*2018 update – this appears to be a very popular post on the MBFF website, so I have updated it with a few new suggestions for family walks!*
Family hiking with small children is not a simple task!
Well, perhaps it is for some families . . . perhaps your children were born hikers! But for many of us, getting our children to LOVE hiking in the mountains is not a given. Both of my sons had periods around the age of 18 months when they decided that the backpack was no longer where they wanted to be sitting and they became EXCELLENT hill/mountain walkers; and I allowed myself to believe that the future of family hiking would be a sunny one, with little mountain goats clambering beside us . . . But, alas, both boys started to protest about hiking around the age of three! And, honestly, when I hear the refrains of “I’m too tired“, “it’s too far“, “carry me” (actually “carrot me” from the little one!), “my legs are tired“, I remember that I myself at their age was a reluctant hiker. And I’d really prefer to not use my dad’s technique of, “OK, we’ll leave you sitting here on this log; just DO keep a look-out for BEARS” . . .
Hopefully you will find some useful advice in the following post; the tips have been compiled from what we have learned over the last seven years of some successful – and some slightly less successful – hiking trips en famille!
And for some more ideas for family walks – with small children, older children, grandparents, extended family and friends, see recent post MBFF’s recommended family hikes au Pays du Mont-Blanc;
Colour code for listings:
Chamonix Valley (Chamonix, Argentière, Les Houches, Servoz & Vallorcine)
Passy & environs
Sallanches, Combloux, Cordon & Domancy
Saint-Gervais-les-Bains, Le Fayet & environs
Megève, Praz-sur-Arly & environs
Les Contamines & environs
Length of hike/timings
Do try to be realistic when you choose your family hike. Hiking with a baby or toddler who is happy to sit or snooze in a backpack is one thing; having two small children HIKING by your side is quite another! If your child starts to get fidgety in the backpack after about an hour, try to keep your hike to that length. Equally, if your little hiker starts to get really whiny after a couple of hours, try to keep the hike short.
Remember that the car is often a great place to NAP after a hike (unless you’re driving, of course; and in that case, it’s actually an exceedingly bad place to nap!).
With a seven year old and a four year old, we find that our current walking limit is about 2h30 hours, with stops for rummaging and snacks included in this time (and after that, Daddy’s shoulders start to get very sore!).
Get the kids involved in the hike planning
Children often LOVE to be involved in the planning of an activity that is generating excitement. Get them to help pack the picnic or get them to help get the hiking bag packed. Perhaps have a checklist that a keen young reader can be in charge of! binoculars: ✅; waterproofs: ✅; suncream: ✅; sunhats: ✅; sunglasses: ✅; water: ✅; lunch: ✅; bonbons: ✅✅✅ . . .
Share your passions . . . get the kids excited about the hike!
I feel very privileged as my work has taken me to some fascinating and beautiful parts of the world, and I know that my children love to hear the tales of wild camping, sheltering from crazy hale storms, snow on mountain passes, a competition spitting African savannah animal poo (dry!) and of the amazing wildlife spotted . . . And although we are unlikely to meet any zebras or rhinos on our alpine hike, there is still plenty of local fauna and flora to be found: marmottes, chamois, bouquetins, lizards, butterflies, birds of prey (even perhaps the incredible gypaète-barbu), cows with bells, donkeys, sheep, goats and even the odd dog!
If you love map-reading or bird-spotting, then pass on this passion to your little ones! Show them the map, show them the route you are taking, show them how a compass works, show them your binoculars, show them the relevant books . . . you are never too young to learn how to hold a map the correct way or to learn about mountain safety!
Dressing the part
My boys absolutely love LOOKING the part of a hiker. So they are now each responsible for their very own mini backpack with water bottle and snacks. They also LOVE to have a pole! The compasses are to come (and I do not yet dare provide them with safety whisltes!). Comfortable, breathable clothing and good walking boots that protect little ankles are also recommended!
