Family trekking holidays can either be a nightmare of cajoling and bribery or a High Five success. The trick is to pick your trek carefully and not bite off more than you can realistically chew. Don’t aim to conquer Kilimanjaro (“if Cheryl can, so can we”) if in fact your children seldom climb anything more than the stairs.
Some families will relish the prospect of a ‘proper’ trekking holiday where there may be the occasional rest day but essentially you are hiking for most of the time. Others will baulk at this and will be better suited to a shorter 2-3 day trek as part of a longer holiday with plenty of other activities.
With this in mind, here are our top ten family trekking holidays from around the world – put your best foot forward!
1. Getting High – Everest Base Camp
12 day trek, suitable 12yrs
For the ultimate family trekking holiday follow in the footsteps of Malory, Hillary and Tenzing to the legendary Everest Base Camp. The trip starts with a hair-raising flight into the mountains from Kathmandu to Lukla where you meet your trekking team. By the end of your first day you will have crossed your first high suspension-bridge (kids will love swinging these alarmingly from side to side as parents teeter across), walked clockwise round your first mani prayer wall and greeted dozens of local children with ‘Namaste’.
The route itself is surprisingly gentle and you are often following man-made steps up a very gradual incline. Porters dash by laden with heavy loads and yak trains lumber along (remember to stay close to the mountainside to avoid an unwarranted speedy descent).
There is certainly no hurry here and with the altitude it is always better to walk slowly, enjoy the views and the banter from other trekkers.
The trek culminates of course at Base Camp itself, that holy grail of climbers. Here you are surrounded by twisted ladders, (victims of the constantly moving terrain), prayer flags, toilet tents and satellite dishes of wannabe summiteers. Oddly enough, you cannot see Mount Everest from Base Camp but you will most certainly be spellbound being surrounded by the highest mountains in the world.
A family trekking holiday that is breath-taking. Literally! Get in touch if you’d like to talk with Helene about her experiences of trekking to Everest Base Camp.
2. For the Indiana Jones in all of us – the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu
3½ day trek, suitable 12yrs+
The chance to combine a trip to the Amazon, a cruise on Lake Titicaca and a visit to the spectacular mountain-top ruins of Machu Picchu is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. And for active families the natural choice is to take the world famous Inca Trail. This follows an ancient Incan pathway through the mountains, cloud forest and jungle to arrive, Indiana-style, at the Sun Gate for sunrise, with the ancient ruins of Machu Picchu spread beneath you.
Probably the toughest part of this particular trek is the fact that once you have gained that first hard earned high point (with the wonderful title of ‘Dead Woman’s Pass’), you look across the valley and can see the next one looming – it is a route that is full of highs and lows…. The trek only takes 3 ½ days but it is at altitude and the ascents – and descents – are steep. Also, as the ancient Inca stone steps can be slippery in the rain this is not really suitable for children under 12yrs.
However even the most reluctant of teenagers will surely enjoy that sense of pride in arriving at Machu Picchu on foot rather than joining the crowds coming up from Cuzco by train and bus. And there are always the smelly but therapeutic hot springs at Aguas Calientes, along with a refreshing Inka Kola, at the end.
The Inca trail hike can be integrated into both our example Peru family itineraries.
3. Marrakech and mountains – Climb Mount Toubkal
3-4 day trek, suitable 10yrs+
At 4,167m, Mount Toubkal is the highest mountain in North Africa and a fantastic destination for a family trekking holiday. There are some itineraries in which you can fly out to Morocco and summit Toubkal on a long weekend. However we would not advocate this due to the dangers of altitude sickness, the possibility of bad weather and missing out on the stunning and surprisingly varied scenery you will enjoy walking through on your way to the peak. Here, green and fertile valleys contrast with high, barren peaks.
Traditional Berber villages provide useful stops for some inevitable mint tea on family treks – and your children will be mobbed by local kids desperate for a football match. Steep mountain passes (why not hop on a mule?) offer stunning views of river valleys and terraced landscapes. Then up to the snowline and a chilly night at the Toubkal refuge followed by a pre-dawn start, zig-zagging your way up the final scree slopes to the summit.
The heat and chaos of Marrakech seem a world away as you gaze out over the Atlas range and Sahara Desert – but in less than thirty-six hours your family can be back, sitting in a rooftop café overlooking Djemma al Fna Square – enjoying a chest-thumping sense of achievement.
