I didn’t grow up in a hiking family. In fact, I took my first-ever hike at the age of 17 with a group of friends. I remember feeling nervous and excited and confused about what to bring and what a hike entailed and how long it would be and how I would fare. Since my family never tried to hike with kids, it all felt very new and overwhelming to me.
Because of my experience, I wanted to put together a very basic guide for other families who may be considering trying out hiking but feel nervous or overwhelmed. This is specifically aimed at new hiking families. It’s especially to help BIPOC families reclaim the outdoors and take advantage of public lands.
If you’re new to hiking, or just new to hiking with kids, I hope this simple guide on how to hike with kids is helpful and encouraging. I’ve listed out questions I had when I was a beginner hiker and just starting to learn about hiking. Please share with other families who may just be starting out on a family hiking adventure!
This post on how to become a hiking family contains affiliate links, but all opinions are 100% my own. That means I earn a small commission if you purchase through my link, but doesn’t change your price.
Question #1: How far should I go on a beginner hike with kids?
When I first started hiking, I had no idea what “qualified” as a hike. I used quotes because there’s no minimum (or maximum) distance to turn something into a hike! YOU get to decide. If you want to call a walk around the block a hike to help get your kids used to the idea, go for it. It’s just words.
That said, I do recommend starting out with smaller distances when learning to hike or starting to getting started with hiking with kids. Start with a mile. Or even half a mile. Find a really short trail with a high reward (a pretty view, a waterfall, rocks to climb, or even just sticks to find) and call it a hike. Build up to slightly longer distances.
We’ve been hiking with kids for nearly a decade now, but have been very consistent with it while RVing around the US. We were a bit out of practice at first and aimed for 1.5-2 mile hikes with kids. After a few months, we have no trouble with 3-4 miles, and have done a few 6 mile ones. Practice makes hiking easier, but it’s 100% OKAY to stick with short distances. The point is to enjoy being together while moving your bodies and appreciating nature. That’s it.
Question #2: What should I take when getting into hiking as a family?
One of the biggest hurdles for me when considering how to get into hiking was the gear. Hiking boots, hiking poles, hiking clothes, a hiking backpack. Base layers and jackets and pants and whatever else. It felt overwhelming.
I’ve realized that you NEED so little to enjoy family hiking. Literally throw on your sneakers and grab a bottle of water (this is my very fave water bottle) and you’re set. Don’t buy a bunch of gear until you’re sure you’d like to start doing it more consistently.
That said, there are a few items that make my life easier when we’re hiking with children. I don’t care about any fancy clothes and wear what feels comfortable to me, which I’ll share below. There are just a few basics that we always take:
Basic Family Hiking Packing List
Kids hiking backpacks. My 9, 7, and 5 year olds all have these backpacks and they are a LIFESAVER for when it’s hot or if we’re doing a slightly longer hike. They can drink regularly without stopping a bazillion times to pull out a water bottle, and then they can carry their own sustenance.)
Shoes. My kids either wear hiking shoes (boy, girl, toddler), hiking sandals if there’s water (boy, girl, toddler), or plain old sneakers. I wear normal sneakers or hiking sandals if there’s water (worth it to have good hiking sandals as it’s zero fun to hike in wet sneakers). I also really prefer wool socks while hiking as they wick moisture and help prevent blisters, but they’re definitely not necessary.
Backpack with snacks and water. This is our favorite backpack because it has great support and lots of compartments and is waterproof, but any backpack will do. Take lots of water and food and also a small (non-melty) treat. Everyone can use a bit of encouragement once in a while.
Clothes. Whatever is comfortable and you don’t mind possibly getting a bit dirty. Seriously, wear whatever you want. No one will think twice about it. Shoes are important for providing good support but clothing is much more flexible. It’s nice if it’s wicking but you’ll be fine regardless if you’re doing a shorter hike so wear whatever the heck you want. I usually wear workout leggings or shorts and my favorite workout top. My kids wear shorts or leggings and a t-shirt or whatever else they pull out, sometimes even a dress. If it’s cooler, you can pack a jacket or base layers.
Related: Best Kids Hiking Gear
Other Hiking Essentials with Kids
There are a few other things you’ll want to make sure you have on hand when hiking with kids. Bandages (these are the only bandages I buy), antibacterial ointment, or just a small first aid kit. You can apply sunscreen or bug spray beforehand and leave it in the car for a short hike. Bring some sanitizer or baby wipes (my favorite scent) to use before having a snack.
Question #3: Where do I find kid hiking trails near me?
The Internet is my main resource for finding nearby hiking trails. Alltrails is my favorite resource for discovering new trails in a certain area. I also google “hikes in [city name]” or “kid friendly hikes in [city name].” It’s easy and you’ll most likely get tons of results. You can also ask friends and neighbors.
Public lands are also incredible resources. If you’re near a National Park (read how to get a free family pass to all National Park sites if you have a 4th grade student!) or other site administered by the National Park Service, remember those are YOUR LANDS. They belong to you just as much as anyone else and you don’t need to be an expert to use them.
You can also use National Forest Service sites, state parks, Bureau of Land Management (BLM) lands, and tons of other public lands. This can help you find National Park sites in your state, or you can search for “state parks in [your state]” and your state’s website should pop right up. Most of these sites will give a list of different trails with distances and difficulty so you can find the best hike for a family.
Question #4: How do I stay safe as a hiking family?
Again, having not grown up hiking, I didn’t really have a concept for what animals or insects or anything else that I could encounter while starting to hike. Would it be dangerous? Would I fall off a cliff?
Turns out, the vast majority of hiking trails are not going lead you to dangerous wild animals or off a steep dropoff. There are some basic safety precautions that you can take, though, which also help me feels safer to know:
Hiking Safety Tips for Families
- Hike in a group and make a bit of noise while hiking.
- Always carry a map (either paper or digital) and let someone know where you’re going.
- Pay attention to your surroundings so you know how to return, and so you notice any animals or dropoffs.
- If hiking in bear country, know basic bear safety rules. Same with other animals in the areas you’re in.
- Use your ears in addition to your eyes – you’ll often hear things like rattlesnakes before you see them.
- Don’t approach wildlife. Keep your distance.
- Make some noise on the trail but not so much that you’re obnoxious to other hikers.
- Keep kids close by.
- Don’t hike in thunderstorms.
- Do a full body check for ticks after your hike.
Question #5: Can I go hiking with a baby?
Sure! We’ve started hiking with our babies as young as 3-4 weeks. It all depends on your own comfort level. You can use a baby hiking backpack, but honestly, I prefer using our everyday baby carrier. To me, it’s more comfortable and lightweight. So you absolutely could use specialty baby hiking gear (which you might prefer) but it’s also 100% okay to just use what you have on hand.
I hope this answered some of your beginner hiking questions if you’er a new hiking family. Please let me know in the comments if you have further questions about how to hike with kids!
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