Hiking with children is one of those things that people often assume is too hard, not worth the effort, or simply isn’t possible. Alex and I did a lot of hiking before Theo was born, but this hasn’t changed just because we now have a little person, soon to be two little people, in tow.
Thankfully Theo is also an outdoors person and he enjoys being in fresh air and surrounded by nature as much as we do. Sure, some kids just don’t enjoy this kind of activity so a rethink may be required. If your kid(s) fall into this category but you’d love them to share in your passion and enjoyment, I suggest trying these 7 tips for hiking with children before giving up all together. Ensuring that it’s an enjoyable experience for everyone can require a bit of forethought, patience and creativity, so here are our top tips.
Know everyone’s limits
If you intend to go hiking with children, the route you plan for will depend on your children’s ages and development. It pays to have an accurate idea of what everyone can manage without getting tired and grumpy.
Theo was introduced to hiking at 4 days old. Of course at this age, he was in a sling for the entirety of our outing and as long as he could still feed on demand, he was happy.
As we got past the newborn stage, we’d get him out of the sling for stints so he could crawl around, explore and eventually toddle about. By 16 months he had scaled England’s highest peak as well as many of the Lake District’s other fells. By the age of about 18 months, he was a very confident walker and was happy to go on hikes of approximately 10 miles (16 km). Of course this still included stints in the sling either to rest his legs or to have a nap.
Over the following year, he managed longer and longer stretches of walking by himself and was happily doing over 6 mile (10 km) hikes up mountains by the age of 2 and a bit without the need for breaks in the sling. The steeper and more technical the terrain, the more fun he had!
We’ve found that the age of 2.5 to 3 has been most challenging so far in terms of planning long hikes, and have needed to drastically cut back our expectations. I suspect it’s partly that he’s out of practise (it’s been winter here so we’ve been hiking less over these past 6 months), partly that his current learning is based on role play rather than exploration of the physical world, and partly that he’s at a stage where he wants to exert his independence and make his opinions heard. That’s fine, we encourage this, and we see it as our responsibility to tailor activities so that they cater for his current learning, preferences and needs rather than drag him on things he has no interest in just because it’s what we want to do. So, our recent hikes have been shorter and slower. I go into a bit more detail below in point 6 about how we’ve adapted our outings to suit his current learning.
Bring loads of snacks (and water!)
Most parents don’t leave the house without ample snacks so I’m sure you’d probably think to do this anyway. The difference though is that when on a hike, if you run out of food, you risk having a hungry child on your hands for potentially miles of walking and then perhaps also a drive back home or to the nearest shop. A ‘hangry’ child is a very good way to instantly ruin your peaceful hike through a beautiful setting, so try to avoid this at all costs!
Bringing water on a hike is hopefully obvious. Stay hydrated by stopping for short water breaks regularly, particularly in hot weather. A bottle of water is also handy to wet cloth wipes on the go, for post-snack sticky hands and faces, nappy changes/unfortunate accidents/stops behind a tree, and to mop up muddy and scraped knees and hands.
Bring a sling
This is obviously most relevant for babies, toddlers and preschoolers, but may also apply to some older children, particularly those with disabilities or medical conditions.
Likelihood is you won’t forget a sling for your baby because they’ll need to be carried the whole time, but once they are walking confidently it’s an easy item to overlook. Little legs get tired though and having a sling or carrier of some kind will save your back and arms! If your child still has a daytime nap, a sling is the perfect place for this and having this option will mean you can also plan for longer hikes as you’ll cover a lot of ground while they sleep.
The type of sling or carrier you choose will depend on the age of your child, the length and difficulty of your hike, and what you and your child both find most comfortable to use. A stretchy or woven wrap may be ok for younger babies and for shorter hikes, but a buckle carrier may feel more secure on longer or more technical hikes and for heavier children. I recommend the Ergo 360 Cool Air Mesh, and the Connecta Solar, both of which are lightweight and breathable, and can be worn to front or back carry. If you prefer a heavy duty backpack style carrier, or you’re embarking on a very lengthy hike and envisage carrying your child for longer periods, I recommend the Osprey Poco AG Premium. It’s very breathable, has useful storage space, and has a maximum weight of 22 kg (48.5 lbs), meaning it may also be suitable for older children with disabilities.
Plan for double the time you think the hike should take
When you look at the trail map and it gives an estimated time for a particular route, ignore this and double it!
