The family hike: A survival guide

img_1774My husband and I like to hike. We did a multi-day backpacking trip in Vermont’s Green Mountains, and also in Yellowstone pre-kids. This summer when we got a last minute long weekend away, we hiked several trails in Acadia National Park. This is something we’d like to continue to do with our kids. So we’ve been sticking our toes in with family hiking adventures. This weekend we drove up to the Poconos on Saturday, and hiked a 3-mile round trip section of the Appalachian Trail with the four kids in tow.

It was…OK. The autumn scenery was beautiful. The weather was sunny and crisp. Enjoying the hike itself, however, required some mental toughness. Here, in case anyone else is considering hiking stretches of the AT with four small children, I offer my tips.

The odds are against all four kids being happy at once. This is just math. Let’s say that each child’s happiness is an independent event, and the children are generally happy 75% of the time (that may be pushing it for some of our offspring, but it could be an average). As I quickly Google to remember how to calculate odds, I see that the probability that all four are happy simultaneously is 81/256, or about 32% img_1773of the time. In other words, 2 out of every 3 minutes, someone will be unhappy. And in fact, the unhappiness is not independent, as one child in particular did not want to hike, whined continuously, and took it out on everyone else, thus lowering their happiness ratio.

The fact that one child does not want to hike does not mean you should not hike. Big family. You can’t really give one kid a veto over everyone else’s fun. I will note that he was pretty happy once we turned around and headed back down the mountain. He was even willing to hold my hand for a while.

Small children do not seem to grasp the point that you can be unhappy, but keep it to yourself. I am not sure exactly when this skill kicks in. Possibly never for some people.

Still, one minute out of every three for silent contentment is OK. You can appreciate the sounds of the birds, and the wind in the trees, during the space between each “can we turn around yet?”

Some children derive their identities from whining less than their siblings. The 5-year-old: “Mommy, are you proud of me for not whining? Am I the kid who’s whining least?”

Toddlers should not be allowed to race down rocky trails. My 21-month-old is convinced he is as big and capable as his siblings. He wanted to get out of the backpack and run and soon enough, splat. Split lip, bloody nose, bruise on the forehead. In other words, pretty much his daily special.

It’s OK to drive an hour and 15 minutes and then only hike about 90 minutes. We’re getting the kids comfortable with the idea, and showing them how pretty the scenery can be out on the trails, and getting them some exercise. Overall it was decent, and I trust that in 2-3 years it will be better.




18 thoughts on “The family hike: A survival guide

  1. Hello, Laura, I applaud your commitment to hike with your children. We spent many summers at Lassen National Park, just 2 hours from our home in No. California, and our daughter did her share of whining and complaining all the way up and down the trails. In spite of that, our camping and hiking years made some of our best memories. Several months ago, we revisited Lassen and my beautiful daughter, now 30 and a strong runner, encouraged me in my slow climb (altitude + 15 extra lbs–ugh!) up the mountain. It takes a lot of patience and many years to develop hikers but such rewarding work in the end. Persevere and keep on writing, absolutely love your stories!

    1. @Linda- thanks. We are hoping for this with biking too. We’re taking baby steps, and hope it will pay off in being able to do longer bike rides and hikes as a family some day. Good to hear that your daughter kept going with staying active!

  2. You are so brave to try this with 4 kids!! We took my 4 year old for a hike when we went to Italy a few months back and it went shockingly well. She only demanded an uppy about 25% of the time and I was able to extort pictures out of her in exchange (she refuses to have her picture taken pretty much… always these days). I keep thinking we should try it again now that we’re back in PA. Thanks for this post, maybe we’ll actually go now!

    1. @Omdg- hiking in Italy sounds wonderful! Maybe when our littlest is four we will attempt something like that (toddlers on planes are just…oh my. Plus time changes…) There are some pretty good hiking options in PA, especially since the mountains aren’t that high so they’re doable. The AT crosses the road right by Blue Mountain Ski resort and is pretty accessible. We’ve also done the Lehigh Gorge trail near Jim Thorpe. That can be hiked or biked.

