Setting the Pace

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Submitted by damien on

As we started to do longer hikes with the kids it became more of a challenge for us as a family. Physically, I knew that the kids were capable of doing it, but psychologically they didn't have the skills to push ahead for longer periods of time. Kids don't have built-in motivation to exert themselves for extended periods without any immediate gratification. They live in the moment and if the moment isn't exciting, things start to drag and eventually bog-down. We tried to pick hikes with lots of water sources and stream crossings (kids are always motivated with the prospect of water), or the promise of spectacular views. The problem is that kids have no concept of time and no matter how beautiful the view or inviting the water, there becomes a point where the gratification is too far in the future for it to be worth it for them.

The result of un-motivated kids looks something like this: We start hiking. 15 minutes into the hike someone has to go to the bathroom. We start hiking again. 5 minutes later someone else has to go to the bathroom. We start hiking again. 5 minutes later someone is thirsty. We start hiking again. 10 minutes later someone is hungry. We start hiking again. 5 minutes later someone else has to go to the bathroom. 15 minutes later we come to a little stream. The kids want to spend some time playing at the stream. We play at the stream for a little while. We start hiking again. 5 minutes later someone is thirsty. We start hiking again. Someone wants to find a hiking stick. We forage around the bush looking for the perfect stick. Now, everyone else wants a hiking stick. We forage some more. We start hiking again. Is it lunch time yet? No, wait until we get to our destination. Someone sees a caterpillar. Someone else sees a dragonfly. Someone is getting sore legs. Someone else is getting tired. Rinse. Repeat... and things drag on-and-on. Some days we never reached the destination because we ran out of time and motivation.

Don't get me wrong, all of these things are important: eating, drinking, play, bathroom breaks, nature observation, etc. The problem is that if kids don't know when they will get to do what they want, they will just do it whenever they feel like it without thinking of the bigger picture consequences (i.e. reaching the destination). The following is a list of tips/tricks that can be easily employed to motivate the family to accomplish longer hiking goals:

  • Take a 15 minute break every hour. This is probably the single most important thing you can do to motivate the troops. Set your stopwatch for 45 minutes and when it goes off stop and rest. Make it clear that when you rest you will have snacks, drinks, a bathroom break, and a rest. Also, make it clear that as soon as the 15 minutes are up, you will be on your way again. This gives the kids a short-term goal to look forward to and they will be much more motivated to press ahead until the next break.

    Just recently at the beginning of a hike, our youngest daughter started complaining about a sore ankle. We didn't know what to make of it, so we asked if she would be willing to hike until the first break and then see how it goes. She agreed. By the time the first break arrived her ankle was much better and she was ready to take on the world. Had we not given her a definite point in the future to think about as a trial period, she likely would have complained the whole way. Knowing that we would revisit the problem in the future, she went ahead without complaint and it just "worked itself out". Of course had it ended-up being a real problem we would have turned back after the break.

  • Allow them to take turns leading. For each 45 minute segment of hiking we allow a different child to lead the group and set the pace. Make sure they know they are the leader and the pace setter, give them a sense of responsibility with the position. Explain to them that they need to stop and wait when someone gets too far behind. Praise them when they exhibit good leadership qualities and set a good pace. Rotate them through various group positions so that nobody feels like things are unfair.
  • Promise a dedicated play time at a location of their choosing. When we hike along the trail we tell the kids to be on the lookout for the place they would like to spend their play time. Knowing that they will have a dedicated play time (we typically allow about a half an hour) anywhere they like helps prevent them from getting distracted and doddling at every little point of interest.

My wife wants me to add these tips work for a reluctant partner as well. Knowing what to expect and when is helpful for everyone!




[...] We snack often while hiking. The kids pack a little bag the night before with nuts, dried fruit and anything else they can rustle up from the pantry (you can be sure they don't find any chocolate chips in there!) for their own personal snack bags. In addition Damien prepares easy nut bars that we eat during our hiking breaks. To read more about the breaks we incorporate into our hikes see setting the pace. [...]


[...] It was a beautiful day but mentally and physically exhausting for me. I was tired before we even left the house. It was all I could do to hike my you-know-what up to 3000 some feet and back down again, for a total of 6.5 miles which took us 6 hours with play breaks and lunch. [...]


[...] most of our weekend hikes and bring them along for backpacking trips also. We snack on them during our breaks. The combined feel-good effect of the cocoa, the chewy texture and concentrated calories makes for [...]

I was just laughing so much

I was just laughing so much re-reading this post, Damien! We just did a lot of hiking in Glacier NP in the last 4 days and JF and I are both re-reading your great posts to make things a bit easier and more pleasant for all of us. Hiking with our girls was EXACTLY what you describe, stop and go, stop and go, stop and go... and since I am not as in shape as JF, I find it very hard and frustrating to lose my momentum on my way up... We will try to set break with a watch and the idea of picking a leader. Our little one is not enjoying hiking as much as the rest of us (as you might remember from your hike with her...) and she really wants to feel in control about the hike. That's a good thing to try. I love the pick-you-play-space idea too. We really are inspired by what you write here! Thanks a lot!