How to make hiking fun for kids
Hiking is a wonderful way to spend some uninterrupted time outdoors with your family. It can be done with kids of any age and doesn’t cost a dime. However, sometimes getting everyone on board to hit the trails is easier said than done.
We talk a lot about family hiking on the blog, including How to Actually Get Out the Door, Best Hiking Gear for Kids, and How to Prevent Trail Burn-Out. Hiking with kids looks different than hiking on your own. It is important to plan your hikes with your kids’ interests and abilities in mind and to set appropriate expectations.
That said, even the best-planned hike can spiral into a disaster when kids start getting tired, hungry, or bored. In order to motivate them down the trail and boost the fun, we’ve compiled 50 ideas to keep kids busy on a hike. These ideas cover a wide range of age groups and interests; some can be modified to work for different ages. If you’ve got multiple kiddos in tow, check out our post on How to Hike with Kids of Different Abilities.
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Hiking snacks for kids
The power of snacks cannot be overstated; thus, they deserve their own category. There are few things worse on a hike than dealing with a hangry toddler (or a hangry teenager, for that matter). Not only do snacks keep kids occupied while eating them, but they stave off the hangries and are excellent motivational tools.
We typically bring special snacks that are reserved just for hiking that we don’t give out at other times. But for the most part we try to stick to pretty healthy snacks so we don’t feel guilty about plying them on profusely. Check out our post on Kid-Friendly Snacks for Adventures for some great ideas.
Once everyone is well-fed and happy, it’s time to spruce up your hike with some fun trail activities. There are tons of games and tasks that you can do to keep minds engaged and feet moving forward.
Engage the Senses
1. Describe Your Surroundings
Have your kids make observations using all five senses while they hike. Do this as you walk down the trail or pick points to pause and take it all in. Listen for birds, feel the differences in bark from various trees, taste safe plants and berries, smell flowers and moss.
2. Let Them Lead
Allow the kids to take turns as hiking trail leader with the job of pointing out anything new or interesting things they notice for those following behind.
3. Forager Pockets
Kids can take a backpack or forager pockets to collect edible plants or nature items of interest to them. Perhaps it is a giant acorn, a found bird feather, or a leaf to press from a newly identified tree.
Note: Be sure to research and accurately identify safe, edible plants in your area. Remember to follow Leave No Trace principles when hiking in parks or on public land in both the backcountry or frontcountry areas.
Let kids to document their hike with pictures by bringing a camera along. They can also use a camera to “collect” items in areas where they cannot forage or take anything out.
Help kids observe more by bringing a pair of binoculars along. Use them for bird watching, wildlife viewing, or just checking out your surroundings.
6. Magnifying Glass
Like binoculars, a magnifying glass allows kids to gain a different perspective and inspect things in a new way.
7. Nature Journaling
Find a nice spot along to trail to stop and allow kids to record everything they have observed. Journals can involve writing or drawing, and be as simple or elaborate as they wish. Check out our post on how to get started with nature journaling.
Play Hiking Games
Finding some great games to play while hiking is half the battle – it’s all about distraction when the going gets tough!
8. Alphabet Game
Choose a particular topic, like animals or foods. Starting with the letter A, each person takes turns naming an item that starts with that letter. Then continue through the alphabet until you reach Z. Alternative: have each person identify an item they can see on the trail that starts with each letter!
9. Twenty Questions
A classic. One person thinks of a person, place, or object. Everyone else must figure out what it is by taking turns asking strategic questions. The group has twenty questions total to figure out the answer.
10. I Spy
Another classic, especially for smaller kiddos. One person spots an object in view and tells the group “I spy with my little eye something…” and name the color of the object. Everyone takes turns looking and guessing until they locate the correct object.
11. Find It
Pick any item you might see on the trail and see who can find it first. It might be something common like a yellow flower, a flying bird, a mossy rock or something more elusive like deer tracks or a bird’s nest.
12. Hide a Friend
Bring a favorite toy or stuffed animal along for the hike. Run ahead and hide them in a place reachable from the trail, then have kids find them. This is a great way to keep little feet moving forward down the trail!
