What to do When Your Kid Does Not Want to Hike

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.

Pinterest collage with text what to do when your 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.

Grumpy boy on trail

HELP! MY KID IS WHINING AND DOES NOT WANT TO HIKE!

Be patient

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.

Hiking in colorado with kids

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.

Eating snacks on the trail
kid cold on the trail while hiking

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.

Girl is proud of herself for reaching the summit.

Give Praise

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!”

Girl grumpy on the trail

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
Girl climbing rocks on hike
parents dancing on trail hiking with kids
Kids on tree on a hike

HELP! MY KID does not want to hike and IS HAVING A TRAIL tantrum—should we turn around?!

Distract

“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.

Girl crying on a hike
KUHL

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!

Boy playing in sand on a hike

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?
Girl throwing tantrum because does not want to hike
Campmor

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.

kids eating ice cream after a hike

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!).

Dad carrying 2 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!

Girl doesn't want to hike
Outdoor Cooking

Turn around

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.

Mom and kids on hiking trail

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.

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67 Comments
  1. Melissa

    Love this, great ideas to get motivated to hike more.

    Reply
  2. Maya

    Loved the pic of your kid filling his shoes with sand.. Such a fun post

    Reply
    • raisinghikers_Kristin

      Haha, he ALWAYS finds the soft sand on trails and plops right down. We laugh that he would carry his loader on hikes if we would let him.

      Reply
  3. Kelly Godbout

    So good ideas! I don’t have kids but I was curious to see what to do when it happens! You said very good ideas! Your ideas could even be applied to me when I found the hike too difficult and that I’m only concentrated on my pain. I could apply your ideas to forget the pain!

    Reply
    • raisinghikers_Kristin

      Yes, absolutely! These tips help for anyone hiking, not just kids. We all want to give up sometimes! 🙂

      Reply
  4. Rachael

    These are great tips. We have a 2 year old and 9 month old and are so excited for the summer so we can hike more. We don’t do huge hikes but this is great advice and we will need to remember it as they get older!

    Reply
    • raisinghikers_Kristin

      That’s awesome that you get out there with your littles! Those are such fun ages for being in the outdoors. Challenging at times for sure so I hope these tips can help! 🙂

      Reply
  5. Lauren Robinson

    Love this! We have been doing a lot more hiking recently and will need the tips once our 2 year old gets too big to carry!

    Reply
    • raisinghikers_Kristin

      Yes, that’s a big step. You will do great!

      Reply
  6. Maggie Jarratt

    These are great ides for when my little one gets a little older. Thanks for sharing.

    Reply
    • raisinghikers_Kristin

      You’re welcome! I hope they are helpful later on for your fam!

      Reply
  7. Tiffany

    All great ideas – and can assure you now that mine are 13, 17, 19 they actually look forward to our hikes! Who would have thought it!

    Reply
    • raisinghikers_Kristin

      That’s my wish for my kids!! I love hearing that. 🙂

      Reply
  8. Cindy Moore

    Excellent tips! In general my kids loved to hike and explore. However the youngest rode in a stroller until she was four. When she had to do her own walking it was sometimes a challenge!

    Reply
    • raisinghikers_Kristin

      That’s so great that you instilled that love of hiking and exploring!

      Reply
    • raisinghikers_Kristin

      Thanks for reading!

      Reply
  9. Jason Gowin

    We haven’t taken a hike per se since our twin sons were born two years ago, with their age and some medical issues….but we have taken some longer walks/bike rides that some of these tips will definitely work to help with our oldest who has on occasion given up on a bike ride or walk. Thank you.

    Reply
    • raisinghikers_Kristin

      Yes, we face some of the same challenges in neighborhood walks and bike rides. Sometimes they can hike 8 miles and sometimes they can’t make it around the block. You never know which it’s going to be. 🙂 Glad you found the tips helpful.

      Reply
  10. Carolyn

    The “power pellet” is genius! I wonder if other colors would work in other situations. Yellow can be “Silence is Golden” and orange can be “No, we’re not there yet so stop asking”!

    Reply
    • raisinghikers_Kristin

      Isn’t it?? I love that idea of different colors having different meaning. I’m sure that would work, haha!!

      Reply
  11. Kendra

    Great tips! I have some awesome picture memories of me trying to get my temper-tantrum-fueled middle daughter down from the summit of a Colorado mountaintop when she was around 3.

    Reply
    • raisinghikers_Kristin

      Oh man! Been there!!

      Reply
    • raisinghikers_Kristin

      Thank you! 🙂

      Reply
  12. Suzan

    Oh the memories 😅

    Reply
    • raisinghikers_Kristin

      Haha, I bet! 🙂

      Reply
  13. Jill DeMasi

    This is awesome! Making everything a game is always a good approach with kids. And the incentives are helpful always!

    Reply
    • raisinghikers_Kristin

      Yes games keep it light and fun….and incentives keep everyone moving. 🙂

      Reply
  14. Debbie

    Great suggestions for those challenging times 🙂

    Reply
    • raisinghikers_Kristin

      Yes, definitely a challenge at times, but worth it!

