Ask Me: Hiking With Preschool-Age Children


You are living the dream!  My wife and I are really enjoying your work through the magazine articles and your most recent book, keep it up.

We have two young daughters (2 and 3.5) and just relocated to the Seattle area. We are trying to have them grow up appreciating the outdoors and are getting out on the trail or snow several times a week. I am seeking your council since your kids are several years ahead and you obviously did it right. We are approaching that weird phase where the kids are getting too old for backpacks, but too young to be walking the whole trip. We are fearful of keeping them in the pack too long because they never want to get out of it!

Any suggestions for making the leap between short mileage day trips and longer mileage trips when the kids are young?   We have the younger on in a backpack still, and are pushing the 3.5 year old to walk as much as she can, but realistically this limits your mileage to really about a mile roundtrip if you want to avoid carrying her for part of the way.

I was thinking of getting a second backpack and maybe splitting the mileage up for them… 1/2 mile in the pack, 1/2 mile out, etc… and of course making sure they having fun and the trail is interesting for their view of the world is a given.

How did you deal with this phase?  There are so many great things here in the Pacific Northwest, and most of them are more in the 5+ mile range. I know I just need patience to let them grow up and gradually work towards longer mileage, but was wondering if you had any suggestions to gradually taking on longer trips.


Seattle area

Hi Chris,

Thanks for writing and for the nice words. I always appreciate hearing from readers.

The Northwest is my favorite part of the country. Your kids are very fortunate to be growing up there and to have you as parents.

I remember well the ages your kids are at right now. It’s the most difficult time in terms of getting outside with them, and it honestly just forces you to set more modest goals—there’s no brilliant way around that reality. But I always looked at those times as an investment in my future (and my kids’ futures, of course), because I’m nurturing their love for the outdoors. That time period passes quickly, too, even if it sometimes seems like it isn’t.

The single biggest piece of advice I would give you is to let your kids walk as much as possible, and plan on going slow. You want them to learn that they’re hikers, not getting carried all the time. I know parents who always carried their kids when they were small, probably out of impatience more than anything; then the kids got bigger and didn’t want to hike. Take short breaks frequently, tell them you’ll carry them on your shoulders for a short distance to give them a brief break, but then they can walk.

My wife and I would also split up: one parent going ahead with the older child who can walk faster (and a little farther), the other going more slowly with the younger child, with the faster pair eventually turning around to all meet up again. And I would do father-son trips with my son (our oldest) when he was ready for bigger objectives and our daughter was still too little.

Also, take trips now that little kids can manage: backpack a short distance for an overnight on a stream or lake (kids love water). Take easy, low-skills river trips like the Green River in Canyonlands. Visit national parks where many really cool features can be seen on short walks, like Yellowstone and Mesa Verde. (I haven’t yet posted a Yellowstone in summer story, but I have posted about cross-country skiing in Yellowstone, one of the most fun trips our family has done, something your family could probably do in four or five years).

I wish I could tell you there’s some magic way to make it seem like your kids aren’t little and a lot of work to get outdoors, but I can’t. However, on a positive note, do things they can manage now, that are fun for all of you, and keep them hiking. I think you’ll see them turn a corner as soon as around age six, when they will be able to hike farther.

I hope that’s helpful. If you haven’t seen these already, I think you’d be interested in my posts “10 Tips For Raising Outdoors-Loving Kids” and “My Top 10 Family Adventures,” as well as a story about an annual tradition we’ve created of taking a family ski trip to a backcountry yurt. You’ll also find numerous stories, photos, videos, and trip-planning information about my family’s adventures by clicking on the Family Adventures category in the left sidebar.

Thanks for reading The Big Outside and my book. I hope you’ll tell your friends about both! Keep getting those kids outdoors and they’ll continually surprise you with what they can do. Mine have. Keep in touch.



Thanks for the response and suggestions, I really appreciate them. The article on “10 Tips” is a great one, with the 10th tip being a struggle for sure. After working all week, it can be tough to justify that personal time away from the kids to go on some adult sized trips. However, the role model concept to draw them along is interesting, and certainly helps keep your own sanity/stamina.


[In Ask Me, I share and respond to a reader question. Got a question about hiking, backpacking, gear, or any topic or trip I write about at The Big Outside? Send it to me at [email protected] or tweet it to @MichaelALanza. I will answer the ones I can in a post, using only your first name and city, with your permission.]



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7 thoughts on “Ask Me: Hiking With Preschool-Age Children”

  1. Another thought is to go car camping in an area where you want to hike. Do the hike, come back and let the kids recharge and then just explore their surroundings. They don’t need a trail with an end point in mind to enjoy the outdoors.

  2. Great perspective on making the outdoor excursion pint size and focusing on the long run. However, here’s another tip (for when they’re a little older). Don’t underestimate your children’s ability to farther. Remember much of the endurance/muscle power is proportional – they may have smaller muscles, but they also have smaller bodies! I’ve been amazed at how far my children could go at around 5 or 6.

  3. If you are doing hiking with children, then you should select the route of the hike is small or to hike in a loop that will help you back by the car or campsites. And it is also required to taking all the basic requirement of kids like sunglasses, sunscreen e and proper meal.

  4. Chris, I have two kids similar in age (2.5 & 4) and also live in the Seattle area. The question you asked Michael is exactly something I’m currently struggling with too, so thanks for asking!

    Another thing that might be helpful is hiking with other families with similar aged kids, as the kids can distract each other, and I imagine push each other to go just a bit further (no different than how adults can push each other). I’m always looking for new hiking partners, so feel free to reach out if you ever want to do a group hike. jason (at) jasongraham(dot)me

  5. Great suggestion, Betsy. We’ve had similar experiences with our kids on local trails. Thanks for sharing that.

  6. Another trick that has served our family well is to revist one particular, initially challenging hike several times as the children are growing up. If you are frequently visiting new terrain the children never get a clear sense of how they are progressing as hikers. Our family, children ages 8, 6, and 3 hikes the same mountain at least twice a year. These hikes provide the children perspective on their improved hiking abilities. Along the way we remind them,”Remember last time, you need a rest when we got to that rock. Now you are able to hike right on by!” They also encourage each other. Our oldest said to the youngest on our last hike, “Don’t worry buddy; this was hard for me once, too!”