Masterclass: Walking with kids

Walking is a wonderful way to spend family time and get youngsters away from screens and out into the open. Follow our expert advice and parents’ tips to instil a love of walking in the next generation

A man and boy wading in a stream, looking into a net 

By Oli Reed

It might seem daunting planning a walk with children. Not just because walking is probably something you usually do by yourself or with similar-aged, like-minded people, but also because kids can be unpredictable and emotional, cautious one minute and fearless the next. But get it right and walking with children can be one of the most rewarding, inspiring and bonding things you’ll ever do as a family.

Why get kids into walking?

Let’s start with the obvious: walking is an enjoyable way to introduce children to the great outdoors. Even for newborn babies, who can do little more than soak up the sights and sounds, just being outside for sustained periods is a wonderful sensory experience. 

For toddlers it’s a great way to burn off energy and encounter first-hand the animals and landscapes they see in books or on TV. For older children and teenagers, the prospect of walking with their family may not seem cool, but by getting out together regularly, you’ll hopefully cultivate a lasting love for wildlife and the natural environment, as well as spending precious time as a family.

We also have a responsibility to inspire our children to spend time outside. A 2016 government survey revealed that 74% of children spend less than 60 minutes outside every day – less than prison inmates. A recent report from the National Trust suggests ‘nature deficit disorder’ could be creating all sorts of issues for our kids, such as diminished use of senses, attention difficulties, higher rates of physical and emotional illnesses, and even the loss of basic abilities like assessing danger when crossing the road.

The right route

So where do you start? What’s a good location? What distance should you attempt? And how challenging should the terrain be? 

If you’re walking with a baby, don’t try too much too soon. You’ll hear stories of parents hoisting newborns up Ben Nevis on their backs – and that is possible – but keep your first outing short and simple. If using a pram, you’ll need wheel-friendly terrain without stiles and kissing gates. Slings and rucksack-style child carriers allow you to get off the beaten track, but it’s still best to be cautious at first. Circular routes with the option of a shortcut back if things go wrong (like a baby meltdown or your own fatigue) are a smart choice.

With toddlers and older children, think practical, fun and simple. Choose a route you know they can handle physically and complete before boredom kicks in. Good parking and nearby toilets are essential, and a café, pub or shop for refreshments along the way will boost flagging morale (yours and theirs). Long moorland trudges or uphill slogs could put kids off, so instead think rivers, woodlands, stepping stones, waterfalls, beaches, castles, tunnels, bridges – anything that makes your route varied, interesting and fun.

Perfect planning

Even on a short stroll, torrential rain and freezing temperatures are likely to dampen little explorers’ enthusiasm. There’s plenty of great outdoor gear for kids (see overleaf), which will keep even tiny babies warm and dry, but it’s best to aim for settled conditions and mild temperatures. 

Kids enjoy plotting adventures, so use the planning stage of your walk to fire their imagination. Spread out some maps, show them photos, tell them about the wildlife they might spot and the fun things they can do while walking. Get them excited at this stage and you’ll be setting yourself up for a great family day out. 

Making it fun

When walking with young children, not only is your route likely to be shorter than you’re used to, you’ll also be stopping along the way – a lot! Rather than chivvying everyone along, let the natural distractions open young eyes to the world around them. Stop to skim stones, eat blackberries, paddle in rivers, play pooh sticks, take leaf rubbings, climb trees, jump in puddles, hunt for creepy-crawlies, feed ducks, make daisy chains, play hide-and-seek... 

If you’re carrying a rucksack, get a kids’ version so they can pretend to be like you. If you have a dog, let them hold the lead. If you’re navigating, let them take charge of the map and compass. If you’re birdwatching, teach them how to use binoculars. If you’re geocaching or tracking your route with an app, show them how your smartphone works and let them press buttons. 

Walking with babies

‘My son’s been out walking with me since he was a few days old. We started with short dog walks in the pram, then slightly longer walks in his sling or baby carrier, before getting off-road in his baby backpack for a few miles. As long as we kept Sonny shaded and cool in summer and bundled up warm in the winter, he was happy. We always carried essentials – baby wipes, milk and a fully charged mobile phone – and, apart from a few nappy explosions and one or two baby screaming sessions, we always felt within our comfort zone. Sonny spent countless hours snoozing on my chest or back, grinning at trees and laughing at birds. I’m sure it played a big part in how much he loves being outdoors now he’s a toddler.’
Oli Reed,walk magazine gear tester

