17 Essential Tips for Hiking with your 5 to 12 Year Old Kids

Kids in this age range are often itching to get outdoors! Hiking is one of the best options to get your kids moving around in a healthy way, that won’t break the bank, and hopefully not their bones either! School-aged children can go for longer periods of time as well as go further, which is great because it serves as a workout for you and a way to burn off some energy for them.

Being out in nature does wonders for everyone involved. Though older kids might be resistant in the beginning, once they get a taste of the sense of adventure that goes hand in hand with hiking, they’ll be more than happy to go frequently. Going hiking on a consistent basis is just one of the tips we have in store for you. Here’s the full list!

Before you go

1. Start hiking before the hike.

No, I don’t mean getting your family to do mountain climbers or high knees in the living room as “practice” (though that isn’t such a bad idea now that it’s been mentioned if you know what I mean).

Get motivated. Go online, to the library, or to the bookstore and have a look together at some nature books. Maybe your child will pick up an interest in plants, or maybe different types of birds. Animal tracks are also neat. No matter what it is, finding something and learning about what to look forward to while on the trail will make things very exciting.

2. Start a nature journal.

Along with getting motivated for the hiking lifestyle, it’s also a great idea to begin encouraging your child to start a nature journal. There are many ways you can utilize a nature journal on your various hikes. You might have to give some direction as to how to use it, or you can let your child be creative with what they will put inside. This is something that depends on age.

Keep things simple and only bring a pencil to record and draw what is being seen. Or you could also decide if you want to travel with some crayons, colored pencils, or a small watercolor kit. This can be kept in a small and light backpack that your 6-year old can carry themselves.

3. Pack your EHK: Essential Hiking Kit (and pack your kid’s too)

Plan your trip with a map or GPS, and pack some essentials. See our list for a basic primer

Obviously, you’ll have to bring some things along with you for hiking, but what exactly should those things be? The last thing you want is to be bogged down with stuff, so stick to the essentials…

  •  Sunscreen
  •  Small first aid kit
  •  GPS/map (if you are going far/on a new trail)
  •  Plastic bag for trash
  •  Mosquito spray if needed
  •  Plenty of water
  •  Healthy snacks
  •  Wipes
  • Toilet paper (speaking from personal experience – very handy when, um, nature calls out in the wild! Ideally it’s the biodegradable kind)

That’s it! There really isn’t a whole lot you guys will need. The most important is making sure there is enough water. A few choice snacks that are hydrating and provide natural energy will be necessary for longer hikes, but most snacks are good for hikes of any length since stopping for a snack break will be a welcome change of pace! Remember that a little can go a long way.

Though there is quite an age gap difference between 5 and 12, it’s my opinion that kids this age can start carrying their own bag. Even if it’s mostly empty (which it should be for the younger ones), having it will give a sense of responsibility. Depending on the age, things like their nature journal and a small bottle of water, with you carrying the “refill as needed” bottle, can be stored inside. You know you kid best, so you decide what’s appropriate for them to carry. Pick out their very own hiking backpack together!

4. Plan it out.

Planning is as much a part of the process as going. Planning hikes can be a family event that helps everyone to get motivated. Making kids a part of this instead of taking everything on yourself is the best way to go.

  • Decide which trail you will do
  • Decide what day/time (you can influence this but pretend they came up with the suggestion)
  • Decide what snacks to bring
  • Check the weather together

5. Leave everything else behind.

You know what I’m talking about: technology. Do what you came to do. Enjoy nature in its fullest. Encourage your child to leave any devices at home and try to set a good example yourself. Instead of using a phone camera to take pictures for mementos, you could buy an old school disposable camera. (Still bring your phone but keep it in your bag for emergencies.)

6. But if you can’t do without your gadgets…

Plan a geocaching hike using a mobile (or a GPS). Much like treasure hunting, geocaching is a game where players seek out, find, and record that they’ve found different stashes. The goal is simply to find them, but some may contain toys or other trinkets. All you have to do to get started is register for free on geocaching.com.

7. Wear the right clothes.

Wearing the right clothes while hiking is crucial, and sometimes can even make or break a hike. This means checking the weather, obviously, but also knowing a bit about the trail you’re headed to. Will you be walking through a lot of brush? Can you get away with solid and comfortable running shoes, or should you outfit yourself and your child in hiking shoes?

These are questions to consider before setting off. Weather-wise, it’s always best to wear layers. Things may start off cool, but will quickly heat up as time goes on. You want to be able to remove and add on easily. If your child is older, check that they are dressed appropriately in this way. However, please keep reading to see the tip about ticks!

8. The more the merrier!

The more participants you have on a hike, the safer it will probably be, and odds are it’ll be more fun too!

Though you may want someone on one or family time, consider inviting friends out for the fun. If you know any kids that are your child’s age, it will make the adventure much more exciting. Invite other parents too! They will be happy to come along.

