Family hikes are a highlight of my weekends. Not only is walking great exercise, but we get to make memories outdoors and explore nature near home. Of course, getting kids to try new things can be challenging. My spouse and I have faced many hurdles over the years, from pouting to tired legs to snack-time catastrophes. (Pro-tip: bring double the granola bars you think you’ll need!)

Through trial and error, we learned a handful of tricks that have made hiking with children a smoother, happier and very rewarding experience. Now, taking the kids out for a weekend hike is like a piece of cake – and my kids love cake!

Read onward for tips that’ll make hiking a bit breezier for the grown-ups involved, while also getting the young ones engaged and excited. With the right encouragement, appropriate trails, and, yes, appealing snacks, hiking with the whole family (infants and toddlers included!) can be something that everyone looks forward to.


Quick Links: Getting Started | Getting Inspired | Being Prepared | Suggested Preserves

Two young children run down a shaded trail.
The kids look so tiny beside the giant trees at Mount Madonna County Park.

Getting Started

Like with many things, it’s a good idea to test the waters before diving in. Start with small, short trails to get a read on your children’s receptiveness to the activity. Even a ten minute walk around your neighborhood can be hugely enlightening. Further down, you’ll find a list of trails that my kids have loved, with notes on their features and difficulty. 

There are a few must-haves that will get you over the basic stumbling blocks of hiking with kids. These include: 

  • Snacks and drinks to stay energized. Something special like muffins or juice might help resistant kids.
  • Appropriate layers and clothes for time outside. There’s no need for a fancy all-REI wardrobe – just any pants, hat, good shoes and long socks that you don’t mind getting dirty.
  • Check the weather and a map in advance so you’re sure to avoid pouring rain, a 100 degree day or getting lost. Plus, keep in mind microclimates and exposed trails can make it feel a lot colder or hotter than your balcony or yard.
  • A positive attitude! If you’re thrilled to hike, your kids might catch on!

Inspiring Little Ones to Get Outside

3 young children look into a lake while perched on a rock.
My kids and their friends get curious at Boronda Lake at Foothills Nature Preserve in Palo Alto.

Sometimes, the hardest part of taking children hiking is getting them to leave the house. With the comfort of TV, board games, couches and blankets, the great indoors can be a space that your kiddos might never choose to leave! 

This was particularly the case with my second kid, who would prefer to play dress-up at the apartment instead of getting dirty on the trail. However, with a few simple additions to our hiking plans, she’s a fan of open-air experiences that can’t be found inside. Here are a few suggestions that will have your kids lacing up their sneakers with enthusiasm:

  • “Market” the activity in an appealing way. Saying that you’re going to “see the giant trees,” “look for slugs” or “have outside playtime” may come off as more inspiring than “going hiking.” 
  • Sometimes it’s okay to bribe. Bribing children may seem bad. But trust me, in moderation, it works! It can be as simple as promising that they’ll get to eat a fun snack during or after the hike. If it takes going outside to get their favorite pretzels or an afternoon movie, they’re more likely to do so with gusto. 
  • Use a little help from props. A cheap, disposable camera or binoculars can greatly entertain the kids as they explore the outdoors. Another option is a little canister of bubbles – we can’t use it inside, so we offer it during outside time. The kids love to blow bubbles and watch them float up to pop against the trees. 
  • Play the “can you find…” game. My partner is the mastermind behind this strategy. He came up with the idea that our kids could scan for scat on the trails. Something about kids…they find poop really funny. P.S., it doesn’t need to be poop – can your kids find mushrooms, banana slugs, pinecones, clovers? Make it a learning activity by identifying the species you see (and thanks to apps, you don’t have to be a naturalist to make an educated guess!).
  • Let your children make some choices. When you’re growing up, it can feel like everything in your life is decided for you. Within reason, I like to give some decision-making power back to the kids. On certain trails, a fork in the road will lead to two good options. I’ll ask: “Which way should we go?” Or when we’re packing snacks, I’ll let them grab a healthy treat. It may seem small, but it goes a long way in boosting their confidence, and a good mood does wonders for everyone on a hike.
  • Bring their friends. It’s great to have a buddy. Inviting your kid’s friend could make the excursion feel more special. Plus, if the friend’s grown-up tags along, the outing now has extra supervision!

Being Prepared

2 children walk on a flat trail on a gloomy day.
Fog added a bit of magic to this rainy day walk at Sam McDonald Park.

