Most people assume that my kids always enjoy hiking and are excited to hit the trails. While sometimes this is true, there are also many times we start out with reluctant hikers or they “hit a wall” and do not want to take one more step. I just don’t have many pictures of those moments! I tried my best to track down all of the captured grumpy hiker moments I could. We are currently in an in between stage where our 4-year-old and 6-year-old are getting too heavy to carry on a long hike, but don’t always have the stamina to make it to our destination. Throughout the years I have picked up some tips for hiking with kids that work (most of the time) when my kid does NOT want to hike.
We’ve all been there. The hike started out great, everyone was on board and excited for the adventure and a mile (or 10 steps) into the hike their legs just DO NOT WORK. They may start whining, slowing down, crying, or (my favorite) actually sitting in the middle of the trail and refusing to move. This picture can scare many parents away from hiking at all, and I get it! But I truly believe that the best family memories, learning opportunities, character building, and quality time is spent on the trail so it’s worth getting your kids outside—even with the potential that there may will be some unpleasant times. With that in mind, having these tricks in your back pocket when your kid does not want to hike will help you feel more prepared and ready to tackle those trail tantrums!
HELP! MY KID DOESN’T WANT TO GO HIKING—DOES SHE HATE THE OUTDOORS?
Don’t call it a hike
Maybe you haven’t even made it those 10 steps or out your front door and you are already being met with resistance about the idea of this “fun hike.”. Setting the tone for the day and gaining their buy in will significantly improve their spirits and motivation for the hike. I’m going to wager that your child does NOT hate the outdoors. A hike by definition is just a long walk, usually uphill, so focusing on that aspect of the day is not very appealing. Instead of saying “we are going on a hike!” try “let’s go explore a forest, or find a waterfall, or climb some boulders, or throw rocks in a lake, or adventure.” It also helps to genuinely be excited about this outing yourself. Kids often feed on your excitement (or stress). If you are stressing about what to pack, where to go, etc., they aren’t going to be very convinced that this is something they should look forward to.
HELP! MY KID IS WHINING AND DOES NOT WANT TO HIKE!
You know how they say dogs can smell fear? I think kids can smell “hurry.” If I am in a rush or give off the impression that we need to go quickly, I am just begging for my kids to slow down to a crawl. Instead, I try to take it slow and appear that I’ve got nothing but time.
Check the vitals
Do your kids need a water, snack, potty or a break to rest their legs? Are they too cold or too hot? I offer water as much as possible and always keep it accessible in our pack. Feel your child’s hands and ears to see if they need gloves or a hat. This is when planning in advance and being prepared with everything you need on a hike is critical. Be sure to check out my post on What to Pack When Hiking with Kids to keep your daypack fully stocked.
Remind them how proud they will be when they complete the hike
This strategy works really well for my 6-year-old. She enjoys the sense of accomplishment and pride when she reaches the summit. Start building this early with comments like “you must feel so proud of yourself right now for walking on your own!” or “You haven’t needed to be carried this whole hike, how does that make you feel?” or “Wow, that was a steep hill and you climbed it!” I am freaking proud of my kids on how far they can hike, the elevation gain they can conquer, and their resilience to the forces of nature, but my goal is for them to feel proud of themselves so that they want to persevere when it gets hard or they are tired. That will go a lot farther on the trail (and in life) than me bring proud of them.
Everyone loves positive reinforcement and wants to live up to how amazing you just told them they are! I am seriously amazed with my kids on the trail a lot of the time. And when I have that thought, I tell them! Sometimes I can see they are on the cusp of becoming grumpy hikers and I muster up some artificial praise that really helps. It may sound like “wow, it is so cool that you’ve hiked all this way. You are so strong! I wonder if we could make it 10 more minutes and then take a well-deserved break. Let’s set a timer!”
Bust out some entertainment
I do not mean toys or technology. My favorite hiking entertainment are games or activities that don’t require any materials and can be launched into at any time. Most of the time, all it takes to get your little hiker moving again is to infuse some fun. Some of our favorites are:
- Guess what animal I am (20 questions)
- Make up a story together, go around and let everyone add to it
- Sing a song or make up a song together
- Tell jokes (we can seriously do this one for hours and they are NOT good jokes, but we all think we are hilarious!)
- Alphabet games—how many animals can you think of that start with the letter B?
- Play I-Spy—guess something you see based on hints (color, etc)
- Trail dancing (my personal favorite)
- Parkour – jumping off of boulders and tree stumps
- Walk like an animal
- Collect sticks or small rocks
- Truth or dare—dare the kids to do some adventurous tasks (within reason) on the trail
HELP! MY KID does not want to hike and IS HAVING A TRAIL tantrum—should we turn around?!
