First question: Are you sure you want to do this?
Just kidding. Of course you do. Introducing a child to the great outdoors is a wonderful experience—for you and them. Though as any parent or nanny-for-the-day knows, you need a plan—whether it’s a trip to the grocery store or a hike in the wild. You’ll also need a Plan B (possibly C and D) for when Plan A inevitably ends in a diaper disaster or pre-teen tantrum. Don’t worry, we’ve got you.
The upside (why it’s worth it)
You have a captive audience. They go where you go because, even if they’re old enough to walk, you’re going to end up carrying them most of the way anyway. Have your purpose-built sling, pack, carrier, and/or arms at the ready.
The downside (hope for the best, prepare for the worst)
Even in the best of circumstances, you proceed knowing you’re always a few minutes away from one meltdown or another. Are they hungry? Cold? Warm? Tired? Overexcited? Need a bathroom break? Just had an unplanned bathroom break? Yes. Always, for one reason or another, yes.
Are we there yet? (peak length/duration of your hike)
Some people take babies and toddlers on thru-hikes across hundreds of miles for weeks at a time. That’s heroic. For everybody else, just sneaking in some Netflix after bedtime is a dodgy prospect. Play your hiking ambitions safe at 3-5 miles or less round-trip (up to two hours on mild to moderate terrain). Keep in mind that it typically takes longer to cover ground on a hiking trail than a walk around the neighborhood, and doubly so with kids.
What to bring
You can’t bring everything, so make sure to stow a strategic change of clothes, age-appropriate snacks, blanket, sanitary wipes, disposal bags, and a favorite toy or stuffy. For the littlest ones, also stash diaper bag essentials (bottle, diapers, pacifier, teething ring, etc.).
This is a golden moment when they are old enough to really enjoy nature, ask questions, make observations, and enjoy romping through wilderness. Plus, they’ll be able to experience it hands-on (often literally) with their own boots on the ground.
They may be able to readily walk under their own power now, but that doesn’t automatically mean they will do so without a tug-of-war. When possible, aim for morning treks when they’re still feeling energized and not yet obviously in need of a nap—or a time-out.
Are we there yet?
Your benchmark doesn’t differ much from the Little Ones given they’re now doing all (or most) of the hiking themselves. Aim for 4-6 miles or less (up to three hours on mild to moderate terrain). Note the same hydration rules you adhere to—roughly ½ liter per hour hiking, more in hot conditions—apply to kids too. Plan on frequent breaks to catch breath and sip water.
What to bring
A trail map, physical or digital. Go over the route beforehand and empower them with the opportunity to be expedition leader. Whatever you gear up with—hiking shoes, jacket, etc.—equip them in kind. But carry a backpack with essentials like snacks, water bottles, sanitary wipes, disposal bags, basic first aid, and an emergency change of clothes, because… kids.
They may now be able to match you stride-for-stride. And tackling the trail with your progeny might even start to resemble hiking amongst friends. Plus, there’s an opportunity to walk out—and talk out—some of the curiosity and angst that comes with preadolescence.
Even if they can match you stride-for-stride, they maybe can’t even. The inevitable mood swings of this age group might not always match up with what the trail brings. Even worse, you could find they’re waiting with quiet exasperation for you to catch up instead of the other way around.
Are we there yet?
The resistance might start well before you even begin your hike. “Do we have to?” may be a familiar phrase. But if they’re at all interested in venturing outdoors, you can aim your sights a bit higher at 6-8 miles or less (up to four hours on mild to advanced terrain).
What to bring
Listening ears. Nuggets of wisdom. Whatever you’re wearing will work for them too, except the right-sized version of it. Also, pack snacks (possibly more than you think you’ll need), water bottles, sanitary wipes, disposal bags, basic first aid, etc. And though they’re capable of dressing themselves, it still doesn’t hurt to throw some backup gear in the car.
Whether you’re taking your first crack at hiking with kids or you’re a seasoned pro, just remember that the only thing predictable about it is that it’ll be unpredictable. Keep a level head, light heart, and bounce in your stride. This is supposed to be fun, after all. And the journey—even an attempt that goes sideways—really is more important than the destination.