Hiking with kids: tips for fun family walks

Boy walking in the Shropshire Hills

How do you make a walk fun with kids? Some children enjoy going for a walk but sometimes it’s a real challenge to get kids outside so I’ve put together a few ideas to make hiking with kids more enjoyable.

I love to get outside with my two boys – aged nine and seven. Over this crazy lockdown year, we’ve all really appreciated being able to go for a wander or a bike ride in the Hertfordshire countryside where we live. Now that lockdown is easing, I can’t wait to take the kids on some more challenging walks and hikes. A couple of summers ago we did an amazing three-day hike in the Swiss Alps which gave the boys a real taste for longer walks. We also tried rock climbing in the Dolomites – another sport which they’re keen to try again.

One of my boys can walk all day long and not complain but the other one gets bored pretty easily so I’ve learnt to have a few ideas up my sleeve to keep him engaged. I’ve discovered over the last couple of years that it’s a good idea to invest in a few key items to make walking and hiking with kids more enjoyable – both for them and for us parents. Here are some of the things I’ve found which work – you might need to modify them if your kids are younger or older but hopefully you’ll find some of these ideas helpful.

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Normalise family hiking from the beginning

If kids think it’s normal to go for a walk regularly from a very young age, it should be less of a battle to continue this routine as they get older. I managed to get my boys out for a walk pretty much every day during lockdown – it was part of our daily routine. Our walks did get a bit repetitive at times but the sometimes dramatic weather this winter helped – floods, ice, snow and storm damage all kept the boys interested.

child walking over wooden bridge
Get them walking at a young age!

Essential when hiking with kids: snacks

This is so obvious but I’ve often forgotten to take a sufficient number and range of snacks out on our family walks. Sometimes they are very hungry and need carb-rich food to keep them going, other times the snack is more of a bribe to get them to the end of a particularly long hike. Whatever the reason, it’s a good idea to have a range of things for kids to eat.

Choose a family hike with plenty of interesting features

It’s all about keeping the walk interesting.  The more features along the way – steep hills, paths snaking through woods, stepping stones across watercourses, dens to build and trees to climb – the less likely children are to get bored. Smashing ice on a flooded field was a major feature of our winter lockdown walks.

Things to do in Northern Ireland with kids Tollymore Forest Park
Stepping stones over the Shimna River in Tollymore Forest Park, Northern Ireland

Hiking with children: don’t rush them

If you’re following a particular route, it’s easy to try to frogmarch children along it rather than letting them set the pace. If they want to stop and climb a tree, play hide and seek in the bushes, or examine stones on the path then let them. If you end up turning back rather than completing a set trail because you’ve spent too long studying the rocks in the river, it really doesn’t matter.

child exploring den at Heartwood Forest
Exploring the dens at Heartwood Forest in Hertfordshire

Comfortable footwear

This makes a real difference. During lockdown, my boys wore their hiking boots every day. Decent kids hiking boots or hiking shoes are so much more practical than wellies or trainers – totally worth the investment (we often manage to buy them in the sale so they don’t need to cost a fortune).

Having tried out different pairs over the years, we now buy Trespass Harrelson boots for one of our sons – they’re really waterproof and have Velcro fastenings so they’re quick and easy to put on. Our younger son started off with some Mountain Warehouse Drift Junior Waterproof boots which start at a size 6 – perfect for little feet and again have the Velcro fastening. Now he’s a bit bigger, he has a pair of Regatta Kids Samaris boots (we decided he needed boots in a different colour to his brother). These are lace ups and he instantly learnt to tie his laces using these boots – no more football boot lace tying for me now thanks to these!

muddy kids hiking boots
Our trusted Trespass kids hiking boots

Paper maps and online maps

Show the kids the route you’ll be taking on a map first and let them have a go at navigating. If a paper map doesn’t interest them, there’s an endless selection of apps for hiking which their techy brains might engage with more readily. I use the free app All Trails and the Ordnance Survey app.

Ordnance Survey also has a brilliant option on their website where you can custom make a map centred on a postcode of your choice. We have one for our home address which is really helpful for local walks and bike rides.

Let the children decide where to go

Give the kids a few different options – a big hill to summit, a hike in the woods with lots of tree climbing possibilities or a walk around a lake perhaps – they’re more likely to be on board with the hike if they’re part of the decision making process.

children running along stone path in Wales
Let the kids lead the way

And put them in charge on your family walk

If the child who is most likely to complain is given the role of leading the walk, their sense of responsibility and importance is likely to propel them that bit further. Of course, this leadership role might need to be shared with other children in the family if you’d like to have a peaceful walk.

Try not to carry them!

Obviously, if you’re hiking with a baby or very small child, you’ll need a carrier but as soon as possible encourage your little person to walk independently. My children are quite small and light so in the past I did make the mistake on numerous occasions of picking them up and carrying them – bad idea! It’s better to stick to short walks and plenty of distractions.

