How to Get a Reluctant Hiker Down the Mountain

How to help a reluctant hiker make it through a hike.

Most of my children are getting big and strong enough that our hikes are probably easier for them than they are for me these days.  But, we still have some shorter legs among our crew.  These usually start out strong, but once their energy begins to fade, getting them back down the mountain can be exhausting for everyone involved.  We’re past the “pop them on your hip for a while” or “give them a piggy back” stage.  We’ve got children who are big enough they have to walk, but small enough that that can be a tall order.

And, let’s be honest here.  Much as I love to hike, there is not one of us who can’t become a reluctant hiker under the wrong circumstances.  A long enough trail, or conditions that are bad enough will zap my reserves and drain my resolve.  So, it’s important to have a bag of tricks handy when anyone in our party starts to flag, far from the trailhead.


Hiking Hacks

There’s a lot I can’t choose about a hike.  I can’t decide how long it is to the top and back down.  I don’t have any sway over the weather, or how many other hikers are on the trail with us.  Still, there are ways we can approach a hike that make all the difference for a reluctant hiker.


Establish a rhythm.

A hike doesn’t have to be taken all in one great gulp.  When I know it’s going to be a difficult hike, and I’ve already got a reluctant hiker, we’ll use the 15/2 rule.  We hike for 15 minutes, then rest for 2 minutes.  With a timer and everything.  Just knowing that there's a break coming up can make the hiking feel less interminable for a hiker who doesn't want to be there.

We’ve never done a whole hike this way, but we’ve definitely done challenging chunks in 15/2 segments.  It’s just important that we invoke this rule before our reluctant hiker is completely spent.  Helping them conserve their energy means they never get to the point of absolute desperation.

This is helpful, too, for those in our group who are able to go farther, faster.  They can get frustrated with the slower ones, and it helps for them to know ahead of time that they will have to stop and for how long.


Use snacks to break up the hike.

I think the snacks may be some of my children’s favorite part of hiking.  For now, if it’s only the trail mix getting them out the door, I don’t mind.  I suppose I’ve sort of set it up that way.  I pack snacks that we don’t usually have (granola bars, fruit snacks, package peanut butter crackers).  Not only are they practical, but they make it feel like more of a treat to get out there.

Everyone carries their own set of snacks.  That's a practice born partially from my tendency to underestimate the difficulty of our endeavors.  I’ve had too many experiences where I thought a hike was a smaller undertaking than I realized, and I wished for more food or water.  Now, we just come (over)prepared.  The bonus to this, though, is that everyone has their own cache they can dig in whenever they want.  That element of control can really help a reluctant hiker.

Sometimes, when I have a flagging hiking companion, I’ll pull out an extra bag of fruit snacks and distribute one at the top of a hard hill, or at the next bend or tall tree.  Or, I might reward her for every trail marker they spy.  Any diversion that can get her through the next little strech keeps her from worrying about how very far it is until the end.


Give them a camera.

I will admit, this one will slow everything down quite a bit.  They’ll be stopping at every moss covered stump, and each gurgling brook.  But, an expensive point and shoot can be a lifesaver on a hike.  Handing a reluctant hiker a camera completely changes his relationship with a hike.  It engages him and gives him something to propel him forward.  He can walk a mile or more without noticing it when he's snapping away, capturing his experience.


Games You Can Play While Hiking

Let’s be clear.  Hiking games are designed for distraction.  They don’t need to be elaborate and they don’t have to be clever.  You’re just looking for anything that gives tired hikers a chance to concentrate on something other than their own two feet.  There are lots of games that fit this bill.  Here are a couple of suggestions to get your wheels turning.  Some of our favorite games have been ones that we've modified or invented in moments of boredom.


Geography Game

This one is particularly popular with our most reluctant hiker, so we end up playing it a lot as we hike.  It’s super simple.  One person names a place—it can be a country, city, state, it doesn’t matter.  Sometimes we’ll include mountain and river names as well.  The next person has to name a geographic location that begins with the last letter of the name just given.  Easy as that.  Except when you’ve already named Yemen and Yukon Territory and someone says Albany.  It’ll stretch your brain muscles and give you lots to think about besides how many miles to the car.

Just warning you now, an inordinate number of geographic locations end with an A.  So, spend your A countries wisely.


Rhyming Game

This one is a simple as it sounds.  One person names a word and everyone takes turns saying words that rhyme with it.  Do not dismiss this one because of its simplicity.  I kid you not, my 17 year old will play this for hours with me.  It may help that we’re both terribly competitive so neither of us will admit defeat.  You’d be surprised, though, at how satisfying it is to think of one more word when it seems like surely you’ve covered them all.


Superfragilisticexpealodocious Substitution

This is a fun one that I just recently ran across in Design Mom’s Instagram feed.  You try to think of a string of real words that sound like Superfragilisticexpealodocious when you cram them all together.  When we tried this out on our last hike, I was surprised how many hills it got us through.


Hiking Songs

There is a reason hiking songs exist.  And, there is a reason they are hokey and obnoxious.  To get a hiker to forget how far they’re walking, you need something stronger than the latest radio hit.  You need silly.  You need something that makes the teenagers roll their eyes, but which nobody can help singing along with.  

You’re looking for songs that require some sort of participation.  Any songs made of weaker metal than that will just lay down on top of their tiredness, instead of serving to distract.  There are as many hiking songs in the world as there are hikes to take them on.  Here are a few types that work particularly well.


Back and Forth Songs

The classic of the hiking song genre is the back-and-forth song.  What’s great about this is that your reluctant hiker doesn’t have to actually know the words.  They just repeat whatever you sing.  There’s a Hole in the Bottom of the Sea and The Green Grass Grew All Around are great examples of these.  If everyone knows the words to Hole in the Bucket, that makes a great back and forth song as well.


Silly Songs with Repetitive Lyrics

Think of all the goofy songs from your childhood.  These songs true power isn’t revealed in a simple round of singing them.  It is born from their sheer silliness.  It takes finesse to show these songs off to their full potential.  If you know the words, but your reluctant hiker doesn’t, it’s fun to sing one line, then most of the next and see if they can guess the last word (it’ll rhyme with the line before, so they’ll have a good shot at it).  Try singing The Noah Song this way.  I’d bet you’ll all be singing the chorus by the end.  I Like to Eat Apples and Bananas is another fun and easy one that's irresistible once begun.  Even The Song That Never Ends can be serviceable to get a few complaint-free yards behind you.


Interactive Songs

These are songs when the audience provides some input for the song.  Think Old McDonald.  When they’re really tired and cranky, they may not be willing to do much more than provide a suggestion for an animal for you to sing about.  But, as you sing, they may jump in as well.  If nothing else, you can always start singing The Name Game.  No matter how tired they are, it’s nearly impossible to resist joining in.


Keep Going

I’ve come to accept that some of my hikers are simply more reluctant than others.  It’s just going to be harder for them.  That doesn’t mean I stop taking them out.  It just means I adjust my expectations.  The point of all these hikes, after all, isn’t to move our bodies from point A to point B.  The purpose of taking them is simply the fact of being out there.  It is learning to love seeing what there is to see.  It is creating a sense of awe in the face of this world.

Hike after hike, it’s a process of repeated exposure.  Then, one day, without fanfare or formal announcement, it will all click.  And the seeing and the doing will be motivation enough.

And then, Mom and Dad, you’ll be the one hustling to keep up.