How to plan the perfect family hike

Our top tips for planning mountain day hikes that the whole family will enjoy

Lucia at Gentry Falls

Hiking together is a great way to connect as a family. Hitting the trail gives kids a chance to spread out and explore new sights, new sounds and new problems to solve. Teach your kids how to follow blazes on a trail, how to pick a good walking stick, and how to leave no trace. Being outdoors is a great way to sneak in extra physical activity to let the kids burn off some energy and build self-confidence. 

Southwest Virginia is home to some of the best hikes in Virginia, from well-known trails like the Appalachian Trail and The Virginia Creeper Trail, to hidden gems that can take your family away from the crowds.  

See the top 10 Southwest Virginia day hikes
Kids on a Hike

Planning ahead: What to pack for a family hike

  • Backpacks. You can have each member bring their own pack, or you can designate two backpacks to be carried by the adults/big kids.
  • Snacks! Consider consider kid-friendly snacks that are self-contained and easy to eat, like apples, bananas and tangerines. Other favorites are banana chips, granola bars and trail mix. Pro-tip: younger hikers will need to stop frequently. Use snack time as motivation to get to the next stopping point-it’s not a race, take your time and pace based on the youngest member of your group.
  • Water bottles: Ask each child to be responsible for their own water bottle, but let kids under 10 years old keep their water in a backpack carried by an adult. If you have individual packs with a water bladder, this works great as well.
  • Plastic bag to collect trash - It’s important to leave no trace while you’re on the trail. Remember-even your orange peels & apple cores should go out with you-don’t throw them on the trail.
  • Trail Guide - The All Trails app is a good resource for Southwest Virginia hikes, or you can request hiking information from the Abingdon Visitor Center, and print maps and trail info before you leave.
  • Phone - Some areas of Southwest Virginia will not have cell reception, but it's still important to carry your phone! Pro-tip: many trails will have a map at the trailhead - snap a quick photo for reference before you get started. You’re also going to want to capture memories on your phone camera for the ‘gram!
  • Wet-wipes: for messes and other cleaning needs. Don’t forget to collect the used wipes and pack them out with you for disposal off the trail.
Crossing creeks Gentry Falls
  • First aid/Safety - bring some bandaids in various sizes, antibiotic ointment, pain relief, bug spray & sunscreen. Pro-tip: bring a safety whistle for everyone in case they hop off the trail and can’t find their way back.
  • Clothing- Kids are notorious for underdressing, aren’t they?! Consider the weather in the mountains of Southwest Virginia, and don’t forget how much colder it often is in higher elevations. For spring hikes, wear jeans or athletic pants, a long sleeve shirt, a jacket and sturdy shoes. We also recommend wearing baseball caps or toboggans depending on temperature. Pro-tip: dress smaller kids in a bright color for visibility. For summer hikes, pants are still a good idea to protect from poison ivy/oak/thorns but paired with t-shirts or tanks. Bring your sunglasses and trade your shoes for waterproof sandals that have good grip and stay secure on your feet. These are great for trails that cross over creeks or end up at a waterfall. If there is a chance of rain, consider lightweight ponchos or rain coats.
  • Sketchbook & Pencil-definitely optional if you feel like your pack is too heavy. Other options are field guides for flora & fauna that you can turn into a scavenger hunt with the kids.
Sophia at Gentry Falls

Pro-tips for making the most of your family day hike

  • Plan a safe place to store your keys-being locked out of your car at the end of your hike is not good.
  • Remember that there may not be public facilities available on your hike. Plan for it.
  • Don’t forget to wear sunscreen-even if it’s cold and cloudy outside, protect your skin
  • When scheduling your hike, plan an extra hour or two before sunset so that you’re not caught in the dark unexpectedly
  • Pack towels and extra clothing to stay in your vehicle. Don’t forget dry socks and slip on shoes in case your feet get wet or you get rained on (or the kids jump in mud puddles, because it’s fun!)
  • Stop and enjoy things along the way! In this same sentiment, don’t be afraid to turn around before the “end” if someone in your group can’t make it the entire trail the first time you go. Consider planning hikes by time rather than destination. The waterfalls and the lookouts are great - but so is the journey. Keep it fun and your kids will fall in love with the experience.

Don't forget the principles of Leave No Trace! "Take only memories, leave only footprints." 

Chacos at Gentry Falls

If you’re new to hiking, even the thought of being on a marked trail can be overwhelming. Start with short outings to get some experience and build your confidence. You don’t have to be a Boy Scout to enjoy the great outdoors!

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