the end of the Grand Canyon section when the girls decided they wanted to keep going. Foreseeing the impending meltdowns about a kilometre up the track, I tried to convince them that a return back home was the better option.
But they insisted on moving forward.
So we went.
Savannah without shoes on, and Kalyra taking the lead.
2.1 kilometres later we arrived at the top of the Pinnacles for outstanding views of the valley below. I barely saw it, so in awe I was of my two daughters. They walked the entire way, laughing and talking and having an amazing time.
I learnt that day that kids have a good sense of their own boundaries and you should take a step back from imposing your own limits on them. Let them surprise you.
Have an awareness of what you think their limitations are and have a back-up plan in place, but sometimes you just have to open a space for them to show you what they can do.
The next most memorable hike with kids was six years later when Savanah once again stepped up to show me what she was capable of, while sat dying on a rock begging for it to be over.
I tried to convince her to turn around but once again she was adamant she wanted to complete the strenuous Sahalie Glacier hike in the North Cascades National Park to see a disappearing glacier.
This hike was a 15 mile hike with an elevation gain of 4,000 feet and three bear sightings. It was one of the hardest hikes I’ve done and she breezed through it, Although I carried her out the last two miles.
Kalyra had the good sense to turn around halfway through, but she joined us on our other strenuous hike, the 11 mile Grinnell Glacier Hike in Glacier National Park. We had no idea until we reached the end that the lake was filled with icebergs.
Now that was a moment.
Hiking with kids will give you memories that last and strengthen your family bond forever. Families who hike together, stay together.
Now let’s get to our tips for hiking with kids.
1. Choose your hiking trails carefully
Choose hiking trails that are best suited to the level of your children’s age and fitness.
We do our research first to assess if the walk will be manageable for our girls.
We also ensure that it’s a hike that is interesting for them – rivers, waterfalls, rocks, caves, wildlife, stairs, and rock art usually keep them occupied.
When our kids were younger could do 4-6km / 2.5 – 4 miles walks or roughly two-to-three hours with a decent break at the half-way point for rest, food and drink, with 60-second drink breaks spaced periodically.
Around Australia, we chose on easy-medium grade trails these days such as our favorites
For the USA, here are some great hikes with kids:
2. Allow your children to stretch themselves a little
Choose a trail and a time frame, but see if you can stretch the children a little further, even if it’s only 10 minutes more.
This is an invaluable lesson for them to discover their inner strength and to grow. It will also help you slowly stretch out the time limit for your hikes so you can enjoy slightly longer walks in the future.
When she was younger, we’d try and hold Savannah off from wanting to be carried on our shoulders as long as we could with master diversionary tactics (some mentioned below).
She often ended up on our shoulders, but we try to do it in short spurts. After she’s had a rest we coax her back down to the ground.
Just keep saying to your kids, “Let’s go for five more minutes and see how we go.” Often they get caught up in the present and before they know it another mile has been walked.
You’ll know once they’re reached their maximum limit. Remember, if it’s a one way track to allow time and energy for the return hike.
3. Pack plenty of food and water
You’ll always need more water than you think when hiking. Pack lots of light snacks – nuts, protein bars, fruit and sandwiches.
Make the snacks healthy with low sugar, high energy. We love to take a batch of our chocolate nut protein balls. You can have the sugary treat as a reward at the end if you want.
Sometimes we pack special treats and hand it out at certain spots along the trail – so make them work for it!
If your child is thirsty, they are already dehydrated, so make sure you have frequent water breaks, especially if it’s hot, and even if they aren’t thirsty.
4. Start your family hike early
Everybody’s energy is better in the morning. And if you’re in a HOT location you’ll want to beat the heat of the day, or a place that tends to get afternoon thunderstorms you’ll want to avoid those too!
Plus, there will be less whining and demands to be carried in the morning, the later in the day the crankier our kids get. Once the hike is done, you have the rest of the day to rest and free play.
And the other bonus is the earlier you start, the less people you’ll have to deal with, as we found out on our “couples walk” to famous Wineglass Bay in Tasmania.
5. Capture precious hiking moments and memories
Hikes with children can be such a memorable experience, you don’t want to miss a magic moment. I think in the modern world of social media, everyone is capturing every moment!
Try not to let it distract you too much from the experience, but these photos capturing those special moments of hiking with your children will stay with you forever. Many of the canvas photos on my wall now are of these captured memories.
I love to take photos of my children from behind. You can capture some amazing natural moments that tell the story of the adventure.
