Ever since my first son was born, in 2010, hiking has proven to be a rich and forgiving family activity. Though I prefer to trail run and mountain bike when I’m away from my nine- and seven-year-old, neither are (currently) conducive to quality family time. By contrast, everyone can hike. We started with small jaunts once the boys could walk, which has given way to longer outings. All told, we’ve spent countless hours on the trail, and I’ve become a default expert on how to encourage my kids to hike.
And encouragement is necessary. Even though my boys are mostly thrilled when we’re actually out walking, more often than not, the mention of a hike elicits groans, whining, and protests. Here’s what works for me to get the kids on the trail and make it as enjoyable as possible once we’re out.
Don’t Call It Hiking
First, don’t call it “hiking.” That sounds too much like “work” or “broccoli.” Not that those things are bad. It’s just that they imply some sort of austerity. So, don’t call it anything at all. Just tell your kids to get their shoes on and to follow you. I learned this tip from my husband, Jeff, a few summers ago. While I was steeped in NATO-level negotiations with a recalcitrant three-year-old, he just handed over the shoes and started walking. To my amazement, the boys followed, and within minutes, were giggling and having fun.
Choose an Interesting Trail
Walking a flat dirt road is boring. Walking a narrow winding trail is intriguing. It’s even better if your trail has a lot of trees or boulders along the way that a kid can climb on. Water is awesome. Hiking near rivers or lakes or alongside an ocean gives kids a target at which to throw rocks. They can gather sticks and pretend to fish (or actually bring rods and fish for real), dip their toes, fill their sun hats with water to cool off their hot heads, and splash around. Let the natural environment interest the kids. Look for animal tracks and bones, and point out interesting plants and birds.
You might care about getting to Point B, which may be a summit or a view point that’s exactly 2.3 miles from Point A. Most kids don’t care, so try to let go of your power walking and enjoy the trail instead. And while you’re slowing down, chill out. On the trail, I set aside my massive aversion to violent play and let the boys pretend that sticks are guns and swords. (They still aren’t allowed to hit or shoot at a human!) The lumps and shadows off the trail are menaces to be vanquished. Sometimes I help the kids in their battles, but usually I just let them run ahead to “shoot” things and applaud them when they deliver us from danger.
Most kids like having achieved a summit, especially as they age. Here in Colorado, my boys are angling to bag a fourteener this summer. I’m using this desire as leverage: everything we do that’s remotely exercise-related is in service of our fourteener goal. So far, it’s motivating the boys to ride bikes, run, and walk more than usual.
Give Them Responsibilities
When your kids get a little older, entrust them with pocketknives of their own. Be clear about the rules, and teach them how to use the knife. Once they earn your trust, let them whittle wood, cut the salami, or simply carry the knife on a lanyard around their neck on camping trips. When it’s time to start a fire, ask them to gather kindling. If you have a dog, bring the dog and let your kid hold its leash for a while. Anything you can do to help a kid feel responsible and trustworthy while hiking (and otherwise) is positive for their development and their stoke level.
Don’t Skimp on the Snacks
I try to find the right balance between healthy and tasty fuel. Fresh fruit is a good natural incentive. Clementines pack well, as do apples. But there’s always some chocolate and candy in my pack. We call these “Scooby Snacks,” and they’re doled out on a limited basis. We eat fueling carbs like fruit, trail mix, or granola bars first, then some protein if I can convince the kids they want beef jerky or hard-boiled eggs, and then candy as a reward. Take as many water stops as the kids want, and then a few more. A dehydrated or hungry kid is a grumpy kid.
Peer pressure goes a long way, so bring friends. Smile at other people on the trail. If you’re lucky, they’ll smile at your kids and give them high-fives. Once, during a family vacation to Scotland, my young sons hiked 3,000 vertical feet up Goatfell Peak on Arran Island with the encouragement of enthusiastic passing Scots who cheered them with “Way to go, ye wee lads!”
Take Their Worries Seriously
We’ve all seen a kid acting like their foot fell off when they don’t even have small cut, but bring a first-aid kit and indulge their concerns about blisters and pains anyway. Sometimes there’s nothing to doctor, but the placebo effect of a Band-Aid cannot be overstated. And sometimes there is an actual blister. For those, keep moleskin and a spare pair of kid socks in your pack.
Repeat as Often as Possible
A hike in the woods is a balm to the soul. You know that, but it isn’t the kind of thing you can explain to a kid. You just have to do it over and over until they understand it intrinsically, without even knowing they’ve absorbed the lesson. Do that, and your kids will have hiking to return to their entire lives. If you’re lucky, as they get older and more competent and adventurous, they’ll bring you along.