Pro tip: Something really cool and fun to do when with others is using walkie-talkies, especially if you only save them for use during hiking! Our kids always have a blast using these.

On the trail

9. Being and keeping safe.

First and foremost is trail safety. In order to have fun, everyone has to be safe. Besides carrying a first aid kit with you, you need to have an idea or plan of what to do if things go wrong. Of course, in an emergency, you may have to improvise, but it’s a good idea to at least think about what you would do.

For example, having a solid “policy” for if your child gets lost is a must. Children may wonder ahead, and that’s okay. They should have the freedom to explore, within reason. If, knock on wood, they go out of sight and can’t find their way back to you, a good plan is for them to “hug a tree”, which means they stay under the nearest tree to them. Tell them not to continue walking around once they discover they are lost.

Another way to help keep safe is to let someone know where you are going, when, and what time you expect to be back.

10. Pull out the guidebook and map.

Kids will have a fun time flipping through and trying to identify different things, whether it be leaves, birds, clouds, or whatever! Maps are also really cool because children can try to find out where they are. Compasses are great too, but if your kid loves technology, bring along a GPS. Smartphones can die, don’t often get a good signal, and can be a distraction.

11. Be patient.

The above point was a lead-in to this one. Ideally, you’ll be making more than a few stops to talk about and observe what you and your child see. This is the best way for kids to get in tune with nature and enjoy what the outdoors has to offer. Don’t rush through! Though you may want to do some intense trekking, it may not always work out that way, unless you are with a pre-teen. If your child sees you enjoying yourself and enjoying nature then they will too.

12. Play games.

It’s no secret that kids love games. Some will take planning and others won’t— it’s up to you how much you want to get into it!

Scavenger hunts are always a hit. Make up a predetermined list or play as you go. I Spy is another one for younger children. Singing some songs can also be fun. Spot the Alphabet is a good game too. Go through the letters of the alphabet in order and say what you see that starts with that letter.

13. Collect and create.

Treasure collecting is fun for all ages. As long as you aren’t hurting any wildlife, feel free to encourage the start of a scrapbook of pressed flowers or leaves. Many young children like to collect rocks, but it’s up to you if you want to carry them all!

14. Find their walking stick.

Hiking Sticks, whether natural tree branch or precision-engineered aluminum, always seem to add flavor and fun to a hike – especially for kids

Finding the ever-elusive walking stick is a fun challenge! For each hike, challenge your hiking partners to pick out the perfect trekking pole. You can make up some requirements if you’d like, for example, it should be up to your stomach, not be breakable, and so on.

15. Learn when to change pace.

Just like all your other parenting intuitions, you will pick up when to change things up on the trail. This means knowing when to stop for a break, when to bust out a song, when to pull out the binoculars, and when to turn around.

Obviously, a six-year-old won’t be able to go as far as a ten-year-old. Knowing when to turn around is important to avoid lots of complaining on the way back. Always remember that however far you’ve gone is the same amount you have to go back (unless it’s a loop of course).

After hiking

16. Recognize and prevent ticks.

Ticks are an unfortunate part of hiking. In case you aren’t aware, they are nasty little creatures that are like mini vampires. That’s right, they suck your blood, but the thing about ticks is that they don’t fly away after like mosquitos do. They are there to stay.

After hiking, tell your kids to run their hands all over themselves when washing to check for any bumps that could be a tick. If a tick has buried its head in you or one of your children, don’t panic. Teach your child not to panic either (it’s up to you if you want to tell them about the blood thing). Ticks aren’t that big of a deal and are easy to get rid of. Just grab a pair of tweezers, pinch the head as close to the skin as you can, and pull it out.

It’s never a good thing to see these, but remember, it takes many hours for a tick to bite, so you have time for a thorough tick check after the hike

To prevent it from happening in the first place, wear long sleeves and pants. If it’s warm, you could still do this, just choose light material. That being said, this is only really necessary if you are on a narrow path or go off the path. (Now that I think about it, I guess it’s necessary for the kids all the time then!)

17. Get ready for the next one!

After you and the gang (even if there’s only one more in the gang!) get home and settled, start thinking about your next adventure in the wild!

Five to twelve is the perfect age to really foster a love of hiking. There is so much to see and explore that it never gets old, no matter how many times you go. The basic idea of hiking with kids is to make it fun. Keep their interest and they’ll be hooked. With older ones though, don’t be afraid to walk in silence for some time. Relish the moments you have together with them before they turn into teens!

Deb Stec

As a busy Mom and nature junkie, I'm always on the prowl for the best and latest outdoor activity info I can find. I'm one of the full-time staff at KnifeUp and I'm thrilled to share with you the experiences I gain along my journey!
Deb Stec

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