Hiking with kids is easy, it’s hiking with parent’s that’s hard. I’m here to tell you the secret to hiking with kids and enjoying it.
Vision: Happy, smiling kids playing in Nature, totally engaged and full of life.
Reality: Whining, complaining kids you drag through the woods to the stunning view ahead. When you finally arrive, they are sullen and unimpressed.
What’s going on here? Isn’t being outside in nature supposed to be fun? Why isn’t my kid enjoying this? Why am I not enjoying this?
The Kid’s Perspective
Let’s flip this around from the struggling parent’s perspective and look at it from the kid’s perspective.
They’re telling me to get in the car, that we’re going for a hike. It’ll be fun, they said. I don’t have a choice, so I get in the car. We get to the trail. It’s hot outside, Dad speeds off and wants me to keep up. I’m getting tired, but Mom & Dad both tell me it will all be worth it — there’s a great view up ahead. I’m not so sure. This is hard. I’m hungry. I’m thirsty.
Oh wait — there are a bunch of big rocks over there I can climb. Cool!
Not so fast. My parents want me to keep up with them. They’re telling me we’re almost there. Almost at “the view.”
This is boring. I feel like I’m going to die.
… And there’s the view. That’s it?!
I’m done. Let’s go back to the car.
Not so fast. Mom/Dad want me to sit here and “enjoy the view.”
The Problem: Goals & Expectations
It sure is hard hiking with parents. The truth is that kids don’t have the same romanticized vision of Nature in their heads as adults do. For them, the stunning view is nothing compared to some rocks they can climb and jump on twenty feet away.
But it runs deeper than that. Parents often have well-developed, unspoken goals behind their hikes:
- Covering a certain distance in a certain amount of time
- Miles per hour
- A payoff like a view or waterfall
- Exercise as “work out”
- Making the hike an “educational experience”
Now compare that to what kids enjoy:
- Running, climbing, jumping
- Exercise as play
- Learning as exploration
The whole venture is set up for failure with these competing needs. Even with all those well-meaning knowledge bombs you dropped on your kids, you didn’t meet them halfway. It wasn’t fun. It demanded that they stand still and be quiet when they wanted to explore over there.
The Solution: Hike Like a Kid
I’m here to tell you that if you hike like a kid, you’ll be much happier. It’s just that simple. Get rid of the arbitrary goals of distance and payoffs like views. Follow the kids’ interests, take care of their basic needs, and you’re more than halfway there.
Here are the secrets to enjoyable, memorable hikes with kids:
- Choose a location with built-in fun: Rocks to climb on, streams to play in, ponds for skipping stones, places with birds of wildlife. << INSERT LINK TO POST HERE >>
- Focus on the journey, not the destination: Yes, Grasshopper, Kung Fu movies do teach profound wisdom. It’s okay to have a destination, but it’s not the most critical part. If you take side trips along the way, explore what’s around you with curiosity, you’ll find adventure, which is much more satisfying than the view. If you stop and play on some rocks for a half-hour instead, that’s a success. If the kids played in a stream for a couple hours, that’s a success. If you got into the stream with them, they’ll remember that forever. So if you trade in the view for all that fun, sounds like a bargain. The same goes for achieving a distance goal.
- Be ready playful: There are a million ways to engage kids. Often, you won’t need to entertain them. They’ll run off and play. If you only have one kid with you, you’ll be their playmate. Other times, you’ll need to pull a few cards out of your sleeve and actively help them through a rough patch of boredom or discomfort. << INSERT LINKS TO TALKING TO KIDS, ENTERTAINING >>
The Solution: Hike Like a Parent
Hiking like a kid is great. It’s fun, it’s engaging, it’s limitless. As fun as it is to be in the moment, you need a little foresight and planning. You still need to be a parent. Here are the essential places for you to remember you’re the adult and take care of business.
- Carry plenty of snacks and water: Remember hunger + angry = HANGRY. It’s a huge threat to everyone’s sanity. << INSERT LINK TO POST ABOUT SNACKS >>
- Know your Plan B: Let’s say your kids are getting tired, or you’re time is running out, and you decide it’s time to return to the car. It helps to know the trail map just a little ahead of time in case you need to find a shorter way back to the car. But that, honestly, doesn’t always happen or the trail maps for a given park are crappy. My trick is to start a stopwatch when we start hiking so I have a rough idea of how long it will take us to get back to the car. I stop the watch if we stop to play for a while, but I don’t stop it for water or snack breaks. If the kids start whining, you’ll have to dig deeper as a parent and try some blend of goofiness, distraction, or maybe a small dose of firmness to help them break through. << INSERT LINK TO POST ABOUT WHINING >>
- Every hike builds a stronger foundation: The more successful hikes you have with your kids, the strong their interest gets. Suddenly, you’ll have kids that enjoy the hiking and want to go see that view. It just might not be this hike, right now.
The Rest of It
While I believe that enjoying a hike is 90% about setting the right expectations and being ready to play, there are still some details you’re probably wondering about. So when you tend to these details, remember that they’re helpful, but not critical to enjoying yourself. If you forget something, you’ll be just fine.
- What do I need to pack? For most hikes in local parks, all you really need are snacks and water. With kids, a little more foresight can stack the deck in your favor. << INSERT LINK TO POST ABOUT DAY PACK HERE >>
- How do I find a good hiking location? My opinion is you can really go just about anywhere with any kid. If you adapt your expectations to your kid’s level of interest and capabilities, everything will be just fine. If, for some reason, the hiking location stinks, try changing your perspective — be creative in creating your own fun. If it still stinks, admit it and laugh the whole thing off with your kid. You were both in this misadventure together. And the bloopers are often more memorable than the perfectly planned, flawlessly executed outings.
- How far can my kid hike? This ultimately depends on the kid. If you don’t have a must-see destination, you’ll have all the flexibility you need to turn around and return to the car. But I can tell you want an answer, not a redirection, so below a reasonable idea of what’s possible. That said, one time my 9-year-old daughter wasn’t interested in doing more than 3 miles on a backpacking trip, but she put in another 5 miles showing people the way to a stream where they could collect water (3 miles of work, 5 miles of play). Mileage may vary.
0 – 2 years old: They’ll walk as much as they can or want, but plan on carrying them.
2 – 4 years old: 1-2 miles
4 – 6 years old: 2-4 miles
6 – 9 years old: 5-6 miles
9 – 12 years old: 7-10 miles
- What about the bathroom? I’m running out of gas in this post, so head on over to my classic literary achievement: << ENTER THE BASICS + INSERT POST LINK + Remind them to just not be a weirdo about the whole thing — be confident that it’s okay>>
It’s not how much ground you cover, it’s how well you cover the ground.
Free Cheat Sheet
10 Strategies to Happy Hiking with Kids