A hike in the great outdoors is the perfect activity for a toddler — lots of space to get out their energy, plenty of interesting things to see, smell, and hear. Best of all, it’s free! Those museum, zoo and play space ticket costs can add up, and we see you, 8.5% inflation 👀.
Of course, a toddler hike is not the same as an adult hike. If someone isn't crying by the end of a one mile hike with a toddler, then you're doing it wrong. So it helps to plan accordingly. Here are our top tips for hiking with toddlers.
1. Bring snacks. Lots and lots of snacks.
Maybe our first tip should be about hiking boots or bug spray, but I’ve learned that the worst thing you can do when leaving the house with a toddler is forget snacks. A hangry toddler tantrum can ruin even the most delightful adventure. Bring something you know they’ll like (as best you can with a toddler) and that’s easy to carry, easy for them to hold and won’t spoil in hot weather. (Leave that yogurt pouch at home.)
Here are our recommendations for some hike-friendly snacks that your kids will enjoy:
- Fruit like bananas, sliced apples, or clementines
- Granola bars or fig bars
- Peanut butter crackers
- Apple sauce pouches
- Crunchy snacks like pretzels, veggie straws, or cheese crackers
You probably also want to throw in:
- Diapers or pull-ups
- Extra clothes
- Bug spray
Yes that is a lot of stuff to pack. Your days of traveling light are over.
2. Have a carrier ready
One of the best parts of hiking with toddlers is watching them wobble about in crunchy leaves or lean down to inspect a tiny pine cone. Give them plenty of opportunities to walk around and explore on their own. That being said, it’s a regretful parent who heads out on a hike without a carrier ready. Your toddler’s legs are short. They get hot. They get tired. They fall down. They’re just not in the mood.
Having a carrier means you can continue on the hike even when they’ve run out of stamina. For shorter hikes and smaller toddlers, a soft carrier works great. For longer hikes, you’ll probably want to use something more structured — both for their comfort and for yours. Safety disclaimer: whatever carrier you bring, make sure you’re checking the manufacturer’s recommendations for age and weight. Your baby may have loved being in their soft carrier, but at a certain point, it’s no longer safe. And on the flip side, an infant may not be ready for a true hiking backpack. Here are three of our favorite hiking carriers:
- Kelty Journey PerfectFit Child Carrier
- Osprey Poco LT Child Carrier
- Chicco SmartSupport Backpack
3. Do your research
Read up on the terrain before you head out on a hike. Check reviews if you can find them. My family learned this the hard way a few years ago. We knew the path we were headed out on was rocky and that our son would need to be in the hiking backpack.
We were not prepared for the mild bouldering and incredibly steep, narrow trail. It wasn’t safe for someone with a child strapped to their back. So we had to turn around. Not the end of the world, but knowing about those situations up front can make the hike more enjoyable for everyone.
4. Make it fun & interactive
For much of a hike, toddlers will be fascinated by the world around them. The dirt under their shoes. The rocks next to the path. The flowers on a bush. But if they begin to lose interest and you feel The Whines coming on, start a trail game.
One of my favorites is a nature scavenger hunt. You can either print one out (from a quick online search) and bring it with you or just go impromptu. Can you find something yellow? Do you think there are any bugs on this path? A toddler that was lagging just moments before is suddenly bouncing around, digging under rocks and peering up into trees.
Other options: Race to a particular tree or rock. Ask how many steps it would take to get to that landmark and count them as you go. Sing silly songs or challenge each other to do silly walks.
And lastly, manage your expectations
A hike with your little one can be the highlight of your day. Or it could be an exercise in frustration. If you set your sights on reaching the peak of a mountain or vow that you’ll never carry your toddler, the hike will probably be less enjoyable for all involved.
Toddlers are slow. Sometimes epically so. They have short little legs. They get tired. They want to stop and dig a hole with the cool stick they found for 20 minutes. They want to go back and pick up that one leaf they missed.
That’s the joy of the great outdoors. Try not to have a particular mission except to experience it all with them. And even with your best efforts, sometimes things will go wrong. Last summer, we went on a hike by a beautiful pond and spent 40 minutes slapping mosquitos and dragging two children who stopped every 15 seconds to cry about how badly their legs itched.
Failure of a hike, right?
Maybe not. Once we settled down, we started chatting about the hike. My 4-year old son was so tickled by the idea that the mosquitos were chasing after us and trying to “get us” that he giggled for a solid five minutes. It got the rest of us laughing, and we still crack up about that hike.
One thing’s for sure: hiking with your kids will always be an adventure.
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