Important Safety Tips for Hiking with Little Kids

I’m a big believer in starting children out at a young age in activities. This is so they can mold their lives and decide for themselves what they would truly like to do. You do not have to smother them with an activity, but at least give them a taste of it so they can decide if they want to focus further on it. Being an outdoor enthusiast, I was very excited to discover that my son, Shane, truly enjoyed the outdoors and took a strong interest in hiking with me.


Devastation struck the nation with the story of young Noah, a 2 year old, who was lost in the woods for a week. He went on a hike with his sister and grandmother very close to his home. All it took was his grandmother stopping to tie his sister’s shoe. Noah vanished. Tragically, he never made it home. He was finally found a week later and  preliminary autopsy reports showed the cause of death as hypothermia. Noah’s search was supported by many volunteers and the results left everyone heartbroken.

This story hit very close to home since Shane has pretty much been on foot in the woods since he learned how to walk. Children will be children. They like to run, explore, and are very curious individuals. They are extremely fast and fight fatigue, as opposed to giving into it. Noah was a little young to memorize every safety tip when hiking, but children are never too young to start teaching and engraving tips and lessons in their heads. With time and age, they will eventually catch on and remember what to do in certain situations.

I have discussed a few tips on how to hike with young children in a previous blog: Little Feet On The Trail, but here are a few personal tips to help keep your young child safe and educated on trails…

Emphasize the importance of staying on trails or paths

Shane won’t even take shorts on sidewalks these days. He is very OCD about staying on paths, even if it is just a sidewalk. If I try to take a short cut and hop a curb to a sidewalk instead of taking a ramp that is available, he calls me out. If I even attempt to cut through a parking lot by foot, he corrects me and refuses to move any further until I do it “the right way”, which is to walk up or down the aisles. This is something that is either text book OCD (as in Jack Nicholson’s performance in As Good As It Gets), or it could be that I have lectured him so many times that it burned a hole in his memory. I have never once had to veer him back on the trail. Rule #1 was to always stay on the path.

In eyesight or arm’s length

Yes, it is common sense to not let them out of your sight, but you have to engrave it into their heads. Let them know that you fear them becoming lost. Talk about it everytime you go into the wilderness. Do not let them play certain games like hike and seek or tag, because it encourages them to get away from you. Let them know that hiking is a very serious thing and is not as simple as playing in the backyard.

One adult per one child ratio

This may seem a bit extreme, but then again, children are fast and it only takes a moment to get separated from them. Having two eyes a piece on each child is far better than one eye on one or more children. When having to give individual attention to each child for multiple different reasons, focusing on one while trying to keep up with another is next to impossible. It is so much easier and safer for one adult to entertain each child at all time. Children are natural attention seekers and it’s best for each one to have total focus.

Let them explore

Always allow time for the curious minds to explore. Doing so will keep them from being tempted to veer off and do it without you. The simplest things may grab their attention, so go ahead and let them explore that funny tree or rock formation. My son loves to climb rocks, so I let him do it. It also makes the hike more fun for them if they are interested in the surroundings. Turn into a kid and climb with them if they want you to…. that’s really what they want you to do!


Teach them all about the blazes

Shane learned his colors pretty early, so he became very interested in blazes (he can tell you everything there is to know about white blazes… (<biased mommy, here>). I always let him know what color blaze we are to follow. He even knows to tell me if he hasn’t seen a blaze in a while. Start with teaching them that different colors mean a different trail. Let them know that 2 blazes means you are going to turn. Point out each and every blaze while you are hiking so they know what color to look for. While teaching them about blazes, you can even make a counting game out of it. Count every blaze you pass. It seems tedious,  but helps them memorize what trail they should be one and what colors will take them somewhere safe.


