Hiking with kids can be a chore. I recently took my family on a “hike” to scout new trails and gather material and information for an upcoming program. We planned on hiking about 2-3 miles and finished our trek back at the car after a hot and dusty 2.9 miles.
I felt great because of the exercise and having dragged my children such a long way. I couldn’t wait to get home and write a post bragging about our “family” accomplishment. As I reflected back on the hike, I realized that nobody really had any fun, including me. The kids were exhausted and constantly complained about wanting to rest, more snacks, and wanting to catch lizards, to which we routinely replied “We have to hurry, we are low on time and the destination is more important than the joy in your heart”. Ok maybe not that last part but it was implied.
I spent the majority of the hike carrying at least one kid and their stuff and I needed a cattle prod to get them moving. After a hike like that I question if my children are old enough to hike. But hiking shouldn’t be age-dependent, it should be a family adventure where the kids beg to go again.
Thinking about our many family hikes, I pulled out the things we have done that separate the fun family adventure from the grueling slog to the finish line.
1. Focus on the Journey, not the Destination
When hiking to get somewhere we often miss amazing opportunities along the way. A child would rather dig in the dirt and try to catch bugs than reach a dazzling summit. And which one are they more likely to remember? Some of our best hikes were jaunts through the woods without a definable destination, simply a rough return time. And this approach allowed us to thoroughly explore our surroundings, which led to numerous learning opportunities.
My daughter won the big sister gold star on this hike for watching over our littlest. Family bonding time: 5 star quality. Pace: a snail might pass us.
2. Give Everyone a Job or Duty
This makes the children feel like an important part of the adventure. Some jobs could include line leader, snack distributor, photographer, time keeper, garbage monitor, etc.
3. Make Sure to have Plenty of Water and Snacks
Children that are hungry and thirsty struggle to think about anything else. Double what you think you will need. If you think you need two water bottles, bring four. Rare is the occasion that we make it through a hike without at least one spilled water bottle or snack. I have never finished a hike and said “if only I had brought less food and water”. But frequently we run out of water and food and that is the point where the hike turns into an ordeal full of complaining unhappy children.
4. Bring a Whistle
Each child should have a whistle hanging on a break-away lanyard around their neck. This serves two purposes. First, if a child were to become lost, they can stop where they are and begin to blow the whistle until they are located. Second, kids love to blow the whistle. You can use them in games, to get their attention or give them something to play with. Now a pack of kids blowing on whistles seems like a form of cruel punishment reserved for interrogating terrorists. So just make some ground rules and the whistle will become a tool for a great adventure.
See this guy? He is 2 1/2 and can blow that orange whistle pretty hard. That gives us a little peace of mind since he is definitely a wanderer. He also took a turn carrying his sister’s backpack. He WANTED to carry it, insisted even. Remember point #2 about giving kids a job. Sometimes they will even pick their own.
5. Bring a Journal
A hiking journal is a great way for people of all ages to connect with the outdoors. Include blank paper for drawing, texture rubbings, taking notes, pressing leaves, etc. Kids love art and connecting the outdoors with something they love to do helps them to enjoy it even more. Also include a pouch or zip lock bag for collecting nature art materials like fallen leaves and sticks.
6. Play Bingo
There are plenty of nature bingo cards available on the internet. Give one to each child and play bingo as you go. This will have the kids searching high and low for things on their card and will also provide many teaching moments. So kids will be outside getting exercise, learning to identify plants and animals, and learning about nature all at the same time. And they will love it!
Geocaching is like a real life treasure hunt and many popular trails have geocaches hidden on them. This gives the kids a chance to search for treasure which will really get them excited. If there are no geocaches, hide one of your own for others to find. My kids are always looking for good places to “hide a cache”.
8. Involve all 5 Senses
Teaching children how to use all their senses to explore their environment is a very good way to keep the kids involved and active. Make sure to smell more than just the flowers, listen to birds and sounds on the trail, feel the textures of the trees, rocks, plants, closely examine the smallest details of the forest, and taste the edible bounty of the woods (make certain you know what you are eating). Try a 5 senses scavenger hunt. Have each child search for 3 textures, 3 different aromas, 3 different sounds, identify 3 things they don’t recognize, and 3 edible flavors (make sure you know what those things are and that parents are present for all wild eats).
So maybe you have had your own family hike with a mutinous crew or you are just looking for ways to add a little something new to your family outings, I think we could all try a little harder to focus on the fun and less on the hike.