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How to Hike with Kids of Different Abilities

How to Hike with Kids of Different Abilities

How do you keep all your children happily hiking when one is barely walking and the oldest can outrun you? This can be tough when you have kids going in all different directions at different speeds. Older kids can keep an adult pace, while toddlers hike at a slower rate.

Hiking with kids of different abilities doesn’t need to be stressful, but having some tricks in your pocket will help.

Family Hikes are a Team Sport

One of the most important things I do before a hike is to remind my kids that we are a team. We arrived at the hike together, and we are going to leave at the same time. The only prize for racing down the mountain ahead of everyone else is a long, boring wait at the end. 

Our family team “wins” only if everyone is still smiling at the end of the trip.

We use a combination of different strategies to keep everyone moving at approximately the same pace and cheerful even with a wide range of hiking ability levels.

The Portable Child: Hiking with an Infant

This age is pretty easy to hike with, as long as you are properly equipped. Hiking backpacks or infant carriers will enable you to introduce your littlest ones to the woods.

While children change rapidly during this age and you’ll need to stop often to attend to diapers and feedings, they are also very portable. Find a hiking backpack or carrier that is comfortable for both you and your child and can be used with children of multiple sizes.

Do you need a baby or toddler backpack? Check out our reviews here.

How to Hike with Kids of Different Abilities

The Semi-Portable Child: Hiking with a Toddler (8 months to 3 years)

Toddlers will spend the majority of hikes in the infant carrier but they will also want to explore on their own. Be prepared to stop and let your little one pick-up sticks, examine wildflowers, and draw you into the wonder of a slower hike.

If you want to transverse longer distances, you may want to plan your hike during your child’s naptime. Many of my kids have happily napped in the carrier while the older kids and I walked.

How to Hike with Kids of Different Abilities
Stuffies can hike too!

As your toddler becomes a more confident walker, encourage him to hike on the trails. He’ll naturally begin to build strength over time. This might be a frustrating time for everyone. Try to keep the older kids (or impatient adults) engaged with some of the strategies listed below.

The Training Stage: Hiking with a Young Child (Ages 3-6)

This is perhaps the most challenging age to take on a longer hike! They are too large to fit into a carrier and a backpack but their little legs quickly tire.

As you navigate this age with your child, remember that your goal is to teach your child to love to hike. These years are the investment you will make to hopefully raise a happy hiker.

How to Hike with Kids of Different Abilities

Hiking with Kids Training Tools

Teach them to “Freeze!”

If you have a faster child with a toddler, teach both to play the game “Freeze!” When you yell, “Freeze,” everyone stays as still as possible. Let them be goofy in their frozen position and keep it fun. This will slow down the older children while the younger catch-up.

This game is also important for safety. If your kid knows to stop when you yell, “Freeze!” you can protect them from danger. 

Select easier trails with great payoffs.

Look for shorter trails with places to swim or climb. My kids are so excited about the opportunity to explore that they forget how challenging the trail is. 

How to Hike with Kids of Different Abilities
Tunnels and challenges can be exciting!

Play I Spy.

Play games like spot the mushrooms to keep your child moving forward. One friend of mine told her girls that pinecones were hedgehogs and encouraged them to collect some “pets” as they hiked.

Use sound effects to have fun hiking

Sound effects help! Maybe it’s a boy thing, but my littles have loved making sound effects as they jump over rocks or scramble over branches.

Set short hiking goals for kids

Can you touch the tree with the blaze? Where is the next blaze? Do you think you can scramble over that rock? By breaking the hike into smaller, achievable challenges, the child focuses on what he can do right now, rather than feeling overwhelmed.

A little silliness goes a long way on a hike!

The Explorer: Hiking with An Older Child (6-12)

Children at this stage may be proficient hikers or they could use a little extra encouragement. They still tire easily and might need frequent breaks. Many of the strategies mentioned earlier help with this age as well.

Some older children will rush ahead, abandoning the rest of the family. For safety’s sake, these guys need to be slowed down.

How to Hike with Kids of Different Abilities

How to motivate a slow older hiker

Make Hiking a Game.

One of my children invented a “switch” for himself. He tucked a twig between his fingers and would manipulate it to an “on,” “off,” “fast,” and “slow” position. His mental play made the hike more interesting and gave him a little bit of control over his speed.  

