Hiking has always been a popular family pastime—but maybe never more so than now, when people are eager to get outdoors, looking for exercise and seeking to stay clear of others. Hiking doesn’t require expensive equipment, and you often don’t have to travel far from home to find a beautiful trail.
But hiking with kids can be stressful and challenging. Whether they’re reluctant or reckless, here’s how to keep everyone safe and enjoy the trails together. And remember to abide by the basic rules: always bring a first-aid kit and more water than you need.
1. Do the math
Use a simple equation to help you figure out how far your family can aim to hike in a day, recommends Peter Brown Hoffmeister, author of the book “Let Them Be Eaten By Bears,” a guide to encouraging kids to explore nature. Divide your youngest child’s age in half and translate that into miles. So, an eight-year-old can reasonably be expected to walk four miles in a day, a twelve-year-old six miles, and so on. Hoffmeister also advises going uphill first on out-and-back hikes, saving the easier downhill route for later in the day, when little (and big) legs are more tired.
2. Motivate kids with treats
Your kid may not be as psyched as you are to go hiking, and that probably goes double for teens. Therefore, when it comes to keeping your kid’s legs moving, you need to be strategic. And by “strategic,” we mean “willing to bribe.” Offer candy once you top the next hill, or promise some trail mix made with extra chocolate after the third mile. Sneak a little fruit punch powder into the water bottle. After all, as any good hiker knows, staying hydrated and staving off hunger are key.
3. Be a prepper
Practice and preparation can prevent mishaps from turning into catastrophes. Have each child carry a whistle, and teach them how to use it in an emergency. The National Association for Search and Rescue teaches kids to “hug a tree”—literally—in the event they get separated from their grown-ups. Putting their arms around the nearest oak provides a sense of comfort and calm; it also keeps the kid in one place, making them less likely to get injured and easier to find.
4. Dress for success
Obvious things first: dress appropriately for the location and season. Remember that you might start to sweat, even on short walks in cool climes, and that weather can change quickly, especially at high elevations. Pick breathable layers with maximum warmth and minimal weight for adults and kids alike.
Leave the camo at home and dress everyone in bright, even garish clothes. Pretend the 80s are back and pair shocking pink with Mountain Dew green, or an orange so luminous you need sunglasses. The livelier the color, the easier your youngster will be to spot amidst the leaves and branches.
5. Lay some ground rules
Remember that trails exist for a reason. Make sure your kids stay on them in sight of adults—no wandering off alone. The straightest of straight paths can still throw you an unexpected curve like a downed tree or agitated animal, so resist the urge to let your kids zoom far ahead or go off-road.
6. Gamify it
Combat a case of the whines by playing games. Try classica like “I spy” or “20 questions,” or go through the alphabet and search for objects that begin with each letter: “A” is for awesome flowers, “b” is for the big toe inside my boot, etc. Pick something in the distance, such as a cloud or copse of trees, and have each person describe what they see, Rorschach-like. You just might learn something about the wonderful workings of your child’s mind.
8. Think smiles, not miles
At the end of the day, a successful family hike isn’t about how far or fast you went. The truth is that having kids along complicates things—all the things, all the time. You might not reach the summit or get to admire the waterfall. You might not only have to adjust your expectations, you might have to adjust your definition of the word “hike,” as when your three-year-old decides he’d rather roll in the dirt than walk a single step. You can pick him up and set off, sure. But you’ll likely have a lot more fun if you get down there and roll along too.