Are We Nearly There Yet? - Tips for Walking With Kids
Family walks carry a weight of expectation. We hope to nurture a lifelong love of the great outdoors in our progeny; we earnestly insist that a child-sized ramble in the foothills can be as enjoyable and rewarding as a full-on kid-free day; we fondly imagine games of hide-and-seek in the heather, and the wide-eyed wonder of a child's early steps in nature. At its best, hillwalking with kids is all of that.
But as any parent soon finds out, it's not always sunshine and smiles. Get it wrong and things may rapidly go downhill. What if they grow bored or stage a sit-in, far from home on a rain-lashed moor? How much fun is anyone going to have once the small people are hungry and tired? If walking becomes a chore then there's a risk that both the kids and their adult slave drivers are put off the whole experience. Next time you're out with the family, try these tips for keeping the youngsters engaged and enthused, and the grownups largely sane.
Presentation is half the battle
There's no surer route to a mutiny before you've even left the house than breezily announcing that you're all going out for a character building family walk in the rain. So don't call it a walk - try the more exciting-sounding adventure. The domestic equivalent of political spin, it's a re-branding exercise that can work wonders for your chances of getting out. The trick only works for so long of course, and bitter experience will soon turn your adorably gullible wee ones into jaded ten year old cynics. Enjoy while it lasts. And when the jaunty presentation no longer cuts the mustard, channel your inner Tory: it's time for bribery and threats.
Downsize your ambition
Is there any part of pre-child life that is not up-ended by parenthood? Your hillwalking is clearly going to take a big hit. Once you might have knocked off several peaks before lunch, or happily scared yourself on a grade 3 scramble in the rain; now simply getting everyone out of the house during daylight, in complete pairs of footwear, will feel like something of an achievement. With smalls on the scene you'll probably just have to accept that bagging the In Pinn together might have to wait a few years. Even when they're older and more capable, there'll be limits - until one day your work will be done, and they'll be dragging you along in their wake.
Adjusting the day's expectations to suit your abilities as a family needn't feel like a compromise. Probably better to look on it as part of the fun. Seen through the eyes of a child even small hills take on Matterhorn-like lines, and it's a joy to be able to share in that. In the early days of your family hillwalking journey, go for bite-sized summits rather than biggies, obvious paths instead of bogs, and limit the daily time and distance. When planning a walk it may be easier to extend it if the kids are doing well than cut short a longer circuit that's proving over ambitious. As they grow, so too can your goals. Now both into double figures, our girls have been fine on Munros and Corbetts for several years, but we'll still tend to aim for a single peak rather than several.
Never, ever stay out after witching hour
One for the parents of smaller ankle-biters in particular. If you're new to this game then you'll soon learn...
Choose quality, not quantity
Could your little darlings find the patience for a long dull walk-in, motivated by a distant goal they can't yet even see? Would they thank you for miles of samey grouse moor, or those bare rolling Grampian things that offer an endless succession of false summits? I know ours wouldn't. Younger children even seem peculiarly oblivious to the attraction of a big view; I guess when you're that close to the ground it's no wonder if the micro beats the macro.
Walks built around variety are better suited to short attention spans. For smaller kids in particular there should be something new and interesting around every bend, stuff to engage with and not just look at - be that a paddly lochan or a scrambly rock. Woods and shorelines are ideal, and if there's a mini summit involved then count that as a score. There's a lot to be said for the pretty and bitty landscapes of rock, tarn, heather and pasture that you'll find among the lower hills of the Lakes, Snowdonia and Scotland's west coast.
Some small-kid-friendly hill ideas:
Classic but manageable family walks for more capable youngsters:
The weather calls the shots
You may get some sort of grim satisfaction from a battle with hostile elements, but this masochistic way to get your kicks seems to be purely an adult thing. Kids know better, so don't impose your quirks on them. Children can be surprisingly tolerant of wet or cold weather, but combine that with wind and they may – quite rightly – have a sense of humour failure. It's always wise to plan your day around the forecast, but doubly so when you're responsible for nippers. If it's calm, seize the moment and head high; but when it's minging, cut your losses and hug the low ground. On a stormy day woods might offer sheltered walking even when the hilltops above are sensibly out of bounds.
