Kid-Friendly Hikes: 7 Tips for Planning
You’re three miles into a hike. The trail is muddier, steeper, and rockier than you anticipated. Your 4-foot tall hiking partner has taken to whimpering. This is not an all–out I will not move no matter what whimper, but enough of one to make it obvious that the child is not having a good time. You hear calls of, “how much longer?” and “I have to pee.” You thought it was a kid-friendly trail, but all you can say is, “I don’t know” and “pick a tree.”
Does this sound familiar? I’ve experienced it, and not just with little kids…pre-teens, teens, even adults have all been guilty. But there is one thing a hiker can do that turns any hike into a painless, kid-friendly hike:
One of the most useful skills I learned as an outdoors instructor was the simple, quiet, and often enjoyable process of planning. It can be easy, and I will show you how to do this from—more or less— start to finish. Today we’re looking at my 7 tips for planning kid-friendly hikes.
Just a heads-up: for a beginner, epic treks through unbounded wilderness are not kid-friendly. In contrast, smaller, local trails that are usually well-marked and well-maintained are kid-friendly.
Find a local group on a social network and put out a call for suggestions. Clearly state what you need and the area you want to hike- you will be rewarded. Most hikers are more than happy to point you in the right direction and offer up their favorite trails. Consider trails within a half-hour drive.
It’s a quick return. The longer you drive out, the longer it takes you to drive back. A kid’s feelings about the hike can change at a moment’s notice (especially those new to hiking). If an enjoyable jaunt turns into something that resembles a forced march, they think about that the whole way home. As they brood, they make it worse. You may never get them on the trail again.
HOT TIP: If you still find yourself in this situation, play it cool. You might be really, really irritated that your child refused to have fun, but don’t dwell on it. Focus on the good parts and be a living inspiration, even if the hike was truly horrific. If they see that you enjoyed the hike despite how terrible they saw it, they might give it another shot. Oh, and make sure you convey that you took joy in the hike and not in their misery (no schadenfreude here).
It’s a natural transition. While children can enjoy far-off locations, the natural tendency for child growth is a gradual exploration of the world around them. As they become more experienced adventurers, they’ll want to see what’s around the next bend. They’ll crave farther off places.
More familiar and less frightening. They see flora and fauna they may see all the time, but in a different setting, and often in a more wild state. This makes better connections in their brains. Remember, nature is something that you are a part of, not apart of.
Once you’ve settled on an area, it’s time to zero in on a kid-friendly path.
In the before time, in the long-long ago, hike planning was done with paper topographical maps. Don’t get me wrong—I love topo maps. If given the choice, I’d map every route with a topo because that’s what I learned. The reality, however, is that technology makes things a lot easier.
Don’t forgo physical maps, though. Where you’re going you may not have cell service, and maps don’t have bars showing 1%. Just keep your maps moisture-free in a plastic bag.
If you’re not 100% confident with hiking, skip the apps and focus on the trails in the parks and forest system. Call the local office to see if they have maps available. Many public parks also keep websites with maps. If possible, print your own maps. Many welcome centers and rest stops also feature racks full of maps, trail maps included.
While looking at your map, you’re bombarded by zig-zagging lines all over the place. While many of these lines can be hiked, stick to the jeep and hiking trails (for now). Hiking trails are usually the single dashed lines and should labeled as such, often in a different color (if your map has color, of course).
Length. You’ll have to use your own judgement on how skilled the walkers are at, well, walking (there is a bit more to it but that’s the gist of it). I’ve had a lot of success starting my 4-year old out on 2.5 mile hikes, but every kid is different, so start out short and easy. Gage it from there.
Terrain. A good kid-friendly hike doesn’t have to be flat, but don’t start with Kilimanjaro. Does the trail get too steep too fast? Where do you approach so that you’re spending more time climbing uphill rather than downhill? These things are important, for not only the sake of safety (blisters love downhill jaunts) but for your own sanity.
Loops. Want to feel like you’re on an epic journey? Reaching the destination, as well as reaching the trailhead again—all while providing different scenery on every step—breaks the monotony. Loops put kids in full-on discovery mode, like pint-sized Lewis and Clarks (just keep them on the trail).
In-and-back trails. Many of these trails exist with the sole purpose of going to somewhere cool, and the world on the way back will look familiar to the child, but at a different angle. Children will often point out things that they didn’t notice on the way in, and things they did notice become way-points. My 8-year old does this and can accurately estimate how long it will take to reach the trailhead.