Hold their Hand.

One of my children becomes quickly discouraged when returning from long hikes. When I held his hand and asked him to share about something he’s passionate about, he perks up and can continue hiking.

Ease Their (Hiking) Burdens.

I usually start all of my children with a pack of their own. They love the idea of carrying their hiking accessories, but as the hike progresses, I will often carry the pack for them. The sense of relief and freedom seems to reinvigorate my youngest hikers. 

How to Hike with Kids of Different Abilities

How to Slow Down Speedy Hikers

Suddenly after years of coaxing and encouraging, your oldest can outrun you down the mountain! Short of getting a herding dog to rein her in, here are some strategies to keep her with the rest of your pack.

Give Them Scavenger Hunts.

To slow down faster hikers, challenge them to find things on the trail. In the fall, I have told my kids to find the strangest mushroom they can, and in the spring, they look for flowers. I may also encourage them to collect some items, such as fallen leaves or acorns for crafts.

Create Climbing Challenges.

If It is safe, I allow my oldest to climb rocks along the side of the trail, if it is permited. My youngest can catch up while he scrambles up whatever rock or tree appeals to him.

Weigh them down.

Let the oldest kid carry the youngest’s pack. The weight will slow down their hiking speed while preparing them for longer hiking activities. My oldest enjoys backpacking and he doesn’t complain as much about carrying someone else’s pack if he knows he’s preparing for a backpacking trip. 

Bring Out the Hiking Accessories.

Cameras, binoculars, books, flower presses, drawing pads, and compasses can turn a rigorous march into a joyful exploration. Older kids can focus on exploring the environment while waiting for their siblings. 

How to Hike with Kids of Different Abilities
This guys loves having his camera, compass, hat, and backpack!

You might want to tell your older kids that they can use their drawing pad or camera when their youngest child is hiking. If they know they will be able to do something interesting, they might be more willing to stop.

Use your snacks wisely when hiking with kids

Often my children become demoralized while climbing a particularly steep section of trail or when trudging home after a long hike. When they seem completely exhausted, my husband and I use small snacks to encourage them.

Give hiking snacks special names

We give the snacks silly names – partly for fun and partly to invoke the power of the placebo. The placebo effect was first observed in drug development when researchers noticed that patients who received a pill that contained no medication still improved. Their belief that they were receiving medicine for their condition caused them to improve slightly.

I use the placebo effect to give my kids the extra boost they might need on a long hike. Gummy bears become Mighty Bears, and Starbursts are renamed Power Bursts. Dried apricots are Energy Chews. Jumping Jelly Beans. Climbing Cookies. You get the idea.

While our family limits the number of sweets we eat, we also know that hike requires lots of energy, and hangry hikers are horrible companions.

Use snacks as rewards to small goals accomplished when hiking with kids

We also give the children goals before they can get their snack. My husband’s smartwatch alerts him every time he climbs the equivalent of 10 staircases. We have put that watch on a child and every time it buzzed to celebrate 10 staircases, we let him have a piece of dried fruit.

He loved watching the number of staircases increase and anticipating a small reward. Similarly, we have given the kids a tiny treat every time they hiked a specific distance.

Need some tasty snack ideas? We have you covered.

Keeping Everyone Safe on a Family Hike

The ultimate goal of a family hike is everyone has fun AND gets to the end safely. Here are two best tips for family hiking safety as far as keeping everyone together. Also be sure you have your first aid kit packed!

Use Walkie Talkies for family hikes

Sometimes hikers can forget to look behind them and before they realize it, they have hiked out of earshot from you. A walkie-talkie (that’s turned on!) can help you communicate with your faster hiker. We love Rocky Talkies for their durability, long battery life and ease of use for even preschoolers. Use code “mtnmama” for 10% off.

Hike with a Friend.

A friend can motivate slow hikers and speed up slow ones. I highly recommend bringing another adult, if possible. It’s so helpful to have one grownup with the older set of kids and one helping the little ones.

Friends also make the hike more enjoyable for everyone!

How to Hike with Kids of Different Abilities
Thumbs up at the summit!

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How to Hike with Kids of Different Abilities

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