If you want to get your family out in nature, but you’re tired of the complaints, try out these 10 activities that will make hiking fun for kids (and grown-ups, too). Do you love the outdoors? I grew up with one foot in the mountains, and my heart is there still. Summers of camping, hiking, fishing, and swimming in lakes are some of my favorite childhood memories. There is a simple kind of magic in nature that feeds my soul.
My husband, while perhaps not as sentimental as I am, loves being outdoors, too. It’s something we feel strongly about doing together as a family and passing on to our kids. In this technology-laden, fast-paced world, getting out into nature reminds us to slow down, connect with each other, and take care of this beautiful world in which we live.
In reality, sometimes hitting the trail with kids isn’t as idyllic as I imagine. To be sure, my kids do LOVE the mountains. It’s dirt and sunshine and freedom to play. What’s not to love? Take them to a lake and let them dig in the dirt or splash in the water, and they’ll be happy for hours.
But get them on a trail, even a trail with the promise of an exciting waterfall at the end, and their stamina drops dramatically.
If your kids are like mine, you know how it goes. Before you even lose sight of the car, you start hearing things like…
“This is really long.”
“Can we be done yet?”
And, of course, the ever present, “I’m huuungry!”
When we first started hiking as a family, this frustrated me to no end. I wanted to scream, What is wrong with you? It’s a gorgeous day! Aren’t you loving the fresh air? This is so much better than being indoors. Seriously, buck up!
But, as it turns out, none of those ever-so-inspiring thoughts of mine is very convincing to a four-year-old.
Case in point, this picture was taken on a hike to Stewart Falls (in Utah) a couple of summers ago. This adventuresome toddler wanted nothing to do with hiking that day. He either complained that we wouldn’t let him out of the hiking backpack, or he got distracted by every bush, stick, and tree we passed and made absolutely NO progress on the trail. It was a little exasperating, to put it gently.As they grow older and have more positive experiences in the mountains, I’m hoping they’ll develop the same love I have (and longer legs that can keep up better). But if our time hiking is spent with them whining and me badgering them to keep going, no one is going to be feeling love for the great outdoors.
I’ve realized that the truth of the matter is that if we’re going to enjoy hiking as a family, I’ve got to meet them on their level. I have to find ways to make it appeal to their interests. When I realized this, my frustration turned to determination, which then turned into creativity.
We’ve come a long way from that failed hike two years ago. My little hikers have grown bigger, and have gone from this…to this…And we’ve added another little hiker to the crew, but he’s just along for the ride, for now.And as the kids have grown, we’ve learned some things along the way. Our hikes still require a bit of effort to keep the kids engaged and excited, but we’ve figured out some good ways to keep everyone moving with minimal complaint.
Wanna know my secrets???
Read below to get some ideas for simple activities that will keep your kids entertained on the trail.But before we get to those, I want to share with you the two cardinal rules of hiking with kids.
Two cardinal rules of hiking with kids:
1. Fed kids are happy kids.
And it’s corollary: hungry kids are grumpy kids. Hiking is hard work, and when your legs are half as long as the grown-ups, you have to work that much harder to get from point A to point B. Make sure you bring LOTS of snacks to keep everyone’s energy and moods in a good place.
Plus, food makes a good incentive to keep going (see more ideas below). I’m not above bribery, people.
2. Be okay with the snail’s pace.
Plan for hikes to take 2-3 times longer than normal when you’re hiking with kids, especially if they’re under five years old. Go into the activity knowing this, and allow yourself to enjoy the slow pace.
Avoid constantly saying, “Come on. Hurry up!” Making kids feel rushed will likely make them grumpy or obstinate…or both. That’s a quick way to ruin the fun for everyone.
Instead, stop to smell the wildflowers, examine the bugs climbing over the old log in the path, and throw rocks in the stream. Even if this means that you don’t make it all the way to your destination…after all, it’s really about enjoying the journey, right?
Okay, now we’re ready for fun!
10 tried-and-true activities that will make hiking fun for kids
Catch my shadow!
If you’re hiking in a sunny area, get ahead of your child and say, “I bet you can’t catch my shadow!” My boys can’t resist this challenge. I’ll keep just far enough ahead of them that they can’t get my shadow for a few seconds, then I’ll let them stomp on it triumphantly while I jokingly say, “Ow! You got me.” Repeat as long as their attention lasts. To keep the game going longer, try letting them keep track of their points (one point for each time they catch your shadow).
I’m not one to throw massive amounts of sugar at my kids, but I have discovered that lollipops are a great way to keep my kids happy while hiking. I get the big gourmet lollipops from the grocery store for 50 cents, and when we’re in the hardest part of a hike, I hand them out. Lollipops are great because they take longer to eat than a lot of other treats (it’s the same reason I use them on long car rides).
A couple of years ago we hiked Bryce Canyon with our kids and I was amazed that my four-year-old (at the time) son did the whole 3 mile hike by himself…all because of a lollipop. As long as he had that sucker, his mouth was busy, and he kept walking without any complaint.
Let your kids pretend that they are real explorers…think binoculars, notebooks, bandanas, whatever makes them feel “official”. My boys each have their own set of binoculars, and they LOVE to use them when we’re hiking. Let their imaginations run wild, and engage their creativity by imagining with them (“Let’s imagine we’re the first people to ever find this trail…”).
Use what your kids are interested in to guide your play. My boys love superheroes right now, so we might pretend we are superheros that need to rescue a person being held hostage at the end of the hike. We can imagine that trees are bad guys we have to sneak past, and boulders are trap doors that we have to navigate around.
A classic (and perfect for using those binoculars). Take turns choosing something for the others to guess. “I spy with my little eye…something red.”
Follow the Leader (with a twist)
If the trail is well-marked, let your kids take turns being the leader in the front of the line. They’ll love being in charge. Make it even more fun by letting the leader choose how everyone will hike. You could march, skip, clap, flap your arms like a bird, etc. After a set amount of time, or when you reach a predetermined landmark, switch leaders and keep playing.
Sing/Name that Tune
As long as it’s not a busy trail where you’ll drive other hikers nuts, take turns choosing a song for everyone to sing. Or, have one person sing/hum the beginning of a song and see if the others can guess it.
Your kids may or may not love being in front of the camera (mine tend to run away), but every child I know LOVES being the photographer. Bring along a camera for them to use, or allow them to take pictures with your phone when they find a cool rock or bug or flower. This would be a good way to reward kids for getting to a landmark. “Once we get to that big boulder, you can take a break and find something cool to take a picture of.”
Print out a nature scavenger hunt for your kids to do. My oldest son has been a little obsessed with scavenger hunts ever since he was two, so we have had great success with this one. You could even let the kids take pictures of the scavenger hunt items you find along the way (a great motivator to keep their eyes sharp).
Another classic, have one person pick a person, place, thing, or idea, and the other hikers take turns asking questions to figure out what it is. You can narrow the field by picking a category, or leave it open to anything. Whoever guesses right gets to be “it” next.
Kick a Pinecone
My five-year-old created this simple game when we were hiking in Sunriver, Oregon last summer. It’s almost too easy, but it kept him busy for a good twenty minutes or more. If you’re on a trail with pinecones, Find a large-ish one, and kick it down the trail. Try to keep it from going off the trail into the underbrush. You can take turns kicking one pinecone, or give each person their own. Obviously, this game works best on relatively wide trails where there aren’t any dangerous drop offs…just sayin’.
Of all the paths you take in life,
make sure a few of them are dirt.
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