Photo of a young hiker laying down on the trail
Hiking Outdoor Newbies


February 25, 2020

As parents we look forward to passing our love of the outdoors onto our children.  Many of us strap our kiddos into a baby carrier very early in their lives and hope they fall in love with all the new experiences they are having!  We also really look forward to when our little ones are ready to become little hikers and make that trek on their own two legs! When that time comes, you, as we have, may experience some struggles with finding ways to motivate your kids to hike.

When looking for a fun hike, you can do a little research, get a good tip from a friend or just pick one from a list and hope for the best.  For our family, one of the first things we look for is the length of the hike. Our kids can usually tolerate a 3 – 4 mile hike, but longer is asking for trouble!  However, it is just inevitable, no matter how experienced or strong they are, you will find yourself needing to find ways to motivate your kids to hike! The most important part is to keep it fun!

Here are 5 fun and exciting ways to motivate your kids to hike on your next outing.

Photo of kids sitting on a hiking trail
We let them take a break and play on the trail

1. Snacks and water

As parents, we try our best to be as prepared for anything life throws at us, especially  when we’re with our children. Extra diapers, extra wipes, extra everything. But when you’re out hiking, you carry everything on your back and you need to limit those items to the essentials; and snacks and water are a must!  They will give your kiddo a boost of sugar and energy, and give you the patience you will need to work through the tougher moments – haha!

Some snacks that have been a good “go-to” for our family have been granola bars, fruit snacks and homemade trail mix.  Our son has a peanut allergy, so store bought trail mix has never been an option for us. I would mix raisins, dried cranberries, tree nuts (bought straight from the farm so there’s no cross contamination with peanuts) and of course, chocolate chips! If you’re working with a food allergy, check out Enjoy Life’s allergen free chocolate chips, otherwise, any brand will do.

Water is another necessity.  From experience, we have found that a refillable water bladder that slips into a backpack is a great option!  As you drink the water, it takes up less space and reduces greatly in weight. Kids seem to love drinking from the long water tube and bite valve.  Our son even volunteers to wear the backpack with the water bladder to help out the family. While stainless steel reusable water bottles are fine, when empty, they are still heavy and take up the same amount of space.  Remember, you’re carrying all this on your back! In a pinch, plastic water bottles work too, but we try to reduce plastic use as often as we can.

2. Play games

  • Another way to continue to motivate your kids to hike is to find games to play with them while hiking.  This helps to distract and keep their thoughts off the actual hiking part – haha! A favorite game that is really easy for almost every age group is “I-Spy”. These objects can range from things you spot on the trail, to items you are wearing.
  • Singing songs is a fun way to keep spirits bright.  Toddler tunes to showtunes, favorite Disney songs to popular radio songs are all fair game.  Just hope you don’t end up in the Barney, “This is the song the never ends…” loop!
  • A long hike is always a great time to practice counting as well.  Depending on the age of your little hiker, you can count each step, count by 2’s or by 10’s.  Try some easy math too! All little devices to help keep their minds off how far their legs have taken them.
  • “Booster plates” are imaginary landmarks that your hiker needs to get to.  When s/he gets to the booster plate – they get re-energized, like Iron Man!  We usually pick a specific spot they need to stand on to get re-charged. It gives them enough ‘mental energy’ to get to the next booster plate!
  • Our favorite is being a part of the clean up efforts.  “Leave no Trace” is a universal movement that says that our actions should “leave no trace” that we were there.  Sadly, litter is everywhere. Even when it’s not yours, we can all be part of the clean up efforts and have a big impact.  Bring a rubber glove and plastic bag and include your little hiker in cleaning up the trail! They will have fun – like a Pacman game!

3. Do Junior Ranger programs

Junior Ranger books are a fantastic way to motivate your kids while hiking in National Parks, State Parks and National Forests.  Make sure to stop by the Visitor’s Center before heading out and get your book and pencil. These books are usually tailored to the locale and are extremely educational for the new area you’re exploring!  Have your kids hold their books and have them answer the questions along the trail.

4. Consider what type of hike is the best fit for your hiker

There are three types of trails.  Out and back, point to point or loop. 

