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Meltdown on the Mountain – Hiking with Kids Doesn’t Have to Be Painful!

My big kids trying to stop our friend's 4 year old tired kid from melting down while hiking.

My big kids trying to stop our friend’s tired 4 year old from melting down. (Hiking the Rubicon Trail in Tahoe.)

Hiking with Kids Doesn’t Have to Be Painful!

I hate that awful feeling when you’re in the middle of a hike with your young children, you still have a mile or more to hike back to the car or to your camping destination, and they decide to either flop over, melt-down, or they declare they’re too tired to go on. Whining commences, you begin to lose your patience, and come close to forgetting that this hike is supposed to be a fun and happy family experience. When my children were young, I found a few methods of bribing the little ones to keep going and helping them forget that they’re tired or bored. I’d love to read your comments on if any of my methods worked for you or what methods you use.

Food Bribery

The most basic method of prodding the little ones along was bribery. Bring some snacks that they love and don’t get that often. I’ve used jelly beans, reeses pieces, etc…  Set some easily achievable goals for them. “When you make it to that next turn in the trail, you’ll get another jelly bean reward!”.  Make them far enough so you don’t make your kid sick from too many snacks, but make them close enough that your tired kid can see the goal and not get too discouraged. And don’t start or let them know about the treats you brought until you really have to use them. Once they know you have the treats, the begging and whining will start, and on a long walk, you don’t want that to have to start prematurely!

Scavenger Hunting & Geocaching

Here’s a great way to break the boredom, but teach your children at the same time. On our hikes, we choose something we want to look for along the hike. Something common enough that we’ll eventually find, but sparse enough so it will feel like a big achievement to find them. It may be mushrooms, poison ivy, squirrels, hollow trees, or whatever seems appropriate to the environment you’re hiking through. Teach them what poison ivy looks like and let them find anything with 3 leaves and let them try to identify it. Teach them the different kinds of trees, and let them identify them along the way. Or make them the “line leader” and have them look for trail blazes. If they start getting bored, think of something else to look for. If they’re old enough to read, bring along a list of things to look for with check boxes next to each item. Let them wear a pen on a string necklace, and let them check off the things they’ve found along the way. Of if they can’t read, use pictures in your checklist. When the kids were closer to 10 years old, we took a walk with a naturalist who identified edible and medicinal plants. We enjoyed looking for them on subsequent hikes, especially jewel weed, which they enthusiastically squeezed the juice from to put on their itchy mosquito bites. A fun treasure hunting activity while hiking with kids is to go geocaching. Register on http://geocaching.com, read all about how it works, then load the coordinates of caches to find on a handheld GPS device (or your smart phone if it has a GPS and geocaching apps), bring some trinkets to use for trading, and find pre-placed containers hidden just about everywhere filled with treasures to trade.

My kids hiking with Daddy while wearing adult ranger-type hats.

Jasmine’s the line leader! (Hiking in Colorado.)

I Wanna be the Line Leader!

My daughters are only 2.5 years apart in age, and the most aggravating part of having more than one kid was the constant fighting between them. We often played line-leader when hiking with the kids. The line-leader got to go first and look for trail blazes. They would constantly fight over who got to be line leader. On one hike, exasperated from the constant bickering, we invented a new game. It was sort of a “changing of the guard” ceremony. When switching roles as the line leader, the girls would need to face each other, hold hands, and say some ridiculous ceremonial mumble-jumble, put their hands over their heads, turn around 3 times, stomp their feet…etc., I can’t remember the details, but we made up something quite fun and silly. They got such a kick out of the ceremony that they happily took turns being line leader just to experience the silly ceremony over and over again. We had to try to convince them to wait longer to take turns because we weren’t getting anywhere fast enough!

Role Playing

One thing my girls liked to play was house. They would always want to be “the Mommy”. Once my little one was totally melting down on the trail, she was too tired to hike, she couldn’t go anymore. I switched into toddler mode. My voice changed to that of a little girl. I called her Mommy. I asked for her help because I was so little I wasn’t sure I could hike on the rough trail. She took my hand, put on her mommy voice, and guided me along the trail, pointing out where the trail markers were, helping me to avoid puddles and step along rocks, and trying to convince me that even though I was tired, I could make it back to the car OK. This game worked like magic! Suddenly she would have energy and forget she was tired. Often we played role reversal all the way back to the car. Think of roles that will enchant your children. Perhaps a general, or a native guide or superhero helping an injured visitor out of the forest, a scoutmaster, or the daddy. They will get so involved with their new responsibility and role that they will forget they’re tired.


Hiking with kids shouldn’t be anti-social. We never let our children bring gadgets such as smartphones or Gameboys on hikes. However a couple of gadgets can keep them engaged and participating. An old digital camera is a fun way for them to capture images of what they want, and they can look forward to going home and looking at the images on the computer. If you geocache with the children, you can set a waypoint and they can monitor the compass on the GPS unit to see which direction to go in and how far the target is. Walkie talkies are always fun. If you enjoy birdwatching or if there is interesting far off scenery to view, bring binoculars. Try not to offer them until the children are bored or they will only focus on the gadgets.

Ranger leading a line of children into a crevice between the rocks in Yosemite.

Turn hiking with children into a game, find unusual places to explore. (On a ranger-led hike in Yosemite.)

Wait for it…

All of these methods worked for us, but one important point needs to be made. Save these methods for when you REALLY need them. At first, let the kids enjoy hiking and nature for what it is, plain and simple, without gadgets and distractions. Only take out your arsenal of distractions when they start to lose energy or interest. If hikes become all about the bribes and distractions, they will never learn what is so special about hiking and nature to begin with. Talk to them throughout the hike. Point out things of interest, things of beauty, how nature works, how animals survive. Also point out things that don’t belong in nature – scold the hiker who left the garbage or graffiti, teach them leave-no-trace ethics and let them feel some stewardship towards the natural landscape. And most of all, don’t forget to have fun! Yelling at your tired child for not keeping up or for whining isn’t going to leave a positive impression on them the next time you want to take them hiking. Choose hikes that are within their ability to avoid exhaustion. Remember to accentuate all that hiking and nature has to offer and show by your example how much fun it can be.

Tired kid lying down on a bench to take a rest during a hike.

Taking a rest. (Hiking around the Mohonk Mountain House in NY.)



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  1. My Daughter’s Marathon Death March in Japan » cliffmama.com

    […] the hassles of dragging tired children around. But those inconveniences we went through – of tired toddlers melting down on a hike or having to belay our child for what seems like an eternity while they thrash on a climb that […]

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