Take a Hike! 5 Tips for Hitting the Trails With Your Kids


Sunny skies and warmer weather are here, a welcome change from the chill of winter. It also means more opportunities for outdoor adventures, such as a family hike!

After hibernating all winter with inside games, lots of baking, and (way) too much screen time, finding the motivation to get everything together for a family hike can be daunting. Maybe you’ve shied away from hiking in the past because it seems like such as hassle. Between dealing with bugs and returning home with muddy shoes, who has the time? Or maybe you were never really into hiking before kids, and don’t know how to get started or what to expect.

The good news is that hiking is an easy activity for all levels, even the littlest of littles! Plus, it’s GOOD for them! Experiences in nature provide a host of physical, mental and emotional benefits to kids, who are spending less time outdoors than ever. Every minute outdoors burning off energy is one less minute staring at a screen! Here are some tips to get you started.

1. Plan ahead

Set realistic expectations and intend to simply enjoy nature together. There’s no reason to climb a mountain when a stroll through the neighborhood park’s nature trail will do. You’re probably a lot closer to a good hiking trail than you think. Schedule a date and time for your hike and—weather permitting—make it happen!

2. Pick the right hike

Consider your timing. Are you looking to be out for a full day? Or maybe you just have an hour. Any amount of time in nature with your kids is going to be a good time, even if you’re only able to make time for a quick hike. Use the time to search for bright colored birds and other wildlife.

Choose a hike with an end goal. That might be a creek or a bridge at the end of the trail (my toddler will take any chance he can get to throw rocks and sticks into water!). Maybe it’s a scenic vista or overlook. Perhaps a waterfall, or a historic monument. The promise of something cool at the end of the trail makes the hike go by much faster.

Check trail maps. You don’t want to start a hike only to discover later it’s a much harder trail than you and your kids can handle. If you have a toddler, begin with short hikes. A half mile is usually a nice distance for toddlers, or maybe a mile if you’re OK carrying them for half of it. But bigger kids may be able to handle 2 to 4 miles at a leisurely pace. More important than distance, however, is elevation change. Uphills are my downfall, so I tend to choose hikes with only slight elevation changes. Choosing a relatively flat route will make it a lot easier for the kids to hike longer.

3. Gear you need

Wear sturdy shoes. If not hiking boots, then regular sneakers can do the trick. Stepping over logs, rocks, roots and puddles will give the kids’ feet plenty to do! Make sure you and your kids wear shoes that can stand up to rocky terrain, muddy paths, and slippery brook crossings.

Layer up! If the trail is in a forest or wooded area, it’s best to wear long sleeves or pants in addition to insect repellent. Ticks are an unfortunate annoyance, especially in the northeast—but don’t let them stop the fun. You’ll just want to take precautions and stay on trails. Inspect all your kids’ nooks and crannies after you get home, too. Learn to know what to look for.

Decide if you really need a carrier for your child. The most critical limiting factor will be your little one’s endurance—and yours!  For kids under 5, it’s inevitable that they will want to be picked up and carried at some point in the hike. Depending on the size of the child, you might consider bringing a front or back carrier, or even a backpack designed for hiking.

4. What to pack

Less is more. Since you may need to carry your kids at some point along the way, be mindful about how much you put into the backpack. If you’re doing a longer hike, share the load with another adult or an older child. Here are some essentials:

  • One water bottle for each person—more if it’s very hot and muggy.
  • Snacks, like granola bars, nuts, beef jerky, or trail mix (and beware of kids who only pick out the M&M’s!).
  • Sunscreen and insect repellant.
  • Wipes or a washcloth and a small first aid kit, in case of an unexpected fall or other mishap.
  • Hats and sunglasses.
  • Keep a towel, extra outfits, and shoes in the car, in case of especially muddy situations!

It’s also fun to bring along the family dog! But make sure to read regulations before heading out—most trails require you to keep pets on a leash.

5. Have fun!

Play games in nature. There’s always something new to see and learn on a nature hike. Ask your kids questions to inspire exploration: How many different animals can you spot along the way? What color birds can you find? What can you hear if you stop and remain perfectly quiet for 30 seconds?

Pay attention to details. Look for trees that have fallen across the trail, and point out the rings to your kids. Can they count the rings and figure out how old the tree is?  Roll over a rotted log and see what’s underneath—you might be lucky enough to spot a salamander or a tiny snake!

Let older kids take the lead. Empower your kids to look for landmarks like creek crossings or intersections on the trail and teach them how to track progress on a map (or even the phone’s GPS). Challenge your kids to take photos of nature. By engaging them with a combo of tech and nature, kids will find a new use for the phone and be encouraged to look for new trails to explore.

The most important part of a family hike is spending time together in nature. Inevitably, you’ll learn more about each other, grow as a family, and rush home to plan your next adventure.

Photograph by Chip Weiskotten

What are your favorite hiking spots in the DMV?