  • Out-and-back means you hike to a destination and retrace your steps back along the same path.
  • Point-to-point is a one way hike.  You would have a destination and hopefully transportation at your end point.
  • Loop is a trail that in any shape, eventually brings you back to your starting point without retracing a previous path.

There are varying schools of thought on this and it really comes down to personal preference and experience.  An out-and-back trail could be a lot of fun for a young hiker who is looking forward to the destination. Maybe a waterfall or landmark or lookout that is very exciting to reach and that will continue to motivate them to keep trucking along.  You need to be prepared that retracing your steps back may have them losing interest and they’ll need a little extra motivation.

A point-to-point trail is ideal because you have the destination and won’t have to come back, but the biggest issue is having transportation back to your starting point.  If you’re in a National Park with shuttle service, you can usually work this out easily. We like loop trails because they provide something new for the entire length of the hike and you return to your starting point where you’ve more than likely parked your car.

5. Give them the trail map and ask them which way to go

Even if your little hiker can’t read, allow them to see where you’re going and have them tell you where to turn, let them take the lead!  Our two Junior Rangers fight over who gets to lead the family down a trail, thankfully focusing them on making forward progress.

6. Offer positive reinforcement

It’s ALWAYS a good practice to offer positive encouragement to motivate your kids to hike.  A little pat on the back goes a long way. Challenge them in a positive way and praise them for their pace, for their good attitude, and their skillful navigation!  If you are needing a little more motivation for your little hiker consider a points system.  

*A tip from our 10 year-old son to motivate kids to hike could be to offer points or stars based on each landmark point that your little hiker reaches. They can redeem them for something fun at the end of the hike!  It doesn’t need to be a material prize, they can earn an experience or something else.

7. Invite their friends along on the hike

Especially as they get older, a good way to motivate your kids to hike is to invite their friends along on the trail.  It allows them to connect with their friends in a different way. They’ll still talk about video games of course but that fades away rather quickly.  We’ve also overhead discussions about what’s happening at school and in their sports teams. They’ll talk about other hikes that they’ve been on and the next hike they want to do together.  Plus, if you’re good friends with their parents, it makes for a fun time all around. 

Photo of families hiking a trail in Los Padres
Invite friends to join you on a hike!

And when all else fails BRIBERY always works!!!  We have been guilty of bribing them with the soft-serve ice cream at the Zion Lodge for completing a hike.  Sometimes, you gotta do what you gotta do!

A few other essentials for hitting the trail with your little hiker

  • Carry a small first aid kit with important items.  We have bandaids, medical tape for when cactus spines get stuck in their hands (we’ll cover that in another blog post!) and antibacterial wipes
  • Wear good shoes and appropriate clothing for the expected temperature.  You’ll inevitably get warm on the trail and want to remove layers. Be prepared to carry these extra layers in your pack or elsewhere on your body.
  • If you’re hiking to a waterfall or a lake where the kids can get wet, they will get wet.  Guaranteed. Consider bringing some backup clothes so you can allow them to play.
  • Hike often so it becomes routine.  This way your little hiker becomes more comfortable, increases their hiking stamina and learns what to expect.

We have been hiking with our kids since they were babies.  It is something they now look forward to and ask for! Our goal is to embrace and enjoy these moments together and hope that one day they will take their buddies out hiking and explore even farther.

Some additional resources

Here are some resources and links to help you find hikes near you. We like to use the AllTrails app. It’s subscription-based but worth it if you like to get out somewhat regularly. It has virtually every trail with reviews to help you decide which is best for your group. They have trail and topography maps (and more) and you can even record your progress as you hike.

Check out a few of our other posts for more tips on hiking with kids. You can click on the ‘Hiking’ menu option at the top or try these articles:



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Los Angeles, CA

We're a typical family of four that enjoys being outdoors and exploring all the amazing natural places that surround us. When life allows, we road trip, we camp, we hike. We're helping other families get outdoors by sharing our experiences because if we can do it, so can you! As we develop our blog this year, we'll be moving more into advocacy and generating support for the parks we love. We hope you'll join us and lend a hand.

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