How to Gets Kids On the Trail (With a Minimum Amount of Complaining)

By Rebecca Lucas, Girls Who Hike Central Valley

My four year old daughter loves to hike, but it hasn’t always been easy. We’ve had plenty of hikes that included a lot of crying, complaining, and whining. Through trial and error though, we found what worked to help keep my daughter motivated on the trails, and to keep the whining at bay. So, if you’re trying to get your kids out on the trail with you, follow the tips below to make it a relatively painless experience for both you and your kids.

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Snacks and Treats

Whether at home, on the road, or wherever we are, my daughter loves to snack, and the trail is no exception. We always make sure to have plenty of healthy snacks on the trail, and some not so healthy ones mixed in as a nice little treat. Some of our go to snacks are Justin’s peanut butter packets, granola bars, trail mix, raisins, Gold Fish crackers, and gummies. The gummies are usually tucked away and brought out at the end of the hike as a nice little reward. Even if we plan on eating lunch or dinner on the trail, we still make sure to have plenty of snacks on hand. It’s a great motivator when those legs start dragging. Just whip out some raisins and peanut butter, and suddenly energy levels come back up.

Start Slow, Work Your Way Up

My daughter didn’t start out crushing miles under her boots. We started slow, with short, easy hikes. We never used a carrier, so she always hiked along with us. The more we hiked, the longer the hikes got. Also, keep in mind the terrain and the elevation gain. Those little legs struggle with high steps or big rocks in the trail. Tons of elevation gain can also be hard for the little ones. Try to find flat, shorter, graded trails to start with, and work your way up from there. Nature or discovery loops are a wonderful place to start, as are any ADA friendly trails. You always want hiking to be an enjoyable experience so that your kids will keep having fun out there on the trail. If you start them on something too hard or above their skill level, it’ll intimidate them, and they might not want to hike anymore. The more confident your little ones are on the trail, the more they’ll enjoy it.

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Let Them Explore, Hike at Their Own Pace

Kids love to explore and discover new things. So, let your little ones explore. Point things out to them along the trail. It’ll make the hike more fun for them, rather than just powering through the hike. It will also make the hike an awesome learning experience for your kids. When we first started out, I would print out and bring along scavenger hunts for my daughter to keep her interested in the hike. She loved being able to find everything, crossing items off as we went along. The Junior Ranger activity books in national parks are another great activity for kids to do while hiking and exploring.

Have an End Goal

My daughter’s favorite hikes are the ones where there is something cool for her to see at the end, like a bridge, a waterfall, a lake she can play in, or just an awesome view. As interest wanes on the trail, you can say, “But don’t you want to see the waterfall?” And sure enough, those little legs start moving a little faster. You can even show your kids a picture of the trail or where the trail goes to on the computer at home, so they have a better idea of where you’re going and what they’ll get to see. As your kids get older, show them the hike on a map. This will help them visualize where they’re going and what the terrain will be like. Hiking guide books are great too because they often include a hike description. My daughter loves to know how much further, and when we hit the half way point. With a good hike description, I’m always ready with an answer.  

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Rewards at the End

This one might not be for all parents, but it worked wonders for us when my daughter went through a “carry me” phase. My daughter was sick one time when we were hiking, so we carried her some of the way to help her out. After that, she still wanted to go hiking, but wanted to be carried. To break that cycle, we started to offer a reward at the end of the hike, an incentive to walk the whole way all by herself. Let’s just say, my daughter now has a ton of national park pins on her backpack. We love the national park gift shops, and always get little collectibles there anyway, but now we make sure to do it after our hike so my daughter can pick out her new pin.

Dress Them Appropriately

And last, but certainly not least, because this might be the most important tip, make sure your kids are dressed appropriately. If it’s cold, dress them in warm clothes. If it’s hot, dress them in cool clothes. When in doubt, layers are your best friend. Remember, your kids might start out cold, but warm up as they hike. Being able to shed layers is key to keeping temperatures just right. Spend money on good hiking boots and socks for your kids. It’s totally worth it. Whatever you do, make sure your littles are comfortable on the trail. If your kids are comfortable, they are much more likely to enjoy the hike, take in the scenery, appreciate nature and the great outdoors, and want to do it all over again. And, hopefully, not complain too much.


Rebecca is the Ambassador for our Central Valley chapter. You can join her local meet ups and discussions through the Central Valley chapter by clicking here. To become a member of Girls Who Hike, click here.