Food & drink stops
Food stops are a very important part of a hike (for us!). So whether that means packing the perfect picnic, choosing the perfect shady picnic spot with a view, choosing a mountain refuge to stop for lunch or a snack, make this FUN . . . *NB – if you are planning to stop at a refuge on a busy hiking day, then do check opening hours and think about booking to avoid disappointment, as they do tend to fill up quickly*.
Pacing, rewards & focal points
Pacing your hike with small children is very important. Small children will probably need points to aim for (picnic stop, snack stop, lunch at a refuge, a waterfall, a stream to wade in, insects to admire . . .) and they will need several little breaks . . . try to make these fun to keep the enthusiasm from waning!
There might be natural beauty spots along the way (streams, big boulders, ancient trees); otherwise you may need to be creative and have little activities at hand.
A télécabine ride to start or end the hike can be a great and exciting focal point (and also saves little legs from a long ascent or descent or both!).
Incentives might also take the form of medals at the end of the hike or
indulgent snacks Haribo along the way! (I have fond memories of family hikes in the Alps when I was a child; my dad used to make all of the children medals out of egg boxes and string!).
LandArt, artwork & collecting
It can be fun to produce artwork after a hike or stroll through the woods, with bits and pieces collected or rummaged along the way . . . flower pressing, leaf collections for pressing, a mobile made from twigs and branches . . . or perhaps you could produce some LandArt along the way (it’s all the rage!) – an ephemeral moment, but a pleasure to produce and a happy discovery for the next hiker (and you can always immortalise your creation by taking a photo!).
We also have the added advantage au Pays du Mont-Blanc to have some wonderful myrtilles to collect during the season; these are wonderful to use in baking creations once home.
Hiking with animals
Perhaps your family has a dog? If so, your canine friend just instrinsically becomes a part of your family hike and can be a very encouraging feature: stick throwing, etc . . . !
Those of us that aren’t (yet!) dog owners, there are other animal options to bring spice to your family hikes!
I was chatting to a friend one day last summer and she recommended a wonderful idea for encouraging youngsters to hike and promised me that it had worked wonders with her slightly reluctant young walkers: walking with donkeys! In Les Contamines-Montjoie is a company called Les Anes et Les Mômes, and the idea is to lead a donkey on a walk . . . and, if necessary, to let the children take turns on the donkey’s back. This company has different lengthed options (even some over-nighters!) and we opted for the shortest hike (15€ for 1h30). The boys absolutely loved the experience (though they did, inevitably, squabble about whose turn it was on the donkey’s back), and it was definitely a great incentive to keep Big Brother walking and to give Daddy a rest from Little Brother shoulder duty! Our donkey’s name was Ernest, and he became a firm friend! The boys still talk of him fondly.
There are also other initiatives like canirando (walking with huskies and other dogs), though we have yet to try this! Companies offering canirando au Pays du Mont-Blanc:
- 3D Nordic (Praz-sur-Arly/Flumet) – you can also visit their kennels in Flumet);
- Huskydalen (Chamonix);
- Au Mont du Villard du Nord (Megève);
- Voyageurs d’Hiver (Les Contamines-Montjoie);
Hiking with friends
Walking as part of a group or with friends can encourage little ones (or the reverse – it could just be an added stress factor!) and make the hike more fun! You could also join your local CAF (Club Alpin Français) or another organisation offering family hikes. Over the summer, there are plenty of guided hikes (many free) offered by our local tourist offices.
Hiking requires preparation, and hiking en famille with small children requires even more preparation!
Checklist: ✅ check the méteo; ✅ pack your emergency equipment (including a charged telephone for emergencies); ✅ pack First Aid Kit (plasters, antiseptic, etc . . .); ✅ remember nappies and wet-wipes; ✅ pack sun hats, sunglasses, suncream; ✅ pack rain protection and warmer clothes; ✅ have sufficient water; ✅ pack compasses; ✅ pack maps; ✅ make sure buggy wheels are not flat! ✅and, if you have a baby backpack, make sure there is a SHADE attachment, to protect your little one from the burning sun; it can be hot up there! ✅ Toilet stops – let’s not beat around the bush; we all get caught out sometimes! Explain to your children about not having wee/poo stops near rivers (and please bury waste . . . sticks are handy for this!).
