My parents took me out on hikes from an early age and being outside in nature was an important part of my childhood. When I had a daughter, there was no question that I would do the same with her.
The first time I took my daughter on a five-day tour in Norway she was only 18 months old. Now, at the age of six, she treks Nepal with me. I know many families who don’t go out with their small ones because they’re scared their kids wouldn’t walk that far, or the trip would be more stressful than enjoyable.
During the last years my daughter and I have developed some methods that work perfectly for us and guarantee that every hike is an adventure and a fun day together. Hiking at a young age instills a love of nature in children and can be the basis for a lifelong connection, so there’s no real reason to wait until they are older. Even young children can walk quite some distances and enjoy hikes in nature if you follow these 10 tips.
1 | Choose the right length
Especially when you just start out hiking, it’s important not to choose long hikes that would be too much for your little ones. You want to create good memories and positive associations, so start with something simple and short, take many breaks, and give yourself the option of turning back if necessary. Once you feel comfortable with your own and your kids abilities, you can reach higher and climb that mountain you’ve had in the back of your head forever.
2 | Research the location and share stories along the way
Kids have almost unlimited energy, sometimes it’s just difficult to steer it in the right direction. They can play tag forever and run around chasing butterflies, but when it comes to walking they claim they are tired. The key is to find ways to keep them motivated.
One thing that works for my daughter is if I find any gripping stories connected to the hike. Research the destination and area beforehand and see if there is anything catchy. Are you walking to a castle? Read the stories about kings and queens that lived there before. Are you hiking along a river? Tell stories about the ships that travelled the river, carrying goods and people from one place to another. When there is an interesting story behind the hike, kids will love to explore it for themselves, even more so when they can directly relate.
3 | Take breaks according to their abilities
As adults we might have a set plan for the hike in our heads. Walk for some time, take a small break, keep walking until the final destination, and make the big picnic there. But kids are different.
When they’re hungry, they need to eat, when exhausted, they need a break. Listen to them and don’t force your tempo on them, even if that means the big picnic happens one mile before you reach the mountain top or the lake you are headed to.
If you make them do more than they can at once, they might not get back on track. Also, bring small snacks and plenty of water for the journey so they can stay energized along the way.
4 | Know your child
You know your child best and can distinguish if he or she is just whining or really needs a break. Listen to what your gut tells you. Sometimes it’s the right thing to push through, sometimes it would be the worst thing to do.
We have had the most beautiful experiences on days where the first 30 minutes of a hike were awful because my daughter just didn’t want to get started. But then, once she found something interesting along the way, she didn’t complain again and was sad when we reached the final destination. We also turned back once or twice when she wouldn’t stop complaining, and in the end it was the right decision because she got sick afterwards.
5 | Chose fun hikes with rewards at the end
Hikes are always much more fun when they have a great final destination – a mountain top with a great view, a lake to swim in, a waterfall to bathe under. Try to choose hikes with rewards at the end to keep up motivation.
Even small kids cherish experiences so much more when they actually had to earn them, so walking to a special destination will keep them motivated. My daughter and I had one of the most special experiences together when we hiked to a remote Buddhist monastery, and even at only five years old she took in the specialness of the moment for 30 minutes without any of us saying a word.
6 | Make it an adventure – camp out, climb rocks, go swimming
Instead of “just” hiking, try to make it an adventure. Camp out and sit around the fire at nighttime, include some rock-climbing or go swimming in spectacular gorges. The more adventurous your hike is, the more your kids will love it and will want to go back for more.
My daughter will forever remember the hike where we discovered a series of waterfalls along the way that were a bit hidden and climbed them only to find the most beautiful pool to hang out. She keeps wanting to go back, even though the hike was quite challenging in itself.
7 | Listen to your children and take their suggestions into account
The best way to motivate your kids to go hiking is if you take their suggestions into account and show them that their opinion counts in the planning. Do you have this one mountain peak that you can see from your house and that your kids are always talking about? Try to climb that one. Did your kids see something on TV that they loved? Try to include this in your next vacation plans.
They will feel valued and empowered if you take their opinion into consideration and will own the hike. Of course, that doesn’t mean that you have to climb Mount Everest because they talked about it in school.
8 | Know the flora and fauna along the way
This one is again about doing some research before you go. Know the flora and fauna along the way and teach your kids about nature this way. Make them look for deer or groundhogs along the way and they will not notice the distance they’re traveling.
Tell them about benefits of medicinal plants and they will be looking for them excitedly. Maybe there are some rare species in the area that you can look for – and your small ones will become wilderness rangers in no time. My daughter always refers to hikes we took in reference to the wildlife we saw there: “Mum, do you remember that hike where we saw the weasel? That one where we found all the different kinds of mosses? Do you remember the time when we saw all the beautiful flowers?”
9 | Don’t lie to your kids about a reward
As much as you want to motivate your kids, make sure that you keep it real. Nature is exciting enough the way it is, so you don’t have to make stuff up to get your kids going. I will never forget when I was young my mother took me on a hike in Switzerland. The mountain we were trekking was called “The Cross” and she told me there would be a spectacular cross on the top. It was a long and challenging walk, but I rallied only to find out that on the top, there was no cross at all. I still fault her for this 25 years later.
10 | Don’t listen to others – you and your kids know best what works for you
I can’t count how many times I’ve been labeled “irresponsible” for taking my daughter on challenging hikes in different countries. People always tend to judge parents for their decisions, and particularly in today’s world, letting children enjoy nature and being outside seems to be a thing some people don’t want to agree upon anymore.
Don’t listen to other people though. You know your children and yourself best and know what works for you. While of course you should never put your kids in danger, challenging them sometimes is not a bad thing. Only if they have to leave their comfort zone every now and then will they learn that they can do much more than they previously thought.