Winter Hiking with Kids

Make Your Winter family Hike Fun!

Aside from a Polar Vortex freezing the country, you can have the time of your life hitting the snow covered trails with your kids. After a spring, summer and fall season filled with miles of fun hiking adventure, don’t let old man winter put a stop to your kid’s active outdoor lifestyle. Most parks have the lowest visitation in the winter which means you can avoid the stampede of hikers and bumper to bumper traffic, but you need to be prepared for the winter elements which increase your risk of exposure, hypothermia and frostbite. By adding some safety winter survival skills, proper gear, clothing, flexibility, and common sense, you can build fun winter hiking memories with your kids.

Winter hiking can have serious and fatal consequences without the right skills and gear. As I wrote this, news broke that three adult hikers were air lift rescued from the Great Smoky Mountains along the Appalachian Trail. They didn’t have shelter, proper clothing and winter survival skills; and they were treated for hypothermia. They are very lucky their cell phone even worked; cell phones are unreliable in the backcountry (; In November, 2013 a family with three young kids survived two days in snow covered subzero Nevada wilderness huddled in their overturned Jeep until rescuers found them. They used their wits and survived by staying together, building a fire and using their vehicle as a shelter. They had just gone out for a day of play with the kids in the  snow (; Unfortunately, many other situations don’t have such rosy outcomes.

Seasoned hikers carry the ten essential items recommended by the “Seattle based Mountaineers” and they know how to use the gear they carry. Overnight winter hiking requires a hearty soul and should be left for the seasoned hikers. Here are a few tips to keep your winter day hikes fun and safe.

Winter Gear Considerations:

There are detailed lists and guide books of recommended gear, clothing, food and water you should have whenever you hike.  A big part of making a hiking adventure fun for kids is keeping them warm, dry, hydrated and fed. Here are a few items and tips to keep your winter family hike fun and safe in the extreme cold, snow and moist conditions. Some of these items are recommended elsewhere, such as the ten essentials:

  • Bundle Up and Stay Dry: Make sure everyone is wearing layered non-cotton thermal clothing with hats, mittens, and a waterproof outer shell.
  • Bring Shelter: Even if you’re just out for the day, pack along a shelter (tent, tarp, poncho, etc.) or brush up on how to make a shelter from your surroundings and your gear. If you get lost or injured, stay together and use the shelter to help stay warm and dry.
  • Prepare to Make Fire: Be sure you have a method to make a fire and know how to use your fire starter kit.
  • Map, Compass & GPS: Bring a topo map, compass and GPS if you have it and know how to use them. Snow covered trails can lead you off course. Know how to signal for help if you’re lost (three loud whistle bursts, bright colored clothing item placed in open clearing; etc.).
  • Bring the stove and some Cocoa: Pack along a hiking stove, hot cocoa and soup packets. Most kids never turn down a cup of piping hot cocoa after a cold romp in the snow and this will also help warm your inner core.
  • Pack Extra Snacks & Enough Water. You burn more calories in the winter and the added snacks will keep your kids energized. Be sure to bring your kids favorite foods to encourage them to eat. Stop often for water breaks.
  • Winter Footwear Accessories: Ice Crampons will help your traction on ice covered trails and snow shoes will help hiking over deep snow. These items are costly and you may have difficulty finding sizes that fit your smaller kids. But, you may be able to rent snow shoes or find them at a used  sporting goods outlet.

Make Your Winter family Hike Fun!
Family Winter Hike

Before you go:

  • Check with the park rangers and the park website for trail conditions:  Local experts know the area best, heed their advice and be flexible with your plans to keep everyone safe.
  • Leave your itinerary with someone. Include the date and time of your expected return, what trail you’re hiking, where you’re leaving your car, emergency park contact information, and when to alert authorities.

Fun Activities on the Trail:

  • Listen for winter sounds. Do you hear any birds?
  • Ask your kids what animals they think are active in the winter. Look them up online together after the hike.
  • What animal tracks do you see in the snow?
  • Play “I Spy” with binoculars.
  • Come up with a list scavenger items for the kids to locate on the hike.
  • Do all things winter on the trail: Build a Snowman, Make snow angels, etc.
  • Stop frequently for snacks and drinks.
  • Cook up some trailside hot cocoa.

If weather and trail conditions are not ideal (extreme cold temperatures, snow storm, sleet, heavy rain, etc.), come up with an alternate plan. Your mantra should be to keep everyone safe, have fun and stay active. Here are a few alternative activities:

  • Cross Country or downhill Skiing with access to warm amenities.
  • A short hike near warm amenities.
  • Research your next adventure together as a family.
  • Rent or borrow videos from the library of places you want to explore.

Please note: You will need more gear and clothing than what is mentioned in this article before hiking; and depending on your level of experience, you may need more preparation before heading out on a winter hike. You can find all my family hiking tips in my book, Get Your Kids Hiking: How to Start Them Young and Keep it Fun!