Au Pays du Mont-Blanc (and beyond), there are some special themed (and short) trails aimed at families and children:
- Chamonix Valley orienteering parcours– see section below for more details;
- Cordons’s «Forest Discovery Trail» – for more details in PDF see here / 1 hour loop in the forest / not possible with a buggy;
- Combloux’s «100% bio» loop around the Plan d’Eau Biotope – 30mins / possible with cross-country buggies;
- Combloux’s «Sur Les Traces des Graniteurs» – on the trail of the old granite workers; 1h30 / this hike can also be done as a guided visit;
- Sallanches’ «Le Sapin Président» – forest discovery trail (1 hour return trip), leading to the Sapin Président, a 271 year old pine tree with huge dimensions / not possible with a buggy;
- Saint-Gervais-les-Bains’ Parcours Orientation: «A la découverte de Saint-Gervais» and the «Boucle des Maisons Fortes» -1 hour / both available for free from Tourist Office in Saint-Gervais;
- Saint-Gervais-les-Bains: «Charlotte la Marmotte au Bettex» – not yet tried this one, but you can do it with a buggy;
- Praz-sur-Arly’s «Le Chemin des Contrebandiers» – for older children / 2 hours with chair-lift;
- Col de la Forclaz (Switzerland) – the Bisse du Trient (irrigation channel from 1895 bringing water from the glacier du Trient to the Col du Forclaz) family walk / we discovered this family walk last summer, thanks to CosmoJazz . . . we no longer have children in buggies, but we did see people arriving with all terrain buggies (we also saw people arriving with children on push bikes, which I would most vociferously not recommend, as there is a steep fall down one side of the path!) / the easy path follows the course of the Bisse du Trient, with a parcours ludique along the way (*NB – due to landslide during winter season 2017/2018, this is currently being repaired), and at the end of the walk you are rewarded with a view of the Trient glacier and a café, La Buvette du Glacier / *NB – if small children are walking, it is imperative to hold their hand at all times, there is a steep fall!* / Aller-retour walk: 6,5km / see here for more details;
- Doussard: La Réserve Naturelle du Bout du Lac – Doussard, at the bottom of the Lac d’Annecy, has a lovely buggy-friendly walk / see here for more details;
- see here (Savoie-Mont-Blanc Tourisme) for some more themed trail ideas further afield;
- see also website Randos en Famille website / FB page for some tried & tested walks for babies in baby-carriers/backpacks/buggies (Annecy area, Pays du Mont-Blanc, nearby Switzerland and beyond): Saint-Jorioz roselières (reed bed) walk;
You could also make up your own theme, of course: LandArt, autumn leaves, gypaètes-barbus, muddy puddles . . .
Orienteering, geocaching & treasure hunts (offered by Tourist Offices)
The Tourist Offices in the Pays du Mont-Blanc are excellent (and often overlooked, when we live in-situ!) resource centres when it comes to finding suitable family hikes. They have some free maps and leaflets and sometimes orienteering, geo-caching and treasure hunts options for family hikes.
The Chamonix Valley has developed 6 orienteering routes (the Bois du Bouchet (Chamonix); Lac des Chavants (Les Houches); Servoz; le Château Le Lac (Servoz); Vallorcine; Argentière la Moraine) for you to enjoy, many of them in the SHADE of forests (perfect for a hot day!). Orienteering is a sport in which one follows a very precise route from a given map. As it is a fun activity for the whole family, it can be a great pretext to get everyone outdoors and enjoying nature, and to develop navigational skills at the same time. To do orienteering, you will need to learn or understand the concept of reading a map (to align it with the terrain, to understand a “legend”, to understand a map’s scale, and to pinpoint landmarks). The Chamonix Valley orienteering routes are made up of balises (grey posts), planted in points on the terrain where they stand out, and which are outlined on the map; you need to stamp these au fur et à mesure. The routes are available for FREE from the Chamonix Valley tourist offices, or you can print them out from here, from the Chamonix Tourist Office website
Sallanches has three treasure hunt leaflets available: «Circuit des Ilettes», «Sallanches Cœur Historique», and «Circuit des Chapelles» (from randoland.fr), with options for different age groups, and all available for FREE at the Tourist Office or to download in pdf format. There is also a VTT circuit to download!
