11 Tips for How to Hike with Little Kids

11 Tips for How to Hike with Little Kids

Ross and I always knew that we wanted our kids to learn to hike.

To say we love hiking is an understatement and we wanted to continue to hike after we had a family.

So almost as soon as the girls were born, we put them in our soft carrier, and we would go on hikes with them.

11 Tips for Hiking With Kids plus 11 Things to Bring for a Happy Hike

After our second daughter was born, I wanted to start going on more hikes during the week without my husband to get my three-year-old’s energy out. But I was really nervous about going by myself.

What if I got lost? What if my three-year-old couldn’t carry herself the entire way? What if somebody got hurt and we couldn’t get back to the car? What if I couldn’t carry enough water and clothing for everyone? etc…

And then I met a mom who did most of her hiking on her own with her four children ranging from 18-months-old to 8-years-old.

I asked her if she would be willing to go with me on my maiden solo hike, and thankfully she agreed!

We set a date and I began to mentally prepare myself.

I desperately wanted this to be a positive experience and didn’t want anything to change my three-year-old’s love of hiking. 

I knew that she was 100% able to do a hike by herself… if she could gain some confidence about it. The child can run for hours at the park, so I knew she had the energy.

When we finally did the hike, it was such a success that I don’t think my three-year-old realized she was tired at any point on the 2.4-mile hike. It was too much fun running with the other kids!

Now that I can enjoy the freedom of taking the girls on a hike during the week as an additional way of getting the wiggles out, I decided to compile some of the tips I’ve learned from hiking with the girls.

In This Post You’ll Find:

  1. Tips and Tricks for Hiking with Young Kids
  2. A Gear List to Get Yourself Ready for that First Hike

And if you prefer to watch instead of read, here is the video that goes with this post:

11 Tips for Hiking With Kids

1) Set Clear Expectations

If your child is not used to hiking, or they have hiked a lot but tend to spend most of their time in a carrier or on someone’s shoulders, explain how this hike will be different.

We always had our oldest daughter do as much hiking as she wanted to (even when she was toddling). But before I set out on my first solo hike with the girls, I set some expectations before we left the house.

I showed a lot of excitement when I told her this was going to be the first hike that she was going to do all by herself (exciting keywords for her at that point!). 

Even though I was nervous to see how it was going to go, I tried to instill confidence in her.

She was a little hesitant when she asked, “Is Daddy meeting us at the trail? Who’s going to carry me when I get tired?”

As I reminded her that he was at work and that we were going to meet some friends instead, I did my best to stay confident. 

I told her that I knew she could do it, and one of the friends was her age and he was going to do the hike all by himself too. 

I also asked her to tell me if she felt tired or needed a break so we could stop and rest. You don’t want them to get over-tired and not want to finish.

I have found that talking about potentially difficult situations ahead of time makes worlds of difference with a two- or three-year-old. Trying to have a logical conversation when they are frustrated does not work well, but letting them process things ahead is a game-changer.

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2) Go With Other Kids Who Like to Hike

We had hiked many, many, many times before this hike with different groups of friends. But usually, our three-year-old was the only little kid hiking. 

We would hang back and let her do her thing, but as soon as she would say she was tired we would put her in the carrier and catch up with our friends.

I realized after hiking with other kids that she hadn’t been getting tired on the previous hikes. She was getting bored and wanting to catch up with the group!

When we went with other kids who were used to (and enjoyed) hiking, She was excited to run and hike with them and didn’t say anything about needing to stop.

Kids Hiking

3) Time Your Hikes

When you are planning your hike, take into account nap times, how many activities they’ve done that week, mealtimes, and how hot it is outside. 

Planning ahead and adjusting for these little things could be the difference between feeling defeated at the end of the hike, and having your children begging for the next one.

4) Choose Hikes According to Your Child’s Abilities

If your child has never walked farther than 3 miles, don’t plan a 5-mile hike without a way to carry them back.

