One of the questions we get most often from families planning national park visits is: what are the most kid-friendly trails?
It’s a tough question to answer broadly, because every kid is different. When we started our trip, our then 3-year-old son was used to lots of walking—after all, he’d lived most of his life in Manhattan, city of pedestrians. But walking on a sidewalk with a million people and things to look at is very different from hiking on a trail with quieter surroundings.
He struggled—hard—to enjoy the time we spent hiking. And we completely understood—we were unused to hiking and were struggling too! But we didn’t want to give up on experiencing the amazing trails in the national parks we were visiting—so we kept going.
As time went on, we got into better shape and were able to increase the difficulty of our hikes. We got used to hiking most every day and it became part of our regular routine, nothing to complain about. And we picked up lots of tricks on how to make our trail experiences more fun for the kids so they would be excited about hiking.
Along the way, our son became a great little hiker, regularly tackling 6 to 10 miles in a day with minimal complaint. And our daughter, who we carried for most hikes during our national parks trip, came to love long stretches of riding in a backpack. Now, at 3 years old, she’s hiking on her own and working on building up her endurance.
We’re not experts by any means, but we have learned a lot along the way. Here are 10 things we’ve found enormously helpful in making hiking more enjoyable for our family:
1. The more you hike, the better it will get.
In our experience, the number one factor in our kids’ attitudes toward hiking is how often we hike. When it’s a regular part of our week, something they know is going to happen no matter what, they seem much better able to relax into it and make it fun. The repetition also builds all of our endurance, and that’s hugely beneficial.
2. Be prepared.
Most parents seem to have this part down pat! Wearing appropriate clothing (sun hats, rain jackets, layers) and having plenty of water, snacks, sunscreen and bug repellant goes a very long way in making hikes more pleasant.
3. Think about what entertains them in other situations.
What absorbs your kid’s attention when they’re at home, or when you’re on a long drive? Our daughter loves singing and playing music and our son could listen to audiobooks and podcasts all day long. So on the trail, we’ll listen to an audiobook on one of our phones or we’ll sing together. Think about ways you can use their interests to keep them entertained and occupied while hiking.
4. Talk, talk, talk.
One of the great benefits of hiking as a family is that you get long stretches of time just to talk. Most kids I know would give anything for the uninterrupted attention of their parents. Get your kids talking and listen intently to what they have to say—this has gotten us through hours of hiking and we absolutely treasure these conversations with our kids.
5. Choose trails with varied terrain.
When we talk about kid-friendly trails, we don’t usually mean ones that are short or have little elevation gain. The kid-friendliest trails to us are ones that have a lot of things to look at or do along the way—boulders to scramble over, ladders to climb, lakes to throw rocks into, creeks to float sticks down, animals to observe, sand to dig in, trees to hide behind, slots to climb through, etc. Some of the toughest hikes we’ve tackled were also our kids’ favorites, entirely because they were varied, challenging and therefore, fun.
6. Play games.
Games like “I Spy” and “Who Am I?” are made for the trail. We also love “20 Questions”, “Name that Tune”, “The Name Game”, “Would You Rather”, “Word Association” and “I’m Going to the Store” or other alphabet games. Sometimes we’ll make a list of things to find, as in a scavenger hunt, or we’ll compete against each other to spot certain things, like in Bingo.
Very young kids might love looking for shapes along the trail—see how many circles or triangles you can find. When playing games where we’re trying to spot certain things, we’ll often take close-up pictures of them once we find them—our kids love adding this aspect. Depending on the trail, you could also play tag, roving hide and seek, or sardines.
7. Tell stories.
I lucked out in marrying a great storyteller. When we backpacked into Havasupai, he started telling our kids a story about a group of dwarves looking for a mine full of rainbow stones. It’s highly derivative of “The Hobbit” 😉 but it’s a HUGE hit with the kids and he’s been adding onto it for over a year now.
I don’t love making up stories, but I do love telling stories from my life, or from the lives of my parents or grandparents and the kids love hearing those too.
8. Take your time.
Choose hikes that will allow you to go at your kids’ pace. Take the time to stop when something is drawing their attention: follow an ant trail or watch a caterpillar or find a good walking stick. This requires a good deal of patience and mindfulness (and it’s often something we struggle to do), but it’s a terrific practice for all of us to slow down and pay attention to small wonders.
9. Give kids a sense of control.
Let them choose the trail, carry the map, or otherwise act as guide. Older kids can research different trail options and plan how you will spend your time as a family. A sense of ownership can give them a whole different perspective on your outdoor experiences.
10. Let go of the goal.
At least sometimes. If you start a hike and it’s going terribly and no one wants to keep going, there’s no shame in stopping! Find a nice spot to sit and hang out for a while, and then turn back if you still haven’t mustered the energy to keep going.
If your kids are completely resistant to enjoying a hike, let go of the idea of hiking altogether (at least for a little while) and just go outside. Dig in the dirt. Lay in the shade. Soak your feet in a stream. Take any activity your kids already like, from board games to reading aloud, and move it outdoors. Find ways to build positive memories outside and those happy associations will eventually lead your kids to want to spend more time outdoors.
Whatever you do, remember that the ultimate goal is to build positive memories for your family. The trails will always be there for you to tackle, but your kids won’t always be around to do them with you. Keep in mind that you’re building something bigger than a single hike—a culture of spending time together, enjoying the outdoors, and tackling challenges. It’s not a competition; there’s no single right way to do it. But it is an eminently worthwhile pursuit—and we hope these 10 tips will make it easier for you :).
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