  3. Great tips – and very accurate! We were pretty pleased with how the kids handled hiking when we were visiting Acadia in August.

    Did you check out Jesup Path? It is a great one for kids, because you could actually use a stroller. It is on a raised boardwalk that goes through a marshy area. Although, there are no railings, so the four year old definitely walked right off the edge while distracted. She was fine, just a little scratched and wet.

  4. Oh hiking. I have one kid that could go forever as long as there are snacks, and another that makes it 10 minutes before needing to be carried (and he’s getting big). Good reminder to schedule in a short fall hike (or trail walk, at least) in the next few weeks.

  5. What I have discovered is that having a “destination” helps dramatically and that it has to be a destination appreciated by the would-be whiner. I usually only have one would-be whiner present, which obviously simplifies matters, but it nonetheless took me some time to figure out that when younger (he’s the same age as your oldest, I believe), my son’s basic idea of a good “destination” was “body of water that we can wade/swim in or throw rocks into.” Downside, such destinations tend to be at the bottom of hills, making the last part of the hike uphill, but it nonetheless has helped — particularly when he was younger.

    Food destinations have also proven entirely acceptable, if one happens to have access to trails with cafes, ice cream stands, etc., along them. We do have a few of these, also.

    (Recommendation, if you feel like venturing out of PA: Virginia Creeper trail, particularly for biking but also for hiking).

  6. Oh, yes, I laughed at this post too because I recognize it so well. (For the others reading this, I have 7 kids, so it’s this scenario, nearly doubled.)

    Most of the family loves hiking but one child is VERY verbal about her hatred of the activity. We try to limit our hikes to those weekends when she is not at home, but occasionally she gets dragged along. The funny thing is, she always ends up enjoying herself. I see a silly grin plastered on her face about halfway into the walk.

    Movement is a natural antidepressant, and sometimes the children/adults who are more sedentary need the movement most of all. Even I am somewhat still by nature, but I fight this in myself because I notice a huge difference in my mood when I don’t move my butt every single day.

    We have to push our kids to do things they don’t love, because we know it’s in their best interests.

    “Small children do not seem to grasp the point that you can be unhappy, but keep it to yourself. ”

    LOL! Yes. I say some combination of these words often to my kids. Does complaining make you less hungry/tired/unhappy etc? No, it only increases those. Be unhappy quietly, please. 🙂

    1. @Carrie- yes, the odds of 7 reasonably happy children all being happy at the same time is even lower! If we use the same 75% happy starting assumption, a quick calculation finds that it is 2,187/16,384, or about 13%. Good luck with that!

  7. This was an *awesome* post. I love the mathematical calculation.

    We have whiny hikers as well so we have never attempted more than a 1.3 mile “hike”. But just like others here report, there are moments of pure joy on those hikes where everyone is happy to be out there, though 2/4 of us would prefer being at home with a good book over any other activity 🙂

    I’ve started instituting “Family Hike” on Sundays, for now, in the same state park nearby. But maybe later we’ll get more adventurous!

    1. I love the idea of doing a family weekly outdoor activity. I have been trying to start a Saturday morning family fun run around the neighborhood. It started because I was getting ready for a training run and my kids wanted to join me. I was irritated and reluctant to abide, but I decided being active as a family was more beneficial than sticking to my training run. I am so glad I did, it was one of my favorite memories!

  8. Congrats on 90 mins with 4 children! wow, I am inspired to try a little more with my 2. We have not been successful on hikes, we have only managed about 30 mins of walking around. They are 4 and almost 6; I have to remember to keep trying and to try more often. I love reading about the things you and your commenters do with your families- great ideas and suggestions on how to be realistic in planning and executing!

  9. I am planning a Yellowstone trip for 2021 so this is the perfect read right now. Glad I stumbled upon this oldie but goodie!!

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