We still do plenty of long hikes, but we bring our Osprey Child Carrier for when our oldest gets tired. If I go with the girls by myself during the week, I don’t have a way to carry both girls, so we stick to hikes that are less than 3 miles. (My oldest is 4 as I am writing this post.)

Take into account things like how your child handles elevation.

Do they tend to get cold easily? How well do they handle walking for a long period of time? Do they like a challenge?

For your first few hikes, I suggest picking hikes that will be easy wins for your child.

5) Let Them Explore

My friend was so great at letting her kids explore the side trails, play in the creeks, walk on the logs, and identify the leaves they found on the ground.

I naturally enjoy finishing things. I’m one of those people who puts “Make Bed” on my to-do list so I can immediately cross something off every morning. Sometimes it is tempting for me to view hiking in the same way. 

This isn’t the best way to get young children to enjoy hiking. Give them the time and permission to enjoy just being in nature.

There’s No Such Thing as Bad Weather and Last Child in the Woods share fascinating research about how to teach children to love being in nature… and letting them explore and experience the outdoors a big factor in how a child will feel toward nature for the rest of their lives.

6) Let Them Figure Things Out

If your child thinks they want to bring a toy along, let them know that they will probably get tired of carrying it before long and they will need to carry it the whole way by themselves because your pack is already full. 

But if they still want to do it, let them try!

It only took one time of letting my oldest bring her doll, Little Jane, in her doll carrier for her to realize that it might be easier to leave her toys behind next time.

Now she always asks if it will be a long hike or a short hike before she decides to bring Little Jane along or not.

Experience is often the best teacher.

How to Raise Kids Who Love Hiking

7) Keep Attitudes Positive

One hike that we went on when our oldest was three, the inevitable happened and she fell and banged up her knees. Unfortunately, we still had more than a mile to go! So, to take her mind off her knees, we began singing songs, asking her questions, and talking about upcoming birthday plans.

Changing the subject to something more positive does wonders for your state of mind.

Just changing her mindset helped her finish the hike on her own two feet.

If they are really in need of a pick-me-up, let them pick any song they want… even if it’s the most annoying song you’ve ever heard. 

Trust me on this: you would rather listen to “The Green Grass Grew All Around” 100 times when the alternative is whining and complaining.

If they can’t think of anything they want to sing, try teaching them a new song that you liked as a kid. 

Sometimes you’ll have to look ridiculous to save your hiking trip.  My girls love singing, but they really like it if we sing too. 

I’m definitely not a good singer and Ross isn’t keen on singing in public either. But we have saved many a hiking trip by swallowing our pride and joining in on a song or two. 

8) Be Prepared to Stop

Sometimes kids will get tired and hit a wall. When this happens, give them some options.

I will ask if she wants to take a break and climb on a log or rock or anything fun near us. 

Sometimes just changing what they were doing helps, but I find it’s best to keep her moving. We check to see if she needs some water, and sometimes we just take a selfie!

If they still need a break, find an area off the trail and let them re-charge for a couple of minutes

Often mixing things up will give them the momentum to keep going. Don’t make them feel bad for stopping; instead, tell them what a great job they are doing and how proud you are of them for how far they’ve come.

Little Girl Resting by a River

9) Teach Them to go Potty in the Woods

If your child is potty-trained, there will be times when they need to go potty while on a hike… even if you had them go right before you left the trailhead. 

The sooner they learn to pee outside, the happier everyone will be. 

If you have boys, I’m sure they’ve already figured this out. But I found it wasn’t as hard as I thought it would be for little girls.

I just have her lean her back against my chest while I pick her up with my hands behind her knees. That way I can easily move her legs to keep her pants dry.  

We’ve been doing this since she was a little potty-training toddler and it works great!

10) Help When Necessary

Sometimes they will just need help. 

Bend down and help them tie their shoe, even if you know they know how. Check their shoes for rocks if their “shoes feel funny.” Carry them for a little bit if you can both agree on a landmark where they will start walking again.

Be patient and make the trip enjoyable. You want them to remember hiking as something fun to do, not a drudgery.

