Hiking with Kids: Our Why and How

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From my earliest memories as a child right on through to my current days as a mom of four, hiking with kids has been a constant in my life.

Hiking with kids why to get out there what to wear how to plan and execute an awesome trail trip

Today I'm working with Merrell Kids for National Take a Hike Day to share the genesis of our family's trail experience – one which eventually morphed into a lifestyle. It's become one of the very cornerstones of our family travel blog.

I'm touched every time someone reaches out to share that our story inspired them to find their “why” for living an active life. I'm always awed by that because I know what a game-changer it is. I know that once you have the why, the “how” unfolds naturally.

mom hiking with toddler

Hiking with Kids Near – and Far

Okay, let's be real, it's mostly near. Hiking with kids is no small feat. When I was a kid, I vividly remember my nanny taking me for “hikes.” Her words, not mine. We mostly stumbled around the dusty red fields near her house in Kihei, trying to catch moths. Eventually, though, she used my love of critters to push our adventures out further.

“Let's go find geckos along King's Highway,” she'd urge. Or we'd hop between the lava rocks of Keawakapu Beach in search of tiny fish.

When my mom decided we should leave sunny Hawaii in favor of the grey skies hanging over a tiny island across from Seattle, I was ticked off over my loss of exploration-friendly weather. What kind of creatures would I find in the rain??? Eventually I donned a hoodie, grabbed an umbrella and learned that the Pacific Northwest was home to veritable menagerie. I encountered slimy worms, creepy-crawly spiders that spun intricate webs, and the occasional waterlogged caterpillar.

I never had anything fancy in the way of gear or shoes. No matter. I'd lace up my latest Payless half-off score and set out around our block, circling from my best friend's house up to my church, through the feed shop, around and back along the shore. Sometimes I'd cut through a mossy, dense forest. Other times I'd just hoof it up the steep paved hill that brought me to my neighbor's back door.

happy preschooler hiking

Hiking Motivation moves from Reason to Habit

When I spent summers with my dad in San Francisco, we'd scramble all around the Bay Area just as I'd done my little loop near Seattle – only here, there were NO critters to be found. Aside from the occasional stop in Golden Gate Park, the whole thing was a concrete jungle full of city wonders. I once pondered aloud that there were no creatures to discover here. What were we looking for?

“Hiking isn't always for discovery,” he said. “Sometimes you just move because you want to move. Because the world is too awesome to sit in one place.” When I was in his company, we were allowed to hop on and off the bus at my behest, and I discovered the AWESOMENESS to which he referred. Trippy, hippy friends of his who told me funny historical anecdotes about my dad's days running shows for The Grateful Dead. Crunchy outdoor pals took us to Santa Rosa, Mendocino, and the imposing little peak that juts out right above Berkeley.

As I grew older, I started accumulating a little squad of scrappy neighborhood kids who would tag along with me in both neighborhoods. Their parents would give me money to babysit, when I hardly had any concept what that entailed. From my perspective, I was just going for my usual jaunts. Hiking with kids had become the norm. My sister started joining in my little tours around the time she entered elementary school. Her initial motivation was to be with me, but eventually we joined in solidarity with the mission that I lifted from my dad.

We wanted to be in the big, awesome world.

kids hiking and looking at something

Hiking with Young Kids is about Knowing Them

Just like those early days when my default trail guide used my personal interests to motivate me, I did the same with my rag-tag crew. One girl in fourth grade was WAY too cool for the whole thing, but I happened to know that the mom of the boy she had a crush on owned a shop down the road. He could be found there most days, so that spot was conveniently added to the ever-expanding loop. One little boy had a MAJOR sweet tooth, so the candy shop was added too. Another liked to fish, so I found a friend whose parents would let us borrow their dock on occasion.

Family Hiking Gear

Back in those days I didn't give a moment's thought to hiking gear, and neither did anyone else in my family. We didn't consider ourselves to be particularly adventurous or outdoorsy or campy, and specialized gear was reserved for those folks. We definitely experienced the occasional twisted ankle, painfully-rubbed toe or outright face plant on awkward ground, but we'd shake it off and keep going.

It wasn't until high school that I met a family of avid hikers. The kind I considered to be legitimate, mountains-and-backwoods people. They went far beyond the edges of where city buses could drop them off, past the thick neighborhood brush and county-owned recreation trails. They'd hacked through the Australian wild, dodging terrifying spiders and feisty kangaroos. I developed a fast kinship with them.

Their mom took me to my first official “outdoor store” and plucked a pair of Merrell's off the shelf. “These will get you everywhere,” she said, before she deftly grabbed a mound of wool socks, thermal underwear, pants that inexplicably had zippers around the knees, and a metric ton of bug spray. “This stuff will help, too.”

And it did.

boys hiking with dad

Hiking as a Couple

I met this guy in college shortly after that experience. He was WAY more athletic than me, spending most of his childhood on wrestling mats and football fields. Nate's charming smile was confident on his regular turf, where I felt completely overwhelmed and over my head. Trying to impress him and match his athletic prowess, I dragged him into the only athletic arena where I felt somewhat at ease: the great outdoors.

