How to Motivate Kids to Hit the Trail

How to Motivate Kids to Hit the Trail

Words by Shanti Hodges – Top photo by Deanna Curry

Not a day goes by where people don’t remark on social media or in real life to my family about how “adventurous” we seem. Honestly, if you looked at our Instagram or Facebook, you would probably think that every day over the last six years with our son was one big hiking adventure where we were always having a blast. Nope. Not even close.

Want to know how we keep Mason excited about getting out there? Getting your kids motivated to hike is no different than learning to swim or playing the piano. You have to do it, and do it a lot. On good days and bad days, you get out there even if you only make it a quarter mile from the car. Just like with anything, however, there are some tricks we’ve learned along the way.

Photo by @theroamschoolfamily

Start Them Young - There’s no such thing as getting your kids hiking too early. We took Mason on his first “hike” when he was just nine days old. We went to the Oregon Coast and hiked a beautiful trail a quarter mile down to a beach, where I promptly plopped down on a blanket exhausted. The key here was not distance, it was just getting outside from Mason’s earliest days.

Find Friends - Look for a hike community in your area. There are so many great ones out there, from Hike it Baby to Adventure Mamas to checking in with your local parks and what they offer for families with young children. It helps when you have others who can support you on trail in the case of a toddler who refuses to move forward or an eight-year-old who runs ahead too often.

Photo by @theroamschoolfamily

Make it a Habit - How often do you hike? What does hike really mean to you? When you have little kids in the picture or multiple kids, consider altering what you consider a “hike”. This is not to say you have to walk on a paved path, but consider what things are on the hike you want to do. Is there a long flat, bland stretch of dirt road before you get to anything fun to see? Look at the trail through a child’s eyes. The earlier you have some “magic” on the hike, the more excited they will be.

Water Features for the Win - Kids love water features. They love rivers, trickles of water coming down from a wall, muddy puddles, slush piles. What kind of water is on your hike? Can you hike to a little pond or lake? Get to know what critters you will find so you can prep them for the cool frogs, crickets, or lizards that will be there once you arrive.

Photo by Alexandra Wong

Props for the Hike - When Mason was about 2 years old and newly walking, we introduced him to trekking poles. While they were pretty big for him, we noticed that if he was sick of walking we could pop out hiking poles at their lowest setting and he would get all excited about the hike again and proudly march with a pole. Other good things to bring for little ones still in a carrier are small retractable mirrors so they have something to look at or a dangling toy. You can even bring a little plastic dinosaur or a small car. Try to keep an eye on it though so you don’t lose it in the woods.

Make a Map - Kids love maps. Draw a map before the hike and take it out on the trail. Draw things like a big tree, a butterfly or cricket, a snake, a huge rock or a pile of sticks and mark those off of your map when you find them. If you don’t want to make a map, check in with the park and get a map from them and add those items on as you see them on trail. Talk about what things you are going to look for and make a list and mark where you found them.

Photo by @theroamschoolfamily

Promote Stewardship - Ever since Mason was young we have made a game out of how many pieces of trash we can find on trail and take out. We love to bring our haul out at the end and throw it away. Make a game out of it if you have a few kids and the kid with the biggest bag of trash gets to pick a treat on the way home. Make it fun and easy, so it is something kids remind you to do if you forget on trail.

Challenges are Fun - Set a goal with your kid(s) on how far you are going to hike in a month. Make a list of different trails with varying lengths. As you get through a trail, mark it off and watch the miles add up. Have a reward for when you hit different points on the challenge. You can add fun stickers into this one too where you put different trail themed stickers on every trail you nail.

Photo by Deanna Curry

Trail Tricks - Too many times parents will have a goal in mind of where they want to reach on the trail and your little hiker will have a different agenda that day. Don’t halt the hike for a huge temper-tantrum. Carry bubbles or a very thin book and pop them out when that melt-down happens and just sit there and enjoy the spot. Don’t try and push him/her on just because you know they can do it. Sure that can do it, but you want them to enjoy the hike. Blowing bubbles will calm them down and get them breathing or they will dance around and chase them and soon you will be hiking again.

Quit While You’re Ahead - The hike has gone really well and your child may be happy for most of the hike, so that’s when it’s a great time to turn around and head home. Pushing on to go a little further because they “seem fine” isn’t worth it. There’s nothing worse than having to carry a kid back to the car for 3-miles because you forgot that you had to keep them happy coming back after heading out. The best turnaround time is when everyone is still smiling and excited to keep going. You can always make the trip back to the car longer by exploring more on the return journey. Remember it’s the journey that matters with kids, not the destination if you want to keep on getting them out there.

Photo by @theroamschoolfamily

Shanti Hodges is the founder of Hike it Baby, a nonprofit dedicated to getting families out on trail with birth to school age kids nationwide. She’s the mother of Mason River, a book author, and guest blogger for numerous online and print publications. She lives in Southern Utah near Zion National Park.



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