Hiking with Kids

a beautiful young woman hikes with her two children, the third, an infant, strapped to her back

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After drinking beers around a fire and trying to convince my lady to go topless all the day long, my favorite daily pastime is hiking.

Interestingly enough, before I had children, I didn’t do much hiking at all. Well, I lived in Pittsburgh without a car, so every day’s walk was a hike in that hilly city, but the “let’s get out in the woods and achieve some elevation” type of hiking wasn’t on my agenda.

Since I’ve had my first, of three, sons though, I’ve done quite a bit. I’ve climbed from desert to snow in Saguaro National Park, hit the bottom and back up again with my oldest son in Grand Canyon, and logged dozens and dozens of miles with my two year old in the Smokies. Everywhere we go, trails provided, we wear off a little more boot sole.

But hiking with kids can be a wretched fit throwing nightmare as easily as it can be a peaceful walk up a mountain. I’ve learned a few tricks along the way, and duly present them to you here, in the written format.

About Me and Mine

I won’t bore you with the intimate details of my family life. You can read about that on our blog or come meet me in person over a few good beers warmed by a campfire. But a bit of due diligence is required to set the tone.

I have three children, as of today they are 11, 2 and 10 months. I have taken all of them on hikes, some more rigorous than others depending on the child and his age at the time. I have had bad experiences, breakdowns, dirty diapers miles into the forest…but more typically, I’ve had immensely grand experiences that I hope to continue as a family tradition. Whether you dig pushing up steep climbs to big overlook payoffs or just rolling strolls that are fun for the whole family to stop and smell the local roses, I’m here to provide a little hope to those new (and used!) parents who might feel like childbirth is the end of mountaineering.

When Kids are Ready For What

Over some estimated 300 hikes and six years, I’ve discovered there are limitations to what can be done with whom, and at what age. Results may vary depending on how angelic / demonic your own young ones are, but these general guidelines should be a good starting point.

I’d first like to emphasize one massively important point: if you’re taking your kids, especially the younger variety, hiking, it’s important to remember that the experience should be one you can both enjoy. Forcing your child to walk your relatively Olympic pace is just going to get them all tired and cranky. On the other hand, giving them the chance to explore, to walk on fallen trees and hop through puddles, will help instill in them a love for the sport that will last well into their teens and beyond, when they’re ready to not only keep the pace behind you, but begin surpassing your abilities as they become prime young men and women and your beer gut thickens to differentiate itself from your thinning gray hairs. Take it easy! Let everyone have fun.

How to Hike with Kids, by Age

When our second son was born, a decade after the first, we turned to the Internet for all types of answers. When can they drink water? Are diapers killing the planet? Is my child going to eat me at night? The important stuff. The World Wide Web informed us that newborns, ie under the age of six months, should never be taken on a hike. We followed that advice, to our chagrin, with him. By the time number three came around, he was toted around on his mama’s back up mountains and in broad sunlight by his second or third month. You live and you learn, and while nearly all new moms are prone to overprotect their young ones, any seasoned mother of multiple offspring will tell you they’re just about unbreakable.

The Lady and I hiking with our 2 year old in Badlands National Park
Hiking Badlands National Park in South Dakota

The Young Guys, Under Two Years Old

That said, there is still reality. Kids under two years old typically can’t walk well enough to do much other than fall down. Trails are typically rocky, often have cliffs staunchly foreboding to anyone with neither the wherewithal to realize the penalties of falling over them or the sure-footedness to prevent such a disaster.

So until they’re about two years old, getting yourself a solid baby carrier is your best bet. You know the kind, you wear it like a backpack and the kid can be tossed in front to hang at your chest, or the back to follow directly behind you at all times. In our experience, they typically fall asleep in there as long as you keep moving. Something about the rhythmic movement of slightly being jostled up and down is akin to being rocked in a basinet. This is the age where you’ll still be able to trudge onward at top speed, all the while supporting an extra 20 pounds or so to help build up that endurance. You’ll need it come their second birthday!

a baby rides in a carrier on his mama's back while she hikes
Under 2? Throw 'em on your back!

Terrible Twos on the Trail

Just as you transition from defining your baby’s age in months to years (ie, 23 months leads to two years), so will their desires on the trail change. No longer satisfied (and getting friggin’ heavy!) being carried around, they’ll want to use their little feet to explore the world on their own. This means a transition from running full speed up rocky trails to an even fuller speed downhill, with plenty of “I’m tired and a little bit cranky” and “ooh look, a stick, let’s poke it in my eye when I fall down!” moments.

a goddamn adorable child picks up rocks on the a trail while hiking
Give the little ones time to explore.

