How To Choose The Best Hike For Your Child

Hiking can be so fun especially when you are with those you love most. However, there can be many things that can turn a fun hike into frustration when hiking with children. You might have picked a hike that you thought your family may be able to do but quickly had to cut it short. Maybe the trail was to difficult for your little ones, there were dangerous areas not suitable for children, or just to strenous. I have been there before and sometimes even pushed our limits some. Let me tell you that throughout our years of hiking as a family we have learned what to look for and how to prepare for any hike. Here is how we choose the best hike for our children.

1. Trail Distance

I chose to discuss trail distance first because this can be a huge challenge for some children. My older daughter Bella does pretty good on any hike that's not over 4 or 5 miles. She loves to walk, look for sticks and stones along the way, and does anything to stay busy on the trail. My youngest daughter Isa is the complete opposite though. Not even half a mile into our hike and she gets bored, tired, wants to be held, sits in the middle of the trail, cries and whines, you name it. We have seen it all with her.

When we choose our trails we always look at the distance of the trail. Not the distance to get to the other side but the total distance. We look for something that they both can do and prepare accordingly. Isa is still at an age where I can carry her in my Ergo for when she gets tired. I also take a bag with a scavenger hunt for her to do on the trail which keeps her busy and hiking longer. Despite that I still need to know their limit. Along with the trail distance I also have to take other factors into consideration.

2. Elevation Total Of The Trail

Trail elevation is also very important when choosing a trail. You may find a 5 mile hike with minimal elevation or you can find a short 2-3 mile hike with over 500 feet in elevation. Climbing up a mountain with such a huge elevation gain can be very challenging for them. This is something to consider when choosing a hike. Are you kids good about going up and down hill on the trail? What shoes do they have? Will the distance of the trail and elevation gain be a good fit for them? Will you have to baby-carry one of your kids? How will you do baby-carrying one of your kids up this elevation gain and back down? These are all important questions to ask yourself when making plans. If you haven't done a hike with a big elevation gain I recommend starting with a small elevation gain first and see how your little ones do and work your way up.

Some websites will tell you the elevation gain in the hike's details. If not you can try to find the map of the trail and count the elevation lines on the map and calculate accordingly. You will calculate from the lowest point on the trail to the highest point of the trail to get the total elevation range for the hike. An app that I like to use for calculating these elevation ranges is GAIA GPS. It is good to measure the lines according to the twists and turns of the trails. It's easier to go up hill in 0.3 miles versus the same elevation gain in 0.1 miles.


When we hiked to the Lanikai Pillboxes the elevation gain was a straight upward elevation of several hundred feet at the begining of the hike. My oldest daughter Bella did struggle at the begining of this hike and we had to assist her. My husband carried Isa and between him and I, we helped Bella climb to the ridge of the mountain. This is probably one of the toughest hikes we did with Bella (four years old at the time) but she did pretty good and she's the kind of girl that likes to push her limits to reach that mountain top view. I knew her limits but we also had made other plans just in case we had to cut our hike short.

Another hike we did which was a challenge was Makua Cave in Oahu, Hawaii. This was a random hike we decided to do while driving around the West coast of Oahu. We didn't have much plans to do it but saw the entrance and went for it. As we started we immediately had to turn around. The trail got very steep, rugged, slippery and dangerous for little ones. My husband and I tag teamed it. He stayed behind close to the trailhead while my cousin and I hiked up to the cave then visa versa. I knew my daughter would of gave it her all but I knew it would of been way too much for her. With the ropes, climbing, and being such a steep drop and high fall I prefferred to play it safe rather than sorry.

3. Experience Level Of The Child

Both of my kids have different experience levels. Their age does have something to do with it. Isa is not the kind of girl to push herself up a mountain. She will walk and enjoy it but that will only last so long. She needs more of a push.

My daughter Bella, on the other hand, wants to learn to hike more. She likes the challenge and to push her limits which helps her gain experience and learn more about hiking safety. She watches her footing most times, uses her walking stick when she needs it, and is not afraid to keep going (as long as she is not tired or hungry).

By knowing your kids experience levels you can help plan accordingly. If one of my children wasn't as experienced as the other I would plan a hike that is suitable for the less experienced. You can also plan a hike that will push their limits a little but not to the point of frustration or exhaustion. Remember, the goal here is to have a fun hiking trip together.

Don't forget to include your own level of experience in the mix. Remember to always play it safe than sorry.

4. Determination And Motivation Of The Child

Determination and motivation of your child may go hand in hand with their experience levels. A child that is more determined to push themselves and stretch their limits has more motivation versus a child who is not as motivated.

5. Terrain Of The Trail

The terrain of the trail is usually rugged but you can also get sandy trails in some areas, snowy trails, muddy ones, or even paved ones. Planning according to the terrain will also help you with your decision making. Knowing the terrain will also help you with knowing what gear to take.

The reason I say the terrain is because this can make your hike either easier or more difficult to do. Sandy trails can make it hard sometimes for hiking as your feet seem to always keep sinking in to the sand versus a paved trail which is smooth the entire way. Most of the time though you will be on a rugged terrain with dirt, small rocks, sticks, leaves, etc. This will be good for certain areas such islands, deserts, jungles, etc.

6. Estimated Time To Complete The Hike

This is a good one to keep in mind. When hiking with kids I always like to add 15 to 20 minutes for every hour just to play it safe. Say the hike is estimated to take 4 hours. I would add 1 hour to 1.5 hours to that time. I would then add time for lunch if we need to eat a lunch on the trail or even break time such as swimming at the waterfall.

It is best to plan to be out there for a longer period of time and come prepared than to not be prepared mentally, physically, and not have the right gear (snacks, hydration, food, sunblock, etc.)

7. Weather For That Day

Sometimes this is hard to plan especially if you are planning way in advanced. It is always good to monitor the weather and get an idea of what the average temperatures are. You can also compare weather patterns with that of the previous years just to get an idea. I usually just wait till it's about 10 days out before monitoring the weather for that area.

8. Time Of Year

Knowing the time of year and the weather for that time of year can be very helpful when making plans for being outdoors. Some places rain constantly during certain times of the year while others can be very hot and dry during other times of the year.

If you plan for the winter than you will know that it will be cold most likely. If you plan for the fall you will most likely see many wildflowers and also showers in some areas.

9. Challenges On The Trail

First of, remember you will be in nature and nature tends to throw curve balls at you either way. Being outdoors already comes with its challenges from time to time. This doesn't mean that you can't read up on some of the trails and see if there are any other challenges. Maybe the bridge to cross the creek is broken down and now there is a detour. Or maybe there is an area where you have to climb a rocky ledge in order to continue your route. By doing some research and preparing for these challenges you and your family will have a happier trail experience.

Don't forget to add any challenges in to your estimated time. If it's a 30 minute detour it's good to prepare mentally that your trip will be 30-40 minutes longer.

10. Gear Needed For The Hike

This can differ with each family. Each age and child's experience level will lead to what gear you will be needing. For instance, you will not need a baby carrier for an older child or your older child may need better hiking boots for a longer and more strenuous hike. I created this guide to better assist you with the main hiking essentials you will need. Make sure to plan your hikes according to the gear that you currently have or will be able to purchase for the trip.

These are some of the main things we look for when planning a hike with our kids. I really hope that these key points will help you plan your next family hiking trip. Any other key points that you look for when planning? Let me know in the comments.

Happy hiking!