“Another bridge!” my daughter yells and rushes up to bounce across the boards over the creek. Bridges are a favorite on our family hikes — that and the chocolate in the trail mix.
We hike a lot as a family. Some days, it’s tough to get the kids going, but then they take off. Other days, we get off to a great start and then the enthusiasm starts flagging. So with all our miles on the trail, we’ve learned some tips to help keep it fun for everyone.
- Choose the right trail. A trail that’s too hard can turn a hike into a slog, so look for a trail that fits your family’s fitness and skill levels. Use trail descriptions in a guide book or get recommendations from friends or rangers. Find out how long the trail is, but also how much elevation change is involved and how challenging the terrain. Is it steep, rocky, flat, muddy? And consider other features. Would you enjoy a waterfall, an old cabin, a canyon view? Does your family do better with a goal? Are you just out for a pretty walk or some more challenging exercise? These questions can help you pick a trail that’s right for the day and your family.
- Get familiar with the trail. If you find a favorite hike close to home, you can really get to know the trail. Over time you’ll notice seasonal changes in plant and animal life. You’ll see long-term changes like trees falling or creeks that flow or don’t. You may notice changes in your family too — little legs can suddenly finish the hike without being carried or kids suddenly look tall next to the bush that once dwarfed them. And when you’re familiar with a trail, you can use landmarks to help keep kids moving forward.
- Pass the snacks. If you’re planning a long trek, having enough food and water is critical. For most short hikes, you can get away with just carrying water and not anything to eat, but trail mix or other fun snacks can help perk up anyone who is lagging on the trail. To get kids engaged even before you set out, let them help pick trail snacks or make trail mix together.
- The more the merrier. While wrangling more kids on a hike might sound difficult, sometimes having friends along keeps kids motivated and distracted from how far they are going. Try inviting a friend or meeting up with another family for a hike.
- Give a challenge. Sometimes little legs start to balk. If you’re hearing “I can’t walk any more” or “I’m tired,” try challenging your kids to walk to the next trail marker. Ask them how many steps they think it will take to get to that cypress tree up ahead or race them to the large boulder in the distance.
- Keep your eyes peeled. You never know what you’ll see on a hike: purple beautyberries in the fall, rain lilies in the undergrowth after a rainy spell, raccoon tracks in the dirt. You can hike quickly toward a destination or take your time and really notice the shapes and textures of the trees, the different forms of fungi, the scurrying insects, and the emerald green mosses … all the sights and sounds going on around you.
- Play games. Doing a hiking scavenger hunt or playing trail bingo can engage kids on the trail. Vary the items you include based on your natural knowledge, your location or the season. Remember to leave natural items where they are, especially rare things. Have kids point out their found objects or take pictures. Here’s a handy phrase: take only pictures, leave only footprints.
- Tell stories. Examining the outside world is fun, but there are other ways to occupy time on the trail too. Take turns telling stories — made up or about you when you were a kid. As you get more hikes under your belt, tell stories of past hikes. (Remember when you were too little to cross the stream alone? Remember the time I slipped down the hill in the mud?) A new hike can help connect you to family memories.
- Let kids lead the way. If your kids are old enough, let them lead everyone. They can use a map, GPS or simply be in charge of watching for trail markers and signs. After talking about the options, let them make decisions when you come to trail junctions or turning points.
So, hit the trail with your family. With these tips under your belt, you can keep it fun for everyone.
Sara Barry is a freelance writer specializing in seasonal family fun and outdoor activities. She’s used all these tips at one time or another.
Build Your Own Trail Mix
- Start with nuts, such as peanuts, almonds, pecans or walnuts
- Add seeds, such as pumpkin seeds, sunflower seeds or sesame seeds
- Choose grains, such as pretzels, crackers or cereals
- Sprinkle in treasures, such as chocolate chips, raisins or other dried fruit