      Reply
  15. Larissa

    Great tips! Thank you:). You made me actually think that hiking with a family is not just about adventure. It’s also preparation, communication, planning, dealing with issues… all the sudden the world hiking got wider for me. Thank you for sharing:)

    Reply
    • raisinghikers_Kristin

      Yes, more than adventure while making everyone think it’s just adventure. Haha! 🙂 Thanks for reading!

      Reply
  16. Danielle Ardizzone

    Would it be wrong to tell them you see a bear, so you have to hurry? Asking for a friend…

    Reply
    • raisinghikers_Kristin

      Haha, definitely a strategy!

      Reply
  17. Faye

    I love the game ideas – I am all about sparking wonderment in young children, sharing a whimsical magic of nature with them. I find that when they see the world with wonder they are a little more likely to keep on keeping on

    Reply
    • raisinghikers_Kristin

      Yes, absolutely. That’s the joy of nature!

      Reply
  18. Whitney Woodley

    My son loves nature but some of these tips would make our outdoor adventures 10000000000000 times better! Thank you so much for sharing!

    Reply
    • raisinghikers_Kristin

      Haha, Yes! Hope they help on your next adventure!

      Reply
    • raisinghikers_Kristin

      Yes, most definitely! All strategies with kids usually work on adults too. 🙂

      Reply
  19. Tiffany

    I am going to start using versions of these with my husband! Coming up with some games and bribes now. LOL

    Reply
    • raisinghikers_Kristin

      Haha! I bet it will work just the same. Let me know how it goes! 🙂

      Reply
  20. Sandi

    Your photos being back many memories. Being hangry is a big issue, for sure.

    Reply
    • raisinghikers_Kristin

      Yes, for all of us!

      Reply
  21. Alexis Farmer

    I don’t have kids, but can still appreciate this! Gotta get creative with them sometimes lol.

    Reply
    • raisinghikers_Kristin

      Yes, exactly! Thanks for reading!

      Reply
  22. Chelsea

    LOL! I’m busting up at the last one “Turn Around”! Oh man, we’ve had to do that SO many times. But lately we’ve been going for other options like “I Spy” and my kids LOVE music, so we’ll put out Spotify on one of our phones and they’ll sing and dance as we walk/hike. Great tips!

    Reply
    • raisinghikers_Kristin

      The parenting walk of shame. LOL!

      Reply
  23. Barbara

    This is awesome! You’re doing great Mama! Do what works for you! ENJOY every minute! It is so true that this is a blink in time and all of the sudden they are not coming home for spring break with you anymore! 🙁

    Reply
    • raisinghikers_Kristin

      It goes so fast!

      Reply
  24. Marianne

    I laughed pretty hard at some of those pics! Do you have suggestions for OLDER kids who are having tantrums while hiking… like 13 year-olds?? LOL. The “power pellet” Tic Tac is definitely genius! Nowadays, I bribe with extra time on their devices or special treats that they get to choose. Hiking is an important part of a lot of our vacation itineraries, so I do what I need to do to keep us moving!

    Reply
    • raisinghikers_Kristin

      I was pretty proud I was able to find these pics! I have no ideas other than usually the same things that work on my little kids, works for me so I assume the same for teenagers. 🙂 I think you’ve got the right idea with incentives! That’s awesome to hear you incorporate hiking into your family travels. We hope to do the same when they are teenagers!

      Reply
  25. Sabrina Anthony

    Such a cute blog! I really enjoyed reading this. It brought back many memories of my kiddos. Thanks for sharing.

    Reply
    • raisinghikers_Kristin

      Thank you for reading! 🙂

      Reply
  26. Tammy Horvath

    Praise and bribing go a long way in getting kids to do what you want them to do.

    Reply
    • raisinghikers_Kristin

      Yes, they do!! We try everything!

      Reply
  27. Keirsten

    These are great suggestions. Love the pics of the temper tantrums haha. Going to share this with my neighbour, her son is always losing his mind on their daily walks haha.

    Reply
    • raisinghikers_Kristin

      Yes, please share! Those moments can be so tough but I remind myself it doesn’t last forever and the good moments outweigh the bad.

      Reply
  28. lisa Manderino

    I loved this post! It made me laugh because I have had so many melt downs with my kids when we have hiked! All your ideas are great and we have used them many times!

    Reply
    • raisinghikers_Kristin

      Glad you can relate! It’s not what we remember, but there is usually at least one meltdown on every hike. 🙂

      Reply
  29. Megan

    I realize it probably wasn’t your favorite at that moment, but I am LOVING that pic of her laying down on the trail!! It really just sums up parenthood when you try so hard to give the kids a fun time! 😆😂

    Reply
    • raisinghikers_Kristin

      Haha, yes, it sure does! You can tell we are taking it from afar in one of those “we are just going to keep moving” moments.

      Reply
    • Alice

      These are great ideas for hiking with kids.

      Reply
      • raisinghikers_Kristin

        Thanks! Glad you found them helpful!

        Reply
      • Julie Ann

        These are some great tips! I love changing the perspective from a hike to an adventure, and the sensory element did actually calm me – LOL.

        Reply
        • raisinghikers_Kristin

          Yes, perspective really helps (for all of us!). Thanks for reading!

          Reply

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