12 Ways to Trick Stubborn Kids into Loving Hiking
As your children get older, your trail strategies have to change. Here's some advice from parents who have been there.
Get access to everything we publish when you sign up for Outside+.
It happens to all of us eventually. We head out for a hike, and as we negotiate with our child to keep moving, we realize that this isn’t like the old days when we just gathered them, kicking and screaming, onto our backs and marched on.
That was me recently, as I pleaded with Mason to go on a hike I really wanted to do. We sat in the parking lot, him in his car seat, arms crossed, saying one word over and over: movie. I tried the old “No movie unless you go for a hike.” No dice. After a long and arduous process, I cajoled him out of the car. By the time we hit the trail, I barely felt up for the hike myself.
What’s the secret to keeping a kid excited about the outdoors all the time and not just occasionally? I turned to my friends in the Hike It Baby community with kids over age four. Here’s their advice.
Let Them Be the Leaders
Get maps and compasses, then ask your child to help decide what trail you’re hiking. Let them hold the map and lead the way on the trail. For fun, act lost and ask him or her to figure out the way back out.
Bring a Friend
This may be tricky with the crazy schedules we all have, but having a friend along will help the miles click by quickly. Grab a friend’s child who you know has spent time on trail and is comfortable hiking and give your friend the afternoon off. Pick a trail that the kids can really explore together so it’s a big adventure.
Get a special trail journal and start tracking all the hikes you do. Maybe find a park or trail system where you can mark off how many times you have hiked a certain trail in a month or over a year. There are challenges, like 52 Hikes Challenge, that anyone can join, so you can go online and join with your kiddo and let them pick the weekly hike to add to their challenge so they have a goal. You can promise something fun after 52 hikes, such as a new pair of hiking shoes or a new backpack.
Pay Attention to Gear
Keep an eye on your kids’ feet. Make sure their footwear doesn’t pinch or have a slippery bottom. If their feet hurt, even if they don’t realize that’s what’s bothering them, they may not want to hike due to the discomfort.
Find Magical Trail Friends
Search for Bigfoot, fairies, and gnomes. Dinosaur tracks can also be a good one if you’re in the Southwest. Find out what the local lore is in your area and add that storytelling to your hike.
Figure Out Your End Goal
Most kids have less fun walking aimlessly. There has to be a reward along the way or at the end, like a waterfall, playground, or vista. If your hike involves some distance, make sure there are a few payoffs along the way, like a cave before you get to the waterfall.
Remember that Age Matters
It can be tricky to find hikes where all the ages sync up, especially for people with multiple kids. If you find you’re doing a lot of baby/toddler hikes and have an older kid, make sure you also get out on a hike with big kids. It can be boring for an eight-year-old to always be with toddlers. If you’re looking to meet up with people through Hike It Baby and have an older kid, just remember that it’s traditionally geared for kids under five, so be clear in your description and do a shout-out for older kids on the Facebook group.
Take Advantage of Natural Play Structures
If you know a trail that has a lot of wildlife spottings, like birds, deer, black bears, beavers, or whatever is native to your area, consider heading out there. If a trail has a lot of fallen logs or trees to climb, that’s another bonus. This may not be the best hike for a toddler, so consider making it a “big kid” hike day and find those challenges that they’ll appreciate.
Make an Exception for Technology on the Trail
While we try to encourage less technology on the trail, tracking your hike or putting a tracker on your older kid’s wrist can be another fun way to keep them engaged. Show them an app like Strava where they can have an account (with your permission and information, of course), and then they can see their mileage and watch the fun. Relive is an app that links to Strava, Garmin, and a number of other apps, and it shows you the actual mountains and the ups and downs of your hike in 3-D.
Hangry Kids Don’t Hike
Make sure your kiddo has been well fed before you hike. If you know you’re picking them up from school and heading for a hike, make sure they’re well fed before you hit the trail. Load up with snacks they really like, so it won’t be a challenge getting them to eat before you head out.
Perform on Trail
Do a hike with access to an outdoor amphitheater or stagelike area, and have your child plan a performance for the group to watch midway. If your little one always soaks up the spotlight, they’ll love the open-air venue.
Come Prepared with Games
Bring a board game, card game, or other travel game and plan to play on a picnic table somewhere. That way, even if the hike doesn’t happen, you can still talk your child into spending some time outside.