There are few better ways to spend time with family than by going on a hike. It's free, it's fun, and it will keep your kids moving and away from their screens. However, before you go on a hike with young kids, you'll want to take some precautions to ensure everyone is kept safe. Having the right gear and choosing an appropriate trail makes all the difference, and we got some tips from the experts so you know how to best plan your excursion. POPSUGAR spoke to American Hiking Society Executive Director Kate Van Waes, Up: A Mother and Daughter's Peakbagging Adventure author Patricia Ellis Herr, and Backpacker Magazine's Family Channel Editor Lisa Jhung (who also wrote the books Running That Doesn't Suck and Trailhead), and here's what they said you should know before hiking with children.
How Old Should Kids Be Before You Bring Them on Hikes?
If you're wondering how young is too young, you shouldn't — according to these experienced hikers, you're never too young. "When [your kids are] really young, you can use a sling or another front carrier to carry the baby, and then you'll need a backpack with the usual baby stuff," Van Waes said. "The great thing about starting them really young is that they get used to wind, weather, and just being outside, and you get more confident taking them out."
Once your kids are walking, you can allow them to set the pace and determine how long they want to go. "The hikes can be just as far as they want to walk on their own two feet," said Herr, "and the hikes can get longer as your children grow."
What Kind of Trails Should You Look For?
Trail distances will vary by kid, but Jhung believes that children can generally endure more hiking than you realize — as long as you can keep their interest. "I like to choose trails with interesting features — a lake to hike around or get to, along a creek, a hike with boulders they can climb on, a summit of a short hike with a great lookout, that kind of thing," she said. "Keeping kids' interest is key."
Herr agreed, noting that you should pick a trail that includes things you think your child will enjoy, like "boulders to climb on, streams to cross, waterfalls, whatever scenery and landscapes your kid enjoys the most." She added, "My two [kids] loved to climb over rocks, so the best trails for them were whatever trails on which they could use their hands as well as their feet. They much preferred short and steep rocky climbs over flat, long dirt paths."
"Snacks can mitigate meltdowns and be used as bribery. I once got my kid up a snowy hike by saying, 'I'll give you a chocolate-covered blueberry when you get to that tree.'"
Of course, when you're hiking with a baby, you should stick to smooth, easy trails. "When the baby is still in a front carrier, avoid trails that are very steep, very rocky, or full of roots," Van Waes said. "It's hard to see where you're stepping, so gentle grades and a relatively smooth trail are best."
How Long Should You Hike For?
Just as trail distances will vary, the duration of time you should spend hiking depends on the age and ability of your children. "Start with a short trail (half a mile or so, or longer if the kids are 10 or older), and see how they do," Herr suggested. "After that, increase or decrease accordingly. As your child becomes more experienced, the hikes can get longer and more difficult."
You should also refer to this comprehensive guide Jhung previously wrote for Backpacker Magazine, which will give you a general idea of how far children can hike and how much they can carry depending on their age.
When Is the Best Time to Hike?
Though Herr thinks that any season is suitable for hiking, she noted that you should keep winter hikes short until your child grows more experienced, as there's more risking of slipping and getting chilly.
In the summer, Jhung suggested avoiding midday hikes to minimize meltdowns and crowds. "Mornings are usually best of activities with kids, but late afternoon and early evening hikes in cooler weather can be nice, too," she said.
What Gear Should You Use?
For parents who are carrying kids, it's important to not only have a comfortable and supportive child carrier, but comfortable, supportive footwear as well. As Jhung explained, "Adding the extra weight of a child puts added stress on the lower legs and feet (and whole [body]!), so having good footwear helps keep a parent's body healthy and aligned." Van Waes said that hiking poles can also help parents using front carriers with stability.
Once your children get older, Van Waes suggested giving them additional responsibility and having them carry their own packs. However, it's important to note that — while a child is still very young — they should carry no more than 10 percent of their body weight (and that includes the weight of the backpack itself).
As far as clothing goes, Herr stressed that you should not wear cotton, as cotton absorbs moisture and is generally heavier than synthetic fabrics. Instead, dress in waterproof layers, and bring a hat and gloves if the weather is cooler. "Even if you aren't going far, you should also bring a headlamp, map, and compass with you and know how to use them," Herr added. "Accidents happen. People have gotten lost just 50 feet from the start of a trail."
What Should You Bring For Snacks?
One of the most important things to remember when hiking with children is to bring snacks, and lots of them. "The kinds of snacks I like to bring are dried fruit, nuts, fresh fruit, and bars," Jhung said. "Snacks can mitigate meltdowns and be used as bribery. I once got my kid up a snowy hike by saying, 'I'll give you a chocolate-covered blueberry when you get to that tree.'" She also noted that it's important to bring a trash bag along with you as well.
Herr suggested bringing more than you think you'll need, since you can always eat anything extra later. "A mix of salt, carbs, protein, and sugar is important for hike, especially longer ones," she said. "You want to replace any lost electrolytes and keep the energy up. Also, be sure to bring plenty of water, or buy a backpacking water filter and fill up at streams."