5 Tips For Hiking With Young Kids From an Outdoors Dad

By Michael Lanza

After hiking 1,000 vertical feet uphill on the dusty Upper Yosemite Falls Trail in Yosemite Valley, baking under a thermonuclear Sierra sun, we sat on rocks for a snack and a much-needed break. My seven-year-old daughter, unprompted, blurted out, “I’m tired and hungry!” My nine-year-old son was still fuming over having been woken up earlier than he prefers (which was 11 a.m.) for this hike—although we were broiling in the sun precisely because we didn’t start even earlier, when it was cooler. He groused, “If you’re going to wake me up that early, it’s your fault if I complain.”

It was looking like my plan to hike my kids and my 12-year-old nephew 3,000 feet and nearly four miles uphill to the brink of Upper Yosemite Falls—and then, of course, back down—was on the express bus to the graveyard for dumb ideas from overzealous hiker-dads.

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Upper Yosemite Falls Trail, Yosemite Valley.
My family on the Upper Yosemite Falls Trail, Yosemite Valley.

But minutes beyond that moment of epidemic disgruntlement in Yosemite Valley, we rounded a bend to our first view of Upper Yosemite Falls plunging over a sheer cliff through a vertical quarter-mile of air, creating a cloud of mist that rained onto the trail. That—and stuffing their bellies with food—spun the kids’ attitudes 180 degrees. They alternately walked and ran the remaining 2,000 feet of that ascent.

Hike, backpack, cross-country ski, or do anything rigorous outdoors with kids regularly, and there will inevitably come a time when you have an unhappy child who’s complaining he can’t take another step without severe consequences, possibly including death. (Or at least, my kids have been that hyperbolic.) You’re out on the trail, still on the hike—you can’t just call a cab.

Hiking Monitor Ridge on Mount St. Helens.
My daughter, Alex, hiking Monitor Ridge on Mount St. Helens.

What’s a parent to do?

First and foremost, picking a hike that inspires kids will go far in making the outing successful—that partly explained our kids’ positive turnaround in Yosemite. But that was also because I employed other tactics to energize the kids—and you can’t always count on having a 1,400-foot waterfall in your corner.

This article shares tricks I’ve learned while taking our kids—now young adults and eager dayhikers, backpackers, skiers, climbers, and whitewater paddlers—on numerous, mostly successful family adventures since they were quite little, and through my many years as Northwest Editor of Backpacker magazine and running this blog.

As they did for me, I think these tips will help you get young kids through difficult moments on a hike or any outdoor adventure. Please share your thoughts on them or your own tips in the comments section at the bottom of this story. I try to respond to all comments.

1. Take It Easy

Hiking Mount St. Helens in July with the same three kids who were on that Upper Yosemite Falls hike—but three years older at age 10, 12, and 15—I wasn’t entirely sure everyone would have the stamina for it, especially my daughter, the youngest.

Compounding the challenge was the fact that we needed an early start to what would be a long day—meaning not as much sleep as would be ideal. But all three did surprisingly well, practically running down the trail at the end of an 11-hour, 10-mile, 4,500-vertical-foot day.

Why? Besides it being an amazing hike, and the kids feeling a powerful sense of accomplishment, I’m convinced the real key was our slow but steady pace and frequent, short breaks. Although that requires monitoring the time and your progress to avoid finishing really late, our pace and rests gave their small bodies time to recover.

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Young girls snacking while hiking in the Needles District of Canyonlands National Park.
My daughter, Alex (middle), with friends Sofi and Lili on a backpacking trip in the Needles District of Canyonlands National Park.

2. Feed Them More

I could relate an anecdote from just about every family dayhike and backpacking trip we’ve ever taken to illustrate this point. But I’ll describe a moment from that Upper Yosemite Falls hike. A bit more than halfway up, the two boys, excited by the waterfall’s rain of mist, had dashed ahead. My daughter, however, looked ready for a nap. We sat down together and I gave her a big energy bar—which she proceeded to inhale like a snake gulping down a vole. Minutes later, she jumped to her feet and ran after the boys, fully rejuvenated.

Time and again I’ve been reminded: A grumpy kid is often just a hungry kid. They don’t have the fat and energy reserves of adults. Feed them frequently and remind them to drink. Bring food they like that can deliver energy—chocolate, nuts, cheese, bagels, dried or fresh fruit, peanut butter, turkey sandwiches (you get the idea)—and energy drinks if that gets them to drink more.

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Young kids backpacking the Spray Park Trail in Mount Rainier National Park.
My kids backpacking the Spray Park Trail in Mount Rainier National Park.

3. Watch and Listen

My family was backpacking in Mount Rainier National Park, ascending a steep trail, when our son said he wanted to stop and eat lunch immediately. With no place to sit or even drop our packs nearby, we urged him to walk just a little farther, to the top of the switchbacks. His meltdown happened before we got there. He got over it quickly, and was transformed and smiling again after we finally stopped and ate. But we could have avoided that—and kept him happier, which is the goal when taking kids outdoors—by just stopping when he needed to.

The lesson: Don’t be so focused on your objective that you overlook the condition of your charges. When kids obviously need a break and some fuel, just stop, even if it’s not on your schedule. Everyone will be happier.

