SFP 168: Hiking with Kids [How + WHY]

Life gets busy. Sometimes it gets hard to make time for the simple things–like taking your kids for a walk in nature. But the value of the free and simple things should never be underestimated. Today, I’m sharing my favorite strategies for hiking with kids and the immense (yet not-so-obvious) benefits for the whole family.

Show Notes/Links:

Full Episode Transcription:

Today we’re talking about hiking, and this seems like such a simple thing, and I’m going to give you some practical tools and strategies for hiking, ways that we have found hiking is more or less successful, but also some of the benefits. I think we underestimate the benefits of simple unstructured activities like this. Last year on the podcast in episode 90, we talked about the idea that there’s no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothes. In that episode we had Linda Åkeson McGurk who is Rain or Shine Mamma, which is the name of her online platform, but also the author of There’s No Such Thing as Bad Weather. After that episode, I really felt this huge shift in the Simple Families audience towards understanding the importance of getting our kids outside. Now, even though many of us know, yeah, sure, kids need to play outside, they need nature, it can be really easy to let that unstructured outdoor time take a back seat to the structured stuff. So maybe there’s no time to get outside and play in the woods today, or even just get outside and play in the park because you have to go to soccer, and you have to go to swimming, and you have to go to all these other activities that seem to become the priority, and really there’s a few reasons that these type of activities become a priority.

Number one is we’re paying money for it, and if we’re paying money for it, we want to make sure our kids are doing it. We want to make sure that they’re benefiting from it. So the fact that we’re investing our money there, it means that we’re going to invest our time in these activities. So something like hiking that’s free, we’re not going to be as invested at spending our time because we haven’t sunk the money into it. Now, another big reason that we tend to lean towards structured activities is that we feel like that’s what our kids need, and we sort of feel this pressure, keeping up with the Joneses, to do what all the other kids are doing, and we’re afraid if we don’t get our kids into a certain class or activity when they’re young, that they’re not going to thrive and then they’re not going to have the abilities as they get older.

Now, I’m definitely not slamming structured activities by any means. My son does karate and both my kids do swimming lessons right now and it’s a great fit for us, mainly because it doesn’t feel like too much. That’s always my word of wisdom for people who are enrolling their kids in structured activities, is there is no perfect number, there’s no secret number. You have to pay attention to what feels right for your family. When those types of activities become a burden, or they become exhausting, or you start to dread them, or your kids start to dread them, then you might be doing too much. Another important red flag to keep in mind if you might be doing too many structured activities is if you don’t have an opportunity to make time for things like going for a hike. If you’re struggling to find opportunities for spontaneous, unstructured play, specifically outdoor play, then you might be doing too much.

So my family and I were recently out hiking and I got to thinking about the benefits of it, and I want to share with you some of my thoughts because I think that this is something that we can do fairly easily and once we really appreciate the value of it, we might be invested to start doing it more often. I want to start by defining what hiking actually is. Many of you know that I participate in the au pair program, which just means we bring a childcare provider internationally each year to help take care of the kids, and in exchange we provide cultural immersion, and they live with our family, and spend time with us, and learn English from us.

So I was recently looking through au pair applications, and one of the questions in the application is what do you like to do with kids outside? One of the applicants answered, “I love to take kids for walks in the woods and I’d really like to try the American activity of hiking. It sounds like fun. So I really look forward to trying it.” And I had to laugh a little bit because sometimes we kind of make hiking into this thing like it’s a big deal, like it’s hard, like it’s this event, when the reality is the hiking that I’m talking about at least is really just walking or meandering through the woods, and if you’ve ever done it with small children, it’s more meandering than it is walking.

For the intents and purposes of this podcast, hiking is merely just finding some nature. It doesn’t have to be a nature preserve. It just needs to be outside, possibly some trees around, walking around at any pace. It’s going to look different for everyone in every different geographical region. So when you’re doing it with kids, the most important thing to understand is there will be whining. Don’t fear the whining. I know whining can be really scary. Whining can be difficult to deal with, but it’s also a pretty typical emotion that a lot of kids exhibit, and some kids whine more than others. I have one kid who loves, loves to be outside and could hike all day. I mean she could hike all day and really only walk about 12 feet because she stops every six inches, and then I have another kid who pretty much from the beginning of the hike asks how long till we get back to our car.