Learn to love them. If you give your kid the freedom to fall down (without falling over a cliff, of course), they’ll learn all the more quickly. Yes, you’ll get sad when they’ve got a giant strawberry on their head from forgetting to have remembered to learn how to use their hands to break their fall for the ninth time, but by two and a half, they’ll be champions. Our 2.5-er can now climb a few hundred feet with little trouble, walk an easy mile before getting worn out, and navigate tricky root / stone combinations with ease.

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Having a strong set of shoulders is a must here. If you plan to hike more than a mile–and really is it even a “hike” if you haven’t?– then at some point they’ll either get tired or you’ll be coming back down a steep trail and not want them giving in to their desires to run so fast that they get far enough ahead of you to become bear bait. Learn to throw them up top, and more importantly, to pace yourself so you can talk to them and answer the onslaught of “I wonder why that tree fell down?” and “I wonder why that tree was old?” and “I wonder why I wonder why?” type questions.

a child sits on his father's shoulders
Tired toddlers can easily be thrown on your shoulders.

Adolescents, the Harbinger of Your Midlife Crisis

Once the little bundles of goo shed their diapers and hit six or seven, you’ll begin to notice that they’re achieving something monumental. The perfect combination of developing young muscles, exploratory curiosity, and endless energy will quickly show you just how hard a trail can be if you need to keep up with someone who’s slowly becoming your superior. Hiking down the 10 miles and 2500 foot elevation change of Grand Canyon’s Bright Angel Trail, my at-the-time seven year old could have easily beaten me by a couple of hours had I not forced him to pace his steps and wait up for the old man.

On the way back up, he could have easily done so as well for the first couple of miles. But the same abundance kids find in energy and will power, they lack in endurance and focus. It took a good deal of patience giving him ample breaks to sip on water and chew on jerky and granola. When you’re hiking a trail that challenges your own abilities, you just want to go at your own pace. Many a friendship has been ruined by two guys in the woods with different capabilities for moving quickly along the way.

three guys, a 7 year old, 15 year old and 33 year old, look over the grand canyon
Preparing to hike in and out of Grand Canyon National Park with a 7 and 15 year old.

Stop when they need to, and encourage them to think about what’s happening. Tell them about how they’ll become not only tough hikers, but masters of their own body if they do these types of activities. Talk about superheroes, talk about Indians that used to live in the area or make up games to pass the time. Pack treats to reward them with a few much needed calories along the way. Kids love eating sugary stuff, and while it may not be great for long sessions spent on your stomach watching Nickelodeon, it’s the absolute atomic bomb for energizing them up for another stretch of mountain.

an 11 year old rests while his old man catches up.
By ten or eleven, it'll be you trying to keep up with them.

This is also the age where you can get them used to carrying their own backpack. Keep it light, they don’t need to help you carry the tent and water for the whole trip, but give them their own water bottle and maybe their own sleeping bag. Just a little something to get them used to adult hiking, where you’ll need to be able to not only rage a hill, but have something to sleep in when you get to the top.

Hiking with Teenagers

Assuming your now young man or lady is into hiking by their teenage years, there is only one piece of advice that can be given.

Learn to keep up.

I suppose you could also use this time to help teach them the values of keeping pace with the rest of the group. As I mentioned before, I’ve lost a few pals over the years by having a healthier stride than my fellows. When you’re hiking, you want to charge…but if you’ve elected to hike with a companion, isn’t sticking around their general vicinity also part of the experience?

Tips for Hiking with Kids of All Ages

The first thing to remember, above and beyond all else even, is to get everyone to wear pants. Shorts and thorns don’t mix. Shorts and rattlesnakes don’t mix. Shorts and sunburns on parts of your knees that you’ll be using all the day long but rarely are exposed to the sun on normal days, well, they just don’t mix. Always wear pants when hiking. I prefer a good sturdy jean, something that will prevent your shins from feeling the slice of a hot rock if you decide to traverse the backcountry.

Next up is to provide incentives. Whether two or ten, kids like to know that there’s something to look forward to. Kids love granola bars. They love having their own water bottle. You don’t need to bring along an iPad and let them play Angry Birds every mile, just give them the basics and make them feel like they’re part of the experience, not just along for the ride because the baby sitter isn’t available.

a 9 year old scrambles up a rocky hillside
My then 9-year old son scrambling up a hill in Big Bend National Park.

