Sunday, September 29, 2019

How to use hiking gamification to engage children on the trail

With the amazing views above the tree line, our family became hooked on peak seeking.  But it was the gamification of collecting patches that got us hooked on completing the 46ers in the Adirondacks!  Here is how it happened...

As our preferred family time together, have always been committed to spending our time together camping, hiking, and outdoor adventures, but completing the 46ers has only recently been put on our radar.  Most of our family hikes have consist of local trails where we pack a lunch and set out for the day to rediscover the amazing outdoor spaces. We had previously hiked some small mountains, like Bear Mountain in New York and La Cloche in north-eastern Ontario but nowhere near the elevation of the Adirondack mountain range.  

We have always enjoyed our family hikes, but more recently we have been looking for the next big adventure (the next cool waterfall, a mountain with amazing views, a location we have yet to discover). 

The Adirondacks seemed like the perfect leveling up in our adventure quest.  The mountain range was relatively close to home (a five-hour drive across the border into the United States from Canada) and it offered the opportunity to test our skills and endurance as a hiking family.  

On our first trip to the Adirondacks, we summited Algonquin and Wright and we could not believe the amazing views from the top of the mountains. The peaks were well worth the effort (and pain) to make it to the top of the mountain and I was very pleased with just how well our children did on the hikes, especially on the long hiking day with some grueling climbs to the top of the mountains.

On our way home, we stopped in Lake Placid to look around at the local shops, as the children wanted some souvenirs from the trip. Most stores had all of the typical souvenirs: sweatshirts, t-shirts, mugs, keychains, etc.  But then we went into a store and found patches of the two mountains we had just climbed, and 44 other patches of mountains we could climb in the future.  Although our legs and feet were still sore from the long hike, we talked about how amazing it would be to come back every summer to hike more peaks and to eventually collect all of the patches from the 46ers.  And just like that, we were hooked.  The children talked about where they would put the patches.  One wanted them sowed on a sweater, the other wanted them on a blanket for her bed and the other wanted to make curtains with the patches to hang in her room.  

There are so many amazing feelings when we are on top of the mountains and so many great reasons for coming back, but we would be lying to ourselves if we did not admit that we also like gamification of collecting the patches and its influence on our commitment to complete the 46ers (why else would anybody hike up to Street Mountain!).     

The use of gamification in parenting 

The concept of gamification, also known as game theory or game-based mechanics, has traditionally focused on gaming activities on digital devices, such as computers, smartphones, and wearables with users earning gaming elements such as points and virtual badges.  

We find gamification strategies in our loyalty programs that give us points for purchases, in our watches that reward us with virtual badges for accomplishing our steps for the day and in our apps that track our fitness.  But the study of gamification has been gaining traction outside of the digital world.  Research has recently shown for example that adding games to family activities helps to make them more enjoyable and can have an important role to play in encouraging children and youth to engage in physical activity

As a buzzword, gamification is only a few years old, but parents have been using these same strategies on kids forever.   The gamification of parenting (aka positive rewards parenting) involves adding gaming elements to everyday tasks, such as scoring stickers for cleaned bedrooms, adding competition morning routines, winning prizes for good report cards and leveling up allowances for good deeds (Not sure if we could have ever potty trained without the use of stickers!!) 

Hiking gamification 

Hiking gamification is different than just tricking children to make hiking seem fun. It's about validating and rewarding children’s accomplishments and encouraging positive growth.  It is about providing children with the motivation to reach goals and to document their achievements. It is about acknowledging that there are parts of hiking that can be challenging (e.g. pushing the last hour to the summit, walking the long trail back to the car, feeling sticky and cold from the rain, etc.) and rewarding them for persevering beyond the challenges and obstacles.     

There are many ways to integrate gamification into hiking with children:
  • Giving children patches for completed mountain tops; 
  • Certificates of completion for long trails so that children can hang them on the walls in the room;
  • Virtual badges on their smartphone devices for reaching their step goals while on the trail;
  • Competing in a scavenger hunt of items typically found in the forest and giving points for the person with the most items found while on the trail; 
  • Have children take pictures along the trail and then post them to social media to see which one gets the most ‘likes’
  • Stopping at an ice cream store after hikes to celebrate a job well done;
  • Allow children to buy new hiking boots after they have reached a specified target goal. 

Parents should experiment with different types of gamification and its impact on motivation and engagement with the sport.  Not all children will respond to the same types of rewards so it is important to make sure the reward system meets the specific needs and interests of the child.

The limits of hiking gamification 

Hiking gamification is only a tool and, like everything parenting related, it needs to be used in moderation.  Using hiking gamification is about finding the right balance for your family. It can be great when it’s a fun incentive for your children to do push to the mountain top but relying too heavily on gamifying every challenge runs the risk of imparting the wrong message about the benefits of hiking.   

Hiking as a family is about reconnecting, spending time together in the outdoors, and away from everyday distractions.  Too much focus on games and rewards can distract from the enjoyment of walking in the woods and soaking in all of the amazing discoveries that nature has to offer. 

The ultimate prize of hiking does not come from a badge, a treat, or the ice cream cone after the hike, but rather from the thrill of being in nature and hiking together as a family.  


As a hiking family, we are committed to the enjoyment of outdoor spaces and spending time on the trails together.  Hiking is an activity that we do as a family to stay connected and to participate in shared activities.  The motivation to hike as a family is based on shared meaning and enjoyment of spending time together.  

