Family hikes are a great way to get your kids outdoors, be more active and create memories of fun-filled adventures that you’ve experienced together as a family.
However, organizing a family hike and hiking with kids isn’t a mission for the fainthearted. Planning ahead and choosing a fun kid-friendly hike is essential to the adventure’s success. Plus you’ll want to implement these tips once you’re on the trail for a fun family hike.
1. Choose a Hiking Trail That’s the Right Length for Your Baby, Toddler or Child
So what exactly is the right length?
If you’re hiking with a baby that’s 1-5 months old it will to a large degree depends on your fitness. You’ll want to use a front carrier and if it’s your first time hiking with your baby, aim for a short one of ~ 2 miles (~3km) as some babies can be fussy in the carrier.
As to the steepness and elevation gain, that depends on your fitness, but again start easy for your introductory hike. You can always do a harder hike next time if you find it’s too easy for you.
You can also look for paved trails or stroller-friendly trails if you’re wanting to get out in nature, but aren’t up for anything too physical yet, or if you’re hiking with a baby and a toddler.
If you’re hiking with a baby that’s 6 months or older and can sit up by themselves and weighs 15 lbs or more (see this article for further info), then use a backpack carrier. Look for a hike that’s 2-3 hours, or up to 6 miles (~10 km) and that’s relatively flat. Again, you can always progress, but it’s better and much more enjoyable to have it too easy than too difficult.
For toddlers, look for a hike that’s up to 2 miles (~3 km). Research shows that toddlers walk an incredible 2 1/2 miles a day, but that’s over the course of a full day and includes falls.
You’ll also want to ensure that you have a carrier since if you’re hiking with toddlers you can expect to carry them at least part of the way so bring a carrier backpack. I personally love Deuter backpacks which is why I recommend this one.
Kids ages 5 or older, should be able to walk around 5 miles (8 km) as long as you give them time for breaks and let them walk at their own pace.
For toddlers and young kids look for hikes that are either flat or with a gradual incline to keep their energy levels high. They’ll tire quickly on steep trails even if it’s not far distance-wise.
Related Reading: 10 Best Easy Hikes in Zion National Park
2) Choose a Kid-Friendly Hiking Trail
So what exactly does a kid-friendly hiking trail look like? It will need to have enough variety to keep your child interested. A few features to show that it’s a trail kids will enjoy include:
- swimming hole
- meadows with wildflowers so that kids can identify flowers and look for insects
- places where there are likely to be animal tracks (like around a lake or in damp places)
- interpretative nature trails
- trails that lead to possible wildlife sightings, like buffalo
- a hike that includes at least some unpaved trails to spot animal tracks
- rocks to scramble on and to look for marmots (depending on where you’re hiking)
- boardwalks/bridges or other changes in terrain to keep it interesting
- themed hikes, i.e some have a story that you learn as you continue hiking
- berry bushes that you can pick (depending on the season and where you’re hiking – i.e. it’s not allowed in most national parks)
- varied terrain – could include meadows, woodlands, a creek or river, waterfalls, etc, but kids get bored just hiking in the woods
- playgrounds (this is more commonly found in Europe at mountain huts)
For more info on how to find the perfect hiking trail for you, check out my Hiking for Beginners Guide, or for a walk through with more specific information if you’re new to hiking, check out my How to Start Hiking and Feel Amazing From Your First Hike online course.
3) Actual Examples of Kid-Friendly Hiking Trails in Canada and the U.S.
To give you a further idea of what a kid-friendly hiking trail looks like, here’s a list of hikes that families frequently rate as their favorite hikes in Canada and the U.S:
Johnson Canyon in Banff National Park, Alberta, Canada
Distance and Elevation: 2.3 km and 105 m of elevation gain to the Lower Falls and 5.1 km and 252 m of elevation gain to the Upper Falls. For further info, click here.
Why Kids Will Love this Hike:
They’ll love walking on the platforms that lead through Johnston Canyon and will be excited to check out the cave at the Lower Falls. They’ll also love being sprayed by the waterfall.
Why Parents Will Love This Hike:
You have two options, a shorter and a longer one if you’re not sure how far your child can hike. Plus, you’ll get breathtaking views on this beautiful trail.
Related Reading: 7 Best Places to See Wildlife in Banff National Park
Red Rock Canyon in Waterton National Park, Alberta, Canada
Distance and Elevation: (.4 miles, .7 km), minimal elevation gain. See Short Hikes and Walks in Waterton for more ideas.
Why Kids Will Love This Hike:
You have a good chance of being greeted by Bighorn sheep in the parking lot which adds to the outdoor adventure. Plus, the canyon is right there. The kid-friendly hike takes approximately 20 minutes to go around the colorful canyon. Kids will marvel at how red the rocks are.
Why Parents Will Love This Hike:
There are interpretative signs explaining how the canyon was formed and why the rocks are so red. So you won’t have to google it or guess ;). Plus, it’s absolutely stunning and accessible to almost anyone.
