The weather’s crisp, the leaves are changing and it’s the perfect time to enjoy a hike with the whole family. With the kids in tow, hiking isn’t as easy as strapping on a daypack and a pair of hiking boots. You have to plan ahead, from attire to navigation to keeping the little ones occupied. Here are seven tips to make the most out of fall hiking with young kids.
When picking a kid-friendly hike, choose shorter, easier trails with natural features such as lakes, streams and lookouts. Let the kids set the pace, so you can slow down and take in the details of your surroundings. Even if you feel like you’re taking it easy, make time for breaks — at least a 10-minute break every hour, according to the National Park Service (NPS).
A snack break can motivate and revive little ones, according to the Washington Trails Association. Pack energy-filled fare like trail mix, fruit leather and celery with peanut butter. Feel like your snacks are weighing down your pack? Then you may be on the right track: According to the NPS, your food and water should be the heaviest weight in your pack.
Encourage kids to sip water along the hike, even if they aren’t thirsty. For every hour of hiking, the NPS says you should drink about half a liter (a little more than two cups) of water or sports drink.
Before your hike, be sure to check the day’s weather conditions. Whether it’s brisk, sunny or raining, you’ll want to be prepared. Pack what’s necessary — rain jackets, a sweater, dry socks — and you can always leave some additional supplies in the car. Regardless of the projected conditions, bringing an extra change of warm, dry clothes is always a good idea for the kids’ nap on the car ride home. Besides planning their clothing, you’ll want to be sure your little ones are wearing the right fall hiking shoes. Open-toe varieties could lead to more stubs and possibly bites or rashes. Instead, opt for a closed shoe with some traction.
It’s probably best to stick to the beaten and fully marked path when you’re with the kids. After all, back-road country trails may be a little too treacherous for little ones. Be sure to pack a map of the entire trail, a compass and a flashlight to help you to navigate and get back to your car. If your children are old enough, this could be a perfect time for an introduction to map reading.
Children typically have short attention spans, which is why a hike down a dirt path can get boring, fast. To keep kids smiling, have a few nature-focused games in your back pocket, such as I spy, spot the signs of wildlife, stop and listen or let’s draw what we just saw.
If your little one wants the true hiking experience, pack a small backpack for them to wear, equipped with sunscreen, bug spray, a small toy and a first aid kit. Because they may tire of wearing the pack, be sure you have room in yours to tuck it in.
The nice thing about hiking with kids is that it forces you to slow down and notice what’s right in front of you — animal tracks, a bird’s song, a stream’s cool water on your fingertips. You may not reach the end of the trail, but that’s OK — it’s about the journey as a family, anyway.