If you want to make it more than 20 steps from your campsite, you’re going to have to learn how to make hiking fun for kids.
Hiking with your family is a great way to spend time together and get in touch with nature. And if you have kids, it’s also an opportunity to bond with them through your love of the outdoors.
But anyone who has ever attempted to go hiking with kids of any age knows that it’s only a matter of time before their interest and motivation to hike decreases. Now you’re a mile out, and it’s either push through to complete the hike or turn back and give up and either way you feel guilty.
Here are ten ways to start your hike on a good foot (literally!) and keep your kids engaged while hiking!
10 Ways to Keep Kids Motivated on a Hike
We’ve been there. Hiking with a kid who is yelling “I want to go back!” every ten steps isn’t great, and they can’t be convinced that going back will be a longer hike than just finishing the loop. (Usually other hiking families have been there and give us sympathetic smiles as they pass.)
1. Start Slow
It’s best to start by looking for a trail that’s well-maintained and easy to follow. There are a few different aspects to consider when looking for a well-maintained trail.
The terrain, the surface of the trail, the distance, and the elevation should all be taken into account when deciding if a particular trail is good for hiking with kids.
The surface of the trail should be clear and free from obstacles in order to make navigation easy. Getting lost in the woods is not fun.
Terrain also plays a factor in finding an appropriate hike. Hills can be more difficult for children to walk on, whereas flat trails are much easier.
Hiking at higher elevations will also likely require additional preparation for younger children. It’s best to know your family’s hiking abilities before setting out to do a 3 mile loop.
For younger kids, try walking for shorter intervals at a local trail before heading out so you have an idea of how far they can realistically hike. Making sure that the trail you’re attempting to hike is an appropriate level for your kids will go a long way with their ability and willingness to keep going.
We use All Trails as a great resource for finding local trails that are good for your kids. You can also use All Trails if you’re in unfamiliar hiking territory and are wondering about the best hikes.
Also, keeping your own expectations low will have you in a much better mood.
2. Take Snacks and Drinks
Any hike we go on, we bring snacks and drinks for kids and adults. Even if we’re just hiking a short 1 mile loop by our house, you can bet that we have snacks and water.
Parents need to bring along additional food for themselves as well, as we always seem to forget to take care of ourselves, don’t we?
Good hiking snacks according to the Camping Critterz are things like trail mix, granola bars, fruit snacks and peanut butter filled pretzels. If we’re on a camping trip, we almost always have a box of Oatmeal Cream Pies.
Being hydrated and not hungry is enough of a reason to bring adequate trail snacks and water, but the other aspect is using snacks as a reward.
Kids love snacks as rewards and our Tiny Critter hikes with much less whining when he knows there is a pack of fruit snacks that he can have once we reach a certain point.
If we notice a lot of whining about things that don’t typically bother him, we’ll pull out another snack on the way and that usually does the trick.
Be sure to eat a good meal before starting your hike, that will help you get farther down the trail before the crankies sneak in. The main point is that if you’re hiking while hungry or thirsty, you’re not having fun.
3. Have Good Hiking Boots
Nothing stops a good hike faster than a blister, so make sure your child is wearing comfortable footwear, like sneakers or hiking boots.
There are several things to keep in mind when buying hiking boots for your child, so make sure you find a pair that fits well and stays snug on their foot.
You don’t want lot of extra room at the toes. If you get hiking boots, choose ones that provide adequate ankle support without being too stiff or tight around the ankle area. Most importantly, your child should be able to walk comfortably in them.
If at any point on the trail your child begins to complain about their feet, stop and rest for a few minutes, then check the fit of their shoes before heading back out on the trail.
We’ve been in the position of “pushing through” a complaint of “my feet hurt” as it seemed like a ploy to be carried the last half mile home, when we got home we found Tiny Critter had a wrinkled sock that created a rub spot. It’s worth it to check.
4. Bring Toys
We recently purchased an awesome rock crawler RC truck, there is not much it can’t climb over.
Tiny Critter loves hiking behind it and seeing what it can climb up on the trail. It’s a really good incentive to keep walking and he hardly notices that we’re making good progress on the hike.
There are a lot of hiking activities that could work, bring a ball to throw and then chase down, a foam air plane to fly ahead and scout out the area, a soccer ball to practice dribbling skills, etc.
Anything that will motivate them to keep hiking forward would be a good toy to bring.
5. Play Games
Take a tip from Mary Poppins and play some games that will have your kids having fun hiking in no time. Young kids can be motivated to do just about anything as long as it’s a game.
On a recent hike Tiny Critter got tired of the rolling hills we were hiking up, so we made it a game to loudly announce when we were going downhill and how much easier it was to hike. In no time he was racing ahead so he could be the one to yell “I found the down hill, I’m going faster already!!”
Have fun by pretending you’re different animals and roar like bears or chitter like chipmunks while in the great outdoors. I love pointing to groups of trees and telling Tiny Critter “If I were a rabbit, I’d live there”. He thinks I’m silly, but after a while he starts doing it too.
Scavenger hunts are a really fun thing to do while hiking! They’re also awesome for all hiking family members, you’re never too old for a scavenger hunt. It’s always fun to help your kids explore!
Play the alphabet game and try to find something that starts with every letter of the alphabet. Try to find something from every color of the rainbow, try to spot 10 different animals, birds or bugs! The possibilities are endless!
