10 Ways to Keep Lil’ Hikers Hiking

After growing up smack in the middle of the LA suburbs, and a decade in San Francisco, I envisioned my kids’ upbringing in Marin County would be immersed in the outdoors. We’d take lovely hikes through the redwoods and along the creeks. We would hold hands and chat about our lives, appreciate nature, maybe even sing songs…

Fast forward 10 years. Whether in Marin, Japan, Costa Rica, or the Grand Canyon, my kids never want to go on a hike. They like nature fine. And they’re both quite outdoorsy and active. But the fact is that I don’t know a single parent who has a kid who gets excited about going on a hike. I think hiking is just too boring a prospect for kids.

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That said, we’ve had loads of amazing hikes during our travels as a family.  Most recently, our guide Narelle in the Australian outback led us on day after day of very long, very spectacular treks.  Afterwards, the kids admitted they had a great time (except the waking up at 4:30am part…)

Here are some ideas for keeping your kids engaged as you make your way along the trail.

1. Set Expectations  – Kids need to know the plan. As Jen Harrison told her kids while trekking the Annapurna Sanctuary in Nepal, “This hike is what we are doing today. Nothing else.”

Very often, I realize that Don and I know where and why we’re hiking, and for how long, but we haven’t really let the kids in on our secret. Kids need to get their heads around any outing and what to expect from it.

2. Preach the Benefits – While hiking on the South Kaibab Trail in the Grand Canyon, my daughter asked, “Why did we have to come down here? We could see it from the rim.”

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Her comment launched a discussion on the benefits of hiking versus simply driving up and snapping a photo. The kids admitted it was pretty cool to be able to head out and find places away from throngs of other people. The quality of nature improves significantly as you move away from any trailhead – better birds, critters, foliage.

3. Bribe. Bribe. Bribe.  It is no secret that bribes work wonders to keep kids hiking. For day hikes in Marin, we never leave the house without small bags of Trader Joe’s Rainbow’s End classic trail mix destined for each child’s pocket. Of course, we wait to pass it out until they reach a predetermined milestone or the whining has commenced.  (I have to bring one for Don too otherwise he will steal the kids’ and compound the whining…)

I hate to advocate food as the best bribe but it does do double duty on a hike: Kids need energy to keep moving and the right treat can work wonders. And I’m all for passing out M&Ms or Hi-Chews or gum or whatever local sweet I can get my hands on if it means we can have a more pleasant hike (and request absolution from the dentist when we get back.) It is vacation for gosh sakes… We also try to incorporate an end-of-hike incentive. In the tropics, there is typically a swimming opportunity on the horizon which keeps everyone’s feet moving.

4. Hike Early or Late – One morning in the Australian outback, we set out at 6am with headlamps to head up to the rim of King’s Canyon. We hiked for 5 hours and were back to the bus before the sun was directly overhead. Though it was winter when we visited, the heat was still a factor – and more flies come out as the day goes on. Getting an early start was key to a comfortable experience.

In Nepal, Jen Harrison described the success of a late start to their Sanctuary trek. “We landed in Pokhara at about 2pm, headed out on foot by 4pm and were at our first teahouse at 7:30pm. We escaped the heat of the day and gained enough elevation that the next day’s weather was much more pleasant.”

5. Run. This is Don’s specialty. I think he does it when he himself gets bored. We’ll be walking along and all of a sudden, he’ll just start running. Of course, the kids follow. (I typically begin to skip half-heartedly… ) The change of pace helps keep everyone motivated.

grand canyon kids running small

6. Stop. Don’t forget to schedule some breaks – and take some unscheduled breaks. Kids need to stop for more than lunch. Be flexible. Make time to scale the boulders, climb the mangrove “jungle gyms,” watch the butterflies, and collect leaves or shells. It’s a hike, not a march.

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7. Get a Guide – I am a devout believer in hiring guides when traveling with kids. We have had equally good luck with guides on the trails. When visiting the Cloud Forest in Costa Rica, our guide showed us a tarantula in her burrow, baby hummingbirds in a nest, and a tree you could knock on and hear a rattling sound. Needless to say we would have missed these things completely if we had been hiking on our own.

8. Find Companions – We know one of the best parts of traveling is meeting new people – and now the kids know so too. Our family has had great luck over the years walking with other hikers – both kids and adults. Once in Corcovado National Park, we met a family from Palo Alto, Calif. with a boy, a girl, a mom who worked part time and a dad in the tech business. Nothing passes the time like chatting with a kindred spirit.

And even though our kids are never psyched about the prospect of a hike, they are great hikers and adult travelers often compliment them on the trail. Ego stroking does wonders to keep one’s feet moving. It can pay to ask at your guesthouse if anyone else is heading out on your hike and offer to share a ride there in hopes of meeting some travel companions.

9. Practicar Espanol (or Francais/Bahasa/Nihongo/Etc.) – We always aim to learn a bit of the local language before we leave home. This rarely happens.  After we get on the road, we usually get the basics down. Hikes provide a significant amount of time to learn some new words/phrases and then quiz each other.

10. Plan Your Distractions – Whenever we hit a quiet, boring spot on a family hike, I think, “I should sing a funny song” or “Let’s play a guessing game” or “Here’s a funny joke/story/logic riddle…”

Without fail, nothing comes to mind. Nothing at all. It’s like I can’t hike and access my memory banks at the same time. (Given my poor hiking skills, Don would likely say that’s absolutely what’s going on…)

The best way to avoid hiking amnesia is to keep a short list of ideas in your pocket. Just print this article and jot down specific ideas on the back. Or buy a pocket book of riddles or jokes or campfire songs or games to play on car rides. I find if I can just get the ball rolling, everyone pitches in and we can distract ourselves through the dull spots.

The best defense is a good offense: Don’t wait until you’ve bored the kids to death or run them ragged to deploy these strategies for success. Avoid hiking amnesia and take 5 minutes to formulate a good plan of attack before setting out.

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