Hike with friends

The distraction of having a little friend to play with and to chase is a great way to get kids outside walking. Children will be more inclined to hike further if there are other little people in the group and they often won’t notice how far they’ve travelled if they’re busy chatting to their friends.

Children running along farm track
Children often walk further with their friends

Trekking with kids: come prepared for the weather

At the moment, my children are still at the age where I’m more put off by bad weather than they are. They are totally fine being at the beach in the freezing cold in just a t-shirt and they’re more than happy to go for a family hike in the rain. However, if you’re going any distance, it is a good idea to ensure you have decent waterproof gear – raincoat, waterproof trousers and waterproof footwear.

children walking up steps
No such thing as bad weather, particularly in Northern Ireland!

Bring a few gadgets on your family hikes

Once your child is old enough to handle a penknife, this is a really fun tool to take out on hikes. Cutting sticks, pulling splinters out of your hand (I speak from experience here) or chopping up an apple are lots of fun when you have your own little tool. Victorinox has designed a penknife especially for children and you can even buy it in pink.

Magnifying glasses also go down well with our kids – although increasingly these seem to be used as a fire starting aid in our garden – a skill which the boys haven’t quite perfected yet.

Binoculars are great for spotting birds hidden high in the tree tops – or for use in a game of hide and seek.

If you have a set of walkie talkies, these are great fun to play with when you’re out for a walk in the woods. And a good old fashioned compass is a great way to instil navigation skills into the kids from an early age.

And some books

There are lots of good wildlife guides for kids but the ones which my children enjoy are the I Spy series where you can tick off the bird or plant you’ve spotted. They soon get to learn which animals are common species and which are more elusive. The RSPB has a really wide range of books to choose from.

My children aren’t particularly keen on writing but if your child enjoys putting pen to paper, you could try creating a nature journal with them – making a note of what you’ve spotted, what differences you see around you as the seasons change. You might compare one year with the next or compare the development of different species – have the bluebells appeared earlier or later this year? What is the time frame between the different trees coming into leaf?

The Woodland Trust has some excellent swatch books – small guides to identifying flowers, leaves, trees, animal poos and so forth. They make great stocking fillers for kids.

Rucksacks for all

I think it’s a good idea to get your children to carry their own packs as soon as possible. Even if you’re just putting a couple of snacks in the pack initially, it starts them off taking responsibility for carting their own gear around. One of my boys tends to strip off his layers pretty quickly when we start walking so it’s useful to have several packs to distribute clothes between.

woman and children hiking
I try to get my kids to carry their own rucksacks…

Send them on a scavenger hunt

There are plenty of resources online for scavenger hunts but you can also simply write a list of ten things which you know your kids will be able to find on your walk – a feather, an empty snail shell, an acorn, and so on. You could pick a theme to your hunt which fits the season – find 5 different coloured leaves in autumn for example, or look for animal footprints in the snow. Or, my kids’ favourite – how many different animal poos can you find?

Do a night hike with kids

Take the kids for a walk in the dark – perhaps not a long one – to give them a sense of adventure. Our local Scout group does (or did pre-lockdown) an annual night hike in the dark and I’m always amazed by how far the little Beaver Scouts are able to trek.

We did lots of twilight walks in lockdown – the boys loved watching for rabbits and other wildlife, enjoyed the changing skies and the chance to use their headtorches. The sounds are different at night and when the stars come out it feels pretty good to be outside.

children running along a farm track in Kent at sunset
Sunset walks are popular with our kids

And try a rubbish hike with kids

Not an actual rubbish bad hike but a walk collecting rubbish along the way. This might prevent your kids becoming part of the problem when they’re a bit older! Buy one of those litter pickers and grab a bag and see how quickly you can fill it – unfortunately this walk probably won’t take very long.

Walk through a town or a city

You don’t have to go for a walk in the countryside. Lots of towns in the UK have treasure trails organised through the local tourist board and there are often child-friendly organised walks taking in the local history – many of these can be self-led if you’d rather not be part of a group.

City walls of York, York city break with kids
York city walls: a great way to explore the city with kids

One of our boys is very reluctant to walk around a city if we want to go sightseeing whilst on holiday but after a visit to York we discovered that if there are city walls to walk along there’s a lot more enthusiasm. In fact, it prompted me to write a whole article about the best walled cities in Europe – all brilliant destinations for a family city break. There are several in the UK worth exploring – Derry and Chester both have walls you can walk upon.

As well as walls, look for towns or cities with impressive bridges to walk along or towers to scale.

Get creative on family hikes

If it’s autumn, collect different coloured leaves to make a picture or to press. Take paper and crayons to make bark rubbings. Suggest the kids take photos of plants or objects which interest them. My boys enjoy making daisy chains and fighting with sticks – not quite in equal measure unfortunately.

Try a sculpture trail

Sculpture trails are a really great way of encouraging children to walk a bit further. We have the brilliant Broxbourne Sculpture Trail near us – it features around 10 sculptures set along a one kilometre circular track through woodland and it’s perfect for toddlers. The sculptures vary – some are figures and others are animals, some can be clambered on and others need to be hunted for a little bit making for a really fun outing for little ones.

