Hiking with children is an enriching experience. It can teach them an appreciation for our beautiful world, it can help them overcome challenges and feel an immense satisfaction at completing something out of their comfort zone. Many parents shy away from taking their children hiking, putting it in the 'too hard' basket. It can be a challenge at times. Especially when trying to get them to climb yet another hill. But the rewards far outweigh the downs.
My children have come hiking with me since they were small tots. Amelia, my now nearly 10-year-old used to done her princess dress and trainers and skip through the bush at age 3. I never stressed about what she was wearing, the main thing was that she was doing it with us. That was what counted. Sometimes you just have to pick your battles, and that one wasn't worth fighting. Have you ever tried taking a princess dress away from a 3-year-old? Now it is more of a battle to get her out. She is much more into creating and arts but she still comes out with us every school holidays for a hike and by the end, she is full of smiles. In contrast, the hiking gene is strong in my 12-year-old, Joe. He recently completed the Tongariro Alpine Crossing with me and a group of friends. I didn't hear him complain once. In fact, he only expressed awe and enthusiasm.
If you have ever thought about hiking with children and wondered if it would be too hard, my advice would be to just do it. I have some tips that will help you make the most of your hike.
Top Tips + Tricks for Hiking with Children
Choose your hiking trails carefully and set realistic expectations
Especially if you have never hiked with your children before. Don't overestimate their abilities. Even though children are energetic wee beings (haven't you always wondered how they seem to have so much energy?), hiking is a different kind of endurance and fitness. Start small and easy and build your way up as your children gain confidence and experience.
Allow your children to challenge themselves
Once you have been for a few shorter/easier hikes, challenge them a little. Try not to stress if they don't make it. The most important thing is that they tried. You will be surprised at how quickly children build up their confidence and strength for longer and more difficult hikes. They are also resilient little buggers too. Don't be afraid to challenge them.
Pack plenty of food and water
This is also handy for bribes if you have sweets in your bag. 'Just 15 more minutes and we can stop for a treat' works like a.. well.. treat. Hiking burns lots of energy so it is important to replenish it regularly. Take lots of water breaks so they aren't getting dehydrated.
Get an early start
Getting an early start when they are at their most hyper not only gives you a breather from all that energy, they are channelling it productively. Plus your hike may take longer than you thought with little legs. You won't be rushing to get back before dark if you start early.
Have your camera ready
There are multiple opportunities to take beautiful, natural photos with children in nature. Capture their achievements if they make it to a lookout or a waterfall.
Pay attention to the weather and pack plenty of clothes
If there is mud or water, chances are your child will get muddy and/or wet (am I right?). Chuck some dry clothes in your car ready to get changed into when you get back. It'll make the trip home much more enjoyable. Always check the weather before you go but keep in mind that it can change quickly without warning.
Pack a first aid kit
This should be an essential in your hiking bag anyway. Injuries are common. Plus, plasters have magical healing properties in children's eyes.
Allow for lots of rest stops
Hiking with children is a little bit different than hiking with adults. Children need lots of rest stops and can walk slower than experienced hikers. Keep this in mind and be patient. The end goal when hiking with children is not getting to your end destination, it's the journey.
Watch your child's signs
You know your child better than anyone. You know when they are getting too tired and you know when it is time to head back. Avoid a meltdown and watch the cues. Again, there are some battles worth fighting and you want to make hiking an enjoyable experience for everyone. You may need to build up some more experience before trying longer hikes.
Give your children various roles on the hike. It will make them feel important and give them a bit of motivation. Roles such as leader, map reader (a valuable teaching opportunity), the troll under the bridge finder (my children still like playing this role and take great delight at stamping over the bridges to see if he will appear), rest stop decider and more can be made up and given out.
Walk to the reward
If you know the track yourself, you may know about that surprise waterfall or lookout. Use those markers as rewards for your child.
