With the recent beautiful weather we’ve been having, after lots of RAIN, I thought it time to write a post about hiking with small children.
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 prefer to not use my dad’s technique of, “OK, we’ll leave you sitting here on this log; just 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 years of some successful, and some slightly less successful, hiking trips en famille!
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. Or, 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 then it’s actually an exceedingly bad place to nap!).
With a six year old and a three 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: check; waterproofs: check; suncream: check; sunhats: check; water: check; bonbons: check . . .
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 plenty of local fauna and flora to be found: marmottes, chamois, bouquetins, lizards, butterflies, birds of prey . . . 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 up 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 . . .
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 . . . 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. Children will need points to aim for (picnic stops, snack stops, 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!
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 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 our friend! The boys still talk of him fondly.
There are also other initiatives like canirando (walking with huskies), though we have yet to try this!
Au Pays du Mont Blanc, there are some special themed trails aimed at families and children:
- Chamonix’s «Parcours d’Orientation du Bois du Bouchet» (4km orienteering route, possible with cross-country buggies);
- Les Houches’ «Parcours Orientation Lac de Chavant» – (orienteering route, possible with cross-country buggies; 18 grey bornes to find and follow);
- Servoz’s «Parcours Orientation» – (orienteering route; 13 grey bornes to find and follow / parcours leaves from Servoz train station);
- Cordons’s «Forest Discovery Trail» (for more details in PDF see here; 1 hour loop in the forest);
- 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 leading to the Sapin Président, a 271 year old pine tree with huge dimensions);
- Saint-Gervais-les-Bains’ Parcours Orientation: «A la découverte de Saint-Gervais» and the «Boucle des Maisons Fortes» (1 hour) – (both available for free at Tourist Office in Saint-Gervais);
- Praz-sur-Arly’s «Le Sentier des Contrabondiers» (for older children; 2 hours; with chair-lift);
See here for some more themed trail ideas.
You could also make up your own theme, of course: LandArt, autumn leaves, gypaètes, muddy puddles . . .
Tourist Office family hikes with activities
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 treasure hunts/geocaching options for family hikes.
Sallanches has three leaflets available: «Circuit des Ilettes» (randoland.fr), «Sallanches Cœur Historique» (randoland.fr), and «Circuit des Chapelles», with options for different age groups, and ball available for FREE at the Tourist Office or to download in pdf format. There is also a circuit for VTT to download!
Praz-sur-Arly has «Les Etoiles Randos de Praz-sur-Arly».
When the children are small, it can be easy and rewarding to hike in a park (some free; some with an entrance to pay), where there are amenities for families and parcours ludiques already in place. Au Pays du Mont Blanc, we have several options:
- Le Parc Animalier de Merlet in Les Houches;
- Le Jardin des Cimes in Plateau d’Assy;
- Le Parc Thermal in Le Fayet (free);
- Les Gorges de la Diosaz in Servoz;
- Le Parc Patrice Dominguez in Les Contamines;
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.
Hiking requires preparation, and hiking en famille with small children requires even more preparation! Check the méteo, pack your emergency equipment (including a charged telephone for emergencies), pack plasters, remember nappies and wet-wipes, pack sun hats, sunglasses, suncream and rain protection and warmer clothes, have sufficient water, compasses, 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!
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 the Sentiers de Randonnées Pédestres au Pays du Mont Blanc series, which comes as a booklet and map (6€), and has a great selection of walks 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 very 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). Les Sentiers d’Emilie is a book series with walks recommended for hiking with children. There are 25 hikes listed in this edition; some of those listed are still a little long for us at the moment, but we certainly hope to try them out in due time . . .
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!
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 with a photo!).
We also have the added advantage in the Pays du Mont Blanc to have some wonderful myrtilles to collect during the season; these are wonderful to use in baking creations once home.
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!