There’s something kind of magical about hiking: A simple stroll along a local trail has the power to stoke a child’s innate curiosity about everything from plants to animals to even weather. From there, you can gradually build up to more spectacular settings that will widen his perspective and create a passion for the outdoors. Here, we’ll show you how to get the most out of the experience and build on the learning once you’ve returned home. C’mon, let’s get walking!
To find a trail close to you, plug your zip code into these websites: Americasstateparks.org or Traillink.com.
Let us guide you
Is your family excited to hit the trail? Here are four things to know before you go.
Measure your mileage.
The farthest you should plan for kids to walk is one-half mile per year of age. Got a 6-year-old? Three miles max.
Walk at their pace.
Little feet typically go slow. Take breaks as often as your kids need. If she stops to examine an insect for ten minutes, go with it. It’s about the journey, not the destination.
Take the easy trail.
Use trail ratings, not distance, to judge the difficulty of the hike. Trails described as “easy” or “beginner” are usually flat and painless. If they get bored or start to whine, stop and feed ’em.
A hike is full of chances to learn. Bring a paper map so they can equate the route with the “bird’s eye” view. A compass will help them practice identifying direction. Nature is a classroom!
More to explore
These three national parks are geared toward family hiking:
A California beauty! Granite cliffs, crystal-clear streams, and the tallest waterfall in North America. Book in advance to stay in a park lodge, or pick a motel near the western entrance. nps.gov/yose
Blue Ridge Parkway
The scenic Blue Ridge stretches nearly 500 miles across North Carolina and Virginia through the Appalachian Mountains. Some of the best trails are in Shenandoah National Park. nps.gov/shen
At 277 miles long, 18 miles wide and 6,000 feet deep, the Grand Canyon dazzles. The South Rim (Arizona) has kid-friendly paved roads. Lodging fills up quickly in the summer, so consider alternate times to book. nps.gov/grca
Keep it safe
A little preparation goes a long way toward a memorable day.
- Dress appropriately for the location and season. Generally, long pants and a warm, non-cotton outer layer will help protect against insects as well as unexpected drops in temperature.
- Apply sunscreen (at least 30 SPF).
- Apply insect repellant. If you’re in tick country, use a spray, such as one with DEET or Picaridin, that will ward of both ticks and mosquitoes. For extra protection, apply a repellant containing permethrin to clothing and shoes.
- Bring food and water for all hikers. Carry more water than you think you’ll need, even if the weather is cool.
- Pack a basic first-aid kit with bandages, antiseptic cleanser, and an antihistamine.
- Clip a whistle to each hiker.
Three golden rules
1. Stay on the trail and keep family in sight. Never run ahead or hide.
2. Observe animals; do not touch or bother them.
3. Lost or separated? Stay put, blow your whistle, and wait for help.
Discover P&C dream trip:
Acadia National Park
Mount Desert Island, Maine
Acadia is a tucked-away gem your family has to discover! Located off the rugged Atlantic coast of Maine, the park occupies most of Mount Desert Island and the smaller islands around it. It was created in 1919 and is the oldest national park east of the Mississippi River. In fact, it still features 45 miles of car-free old carriage roads ideal for walking, biking, and horse-drawn buggy rides. With a trail terrain that varies from deep woods to shoreline to mountainside, it’s considered a hiking heaven.
What you'll do
Canoeing; whale watching; sandcastle building at Sand Beach; swimming in salt or fresh water. At Seawall, a natural granite and rock wall on the southwestern side of Mount Desert, you can cook out under the stars. Several ranger-led programs focus on birding — kids can observe and learn about sea ducks, peregrine falcons, and hawks. Outside the park, you can learn about lobsters at the Oceanarium (theoceanarium.com), study the regional Native American culture at the Abbe Museum (abbemuseum.org), or pick blueberries.
When to go
Summer months offer the most ranger programs. A shuttle bus travels to various spots inside the park from late June through Columbus Day, when fall foliage colors peak.
Where to stay
Inside the park, campgrounds are your only option. Outside, consider a cottage with a kitchen in Bar Harbor or cabins in Southwest Harbor, a quaint town with family friendly eateries, bike rental, and public transportation to the park.
Check the weather forecast before you pack. Summer temperatures can range from 45 to 95 degrees.
How to book
Visit the Acadia website (nps.gov/acad) for campground reservations. Find cabins, hotels, and cottages by checking the Mount Desert Chamber of Commerce (mountdesertchamber.org).
Simple gear adds comfort and practicality to your adventure. Four essentials:
They provide traction and stability to help prevent slips. Cross training or trail-running sneakers work, too. Teva Charge WP Shoes, $65
This kid-favorite has a water bladder inside so they can sip from a tube without having to remove the pack. Camelbak Mini-M.U.L.E. Hydration Pack, $50
Loud and shrill—the ultimate attention-getter. REI Tri-Power Safety Whistle, $5
Lightweight and foldable, a poncho will keep you dry long enough to make it back to the car in a sudden shower. Raines by Totes Youth Poncho, $5–$7
Bring the experience home
A travel journal will help your little hiker preserve memories and reinforce lessons learned on the trail.
- Go shopping for a colorful notebook or pad she really likes.
- Pack pencils, tape, and scissors to capture mementos on the go.
- Make lists: new words, foods tasted, coolest sightings.
- Vary entries so it feels more like a personal creation and less like a diary. Sketch insects, flowers, or birds; interview locals; draw maps; and write fiction or poems.
- When you get home, print out photos and add them in.
Adapted from Family on the Loose: The Art of Traveling with Kids by Bill Richards and E. Ashley Steel