Family camping trips are some of the most rewarding ways to spend time with your children. The experiences you share, both on the road and in the wild, become part of your kids’ personalities as they grow.
In a perfect world, your kids love getting out on a good hike as much as you do, and you enthusiastically explore the great outdoors as a family. In reality, of course, children are fickle. Even the most outdoorsy child will sometimes tire out and have a meltdown on the trail.
Before you take your youngsters hiking, consider these tips for harmony and happiness:
1: Adjust your expectations
Maybe you love long, strenuous hikes, or maybe you’re more into shorter nature walks with few obstacles. Either way, hiking with kids is a completely different experience.
Children are inquisitive and curious. They’ll want to explore things that catch their eye, and they might not be particularly interested in continuing down the trail when there’s something they want to play with. At the same time, kids may be easily bored and lose interest in the hike.
Don’t expect your children to enjoy the same things you do. While you might love the peacefulness, the smell of fallen leaves, and the beautiful scenery, it’s probable that none of that stuff holds an ounce of interest for your little ones. They’ll learn to appreciate all of those things with time, but for now, you’re probably going to have to think of other ways to keep your kids entertained on the trail.
Hiking with children isn’t like hiking with beginners. It’s not just hiking slowly or on easy terrain.
Mentally prepare yourself, allow things to be imperfect, and you’ll have a much more pleasant time.
2: Don’t pass the point of no return
Only hike as far away from camp as you can carry your kid, because you might just have to carry them all the way back.
As your kids get older and gain more experience, you can start planning longer hikes. Until you’ve done quite a lot of family hiking, though, plan on needing to carry someone.
In fact, even if your children are experienced hikers, it’s smart to plan on carrying someone.
Consider this when you pack for your hike, too. Anything that your kids bring with them, you’re probably going to end up carrying back. Don’t bring more than you can reasonably carry by yourself, and don’t bring anything you can’t carry in addition to hauling your kid.
3: Pack kid-friendly trail snacks and treats
Falling energy levels are a major meltdown trigger. At the same time, kids who feel like they don’t have anything to look forward to on a hike (more time in nature isn’t necessarily an enticement) are likely to get bored and whiney.
Snacks can solve both of those problems.
Some parents recommend suckers because they last awhile and keep the kids occupied, and others prefer not to give their children sugary junk food on a hike. It’s your call.
You can use the promise of a treat as a motivator to keep everyone moving. Choose a landmark, and when you reach that point, you can have a break and a snack. Kid-friendly trail mix can be packed in individual containers for easy portion control on the go, and packs of gummies or granola bars are both great for a quick burst of energy.
4: Have a kid-friendly destination in mind
Hiking for the sake of hiking probably isn’t your kid’s idea of a good time. The idea of walking through the woods because the woods are nice, then backtracking down the same trail to get back to camp feels pointless and boring to a child. See point 1.
However, if you’re hiking to get somewhere cool, that’s a whole different story.
Kids will gladly power down the trail to get to a waterfall, a lookout point, or some other worthwhile landmark.
You can make the end destination interesting by heading for a picnic spot where you’ll spread out a blanket and share lunch, too – it doesn’t have to be some kind of spectacular natural landmark.
Loop hikes are also great for kids because you don’t have to turn around and follow the same path twice.
5: Get them talking
Kids hate getting stuck tagging along with boring grownup activities, but love getting a chance for some quality time with you. Turn your “boring” hike into real quality time by giving them the chance to talk while you listen.
As long as your child is talking about one of their own interests, they’ll keep moving down the trail, likely with some enthusiasm. Boredom can’t creep in when his or her mind is focused on a favorite subject, and the added bonus of your undivided attention makes it even more special.
In fact, this same thing works for grownups.
Have you ever been so engrossed in a conversation that hours passed without your notice? That’s what you’re trying to accomplish here.
If you’re hiking with a group of kids, keep all of them satisfied by playing a trail game. Some families prepare nature scavenger hunts ahead of time, encouraging children to look for features like a leaf with a hole in it or a rock with at least 2 different colors. You might also create silly stories together with each person adding to the tale in turn, or just play a simple game of eye spy.
6: Come prepared
Extra socks will figuratively save your life. Kids love wading through streams and mud, and a squelchy sock can be a miserable thing. Changing on the trail is okay, but keep in mind that they’ll probably get dirty again before you’re done. Make sure you save a clean pair of socks, and perhaps even dry shoes, for the end of the hike.
A clean set of clothes is also a good idea for emergencies, though you should embrace the dirt. Only change on the go if you can’t avoid it.
Drinking water is another necessity, especially during hot weather. Keep kids cool with damp towels or sprayers during summer hikes, and bring extra layers for cool days.
If your kids are still small, a backpack-style child carrier can really take the pressure off your back and shoulders. It’s much easier to trek back to camp with your little one in a carrier than it is to hike with a kid in your arms.
7: Have fun
The whole point of a family camping trip is to have fun together, so don’t take things too seriously.
Sure, there may be some meltdowns and tantrums. Do what you must to get through them, and then get back to the part where you’re having fun. That’s what really matters.