Hiking with kids can be daunting if you are hiking with a purpose to reach a summit or point of interest, and not only for family time outside. Keeping kids motivated on the trail takes a special kind of endurance that you can’t build up at the gym. But just like going to the gym it gets easier with practice; the more you hike with your kids, the easier it is for everyone involved.
These are some of our favorite games to play on the trail when we all need a little extra push to keep moving. If you have other favorites, please share them with us in the comments
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Games to play on the trail
This simple game is a classic for a reason. It is easy to occupy at least a few minutes as everyone takes a round of spying until you run out of new things to notice. Yes, I wrote minutes on purpose because I am hiking with kids under 6 and will take all the minutes of motivation I can get.
After my semester abroad in New Zealand, I spent a month driving around the South Island with two other American exchange students, hiking as much as we could. We played an almost never ending game of 20 Questions for the majority of that month and we were all still friends when it was over. I realize that story isn’t related to hiking with kids, but speaks to my deep fondness for 20 Questions. This game is a classic road trip or hiking game that can help you pass hours of time before getting old. If you have never played before the premise is simple: one person thinks of a person, place or thing; everyone else gets to ask 20 yes or no questions to guess the answer. We struggle to keep track of how many questions are being asked
What animal am I?
This game is our go-to game on the trail and in the car on road trips. What animal am I is almost exactly like 20 Questions but 100% animal-centric. Are you a mammal? Insect? Amphibian? Are you an herbivore, carnivore or omnivore? Do you have hooves? My older son is obsessed with animals and knows all the facts so this game becomes more one-sided once we have worked through the top 50 most recognizable animals.
Hide and Seek
One person runs ahead and “hides” behind a tree or rock while everyone else counts. Then we run down the trail to find them and someone else takes a turn running ahead to hide. The hider has to hide in the direction we are walking so the game is productive in getting us closer to our objective. Please be mindful not to walk far off trail, for your own personal safety and the preservation of the natural area where you are hiking. Please follow the local rules and guidelines, some national parks and protected areas really suffer from even a few footsteps off trail.
Think of this like a mini Easter egg hunt. It does require some forethought and works best when there are two adults. Bring small treasures with you on the hike like painted rocks, small animal figurines, plastic gold coins or even chocolate gold coins for the highest possible incentive. One person runs ahead and hides objects in places that small kids are likely to find them quickly but with some effort. If they are hidden too well, you will spend too much time searching for them or might not find them at all which results in littering. You can hide the same objects multiple times or have one object per child so no one feels left out of the game.
This or That
We learned about this game from my friend on Instagram, Nichole. It is super simple and surprisingly effective. You just propose two items in a category and ask your kids to chose this or that. Hamburgers or hot dogs? Trains or planes? Lizards or snakes? My boys could spend hours deciding if they like snakes or lizards better.
One of our other favorite simple time passing activities on a hike is “something silly” where you take a few things that exist and put them together in an imaginary absurd way: “a strawberry wearing a cowboy hat”. This “game” feels too simple to get its own heading so it is lumped in with This or That but it is a sure fire way to keep my kids moving.
This might be the most involved method of motivating kids to keep hiking along the trail but it is consistently one of my most effective tactics. I tell a made up story if and only if my kids are moving their feet in the right direction on the trail. If we stop walking, I stop telling the story. Most of my stories involve the same characters and follow a very specific arc to minimize the amount of work it takes me to create all the details, and because my kids fell in love with this story on the first telling and continuously come back to it. If you struggle to make up a story on the spot, first of all that is understandable since it takes a lot of work, start by reciting one of their favorite books from home. Chances are good they have the book memorized and will tell you when you have the words wrong. I always ask them for input on developing the story line when I am telling a made up tale. “What should happen next?” “What do they find when they turn the corner?” The more focused they are on the story, the less focused they are on their footsteps.
It might sound simple and too good to be true but you would be surprised how much ground you can cover when an octopus is trying to swim away from a shark or a knight needs to run away from a dragon before they can fight each other. When little legs are getting tired, invent a game of chase or play off of a storyline your kids already enjoy to motivate those little legs down the trails in quick spurts.
What do you notice?
Ok, this isn’t a game but I think it is important to include in this blog post. The art of noticing is an important practice to build in your nature children. As you work on noticing the world around you with your children, it will likely change your life as well. It is as simple as taking a moment to ask “what do you notice?” You can ask more leading questions as you are starting the practice like, “what do you notice about that tree?”. The more they focus on the world around them, the less they focus on their legs and how much they want to sit down.
When you need more than games
When all else fails, or even before everything else fails, bribery usually works. Small treats that are reserved for the trail work really well to incentivize tired legs to keep walking. Gummy bears, M&M’s, fruit snacks and even small pieces of dried pineapple are my go-to bribes to motivate my kids to get to the next blaze, big tree or any other marker when games and stories aren’t enough. I also let each kid get a treat at the summit or halfway point if there is no notable mountain top or view to signify the turn around point. They also get a pack of fruit snacks or fun-size candy bar when we get back to the car. I learned the hard way that they will just collapse on the trail waiting to be carried on the return trip if they are too tired and unmotivated to keep walking after seeing the view (and eating the candy) on the summit if there is not extra motivation to get back to the car.
Bring A Friend
Nothing beats hiking with your besties whether you are an adult or kid. Having a friend to talk to while you hike can help the time and miles pass by with ease. Complaints and stops are at an all time low when we hike with little friends. They end up talking and playing and creating worlds and games out of all the natural obstacles along the trail. The little hikers are in their own world and don’t notice their tired legs. It is even better when you are friends with the parent and might be able to have a conversation with full sentences while the kids entertain each other.
Bring a carrier just in case
Every child’s ability to keep hiking is different, even my two boys are so different from each other. My big guy has always been easy to motivate with the promise of “big beautiful views” and a small candy treat at the top while my little guy DGAF and will just sit down on the trail in protest. If I pretend to walk away he says “it’s ok, just leave me here”. I keep a soft carrier in the bottom of my pack in case of emergencies but at this point my 3 year old knows that it is there and asks to be carried very early in the hike.
Boba carrier – This carrier has been my go to for the last six year and still looks like it is new. I started using it when my fist was 10 pounds and still use it in a pinch with my second who is over 35 pounds.
Trail Magik – If I were to start over now, 100% this is the carrier I would use. It is incredibly lightweight and attaches to the front of your body by hooking onto your backpack waist and shoulders so you can still carry your backpack. While it is designed for backpacking you can use these attachments to use the carrier with your day pack. Check out all their carriers HERE.
Hard framed kid carrier – These carriers are great for kids who are too big for a soft carrier but still spend the bulk of a hike needing to be carried or for hikes where you need more support carrying your kid than a soft carrier would provide. They have enough space to store most of the gear you need to bring with you on a family hike. This was our go-to carrier until my youngest was around 2 when he out grew the weight rating and wanted to walk more on his own.
Don’t forget to pack your 10 essentials and leave no trace when you are out on the trail. Always leave your hiking plans, trail route and estimated return time with someone who is not hiking with you.