Really, you ask yourself, is hiking with kids even possible to be fun? You picture your child whining and complaining for miles, or having to drag/carry 40 pounds of deadweight kid all the way back to the car, and realize that you would rather see every sight from your car for the next 10 years or even go without coffee for two weeks rather than attempt a hike with children.
It doesn't have to be this way. You can tackle real trails and even some distances with your family - you just have to know how to go about it. Hiking together can be the highlight of your next family vacation.
Do I have any credentials for writing a post like this? Yes. I recently completed a 12.5 mile day hike up a mountain in bear country with my 9-year-old, and it was a joy. She never complained and was tougher than I was. My 4-year-old hikes 3 miles with ease and 4-5 miles with encouragement and games, most recently finishing 4.5 miles in the rain. This is not because I carry her. I confess I am weak and lazy, so my children have been hoofing it on their own since they could walk. You, too, can train your children to do this.
First, the basics: Put your children in proper shoes. I hate passing children in flip-flops on trails. Make sure they are dressed right for the weather and have sunscreen and mosquito spray as needed. Pack snacks and water, and don't plan a hike during naptime.
Next, the distractions: Talk about everything you see as you trudge along. Is a bird making a funny noise? Are there deer tracks in the mud? Is the sun reflecting off the lake in a beautiful way?
Add in theoretical distractions when these run out: Does your child think there will be a bear over the next hill? How many streams will cross the path in the next mile? What would we do if a chipmunk followed us back to the tent? Discussions like these can take you a quarter-mile without even realizing it.
Pass out some snacks. Trail mix or granola bars lend a quick burst of energy. Sucking on fruit snacks makes them last longer. My children take forever to eat an apple that has not been cut up for them, and are so distracted by it that they forget they are still hiking.
Take turns being the leader. A new family member setting the pace and breaking the trail adds variety, and children usually get an extra burst of energy when it is their turn.
When your child begins to flag, break out one or more of these strategies:
- Fly like an airplane as you walk. Seriously. Toddlers love it. So do any hikers you pass going the other way.
- Play hide-and-go-seek (on safe trails only). If you can see ahead of you on the path, allow your child to run ahead of you and hide. Of course, it doesn't matter if your child simply sits on the side and covers her eyes. The fun of the game is you walking along behind, wondering where your child could have gone and hoping aloud that they are up ahead somewhere.
- Compete with each other. On the way back, send the slowest hiker ahead with an adult while the others keep exploring the destination. Set incremental goals to reach before the others catch up: Can we make it to the big rock? The berry bushes? The waterfall? My youngest and I recently beat the others 1.5 miles back to the car using this strategy, and we had fun the whole way.
- Try a story hike. Walk in a single file line. Whoever is in front must begin telling a story. After a sentence or two, they fade to the end of the line, and the new leader must continue the story. When this gets boring, stop taking turns. Let whoever wants race to the front to be the next storyteller.
- Sing songs. "The Ants Go Marching One by One" takes forever and sets a nice pace. (Singing is also helpful when you need to make constant noise to scare away wild animals.)
- Pretend you are someone else. My family and I recently pretended we were Legolas and the dwarves chasing down orcs in the Lord of the Rings. It might have been nerdy, but it entertained us for a mile and a half. If your child is into superheroes, this should be easy for you.
- Play tag. Walk in pairs. The leading pair gets to decide when to run ahead and hide on the side of the trail. When the next pair walks by, they get to yell, "Tag! You're It!" After playing this for half a mile or so, we started playing Silly Tag and adding in animal sounds, songs, etc. Switch partners and keep playing. This game got old for the adults, but the kids lasted over two miles in the rain!