Two young girls hiking on path in woods.

43 Reasons That Hiking is AMAZING for Kids

In this age of screens and so-called ‘digital connectedness,’ a quiet counter-culture is emerging. A growing movement of parents and guardians are recognizing the vital importance of unplugging their kids and getting them outdoors.

What does all this mean? Hiking is back, baby!

Yes, humble hiking, the back-to-basics pastime where families head out into the wild to put one foot in front of the other, is gaining in popularity once more. It is now heralded as indispensable for “whole-child” development, and there is plenty of science to back this up.

Studies now reveal that hiking is much more than just exercise; children reap social, emotional, and cognitive benefits too. It also provides opportunities to bond while learning about and appreciating our natural environment.

Keep your trail guide at the ready, because we’re about to explore exactly why hiking is so awesome for kids! 

The Infographic

Infographic about the benefits of hiking for children.
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Digging Deeper: How Hiking Benefits Children

Character Development

1) DEVELOPS INITIATIVE

The drive to shoulder responsibilities, complete tasks, and take initiative often comes from confidence gained through lived experiences. Hiking can help kids see the power and importance of staying motivated, involved, and aware, helping them to develop a sense of initiative at school and at home. (Source)

2) TEACHES APPRECIATION OF THE ENVIRONMENT

Finding a fondness and respect for nature early in life helps children to develop a positive attitude toward conservation and a desire to preserve our planet. Hikes often take kids out of their comfort zones, showing them new aspects of their daily environment which pique curiosity, stimulate learning, and create appreciation for nature’s diverse beauty. (Source)

3) ENCOURAGES FREE PLAY

Free play happens when kids have time and opportunity for exploration without being directed by an adult. It’s developmentally important to kids, and time spent outside tends to facilitate free play naturally. Going on a hike offers plenty of opportunities for kids to use logic, imagination, motor skills, and social skills — all important hallmarks of free play. (Source)

4) INCREASES MINDFULNESS

Mindfulness, a term often used in meditation, refers to self-awareness; being mindful encourages us to get in touch with our feelings and motivations, and to be engaged in the present moment rather than distracted — this is an important part of developing character and maintaining emotional well-being. Time spent in nature, specifically while hiking, is correlated with an increase in feelings of mindfulness. (Source)

5) OFFERS OPPORTUNITIES FOR REFLECTION

Often, taking time to reflect on difficult situations or events in our lives is how we come to conclusions about our feelings, learn lessons about what occurred, and figure out how to proceed in the future. A quiet hike through nature provides opportunities for reflective and meditative thoughts that are important to the development of character and integrity. (Source)

6) HELPS CREATE FEELINGS OF OPTIMISM

Maintaining a positive outlook can sometimes be difficult for kids who are going through a rough time. Without the life experience that helps us push through conflict and adversity, it can be tough to see the forest from the trees when trying to cope with negative feelings. Time spent hiking is associated with reduced tension and fewer negative thoughts, and can leave kids feel reinvigorated and engaged.(Source)

7) MAY INSPIRE THE DISCOVERY OF A PASSION

A lifelong love of physical activity is the cornerstone of a healthy life, and it’s often created through positive childhood experiences that include staying active. Family hikes are a great way to help kids get enthusiastic about the great outdoors, and in some cases, they may develop a lasting passion for hiking that will keep them both fit and happy in the years to come. (Source)

8) ALLOWS CHILDREN TO TEST THEIR LIMITS

Testing boundaries is a natural and important part of childhood development, even when they’re driving parents up the wall. The kind of limit testing that happens during outdoor activities like hiking is a bit easier to take, because it often means testing endurance and physical ability within a relatively safe scope. They’ll be thrilled when they conquer a steep slope on their own, carry their pack without help for the first time, or break their record for longest trail. (Source)