Clingman’s Dome Trail in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Tenessee, USA
Distance and Elevation: Different routes, but the easiest is 1.2 miles and 330 ft. See: The Top 8 Hikes to Clingman’s Dome for further info.
Why Kids Will Love This Hike:
they’ll love walking on the 375-foot ramp to the Observation Point which is the highest point on the Appalachian Trail and in Tennessee.
Why Parents Will Love This Hike:
For the incredible views.
Related Reading: Best Hikes in the Smoky Mountains.
4) Hike at the Right Time of Day According to Your Toddler’s Schedule
You’ll want to try to keep your schedule as consistent as possible to avoid a grumpy toddler. So if naptime is normally 2:00 pm and your toddler doesn’t sleep well in the car, plan your hiking trip so that you’re back home before then.
Try to start your family hiking adventure when your toddler normally gets up and not earlier so that their schedule isn’t disturbed. That will help ensure that everyone’s in a good mood and ready for a fun outdoor adventure.
You’ll also want to ensure that you’re not hiking during the hottest parts of the day if you’re hiking in summer or in a warm climate. As that can make children cranky. Planning to hike at the right time of the day according to your toddler’s needs will help ensure a great time in the woods for everyone.
Related Reading: 12 Best Easy Hikes in Rocky Mountain National Park
5) Research Your Hiking Trail Before Your Family Outing
Research the trail to understand what you can expect, wildlife in the area, common birds, etc. This way you can ensure that it’s a good trail for kids.
It will also help you to keep them entertained by looking out for wildlife that they might see or trying to identify birds by their songs. You’ll also want to be aware of hazards such as poisonous mushrooms.
Most provincial/state and national parks have websites with this type of information. Also check out check out my Hiking for Beginners Guide, or for even more specific information check out my How to Start Hiking and Feel Amazing From Your First Hike online course.
Related Reading: 9 Best Hikes in Yellowstone National Park
6) Use Time in the Car to Get Your Kids Excited About the Hike
Most hikes involve a drive to reach so try to choose a hike that’s not too far from where you live. You don’t want a grumpy child before you’ve even started hiking. You can use this time to get your child excited about the hike. You can practice identifying bird calls with these apps recommended by the Audubon Society. Or bring a children’s book about local wildlife, like the Kids’ Guide to Birds of California and ask what wildlife they think they’ll see based on where you’re going.
For example, if you’re hiking in the woodlands, you’ll see different wildlife than if you’re hiking in a meadow. This is a great opportunity to educate your child on wildlife habitats and get them excited about what animals they might see.
7) Play Family-Friendly Games While Hiking
If kids start to get bored, introduce a game the whole family can participate in. Among the hiking games you can play include but are not limited to twenty questions, alphabet games, find It, I Spy, count them all, scavenger hunt, or hide and seek if they need a break from hiking.
And a few of my personal favorite hiking games that I bring out when I hike with friends who have children:
How Many Steps:
Choose a point approximately 60 ft (20 m) away and have each hiker guess how many steps it will take a family member to reach it. Whoever guesses the closes wins. Then repeat for each member of the family since each person takes different sized steps.
Get each hiker to look for signs of wildlife and then collectively try to figure out which animal was there. I.e if there are scratch marks on a tree, it could have been a bear. If it’s a small hole in a tree, it could have been a woodpecker.
Spot the Marmot:
If you’re hiking in a rocky area, stop and see if you can spot the marmot. You almost always hear their high chirp before you spot them. Once you hear a chirp, look for them and the first person who spots them wins. Confession: I play this hiking game even if I’m not hiking with kids.
Related Reading: 5 Best Hikes Near Las Vegas
8) Bring Secret Items to Keep Your Kids Entertained When They Get Bored of Hiking
When planning a family day hike, you’ll also want to have a few tricks up your sleeve to keep your kids entertained. Bring a magnifying glass to more closely inspect insects or binoculars for birdwatching.
Let your kids take photos and capture their hiking moments. You could later then frame one photo and put them together in a collective frame from each family member to serve as a reminder of your family’s outdoor adventure.
When taking a break you could play a card or travel games if you feel that all the emphasis on hiking has become too much for your child.
Related Reading: Top 7 Hikes in Death Valley, California
9) When Your Kid Isn’t Happy Hiking
When your child really isn’t enjoying hiking, promise them a non-hiking reward in the form of a goal. For example, if they keep going and reach the end point then you’ll take them for ice cream or to their favorite playground, or to play mini-golf on the way back. Whatever it is that will help motivate your child.
10) Plan for Plenty of Breaks When Hiking with Kids
Kids, especially toddlers will likely get tired before you do, so watch them closely and don’t pressure them to keep going even when they are tired. Understand how fast your kids can walk and keep to their pace. My article on How to Calculate Your Average Hiking Speed tells you know to do this. When they’re tired stop for a rest.