4. For peak baggers – Climb Mount Kilimanjaro
9 day trek, suitable 13yrs+
Snowdon eat your heart out – Kilimanjaro is serious trekking, at serious altitude (5,895m). Climbing to the highest point in Africa is not something that you can bribe a child to do – no amount of cajoling is going to get a reluctant hiker out of bed at 2 in the morning for the frankly freezing and laborious plod in the dark to the summit. However for keen trekkers, conquering Kilimanjaro and reaching ‘the Roof of Africa’ is a massive achievement providing a huge boost for teenage self-esteem.
Success on Kilimanjaro is not a given though – route choice is vital. We would definitely recommend avoiding the busy Marangu route with its overcrowded huts and dubious toilet blocks. Go for routes which offer gentle and interesting ascents with the possibility of building in a rest day. We rate the beautiful and very scenic Rongai or the picturesque and unspoilt Lemosho, (see our Kilimanjaro Family Climb itinerary).
Both offer the chance of sighting wild game along the way and are ideal options if you are looking for a quieter route away from the crowds. These routes have higher success rates due to the slow and steady rate of ascent. And success if what you need if you want your offspring to have a cracker of a story to brag about back at school.
5. Himalayas for all – family trekking in the Annapurnas
1-day or overnight family treks, suitable for any age
Family trekking holidays need not all be about peaks. Although many people’s idea of trekking in Nepal is tied to Mount Everest, the beautiful Annapurna range offers a fantastic variety of treks varying from challenging circuits to easy day walks in the foothills.
Children of all ages should love walking in the Annapurnas – the walks are gentle and there is colour everywhere from the vivid prayer flags to the lush rhododendron bushes and the brightly painted eyes of Buddha peering down at you from holy stupas. Local children will come out to greet yours at every opportunity and there is a constant source of snacks at the delightful teahouses dotted along the way. Who knows, they may even get bored of noodles and pizza and attempt some yak stew…
Easy walks are suitable from children aged approximately 3 and above. However, younger children can also be accommodated if they want to toddle some of the way and then be carried by strong parents (or by a porter if needed) for the rest. Children also find it a real adventure to spend a night in a traditional trekking teahouse so perhaps consider an overnight trek as part of a longer Nepal family holiday and see our Active Nepal example itinerary with a three-day trek.
6. From jungle to summit – Climb Mount Kinabalu
2-day trek, generally suitable for 10yrs+ but our youngest climber to date was 7
When we think of the perfect holiday destination for active families who love wildlife, beach and a bit of a challenge, Borneo is definitely top of the list. Younger children will love exploring the jungle and older ones can tackle Mount Kinabalu, at 4,095m the highest mountain in South East Asia. The great thing is that it need not take up the whole of your holiday as the entire expedition takes only 2 days. This means that there are options for families to split up – one parent can take an older child to the summit and the other can stay behind with younger ones and spot leaf-cutting ants in the rainforest.
Kinabalu is a brilliant mountain to climb for a family trek as it starts in lush jungle and ends on a barren rocky summit. This will give any teenager a real taste of ‘proper mountaineering’ without many of the usual issues such as progressive altitude sickness, lack of washroom facilities or just sheer inertia at a daily climb. Views from the top are incredible at sunrise with views out across the clouds below. But by mid-afternoon you will have descended and can be sitting in a hammock on the beach. Read our travel consultant, Helene Cooper’s, gripping blog about climbing Kinabalu with her kids.
7. A Leap of Faith – Tiger Leaping Gorge, China
2-day trek, suitable from 8yrs+
China offers so many cultural experiences that sometimes you feel the need to just get away from all the temples, shrines and crazy cycle-filled streets and head to the mountains. The wonderfully named Tiger-leaping Gorge (safely free these days from any striped Big Cats) is home to the perfect two-day trek. It offers hill-tribe encounters, stunning scenery, waterfalls, lush terraced mountainsides and the raging Yangtze River as it forges its way down from the Tibetan Plateau through Yunnan Province. (See our 3-week China Highlights itinerary which includes this trek).
This family trek has a wonderfully non-commercial feel to it – there are no complicated permits to arrange or guides needed, you just turn up and start walking. The hardest section is the famous series of switchbacks known as the Twenty-Eight Bends (it feels more like 128!) which wind steeply upwards for about an hour of quad-killing ascent.
