Expert Tips for Hiking with Children in the Fall

Hiking is a great outdoor activity for the whole family. Author Jeff Alt provides a kid-friendly guide with family hiking tips.

With school back in session, kids are spending more sedentary time inside, in the classroom and at home on the computer. As much as kids need a good education, they also need movement, play, and time outdoors. A fall hike with Mother Nature showing off her foliage colors might be the perfect remedy. The bugs are gone, the temperatures are cooler, the air is clean, and fall is one of the best seasons to be outside in the parks. 

Jeff Alt, author of Get Your Kids Hiking, has lots of great advice about how to make sure you and your kids have a great time outdoors this fall.  Here’s how to make your fall hike with kids fun!

Before You Go

  • Plan Ahead: Make your backcountry trail and camping reservations early. Fall is one of the busiest times of year for many parks and some parks limit the number of hikers at shelters, campsites, and on trails.
  • Check the Weather: Fall is an unpredictable time of year. Mountainous regions may already have snow at the higher elevations and cold wet rain or sleet can take the fun out of your hike. Check with the park rangers and the park website for trail conditions. Dress for the weather! Be flexible in your plans to keep everyone safe.
  • Count Down to the Adventure: Psych the kids up with pictures, videos, and highlights of what they will see. Use books, magazines, maps, and the Internet, especially park websites and videos showing the spectacular wildlife and location.
  • Pack the Right Stuff:  Take this checklist with you shopping so you get the bases covered:
    • Wear Orange: If you’re hiking outside National Park Boundaries, pack along some orange clothing and brush up on the local hunting season.
  • Clothing: Bring clothing for cool, wet, extreme conditions. Wear non-cotton synthetic, wool, and fleece clothes; and dress in layers. Wear multipurpose clothes like pants that zip off into shorts or shirts with role up sleeves. Pack a waterproof, breathable rain parka. Pack fleece hat & gloves or a hat with a wide brim for sun protection.
  • Footwear: Make sure the kids are wearing trail shoes or boots with a sturdy sole. A Vibram sole with a waterproof breathable liner is preferred. Wear non-cotton, moisture-wicking synthetic or wool socks.
  • Packs: Get age and size appropriate backpacks that fit each hiker comfortably with hydration hose capability.
  • Trekking Poles: Get a pair of adjustable, collapsible poles with ergonomically designed handles for each person.
  • Fresh, Clean Water: You can get a hydration hose system for your pack or  use bottles. Disinfect wild water using hi-tech portable treatment water systems such as a UV wand or micro-straining filter.
  • Communication: Bring a smart phone so you can take lots of pictures. Carry a GPS unit to keep you located on the trail and for geocaching.
  • Bring Snacks Kids Love: Hand out food for extra energy, and water as needed on the trail. Pack their favorite snacks and bring plenty of water. Stop often for a drink and a snack. Pack along a stove and serve up some hot cocoa on the trail. Be sure to pack along the S’mores kit for evening time around the fire. 
  • Pack Fun Items: Let young children fill their adventure pack with a magnifying glass, binoculars, a camera, a map and compass, whistle, or flashlight. Let your little adventurer take ownership and pack a few items of his own, even if it’s not hiking related.
  • Other Must Haves: Pediatrician-recommended suntan lotion. First aid kit that accommodates the whole group & first aid knowledge to go along with the kit. Bring a compass & map and brush up on how to use them. Learn how to make a shelter to keep you warm and dry. Keep matches and a lighter in a dry place and know how to make a fire to keep warm. Carry a whistle and a signal mirror in case you get lost. Pack a survival knife with a locking blade. Bring a head lamp flashlight, extra batteries, 50 feet of rope or twine, and always have several feet of duct tape for that unexpected repair.

On the Trail

  • Let the Kids Lead: Follow the leader! Hike at your child’s pace and distance. Whatever your child takes interest in, stop and explore that bug, leaf, or rock with them. Tell them about the animals, rocks, trees, and flowers. Getting to the destination is less important than making sure your kids have so much fun, they will want to go again and again.
  • Start’em Young: Ergonomically designed baby carriers make it easy and fun to carry your infant and toddler with you wherever you hike. Walk to your favorite park or beach. Bring a friend. Stop often and let your little one explore. Make your hike a routine your kids will look forward to. 
  • Play Games and Bring a Friend: Play I Spy using your surroundings as you walk along. Create your own scavenger hunt in search of animals, plants, and views along the way. Make up rhymes and sing songs as you walk. Pack along a plant and animal identification guide for your older child. Let your social butterfly bring a friend, with parental permission. Intrigue your computer-savvy child with high-tech hiking gadgets like GPS, headlamp flashlights, and pedometers. Use your GPS and take your kids on a geocaching adventure.
  • Take Advantage of Park Activities and Guided Nature Experiences: Utilize and enjoy the amazing services and resources offered by our parks, trail and recreational system, and other trail associations. This will help ensure that the experience is enjoyable, memorable, and life-changing. 
Photo credit: John Mitchell
Jeff Alt is a travelling speaker and hiking expert who provides seminars in collaboration with the Shenandoah National Park staff, and Appalachian Trail Shows in and around National Parks. Alt has been hiking with his kids since they were infants. His hiking advice has been featured in numerous publications and media, including Scholastic Parent & Child, The Boston Globe, National Geographic Adventure, and more. Alt is a speech language pathologist and lives with his wife and two children in Cincinnati, Ohio. 

Also see:

Hiking and Nature Trails in Upstate New York

Hiking and Nature Trails Near NYC

A Guide to Wheelchair Accessible Nature Trails on Long Island

A Guide to Wheelchair Accessible Nature Trails in NYC

A Guide to Wheelchair Accessible Nature Trails in NYC Suburbs and Fairfield County, CT