Carry them while you still can
When sprogs are very small and easily coaxed into a child carrier you can still enjoy a respectable walk, and so long as there's an adult willing to shoulder the weight there will be times when you can stride out at a grown-up sort of pace and actually get somewhere. But do remember that nappy changes, snack breaks and crawling around time all still have to be factored in. A solid child carrier would be a very wise investment, particularly if it ends up being handed down many times:
Let the smallest set the pace
Of course, the carrying stage is finite. Once they've learned to walk, grown too heavy to lug about, and discovered a will of their own, the family pace will slow to a stop-start amble peppered with random cul de sacs and distractions. Every little thing by the wayside is fascinating to a young child, while the big picture, your planned walk from A to B, probably doesn't come into it. Puddles are for splashing in, after all, and rocks for climbing on. And who could resist the simple delights of sheep poo and a stick? Don't get frustrated; this is all part of the game. As they mature children soon begin to grasp the concept of a purpose. By the age of about three, in our experience, they might be persuaded to walk in one particular direction for minutes on end.
Go with friends
Whether they're motivated by a spirit of competition or mutual encouragement, bring a friend and the kids ought to be having too much fun to notice the mileage. There's no better way to boost the enthusiasm and minimise the risk of tantrums than teaming up with another family. Probably works best with kids of a similar age.
Involve them in decisions
As they grow up and become increasingly self-possessed, kids naturally like to feel that their views carry some weight. In our experience, this starts pretty early. Involve junior team members in decision making, both at the planning stage and out on the trail, and it ought to help them view the walk as a collective pursuit more than an imposition. Give them a shot with maps and compasses, walking poles and bothy bags. At first they'll merely be playing, but hopefully something will still be sinking in, helping to lay a groundwork for future skills.
Tolerate a few grumbles - they're all part of the process
Rarely does a day pass in most households without a bit of a moan or a good honest strop - and that's just the grown-ups. Kids are experts at making a fuss, and quite as capable of finding grounds for grizzling on a walk as they would be at home. Try to stay patient, and with luck all will be forgotten in a few minutes as attention naturally drifts to more wholesome pursuits like throwing stones or teasing a sibling. If a more stubborn low does take hold and require intervention, we've had some successes in earlier years with bribery (chocolate, not cash) and distraction (there's a fish in that tree. Or is it a bird?).
But when it comes to ten-age tantrums, nothing seems to work and you may be best off letting them ride it out, however embarrassing the spectacle on a busy hillside. I suppose it's always possible there's a genuine grievance. Maybe they really do have 'a hurting foot'; perhaps their tights actually are 'all runkled up'; it may indeed be the case that walking up hills is a lot more boring than Tiktok. Who really believes adults know best?
Kit kids out properly
It's something you see on every popular hill: a parent - probably the Dad (let's be honest) - armoured head to toe in top-end gear costing more than a second hand hatchback, oblivious to the blister-footed misery of the child dressed in damp jeans and squelching trainers. Why aren't the little ingrates enjoying the bracing elements? Perhaps because they're the ones really experiencing them.
If you deserve gear that's properly fit for the outdoors, then so too do they. Yes, it's a thankless and expensive battle to keep pace with the clothing needs of an ever-growing sprog. Not many of us will be stretching to brand new top-of-the-range outfits every six months, so where available look for second hand charity shop clothing and hand-me-downs. You might even consider sharing gear among a couple of families. When purchasing new, you can sensibly cut a few corners with cheapies where the branded stuff isn't sufficiently better to justify the price tag (socks, gloves, hats, neck gaiters).
With savings made elsewhere, some key items of kit are worth splashing a bit more on - particularly waterproofs and footwear. A decent child-sized rucksack can be an investment that'll last for years too. Hours in Decathlon or Trespass will be time (and hopefully not too much money) well spent. But after all that there will still be occasions when the little darlings simply won't leave home without those leaky supermarket wellies, because they've got dinosaurs on. Don't sweat it; they'll learn.
They can carry their own stuff
You'll have enough on your plate, or in your pack. Almost as soon as they can walk, kids can wear a small rucksack. Don't overload them, but do encourage them to carry their own jackets, gloves and water. Learning to be responsible for their stuff, and to decide for themselves when to put on a waterproof are all valuable life 'skills'. We do still run through a vital kit list before leaving home though, since one forgotten shell could spoil the day for everyone.
Keep Loading in the Calories
Small people burn though food at an impressive rate, especially when exercising in the fresh air. On any family trip it is always better to over cater, while saving weight on snacks can be a false economy. Regular refuelling is essential to keep them happy and motivated, so factor a child-friendly number of snack breaks into your timings as well as the essential main lunch stop. Load up generously with a variety of high-energy stuff that's easily eaten outdoors, such as nuts and raisins, cereal bars, sandwiches, pies and sausage rolls, apples, and crisps.
