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7 Tips for Joyful Hiking with Kids

Posted by Rachel Wendling at May 31, 2019 09:38 AM |

Lessons from a parent who's been there.

By Julie Popper

“I’m tiiiiiired.”

My partner and I give each other that knowing look. We beep the car again to make sure it’s locked and press on to the second 10 feet of the trail — second of many.

“Are we there yet?”

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Photo by Ben Popper.

We have all heard it. We know it well. We grown-ups have grandiose plans of big hikes and quiet nights under the stars; our kiddos imagine walking 5 feet from the trailhead, collecting a leaf and a pine cone, and returning to the car. Giving in isn’t an option — we just drove 2 hours to get here, risking car sickness and our car’s suspension. We must proceed.

Besides, we never remember the whining. We remember the enchanting forests, the boundless views, the chilly dips in the water and the together time. Still, it can make a 5-mile trip seem like it was halfway around the globe when a kiddo is reluctant.

Here’s what our time on trail with kiddos has taught us about making the trek a little more joyful.


Start small

Nothing ruins an activity like having the first one be a slog. Our family starts every season with a trip shorter than 2 miles — just to make sure the experience is happy and rewarding. Make early season (and early in kids’ careers!) experiences a breeze.


Prepare with reasonable expectations

We used to hold back on honestly telling our kid how far we were going. We found that to be a double-edged sword — he didn’t complain on the way there but boy did he complain on the trip out. Now, we say clearly, “We are hiking 5 miles, and it will take probably about 4 hours. We’ll stop for lunch so the hike will feel shorter than your day at school.”

We also like to remind kids that their bodies resist at the beginning. “Your body is telling you that it liked sitting in the car more — but you need to tell it who is in charge. Push through, and once it gets the message that we’re doing this, it’ll work with you to make this fun.”

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A few stuffed animals never hurt (and are definitely worth the extra weight). Photo by Ben Popper.


Make it relatable

You spend time with your kiddos romping about the local park or neighborhood — why not break it down that way? “We’re going to walk about the distance from our house to the park, and then we’ll take a break.”


Bribery will get you everywhere

For us, bribery comes in two forms — on the trail and at the destination. We started early with a “one M&M per switchback” rule that got us pretty far. (And our kid would have a tummy full of chocolate on, say, the Kelly Butte Trail.) Later we would say every 30 minutes it was snack time. And we’d always have a destination treat — a sweet at camp or on the way home.


Distract, distract, distract

When you’re not thinking about it, the miles just roll on by. So, why not focus on something other than the steps? Many of us start out on distraction by talking about nature — naming trees, finding bugs, pointing out cool mushrooms.

I was out with our Scout troop one day on what became a whine-fest and resorted to our first-aid and Ten Essentials supplies to keep the Scouts motivated — who knew a SAM splint, a compass and a few pieces of duct tape could keep kids moving along?

We also like to tell stories in our family. Four years ago our kiddo made up a story about owning his own railroad; today the story is still gaining details as he builds new lines, expands his empire and overcomes obstacles on his railroad. With his imagination and his story, his feet keep moving forward.

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If you're lucky enough to spot a bear on trial, you're unlikely to have much trouble motivating your little hiker. For the rest of the time,some simple techniques can go a long way. Photo by Ben Popper.


Remind them what accomplishment feels like

Remember that time you hiked all the way to the top, all by yourself? Remember how proud you felt? Let’s do that again! (Also, this means you have to make a BIG DEAL out of the accomplishments that happen — laying it on thick will seem totally reasonable to the littles.)


Know they can handle it

It seems so easy — give in to the request to carry them, or give them a piggyback ride, or take their pack. Once you do this, it’s nearly impossible to undo. With most kids, your persistence now will cut down on future requests. You know they can do it — don’t let them sell themselves short!

Julie Popper has 25 years of backpacking experience and is a Scout leader, WTA green hat trail volunteer and known to say things like, “Can anyone name this plant?” and “Isn’t this a beautiful trail?”

This article originally appeared in the Summer 2019 issue of Washington Trails magazine. Support trails as a member WTA to get your one-year subscription to the magazine.