Cognitive Skills

9) IMPROVES PROBLEM SOLVING ABILITY

Tackling a problem in need of solving may require logic, reason, creative thinking, and other cognitive skills, which develop and improve through experience. Time spent in nature often provides opportunities to develop these related skills, and can also create situations where a child might need to solve a problem or make an executive decision. Experience with doing so is how they develop confidence and become better problem solvers. (Source)

10) PROMPTS CREATIVE THINKING

Often, thinking outside the box is necessary to find the best solution to a problem or method of doing something. Some kids naturally see things creatively, but for others, diverse life experiences are needed to help trigger creative thoughts. Letting kids make free, unprompted decisions and use their imaginations is helpful in encouraging creative thought, both of which can be incorporated into outdoor activities like hiking. (Source)

11) INSPIRES USE OF THE IMAGINATION

The more children engage with their environment, the more they learn, and the more they have to contemplate in a creative way. As they consider new plants, animals, and places, a child’s imagination often naturally gravitates toward imagining stories of their origin, what they do, and what they might be used for. By providing a change of scenery, deeper and more imaginative thought can happen naturally. (Source)

12) BOOSTS COGNITIVE ABILITY

The use of logic, reasoning, perception, attention, and memory are all related to cognitive ability, the set of skills we all use to navigate our day-to-day lives. These skills must be developed throughout childhood, and the kind of educational experiences in nature which hiking can provide offer exceptional opportunities for children to both develop and exercise these abilities. (Source)

13) HELPS MAINTAIN FOCUS

The ability to maintain focus can be challenging for some children, which isn’t terribly surprising — we live in a highly distracted society, where their attention is often being redirected before they even have a chance to realize it. Empirical studies relating to natural environments have found that activities like hiking help to restore focus by avoiding directed attention, letting the mind truly rest. (Source)

14) REDUCES CONFUSION

Feeling disoriented, confused, and in a fog can sometimes be part and parcel of going through a rough time. This can be especially true for teenagers, who are dealing with physical and hormonal changes, scholastic pressure, and a developing social life on top of day-to-day nuisances. A study on outdoor exercise in older adolescents determined that activities like hiking have the potential to help teens reduce these feelings of confusion. (Source)

15) GIVES THEM MORE ENERGY

Most of us have heard Newton’s first law of motion repurposed as a cute tautology about staying active: “An object at rest stays at rest”. While the scientific concept doesn’t quite track with human beings and exercise, it’s true that getting up and out into nature for a hike can boost energy, encouraging kids to stay in motion and be more active — this is especially helpful for teens, who may seem sleepier now than they did as infants. (Source)

Learning and Skill Building

16) DEMONSTRATES IMPORTANT SAFETY SKILLS

An important part of healthy, happy outdoor play includes learning the skills needed to stay safe outside. Hiking is a great way to demonstrate these skills — some, like proper foot placement, use of gear, and first aid, must be taught, but other, more basic skills will be learned naturally. It offers a great chance for kids to get acquainted with basic field safety, which is a valuable life skill. (Source)

17) CREATES OPPORTUNITIES FOR SENSORY ENGAGEMENT

When children are young, play that engages their senses is particularly important. Activities that allow them to feel, see, hear, and even smell new things are also helping to develop the nerve connections in their brain; this helps them to complete more complex learning tasks in the future, and supports their cognitive, language, and motor development, among other benefits. Hiking provides many new opportunities for safe sensory stimulus, when properly guided by an adult. (Source)

18) DIVERSE TERRAIN BOOSTS LEARNING OPPORTUNITIES

There’s lots to see and do in your own backyard, but it just doesn’t provide the same learning opportunities as a hike. Taking kids out of their comfort zone and onto a hike on diverse terrain is a great option — there, they’ll encounter new plants, animals, bugs, and sights, giving them a lot to learn and think about. Bring a notebook and camera to record details together for later research on your field finds. (Source)

19) STRENGTHENS EXECUTIVE FUNCTION

Getting outside is important to childhood health for many reasons, but some are less obvious than others. Executive function, the set of skills that helps people to make plans and decisions, solve problems, structure a hierarchy of priorities, and negotiate effectively, is linked to time spent outdoors with other children in a situation that encourages unprompted thought and interaction. (Source)