6. Check weather
When hiking with kids especially, you want an hour-by-hour weather forecast. Cold, rainy, or even hot weather doesn’t have to stop a hike, but it can be dangerous if you are not prepared.
Don’t be afraid to cancel your plans if the weather is not working in your favour. It’s too dangerous to risk hiking in bad weather – that is too hot or too cold or too wet.
We attempted to hike to the top of Mt Kosciusko (Australia’s highest peak) but didn’t make it as we were under-dressed for the wind and freezing temperatures.
7. Wear layers + pack raincoats
Always wear the right clothes for the weather. As it can often change throughout the hike, wear layers and have some extras in your hiking backpack if you think you need it.
We only went a short and safe way on the Bright Angel trail in the Grand Canyon as it as covered in snow and ice and dangerous. We opted for the easy, flat and paved South Rim trail instead.
Read our tips for the Grand Canyon with kids
Take a lightweight, rain jacket if it looks like raining. Sometimes it’s best to pack them anyway as its unpredictable. We will never forget getting caught in a snowstorm while hiking Hetch Hetchy in Yosemite National Park.
Luckily we had some plastic raincoats with us we bought from the visitor center. But, boy was that a miserable couple of miles back. At first the girls thought it was fun, but soon enough our hands froze and we were all crying.
This was a character building moment for sure.
8. Wear good hiking shoes
Proper hiking shoes are a must when taking any walk with kids, long or short. They need to be comfortable with good tread and support.
Consider the weather and animal dangers as to whether you want sandals or closed in shoes. As kids tend to hurt themselves more, I’d make them closed toed sandals to avoid toe stubbing and trips.
If you are walking over a gravel path, I’d recommend closed in shoes as stones and sticks can easily kick up onto the sandals, which gets annoying (and possibly painful) really quick.
I would also make sure your shoes are waterproof as you never know when you may come across a water crossing or it starts raining.
Our favorite hiking shoe brands are Keens and Merrill. They are solid quality that last for years!
9. Use a hiking backpack for younger kids
I mentioned putting Savannah on our shoulders, this was once she had outgrown her hiking backpack.
If you have babies and kids younger than toddler, we highly recommend using a hiking backpack for kids. We loved our Kelty hiking carrier and it helped us enjoy lots of hikes with the kids.
Savannah absolutely loved sitting on her Daddy’s back and watching the world pass her by. We were sad once she outgrew it.
I would not hike with a front carrier as it can really hurt your back, unless they are little babies and you are taking short walks.
10. Have an animal safety plan in place
I’ll never forget our coastal hike in the South Coast NSW when Kalyra came inches to stepping on a slithering huge snake! We quietly coaxed her back before she freaked out.
No the dangers of the area you are hiking in. Snakes don’t scare me so much when hiking, as they often feel you coming before you arrive and get out of there.
What scares me the most are crocodiles in Australia (do not go near the rivers in the Top End of Australia) and the bears in North America, more specifically grizzly bears.
For our hikes in Bear country, we make a lot of noise and yell out “hey bear” several times so we do not startle a Mumma bear especially if cubs are nearby.
We also carried bear spray in the areas where they are prevalent. Black bears aren’t as scary and we have come close to them on trails before in the Great Smoky National Park – mostly on the Cades Cave Loop.
Cades Cove video with bears!
11. Pack a basic first aid kit
We’re usually hopelessly under-prepared for this, but really you do need to have a basic first aid kit with you, especially on those longer, more remote walks.
We need to practice what we preach here and are going to do a much better job of packing one, promise!
You can grab a ready made first aid kit like this or check out our road trip guide to create your own.
12. Plan rest stops on your hike with kids
Help your kids find the strength to keep moving with a drink break every 15 minutes and snack break every 30 minutes. The older they get, the more you can stretch this out.
And incorporate and photo opportunities into short breaks, as well as stopping along the way to look at interesting animals, plants and cave drawings as well.
Don’t just storm towards the finish line without taking in the moments along the way!
13. Watch your children’s signs
Know when your children are getting tired!
My daughter’s eyes are the first to tell me. As soon as I see that look, I sit us down for a rest or suggest we turn around.
Not only are tired children difficult to manage, they are also more prone to accidents. There have been plenty of walks that we’ve cut off early as the kids just aren’t coping. There’s no point if you all can’t enjoy yourself.
14. Time your walk
Know how far you have walked so you can ensure your kids have enough stamina for the return.