Gamification is a tool that we can use as parents to help our children get over the obstacles on the trail and to motivate them to accomplish tasks that they find difficult or challenging and to focus on our shared activity when life seems too busy to carve out time to spend together.  We continue to enjoy all kinds of hiking trails, but gamification keeps us on track for completing the 46ers. Once we do, we will be looking again for our next big adventure.


Sunday, September 22, 2019

Fall family hikes

Lookout on Track and Tower in Algonquin Park

Fall is the perfect time of year to hike with children.  Hiking in the fall provides the opportunity to experience the amazing scenery of changing colours.  The trails are also usually not as busy, compare to the summer so there is more opportunity to see wildlife, especially early in the morning.  The cooler weather also means less bugs to annoy children on the trail!  

Making the most of your fall hike will take some additional preparation due to the changes in weather, the conditions of the trail and the less daylight with the shorter days in the fall.

Optimal peak viewing means planning 

Depending on your location, the changing leaves can begin as early as September.  Knowing the perfect time to view the changing leaves at peak season requires both a little planning and a lot of luck.  

The first thing you want to do is check with your local trails to find out the expected times of peak viewing (when the colours are in full display).  In Ontario, for example, a great source for locating the peak viewing can be found on the Ontario Parks website.  The website provides a map of the changing colours throughout the province of Ontario and also reports the types of trees expected to view, the percentage of colour change in specific areas and the amount of fallen leaves in that area.  The website also has an interactive map with colour of the leaves icon in each region to represent each specific provincial park and its updated fall colour report (updated almost daily in the fall).

You will want to also look at the weather forecast because the changing colours are the most spectacular on sunny days with the sun reflecting off the colours and creating a spectacular contrast of the reds, oranges, yellows and purples. 

But be careful not to wait too long to get on the trail to view the changing colours as one big windstorm (which often happens this time of year) can dramatically shift the ratio of fallen leaves and coloured leaves still remaining on the trees.

Cooler fall weather means packing the essentials to stay warm

The cooler weather in the fall makes it ideal for hiking with children.  With less bugs on the trail, children will enjoy not having to deal with the constant buzzing in their ears.  

The cooler air in the fall is refreshing, which makes long hikes more enjoyable. But weather can change drastically in the fall, from a warm sunny day to a very cold rain with a wind that tells you that winter is just around the corner.

Layering is key for fall hikes so that layers can be added or taken off depending on the changing weather so that you always keep warm and dry.  

In your pack, you should always bring rain gear, a fall coat, hats, gloves and an extra pair of socks so you are prepared for all types of weather.  

Just because the weather is cooler, you should not put away your sunscreen as the sun can still burn, even on cool and clouding days.

In the hot sun, you may not need to remind your children to keep drinking water because the heat on the trail will make them turn to their hydration system to cool off and to replenish the lost water due to sweating.  In cooler weather, the need to stay hydrated may not be as apparent, but is just as important.  

For short hikes, you can bring a couple of water bottles (enough for everyone in your family to stay hydrated on the short trip), but you should still bring your water kits (life straws and/or water filtration) just in case somebody in the group needs more water.  On longer trips, you should use your water reservoir kit (e.g. camel back) as these provide the most convenient way to bring water on the trail and children especially benefit from sipping from the tube while hiking rather than needing to wait until the next break.  

How much water is enough?  While every body type and age will have different requirements, it is a good general rule to have one litre of water per person for every hour of hiking.

Fall trail conditions means mud

With less daylight and cooler days, the trails may not have time to completely dry.  It is likely that you will be walking in patches of mud along the trail.  Wearing the proper hiking footwear is essential.  Whether you decide to wear hiking shoes or hiking boots, they should be waterproof, sturdy, with good traction and good support.  For tips for choosing appropriate footwear on the trail, see our earlier post.

You will also want to stay on trails that are known for clear and consistent trail markers.  Once leaves fall from the trees, the trails can be difficult to navigate and so you will want to look to the trees for markers (e.g. paint, signs, markers).  It is also a good idea to bring a current map of the trail and a compass in case you get lost.  

Shorter days means earlier starts

With the days getting shorter, there is less time to hike during the daylight hours.  Departing early in the morning for the trail, especially on longer hikes, optimizes your chances of coming out of the trail before it's dark.  

When hiking with children, you should be realistic about the time it will take to complete the hike.  Many review sites post expected times to complete, but it is not always clear whether these suggested times refer to more experienced hikers without children.  

As a general rule, depending on the ages and abilities of the children and the type of terrain, you should expect to travel one mile an hour with children to allow for breaks, lunch, snacks, looking at the leaves, and more breaks!  So if the trail is 8 miles, you should expect that the trail will take approximately 8 hours to complete.  So you will want to plan accordingly to make sure you start early enough to complete the trail before dusk.  

Sometimes, despite your best planning, you will find yourselves having to come out in the dark so you should always pack working headlamps and extra batteries just in case you need to find your way to the car with no other source of light to show you the way.


Fall hiking is spectacular and a great opportunity to spend time with children.  Spending time together as a family provides the opportunity to check in, to decompress from the start of a new school year, to reconnect and to enjoy the most amazing colours on full display.  

Hiking in the fall requires much of the same preparation needed in other seasons for safe and enjoyable family adventures in the outdoors.  But specific attention to the weather, trail conditions and the hours of daylight will ensure you make the most of your spectacular trip.