And finally, again, remember to let them explore at their own pace. Part of the fun of hiking is the exploration of it all. For adults, it’s often looking out over the scenery or the quiet serenity of being far from civilization. Kids, on the other hand, like to jump on rocks and pick up sticks and poke at groundhog holes. Let them do it! Giving your child a chance to get as deep into nature as she might wish is not only a way to keep them hiking alongside you into adulthood, but also to find a respect for the natural world that, let’s face it, humanity is severely lacking these days.

three boys ages 10 months to 11 years and their parents, hiking
The whole family out gaining elevation in the Black Hills.

What We Bring: Nothing but the Essentials

I’m a fan of keeping it really light. If I’m spending less than two nights in the woods, do I really need a change of clothes? Everyone is going to get a bit sweaty, funk themselves up a bit, on the trail. No reason to bring an extra set of clothes to look good when you reach the terminus. A tent is nice, and who doesn’t love a sleeping bag? But a mat to keep you that one inch further from the ground? C’mon guys, this is why they call it “roughing it”.

So what should you bring then? Well, here’s my exact list. Nothing more, and rarely nothing less.

Enough water for the situation. Absolutely no more and certainly never too little. If you’re just on a day hike, bring what you need for the trip. Most park rangers and aficionados will recommend about one liter per mile. That might be about right for the desert, perhaps a little light depending on how hard the terrain is. If you’re hiking two miles or less you can get away with one normal sized water bottle (24 ounces or so) for the whole trip. You’ll often have some left over at the end. Kids like to drink water though, especially when parched or even just bored. If you’re going on an overnighter, check to see if there are 100% reliable water sources along the way and plan accordingly. In the desert they say you should have at least a gallon per day, per person. That’s a heavy load. Despite what the officials say, I prescribe to “it’s better to have just enough than too much or too little” theory.

Also, water bottles can as easily be a bonus or a burden depending upon the child. My oldest loves having his own water bottle. It makes him feel comfortable, and he can pop the lid and have a sip whenever he’d like. Our two year old, on the other hand, tends to find himself in a bit of a fit over them. Sometimes he just likes carrying it, and other times he just wants to fight over which of his brothers’ / parents’ he should be holding instead. Try and turn water bottles into something akin to a responsibility which brings with it great power.

First Aid Kits are essential. Get yourself some basic knowledge of general first aid, the same type you probably already have if your kid is a couple of years old. Children fall down, scrape their knees, cut themselves, and bloody their foreheads. Most of these injuries are nothing more than hurt pride and a few mild tears. But if you fall into a real situation, it’s so much better to be prepared than to rely on making a bandage from a bushel of poison ivy which you swear you remember Bear Grills doing at some point.

You can get a decent first aid kit from your local REI or similar establishment. We carry the basics: a packet or two of ibuprofen (never had to use even one), some band aids and a wrap of bandage, a little gauze for excessive bleeding, and a small bottle of hydrogen peroxide. I also keep a compact “safety blanket”, which in its package is no larger than deck of cards, just in case things would get really sour. If you’re in the Rockies, carry bear spray. You’ll never have to use it until you’re glad you had it when you do. A small but sharp knife, a short length of rope, and a Swiss Army knife have proven useful to us in the past. I also carry two flashlights, and recommend to my oldest he bring his own. Headlamps are sometimes more fun for kids than actual flashlights.

a pair of little feet, in little boots, dangle over a creek in the Smoky Mountains
Take time to just take time.

Add to that, every single time, a compass (I made one into a bracelet I can wear on my wrist like a watch) and a map of wherever you’re going. You very well may not have cell reception, and Google Maps isn’t going to cut it when you’re miles from the trailhead.

Snack appropriate for the hike, are also a great idea. As mentioned above, they can be used as a mild distraction from discomfort and boredom, as well as an energy boost. While granola bars are marketed as the way to go–and yeah, kids love them–I often stick with beef jerky as it takes longer to chew and therefor provides a more substantive diversion for young ones. Gum could possibly serve the same purpose, bubble or otherwise.

All in all, with this method, my 11 year old son can now out hike me any day of the week, whether he’s up for the journey or not. That includes me carrying the emergency kit and our two year old up top, of course. He’d do well to remember that I done brought him into this world and I can leave him deep, deep in its woods if I so choose. end of article

a dad and two of his boys rest at the top of a mountain
Just enjoying the top of a mountain in Grand Teton National Park.