Older children and teenagers will of course be better able to keep up with this predicted pace (perhaps even storm ahead of you!) but younger children have shorter legs, they may be liable to run off back the way you’ve just come, and regular stops to explore their surroundings are to be expected.
The exact deviation from the predicted time will of course depend on your kids’ ages, their personalities, everyone’s fitness and hiking experience, and how often you stop for rests/food/photographs/learning etc, but the point remains: everything with children takes a bit longer (even leaving the house!) and hiking with children is no exception.
If your kids need to be back by a specific time for food or sleep, I recommend planning accordingly and leaving more time than you think you could possibly need!
Be flexible - sometimes you have to back out
I’m sure you’re used to this as parents but flexibility is key. Sometimes plans have to change last minute and it can be annoying, but personally, I’d rather back out or take a shorter route than endure the frustration of hiking with children who just don’t want to be there. It’s ok if your child’s just not feeling it today, adult’s have days like that too; hopefully you’ll have another opportunity to try again another day.
An opportunity for learning and play
Hiking is not just about getting from A to B. It presents a wonderful opportunity for children to learn a wide range of skills and knowledge while being outside and enjoying the natural world (as well as getting some exercise, fresh air and vitamin D). So, like in everything else we do, we play and we learn while we do it.
Between their first and second birthdays, your toddler is likely to enjoy working on their gross motor skills so you may find that games revolve around walking, running and climbing. At this age, Theo loved finding objects (sticks, pine cones etc) for us to throw further up the path and then he’d run off to find it (yes, just like playing ‘fetch’!). We also liked this game because he kept him heading in the right direction rather than going back on himself all the time! Hide and seek also has this positive effect providing that whomever is hiding does so further up the path!
For the littlest of hikers, a simple blade of grass can be a fascinating. For infants, opportunities to use their senses are in abundance. Explore the texture of grass, bark, different leaves, mud and water (if you come to any); take the time to smell flowers and point out the sounds of birds and branches waving in the wind; name objects and their colours as you come across them.
Climb fallen trees, practise jumping off rocks, kick and jump in fallen Autumn leaves; burn all that toddler energy!
Theo was also curious about flowers and insects at this age, so it was the ideal time to practise being gentle with fragile living organisms, and learn to observe and appreciate them without causing harm. He enjoyed taking photographs of the things that interested him along the way. Although not all of these images were in focus or even included his intended subject, they’re a wonderful documentation of a particular hike through the eyes of a one-year-old. I printed them and together we stuck them in a scrapbook and talked about where they were taken. I write captions about where we were, what we were doing and what he was finding interesting, but as he gets older, I’ll instead encourage him to write about his memories.
After their second birthday, you will likely find that your toddler’s speech really erupts and, although they may have been talking for a while, they may suddenly be able to engage with more complex conversations. As certain topics cropped up on our walks (often as a result of a ‘why?’ question!), we started introducing concepts such as the life cycle of plants and animals, the water cycle, and we talked in more detail about the insects we saw while hiking.
Theo still loves exploring the outside world and working on his gross motor skills, but as we approach his third birthday, he is really engaged in role playing. While he still collects sticks, looks at flowers and marvels at bugs, our more recent hikes have also included time pretending to be a lion hunting in the grass, collecting stones to use as money in exchange for ‘goods’ (also collected along the route) in whatever shop he has created, and rescuing vehicles or people that have got stuck in the mud/water/steep or rocky terrain. He loves ‘fixing things’ at the moment so a stick becomes a screw driver and he finds trees with holes to fix.
As his play and learning interests continue to change and develop, so will our hikes.
Pack light but don’t forget the essentials
You don’t want to have to lug around everything except the kitchen sink, particularly if you’re likely to also be carrying a child at some point during your hike, but forgetting sun cream, hats, bug spray or spare supplies for children in nappies or those who are not yet reliably toilet-trained, is a recipe for a potentially unpleasant hiking experience. Children (and adults!) with sunburn, bites or soiled clothes are going to be pretty miserable!
I made the mistake of forgetting a spare set of clothes for Theo once when he was about 2 months old. Halfway up a mountain in the British Lake District, I changed his nappy and had to improvise some trousers using my fleece, one leg in each arm! I was cold, but at least he was warm. Suffice to say, I didn’t forget spare clothes for him again!
Hiking with children really is a pleasure; it’s a joy to see the world through their eyes. It will almost certainly be slower than an all-adult excursion, but don’t let that put you off! With these tips, I hope your family can enjoying hiking together as much as we do.