How can we get our kids to have fun on a hike?

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We are parents of a three and five year old.  We've always loved the outdoors, and we hiked and backpacked frequently before we had children. When we could carry one child in a backpack a hike of two miles was manageable. But for the past year we have stopped hiking at all because our kids are such a pain when we try.  They're active, rambunctious kids, but they tend to complain and whine so much that we don't enjoy ourselves.  Other parents don't seem to have as much difficulty as we do.  Are we being unrealistic to want them to shape up?

No, it's not unrealistic to want your children to join you in the outdoor life that you enjoy.  Most children like to spend time with their parents and a family hike can be a good way for them to have you to themselves.  However, it’s possible that your idea of a hike may be different than your kids’ idea of a hike! If you want them to love the outdoors as much as you do, you may have to take their stage of development in consideration when you make your plans. I used to call hiking with my children “aerobic waiting”!

Children are very different from adults in the way that they experience an activity.  They are interested in what they are doing at the moment.  They are not goal oriented.  The challenges that quicken the pace of adults: “Let’s hike for a two-mile loop”, "Let's hike to the top of that ridge", or even "There's a great view on the other side of the hill", are not usually motivating for a child.  Children rarely hold back on a hike because they're lacking in energy--they simply don't share the adults' idea that a brisk, steady pace is fun.

If you would like your children to be eager to join you on your hikes over the years, try to lower your expectations now.  Don't set goals, or choose hikes that require that your child keep up a steady pace.  Choose trailheads that offer a variety of loops and take the shortest to begin with.  If your children aren't worn out at the end of a hike they'll be more willing to try a longer one another day.  Stop along the way to investigate leaves and stones, bugs and lizards, and all the minute views that children prefer to larger vistas.  (As you investigate, remember the sensible rule "Hands and feet should never go where eyes can't see" to avoid nasty surprises!)

What is realistic? Here are estimates for the distance a well-conditioned child can cover in a day of hiking:

4-6 years old:  2 to 4 miles on easy terrain

7-9 years old:  3 to 5 miles on variable terrain

10-13 years old: 5-7 miles on variable terrain (this age group is more motivated to "keep up" but these children are also prone to injuries if they are not regular hikers and overdo it) These distances are “average”. If you are at high altitude or the day is hot, your expectations should be less.

Remember that the distance on a map is not "kid distance".  If you plan a four mile hike with a couple of active six year olds, expect them to race ahead at top speed for the first mile, perhaps doubling the trail distance as they explore byways off the main trail.  Predictably, just as adults  are relaxing at a comfortable pace, children will be ready to rest.  "Fun" to a child is playing around, not pacing yourself so you won't get tired too soon.   Parents can often help a child to maintain a steadier pace by telling stories or singing songs so that the child wants to stay in stride with them.  But if your child has worn himself out and needs to rest, taking a short break will be more effective than arguing, even if you've only been hiking for twenty minutes.

No matter how long the hike, carry a backpack with water, juice, and plenty of snacks.  The promise of "Lunch in a beautiful meadow" won't hold off a hungry child.  If the day is hot, stopping often and insisting that your child take a drink can prevent heatstroke, a problem for children who get hot, sweat a lot, but don't pay attention to being thirsty until they are dehydrated.  A backpack should also hold a change of socks and pants, since most children will go out of their way to get wet, and a jacket in case the weather changes.  It’s best if children should wear long pants, even on summer days, because of the risk of tick bites, but if parents carry a few spray bottles to mist everyone with water along the way the kids won't be so uncomfortable.  A basic first aid kit is essential for family hikes.

If you can focus on family fun and enjoyment of being together, your children will probably learn to love the outdoors.  Over time, they will want to try new and longer trails because they'll look forward to spending the day with you.  For now, you may have to settle for the pleasure of watching your children play in the woods while you stand and wait, wait and walk, and occasionally get to hike at the pace you remember from your pre-children days.