Recommended kit

  • LittleLife Family First Aid Kit
  • Spotty Otter Drift Down II Chillibug Snowsuit
  • Osprey Poco AG child carrier

Walking with toddlers 

‘Walking with toddlers is a life lesson in managing your own expectations. Toddlers have firm opinions about where they want to go, what pace they want to go at, and whether they’re amenable to walking there by themselves. My youngest child is an enthusiastic walker, scrambler and runner – usually full pelt at the nearest harmful-looking object. Yet he also has moments when he doesn’t want to walk another step. We’ve realised that what a toddler likes on a walk is variety and excitingly perilous terrain – the most successful walks feature muddy puddles, bridges, tunnels, fallen tree trunks to climb, and lots of snacks. Top tips? Spare clothes, a relaxed sense of how long a walk should take, and knowing when to call it a day.’
Jess Dolan, director, Ramblers Scotland

Recommended kit

  • Organix Oaty Bars
  • Regatta Charco puddle suit
  • Ergobaby carrier and waterproof cover

Walking with children

‘Now our children are school-aged, walking as a family is much easier. Their little legs can keep going for miles – especially if there’s the prospect of an ice cream or hot chocolate at the end of the route! My five-year-old collects enormous sticks and strangely shaped stones as we go, while my seven-year-old loves beachcombing for sea glass and shells, or searching woodlands for animal homes and fairy glades. There are some great National Trust natural play trails nearby, where forest walks lead to rope swings, balance beams and den-building zones, and they also love mapped trails with brass rubbings to find along the way. With plenty of distractions, they don’t notice the distance they’re covering.’ 
Elyssa Campbell-Barr, walk magazine editor

Recommended kit

  • Geox waterproof high-top trainers
  • Decathlon Quechua backpacks
  • Collins i-SPY Guides

Four teenagers walking and laughing on a woodland path 

Walking with teenagers

‘We’ve always walked as a family, regularly taking to the hills around our home at the weekends and venturing further afield for longer hikes on our holidays. Now that our children are teenagers, they’re increasingly choosing to spend some of their free time enjoying the outdoors with friends.  
One of their key criteria for a great walk is a fantastic view – both for enjoying at the time and for posting on social media afterwards. They’ve also been lucky enough to participate in the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award through their school. After a weekend on this brilliant scheme – spending time with their mates, walking, navigating and camping under big skies – their renewed engagement with the natural world and their sense of exhilaration, confidence and achievement are  fantastic to witness.’ 
Vanessa Griffiths, Ramblers chief executive

Recommended kit

  • Instagram photo-sharing app
  • Compeed blister plasters  
  • #Sigg aluminium water bottle

10 great family trails

  1. Seven Sisters Cliffs, South Downs
    Starting at Eastbourne and following the South Downs Way over rolling chalk cliffs, with the option of a dip in the sea at Birling Gap beach.
  2. Penzance to Marazion, Cornwall
    This two-mile, buggy-friendly walk follows the sea wall from Penzance to Marazion (Cornwall's oldest town), with great views to St Michael's Mount, the Lizard and Mousehole.
  3. Holkham Beach, Norfolk
    Enjoy thick pinewoods, rolling dunes and miles of golden sandy beaches, surrounded by pretty villages with great fish and chip shops.
  4. Sgwd Yr Eira waterfall, Brecon Beacons
    A winding woodland trail leads to a blanket of cascading water that you can either admire from the riverside or tiptoe behind on a thrilling rocky ledge.
  5. Dovedale, Peak District
    Watch wildlife, have a riverside picnic, cross the famous stepping stones and climb pointy Thorpe Cloud hill in this glorious wooded valley.
  6. Malham Cove, Yorkshire Dales
    This huge natural amphitheatre is just a short walk on an easy path from Malham village. Climb steps to the top to visit its iconic limestone pavement.
  7. Cat Bells, Lake District
    The ideal mini mountain for families to bag their first summit, Cat Bells is small enough for kids to climb and big enough to deliver huge Lakeland views.
  8. Dunstanburgh Castle, Northumberland
    Walk a short stretch of rugged coast from the village of Craster to the dramatic ruins of once-mighty Dunstanburgh Castle, then search for seals at glorious Embleton Bay.
  9. Arthur’s Seat, Edinburgh
    Stroll through Holyrood Park to the rocky summit of an extinct volcano – Arthur’s Seat – in the heart of Edinburgh’s bustling city centre.
  10. Loch Morlich, Cairngorms
    Surrounded by hulking mountains and soaring eagles, the sandy shore of Loch Morlich is a joy to explore on woodland trails in Glenmore Forest Park.