When I first moved to Colorado (16 years ago!), I had little experience with hiking. But once I saw those incredible Rocky Mountains, I was eager to explore them! I clearly remember seeing family after family hiking in the mountains the first day I took to the trails. When I saw those families, I also remember thinking “how the heck are they doing that?”! Keep in mind that I moved to the Mile High City after living at near sea level my entire life, and the altitude had quite an impact. I got to Colorado and could. Not. Breathe!
As time went on, I got a lot better at hiking and even tackled a few 14ers (the highest peaks in Colorado – over 14,000 ft in elevation). I loved getting outdoors, smelling the clean air, and simply being immersed in the incredible beauty outside my back door. Gosh, I love Colorado!
Fast forward to life with kids…making hiking a family activity was important to me. I really wanted to expose my kids to both the Colorado outdoors as well as to an incredible (and inexpensive!) physical activity. I also wanted to teach them how to take care of the land while enjoying it.
The problem was that I didn't know where to begin. I kept thinking “how do I take kids on a hike without listening to whining the entire time?”. I spent a few years figuring that all out through lots of experimentation. Now I want to share with you what I have learned to make your first hikes easier (and more enjoyable) than ours were!
Here are our 10 tips guaranteed to make your hike more enjoyable for the whole family:
1) Plan Ahead.
Pick a hike. If you have little ones, keep it fairly close to home and short in distance so you can work around naps. Keep in mind shade/sun exposure, elevation gain, the length of the trail, and overall altitude of the hike.
Also, if you can, pick a hike that has some really fun feature (ideally near the end – which makes for a motivation to finish the hike)! Examples include a water feature (stream, waterfall, etc) to play in, a rock formation to climb, a cave or a hollow tree to step inside.
Plan a topic or two in the back of your mind to distract the kids if they start getting tired. Talk about their friends at school, their favorite sport, their favorite game on a device (ever heard about an app called Minecraft?? My boys could and would talk about it for hours if I let them). Those conversations will not only strengthen your bond with your kids, but they will distract them for chunks of time when they are feeling hungry or tired.
Another thing our family does is to sing favorite songs on our hikes when kids are starting to get squirrely. They love joining in and it helps them focus on something other than tired legs or being hot.
2) Be Prepared.
Consider doing this for any hike (regardless of whether kids are participating). A lesson from Cub Scouts: always have the 10 Essentials on hand. Additional supplies that are helpful to have when kids are joining: a camera; sun hats, some sort of tissues or wet wipes; Chapstick; binoculars; safety whistles for each child (be sure to teach them why and when to use them), and maybe a small book on animals and their scat (especially for boys – anything poop-related is a hit).
Oh and make sure the kids are wearing great hiking shoes.
Another item to consider bringing on a hot day is a spray bottle – that feels so good! Hands down, our award-winning hiking accessory was a butterfly catcher. We would take turns catching and releasing the butterflies; the kids REALLY loved doing that!
And one thing I ALWAYS tell people is to make sure you pack emergency survival blankets in your pack. No one ever expects to run into an emergency, but if it does happen, it's way better to be prepared!
3) Keep it easy and fun.
For kids, the hike is about the experience. We always call it an “adventure”, as in “we're going on an adventure today!”. Keep it fun because your goal is to have them want to go again! Start with shorter hikes to get kids acclimated to the activity and gradually increase the distance of your hikes over time. If you start with a hike that's too strenuous, they will get tired, frustrated, and you'll hear about it (a lot).
Be prepared to go with the flow and change plans as needed. Even go so far as to plan not to make it all the way to the end (or for only 30 minutes). Make the experience fun and engaging by exploring as you go: finding interesting flowers, trees, wildlife, mushrooms, butterflies, ant hills, signs of larger animals (scat, rubs in trees, etc), and smells. Turn the adventure into a scavenger hunt!
For the slightly older kids, consider bringing a friend from time to time. It's amazing how much further the kids will hike when a friend is joining than they do with just their parents.
Go big with positive reinforcement – build them up and let them know all the things they are doing really well. It makes such a difference in the associations they make between an activity and their feelings about it!
4) Go at their pace.
Kids are natural explorers, and hikes are the perfect activity to let them explore to their hearts' content! If your motivation with a hike is to get exercise, let that go and embrace the experience instead. Keep in mind that you are hiking at a kid's pace, not an adult's – be prepared to stop a lot while they explore. This is about creating a love for nature, being outdoors, being together as a family, all while throwing in a little learning about the world.
Geocaching is another great way to engage kids in a hike and make it fun while going at their pace.
5) Dress for Success.
Layer up, baby! Bring light layers in case you or your child get chilled on the hike. In Colorado, weather can blow in quite quickly; that means it can sometimes go from hot and sunny to chilly, rainy and windy in just a few minutes. Always carry raingear, which also works as a windbreaker.
Proper footwear (shoes/boots) is a must. Keep the conditions of the trail in mind because adequate hiking shoes could range from boots on a rugged trail to sturdy (Keen-type) sandals on a light trail with streams. No open-toed sandals. Avoid cotton socks, which help cause blisters and are slow to dry.
Bring a change of clothes for the car. Chances are that the kiddos will end the hike filthy or wet! Having a change of clothes makes everyone more comfortable on the drive home.
6) Plan frequent refueling stops.
Hiking burns tons of energy, which means that tired, hungry kids get cranky! Plan to take frequent short breaks for drinks and snacks to replenish. You can also use these breaks as motivators to get a little further down the trail. Saying something like “we'll take a break when we get to the top of that little hill” works wonders.
Use a hydration pack (High Sierra or another brand) and let the kids carry their own water. This way they can take a sip as they walk if they need to, AND it's less weight for you to carry! Hydration packs are also great for carrying your own 10 essentials.
Pack a variety of snacks. Bring things like trail mix, granola bars, apple slices, cheese sticks, raisins, whole grain crackers, nuts, and Larabars. Have extras on hand (to comply with the 10 Essentials), and the variety helps to combat sudden pickiness from your kiddos.
7) Pick a leader (and change often).
Kids love to be in charge! This is one that took us a while to figure out. We used to structure our family with one parent in front, all the kids in the middle, and the other parent in the back so they were contained. Then we figured out that they love to be in front, so we tried that.
Finally it dawned on us how we could use the front-man position as a motivator: “if you are going to be in front, you have to walk quickly so that the person behind you doesn't step on your foot” (for the leader who likes to go sloooooowwwwly) OR “when we get to the other side of the stream, it will be Jack's turn to be leader”.
8) Start young and carry toddlers in a pack.
Start early – the earlier you start, the more likely your kids are to love hiking. That being said, toddlers can only go so far on their own two feet. If you are wanting to do a hike that is tougher terrain, longer in duration, or steeper, consider bringing a pack for carrying your toddler after they go as far as they can on their own. If they catch a short nap in the pack, consider it a job well done that you wore them out!
9) Leave No Trace.
Our children are the future of the world, so it makes sense to begin teaching them at an early age how to be good stewards of the land. As you hike, talk about and demonstrate collecting all your trash and taking it with you. Don't pick wildflowers (so that others can enjoy them as well) or walk off the trail (damaging the land). Make sure that you leave the area better than you found it. For more information, visit Leave No Trace.
10) Hike often!
Start a family tradition by hiking together regularly, even if it's only once or twice a month.
Links for more info:
National Parks for hikes in a park near you
Find a local State Park
Whether you are hiking in Colorado or elsewhere, we hope you find these tips helpful. Tell us – how do you make hiking enjoyable with your kids?