How to Get Kids to Hike

It’s really not a secret. Food is the best motivator to get young kids to hike. Here’s how to keep them happy till the finish.

Whether it’s a chocolate-studded trail mix or just straight up chocolate, a good old fashioned (ideally non-refined) sweet treat gets kids to go the distance. I learned this from my very fit and equally ambitious friends in Bend, Oregon. One friend gave her 6-year-old one M&M for every half mile she cross-country skied. Another put a Hershey’s Kiss in every pocket of their 3-year-old’s ski jacket and let her hunt for them after each run. 

I have always looked down my nose at bribes and probably taken it too far in terms of limiting sugar consumption in our house. But this summer I found myself in a California that has finished with blizzards and moved on to earthquakes and hurricanes; it’s hot and dry with occasional tropical rain and the streams are flowing. Thus, I was determined to get my 4-, 7-, and 9-year-old daughters to hike up to the best swimming holes in town. 

The key is planning ahead and dropping treats along the trail. I have found that a single square of chocolate at the first stream crossing motivates (and energizes) my girls for a solid thirty minutes of hiking, regardless of the terrain. And a surprise unveil at our destination is extra motivating. 

When we hiked the East Fork of Cold Spring Trail, everyone got a bite of a Larabar at the start — no added sugar in that bite, but my kids don’t know that. Fifteen minutes later, at the first stream crossing, I presented each girl with a single square of dark vegan chocolate and enthusiastic, rapid hiking ensued. I usually hike without any supplies, not even water or a phone, but on this day, I wore a well-stocked backpack. My pack held three lightweight towels, three water bottles, one spoon, and a small soft-sided cooler with a pint of Oatly Raspberry Swirl ice cream and three sugar-free cones. When we reached the falls, we took a natural shower, and while the girls were warming up on the hot sandstone boulders, out came the ice cream — I didn’t even smash the cones while hiking! 

Of course it doesn’t always go so well, but on this particular day, there wasn’t a single whine on the way up or down. And by the time we got home, they were hungry for a healthy lunch.

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So perhaps a bribe here and there isn’t so bad? If it gets kids deep into nature, I’d say it’s worth it.

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Lizzy Fallows
Lizzy Fallows
Lizzy Fallows is a passionate environmentalist, writer, and mother of four, and is happiest in the water.
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