If your child is feeling discouraged, then find ways to encourage and re-engage them or distract them with a game of hide and seek.
You also shouldn’t underestimate your kids’ capabilities. They may surprise you with how mentally and physically capable they are. Take time to understand each child’s strengths and weaknesses so that you can plan your next family hike based on what’s best for them.
Related Reading: Day Hiking Packing List: The Essentials to Bring On Every Hike
11) Bring Plenty of Hiking Snacks for Your Kids
Kids can eat a lot while hiking. You’ll want to ensure that you have nutritious items that give them energy. Consider granola bars, trail mix, and fruit as snacks. While lunch could be a sandwich with an apple or a banana. You may also want to consider packing their favorite snack or a special treat that they don’t get very often. These Bear Real Fuit Snack Rolls are especially appropriate for hiking. And the 34-pack Snack Variety Pack keep it simple and ensure that you’ll always have hiking snacks on hand.
12) Ensure that Your Kids Drink Enough Water When Hiking
You’ll want to ensure the whole family is taking frequent breaks and drinking regularly to avoid dehydration. See Everything You Need to Know About Water When Hiking for specific information.
If your child doesn’t like drinking water, consider adding some flavored electrolyte tablets, like these Kinderlyte ones. They’ll encourage your child to drink more water while replacing lost sodium at the same time.
You can also motivate them with a fun water bottle, like this cute one from Camelbak. It comes in a variety of designs that kids will love.
13) Let Your Child Bring a Friend on the Hike
Let’s face it, kids get bored easily and hiking is very repetitive so it shouldn’t be surprising if your child gets bored, especially as they get older and on longer hikes. If this is the case, consider letting them invite a friend.
Carefully choose a hike so that there’s a reward so that the friend will want to come, like a swimming hole or a lake at the end of the hike.
This is also a great option if you’re hiking with kids of different ages and your younger child requires more attention. By letting your older child bring a friend, they’ll be entertained and much more likely to enjoy the outing.
Related Reading: 20 Best Hikes in Europe
Hiking Gear for Your Family Hike
While I’ll cover this in more detail in a future post, but in the meantime, you can see our recommended hiking gear for day hikes for adults, then adapt it for kids. Or do my FREE How to Choose the Right Day Hiking Gear Online Course for a more comprehensive gear guide.
Here are a few items I want to highlight:
14) Bring a Whistle
A whistle is an important device you shouldn’t leave behind when hiking with kids. A whistle can come in handy in different instances. Parents or the kids can use the whistle to alert each if they become separate from each other, or if they’re in trouble.
Teaching your child how and under which circumstances to use the whistle can also be part of your game plan for building excitement about the hike. You’ll also want to stress the importance of not blowing it just for fun, as in the wild, it signals an emergency and that you need help. I love this whistle which also features a compass. That way you can teach your child how to use a compass increasing their wilderness skills, while offsetting boredom at the same time.
Related Reading: Best Hikes in Spain
15) Ensure Your Child Has Good Quality Hiking Shoes
Blisters are one of the most common culprits for wrecking a hike. Plus, they’ll turn your child off from hiking. Fortunately, they’re also largely preventable with these tips and a good pair of hiking shoes. I recommend these unisex ones from Merrell, a well-known trusted brand:
- Ensure the hiking shoes are big enough. You may want to consider 1/2 size larger than normal since feet swell after hiking.
- You’ll want your child to try on hiking shoes at the end of the day when their feet are already a bit swollen, as they would be when hiking
- Wear moisture-wicking socks. Cotton socks get wet when your child sweats and that causes blisters so buy moisture-wicking socks. You can see our guide here.
- Ensure that your child has worn the hiking shoes a few times around the house, or around town so that they’ve had time to break them in. You never want the first time your child is wearing their new hiking shoes to be on the trail. That’s a sure-fire way to get blisters.
- Carry Compeed in case blisters do develop. I’ve found it to be the best blister treatment out there and always have them in my hiking backpack.
Related Reading: 12 Best Hiking Socks
16) Bring Your First Aid Kid
Hiking with kids is an enjoyable way to spend time as a family, but you’ll also want to be prepared for any potential injuries, like if your child falls on a rock and needs a bandaid, or gets blisters.
Look for a lightweight first-aid kit that contains your basic items such as antiseptic towelettes, band-aids, first aid creams, and a tensor bandage. You should also bring painkillers, sunscreen, bug spray and wet wipes.
Related Reading: 9 Best Hiking/Walking Holidays in Italy
Conclusion on Hiking with Kids and Hiking as a Family
While a family hike does take more planning than if you were just hiking by yourself, the rewards of hiking with kids far surpass the effort – spending time together, introducing your kids to nature, and a fun physical activity that the whole family can do together to stay active and healthy.
And now you’re armed with the knowledge of how to make hiking with the family an amazing outdoor outing as you explore nature and beautiful parks!