Stag sculpture Broxbourne Woods
Stag sculpture in Broxbourne Woods

Looking for a sculpture trail or garden near you? Read my article about the best sculpture trails in the UK.

Point out landmarks along the way

We do a lot of walks around the villages we live near. There are various landmarks which can be seen from quite a distance – a particular church spire which rises from the surrounding landscape, a couple of water towers and the skyline of a nearby town can also be seen when we’re at the top of a hill. I like to think I’m helping my kids develop their navigation skills when I point these features out – time will tell.

Try geocaching with kids

Geocaching was a really useful diversion when we were in the thick of lockdown – it gave us a new reason to re-visit old walks we had done on numerous occasions. There’s a free app to download and you need GPS on a smart phone. People all over the world hide little treasure caches which are pinpointed on the app’s map. Some are tricky to find and some are incredibly creative. Typically, the treasure is a small container with a few little things which children can take and / or replace.

Walk to a country pub or walk to a “destination”

If there’s a route which includes a pub or café at a midway point, this can be a real lure. Feeding the kids with a hearty pub lunch will also give them plenty of energy for the return leg. If you’d rather keep costs down with a picnic, choose another destination which will keep them going – a play area or interesting landmark at a midway point.

St Johns Castle Odiham Hampshire
A ruined castle – the perfect destination on a walk for kids

Set a goal or challenge on your hike with kids

Climb a big hill, aim to walk a certain number of miles or try doing a walk every month / week / day depending on your circumstances. It’s also good to look for new places to walk rather than relying on the same spots you know. Now that we’re coming out of lockdown, I’d like to try a new route each month so we get to know a few new places.

Child climbing slope in woods
Summit a steep slope

What to do when your kids won’t walk any further

There was an occasion last year when we were discovering new places to walk near us and we took a wrong turning. What had started out as an easy hour’s walk turned into a three hour trek. Our kids did really well and it was only the last mile which became a bit of a struggle. Here are some tricks to keep them walking that little bit further:

Play football with a stone – this was a real life saver with one of my two last summer. He was ready to give up but the distraction of kicking a stone along the path, seeing how far he could kick it, whether he could keep it on the path rather than kicking it into the hedge, and so on, kept him going for ages.

Play I Spy – this is a great distraction when you’re trying to get the kids to walk that little bit further. Our kids like the Animal, Vegetable, Mineral game too.

Play Simon Says – Obviously not all children will fall for this ruse but try it if you’re desperate! Simon says “run” is useful.

Offer a snack for every 100 metres they walk – ensure you have lots of snacks for this desperate measure!

Some kids hiking gear recommendations

Zip off trousers

Our kids love their zip off trousers from Regatta – they’re so versatile when you’re unsure how the weather is going to turn out and it feels like you’re getting two outfits for the price of one – handy if you’re short on space in your luggage.

Hiking boots for kids

As I mentioned above, we’ve tried several brands of kids’ walking boots over the last few years. They have all been really good – comfortable, versatile (fine for running and cycling) and hard wearing. I am only recommending brands which we have actually purchased and the boys have enjoyed wearing.

Trespass Harrelson kids’ waterproof walking boots

These are the boots which my older son absolutely loves. During the many wet winter days of lockdown, he tested their waterproofing extensively and they didn’t let him down! So many hiking boots claim to be waterproof but aren’t – these are really good.

Mountain Warehouse Drift Junior Waterproof boots

Our younger son had these as his first pair of hiking boots. They start in a size 6 so they’re perfect for little feet and they also come in a range of colours. And the Velcro fastenings give young children the independence to put them on themselves.

Kids’ Samaris mid walking boots

These are the boots we now have for our younger son. They’re sufficiently versatile for impromptu games of footie as well as for hiking up hills. The laces didn’t put him off – in fact they incentivised him to learn to tie laces himself. Again, they are properly waterproof and he finds them really comfy.

Kids backpack

One of my boys loves going on Cub camp which means trying to carry all his own gear in one backpack. After looking at quite a variety, we bought him a Eurohike Pathfinder II 25L which is sufficiently comfortable, relatively small but also roomy enough for him to lug all his stuff around. This backpack works well for day hikes and overnight trips.

Waterproof kids clothing

We have a range of waterproof clothes for our kids. One of our boys is a keen cyclist and loves cycling at speed through muddy puddles so he wears an all in one waterproof for this. The Regatta Kids Puddle IV Breathable Waterproof Puddle Suit is a good option as it goes up to age 6. For walks, the boys have waterproof trousers to wear with their rain jackets – the Regatta Kids’ Stormbreak Waterproof Overtrousers are good as they start at age 2.

We invested in some really good Regatta rain jackets for the boys prior to a trip to Northern Ireland last summer – the jackets survived the Irish weather, which was a pretty thorough test of rain and wind (we did have plenty of sun as well in Northern Ireland and I do recommend going there despite the mixed weather!).

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Do you have any top tips for hiking with kids? Let me know in the comments below.

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