Hiking with children can bestow them with a love of the outdoors and a thirst for exploration that lasts a lifetime. But before the adventures begin, you have to succeed in dragging them off the sofa and into the wifi-free wilderness. Turn square-eyed digital devotees into wide-eyed walkers with these tips and tricks for hiking as a family.
1. Play and plan together
Involving children in the planning of an outdoor adventure can really engage their interest. Show them some potential routes on a map or computer, and ask them to choose which one you do. During the walk, let them carry the map or GPS unit and lead the way for a bit. Afterwards, review the route together to show them how much they’ve achieved – and let them know how proud you are.
2. Take baby steps
Starting small is key. Tailor treks to suit the capabilities of the youngest or least outdoorsy member of your group; the last thing you want is for kids to become tired and upset before the end of a walk. Little heads come equipped with big memories, so it's essential that your early adventures end well. Start with shorter strolls and build to bigger missions; sticking to routes that are comfortably below 10km (6 miles) until kids are 10 years old is a good rule of thumb.
3. Be prepared
Letting kids get hungry or cold during a trek is another avoidable disaster that could dampen their enthusiasm for future trips. Make sure you pack plenty of warm and waterproof clothing (layers are always best), and take lots of food to keep them fuelled. Healthy snacks such as fruit and nuts are ideal, but remember, a sweet treat delivered at the right moment – at the summit of a big climb, for example – can perform magic tricks for morale.
4. Get yourselves geared up
Encourage children to prepare their own small backpack with a mixture of essential equipment and fun extras: a magnifying glass for inspecting insects; a torch for caves, hollow trees and emergencies; binoculars for wildlife spotting; and a camera to catch shots of the grown-ups falling over.
If you have a GPS unit, you could add an extra layer of interest to a walk with a spot of geocaching – a worldwide, everlasting treasure hunt which involves following coordinates and clues to find hidden “caches” containing little trinkets.
5. Keep it interesting
The success of any walk with children depends on how interesting you make it. You know your own kids best, so why not personalize the trek? If they like animals, choose a trail where you're likely to spot wildlife; if they're into make-believe, go looking for fairy houses and trolls within woods and forests.
Most kids love exploring rock pools, caves and dunes, so coastal canters are always a hit. Older children might be more challenged and intrigued by a night hike, when they can search for nocturnal animals with a head torch, or join a full-moon walk such as those offered at Bryce Canyon National Park in Utah, USA. If you can find a hike like the one through the Wood of the Water in the Brecon Beacons in Wales – where it's possible to walk behind a waterfall – you're on to a guaranteed winner.
6. Share the experience
Wild walking is a great way to spend quality time with your children; they'll often chat freely while you wander, well away from digital distractions like their beloved TVs and tablets. Sometimes, though, it's good to let them bring a buddy – if they get a game started, miles are covered without them even noticing. Just beware signs of mutiny – whinging is highly contagious and will quickly spread through a gaggle of kids. Keep everyone enthused by rewarding positive attitudes and achievements.
7. Big-up the backstory
The history, myths and legends surrounding Europe’s many castles, ruins and Neolithic remains will captivate curious little hikers. Go looking for mysterious boggarts in Yorkshire's Peak District, or seek out a camera-shy monster from the shores of Loch Ness in Scotland.
In Australia, New Zealand and America, geographical features are often associated with indigenous creation tales, which can enliven a walk and set their imaginations alight. Kids might even enjoy making up their own stories to go with their surroundings.
8. Aim to please
Make sure your hike finishes somewhere that has real appeal for children. It might be a beach, a castle or a playground, or it could simply be the promise of an ice cream or glass of lemonade – but give them something to look forward to, and deliver on your promises. Keep objectives achievable, but don't be afraid to aim high – kids will feel very proud of themselves.
9. Don’t run before you can walk
Trying to push children along too fast is a big mistake – it should feel like fun, not a race, and if you've left it too late to comfortably reach your intended destination, change the plan. They may want to climb trees, play hide-and-seek, skim stones, kick autumn leaves around, collect pebbles and pick blackberries along the way, and so they should – it's all part of the outdoor experience.
10. Up the ante
Once kids are comfortable with tackling trails, you can increase the adventure level and keep them excited by doing an overnight hike. Most youngsters find the concept of sleeping outside absolutely captivating – and it's still possible to keep things comfortable in the backcountry with hot chocolate and toasted marshmallows. Pick your location and timing carefully – clear skies will make the experience far more enjoyable for everyone, and stargazing in the wilderness is truly mind-blowing for young and old.
Dartmoor has myriad amazing walks and is one of the few places in England that you can legally wild camp, but many national parks all over the world offer safe backcountry camping conditions. In Yellowstone National Park you can even rent a llama to help get gear to your base in the wilderness – and there isn't a kid on earth who wouldn't love to have their own llama for a long weekend.
You might also like:
9 common mistakes to avoid while hiking and camping
How to get your kids to love the outdoors
Wild times: outdoor adventures for every family
This article was originally published in September 2015 and updated in June 2020.