Take a friend
Life is always better with friends. Allow your child to bring a friend along. You won't hear as many, 'are we there yet' cries as they will be too busy running ahead or chatting with their friend.
Enjoy the conversations
Hikes are a great opportunity to switch off from life and be present in the moment. Have conversations with your child. They could be conversations about the trees they see, the birds they hear or they could be conversations about school and friends. Take the opportunity to connect with your child.
Make it into a scavenger hunt
For smaller children, you could find something that a particular colour, for older children you could use it as a teaching opportunity to identify types of trees and leaves.
Pack knowing that at some point, you will be carrying most if not all of the load
True story. Little shoulders can only carry so much. Give them a pack so they feel important but just pop in the lighter things such as a few spare clothes (keep the sweets in your pack, I put my sweets in Joe's pack on the Tongariro Crossing. Let's just say, I learned my lesson that day).
Teach your little ones what to avoid
Teach them what plants to avoid that are common in your area. Mother Nature produced some stingy, itchy, scratchy plants. Show your children as you go along what plants not to touch.
Keep it easy and feature-friendly
For your first hike, I would suggest keeping it easy and feature friendly. Pick a hike with lots of interest points such as a shallow creek to cross or a waterfall to discover. This maintains enthusiasm and there won't be so many complaints.
Wear appropriate shoes
Shoes are the most important thing to get right when hiking with children. Blisters are never fun and will discourage children from wanting to hike again. I personally never used to worry about whatever else they were wearing, as long as they were comfortable, warm enough and could walk without anything hindering them. The main thing was that they wore comfy shoes, they were free to wear what they wanted. Such as princess dresses.
Prepare for anything
Take a dash of Boy Scout Inspiration here. Always be prepared for anything. This could mean insect bites, getting a little lost or the weather changing suddenly. Pack your first aid kit, spare clothes, PLB, cell phone and map.
Leave no trace
Teach children to leave no trace. Always take nothing but photos and leave nothing but footprints. Take your rubbish home with you and teach children to put their rubbish in their bags. No one likes a litterbug.
Our school holiday tradition is to go for at least one hike each school holidays. It is a great way to see more of our beautiful country and to spend quality time together. We try and do a different hike each holidays. Hiking with children often will build up their experience, endurance and confidence. They will soon be able to challenge themselves more and push themselves.
It’s OK to get dirty
Amelia used to hate getting dirty. If she found a speck of dirt on her hands she would have to go and wash them. Teaching them young that it's ok to get dirty will build resilience and make your life easier while hiking (trust me on this one!). Life is too short to worry about dirty hands. Life is also more fun while getting dirty.
Look for wildlife
Listen for the birds, go on a bug hunt and track animal prints. It may seemingly be devoid of wildlife, but I bet you could find traces if you looked hard enough.
Hike in or near water
Children love water. Amelia's favourite part of any hike is crossing the creek if we get to. Next holidays we are tackling Beehive Creek, a track that is almost purely in the water. It'll be right up her ally. If you pack plenty of spare clothes you won't need to worry about them getting soaked. If there is water nearby, chances are they will. And that's ok. It's all part of the fun.
Don't sweat the small stuff
Children can have meltdowns whether they are tired, they fell over or they are bored. Address the situation and move on quickly. Children can feel your mood. Some battles are best left to lie. Try not to dwell and if you have had to turn around, just try again another day. Teach them to bounce back quickly by example.
Final Thoughts on Hiking with Children
I love taking my kids' hiking, they have grown up around hiking and getting outdoors which has given them an appreciation for our beautiful country.
There are so many benefits of hiking with children including:
- They develop resilience
- Hiking gives children confidence
- They develop an appreciation for nature
- It gets them outside and away from the screen
- Hiking provides opportunities to explore your area
- It enables children to push themselves out of their comfort zone
- Nature provides many natural teaching opportunities
- Hiking provides a distraction-free environment for quality time with your children
- And so many more!
So, what are you still doing reading? Get outside
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