13. Hide and Seek
Like Hide a Friend, the finder stays back while the hiders all run ahead and hide. The finder then tracks them all down as they progress down the trail.
14. Count Them All
Pick one or more items that can be seen in multiples on the trail, like trail markers, squirrels, or a certain type of tree or plant. Keep count of how many you find throughout the hike. Bonus: give a prize at the end to the person who find the most!
15. Scavenger Hunt
Before your hike, make a list of several items for kids to find. Choose easier items for young kids like a red leaf or an acorn, and harder items for older kids like a sugar maple leaf or a particular wildflower in your area. Their goal is to find all the items before the end of the hike!
16. Nature BINGO
Much like the Scavenger Hunt, but items are arranged in a traditional BINGO grid. Instead of finding ALL the items, the first one to find all the items in a row wins! Click here to download our free Nature BINGO printable!
17. Silly Walk
Get crazy on the trail by choosing a different walks for everyone to imitate: maybe a waddling penguin, a head-bopping chicken, or a bull-riding cowboy. Take turns choosing.
18. Name that Tune
One we’re all familiar with… One person sings or hums a favorite song and the others have to guess the title!
19. Follow the Leader
Everyone walks in single file behind and must follow exactly where the leader goes and walk exactly how the leader walks. Mix it up with some fancy marching, zig-zagging, or skipping!
20. Rainbow Hunt
Another one that keeps kids moving forward—have everyone find one item along the trail that matches each color of the rainbow: red, orange, yellow, green, blue, and purple.
21. Follow My Footsteps
Like next-level follow the leader on muddy or snowy trails! Each person must follow along exactly by stepping only in the leader’s footprints.
22. Trivia Games
Especially with older kids, try to stump one another with fun factoids while you hike. Rotate through topics that interest your kids, like sports (Which baseball legend was nicknamed the Great Bambino?), music (What color was the submarine featured in the popular Beatles song?), or history (Who invented the telephone?).
23. Track the Bear
This one is also great for muddy or snowy trails when you bring a dog along. Let the pup take the lead and show its tracks to the littles in the group. Let them track the “bear” down the trail. (Unless it’s a small dog… then maybe track the “fox?”)
24. Escape the Lava
On a trail with lots of roots and rocks, the ground has turned into lava! Kids must hop from rock to rock and avoid stepping directly on the dirt.
25. Guess What Animal
One person selects an animal they know about and give out hints regarding where they live, what they eat, their appearance, and their behavior. Everyone takes turns guessing after each hint is given.
26. Time Trials
Pick a spot up ahead like a trail marker or a certain tree and have kids race to it. You can time them to improve their speed or let them compete against one another. For each race, set the finish line further ahead to keep them moving down the trail.
27. Hidden Treasure Chest
This is one of our favorites that we do on a local trail we frequent: the pirates keep a treasure box (old tin) hidden in a hollow log, and we check it for new treasures (restocked by mom and dad) each time we hike there. The treasure box just happens to be located halfway along the loop, so it motivates our four-year-old to hike in and back out happily!
Develop Outdoor Skills While You Hike
28. Let Them Carry Their Gear
Kids as little as two years old can start carrying their own pack with a minimal amount of gear. Carrying their own gear in a fun kid-friendly pack gives them some responsibility and makes them feel empowered.
29. Involve Them in Planning
Especially with older kids, let them choose the trail, help pack the gear, and plan when and where to take breaks. Having a sense of control and leadership can really boost morale.
Pull out the maps and compasses and brush up on those navigation skills! Start out in local parks and set obvious checkpoints, then graduate to more remote trails as your skills improve.
31. Teach Wilderness Safety
This is an important one that every family should do! Discuss safety topics such as what to do if you encounter wildlife or get separated from the group. Review the 10 Essentials you should always carry while hiking. While on the trail, role play though different scenarios to help familiarize kids with safe practices. Check out our post about Hiking Safety for Kids for more tips.
32. Nature Identification
While hiking, identify any birds, insects, plants, or trees along the way. Oftentimes, you can find identification guides for local wildlife to carry with you, or you can take pictures and look them up after you return home.
