Smiles and miles: a few tips for taking small children up mountains

OK, I thought I’d post a little scrapbook of hints and tips for taking children up and down mountains – I don’t mean the main stuff that everyone should already know (like kit lists, weather reports, and fitness levels – I’ll include a couple of links to these below), I’m talking about the little extras that you only really find out when you’re halfway up the mountain. I’ll be editing it as I go.

No matter how much you read, some things can only be learned when you walk with your own, specific children. And some things can be a real surprise.

Children walk further than adults, over the same route 

A LOT further. This astonished me, and it’s really, really important.

On the same route, on the same day, even walking beside one another, little legs may have to go further than adults’ because children have to walk around objects that adults can step over. This is particularly relevant on steep, rocky scrambles and climbs. Over a long distance, this can add significant mileage to your little one’s walk. I actually tracked and logged the footsteps of my 7y/o up Snowdon’s Miners Track and instead of the 14km walk that we expected, my youngster clocked 19km on Strava. NINETEEN. That is 136% of the adult route.
Even at a slow, ambling pace with lots of stops, my little one was really tired at the end; we reached his safe limits that day. OK, I always build in some slack, so for example I knew he could walk 15km fairly easily over normal hill terrain (walking not scrambling), and even at 19km I could have piggybacked him (I was feeling fine) – so he was tired but unhurt. Still, if someone else had twisted an ankle or anything, this little surprise could have been very unwelcome. Next time, I’ll be factoring in 140% distance for scramble climbs.

(And needless to say, the following few days were flat, easy and restful to allow him an injury-free recovery.)

Children walk better when they feel both excited and secure 

It’s not uncommon for my little one to walk about a mile and then say, ‘I’m tired.’
To which I reply, ‘OK, hop on, I’ll give you a piggyback.’

I can almost guarantee that within two minutes, he’ll be back down, walking and running beside me, perfectly happy and excited to be going up a mountain. He wasn’t tired, he was worrying about getting tired. Now he knows that he can have a lift, he doesn’t need one. One of the great joys of childhood is knowing that someone will look after you: this is a good time to offer it up.

Children need to know who’s the leader 

Up a mountain, if a squall’s coming, it doesn’t matter whether or not they LIKE wearing their coat; they just have to put it on. I get the kids’ buy-in at the beginning – it’s a deal: I’ll take you up the mountain, but you have to do as you’re told.

Once we’re on the mountain, I give them as much freedom and choice as I safely can. We take turns to navigate and lead, and if two paths are both fine, I let them choose which to take. I let them decide whether to swim or not, to eat now or later, and so on, provided it’s safe. This is their day, and I want them to own it.

But I’m the leader. If I say to drink water, wear sun-cream, and stick to the path, that stuff happens. Want to know why? Ask me when you’ve already done it.

Take spare treats 

You know that sweet they aren’t usually allowed, but you thought you’d let them have at the summit? Bring LOADS. Few things put a small nose out of joint more than watching a lollipop bounce away down a cliff, but if you only take one, IT WILL.

Take extra water in small bottles 

If my child uses his/her water bottle to refresh someone else’s pet dog, a local sheep, or a dandelion, what am I going to do? I can ask them not to do this, but if they’ve already done it, no amount of grumping will make it come back. I make every kid carry their own water, but I also carry 3 to 4L in several small bottles. Kids are ridiculous. Don’t walk with them unless you love them.

Going to the toilet 

You’ve met children, right? Limber up for the chaos. How you teach them about peeing into the wind depends entirely on your sense of humour but remember they will need to be dry and comfy. Spares. Bags. Don’t go behind a rock until an adult has checked that behind the rock is safe.

Put the tallest children at the back 

If the big ones are up front, the little ones will walk up a hill seeing only the back of someone else’s pack or shoulders. If the big ones are at the back, they can all see the path ahead.

The big ones will want to go at the front. This will lead to a little one trailing behind. That never goes well.

If you’re really brave, make the little one the leader. It’s super-cute and you’re likely to get a lot more smiles and miles.

Use bandages instead of extra socks 

Sometimes putting a soft Tubigrip over aching feet makes them feel like warriors and adventurers, in a way that an extra pair of socks or an Elastoplast could never do.

Carry rocks 

‘Mum, Mum, Mum, can you look after my rock parrot, please?’

I would LOVE to carry your massive great chunk of granite up the hill for ten miles. Yey.

Huge though it is, this giant, parrot-shaped hunk of granite that has been digging into my back now for five hours is every kind of motivation for him. Plus I can now officially eat anything I like, all day, because I will never be fat, ever, carrying children AND rocks up mountains with extra zigzags. Really: I can now drip feed myself sugared lard and not a single ounce will sit on these hips.  (At least until the arthritis sets in, which might be later today.)

Children ask insanely difficult questions about navigation 

‘So Mum, the sun’s in the south and it’s lunchtime, but how do you know which way is west because where the sun is now, does it go over that way, or come towards us, or go off over there?’ (Kid points to various spots on the horizon.)
By looking at the sun, I know which way is east and west, but to try and describe how to predict which way its arc lies… yup, never had to do that before.
‘It sort of goes that way.’
It just does. OK, let’s talk about angles. We’re in the northern hemisphere, and so the sun will arc around the lower part of the sky.

But why?

D’you want a lollipop? I brought loads.

Children’s arms aren’t always long enough to manage an unfolded Ordnance Survey map 

And this can make them really angry.

This is really funny. Try it. Find somewhere flat and just give them a map, kick back with a thermos, and watch them try to fold the flapping, blanket-sized sheet of paper without poking their finger through a soggy bit or losing it to a southerly breeze. Even if they do pin it down, the chances of them reading it correctly are almost nil.

Map-related hissy fits are a rite of passage.

Before everyone starts to cry, you can fold it up and stick it into one of those little plastic map pockets on string. These are great even for weatherproof maps (if you want to turn your kids into human kites).


There are some bonds that you can only get by really, really sweating it out with someone. And there are few joys as great as watching a child looking back at a mountain he’s just climbed, with a brand new, quiet confidence.

Safe travels.



The stuff you should already have: 

For advice, I’d recommend advisory sites such as Mountain Training, regional sites like Walk Up Snowdon (or wherever you’re walking), map sites (OS maps), weather sites (Met office), and personal blogs written by people who have experience in the areas you wish to walk.

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