20) IMPROVES JUDGEMENT WHEN TAKING RISKS

Taking small, age-appropriate risks is a normal and healthy part of childhood development. Some children are naturally cautious, while others seem to be born daredevils willing to try anything once. Actual lived experience with taking risks helps children to use more mature judgement when taking them in the future, and supervised hiking provides a fairly safe opportunity to test their personal limits and boundaries. (Source)

21) PROVIDES OPPORTUNITIES FOR INTEGRATED LEARNING

Getting kids interested in academia can be a challenge; while some are natural book learners, others would rather be doing anything than sitting at a desk. Out on the hiking trail, there’s plenty of opportunities for parents and kids to engage in some integrated learning. It’s easy to teach basic math concepts when talking about the volume of water to bring, what can go in the pack, or how many miles the hike will be, and the potential biology lessons found in nature are countless. (Source)

22) CAN ENCOURAGE DIVERGENT THINKING

Divergent thinking, also called non-linear thinking, is similar to creative thought. It refers to the kind of spontaneous, creative brainstorming one might use when trying to come up with new ideas, and it’s a skill that’s developed through the use of creativity and imagination. When younger children have opportunities for imaginative outdoor play while hiking, the use of divergent thought may be encouraged. (Source)

Psychological Well-Being

23) REDUCES BRAIN FUNCTION ASSOCIATED WITH DEPRESSION

Depression can be debilitating in both children and adults, with symptoms like sadness, anxiety, loss of interest, intrusive thoughts, and antisocial behavior becoming difficult to surmount. Though it’s essential that any child demonstrating depression symptom receive proper medical care and support, one study has linked exposure to nature with a decrease in neural activity in the subgenual prefrontal cortex, a brain area linked with depression. (Source)

24) LOWERS LEVELS OF NEGATIVE THOUGHT AND RUMINATION

It can be hard to move past a difficult situation, problem, or past event, but when negative thoughts become an overwhelming and constant trigger for rumination, kids and adults alike need reprieve. Even a brief 90 minutes spent in a natural setting is linked with a self-reported decrease in negative rumination by participants in one behavioral study. (Source)

25) EQUALIZES SOCIAL AND LEARNING OUTCOMES ACROSS CLASSES

Studies have long demonstrated that parental socioeconomic status can have a profound impact on physical, emotional, social, and cognitive development for children, even playing a role in their chances of pursuing higher education. In one study evaluating the developmental effect of outdoor play experiences on 5-7 year old children, skill improvements were found to be consistent throughout participants without regard to parents’ earnings or lifestyle. (Source)

26) MAY IMPROVE MENTAL HEALTH IN ADULTHOOD

For parents, there’s truly no more significant goal than helping our children reach adulthood while feeling healthy, happy, and prepared for the real world. While maintaining good mental health is a challenge we must all face, time spent in nature during childhood has been correlated with better mental health in adulthood. (Source)

27) BOOSTS RESILIENCE TO STRESS

Divergent thinking, also called non-linear thinking, is similar to creative thought. It refers to the kind of spontaneous, creative brainstorming one might use when trying to come up with new ideas, and it’s a skill that’s developed through the use of creativity and imagination. When younger children have opportunities for imaginative outdoor play while hiking, the use of divergent thought may be encouraged. (Source)

28) BOLSTERS ABILITY TO COPE WITH ADVERSITY

Although we’d love to protect our kids from all adversarial situations, it’s simply not possible, nor is it healthy. Coping with occasional adversity is something they must learn to do, and building the inner strength to do so comes with lived experience, time, and your love and support. It’s worth noting that time in nature is also linked to an increase in resilience against adversity. (Source)