Any hike comes along with a few risks. For children especially, the main things to consider are getting dirty, getting injured or getting tired. 

  • Bring a spare set of clothes. A ride home with muddy socks, shoes and pant legs could make outdoor adventures feel like a chore (unless they’re one of those kids who loves to play in dirt, in which case, feel free to skip ahead!). That’s why we have a tradition of packing dry post-hike clothing items like extra socks and pants. When you return from your walk, the dirty clothes come off and the clean clothes go on. This trick does wonders to prevent a chorus of whining on the way home.
  • Check the weather before you go. Rain means mud and cold means grumpy kids (and grown-ups). Ensuring that you embark on a dry, warm day will eliminate risks of discomfort for beginners. 
  • Keep a small first-aid kit on hand. It can stay in your car or on your person. Just the basics will do – you’ll want a quick solution to a small cut or skinned knee should one arise.
  • Choose appropriate trails. Don’t take the young or less experienced ones on a ten-mile trek with a thousand foot elevation gain. Remember – they’re beginners! Start with the easy trails before working your way up to the more challenging ones. 
  • Know the park’s amenities. Check the park’s maps ahead of time to ensure you’re parking near a restroom. It’s crucial to know where your kids can “go” when the need arises, especially when you’re potty training. A portable potty chair you keep in the car can work in a pinch for small kids with tiny bladders.
  • Respect your children’s limits. When I sense the kids are slowing down, I know it’s best to start wrapping up. Urging them onwards could create an association between hiking and stress, and it’s important to make sure this activity remains fun for all!


Suggested Preserves:

Four adults, a toddler and an infant walk on a flat trail.

Pearson-Arastradero Preserve

This popular spot is good for beginners, though plan for some patience parking in the small lot. The wide, safe trails make it difficult to get lost, while still taking you through scenic outdoor space. Bathrooms are accessible, plus a water filling station. My kiddos enjoy the small interpretive center, and seeing the pups on this dog-friendly trail!

A dad and two kids walk on a trail at Russian Ridge, surrounded by greenery.

Russian Ridge Preserve

One weekend, my kids and I saw over thirty newts on the Ancient Oaks Trail at this location! It’s a great place to play the “can you find any ____” game, though the trail admittedly has some narrower parts with incline. We’ve also used the very short, flat trail that takes you to great seating with a view of Mindego Hill. It’s accessible via the newer parking lot that doesn’t get as full as the older one right by Skyline Blvd. Perfect for a picnic with grandparents!

Two kids sit on a bench overlooking Upper Lake at Bear Creek Redwoods.

Bear Creek Redwoods

Near the parking area is a short easy-access, self-guided interpretive trail. With bathrooms and a flat, simple path around the Upper Lake, this could be an excellent location to test the waters with young hikers. They should look out for turtles, newts, and banana slugs. And there are an abundance of benches to stop at and have a snack!

A child walks along a dirt trail under blue skies on a sunny day.

Skyline Ridge Preserve

There is so much to explore at this location. Horseshoe Lake is near a bridge and bench, and there’s also the David C. Daniels Nature Center by Alpine Pond. For the more experienced junior hikers, the Gene Sheehan Overlook on the Ipiwa Trail can be a great place to climb a rock and enjoy a picnic or snack! Keep an eye out for banana slugs and newts on the steep, shady Fir Knoll Trail, and wildflowers in the spring on Ipiwa Trail.

Children in rain coats explore in a creekbed.

Sanborn County Park

My kids love this park for its big meadow, the pond and Aubry Creek. Note that walking uphill on a steep, paved path is necessary to reach the creek. As such, this trail may be too difficult for very young children – unless they’re tiny enough for your favorite carrier or a ride on your shoulders! Another plus is the restrooms along shady Sanborn Trail (as you’ll walk by campsites to get to the creek). Oh and heads up, there’s a $6 parking fee at the entrance.


Though it’s a bit of extra work, hiking with the whole family is worth the effort. Watching children experience the outdoors at such a young age is so rewarding. Their excitement over the small wonders of the world is precious to behold, and what better place to experience that joy than on a hike. 

Happy trails!

About Post

Peninsula Open Space Trust (POST) protects open space on the Peninsula and in the South Bay for the benefit of all. Since its founding in 1977, POST has been responsible for saving more than 87,000 acres as permanently protected land in San Mateo, Santa Clara and Santa Cruz counties. Learn more

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