What's an activity that gets your heart pumping (but not so much that you can't keep up your end of a chat), occupies your kids for a blessed while, costs little to nothing, involves no screens, provides an escape from large crowds, and maybe makes up—just a little—for those long months in lockdown? We'll end the suspense: It's hiking, and we're convinced it's the perfect family activity. (Yes, even for not-so-outdoorsy families, as well as kids who balk at the idea of trail tramping.) Here's why it may just become your favorite way to spend a Saturday.
If you fear your kid will be turned off by the H-word, feel free to reframe the trip as something a little more up their alley. "We don't call them walks or hikes in our family," says Jessica Weit, of Portland, Oregon. "We call them adventures. My older son, Will, who's 5, likes to pick a theme for each outing, like slug hunting, bird-watching, or pinecone collecting."
And don't stress out thinking the journey needs to be ambitious, says Rachel Hofstetter, of Salt Lake City, whose older son, Theo, 3, can't always handle a strenuous jaunt. "We might go 30 feet, or 300, or 1,000, and that's fine. Plus, many areas can be considered trails to a little kid, like a path to a water tower or a stretch of woods behind a school playground. We've called both of those hikes." Lex Gjurasic, of Tucson, also finds that terminology makes all the difference. "We go rock hopping or stream wading," she says. "And there is never a goal or a destination in mind, so we allow ourselves to bail out at any time."
While you may think hiking and walking are the same, what happens to your muscles, joints, and heart during these activities is worlds apart. You can stroll on a flat surface while on autopilot, but if you're on a trail, the uneven terrain can increase your heart and metabolic rates, causing calories to burn faster. And because you're shifting your weight and rebalancing your body to tackle uncertain footing, hiking makes you engage muscles you may not otherwise use. Not to mention the physical benefits for your kids. Namely, the tons of energy that hiking allows them to release. As Weit says, "It's how we get our wiggles out. We yell, run, jump, and if it's the right kind of place, see who can throw a rock the farthest or run the fastest." Two parents also confided that it makes naptime go more smoothly.
Research suggests that organic compounds released by trees may boost your mood, and studies show that people who spend time walking in nature are less anxious and experience less rumination (thinking about the same worries or regrets over and over again), which may help them fend off depression. Vitamin D, which you get in droves outside, also helps ward off depression. And there's oodles of anecdotal evidence: "Starting when our daughter, Nola, was young—she's now almost 13—we've used hiking as a way to ground, refresh, and reset ourselves as a family," says Gjurasic.
According to one study, being outdoors can increase your attention span and creativity by as much as 50 percent, and it's little wonder when you consider all that loose dirt you'll traverse, those low branches you'll have to duck beneath, and the occasional animal darting across your path you'll encounter. Each of these unexpected forces causes you to make a quick mental adjustment, and those snap decisions help your brain stay nimble. Add to that the new things your child will see and absorb, and you've got a recipe for serious enrichment.
Hiking teaches your child skills, like how to:
Prepare: "Theo helps pack his bag before we go," says Rachel Hofstetter. "It's just water, sunglasses, and a hat, but he's learning to plan ahead."
Concentrate: Lauren Marcus Simon, of Tewksbury, New Jersey, whose older son, Graham, is 6, says, "He loves a hike with a rocky incline and has learned to plot his route, looking for where to place his feet."
Imagine: "On the trail, we can be astronauts discovering a new planet, or storm troopers," says Jessica Weit. "Mount Tabor, where we often hike, is a dormant volcano, so it screams for wild pretend play."
Observe: "We have the Audubon Bird Guide app and use it to look up birds we see," Hofstetter says. Alex Banner, who takes two of his sons, Louis, 5, and James, 2, hiking near their house, also uses tech: "The app Leafsnap lets you photograph a leaf and it tells you what it is."
Navigate: "Will has a compass, binoculars, and a trail map, so he can 'lead the way,' " says Weit.
Respect Nature: "As we walk, we remind Will that many different creatures call this mountain home," Weit says. "We always tell him, 'We are visiting someone else's house.' "
In one study, mothers and daughters who spent 20 minutes walking in an arboretum (versus another group, that walked in a shopping mall) not only exhibited a stronger ability to pay attention to a cognitive task but had more pleasant interactions with each other. In addition, the simple act of being out in the world, focused on a shared activity, can free you up to speak more openly. Gjurasic has experienced this phenomenon firsthand. "Once, when Nola was 6, I started singing, 'Why do you never ever everrr … ' then filled in the blank with things she often refused to do, like 'take a nap' or 'eat your veggies.' But then Nola started singing it back to me: 'Why do you never ever everrr … give me a dessert in my lunch for school?' I had no idea she even wanted that. Expressing ourselves in that funny way, which we really only did while hiking, let both of us communicate more deeply and honestly."
"Often what I think will be the big attraction on the hike just isn't," says Weit. "Yes, the end might have an epic waterfall—but on the way there we pass a tree the size of our car and an old stone house. Viewpoints and vistas don't do much for our boys. They're way more interested in the massive moss-covered rock." Alex Banner, of High Falls, New York, agrees. "My kids really don't care about the view," he says. "They like to look for good sticks and skipping rocks and flowers to give to Mommy. They're not so into the destination; they're mostly about the journey."
There are myriad apps available to hikers, most of which break trails down by whatever criteria you're looking for—jaunts that are woodsy or dry, paved or rugged. Start with the AllTrails app, or check out Hike it Baby's "Trails Near You" page. Other people suggest polling neighbors or following outdoorsy locals on Instagram and screenshotting wherever they tag themselves in hiking photos. "Ask parents!" urges Gjurasic. "You can get all the dirt (ha, ha) on a trail from people who've hiked it, rather than taking a chance and winding up with a sobbing, exhausted kid."
This article originally appeared in Parents magazine's September 2020 issue as "On Your Mark, Get Set, Hike!" Want more from the magazine?Sign up for a monthly print subscription here