As your children get older, your trail strategies have to change. Here’s some advice from parents who have been there.

It happens to all of us eventually. We head out for a hike, and as we negotiate with our child to keep moving, we realize that this isn’t like the old days when we just gathered them, kicking and screaming, onto our backs and marched on.

That was me recently, as I pleaded with Mason to go on a hike I really wanted to do. We sat in the parking lot, him in his car seat, arms crossed, saying one word over and over: movie. I tried the old “No movie unless you go for a hike.” No dice. After a long and arduous process, I cajoled him out of the car. By the time we hit the trail, I barely felt up for the hike myself.

What’s the secret to keeping a kid excited about the outdoors all the time and not just occasionally? I turned to my friends in the Hike It Baby community with kids over age four. Here’s their advice.

Let Them Be the Leaders

Get maps and compasses, then ask your child to help decide what trail you’re hiking. Let them hold the map and lead the way on the trail. For fun, act lost and ask him or her to figure out the way back out.

Bring a Friend

This may be tricky with the crazy schedules we all have, but having a friend along will help the miles click by quickly. Grab a friend’s child who you know has spent time on trail and is comfortable hiking and give your friend the afternoon off. Pick a trail that the kids can really explore together so it’s a big adventure.

Log It

Get a special trail journal and start tracking all the hikes you do. Maybe find a park or trail system where you can mark off how many times you have hiked a certain trail in a month or over a year. There are challenges, like 52 Hikes Challenge, that anyone can join, so you can go online and join with your kiddo and let them pick the weekly hike to add to their challenge so they have a goal. You can promise something fun after 52 hikes, such as a new pair of hiking shoes or a new backpack.

Pay Attention to Gear

Keep an eye on your kids’ feet. Make sure their footwear doesn’t pinch or have a slippery bottom. If their feet hurt, even if they don’t realize that’s what’s bothering them, they may not want to hike due to the discomfort.

Find Magical Trail Friends

Search for Bigfoot, fairies, and gnomes. Dinosaur tracks can also be a good one if you’re in the Southwest. Find out what the local lore is in your area and add that storytelling to your hike.

Figure Out Your End Goal 

Most kids have less fun walking aimlessly. There has to be a reward along the way or at the end, like a waterfall, playground, or vista. If your hike involves some distance, make sure there are a few payoffs along the way, like a cave before you get to the waterfall.

Remember that Age Matters

It can be tricky to find hikes where all the ages sync up, especially for people with multiple kids. If you find you’re doing a lot of baby/toddler hikes and have an older kid, make sure you also get out on a hike with big kids. It can be boring for an eight-year-old to always be with toddlers. If you’re looking to meet up with people through Hike It Baby and have an older kid, just remember that it’s traditionally geared for kids under five, so be clear in your description and do a shout-out for older kids on the Facebook group.

Take Advantage of Natural Play Structures

If you know a trail that has a lot of wildlife spotting, like birds, deer, black bears, beavers, or whatever is native to your area, consider heading out there. If a trail has a lot of fallen logs or trees to climb, that’s another bonus. This may not be the best hike for a toddler, so consider making it a “big kid” hike day and find those challenges that they’ll appreciate.

Make an Exception for Technology on the Trail

While we try to encourage less technology on the trail, tracking your hike or putting a tracker on your older kid’s wrist can be another fun way to keep them engaged. Show them an app like Strava where they can have an account (with your permission and information, of course), and then they can see their mileage and watch the fun. Relive is an app that links to Strava, Garmin, and a number of other apps, and it shows you the actual mountains and the ups and downs of your hike in 3-D.

Hangry Kids Don’t Hike

Make sure your kiddo has been well fed before you hike. If you know you’re picking them up from school and heading for a hike, make sure they’re well fed before you hit the trail. Load up with snacks they really like, so it won’t be a challenge getting them to eat before you head out.

Perform on Trail

Do a hike with access to an outdoor amphitheater or stage like area, and have your child plan a performance for the group to watch midway. If your little one always soaks up the spotlight, they’ll love the open-air venue.

Come Prepared with Games

Bring a board game, card game, or other travel game and plan to play on a picnic table somewhere. That way, even if the hike doesn’t happen, you can still talk your child into spending some time outside.