Praz-sur-Arly has «Les Etoiles Randos de Praz-sur-Arly», an initiative encouraging children to hike with stars awarded upon completion of each hike!
When the children are small, it can be easy and rewarding to hike in a park or by a lake (some FREE; some with an entrance to pay), where there are amenities for families (baby-changing facilities, playground, etc) and parcours ludiques already in place. Au Pays du Mont-Blanc, we have several options:
- Le Parc Animalier de Merlet in Les Houches – from spring until autumn / entrance to pay / see here for more details;
- Les Gorges de la Diosaz in Servoz – from spring until autumn / entrance to pay / see here for more details;
- Le Jardin des Cimes in Plateau d’Assy (Passy) – from spring until autumn / entrance to pay / see here for more details;
- Lac de Passy – FREE / possible to hike all year round / lots of new amenities as of summer 2018 / see here for more details;
- Lacs des Ilettes (Sallanches) – FREE / possible to hike all year round / lots of amenities / see here for more details;
- Le Parc Thermal in Le Fayet – FREE / lots of amenities: playground, hiking trails, open-air museum & sculptures, fish pond, Le Petit Train, accrobranches / see here for more details;
- Le Parc Patrice Dominguez (Parc du Pontet) in Les Contamines – activities in leisure park in summer/autumn (in winter, it becomes the Parc Nordique) / FREE to enter park and to use playground, but activities have a charge / summer photo exhibition / see here for more details;
Books/guides for hiking with children
Our local Tourist Offices here au Pays du Mont-Blanc have an excellent selection of guides, books and maps specifically aimed at hikes for families and young children. We regularly use one of the four «Sentiers de Randonnées Pédestres au Pays du Mont-Blanc«, which come as booklets with a map (6€), and have a great selection of walks for families and very good instructions. We also have Guide de Randonnée Pedestre’s «60 Promenades en Famille au Pays du Mont Blanc« (édition 2015); this excellent guidebook (10€) has a selection of sixty hikes selected by mountain guides and those responsible for the maintenance of mountain paths – it is divided into green (very easy and for young children; never longer than 2h30), blue (medium difficulty) and red (difficult) walks.
I also happened across a wonderful little book for hiking with children au Pays du Mont-Blanc called «Les Sentiers d’Émilie au Pays du Mont-Blanc» by Jean-Pierre Hervet (RANDO Editions; 2008). There are 25 hikes listed in this edition; some of those listed are still a little long for our family at the moment, but we certainly hope to try them out in due time . . . Also recommended is «Le P’tit Crapahut» range of books («Saint-Gervais, Megève, Sallanches» and «Chamonix»).
Books/nature books FOR children
Tanya from the excellent blog/website www.momstotszurich.com has a post titled «Hiking and Nature Books for Kids»; here she has compiled a list of nature books and stories that can be used to prepare children and get them excited about hiking and exploring the big outdoors! Thank you, Tanya! I do often find myself chanting through the forest, “We’re going on a bear hunt; we’re going to find a big one,” (from the well known children’s picture book, «We’re Going on a Bear Hunt», by Michael Rosen and Helen Oxenbury)!
Manage your expectations
Not every hike en famille will end up being a resounding success . . . there will be tantrums, there will be tears, there will be falls and scrapes, there will be refrains of “Carry me,”, “I can’t walk any further!” . . . the important thing is to manage your expectations and to perhaps build up slowly to the longer hikes . . . and don’t lose your passion along the way!
And – remember – sometimes your hike ends up like this photo below: with both children being carried by the beast of burden! So, if you are on your own with your kids, and know that you can’t manage this amount of weight on your back and shoulders, then keep the walk short!