11) Be Prepared

To have the best possible outcome, you will need to have basic hiking gear with you.

You don’t want to be out on a trail at lunchtime only to realize you are out of food and water. These 11 items will have you prepared for your first hike with your kids:

What You Should Bring When You Are Hiking With Kids

1. Plenty of Water

Have enough water on the trail for everyone to drink as much as they want.

Take it from someone who ran out of water while hiking through the Grand Canyon… more than enough water is far better than not quite enough. 🙂 

A liter is usually more than sufficient for the girls and me on a short (less than three-mile) hike. 

I always bring my Osprey Water Bladder and the Lollacup for my younger daughter since she hasn’t quite mastered the bite-suck technique yet.

2. Sandwiches and Snacks

Normally my girls don’t eat outside of mealtimes. But when we’re hiking, that rule gets bent a little. We always stop at the halfway point on a hike for a refuel. It gives motivation during the climb, and energy for the descent. 

If it’s a long hike, we will do more frequent snacks and offer this as an option if she seems like she’s hitting a wall.

Don’t go overboard! There’s no need to haul your whole pantry up the mountain; but make sure there are enough sandwiches for everyone and a couple of fun, lightweight snacks. We always take Larabars on our hikes.

3. Proper Hiking Shoes

Yes, technically your kids can hike in regular socks and tennis shoes, but they (and you!) will be much happier if their feet stay nice and dry when they jump in that puddle that is calling their name.

Don’t make the mistake we made on a hike when our oldest was just over three!

We went on the Skyline Trail hike at Mount Rainier with a group of friends. She did a surprising amount of hiking with the difficulty of the terrain and length of the hike. But towards the top of the mountain, she started crying about being cold. 

Friends were shedding their gear trying to help us get her warm, and she eventually fell asleep in our Osprey using the arms of a friend’s coat as leg warmers in addition to a lot of grown-up coats and hats on her upper half.

When we reached the bottom and were changing her into clean clothes for the ride home, I realized that her feet were soaked. We hadn’t realized that when we crossed a creek during the first mile that she had gotten her feet wet. We felt TERRIBLE!

The next day I went to a second-hand store and found some high-top waterproof hiking boots like these. Hiking has never been the same! 

She has had so much fun wading with dry feet and hasn’t complained about being cold since we got them. A couple of times she waded into a stream too deep and water went in the top, but she quickly learned how to work with the boots and how to judge the puddle depth.

Another option is to get hiking sandals that dry quickly. I remember doing the majority of my hiking growing up that way, but the boots work in all weather and all terrain a little better.

Remember to have them wear the shoes around the house for a few days before the hike. Blisters are no fun!

Little Girl Hiking

4. Hiking Socks

You can get by using regular thick socks for hiking, but if you are planning on doing any fall, winter, or spring hikes, I recommend wool hiking socks. 

Wool or imitation wool hiking socks will keep their feet warm and dry in the winter, while they wick away sweat in the summer.

We had a hard time finding wool socks that fit little feet, but these MERIWOOL Hiking Socks Size XS fit my younger daughter at not even two years old!

5. Kids’ Backpacks

Even if they only carry air the first few times, having a backpack to carry is good practice for them to learn to help with the load. 

When we went with our friends, the eight-year-old carried the water, snacks, and extra jackets for all five of them in a backpack for a 2.4-mile hike.

After my daughter saw the older kids carrying their backpacks, she wanted to bring her own the next time we went. 

She can easily carry her sandwich, her water, her rain jacket, her fleece jacket, her hat and gloves, an extra pair of pants (the girl likes to get dirty!), and an extra pair of socks in her backpack.

Here are a few things to look for in a hiking backpack for children:

Chest and waist straps: Your child may be a little unsure of all the buckles at first, but once they start having weight in the backpack, the straps will make it more comfortable and easier on their bodies.

Plenty of Pockets: You’ll save time on the trail if you can easily find what you are looking for instead of needing to dump out the contents to find something that fell to the bottom of the pack. 

Plus they can learn to organize their own pack as they grow.