The best kid-friendly trails I’ve found are a single trail from the trailhead connected to a loop. This style of trail provides the best of both worlds. There is something awesome about the look on a child’s face when, after such a long, arduous journey, that child suddenly see something familiar. You can sense the connections being made in their head and share in their accomplishment.
4. The Plan
Write it down. People are more likely to stick to a plan when it’s written down. Plans can even be a text message to a contact person with the details. Use the sign-in books, drop-boxes, or crossroad trail mailboxes at trailheads and park offices. These notifications keep wilderness first-responders safe and free from unnecessary searches in places you are not.
Safety. Even a digital copy of your plan can mean the difference between life and death. Not everything goes according to plan, and if you end up stranded, lost, or injured (even on a 1-mile hike) and have no cell service, your contact person can send for help when you don’t check in. A plan should note who’s going, where you’re going, when you’re going and about when you’ll get back. Note any distinguishing things brought along, like the color of outerwear or backpacks.
A Record. Collecting hike plans in one place can be handy. Though I don’t do this anymore (much of what I do is kept online), I used to keep the physical records so that, when the hike was complete, I could plan better the next time I did that trail.
Teaching Tool. Nothing says kid-friendly like getting your kids involved! Planning gives them a sense of ownership. When they’re a part of planning, it becomes a team effort, all while you teach them lessons like map-reading, pathfinding, and how to stay safe. If you want to know more, here is a post where I go more into detail on ownership and the power of choice.
If you make mistakes, don’t sweat it. Maybe you can’t find the trailhead or the hike takes waaaay longer (or shorter) than you anticipated. Maybe your boots got soaked fording a stream you didn’t realize was there or a storm rolled in mid-hike. Shit happens. Take the hit on the chin and work out the kinks with your crew for the next trip. Kids love figuring things out with an adult they admire, even if everyone is soggy with rain.
Oh, and speaking of weather…
The biggest wilderness anxiety is what Mother Nature can sling. She can be a harsh mistress, but even wind-wracked nights and long, 20-mile marches through downpours—with children—can be fun.
Weather to About to Happen. Forecasts change but they’re a good place to start. Knowing the weather will allow you to wear the right gear and make any last-minute alterations (marked in your plan). Weather has an impact on trails. Boggy, lowland areas are tougher in rain. Icy days make hills more challenging. Hikes with minimal cover can be rough on windy days. Compare the forecast to your map, reviews of the trail, and the gear at your disposal. As a beginner don’t be afraid to postpone.
Weather that Just Happened. Nowadays you can see what’s going on at the exact moment you’re planning your trip. This is huge. When you know that you’re hiking to a lake with an outlet stream crossing and the sky rained buckets the night before, your passage could be washed out. Maybe that wouldn’t bother you, but the four-year-old who gets anxious crossing a yard-long footbridge might not like the idea of wading through knee-deep water just to look at “a bunch of damn ducks” (his words…I raise classy children).
When it’s sunny, there are bound to be hordes of people taking selfies and looking cute in their slacks, tube tops, knickers, mu-mus and so forth. This social congregating happens in popular, scenic spots with things like overlooks and waterfalls. While this can be avoided by going to a trail during the work week (my most common tactic), this isn’t always an option.
Take it slow. You don’t have to take off work to hike during a mid-week rainstorm. Even if the weekend trail is a bit crowded, get a bunch of short, sunny (or clear) hikes under your belt, then do long, sunny hikes and short, rainy hikes. Build up your kids’ skills by adding miles and conditions. When you and your kin have enough experience, even “uphill both ways” bushwhacks through 6 feet of snow can be kid-friendly.
Start with trails that aren’t popular. These are the trails that don’t have a lot of social-media presence. I’m going to get hate mail over this, but who cares if your hike doesn’t have a waterfall or giant caves? You’re not hiking to show off, you’re in it to enjoy nature and show your kids cool shit. Places that aren’t overcrowded have a lot going for them nature-wise because they don’t have hairless apes terrorizing wildlife and trampling everything in sight.
Own it. If the place does have an attraction, don’t change plans when you see a parking lot that looks like a college tailgate party. When the “nature thing” is close to the parking lot, most folks go there, snap a few selfies, and then leave. Attractions that require a bit of a trek attract less people, and even those braver souls are usually spread out.
HOT TIP: National and State Parks with popular features such as lakes, playgrounds, and scenic overlooks may also have less-popular trails. Take advantage of that!