Learn how to track and identify wildlife by looking for prints, scat, or other signs. Read a book or article before you go to find out what animals live in your area and what to look for.
34. Hansel and Gretel
For out and back trails, mark your path by drawing X’s in the dirt or building small cairns (or mini-snowmen if it is wintertime) to follow back on the return journey.
35. Hike on Different Terrain
Keep hikes interesting by selecting trails with different terrain or features: changes in elevation, boulder fields, or stream crossings introduce a challenge and break up the monotony.
36. Hike at Night
Hiking after dark opens up a whole new world. Start by catching a sunset then grab some headlamps and explore your favorite trails from a new perspective!
37. Hike in Different Weather
There’s no such thing as bad weather! Outfitting yourselves in appropriate rain gear and heading out in a shower can be a fun, exciting adventure. Or bundle up and try snowshoeing or even cross-country skiing!
More Ideas for How to Make a Hike Fun
38. Bring a Friend
Few things motivate kids to keep moving down the trail more than bringing a friend along. Everyone hikes stronger, has more fun, and lasts longer. Friends can also help introduce you to new areas or point out things you may have never noticed, even on your favorite trails.
39. Bring a Pup
A great way to help kiddos pick up the pace, bringing a dog gives them a fun companion to lead down the trail. Don’t have a pup in your family? Offer to walk the neighbor’s dog instead!
40. Sing Songs
It can be as simple as Row, Row, Row Your Boat in a round or as complex as singing a church hymn with multiple harmonies. Bring back silly songs from summer camp or memorize the lyrics to your favorite songs for outdoor kids.
41. Tell Stories
Fall back on old favorites like Paul Bunyan or Little Red Riding Hood or enlist those imaginations to come up with new tales. Make it more fun by having one person tell part of the story, then have another pick it up and keep it going—take turns to see where it leads!
42. Pick Up a Stick
Kids slowing down and losing motivation? Have them keep an eye out trailside for a good hiking stick—once they find one to use you’ll be surprised at how they will pick up the pace.
43. Walkie Talkies
Who doesn’t have fun playing with walkie talkies? Assign each other handles and use CB radio lingo to make it fun: “Come in, Swamp Fox, we’ve got a wildlife spotting—two deer eastbound—over.” “Roger that, Red Leader. We’ll keep an eye out on approach. Over and out.” TMM recommends Rocky Talkies (use code “mtnmama” for 10% off!)
Turn your hike into a treasure hunt! Find a hidden cache using a GPS-enabled device. Take a trinket and leave a trinket for the next hunter to find! Never done it before? Check out our post on how to go geocaching with kids.
45. Set Break Points
Kids generally need to take more breaks than adults. Let them know when the next stop will be—to the top of the next hill or at the next bench or log. Knowing just how far they have to go will help keep them motivated.
46. Set a Goal
Sometimes it can be hard for kids to just hike “to the end of the trail” or “back to the car.” Instead, select hikes with a waterfall, historical site, or other feature as the final destination to hold their interest.
47. Collect Litter
Bring a trash sack and have everyone keep an eye out for any trailside litter. Not only does this teach them stewardship, but having a task can keep kids engaged and you can even turn it into a game with a prize for whoever collects the most!
48. Leave Painted Rocks
At home, let your kids paint pictures or motivational messages on small rocks, then bring them onto the trail and let the kids place them at strategic locations for other hikers to find and take with them.
49. Stop Often to Play
Kids often find hiking monotonous. Allow them to break it up by stopping to throw rocks, climb on logs, dig in the dirt, or investigate anything they find interesting.
50. Set an End-of-Hike Reward
We’re not above some good ol’ fashioned bribery to keep kids motivated. At the end of the hike, go out for some ice cream or hot chocolate to celebrate a job well done.
You may not need all 50 ideas to keep kids busy on a hike, but as parents it helps to have a lot of tools in our toolbox! Above all, our priority is just to help our kiddos have fun. Remember, the goal is to develop a love of the outdoors in our children and make hiking a part of our family’s lifestyle. Hopefully these ideas will help you do that!
Have any more ideas to keep kids motivated on the trail? Please share them with us in the comments!
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