Get Your Kids Interested in Hiking

Posted on in Kids + Family by John Degrazio



Ambassador John DeGrazio with his Daughter on the Summit of Half Dome in Yosemite

Do you enjoy hiking but are having difficulty competing with other activities (and in-activities) that are holding your children’s interests? Here are some tips to encourage adventures you all may enjoy together.

Contrary to conventional wisdom, the best way to get your kids interested in hiking is to downplay the entire idea altogether. I know this will be hard to do if getting outside and into nature is one of your most cherished activities, but you’ll have to be a good actor because your children are a tough audience. I’m not saying to discourage them from hiking. Just be careful not to make a big deal about their desire, or lack thereof, to join you on your favorite trail. I learned early that I was not going to force my daughters’ interest in anything. As a mountain guide in Yosemite, I was crushed to hear my then 4 year old child utter “I’m never climbing Half Dome. Ever.” As dismayed as I was, I made certain to hide my emotions. Fortunately, her ‘anti-hiking’ stance was short lived.

During the next few years, it was important to offer her alternative activities she could choose on her own. If she completed a hike, she would be rewarded with one of her favorite movies and a big bowl of popcorn. Other times, we would let her skip a hike if she promised to go along without any complaints the next time. This seemed to work very well since she never felt forced to march. As the years passed, so did her attitude toward trekking. With each family trip, her interest grew. Just as I feigned apathy after her Half Dome declaration, I remained even keeled when she began to show an affinity for the outdoors. I also allowed her to look at pictures of my other adventures to see how much fun hiking can be.


Photography Has no Age Requirement

Of course, we always incorporated family hikes into our holidays and family vacations, but it was also important to allow my daughter certain latitudes to insure her full buy-in to the activities. Finding small things that make them happy during the hike is paramount. Once I noticed she liked to climb on rocks, it became an easy incentive for her to get excited on an adventure. Photography is another easy solution. At first I wasn’t thrilled about handing an iPhone to a three year old while walking on a trail, but I quickly saw how interested both my daughters were in making their own images. This is an excellent creative outlet, and I am often amazed by their vision.


California Poppies by a much younger DeGrazio

It’s also important to offer them an opportunity to develop leadership skills at an early age. Everyone likes to be the leader of the group, and young children are no different. Permitting her to be in the front of the family during certain stretches boosted her confidence while adding to her feelings of fulfilment. Bribery also doesn’t hurt. Promises of candy or special “comfort foods” on hikes works really well. Besides, the simple sugars are the first choice for their body to burn while exercising so it’s a win win.


Bribery with Fig Bars is one way to encourage your children to hike with you

Sometimes, in extreme circumstances, it takes a PhD in psychology to successfully will your child into the wilderness. Certain kids respond differently to various stimuli. I was recently on a trip in Yosemite with a father and his five year old son who was noticeably tired after hiking the previous day. We had already successfully played the bribery card with ice cream after day 1, but he wasn’t hungry this time. I dug deep into my bag of tricks and found an allegory about a measuring worm and two bear cubs that I related to his situation. Once his interest was piqued, we were able to continue with our walk.

When my daughter reached the age of nine, she asked when she can hike Half Dome with me. I answered that it was a very difficult hike and she wasn’t quite ready. She persisted. Then I told her we would try it after she turned ten but she needed to complete a few “training hikes” in the interim. This goal setting created a hunger inside of her that provided inspiration. Over the course of the next several months she began to show greater interest as we hiked the Mist Trail in Yosemite and Angels Landing in Zion. Her next test was Yosemite Falls which she passed with aplomb. After the hike, she told me her plan was to summit Half Dome before her tenth birthday, and I believed in her.

One morning during spring break, we decided to enter Yosemite Valley in the pre-dawn hours under the blood moon. She wasn’t feeling that great a couple of days after having a touch of the flu, but she was determined. She appeared to gain strength as we made it through every stage of the journey. I have not experienced many greater joys than helping her navigate the final section of the hike to stand on the summit together. I briefly reminisced about the little girl who declared this moment would never happen and giggled quietly to myself. Then I turned to witness the developing young woman who not only has grown up to thoroughly enjoy the outdoors but also had just completed one of the most difficult hikes Yosemite has to offer. All before her tenth time around the sun. Fear not if you’re having trouble encouraging your young ones to enjoy the outdoors. Trying some of these these time tested techniques may be all that is needed to create a brighter path to a healthier lifestyle for you and your family.

John Degrazio

John has hiked and biked through thousands of miles of the Sierra Nevada and also enjoys the sport of rock climbing which offers incomparable adrenaline rushes and unique perspectives.

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