My other favorite game is to pretend we’re on a safari and talk about everything as if it’s the most interesting thing you’ve ever seen. Channel your inner Steve Irwin and see who can find the most interesting item to present to the group.
Get the older kids in on brainstorming how to make the hike fun for the younger kids.
Other games include “who can get to that tree the fastest?” “How many squirrels can you see?” and “How many steps is it to that big rock?”
I’ll leave it up to all of you to invent your own rules from here. There tons of options for hiking games with kids, use your imagination.
If you’re hiking in the winter, someone running ahead and writing a fun message in the snow has been a good way to keep our son moving forward.
6. Keep a Positive Attitude
I’m not sure how many of you have heard your own words come out of your child’s mouth, but the first few times it’s shocking.
Remember that they’re always listening (yes, even when they can’t remember what you just said) and they are a mirror of the adults they’re around.
If it’s obvious you’re not having a good hike, they’ll start having a bad hike too. One obvious way to learn how to make hiking fun for kids is to learn what makes it fun for yourself too.
If you have to, fake it until you make it. Talk about how strong your legs are and how proud you are that everyone is continuing to hike. Comment about the amazing weather and all of the awesome nature you’re able to enjoy.
We went on a hike where Tiny Critter decided 1 mile in that he no longer wanted to go to Mount Tom because “I hate mountains and I hate TOM!” After a break (#7) a snack (#2) we convinced him we’d change the destination and go see Charles Hill. That was acceptable to him and we continued to hike.
As mad as he was at that moment, if you ask him about the hike now, he’ll talk about the awesome view from the top, the fun he had on his bike on the way there and the snacks we brought to share when we got there.
Reframe the hike into positive terms and you’ll hear your little hikers do the same.
Some kids may also rebel against “going on a hike” so “taking a trek” “stretching your legs” or just “wandering in the woods” may sound like more fun instead of “hiking”.
7. Take Plenty of Breaks
Give children younger than 6 two water breaks every hour, while older kids should get at least one break every hour or so. If the weather is hotter, opt for more water breaks.
Stretch their legs and let them burn off some steam. If they’re getting out of the mood to hike and not having fun, this is a good way to get them re-invigorated.
Sit on the ground and play tic-tac-toe in the dirt, climb a tree for 5 minutes or just relax and listen to nature while drinking some water and eating some trail mix.
8. Bring an Alternative Mode of Transport
When Tiny Critter was little, we’d bring the Osprey Poco and let him walk some and ride some. Now that he’s older, we bring the strider bike if it’s possible. On steep hills one of the adults can carry the bike easily enough.
Letting them ride a bike is an amazing way to keep kids entertained on a hike and not feel like they’re falling behind. No one likes feeling they’re on a forced march, so give your kids a way to keep up with the faster hikers in your family.
9. Create a Reward System
If you’re hiking with toddlers, snacks are a great way to motivate them to keep hiking. Goldfish crackers, fruit snacks, cereal, usually anything works.
Our common go-to is Oatmeal Cream Pies, they’re the reward for making it to the end of the hike. Other small snacks can be given out one at a time along the way.
If your child is old enough to carry a hiking pack, giving them a few snacks that they have control of is another great way to make hiking more fun for your kids. Everyone loves being in control of their own snacks and having their own gear!
For preschoolers, snacks or stickers may work well, give them an awesome sticker in their hiking journal if they complete the hike (or the next quarter mile) with a good attitude. Make sure you add hiking rewards to your packing list.
For older kids, you can have a reward back at the camp with an end of hike reward, let the kids pick what’s for lunch or they can have 5 minutes of screen time for every half mile hiked.
10. Get Side Tracked
If you’re able to go off-trail safely and without damaging plants, do it! Go investigate that cool tree! Hunt for mushrooms, try to find the frog that’s peeping.
In Minnesota State parks going off trail is allowed, and harvesting mushrooms is as well. One of our favorite things to do is to go hunt Morels in the Spring!
Make sure to check for ticks when you get back.
11. Sing Songs
Almost everything is better with music.
Before you go out on a hike, learn some classic hiking and camping songs to sing with your kids on the trail.
Bonus: 12. Be Prepared
Pack the 10 essentials for hiking, so that you’re prepared for any situation on the trail.
Know where you’re going so you don’t get lost. The adult Critterz once hiked 2 miles past an outlook because we didn’t know the area well and it wasn’t well marked. If we’d had the Tiny Critter with, it would have been a disaster, safety is key.
Bring a small first aid kit to help with any bumps, bruises or blisters your family may get on your hike. You don’t want your child’s lasting memory of your hike as a family to be the giant blister they got.
Bring rain gear or a simple poncho. We hiked in a light rain that turned into a downpour once. Momma Critter gave up her long sleeved shirt and hat so Tiny Critter wouldn’t get totally soaked.
Get a good night’s sleep. Tired hikers are cranky hikers. Be sure to stop the night games at a reasonable time so everyone is well rested in the morning.
The games you play with your children while hiking can make the experience more fun and enjoyable. Don’t forget to pack snacks!
Hop on the trail and Scurry Around!
I’m Molly Foss, aka Momma Critter. I’ve been camping since I was 9 years old and I always wanted to be Robin Hood and live in the forest when I grew up. I’m excited to share my love of camping with my son as he grows up. My favorite thing to do while camping is roast marshmallows over the fire.