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A family trekking the Alta Via 2 in Parco Naturale Puez-Odle, Dolomite Mountains, Italy.
My family trekking the Alta Via 2 in Parco Naturale Puez-Odle, Dolomite Mountains, Italy.

4. Just Talk

Hikers seeking quiet might not want to follow my family on a trail. We talk a lot—mostly, I’m happy to say, because our kids like talking to my wife and me. Kids, particularly pre-teens, thrive on attention from their parents, especially when we’re interested in what our children want to tell us. One of the best aspects of getting outdoors as a family is how it affords you rare hours of uninterrupted time to just talk and listen.

So chat them up. Play word games. Talk about whatever interests them; their favorite computer game, movie, or book may not top your list, but they will be excited that you want to hear about it. (And your willingness to listen with interest can help put kids at ease when having more difficult conversations about what’s going on in their lives as they get older.)

Most of all, give your kids your full attention.

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A young boy backpacking the Tonto Trail in the Grand Canyon.
My son, Nate, backpacking the Tonto Trail in the Grand Canyon.

5. Empower Your Child To Do Well

It was late afternoon on what had already been a long, third day of hiking during a four-day backpacking trip in the Grand Canyon. But we had to walk another couple of hours to make sure the next day—with a big uphill climb—would be manageable for our kids. We took a long break to rest and fill up on water.

I could see my son looked tired. I told him, “The others are tired. I’m going to need you to be a leader and help me encourage everyone else.” He eagerly embraced the responsibility—and never once complained that he was tired.

Create a dynamic in which a kid wants to do well. Tell a child she’s a good hiker, and she will come to self-identify in that way and take pride and ownership in that.

See my “7 Tips for Getting Your Family on Outdoor Adventure Trips.”

Learn “Why I Endanger My Kids in the Wilderness (Even Though It Scares the Sh!t Out of Me)

A young girl at Kaweah Gap in Sequoia National Park.
Alex at Kaweah Gap on a family backpacking trip in Sequoia National Park.

Bonus Tip

Okay, there’s one more trick—an old one many parents already know but may not think of when they have an unhappy child on their hands: Promise them ice cream. Or a favorite dinner. Or something special once the hike is over. My kids and nephew practically ran back down the Upper Yosemite Falls Trail when we said they’d get more pool time at the hotel if we got down quickly.

And the next day, descending from a hike up the Mist Trail to Vernal Fall and Nevada Fall, my daughter slipped and fell, skinning her knee and palms. So I walked with her the rest of the way (my wife, son, and nephew ahead of us), playing a game in which we guessed what number between one and 20 the other was thinking of. I bet her an ice cream that she couldn’t guess exactly right—and I made sure she was right.

See my stories “10 Tips For Raising Outdoors-Loving Kids,” “10 Tips For Getting Your Teenager Outdoors With You,” and “10 Tips For Keeping Kids Happy and Safe Outdoors,” and all stories about family adventures at The Big Outside.

See also my Custom Trip Planning page to learn how I can help you plan your next family adventure.

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6 thoughts on “5 Tips For Hiking With Young Kids From an Outdoors Dad”

  1. Thank you. This was very useful. We are immigrants in this great country and never grew up with hiking. So this kind of wisdom really helps us to pass this on to our kids and create great memories. Thank you so much.

  2. Great ideas and article. I am 62 and raised two boys with many outdoor experiences. Meltdowns are going to happen; be prepared to talk through these things. Kids get overwhelmed by the unknown and can be intimidated by the experience. My wife would bring along Boxcar Children books to read along the trail. I would bring along a deck of Garfield Crazy Eights, and when the boys started getting a little squirrelly, we would get out the deck and play a game.

    Get them involved in fixing their problem. A warm spot in a boot, a loose strap or a broken shoelace can all be mitigated by active involvement in the cure. Hard candy on long uphills or at the end of the day can help with distracting the young mind from the task at hand. Most of all, be prepared to modify your trip or stay home if the weather is miserable. A little rain never hurt anyone but being cold AND wet does not make for a quality outdoor family experience. Also be prepared to modify your plans if your child is having a “off” day.

    • Thanks for sharing your ideas and experience, Jim. Regarding cold, wet weather, I’ve long been a believer that you should try to outfit your kids as well as you outfit yourself, to keep them more comfortable and happier.

  3. Awesome post! I remember the lure of ‘anti moaning sweets’ when I was a kid, and regular short breaks to consume fudge certainly got a 9yr old me and my 7yr old sister up Ben Nevis (The tallest mountain in the UK) Get your kids hiking when they’re little and they’ll love it… although you may end up regretting it when the roles are reversed (I took my parents on a couple of multi day hikes when they came to visit me in New Zealand, then I was the one trying to motivate/ take care of them!) We all had fun though, and I’m glad they dragged me on walks when I was little, because I love going hiking now! 🙂

    • Thanks Gemma. Ben Nevis is an impressive hike for young kids; my wife and I did it when our kids were too young to join us. I also want to take my family to New Zealand, where I’ve hiked a few times, now that our kids are old enough for it.