Plan and Lead Your First Family Hiking, Biking, or Paddling Outing

Conway Lake, New Hampshire
Paula ChampagneFamilies enjoy an AMC outing to Conway Lake in New Hampshire. With the right training and planning, anyone can lead a family hiking or paddling adventure.

This was adapted from an article that originally appeared in the spring issue of Footnotes, the quarterly newsletter of AMC’s Delaware Valley Chapter.

Whether you’re a newly trained or veteran outdoor leader ready to cautiously start leading events again, consider planning a family-friendly event—even if you haven’t led one before. In doing so, you will be engaging the next generation of AMC members.

A family-friendly activity is an event that is not too long, and not too physically taxing, that invites younger kids to participate. It could be hiking, biking, paddling, or camping.

Make a plan: Pick an achievable route and a distance. Start with a one-mile out-and-back hike, a two-mile out-and-back bike ride, or a flatwater two-hour canoe excursion. It will feel short to you, but abundantly varied to a child. Include an in-passing or targeted nature study, a scavenger hunt, or another activity that will engage kids. For example, how many different kinds or leaves can we find?

Assemble a group: This is the most challenging part for many. School friends, playground friends, church friends are all potential invitees. Many of these have never heard of AMC before, so you may need to encourage them through the registration process. Once they have ventured out with you and enjoyed it, they will likely repeat. Because parents won’t travel far to an outdoor event, this will likely be a local group. But an existing group draws new families.

Publicize your event: Mention all activities you plan to do and things to bring, such a bug-repellent, sunscreen, durable shoes, water, etc. Be more complete in your list than you would for an adult activity, since you might distribute the text outside AMC’s activities database.

Engage the children: You can backpack a two-year-old over a trail, but they won’t be engaged unless they climb down and explore some on their own. At the trailhead, start by announcing, “Everyone who wants can choose a walking stick, and here’s how we use it.” Kids vary, but many with a stick (or a neat rock, for that matter) will walk a trail happily, where they would otherwise drag their feet. Experience shows that when a four-year-old picks a 10-foot tree trunk to drag along, they will quickly reconsider! Since you will be accompanied by parents in all cases, you may provide a framework of activities and let the parents generally supervise.

White Mountain National Forest, New Hampshire
Paula ChampagneChildren need to be engaged throughout a hike and encouraged to point out elements they find along the trail.

But to make the experience more complete for the kids:

  1. Provide orientation materials for the parents to use well before the hike. These could include a picture for the kids to draw, or a page to color related to the upcoming activity. Include a few follow-up questions about what they drew or colored. Include an instruction sheet for parents to discuss trail protocol with their kids, such as how to safely greet other people, pets and wild animals, and how to respect nature (remind everyone how to Leave No Trace).
  2. At the trailhead, briefly warn of possible hazards, such as poison ivy. Emphasize the importance of children staying near their parents.
  3. Encourage kids to take a phone-picture of interesting findings to share with their friends, or on the iNaturalist app later. An activity might be a scavenger hunt. Give each child a sheet with pictures and names of things to be found, and a pencil for check-offs. Let them take home their sheet and post it or show to their friends. Perhaps offer a nominal bonus for completing the sheet. Here are two scavenger hunt pages AMC uses in its children’s programming.
  4. At the conclusion of the event, remember to thank both the parents and the kids and to invite them and their friends to upcoming events. Don’t forget to remind the parents to perform a total body tick-check on all hikers or paddlers!

After the event, send a follow-up email thanking the families and reminding them again to conduct a tick-check. Invite feedback on the outing, including elements that might be incorporated in the next outing. Follow up with where to find the iNaturalist app, a reminder of future family-friendly activities, and a list of possible local recreation sites.

Are you inspired by this reader-submitted article? AMC wants to hear your story! Submit your idea here.

About the Author…

Stan de Riel and Annette Sheldon

Stan de Riel and Annette Sheldon are members of AMC's Delaware Valley Chapter.

Sign Up For Our Newsletter

Sign up for special offers, conservation alerts, adventures near you, and stories from across the region.