I think that’s really my first point is that everybody can do this. If you can walk, you can hike. That means you can take out the grandparents, you can take friends, and that’s actually a really good way if you have a reluctant hiker like I do, to get a kid out is to bring a friend with them or to invite another family to join you, because I find that my son who does a lot of whining when we’re hiking, he does so much better when he has a friend. He’s so much happier, a lot less whining. So while that does seem like an easy fix, it’s not always because it’s hard to coordinate with other families, and often for us, hiking is kind of a last minute spontaneous endeavor, and often I just prefer it to be our family. I think the benefit of it just being our family is that we are really forced to find a pace that works for everyone, and it takes a lot of collaboration to do that, because my daughter moves like a snail, and my husband likes to move quickly, and I’m kind of just right in the middle, and my son spends a lot of time enjoying himself, but he also spends a lot of time just wondering how many minutes until we get back to the car.

Since my daughter’s three and she does walk really well, she does physically really well for her age, we let her start out walking and we try to be really patient with her at first because she wants to pick up every single acorn in the entire forest. I’m okay with that for a little while, but I also don’t have the patience to let her do that for the entire hike. So often we’ll spend the first 15 or 20 minutes letting her move at her own pace and then we’ll invite her to walk more quickly with us. When I say more quickly, I’m not talking about quickly, but I’m just talking about finding a more steady pace, and we also give her the option to go in the carrier. We have a Tula toddler, which I really love for a three-year-old. It’s small enough to fit in a backpack, but at the same time it’s really supportive and comfortable to carry a bigger kid. But I will say she usually spends about 80% of the hike walking herself.

Talking about distances, how do you find the right distance that works for your family, especially when you’re starting out? I’ll say a year ago, when I was by myself with the kids, going one mile with a two-year-old and a four-year-old was plenty. I’d say start small and see how it goes. Go out a few times, see about how long it takes until they start whining and really getting tired, physically tired, and then add on about 25% after that. So when I was hiking pretty consistently with my kids about a mile at a time, usually about three fourths of the mile or 75% of the way through the hike, they would start to really get tired, really get exhausted, really take the whining up a notch, but because kids are really physically capable of walking even when they do get a little bit tired, hiking is really an amazing way to teach them how to push through that last hard little bit, how to work outside of your comfort zone.

From a physical standpoint that yes, your body starts to feel tired, your muscles get tired, you start to feel breathless, especially if you’re going up a little hill, and that while all of those feelings in your body can be a little bit uncomfortable, they’re still safe, and they’re still normal, and they will go away. This idea that when you do get a little bit uncomfortable and you do hard things, you’re really proud of yourself afterwards. This is the lesson that I’ve seen translate across physical to mental and emotional barriers as well. When you see your kids learning a new task or struggling to do something new in their schoolwork, it’s really easy to liken it to a physical experience like, “Do you remember when we hiked up that hill how hard it was and how difficult it felt? And then when we got to the top, we were so proud of ourselves. That’s kind of like this homework assignment. It’s really hard, and when you get to the end, when you get to the top of the mountain, you’re going to feel great. You’re going to be so proud.”

Now I’m not suggesting that you hike any mountains with your kids. If you do, great. Starting with some rolling hills is often a really good way to go. If it’s too flat, it can get a little bit boring and it might not really give us an opportunity to push ourselves. So figure out what the comfort zone is for your kids and then try to push just slightly out of that. It’s going to give them the experience of getting a little uncomfortable, but in a very safe and predictable way. It’s also going to give them the experience of doing hard things and learning that they can conquer and accomplish those hard things and how good it feels on the other side, and especially if we are hiking up a hill and we’re getting to a view or somewhere at the end of the hike, we make a big deal out of it, and we high five and cheer each other on and bring attention to the accomplishment.

Speaking of having a good view, it can be good to have a destination. I usually like to choose hikes that have things to see along the way. Maybe it’s a lookout point or a famous rock, something like that that can keep kids motivated, keep them looking forward to the next thing. I also prefer loops rather than out and back because there’s something about going out and back that you feel like you can kind of turn around when things get tough, and a loop you’re more likely to finish the loop. So when you’re looking at trails, if you have a choice between out and back versus a loop, I’d say always go for the loop when you can.

