How to Teach Your Kids to Enjoy Hiking

Build their confidence through experience and always keep it positive.

Kids looking out over Howe Sound
My kids look out over Howe Sound in Squamish, BC.

K Martinko

Hiking is one of my family's favorite things to do. Ever since my kids were babies and I had to haul them along trails, first in a front carrier and later in a backpack, we've been getting out of the house on most weekends to explore, get exercise and fresh air, and seek a much-needed sense of connection with the outdoors. 

A good, long family hike gives us a sense of accomplishment at the end of the day and boosts everyone's mood. It creates opportunities for conversation, brings us closer with shared memories and experiences, and is a great way to pass time without spending money. It also builds resilience in children.

But how do we do it? I get this question a lot from friends and strangers who express surprise at my elementary school-aged children's ability to trek 10-mile portions of the Bruce Trail, close to where we live in Ontario, Canada, or their willingness to climb 2,800-foot peaks in the Rockies. Their children don't even want to walk to school, they say, let alone slog for hours in rough conditions, so what's the secret?

It's not a secret so much as years of slow and deliberate training to get them to this point. By that I don't mean physical drills; I mean building their confidence through experience (getting hikes of varying length and difficulty under their belts), of hiking with regularity so it just becomes part of our family routine, and of always ensuring the experience is positive through parental attitudes, good gear, snacks, and small rewards. 

I've put together a list of the things I think about whenever we head out on a multi-hour hike. This list has expanded over the years, as I've learned what works and what doesn't. Not every family's list will look the same, but for anyone starting out hiking with kids, I recommend you keep these suggestions in mind.

1. Eat Before You Leave and Carry Food

It's not uncommon for us to have a quick bite in the parking lot before we strike out on a trail. That way you avoid kids complaining about being hungry within a few minutes of starting. I always pack snacks like nuts, fruit, jerky, chocolate, and homemade cookies or granola bars—but these are served at official stops, not just handed out freely.

2. Pack Lots of Water

Don't skimp on water. There are few things more miserable than hiking while thirsty. I let my kids drink as much as they want because they can always stop to relieve themselves along the way, but there have been times—like a recent ascent up Grouse Mountain in Vancouver, British Columbia, in 90-degree weather—when we did a spontaneous hike and had to ration our water. In that case, I would issue little challenges to my kids to climb another 50 or 100 steps before we stopped for a sip of water.

3. Show Them a Route Map

Kids like knowing where they are in the world, and maps are perfect for helping them to understand that. I always take some time at the trailhead or at the car before we leave to show them where we are, where we're headed, and what the journey will look like. Point out landmarks that they will see. We talk about how long it will take so they don't ask me, "Are we there yet?" 

climbing the Chief
My 6-year-old nears the top of the Stawamus Chief mountain in Squamish, BC.

K Martinko

4. Invest in Good Gear

Kids need good footwear to feel secure on the trail. Don't set them up for failure with shoes that lack tread or ankle support or give them blisters. You can find excellent secondhand hiking boots at thrift stores since kids tend not to wear these out before they outgrow them. Make sure they're adequately protected from sun, rain, and bugs, otherwise the experience can be miserable. Apply sunscreen and bug spray (if needed) before you start, and bring extra along. 

5. Build in Some Rewards

Everyone performs better knowing something nice awaits them. I don't hesitate to offer my kids little treats at the end of a multi-hour trek, like the promise of an ice cream cone or, as my friend provided recently, a box of artisanal donuts waiting in his car for our return. They've certainly earned it. 

In colder weather, my husband likes to bring a lightweight camp stove to make hot chocolate for the kids and coffee for the adults at the halfway point. We find a nice spot and take a break to refuel; it never fails to boost morale, not to mention give us parents a nice caffeine boost.

post-hike donuts
Post-hike donuts after a portion of the Bruce Trail, Ontario, Canada.

K Martinko

6. Learn Some Trail Tricks

Let the kids lead for a while, which instinctively makes them go a bit faster. Teach them how to look for trail markers and interpret them. 

Invite another family to join, especially one whose kids know how to hike, too. Having company will spur all of the children to be more engaged and motivated to push forward.

As the parent, express wonder and amazement at the beauty of your surroundings. This sets a positive tone that children will absorb. We try to identify bird, animal, plant, and tree species whenever possible; the more these names get mentioned, the more inclined my kids are to look for them themselves. The "Outdoor School" book series has been amazing at teaching them to identify species.

Remember, it's not about the speed: it's about steady progress. The last thing you want is a burnt-out child who can barely continue. So set a slow, comfortable pace, and have fun!