How to Hike and Have Fun on the Trail with Kids

You just tucked the kids in, and hear an alert pop up on your phone. A photo memory from four years ago! Ahhh, that backpacking trip with your girlfriends. Remember when your biggest decision of the day involved choosing which backpacking meal you wanted to cook for dinner? Oh, look at those muscular calves from carrying that pack! When do I get to make memories like this again… with the kids?

Hiking with kids might look a little different than the past backpacking trips with your friends. Instead of calculating how much canned wine you can haul in your backpack, you’ll find yourself calculating how many diapers you’ll need for an afternoon on the trail. Your kiddos might protest more than your sore muscles used to. Oh, and speaking of muscles? The one that you’ll work the hardest might just be your “patience muscle”. Soon, you’ll learn that sharing a sunset on the trail with your little one is one of the most rewarding experiences life has to offer. With a little trial and error, you’ll be raising kiddos who love to hike, and who want to work hard to protect the beautiful trails that they love to explore.

When Can I Begin Hiking With Kids?

Your neighbor just visibly winced when you mentioned taking your toddler for a hike. Wait, is this a good idea? Yes! We promise! In fact, we’d argue that young children are the easiest to hike with- hear us out. Infants are generally content when they are moving, safe, fed, comfortable, and held by a family member. You’ll want to check in with your pediatrician to make sure you are bundling your infant adequately, and that you are “wearing” them correctly on the trail. You’ll want to pay attention to clear air passageways, sun protection, and remember that little bodies take more awareness to properly regulate body temperature.

Mamas, you might find that hiking can be an option to help build postpartum strength, and to supplement your emotional health when you are ready. Again, talk to your medical provider if you have any questions about terrain selection. You might need to stick to more moderate trails while your body continues to heal. In those first outings, your focus should be on spending some time moving outside, not necessarily on clocking miles or scaling mountains.

What Do I Need To Hike With Kids?

You don’t need much to get out and explore the trails, but you will want to make sure you have a few key items to keep everybody safe and comfortable. If you have an infant or toddler, you’ll want some sort of pack to help transport kids on the trail, like this or this. You’ll also want to bring enough water for everybody, some sort of nourishment for each hiker, sun protection, and a lightweight windproof/waterproof layer. It’s also a good practice to leave a small first aid kit and a headlamp in your bag- just in case!

When selecting shoes for your little hikers, you’ll want to pay attention to tread, fit, and comfort. Remember, your hikers will be climbing, running, splashing, and playing hard, A proper fitting shoe helps avoid any unnecessary blisters or wipeouts on the trail. For toddlers and new hikers, consider a shoe from the Merrell Baresteps Line– the low tread makes it easier for new walkers to find stability and connection to the trail, and offers the support they need to build confidence. Have a kiddo who loves to run, climb, and play hard? They could benefit from a shoe like the Moab, that offers some serious tread and grip.

Selecting Appropriate Trails

Soon enough you’ll be scaling big mountains with your kids, but we’ve learned that those early days out seem to go smoothly when the focus is on spending time outside together rather than on the miles. We recommend finding a trail that has some shade and is a challenge within reason. Kids also love rivers, lakes, and waterfalls! If you have an older child, let them be involved in the trail selection process. This helps them feel some ownership over the adventure.

Setting Reasonable Expectations

Look, we’re just gonna spill: there will probably be some grumbles and tears on your hike. Legs will get tired, you might not make it home before naptime, and sometimes your kiddo will be content to plop down in the dirt and spend the whole afternoon in the same spot with a pinecone. That’s part of the experience! Instead of focusing on miles or a summit, we recommend focusing on the time spent outside. Some afternoons the focus might be on hiking for 45 minutes before trekking back to the car.

Once your kids are a bit older, it’s okay to begin to challenge them. Statements like, “look how far you’ve come, you should feel so proud! Think you can make it up to that boulder on the ridge?”, offer encouragement and support. Have a kiddo who thinks hiking is “boring”? Make up a scavenger hunt to help keep things interesting! 

End The Day on a High

You might get frustrated. Your kid might get frustrated. You might both be frustrated. Pack along a surprise snack to enjoy on the trail, and spend some time outside doing exactly what your little hiker wants to do. You might even stop for ice cream on the way home! Remember, the goal is to raise a lifelong hiking buddy.

Brooke Murray is a Merrell Advocate living in Colorado with her two children. Whether they are looking for toads down by the river, riding bikes around the neighborhood, or skiing, they spend as much as they can playing outside. Brooke is the co-founder of WildKind, a membership community that helps families level up their outdoor adventure.