I think it’s important to go out and go hiking when the conditions aren’t perfect, when it’s too cold, when it’s a little bit rainy or wet, when it’s a little bit uncomfortable. Not only are we teaching our kids to get outside in all types of weather, but we’re also teaching them that the conditions don’t have to be perfect for you to push through and accomplish something, and the sort of internal non-obvious messages that we’re talking about that your kids are going to get from hiking and experiences like this aren’t necessarily things we have to spell out for them. Having the experience where you climb up a hill that looks impossibly high and you make it to the top and you see a beautiful view, that sense of accomplishment is going to naturally make its way over into your self-confidence and to that of your kids. So you don’t always have to spell it out, or bring it up, or be so obvious about it. You don’t necessarily have to process it or even debrief after your hike. It’s something that just happens on its own. You can use the experience to draw some parallels, like I did mention in the homework example, but it’s not always necessary.

Now, bringing your positive attitude to this is so important and I need you to find some really positive ways to talk to your kids. So instead of saying, “Stop whining.” Encouraging them saying, “You got this!” Or, “You can do this. You can do hard things.” So if you’re someone who leans towards more negative talk like, “Stop whining, knock it off, quit complaining.” Really work hard to switch your words and be a little bit more encouraging because it’s going to go a long way, and know that not every kid is going to dive headfirst into something like this. They’re not all going to walk away raving and excited about it. I’ll tell you that every single time we finish a hike and my son has whined halfway through, most of the way through, depending on the day, he always tells me after the fact when we’re getting into the car, “That was a great hike.” Or, “I had a lot of fun.” Even though he’s not one to dive into the mud and get dirty, he’s definitely benefiting and enjoying it in a different way than my daughter.

I do think it’s important that we don’t qualify our kids as being a nature kid or someone who doesn’t really like being outside because everybody needs to be outside. Our kids need to be outside more now than ever before. Not only are there benefits for our physical well-being and our body, but our brains actually need the outdoors. Our kids, as they’re growing and their brains are under rapid periods of development, they need to experience the wind, and the rain, and the cold, and the heat, and the noises that happen in nature. As humans, we were never meant to live in 72 degrees, perfectly temperature controlled, no wind, no rain, the type of indoor environments that our kids are spending almost all their time in now. We were never meant to be comfortable all the time, or even most of the time for that matter, and I don’t think it’s a coincidence that we’re seeing an increasing number of sensory sensitivities in kids. In many ways, their sensory experiences are being dulled by being inside all at the time. Both the body and the brain need nature and need to be outside more than we know.

So there’s not a nature kid and a non-nature kid. Every kid and every adult needs to get outside. Even if they’re not diving headfirst into the mud, it’s still beneficial. Even if they’re whining, it’s still beneficial, and for the purposes of this episode we’ve really been talking about hiking and getting outside, which kind of implies the woods, but if you don’t have access to that, if you just have parks around, or if you live in the city, getting outside and experiencing the elements in the city is just as important, and maybe my favorite thing about hiking is I do think in many ways it helps us to forget about our phones. It’s almost impossible to be hiking, especially when you’re hiking with kids, and to be on your phone doing stuff. So I think that for a little while, even if it’s you’re just doing it once a month, once a week, whatever it is, it really forces us to tune in to what’s going on around us and tune in to our family members.

So go into it with very few expectations, other than the expectation that you’re probably going to get some whining, and have a positive attitude. Don’t be afraid to push your kids outside of their comfort zone a little bit, and bring snacks, lots of snacks, lots of water. The last thing you want are hungry, thirsty people.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this episode and a few of my thoughts on hiking, and I really hope this inspires you to get outside and spend a little bit more time outdoors with your family. It’s such a simple activity. It doesn’t need to be planned, it doesn’t need to be structured, it doesn’t need to be executed in any one certain way. I hope you’ve enjoyed this and I will talk with you soon. If you want to stay in touch with Simple Families, go to simplefamilies.com and leave your email address. You can get on the email list and that is, like I said earlier in this episode, the best way to stay in touch. If you have questions or comments on this episode, go to simplefamilies.com/episode168 or take a screenshot and share it on your Instagram stories and I’d be happy to chat with you over on there. Thanks for tuning in.

Denaye Barahona

Denaye Barahona is a loving wife and mama of two. She's a therapist for moms, an author, and the host of the top-ranked Simple Families Podcast. Denaye holds a Ph.D. in Child Development and is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker. She has been featured on the likes of The Today Show, Netflix, The Wall Street Journal, Real Simple, Forbes, and numerous other media outlets.