29) HELPS KIDS FEEL REVITALIZED

Even kids are occasionally prone to feeling like they’re slogging through life, a bit overwhelmed, and in need of a change of scenery. Just as a hike can reinvigorate you and shake up your senses, it can do the same for your kids — a family hike is a great way to revitalize on the weekends while staying healthy and connected with one another. (Source)

Social Skills and Family Relationships

30) RAISES SOCIAL COMPETENCE

Developing social graces like politeness, empathy, kindness, and awareness, as well as important skills like negotiation and compromise, is a twofold learning experience for kids. They reap a great deal from what parents teach, but authentic social experiences are also necessary for social competence to improve. A group hike provides an excellent outdoor experience in which kids can boost their social skills through practice. (Source)

31) ENCOURAGES COOPERATION WITH A GROUP

Learning to work and play as a group is a key part of social success, even for the most independent of children. It can be especially helpful to teach the concept in a setting where every child has a unique role, working together to make something happen. A group hike where each child has a “job” is a great way to encourage cooperation between kids. (Source)

32) PROVIDES OPPORTUNITIES FOR PEER BONDING

The development of closer relationships and friendships is often facilitated by shared experiences, especially for children, who love to talk and think about what they’ve seen and done together. When kids have the chance to go on a group hike together, they may find themselves forming bonds over things they’ve spotted, experiences on the trail, or silly jokes they made along the way. (Source)

33) CREATES QUALITY TIME WITH PARENTS

Engaging with your kids, whether it’s through play, experiences, or simple conversation, is key to the development of a close and healthy relationship. A family hike offers undistracted time away from the hustle and bustle of daily life, where kids and parents can have authentic discussions, be playful, and form a closer bond. (Source)

34) INCREASES FREQUENCY AND DURATION OF SOCIAL AND PHYSICAL ENGAGEMENT

When it comes to getting in a good workout, it’s often easier to stay focused and motivated while also engaged in something else — often, it’s listening to music. Hiking has been shown to lead to longer periods of activity than dedicated visits to the gym, because it feels less like working out. This coincidentally prolongs any related social engagements, making group hikes a great activity for teens who need to stay fit for sports or those trying to lose weight. (Source)

35) AIDS PSYCHOSOCIAL HEALTH AND DEVELOPMENT

Good psychosocial health is central to happiness; it’s described as the mental, social, emotional, and spiritual aspects of being happy. Triggers of happiness are highly subjective, but time spent hiking has been correlated with improvements in childhood psychosocial health, making it a great addition to their repertoire of physical activity. (Source)

36) PROVIDES A SENSE OF CONNECTION TO THE COMMUNITY

Feeling connected to the community is an important part of personal, social, and moral development. When children have opportunities to visit and enjoy locations in their community, they begin to feel more respectful and protective of that space, building a sense of connection that may lead them to be more proactive, socially involved adults. (Source)

Physical Health and Development

37) MAY ESTABLISH EARLY ENTHUSIASM FOR PHYSICAL ACTIVITY

Our kids’ muscles grow, develop, and become strong through repeated use. It’s but one of the reasons that regular physical activity is so important during childhood, and the kind of active, heart-pumping activity that takes place on a vigorous hike is ideal for building young muscles. (Source)

38) ENHANCES MUSCLE GROWTH

Our kids’ muscles grow, develop, and become strong through repeated use. It’s but one of the reasons that regular physical activity is so important during childhood, and the kind of active, heart-pumping activity that takes place on a vigorous hike is ideal for building young muscles. (Source)

39) SUPPORTS HEART AND LUNG GROWTH

Regular physical activity is also associated with the healthy development of a child’s heart and lungs, as well as other vital organ systems. Getting outside to breathe fresh air and move their bodies on a hike doesn’t just keep them fit, it helps to protect and support these key organs into adulthood. (Source)

40) STIMULATES DIGESTION AND SUPPORTS THE APPETITE

A sedentary lifestyle can have a negative effect on both appetite and digestion in children, leading to stomach discomfort. When kids engage in regular, vigorous physical activity, it stimulates healthy digestion and helps to restore appetite in children who refuse or ignore food. (Source)

