The Smartest Thing I Did to Keep My Little Kids Happy on Hiking Trails

published May 24, 2022
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Credit: Summer Miller

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When my kids were little, I was (and still am) an avid hiker. My goal was simply to get outside, have a change of pace, and hopefully wear my kids out so they took a good nap. Now that I’m a mom of a tween and a teen, I can reflect on what it was like to hike with littles and share a few tricks that saved (most) of our expeditions from meltdowns. 

Credit: Summer Miller

I used to take them on trails about one to three times per week. Sometimes we had a wonderful time and sometimes we were all in tears less than 100 yards into the start of our journey. Nothing breaks a mom sooner than watching hours of preparation and drivetime crumble to pieces when her toddler loses it because she packed the blue water bottle and they NEEDED the red one. To give these expeditions any chance of success I did everything I could to keep them interested, incentivized, and engaged.

My Tips for Hiking With Little Kids

  1. Be realistic. You’re probably not going on an epic hike to bag killer hills. These times are really about looking at snails, making your way through rocks, and sitting down. It’s going to take you hours to go one mile. It’s ok. 
  2. Have rewards for making it up big(ish) hills or over challenging spots. I always packed bits of chocolate, a little licorice, or a few cookies. While I would’ve loved for my 3-year-old to marvel at the view once we reached the top, he really valued the cookie more. Who am I to judge? 
  3. Secret weapon: Scavenger Hunt Bingo Cards! I found free printable cards online, printed multiple two-sided copies, then took them to my local library to have them laminated. (It cost me about a quarter to laminate each one.) I packed the cards with me everywhere we went, and I’m telling you, these were a hiking game changer. 
Credit: Summer Miller

Scavenger hunt bingo cards were what got us through many hikes. When the kids grew weary of the hike, but we still had to make it back to the trailhead, I pulled out the scavenger hunt bingo cards. The cards – along with a washable marker – were like a secret weapon that suddenly made a trip they’d grown tired of exciting and new. 

Each card had pictures of rocks, spiders, sticks, frogs, and flowers among other things. Rather than simply hiking with two tired kiddos back to the car, we had one final adventure looking for all the little creatures, leaves, and trees and checking them off our cards. My kids are also a bit competitive, so they liked to see who could get bingo first!

Carrying these cards meant I could also quickly help other families in need of a reprieve. I usually encountered at least one family with a little having a hard day on the trail, so I always packed extra cards and markers to hand out to my fellow adventure seekers. My kids also shared their cards and learned to be generous in the process, and I always received a hearty “Thank you!” from a stressed and tired parent grateful for the lifeline. 

My little kids are now fully into their tween and teen years with social lives to match. I, on the other hand, have plenty of quiet time to myself on the trails, but I cherish those moments and memories when they were little, when they finally found the butterfly and could cross it off their sheets. Bingo!