“What was that sound??? Did you hear that!?” Sounds in the wild are my absolute favorite distraction. There is usually some sound out there that you need to be reeeeallllly quiet in order to hear. I often feel like a Jedi Master with this one; at least with my 4-year-old son. My 6-year-old daughter will not be fooled with this strategy, but I imagine she gets a kick out of me trying and she will definitely play along when it’s being used on her brother.
Provide a sensory experience
Nature is filled with sensory opportunities and engaging the senses can help activate a different part of you child’s brain. This can look like taking a break to play in the dirt with their hands, feel the bark of a tree with their fingers, look up at the tops of the trees and watch them sway, close your eyes and listen for birds or wind blowing leaves, take deep breaths with your nose and out with your mouth to smell the fresh air of the trail. I bet if you pictured those sensory activities, you just became calmer yourself. It can work the same on upset kiddos—so let nature’s magic do the work!
Give them choices
This is the age-old parenting trick where you give kids two choices, both of which you are okay with. On the trail I try options like:
- Would you like to walk on your own or would you like me to carry you?
- Do you want to run or skip up the trail?
- Would you like to take a leg break right now, or find a nice flat rock to take a break?
- Do you want to hike holding mommy’s hand or on your own?
- Do you want to be the leader and hike in front with strong legs, or hike in the back at a slower pace?
Bribes & Incentives
I would like to say that I always use well thought out rewards and incentives, but let’s be honest, sometimes it’s just a straight up bribe. Rewards or incentives are planned in advance in order to reward positive behavior. Of course, I recommend using these too! A reward could be ice cream as a family after finishing the hike or the special treat when you reach the lake with a good attitude. A bribe sounds more like “if you stop crying and start moving, I’ll give you an M&M.” Bribes can definitely backfire as you want to avoid rewarding negative behavior, which can lead to more trail meltdowns just to earn that next M&M. But used sparingly (or when you have tried everything else), they can work! I recommend keeping it to something small and even making it fun. I overheard another hiking mom give her child a tic tac and called it a “power pellet.” I thought that was genius and is just the right kind of fun bribe that can trick any kid into pushing on. Here’s a true trail incentive after the kids hiked Piegan Pass like champs in Glacier National Park.
Just keep moving
Sometimes the change in scenery is all a child needs to get motivated again. Moving to a different area on the trail provides new opportunities for adventure to emerge on the trail. But “just keep moving” is sometimes easier said than done, as I am definitely not recommending leaving your child behind. Even though I have 4 & 6 year old “big kids,” I still bring a soft structured carrier for these times when I need to pick them up and keep moving. My favorite choice for these circumstances in the preschool sized Kinderpack because it can carrier kids who weigh up to 55 pounds. It has saved me from turning around on many hikes and if the whining/tantrum/meltdown/cold hands/(insert miserable situation) is on the way down from a hike it allows us to make it back to the car quickly. Or, sometimes it looks more like this (Daddy carrying both kids!).
Cut yourself some slack
Remember, it’s okay for your kids to have trail tantrums. While nature can positively alter the family’s mood, kids are still going to have big feelings and moments when they are not happy on the trail. Whenever I am “parenting in public” there is a sense that I have to keep my kids under control or not ruin anyone else’s experience with their crying. I have found that letting them work out their feelings and have their moment to calm down works far better than forcing them to be on their best behavior on a hike. It’s the wild after all!
Of course, this is not the advice I want to give, but sometimes it really is best to call it a day. This one is super hard for us as we often have a destination in mind, and not reaching that goal is a tough pill to swallow. We drove up to the North Cascades in the fall and camped near the trailhead so we could get an early start on a hike that was on our bucket list. Five minutes into the hike, we had to turn around. We were not prepared for the cold weather and had two inconsolable kids. I had to remind myself that the goal is to raise hikers who actually enjoy hiking and sometimes forcing it will only do more damage.
I hope these tricks help when your kid does not want to hike or if you are faced with the dreaded trail tantrum or mountain meltdown. Even on our “worst days” in the wild, the memories are usually positive, and at a minimum the pictures are beautiful. What we remember isn’t that meltdown or that it took us way longer than we had planned. What we remember is the family time together, the beautiful scenery, the rocks we got to climb, the pride we felt in making it to the destination, and sometimes the sore legs and back from carrying kids. But mostly, the beautiful scenery.