5 Tips for Hiking With Kids

Whenever we go on a long walk, my city kids start hanging off my arms and begging for snacks. So, I was entranced by my friend Erin Jang (of Trader Joe’s and movie night fame) taking a family hiking trip to Switzerland, where they clocked six to eight miles every day. Here, she shares how to get young kids excited about hiking (please add your tips below!)…

Erin and her husband, Abe, both grew up in Seattle, loving the outdoors. Now, living in New York City, they find it harder to spend time in nature, so they try to save up for an outdoorsy trip every year, when possible. “Recently, our seven-year-old has surprised us with his enthusiasm on short hikes, and we’re realizing that our three-year-old won’t comfortably fit into our backpack carrier much longer, so we decided to take the plunge this summer.” They headed to the Swiss Alps, something Erin and Abe had dreamed of for years.

Although the family hiked on their own, they got help planning the four-day hike from Ryder-Walker Adventures. The company’s “self-guided” option provides a printed itinerary with maps and trails tailored to your level of difficulty. Erin’s family stayed in hotels and hostels in the four towns they hiked between (Grindelwald, Wengen, Mürren, Interlaken). They arranged for their stroller and luggage to be transferred between each inn.

Here are Erin’s five tips for getting kids excited about hiking:

1. Let them lead.
We had our oldest walk ahead and “guide” us the entire trip. Whenever our three-year-old was up for walking, we let him have a turn leading, too (even if it meant a much slower pace for all!); he was so proud of himself and it made him complain less and hike with gusto. We kept hearing his little voice with this pep talk on loop, “I can do it! I am really good at hiking!”

2. Prepare the right stuff.
Because the weather can change suddenly (we had a forecast for rain the whole time we were there), it was necessary to have comfortable waterproof shoes, waterproof jackets and pants, trekking poles to help climb a steep rocky stretch, and breathable layers and sun hats. I’ve found that much of the complaining with kids (and adults) comes with discomfort from not preparing appropriately (it’s hard to enjoy a hike when you’re cold and wet or burning in the sun), so managing that part made a big difference.

3. All the treats.
We brought special treats to motivate the kids on difficult parts of the hike. We’d often point to a tree or the next trail marker far ahead, and promise a gummy or hard candy if they raced up to the top. Or we’d surprise them by busting out a Capri-Sun after a particularly tiring stretch or lemonade powder to shake up in our water bottles. We let them each pick out one special snack or bag of chips at the supermarket in town each night, to look forward to on the trail the next day.

4. Games!
When I felt the kids were about to sigh, “Are we almost therrreeeee…,” it helped to distract them with something fun. We played a bajillion rounds of 20 Questions, which never got old! We looked for things along our walk that resembled letters of the alphabet. I taught them as many songs from The Sound of Music as I could remember. I had the boys look for every variety of wildflower they could see.

5. Make the enthusiasm contagious.
We hope our love for nature rubs off on our children. I often think about something that Mr. Rogers said, about how attitudes are caught, not taught: “Love what you do in front of the child. Let them catch the attitude that that’s fun.” They see how our faces light up on the trail, surrounded by so much green; how we cherish the quiet; how we experience genuine awe when we turn a corner to find a new vista. I also see how they look to see our reaction when stuff goes “wrong,” when it starts pouring rain or we take a bad turn and get lost. I’ve had to catch myself in those stressful moments and remember (and remind them!) how cool and special it really is to walk through a forest in the pouring rain.

Plus, a bonus in Switzerland: Playgrounds! Every mountain village they stayed in had a small playground in the center of town. “It was a welcome bonus for the kids, after a long day,” says Erin. “Once, we heard children’s laughter in the woods, so we followed the trail to discover a seesaw, zipline, technicolor slide and zigzag of balance beams. I love how the Swiss really reward children for hiking.”

Would Erin recommend a hiking trip to other families? “Absolutely!” she says. “We loved the chance to spend entire days together as a family with only nature, and each other, to keep us occupied.”

Thoughts? Do you hike with kids? What other tips do you have?

P.S. The world’s coolest playgrounds, 16 ways to traveling with kids, and parenting in Sweden, France and Italy.