Sometimes we decide we’ll do an hour walk and set the watch for 30 minutes, so we know once we hit that time, we have to turn around to walk back.
If the kids insisted on continuing, don’t stop them. Keep doing the five minutes more until you can tell, or they tell you, they have reached their limit.
15. Give your children roles on your hike
Kids love having important roles!
If I did not assign Kalyra the role of leader on our Grampians walk she would have collapsed on the ground with wails of I’m soooo tired and demanded a helicopter take her out.
As the leader, she had to follow the yellow arrow markers to keep us on the right path. She had to warn us about what was ahead and help Savannah stay focused and moving forward.
Savannah was chief encourager. “C’mon Mummy, you can do it. One more rock! Careful Mummy.”
We also appoint the girls as head kangaroo spotter, or chief songstress in charge of the singalongs!
Now Savannah is older she loves to be time keeper and navigator. Give her a map and she’s engaged and happy to walk for hours.
I share more about giving children roles when you travel in my family travel planning toolkit.
16. Walk to the reward
Go on hikes that have a worthy reward at the end, or at least half way along.
One one of our family hikes, Kalyra started to lose it on our short 3.2km return hike in Litchfield National Park. It was hot and she was whining she could not go any further (this was ten minutes in!).
I reminded her that if she walked just a little bit longer, we’d soon be at the beautiful waterhole for a refreshing swim.
It kept her moving and she was delighted when we arrived and had the waterhole to ourselves.
She even bravely went rock jumping on her own. And she made the return walk without a single complaint and did a couple more after that throughout the day.
We plan for beautiful views, swimming holes, hot springs, and waterfalls.
Here are 17 waterfalls we loved in the USA – many that involve a hike to get to!
17. Make it a challenging and fun hike for kids
Don’ just make your family hikes about the destination, but about the journey too.
I’ve shared a lot of hiking tips on how to get kids to enjoy short walks and long hikes, the best way is to choose hikes that are interesting and challenging.
Our girls are immediately engaged if they have rocks to scramble over, mountains to climb that involve ladders, beaches to pass by, and fun rock formations to explore.
The hiking trail then becomes their playground, and playgrounds are fun places
Let them play with nature, it is the best way and hiking with you kids opens up that portal. It’s why they loved hiking in Utah so much. Goblin Valley State Park is probably the best natural kids playground in the USA.
18. Hike with friends
Hikes are so much better with friends.
Savannahs’ favorite memories are of the hikes she has done with friends. She tells me all the time now when she complains about doing a one mile hike, and I remind of all the challenging hikes we’ve done “Yeah because I was with my friends then and hiking with friends is fun.
On our Australian road trip we hiked with our good friends from The Block Shop. We did little hikes together, which was fabulous as the kids held hands and played together and had such a fun time.
They made it up and down the quite strenuous walk to Gunlum Falls in Kakadu National Park and had a ball swimming together in the waterholes.
Us parents had a ball on a couple of our afternoon sunset hikes. The kids all played while we sat down to enjoy the magnificent sunsets AND adult conversation.
19. Play games to divert their attention
One of the easiest ways to keep them moving is to divert their attention with games. Our Pinnacle walk had plenty of cool rock tunnels and formations we could play games with on the way up.
We just made games up as we went along – Guess what’s coming around the corner? How many steps will it take you to get to the rock up there? Who can spot the koala?
We encourage the girls to make music with the sticks as they walk along and sing.
20. Enjoy the conversations
Hiking is a great opportunity to shut off from the distractions and enjoy a deeper connection with your children.
Use this time to chat with them. Share your stories and listen to theirs. This alone will take their minds off the difficulty of the walk. They will love this attention from you.
Sometimes it can be completely exhausting for you, if your child decides to talk for the entire four-hour walk like Kalyra did when we hiked around beautiful Cradle Mountain in Tasmania.
I love hiking with my children so much for this reason and its the biggest thing I miss from no longer traveling full time with them
21. Have a relaxing and rewarding finish
Don’t have any plans for the remainder of the day!
Go for a swim, relax on the couch, watch a movie or just collapse in a heap on the floor. You may even want to give your children a special reward.
We bought the girls an ice cream after their mammoth Grampians walk. I can’t believe their faces didn’t fall into it.
As soon as they had finished, they ran down to the rock creek to scramble over the rocks as I lay in a heap on the grass.
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Do you hike with your kids? How do you make it manageable and enjoyable?