How to Enjoy the Hills With Your Kids

How do you keep children keen and motivated in the outdoors? How safe is too safe? And what makes the ideal child-friendly walk? Here's some key advice for hillwalking parents from the folks at Mountain Training.

Nb. For some ideas on child-friendly routes see this recent destination article: Ten Fab Family Hills.


positive mountain experience for young people can change the way they view the world and set them up for life. Plus they'll probably remember it forever. The true benefits of exploring the hills and mountains go much deeper than an appreciation for the environment and improved fitness (although these are also both valuable); the increased self-confidence, resilience and self-reliance that develops in young people will have a hugely positive impact on their development.

We said Stac Pollaidh was a dragon, and she could bash him on the head if she made it to the top  © Dan Bailey
We said Stac Pollaidh was a dragon, and she could bash him on the head if she made it to the top
© Dan Bailey

Make it a positive experience

It all starts with getting them outside and immersed in the mountain environment.

According to Visit Wales 'Walking up mountains with children is easy enough. You just need a fine day, plenty of time, a little patience and a lot of chocolate. You'll also need a mountain, of course – and we've got lots of them.' Kids need plenty of gentle encouragement on the way up, and lots of rest stops. On the way down, it's usually the opposite: children tend to skip ahead, while adults suddenly realise that young knees are much better at going downhill than old knees (which makes the kids laugh, a lot).

Frequent food breaks are a must  © Dan Bailey
Frequent food breaks are a must
© Dan Bailey

Motivate them

If you're a seasoned walker, chances are you've learnt how to look after yourself in the mountains. Looking after children in the mountains is a whole new ball game and it all starts with motivation. If people are motivated (this definitely applies to adults too), half the battle has already been won.

Shane Swannick's article Enthusing kids to get outside on the useful Get Out With The Kids website has this advice:

'Unless they are actually a lover of the outdoors, most teenagers/young adults will not see just "going for a walk" as a good enough reason to actually have any enjoyment. In fact, that particular line is likely to cause alarming and negative grunts of disapproval from the intended walkee!'

'Much better, especially with younger children, is to go "exploring" or have an "adventure", anything other than "walking".'

Isaac (aged 10) on Via Ferrata Spellini, Brenta Dolomites    © RJD
Isaac (aged 10) on Via Ferrata Spellini, Brenta Dolomites
© RJD, Jul 2014
Snowdon, my first summit aged 7  © StevieB125
Snowdon, my first summit aged 7
© StevieB125, Aug 1970

Stay safe - but not too safe

Going out in the mountains is an adventure and much can be gained from having adventures as a family. As a parent you are responsible for managing the risks involved in heading into the hills. The best way to tackle this is to make sure you know how to navigate, plan the day well, pack appropriately and change the plan if necessary. Where appropriate it's important to involve the children in any safety-related decisions. By doing so you're increasing their awareness of risk and how to manage it.

Nothing Ventured… Balancing risks and benefits in the outdoors is a report written by Tim Gill, of the English Outdoor Council, which highlights the importance of having adventures in the outdoors and not underestimating childrens' abilities.

'A mindset that is solely focused on safety does children and young people no favours. Far from keeping them safe from harm, it can deny them the very experiences that help them to learn how to handle the challenges that life may throw at them. There is an emerging consensus that our society has become too focused on reducing or eliminating risk in childhood. And research suggests that overprotecting children can lead to longer-term problems with mental health and well-being.'

What if you've got no idea how to read a map?

Go somewhere that doesn't require any map reading skills. Anywhere with marked trails and/or signposts is a good place to start; managed forests, some coastal paths and public properties, all provide relatively straightforward walking opportunities that don't require any map reading skills. Kids love being in charge and making them responsible for following the signs could be a great start to fostering their independence and decision making skills.

If you want to tackle something beyond your ability, it's probably worth finding a friend who knows what they're doing or paying an experienced leader to guide you. Our Find a Leader search facility is an easy way to find qualified and experienced leaders throughout the UK and Ireland.

The alternative is to upskill yourself, or the whole family, by doing a Hill or Mountain Skills course. These courses are designed for complete beginners or those with some walking experience who want to learn how to look after themselves and enjoy the hills. They're also supported by Mountain Rescue.

Ben at the summit of Stob Coire nan Lochan, aged 6  © John Fleetwood
Ben at the summit of Stob Coire nan Lochan, aged 6
© John Fleetwood

Top tips from parents

Kate Worthington, Winter Mountain Leader and mother of a four year old

  • Choose an engaging and achievable route with immediate interest and terrain near to the start point
  • Create a story/challenge/treasure hunt to shape and inspire the journey
  • Plentiful and healthy kiddie size snacks and drinks to keep energy and happy levels high!

John Cousins, Mountain Guide and father of two girls

  • Tell stories: My daughters have walked unaided for many hours, from as young as three or four, provided you can roll out an endless supply of stories. In our case it seems to be mostly sci fi movie scripts demanded in great detail! The tables have now turned, at age ten, and on our last ascent of The Cobbler I got a word for word account of Frozen, complete with renditions of every song at full volume.
  • Build up slowly and always be flexible about the plan: If you're a regular hill walker you've learnt your skills over many years so don't expect too much from the kids on day one. Mini hill walks with mini rucksacks, fun food on lots of mini breaks, mini obstacles and maxi fun. Make sure you give yourself lots of options to cut it short or change the journey and within whatever limits you set have some suitable bribes ready for the crux (we have lots of pepped up trail mix)

Andy Say, Mountaineering Instructor and father of two boys

  • Plenty of breaks with drinks and nibbles. Long periods of walking uphill in silence can bore the pants off me so it has to be a bit of a turn off for the kids as well. Breaks allow for a chat, a look at the fantastic scenery and a quick drink and some sneaky calorie intake. You can also see how far you have come since the last break so there is a sense of progress up that big mountain.
  • Involve the kids. Give them the map and the compass. Discuss where you are going and ask them to work out which path you are going to follow. So long as you know where you are, basic navigation with a properly 'orientated' map is pretty much child's play. So let them play.
  • I also found Action Man very useful…

Starting them young...
  © MountainGoat82
Starting them young...
© MountainGoat82, Mar 2014
Lucky I remembered the chocolate  © Dan Bailey
Lucky I remembered the chocolate
© Dan Bailey

Mountain Training logo  © Mountain Training

About Mountain Training

Mountain Training's awards and skills courses are nationally recognised and have been developed to educate and train people in the skills needed for walking, climbing and mountaineering. Their courses are run by approved providers who are based all around the UK and Ireland so whether you want to be a winter walking leader, a climbing coach or simply improve your own skills, you'll always be trained by professionals.

Mountain Training is celebrating its 50th anniversary in 2014.

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