When you reach the high point of the trek (and a conveniently located guesthouse for the night) you can enjoy breathtaking views of the gorge’s 3,000 metre sheer walls and the mountains in the distance over a glass of fresh tea. And if your children are not quite as enthused about a second day of trekking you can re-energise things by telling them it is all downhill from here…
8. Putting your foot in it – Adam’s Peak, Sri Lanka
1-day night-time trek (in time for sunrise), suitable from 8yrs+
Most family trekking holidays are about getting out into the great outdoors, away from the crowds. However, there is the odd exception and the short trek up Adam’s Peak is a great addition to any Sri Lanka family holiday. This short (4-5 hours) hike is the ultimate pilgrimage for Buddhists and you will find yourself joining wizened old ladies, walking in flip flops as they ascend to the summit. It is very much a cultural experience – in season (Dec-May) tea shops and little stalls line your route and because you embark on the trek in the dark early- morning hours, it is very atmospheric with lights shining the way.
The aim is to reach the top for sunrise. This is quite a standard aim for many mountains but on Adam’s Peak there is the very special experience of seeing the shadow of the mountain projected onto the sea of clouds below as the sun rises behind. This makes all those calf-killing steps worthwhile. Oh and if the children need an added ‘carrot’ tell them that they actually get to see the (alleged) footprint of Buddha at the top….
9. NOT the road to Mandalay – Kalaw to Inle Lake, Burma
3-5 day trek, suitable from 6yrs+
Whilst this is not a classic trekking area in the same league as the Himalayas or the Atlas Mountains, this wonderful region in the newly-emerging tourist destination of Burma (Myanmar), can hold its own in terms of accessibility and interest and is particularly brilliant for children. After all that sightseeing in Yangon, Bagan and Mandalay, taking time out to walk between the hill station of Kalaw to the justifiably popular Inle Lake is the perfect addition to any family holiday to Burma.
The beauty of this trekking route is that there are oodles of different walks of varying lengths and difficulty (although none of them are that challenging as the terrain is only moderately hilly). Younger families can choose easy two hour sections, following wide open paths through fields being worked by water buffalo. Open plains, red and dusty in the dry season, lush and green in the wetter months, are dotted with thatched houses.
Children will love balancing on the makeshift bamboo bridges and they will be greeted by the locals imploring them for a game of football along the way. Three-day family treks are the most popular but we prefer the longer five-day option which really takes you off the beaten track. Here you overnight in monasteries or in the head villager’s home – spending an evening with Burmese monks has got to be a pretty special experience for any child. For an example itinerary that include this trek see Burma in the Summer.
10. Towers of Pain?! The ‘W’ Walk in Torres del Paine National Park,Chile
5-day trek, suitable 10yrs+
If you tell your children you are taking them on the ‘W’ Walk you might get some strange looks. However, to pique (or peak?!) their interest, explain how they will be enjoying picnics in front of massive glaciers calving into turquoise lakes. Or climbing boulder fields to the base of towering mountain spires. Perhaps paddling in aquamarine water as icebergs float by and generally spending time amongst the most incredibly dramatic scenery on earth.
Chile has to be the ultimate destination for adventurous families looking for an active holiday. And Torres del Paine is its jewel in the crown. Lying amidst the stunning ‘end of the world’ scenery of Patagonia, this national park contains arguably the most breathtaking mountain scenery anywhere in the Americas.
The 5-day ‘W’ walk takes you to the magnificent Grey Glacier – a misnomer if ever there was one. Then deep into the French Valley, a maze of tumbling glaciers creaking their way down from rugged pinnacles. Along the shores of dazzling lakes – great for a bit of guanaco or condor spotting. And finally, up to the base of the famous towers themselves. And yes, people have actually climbed these seemingly unscalable peaks. Apart from the last day (towers of pain indeed), there is little steep ascent and the terrain isn’t too challenging if you can cope with boulders and giant tree roots. A brilliant way to get into the heart of true mountain territory without the altitude issues.
For more ideas on family trekking holidays, speak to Helene Cooper, our family treks specialist. After all, as Dr Seuss famously said, ”Today is your day! Your mountain is waiting, So… get on your way!”
Liddy Pleasants, MD Stubborn Mule Travel
We’d love to hear from you about your experiences of family trekking holidays, so do email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.