Planning a Winter Hike with the Kids They’ll Never Forget

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Photo: Paul Osborn

By: Paul Osborn

Winter hiking can be a great experience for the entire family. Although intimidating or daunting at first, it can be fun, safe and make for memories that will last a lifetime. Don’t panic! Making it a successful and fun experience just means adjusting your goals, changing the focus and being prepared.

Be Prepared

One of the intimidating things about winter hiking with kids is the fear of the unknown. What if something goes wrong? If you plan ahead so you’re prepared, every unforeseen can be turned into a fun experience by making sure you are prepared for it.

As a parent with four kids I’m used to the unwieldy diaper bag with pockets hiding everything from diapers to toy cars to a change of underwear to some strange item that our youngest snuck into the bag. When winter hiking I prefer a daypack or even a weekend pack to accommodate our needs. A proper day or weekend pack serves many benefits. My current favorite is the Platypus Origin 32 as it is waterproof, holds thirty-two liters and comes with a three-liter water reservoir.  Aside from being manlier than a diaper bag, it is easier and more comfortable to carry and it makes the kids think that we’re going on an expedition. If you want to keep the kids involved, you can give them their own pack with one or two small items to make them feel much older.

Pack Food and Drink

Here’s a typical list of things I’d bring on a winter hike:

Always bring a variety of snacks (and more than you’ll think you’ll need). Choose a mix of candy, dried fruit and or energy bars. I love the natural ones like Trio bars or peanut butter Lara bars that give long lasting energy. They’ll come in useful for keeping the kids happy and motivated on the trail when they’re, “too tired to hike!”

We try to always repack the snacks into individual Ziploc bags. Each kid gets their own so, there’s no fighting. It also means they can self regulate and you know how much they’ve eaten!

If you feel really adventurous, bring along a stove for ramen noodles, instant soup or something else warm to bolster their spirits!

Photo: Paul Osborn

Obviously, water is a given. It is just as easy to get dehydrated on a winter hike as it is in the summer. You work harder and you have many layers on which can make your body sweat. Make sure it is kept close to your back in the pack so that it doesn’t freeze in cold temperatures.

One motivator that we often bring is a hot drink. Whether it’s in a thermos or cooked up with your backpacking stove, the promise of a hot drink at the half-way or turn around point makes for memories. I always pack a small alcohol stove and lightweight pot along. The experience of starting up a stove and boiling water is very comforting and confidence inspiring for the kids. It’s a blast to watch them giggle and bounce around as they wait for their hot drink.

Dress for the Cold

One can’t emphasize enough how important it is to have appropriate clothing for the weather and to layer it for both adult and child.

Check the weather forecast.
Check the weather forecast for that day and that night (just in case) and make sure you are prepared. A windstopper is great for cold and wind, but if you’re expecting frozen rain or snow that could change to rain, your kids will be miserable… and at risk of hypothermia. It may be better to bring a waterproof outer instead. Knowing the weather forecast will help you decide and prevent discomfort.

Make sure you layer.
Make sure that a good layering system is set up. If it’s warmer it may consist of only a simple base layer, fleece sweater or jacket and a rain layer. In colder weather you may replace the rain jacket with another insulated windstopper layer and add warmer pants or base layer bottoms. Don’t just throw on a parka and hope for the best.

Layering allows the child and adult to remove unnecessary layers so you don’t overheat or get too cold. Check out this video we put together onTerramar and the Importance of Layering. Kids will quickly lose their enthusiasm if they are sweating from being too hot, or if their fingers are too cold.

Which brings up another point, bring gloves. Making snowmen isn’t fun if your fingers are losing their feeling. Bring inner and outer gloves, a waterproof outer pair and lightweight inner ones that will keep their fingers warm while allowing them to accomplish more dexterous tasks.

Warm feet are happy feet.
I love point6 socks. We have one pair each for the kids that only come out on special trips where we need comfortable and warm feet. There are a million benefits to merino wool that make it the best material for sock in my opinion.

Pack a Survival Kit

Although it is unlikely that you’ll need it, a simple survival kit will give you the peace of mind to go out, knowing that everything will be OK. Just make sure you know how to use it. Here are a couple things that I bring with me all the time.

Mylar blankets
If you’re stuck these lightweight and tiny blankets will help you keep warm while you figure out a plan.

Matches or lighter
If you need a fire, or simply want to light one for marshmallows you’ll have one with you!

Evenings come early in winter. If you have a flashlight you’ll be less likely to lose your way on the trip back to the car.

A compass can show you the quickest way back to the parking lot or major road.

For kids that are old enough to use a flashlight and put on their own Band-Aids it’s worth giving them their own first aid kit to carry with their snacks in their backpack. My daughter has her own kit that fits in a medium sized zip-lock bag. If you want to see a complete list of what she carries, check out this video of a kids’ survival kit.

Photo: Paul Osborn

Keep It About the Kids

You and I may have grand plans about what we want to accomplish, but if we want it to be a repeatable outing, we need to keep it positive and about them.

Assume that with the extra layers and maybe even snow that the kids will find it difficult to cover half the ground that you normally do. This applies especially for snowshoeing where it is slower going as well! Set a goal of thirty minutes to an hour for smaller children for the first time. This won’t be your only trip. You can make it longer next time!

Distract them.
It doesn’t matter how long they can run around in the backyard, once you get kids on the trail they will have an overwhelming urge to complain if they’re bored. Fight that with distractions.

Keep an eye out.
There is a lot of life out in the winter forests. Get them to look around for birds, squirrels and other animals. If you can have a few quick facts or questions to get them interested in what creatures are doing they’ll be enthralled and keep their eye out for more. Plus they’ll think you’re amazing for knowing all that! If you’re looking for ideas, I can recommend this book about animals and animal tracks.

Teach them about hiking.
One of our tricks to keep them involved is to show them how to do things and why. Simple things like showing them how to correctly light a match or how to use a compass to find your way not only makes a fun game, but gives them skills that will give them confidence and may actually help them out in an emergency.

Take pictures.
If they are old enough for a camera, let them take lots of photos. If they’re not big enough to handle that let them decide what to take photos of. You may end up with 100 pictures of very similarly looking trees, but they will appreciate the responsibility.

Bribe them.
If it takes them the promise of another snack or cup of hot chocolate to get them to cover those last 100 yards, do it! Oh and let them choose. When I took my daughter on a backpacking trip she was so thrilled that she was able to choose the snack that she set off as soon as the treat was in her hungry paws!

Turn around when they’re too tired.
It’s even better if you turn around five minutes before that point! Several times I was discouraged because I didn’t get to finish a trail. I had to accept that it was an experience for them, not for me. Taking this approach when my daughter absolutely couldn’t go on nor wasn’t going to make it turned a potentially bitter experience into great memories. Most of the time kids are just happy that you took the time for them.

When you go back weeks, months or years later to look at the photos they’ll remember the fun times, not how far you went or whether or not you got there in the end.

Know Your Kids

The final tip is simple and individual. Know your kids. While some kids like to hike long distances, others just like to stop and smell the flowers. Some aren’t even interested in hiking, just swimming at the lake when you arrive, catching a fish, digging up dirt or turning over rocks. When we hike my own children ask me about stories when I was a kid and if I did this sort of thing. There is no one right way to enjoy an outdoor adventure, but to keep it an adventure, know your kids and make it about them!

Guest Contributor

Paul Osborn runs He is a father, husband and outdoor enthusiast who shares his adventures and desire to get away from his desk so that he can fish, hike, play and just plain be in the backcountry outdoors. You can connect with Paul here on Twitter and Facebook.



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