So don’t beat yourself up about it

The June when Mason was three, we went hiking in Oregon’s Columbia River Gorge. At one point, Mason stopped in a bright yellow wildflower field, and I photographed him rolling around on the side of the trail. Then I made the mistake of posting that picture on my personal Instagram account.

I immediately found myself at the center of a social media storm. People argued whether or not it was OK that I had clearly let Mason wander off-trail and into the flowers, against Leave No Trace ethics, and then had the nerve to post about it. I understand that this maybe wasn’t good modeling on my part as the founder of Hike It Baby, especially since the field is a highly trafficked area and we have a lot of followers who could have been inspired to do the same. But it also got me thinking. When getting outside with kids, it’s hard to rigorously stick to Leave No Trace all the time. How bad should we feel about that?

Kids in early development are very tactile. Everything goes into the mouth or gets torn up by pudgy baby fingers, and they find nothing more thrilling than squashing, mashing, and breaking up nature, then taking the mess home in their pockets.

I get why we want to teach our children to be highly sensitive to our impact on Mother Earth, but I also see the argument for experiential learning in nature. At what age should you start teaching environmental impact? And what does that look like to a baby or toddler? I know we all have varying opinions on this, so all I can do is share my own and offer Hike It Baby’s community guidelines to help you figure out the right path.

Know the Landscape Before You Go

Understand the outdoor space you’re venturing into. If it’s an incredibly fragile environment where it’s hard to see the barriers, such as an open desert that might have a lot of crypto biotic soil you don’t want to impact, that’s a hard concept for your little one to understand. In the case of the desert, you could make a game of it: say that the sides of the trail are hot lava and you have to stay on the trail so you don’t touch it.

Pack It In, Pack It Out

When I talk about “pack it in, pack it out” for parents, I ask people to consider taking your diapers and trash home versus leaving it in the park dumpsters. An estimated 3.5 million tons of diapers go into the landfill each year. While you aren’t improving the statistic by taking your diaper home, consider that park services are already heavily understaffed and overburdened, especially with the increase of people using parks. It’s great to see that so many people with young children are getting out there on trail, but a hike with a handful of families all dumping diapers can really fill a trash can quickly in a morning.

Respect Wildlife

Animal encounters are a natural fascination for kids. Help your children understand how to keep a safe distance from wildlife. Quick movements and loud noises are stressful to animals as well, so encourage a whisper policy when an animal is present. Model it by dropping your voice as soon as a you come upon a deer or a group of birds. The one rule to take extremely seriously is to never feed animals, no matter how tempting or seemingly tame the animal is.

Leave What You Find

This can be difficult for kids. When your kid discovers a cool rock or finds the perfect hiking stick, it can be really hard for them to leave it behind. With toddlers, a first step can be to limit trail treasures to one item, and talk to them about the cumulative negative impact of picking flowers and leaves. For older kids, you can give your child a camera to take photos of the treasures they find, or have them carry a nature journal to record their discoveries. Print those up at home and help them make a nature diary.

Picture-Perfect Moments

While it’s so tempting to get that perfect shot in a field of wildflowers, we now try to remember that little kids look adorable no matter what. Placing them in that wildflower field trains them from a young age that it’s OK to stomp on wildlife. That said, on a number of trails I hike, there are trees that kids like to climb. I have seen a substantial impact on these trees after years of kids climbing, and there’s no going back and fixing those naturally occurring spots. Recognize where those highly impacted places are and encourage stopping there versus a more pristine area, especially when hiking with groups.

Geocaching and Painted Rocks

Geocaching and painted rocks are hot topics in the Leave No Trace world. While they are so cool for little kids to find, they also alter the landscape. If you’re a fan of them, consider placing your own on the trail for the hours you’re hiking, then looping back around to pick them up before you leave the area. We recently found our first geocache, and while it was cool to find this treasure chest with things that were 15 years old, I was also disappointed that someone put a marijuana pipe in there for my five-year-old to find. He had no clue what it was, but it was a reminder that it’s worth thinking twice about what you’re leaving behind for others to find.

Treat Nature as Your Friend

Encourage kids to be respectful, courteous, and polite when playing outdoors. Turn nature into a living being. Tell them to view nature as their friend, and help their friend stay healthy by picking up trash and treading lightly. Talk with them about human actions that disrespect nature, like graffiti, and why we like to keep nature untouched and pristine.


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