We love hiking with our kids. But, sometimes it can be a challenge. They have tiny legs and are just learning how to push through discomfort for a greater reward…like a waterfall or amazing view. So with some trial and error we present to you, our top tips for motivating kids while hiking. To start off, I have a bonus tip: make sure everyone (including you) is well rested, fed, hydrated and comfortable before you even start hiking. And bring plenty of snacks and water to continue the comfort. When people and kids have their basic needs met and know those needs are going to continue being met they are genuinely more happy and at ease. So with that in mind let’s get motivated!
1. Prepare Everyone. Before you even start, give a general overview of the hike to the best of your knowledge. If you have no idea what to expect then you should do a bit of research 😉 In your overview cast the vision for your hike. Is there a river to play in, a lake, rocks to climb or cave? Make the hike worth it in your kid’s mind. If none of you have been to this location before, set the tone of exploration and excitement. Try not to hike just for the sake of hiking, pick a hike with a fun aspect. Even a view can be rewarding for kids. My 7 and 5 year old love when they reach the top of a mountain or round a bend in the trail and can see for miles or see our car way back in the parking lot, so tiny.
2. Be positive. Don’t mention the steepness, difficulty or length of a hike. Unless it’s to let them know it’s challenging for you as well, come along side them and work together to conquer the hill. Countdowns work really well too. In approximate minutes or miles let them know how long you have to go. Little’s won’t necessarily grasp the concept of a mile or minute but this is a good way to help them start to understand and they will hear the numbers getting smaller and that will feel like progress when they feel like it will never end and they will die hiking.
3. Cheer each other on, this is contagious. Your kids will naturally repeat what they hear and if they hear positive affirmation from you they in turn will give it. My hubby and I encourage our kids to scamper over rocks and then marvel at their mountain goat skills or, if they are having a hard time, walk by them and chat to take their mind off of their struggle. Our last hike was at a high altitude and steep, so I was carrying a baby and breathing pretty heavy. The baby, who has gown up hiking and hearing encouragement given to his brothers, leaned forward and told me ‘it’s ok mama, you can do it! Go mama!’ Encouragement really is contagious even to the littlest among us.
4. Take breaks. Not long ones where you can stop and really think about your aching feet or tired legs. But just enough to catch your breath, drink some water and share your favorite thing so far or something you saw. Focus on that positive and then keep going!
5.Distraction. Some times when you’re working hard to get up a hill or the sun is baking you it’s easy to get quiet and trudge through. But our kids internal talk is much like ours. (ugh, it’s hot, my feet hurt, my back hurts, how close are we, I hope we are close, my legs are tired) But as adults we have to ability to push those thoughts aside. Your kids might get overwhelmed with them. So talk, encourage, point out interesting nature finds, let them carry pinecones and sticks and play their way up the trail. Distract them from their internal dialogue. Hand them a camera/phone and let them capture what they see (depending on their age, I cant be held responsible for your toddler dropping your device;) Play eye spy, find shapes in the clouds, sing songs, tell stories, get creative.
6. Get silly. We have a child that is prone to ‘tired legs’ while on the trail. He gets overwhelmed and wants to just sit down and give up. So, my brilliant hubby pretended to have robot legs that didn’t get tired and he could walk forever. Well this spurred some competition and filed the imagination of this boy. He put on rocket legs and was jogging up the trail and they created boosters and at one point worked together to charge each others batteries. He forgot about his tired legs for the rest of the trip. Be inventive. Don’t get frustrated that they are tired or whiny or weren’t quite as hearty as you had hoped. Big breath and get creative!
7. Have little mantras…When we hike we have little sayings that are easy to say and easy to remember. They change based on the hike and the needs of the day but here are a few we have used. ‘don’t forget to look up’ (it’s easy to just watch your feet that you forget to take in the beauty around you) ‘every time you walk through shade take a drink’ (this works well for hot hikes with partial shade) ‘always keep one foot on the ground’ (kids want to jump from rock to rock but when sand and gravel is involved things can get very slippery) and our very favorite ‘heavy toes’ We say this when walking down hills especially on slippy rocks and gravel. Tell your kids to picture heavy weights or elephants sitting on their toes. This gives kids a great visual to put their toes down first to prevent them from stepping down hard on their heels, slipping and falling flat on their bums!
8. Know their limits…and yours too. You know your kids the best. You know that fine line between loving encouragement and a traumatic experience. Sometimes kids need some encouragement, attitude adjustment or distraction to get through a hike. But make sure you aren’t pushing them through actual serious issues, like dehydration, heat stroke or serious blister rub. Just so you are fully in the know here are a list of signs to look for:
Dehydration- Dry, parched mouth and lips. Lethargy. No tears when crying. No sweat on a hot day or with exertion, more than 6 hours without urinating. Fever. Increased heart rate. Dizziness. Headaches, disorientation, dry eyes, blurred vision and muscles cramps.
Heat exhaustion- Dizziness, nausea, vomiting, headaches, confusion, fatigue, weakness, muscle or abdominal cramps. These things can turn into heat stroke which is: a temperature of 103*F or higher, nausea and vomiting, seizures, disorientation or delirium, lack of sweating, shortness of breath, unconsciousness and coma
So, keep a look out for those signs…which to be honest, sound random and extreme. But again you know your kids and if they are acting odd, take action. Our youngest is sensitive to heat, his body really hates it. He needs lots of water on hikes and time to cool down along the way. We have learned this by watching his behavior. He gets less himself and his cheeks get super flushed. We keep him hydrated, let him rest and put him in a carrier when he will tolerate it.
9. Remember you have the ability to set the tone for the hike. Be a thermostat not a thermometer. Set the temperature don’t just reflect the temperature thats around you . True, your kids have minds of their own but so much of how they act or continue to act is a direct reflection of us. Dang it. I hate that responsibility. But it’s true. So, chill out, breathe the fresh air and be happy. It is contagious.
We don’t have this all figured out, sometimes our kids whine or roll their eyes about ‘hiking again’ but once we are out there they usually chill out and enjoy themselves. Not every hike is sunshine and rainbows, I promise. A toddler has soured the mood on more than one occasion. However we do try to help our kids love hiking, being outside and accomplishing difficult things and these few little tricks have really helped us, help them. I hope that they help you to!
Bonus Tip: Don’t yell ‘be careful!’ When your kid is doing something risky. I know, you do want them to be careful and you are freaking out inside. But, keep that freaking out inside. Yelling out to them takes their brain off what they are doing, causing them to loose focus to listen to you. This could cause them to fall, or hesitate and hurt themselves. Thus accomplishing the exact opposite of what you wanted. Also, yelling ‘be careful’ at your precariously perched kid might cause them to doubt their own ability, or realize they are in a more danger than they thought and cause them to freak out or not think they can do it and fall from self doubt. Not good. So keep that mouth shut. 😉 let your kids do stretching things, difficult things and slightly dangerous things. It’s good for them. Use caution, but live life. Address an emergency if one happens not if it could happen. Be prepared not paranoid. Good luck!