Emphasize the things they are not allowed to do and punish accordingly

  • This goes along with taking hiking seriously.
  • Never let them hike near edges and explain that they could fall and hurt themselves.
  • Do not allow them to run on trails, as they could trip over rocks and roots.
  • Do not let them get too close to rivers or waterfalls because they could slip and fall in.
  • Be very stern and fix it when these things happen. The first and only time that I had to punish Shane on a trail was for throwing rocks. I explained that there are a lot of blind spots in the woods and he could hurt another person or animal. He threw another one. I immediately ended the hike and took the first exit off of the trail. I emphasized that we were not hiking anymore because he did not listen to me.  He was very upset by this and wanted to have more fun in the woods, but I did not give in and lectured him.

Emphasize landmarks

Go over landmarks as you pass them. Point out every river, stream, odd tree, rock formation and intersection. Take a moment to look at each landmark. Children tend to work best off of memory and familiarity.  They remember things such as an uprooted tree, rock formations, ancient house foundation, raging rapids on a river, openings, and foot bridges. Emphasize every landmark so they feel more comfortable with their surroundings and remember certain places if they have to backtrack. If they run due to panic mode, they may stop and find comfort if they recognize a spot and they will be more likely to stay put.


The sad and “just in case” subject… what to do if they get lost

Again, young children get distracted easily. It only takes a moment. This is a difficult topic because some children like to test you and will attempt hiding or “getting lost” just to see if any of these work. Repeat how serious hiking in the woods can be and that it is fun, but not a game.

  • Tell them that if they can’t see you, to stay put. Explain that you will never leave them behind and that you will always go back to find them. Never let a young child get ahead of you while hiking. Remember arm’s length or eyesight.
  • Encourage being noisy. If they are lost, they may panic and just run. While hiking together, make animal or other nature sounds. Tell them they should always be noisy, no matter what. Noise not only helps others know where they are at, but also startles wildlife. Wildlife will sense a noisy child sooner and will be more likely to get out range before the child has a chance to approach. Startled wildlife may be more likely to attack.
  • Have them wear a whistle. Explain that they only blow it if they do not see you. Make sure it is one that will hang around their neck and not one that may fall out of a pocket.
  • Make sure they know to always stop at intersections.  Intersections are busier than a single trail because you have more traffic. Even with my adult hiking partners, we always wait for eachother at intersections, shelters, and road crossings.

Go ahead and get children out there to enjoy the great outdoors, but just remember these tips. They will thank you when they are older!

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Comments 6

  • Marcus Williams : Feb 3rd

    The 1:1 child:adult ratio is definitely the most ideal. It would be a nightmare to handle more than one kid out in the wilderness especially if they’re a bit rowdy like my boys. Thanks for sharing this post, I’ll be sure to apply these on our trek. Have you ever tried taking pets on hikes too?

    • Jennifer Williams : Feb 3rd

      Yes, I hike with my dog a lot. She even joined me for a month on my thru, but that’s when I decided she was a section hiker and not a long distance hiker.

  • Brian (The Chief) : Feb 5th

    As a Troopmaster for a Trail Life USA Troop, I can really appreciate this article. Although my boys are older, we do bring along some 1st and 2nd graders occasionally. We can’t, nor will we ever really be able to maintain the 1:1 ratio, but we mitigate that by extensive pre-hike preparation. We treat very seriously even the smallest safety infraction. I can’t state enough my total agreement with you on getting kids outdoors! In the age of the smartphone and the tablet, the importance of getting them outside can’t be understated. We are in danger of a generation of kids who look like the people in Wall-e 🙂

    • Jennifer Williams : Feb 5th

      Thanks! 1st and 2nd graders are a little more aware of dangers, so all should be well there. Feel free to use any of these pointers!

  • Zach : Jan 5th

    I went on a short trip with my son last summer. After our experience last summer with a rattlesnake laying on a dried up river bank. I traveled it a few times alone and when i got him grim camp we went down the entrance to the bank there he layed. I will have to go with the with in arms reach other then the eye sight specially when I take my 5 treat old little girl with me.

  • Loren : Jan 20th

    What about leashes like you sometimes see parents use with young kids in normal urban environments?


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