3 Secrets to Successful Hiking With Toddlers
My husband and I are avid hikers, so it’s not surprising that when our first child was born, we were eager to get him out on the trail. For the first year, our hiking routine was actually pretty similar to our pre-kid life. Our happy baby bounced along in the hiking carrier while we scaled mountains and explored on foot. Things changed quickly when he was walking. Suddenly, he wanted to be walking with us too, and we quickly learned “hiking” with a toddler was going to change our routine. Now, with a two- and four-year-old, trial and error on the trail with little ones has taught me a few things. Here are my three secrets to successful hiking with toddlers.
1. Pick the Right Trail
While five miles might not seem much to an avid hiker, it’s impossible for a young child. Find an easy trail that is a mile or less. I always ask myself, “If my child decides they are too tired to go one, will I be able to comfortably carry them back?”
Share the joy of hiking by stopping to point out interesting nature along the way—shiny rocks, mushrooms on a log, spiderwebs, and tree bark. This gives you a chance to educate your child about the outdoors and makes the walk seem more like an exploration rather than exercise. Look for nature experiences that offer easy parking, bathrooms, and even playgrounds. Toddler-friendly hikes should be parent-friendly, too!
2. Comfort Is Key
The second secret to successful hiking with toddlers is kid comfort. Dress in layers! Weather can change quickly, and every seasoned hiker knows, “dressing like an onion” helps with safety and comfort.
Layering will look different based on your climate region and season, but for the most part, my kids and I dress for hiking using a three-layer system.
In the spring through fall seasons, this includes a non-cotton t-shirt base, warm layer, and rain layer. For my kids, the Jack Wolfskin Modesto Fleece Jacket is the perfect midlayer. Most summer days, those extra layers stay in the pack, but it’s important to keep them handy in case the weather turns.
In a freezing or snowy climate, I include snowsuits, hats, mittens, and boots (and yes … my toddlers hike in winter). For winter safety, I always pack an extra set of dry clothing in my pack in case a child gets wet.
3. Make It a Treat
My ultimate goal is to create a family culture where our time in nature is a treat. After we pick the right trail and choose comfortable and safe clothing, the last secret is to have full bellies and happy hands.
I always pack a collection of healthy snacks in my pack. If I notice my toddler is getting tired or bored, I suggest we take a little break. We share a surprise snack while talking about the fun nature sites we might see ahead. I always love using a special food reward when we get to the destination—the viewpoint, summit, or back to the car.
Another way to provide comfort for your toddler is by packing a familiar toy that can share the family adventure. My son spent his toddler years hiking with a matchbox-sized car in his hand. This toy provided comfort and brought him joy. Now, my toddler daughter hikes with a small stuffed animal. Use the toy to connect to nature.“Show Mr Bear the rock you found!”
I’m also never above a bribe.“Let's walk up the hill and I’ll show you the toy I packed for the summit!” Associating favorite foods and toys with outdoor experiences has established family hiking as a treat.
It’s All Worth It
Taking a toddler hiking is not a form of exercise, it is an exercise in patience. Some days it feels like torture waiting for my small child to slowly meander down a trail. But the real secret is to change expectations from a hiking trip to a hiking teaching trip.
The result of hours spent on the trail has been that outdoor exploration has become a family norm. These secrets to successful hiking with toddlers have resulted in my family escaping screens, the stress of daily life, and creating many shared, positive experiences in nature.
Originally from the West Coast, Lindsey Lapointe moved to New England after college and found a permanent home in New Hampshire with her husband, two kids, and her dog. She’s held a lot of titles including marine biologist, wilderness instructor, teacher, writer, and mom. Part of the joy of being a mom is sharing her passion for adventure and the outdoors with her children. She shares more outdoor adventures on her blog, The Freelance Adventurer. Instagram: @freelanceadventurer