41) OFFERS MORE MOTOR SKILL IMPROVEMENT THAN TRADITIONAL PLAYGROUND PLAY

Physical play is an important part of developmental health for a few reasons; we already know it keeps kids fit, but it also plays a role in teaching motor skills. Though playground play is helpful, a study assessing 5-7 year old children at play in a natural environment discovered that unstructured outdoor activity is more valuable to motor skill development than playground play. (Source)

42) REDUCES LIKELIHOOD OF OBESITY

Childhood obesity is becoming increasingly common, to the detriment of a generation’s long-term health. A balanced diet plays a role in keeping kids at a healthy rate, but so does regular physical activity. Hikes, which feel less like a workout than some other exercises, can help to keep weight down and reduce the likelihood of obesity. (Source)

43) IMPROVES BALANCE AND COORDINATION

Balance and coordination, sometimes called proprioception, are refined naturally through physically active play. In at least one study, the use of a natural environment as a “playground” rather than traditional playground equipment or directed play activities has been associated with improvements in balance and coordination. (Source)

Tips for Hiking Safely with Children

Ready to head out on the trail with your little ones? Heed these important safety tips:

  • Always let someone else know where you’re going, and when you plan to return.
  • Overpack on food and water, just in case.
  • Know the weather forecast, but be prepared for it to change.
  • Understand basic first aid, and never hike without a kit.
  • Make sure kids know and understand basic safety rules, including the importance of staying together and what to do if separated.

What to Pack: A Parent and Child Packing List

In striking the balance between over and under-packing, you may find yourself wondering what gear actually matters once you’re out on the trail. Check out this list of essentials to help you create the perfect packs for you and your kids.

  • Hiking boots: If you don’t put them on before you leave, do so before the hike. Boots offer extra ankle support, coverage, and traction. Sneakers are also okay for a mild hike.
  • Water: Whether you choose a Camelbak or a reusable bottle, make sure your kids have 1-2 cups for every hour they’ll be hiking, depending on their age. You’ll need at least two per hour, but remember to bring a bit of extra for safety reasons.
  • Seasonal and weather-appropriate clothes: Regardless of what the forecast says, pack light rain jackets, dress in seasonally appropriate layers, and bring a brimmed hat to avoid precipitation and dodge bright sunlight.
  • Whistles: Find whistles with a distinct sound, and make sure everyone in the group has one. They’re invaluable if someone gets separated. Some water and hiking packs now include built in whistles.
  • Food: If you’d rather not hike back to the car with hungry, fussy kids, bring snacks! Let them pick their own from a range of healthy options for the most success.
  • First aid kid: Make sure you have a Red Cross-approved first aid kid at the ready, just in case it’s needed.
  • Toilet paper: If there’s no porta-johns or outhouses around, it’s back to nature, and you’ll want supplies at the ready — bring a little shovel, too.
  • Flint and tinder: If you’re stranded unexpectedly, fire offers both light and warmth.
  • Sunblock and bug spray: The former is needed, the latter simply recommended; if you don’t bring bug spray, make sure there’s hydrocortisone in the first aid kit for any bites.
  • A trash bag: In the name of being a responsible hiker and teaching an important lesson, collect any and all trash your group makes, leaving nothing behind. Trail trash cans can be hard to find, and may be full when you come across them, so be prepared.

Head on out!

There’s a lot of good to be had when we venture outside of our comfort zone and into nature, and the same can be said for our kids. Physically, mentally, socially, and personally, hiking is a hobby that can encourage and facilitate their healthy development. It’s also a beautiful way to bond as a family, so grab your field guide, pack, and a list of local trails, and get hiking!

Arthur G.

Arthur G.

Arthur is a writer, researcher, and father with a keen interest in the science behind play. As chief editor for Muddy Smiles, he advocates for (loads) more unstructured play within education and at home.

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