Bladder pouch: Although a three-year-old isn’t ready to carry a full pouch of water (don’t forget how heavy water can be!) a seven-year-old is absolutely ready. A bladder pocket will give them more room for gear and snacks once they are doing longer hikes and are needing and able to carry more water. 

Whistle: In the unlikely event that they get separated or need to call for help, I want my girls to have easy access to a whistle. Most hiking packs for children have a whistle attached to the chest strap so if the child were stuck and unable to get into their backpack, they can still whistle for help.

The whistle is also a lot of fun, but teach them not to use it constantly so people will know if someone truly needs help. Our rule is that they can blow it once every time they see water.

6. Rain Jackets

If you are hiking in the mountains, there will be many times when you start with beautiful weather and end up in the rain. 

When we hiked the Skyline Trail we experienced, sun, clouds, freezing wind, and pouring rain all in an afternoon… and this was before we packed our rain jackets every time… thankfully we have friends who were more than prepared and willing to share!

These lightweight rain jackets are perfect for hiking because they weigh almost nothing and are compact when folded.

Little Girl Hiking By a Waterfall

7. Fleece Jackets

When you are hiking in the middle of summer it can be hard to remember a fleece jacket, but I never regret taking one. 

It can feel a lot cooler at the top of a mountain or when you get close to that waterfall.

8. Hats and Gloves

I don’t take the hats and gloves on short hikes in the summer, but it’s always a good idea to have them on any hike in the fall, winter, and spring. We also take them on long hikes in the summer.

We have found that hats that tie under the chin work best for the kids if there is any kind of wind. Plus they cover their ears better, and who wants cold ears? Our girls use this kind of hat.

Especially when hiking with young children, hikes can take a bit longer than anticipated. We have ended up hiking into the evening several times and we were glad to have the extra warmth. 

9. Mom’s and/or Dad’s Backpacks

You’ll want something to carry all the essentials that your kids aren’t carrying on their own. 

I’m in love with my Osprey Sirrus 24 Pack. It is big enough to hold a water bladder and all the essentials for a day trip without being bulky or cumbersome. It also has plenty of pockets to keep things organized, which is handy for finding things quickly on the trail.

If you are looking for the perfect pack for your adventures, I recommend grabbing one with chest and waist straps. They help distribute the weight and make it comfortable to carry for longer periods of time. 

I also recommend getting a pack with a rain cover built-in like the Osprey packs have. Having a cover has kept my gear dry on more occasions than I can count!

If you are looking for a pack that can also carry a child, we love our Osprey Poco AG Plus Child Carrier. It can comfortably carry larger children in addition to having space for a water bladder and storage for snacks and extra clothing.

The Ultimate Guide to Hiking With Kids

10. Baby Carrier

Since my younger daughter is only walking a very short amount of time on a hike (she just turned one), I always bring my Lillebaby Carrier

I love that she can go on my back if my husband is with us and carrying the extra gear, or she can go on my front if I am the only adult on the trip and am carrying my day pack. 

Plus the Lillebaby is one of the few carriers that lets the baby face forward ergonomically.

I highly recommend getting a pack that lets your baby sit in multiple positions if you like to go on long hikes. 

There have been many times with both of our girls when they were getting cranky on a hike and I just changed their position in the carrier. It usually bought us at least another mile or two of peace!

11. First Aid Kit

When we moved to the Pacific Northwest, my husband bought a small first aid kit to keep in our day pack. We used it exactly zero times…until the children started hiking.

It’s always better to be prepared and not have to use it, than to be stuck on a hike without one when you need it. 

When choosing a first aid kit for hiking, be sure it has plenty of band-aids and moleskin for blisters, as well as an antibiotic ointment.

You might also enjoy…

If you have any toddlers that will be along for your hike, check out How to Hike With a Toddler: 15 Tips for Teaching Your Toddler to Love Hiking.

And you may also enjoy 10 Reasons to Make Bread With Your Kiddos!

I hope you’re ready to hit the trail with your kids!

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See you on the next one! Kassy