I helped him pick out his first pair of what he called “legit” hiking boots. They, too, were Merrell's. Ten years and four kids later – after striding, running, leaping and laughing our way into a comfortable sort of trail rhythm – we'd both ascend to the top of Half Dome in those boots. It was a slow accumulation of stuff and skillsets, but I'd say our family hiking gear was complete after that trek.

In a way, those boots were the most significant milestone of our collective lives.

And in a way, too, they were the least stand-out part of the whole experience.

While gear can be shiny, flashy, cool-looking, modern, rugged and awesome in so many ways, that's not what the journey is about. As my story shows, hiking with kids has very little to do with the boots on your feet – and so much to do with the motivation for getting out there in the first place.

kids standing on rocking

Hiking Safety for Kids

Nate and I both discovered our WHY for hiking together, and raised our kids with that mentality. We see the world because it's awesome. We find varying ideas that motivate each of our kids: a passion for learning, a joyful revelation in colors and sights and sounds, a desire to gain strength, an urge to conquer as much as possible for personal satisfaction. The “why” is what took us the longest to develop. With that in place, we eagerly turned to the HOW.

The most important thing to consider as a family is hiking safety for kids. Here are the top things that we think through when we're planning a hiking trip.

  • Hiking shoes are important. While you CAN limp along without decent shoes, trust me, the experience is a whole lot more enjoyable with proper foot attire. Our current go-to's for getting our kids on the trail are their Trail Quest shoes. These shoes are lightweight and supportive for our kids' feet – and the best part is, the shoes are machine washable!
  • We always research every trail thoroughly, because there's nothing quite like the pit in your stomach when you abruptly find yourself hanging out cliffside with a squirmy, heavy toddler. That's not an awesome feeling. And if you think that trails will just magically be marked with some sort of safety or ability-rating when you arrive, think again. One of the beauties of the wild is that it's wild and unpredictable.
  • Rules and routines can help offset dangers. We always hike in a dedicated order: Nate and the 4-year-old up front to set the pace, followed by the 8-year-old and 6-year-old. I round out the pack with the baby, who usually walks solo holding my hand or rests on my back in a pack. Everyone has a whistle and knows that they are to STOP and repeatedly blow into it if they get lost.
  • Warmth and cooling supplies are essential for kids, who can't regulate their temperature like adults. I keep cooling neck towels handy in the summer, and heat pouches at-the-ready in the witner.
Hiking with kids on trail

Finding Places to Hike with Kids

We use Hike It Baby, and organization that Merrell Kids recently partnered with, as a resource to help suss out spots that are kid-friendly. Truly kid-friendly hiking – with a platform built from the ground-up to serve that need – as opposed to just an add-on tag that anyone anywhere can apply to a destination. The hiking trails recommended in Hike It Baby's family trail guide have actually been traversed by folks with little kids. The groups are active, engaging, and ready to answer questions. They have experts in designated areas to help guide would-be hikers with numerous considerations about places to hike with kids, from preparation to destinations.

When you're looking to hike with kids, remember to keep it fun for them. You're not out for the most Instagrammable spot. You're out to encourage their love of nature, so find things like open spaces where they can run, shore areas where they can skip rocks, etc. Involve them in planning as much as possible.

My biggest tip for people looking to find places to hike with kids is to be realistic and honest about your family's experience and capabilities. I've watched tiny tots scramble straight-up inclines. And then I've watched kids completely freak out over unkempt grass. Your background – what your family has experienced and where you come from – will shape your starting point and how you proceed. There's absolutely no shame in being the clueless girl who's mostly just meandered local streets and parks. I've been that girl. It's fine. It's all about putting one foot thoughtfully in front of the other.

tips for hiking with toddlers

Tips for Hiking with Toddlers

Even for experienced trekkers, hiking with toddlers can be a whole new ball game. Along with gearing yourself up with the aforementioned shoes, baby carrying pack and water, you'll want to keep the little ones fed, dry and as entertained as possible. I always stash tons of extra snacks for little kids, as well as more diapers than I'll likely need, plus waste bags to carry diapers out, and an extra pair of pants and socks.

As for entertainment, we usually rely on good old-fashioned camp songs, games of “I Spy,” geocaching and the occasional audiobook downloaded to my phone.

When hiking with toddlers, I usually give them their own small carrying pouch to help them feel like they're part of the action. If you can train them to suck out of a reservoir so they don't need to fiddle with a water bottle on the trail, that's super helpful. Find a well-fitting sun hat or beanie to protect their head, and if you need formula it's a good idea to pack the powder form to save on weight.

National Take a Hike Day

It's National Take a Hike Day today! America has over 60,000 miles of trails waiting to be explored! We love taking our kids into the great outdoors because it shows them how awesome this world is. That knowledge and the experience of seeing it first-hand provides perspective. It serves as a reminder that no matter what we're going through, we're all in it together and there is so much more than this moment. The world is filled with peaks and valleys – just like our lives – and there is beauty in it all.

Do you like to go hiking with kids?

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