7. Basic Gear
It’s easy to just throw on some shoes and go, which is fine…if you’re going to look at a “nature thing” fifty feet down a paved trail. Your aspirations are a little higher. You want to complete what you’re setting out to do in a safe, comfortable, kid-friendly manner. I mean, we want kids to keep on hiking, not get burned out from the start. This stuff is the must-haves:
- Clothes. Clothes should provide good sun, brush, and briar coverage, wick away moisture, and dry easily. Dress in layers and for the season. Ideal clothes are synthetic materials in brighter, easy-to-spot colors. For warmth, consider Merino wool (like this Base Layer shirt by Smartwool) or fleece (like this Fleece Pullover by Patagonia). Never wear denim, and avoid cotton unless you’re hiking in dry, warm climates. From experience, wet cotton t-shirts dry out okay during Pennsylvanian summers. Cotton shorts…not so much (we all make blunders).
SAFETY TIP: Deck you and yours out in blaze orange during hunting seasons. For more on this topic, check out my article on Hiking During Hunting Season.
- Socks. Double-up to reduce blisters. Wear a thinner pair of socks against your feet and a thicker pair on top of that. Take extra pairs, sealed in a plastic bag, in case of soakers. Extra socks are critical for kids, and I suggest merino wool for all conditions. Keen makes some good ones, like the Longs Peak socks, as well as nearly anything from Smartwool.
REI has a great article on choosing socks for different conditions.
- Footwear. Invest in a good hiking shoe or cross-trainer for short hikes and a hiking boot for longer hikes. With two socks, your foot should feel snug in your footwear, but not constrained. You should be able to wiggle your toes. I’m a fan of the Keen Targhee III for day hikes. They’re ready to go right out of the box!
- Hat. Wear a hat keep the sun off of your face and, if necessary, off your ears and the back of your neck. Hats are very important for younger kids. I like Outdoor Research’s Seattle Sombrero– it covers, wicks, and is pretty hardy. For the cooler months (or even mornings), consider the Coal FTL Beanie.
- Water. For a day-hike, take at least 32oz for an adult and 16oz for each child in normal conditions. Sip, don’t chug…unless you want a stomach ache (kids may need reminded). Check for sources of clean water nearby. And, for the love of all that’s holy, don’t suck water right out of a stream. It may look clean, but you don’t know how many dead moose are upstream. I always carry at least two 32oz. Nalgene widemouth bottles with me.
- First Aid. This should be a small kit that allows you to do basic stuff like treat a blister, cover a skinned knee, and take an aspirin to treat the second-hand effects of squabbles. Your kit doesn’t have to treat everything, especially if you’re not going very far, but it should be able to handle a rough day in the park.
- Flashlight. If you’re hopelessly lost and someone is expecting to see you back at a certain time, stay put. Flashlights allow rescuers to see where you are. Otherwise, if you know where you are, you can navigate out (slowly and carefully). A sturdy headlamp, like the Black Diamond Icon will keep your hands free.
- Whistle. Another safety item used so rescuers can hear where you are. Whistles are also useful for scaring off predators (or just ornery wildlife). Please do not march through the forest tooting for the sake of making noise.
- Snacks. This item ups the kid-friendly factor, often becoming the driving force from one point to the next. The time-honored GORP (good old raisins and peanuts) trail mix, snack crackers, and jerky are all good options. With imagination (and a little web-searching), hiking snacks can be custom-tailored to individual diets.
- Backpack. A daypack should reduce stress, not induce it. I prefer packs with adjustable hip belts and sternum straps so all the weight isn’t on my shoulders. Comfort is important because you’ll most likely carrying your kids’ stuff, too. Pack capacity is measured in liters- I use the Osprey Stratos 24, a 24L pack that can hold a hydration reservoir. It has more than enough room for my gear, as well as my youngest son’s gear.
Here is a great article from REI breaking down daypack sizes and uses.
So there they are—7 tips for planning a kid-friendly hike. Going into the wilds with young ones in tow can be challenging—maybe even terrifying—if you’ve never done it. A little planning, a little forethought, and close attention to the little things will make that trek smoother.
Even after all that, you’ll still hear some whimpering. Whimpering, too, will fade with the miles. With a well-planned, kid-friendly hike even tired hikers will keep coming back for more.
The next post is all about the Essential Extras that I consider when going on hikes. Many of the items are kid-friendly and useful- but not always necessary. After that there will also be a list of Hiking’s Dirty Dozen that’s mostly for fun, but rooted in actual things I’ve seen on the trail.
Get out there, test it out, and let me know in the comments how it went!