Ten Tips for Hiking with Kids by Helen Olsson

Tips for Hiking with ChildrenPhoto by Helen Olsson

I am thrilled to be one of the stops on Helen Olsson’s blog tour for her new book, The Down & Dirty Guide to Camping with Kids. It is full of practical tips on how to plan memorable, outdoor, family adventures. You can also find Helen at her humorous and insightful blog, Mad Dog Mom. She is with us here today with some helpful advice on hiking with children.

Ten Tips for Hiking with Kids by Helen Olsson

Of all the outdoor pursuits, hiking is surely the simplest of all. Just lace up your hiking boots, grab a snack and some water, and off you go.* A morning spent trucking down the trails can be a blissful way to exercise, enjoy the great outdoors, rub elbows with mother nature, maybe even meditate on life.

But when you have little chiddlers in tow, a walk in the park can instantly turn into an angst-filled trail of tears. If the planets don’t align, kids will grow weary, become famished in short order, and start to whine like a bad transmission in high gear.  With the following tips and tactics from my new book, The Down & Dirty Guide to Camping with Kids(Roost Books, April 2012), you’ll have much greater success with The Family Hike. And when you do, the hike will once again become the perfect way to enjoy the outdoors.

Camping with Children
Photo by Helen Olsson

My favorite strategy for hiking with kids is to add a dose of arts and crafts. It’s part distraction technique, because you never, ever want to tell kids you’re going on a hike. Kids think hikes are boring. However, if you tell them you’re going into the woods to make rubbings of tree bark, they may see things differently. Of course, you’ll need to walk along a hiking trail in your hiking boots to find those different varieties of bark. The ones in the backyard will not do.

A few summers back, my family and I spent an afternoon trekking around an uninhabited island off the coast of Maine. We collected sun-bleached mussel shells and tiny periwinkles along the way. When we needed a break, we stopped and created a series of land-art beach sculptures. One was a starburst of shells that Andy Goldsworthy would have been proud of. We spent an hour fiddling with different designs and twice that beach combing (a.k.a., hiking). Everyone was engaged in the project, from my five-year-old to my college-bound niece to the children’s grandfather.

We’ve also gone on leaf-hunting expeditions to gather materials for making leaf creatures. You need to scour the forest for just the right sizes and shapes of leaves for this adorable craft project. Oh, and you’ll want to bring water and wear your hiking boots while you’re looking for leaves. (Wink-wink, nod-nod.) Look for the feathery leaves of sumac bushes for the tails of roosters and peacocks, sassafras for feet, or small oak leaves for antlers (Detailed instructions for creating kid’s land art and leaf creatures can be found in my book.)

Beyond getting crafty on a hike, here are 10 quick tips for hiking with kids:

1. Time the hike. Most kids are at their best in the morning. And in many mountain environments, the weather is best in the morning, too.

2. Dangle the destination carrot. Choose hikes with landmarks, like a bat-filled cave, a pond with a beaver lodge, a ghost town, or a waterfall.

3. Play mind games. The homestretch on a hike is often the time to break out your arsenal of thinking games. Try “Name that Tune” or just sing songs to pass the time. Other thinking games ideal for the trail: I Spy with My Little Eye, Twenty Questions, I Went to Africa, and the Never-Ending Story.

4. Play physical games.One of our favorites is Hot Lava. The trail is covered in hot lava, and kids need to hop from rock to root to log to avoid having the soles of their shoes melted clear off. Another is to have kids search for trail blazes, the colored plastic or metal trail markers that are affixed to trees. A hike is also the perfect time to do a photo safari or a scavenger hunt.

5. Recalibrate your expectations: Let the kids set the pace. You might not cover too much ground, but you’ll have a more relaxing hike if you’re not prodding and cajoling reluctant kids at ever bend in the trail in an effort to log miles.

6. Start seeing things. Just as you can stare at the clouds and see sharks and turtles, you can see animal shapes in inanimate objects in the woods.  With a little imagination, you might see a dragon’s profile in big boulder or a bird’s head in a broken stick.

7. Take breaks: Stop often for water breaks, tossing rocks in a lake, or to sit near a burbling river reading a picture book. Curious George Goes Camping, perhaps. Take time to listen to birdsong and smell the pines.

8. Keep topping off the tank. Keep energy levels up by stopping for a healthy picnic lunch and plying kids continuously with ample snacks and water. Each child should have a water bottle or hydration system.

9. Bring a friend. Having a buddy on a hike helps motivate kids, and they seem to whine less in front of their peers. Just like adults, kids chat along the way.

10. Incentivize with treats: On hikes, bring a bag of M&Ms or gourmet jelly beans. When kids begin dragging their feet, start dispensing one sweet for every stretch of ground covered.I won’t sugarcoat it (pun intended), this is a bribe. But when all else fails, a little sugar boost can propel you back to the trailhead.

*Disclaimer: I still contend hiking is simple, especially compared with, say ice hockey or kayaking. But you’d still be wise to go prepared. So don’t forget sunscreen, sunglasses, a sunhat, and an extra layer. Depending on how far afield you’re going on a hike, consider bringing along the backcountry travel essentials, which are included in my Ultimate Camp Checklist on my blog, Mad Dog Mom.

Camping with Kids

Be sure to check out the other great stops on The Down and Dirty Guide to Camping with Kids blog tour…

Road Trips for Families: Ten Great Tips for Car Camping with Kids

Great Wild Outdoors: Q & A with Helen Olssen

Recreating with Kids: Interview with Helen Olssen

Real Life Delicious: Mad Dog Mom’s Killer Balls and Bars



With over 10 years of EDU experience and a growing family, Mariah started Playful Learning in 2008 as a resource for parents and teachers. In 2010 Playful Learning received the Parent’s Choice Gold Medal, and in August of 2011, Shambhala Publications released her first book, Playful Learning: Develop Your Child’s Sense of Joy and Wonder. Mariah has an M.S. Ed in Elementary Education and was that girl sitting in the back of class thinking about what she would do differently if she was the teacher. Now she is happily working with a team of gifted educators to bring life-changing lessons to children, families, and schools around the world. In her free time she can be found taking long walks, enjoying a cup of tea, or swimming in the Atlantic with her husband and two daughters.



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  1. Great suggestions! Any time I have suggested a hike, I have been turned down… love the idea of making it about a project instead- that will surely get a yes!

  2. I really appreciate your list. We plan on doing some hiking with our kids (ages 8,7,5) for the first time this summer. This is helpful. I love the hot lava! Love your blog! 

  3. Wow, I’m really surprised to find that some kids need incentives to hike. My 4 and 3 year old boys can’t get enough of it! Great post for those with little people who are not so enthusiastic.

    I just stumbled across your blog this morning and I love it. I will definitely be back

  4. Excellent tips. I am 100% agree with your suggestions. We are planning a trip with my small brother who is 7 years old and this is his first experience. I take a printout out of this and keep it with me.

    Thanks for the advice.


  5. Thanks for including the link to the closet backpack station. I actually created this for a client last year, and she still uses it for her 4 kids. What you can’t see

    in the picture is that the top shelf actually goes around the inside corners. Mom has a bin on one side and Dad has a bin on the other. These top bins hold

    out-of-season necessities for each member of the household. The matching bins below store their shoes. Even the 2-year-old knows which colored bin is for her to put

    her shoes in!

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