Supplement the healthy savoury element with an indulgent supply of sweets, preferably things such as jelly babies that can be handed around on the go. As well as being vital fuel, food is an effective morale booster. Use it to head off bad moods, or eke it out as a series of little rewards for getting to the next landmark on the trail. Hidden every few minutes in the crook of a branch or behind a rock, sweets are very effective when used in an energy-boosting treasure hunt that keeps the forward momentum going.
Try a few tall tales
Have you heard about the notorious den of thieves that raided the good folk of Aviemore and hid their spoils under the Shelterstone, until, outwitted by clever local children named Daisy and Edith, they fell through the ice of Loch Avon never to trouble the villagers again? Did you know that Lingmoor Fell was once home to giants, or that Stac Pollaidh was a sleeping dragon? It all came as news to us too, but it's amazing what you can concoct on the hoof to distract foot-dragging weans.
With their attention fixed on a story, smaller kids can happily trot along without even noticing the distance. You don't have to be Roald Dahl, anything will probably do. If stuck for inspiration, try shoehorning into the tale the place names and landmarks seen on your walk, a ploy that seems to help the audience engage with their surroundings on an imaginative level. Of course a 12-year old is going to find this sort of thing deeply cringey. Perhaps they might be more interested in genuine facts about the history, geology or ecology of the area? Don't get too tedious with the lectures, but do consider bringing a few fun-but-educational tools such as binoculars or pocket magnifiers.
Remember it's all fun and games
If you catch yourself at any point striding off with an adult sense of purpose, stop and remember that family walks - especially in the primary and pre-school years - are something completely different. You're out to enjoy the moment, not actually to achieve anything more abstract. Games can help boost flagging enthusiasm, and by incorporating them into the landscape they can be a good way for children to interact with their surroundings too. Use what comes to hand: collecting pine cones, sending the young'uns on a natural obstacle course, or building a snowman. Hide-and-seek is a good one for smaller nippers, and has a sneaky knock-on benefit if you can quietly steer the game along the path in the direction you all want to be heading.
Allow just a bit of danger…
There's a fashionable school of thought - and probably a correct one - that holds that eliminating all risk from childrens' lives is to deny them vital experiences, stifling fun and the chance to learn to take responsibility for themselves. A little danger – and of course I do mean within managed bounds – is surely one of the joys of childhood. Let them fall and scrape their knee; climb that tree; clamber on the rocks; and if they insist on paddling in a lochan in April then they'll certainly learn something. Your role is to be a bit hands-off, while quietly but firmly ensuring that any activity remains within levels appropriate to your child's abilities. As the responsible adult it's vital that you understand the possible risks of the setting, and how to manage them. You wouldn't permit a river swim just upstream from a waterfall, for instance, and yet it might be perfectly justifiable below the falls. Think very hard before venturing onto scrambling terrain or snow slopes, both places where ill-prepared family groups occasionally get into trouble through basic ignorance on the part of the parents.
If you're considering scrambling with the kids, and genuinely feel that both you and they are up to it, then do build up very carefully. Helmets are a very good idea on any grade of scramble, but a scramble that requires a rope is arguably outside the definition of a sensible family day out unless you happen to have unusually capable children and the skill set of a mountain guide. For some specific family scrambling advice, see this piece:
…but always keep an eye on their welfare
Aside from the more dramatic and lurid possibilities, children are probably most likely to come to grief in the outdoors through simply being cold and tired. Youngsters are resilient, but their endurance has definite limits, and the slide from perfectly fine to borderline hypothermic can be alarming. Wet or windy weather is the main concern, particularly for smaller children. This goes double for babies sat still and cold in a child carrier while you're working up a sweat, oblivious to their predicament. In cold conditions make sure kids are dry, well layered-up, and properly fed. If you're up high in the open and they start showing signs of being chilled, get them down into the lee of the hills without delay. I speak from experience. A small first aid kit and a family-sized group shelter are always worth their weight, though with luck they'll rarely if ever need to come out of the pack. It's advisable for the adults to carry a few kid's spares too, such as a warm jumper, dry socks, and - if you seem to be bringing up budding wild swimmers - a small towel.
Forgive the triteness, but articles like this always have to end on a positive note. On a good day, family walks are some of the best walks you'll ever have. It won't much matter after the event how far you got or whether you achieved the day's planned summit; the memories that count will be of the journey, not the destination. Should you all come back happy, and still talking to each other, chalk it up as a win. And if they're keen to go out next time then congratulations, you're on a roll.
For more family-oriented articles, see: