After my baby was born, I was very excited to take her hiking with me. It was easy. All I had to do was pop her in the carrier and off we’d go! She’d either fall asleep or sit passively, happy to be snuggled up against me and be outside at the same time.
As she got older, things got a tad bit more complicated. My once content and docile baby wanted to be out and exploring with me as a toddler. This was great, but as you know, toddlers don’t have the longest attention spans or stamina. Along the way, I’ve learned some valuable tips that I deem essential for hiking with a toddler. Without further ado, here they are:
1. Make and bring your EHK: Essential Hiking Kit
There are some things you can’t go without, including:
• Small first aid kit
• GPS (if you are going far/on a new trail)
• Plastic bags for trash
• Mosquito spray if needed
• Light ground cover
If you want to take anything else, ask yourself if it is really needed. Once you make the mistake of taking something you’ll never use, you won’t do it again (trust me). All the little weights add up quickly!
2. Don’t forget the snacks…
Another must include item is snacks! Snacks are an essential part of any typical day with a toddler, and it’s no different when hiking. There should be lots of breaks when you go hiking with your little one, and they make for a perfect time to get in a healthy snack.
Snacks on the trail are important for several reasons. Healthy foods provide a source of energy. Without them, your child probably won’t last very long. Many fresh fruits provide good sugars and are very hydrating as well. Here are some ideas of what you can bring:
• Sliced apples
• Orange slices
• Baby carrots
• Celery and peanut butter
• Hard-boiled eggs
• Sandwich squares
This is a non-exhaustive list. There are a ton of options, but try to stick to fruits and veggies, or easy things to put together in a Tupperware (like chicken salad!).
3. …Or the water
Even more important than snacks is water. Water is absolutely essential for you and your child. Make sure you bring enough. Ideally, you’ll carry about a liter.
Offer water frequently. Your toddler probably won’t ask for it because they will be busy taking in the sights, sounds, and surroundings. They won’t realize how thirsty they really are. A fun thing to do as prep for the hike would be for them to pick out and use a special hiking water bottle.
And of course, you need to stay hydrated too! Don’t make the mistake of worrying about your child’s intake of water and forget about yourself! Ultimately, I believe it’s true that a child’s health depends on the health of the parent.
4. Start slow
If you are just starting to take up hiking as a hobby, start slow. On my first few hikes without using a carrier, I had sort of forgotten that we had to walk back all the way we came in! I ended up carrying her for quite a long way. Don’t underestimate the physical stress of having to go back. Your toddler should still have a lot of energy when you turn around. Though this is always true, as time goes on you will be able to go further and further before heading back to the car.
5. Get a good carrier
At this age, it’s always a good idea to bring a carrier. Though they are bulky when not in use, you’ll be thankful for then when the time comes.
On the market, there are hundreds of different carriers to choose from. If I were you, I would spend a bit more and go with something that provides a lot of support for you and your toddler. The best choice is either a well-designed soft structured baby carrier or a hiking baby carrier.
Hiking baby carriers are for moms who want to go all out. Dads will also enjoy using them. They have good quality harnesses, padding, sunshades, and even suspension systems. They often have a lot of room for storing things (like your EHK!).
Here’s an excellent choice in the middle price range with LOTS of excellent feedback from moms like you!
6. Go often
In case you haven’t picked up on this yet- I think hiking is a wonderful activity! Every family should do it! After starting slow, go often. Your toddler will get more and more used to being out and about in the wild! Well, maybe not the wild per-say, but hiking often will make things a lot easier because they will know what to expect.
7. Let them explore
For the sake of your toddler’s safety and your own worry factor, It’s tempting just to keep your child in their carrier and let them out during break times. These breaks shouldn’t just be for the purpose of rehydrating and having a snack, but also for exploring! Let them wander around. Don’t be afraid of your little angel getting a bit dirty (that’s partly what the baby wipes are for).
Apart from snack time, give your child a chance to walk with you for awhile. Let them go off the trail within reason. Hiking is a great natural learning experience and it should be taken advantage of. This will require a lot of patience on your part as they may want to stop and look at things on the ground, move rather slowly, etc. Hiking with a toddler is a different ballgame than going by yourself or with a friend. As long as you have that in mind when you go, you’ll be much more open to the idea of taking your sweet time.
8. Go during nap time
If your little one still naps, consider hiking close to this time. That way, they can fall asleep in the carrier and you can get a workout!
That being said…
9. Go during active time
Also, consider going at the time of day when your toddler is most active, like when they first wake up or in the late afternoon. That way they will take a good nap or have a great night’s sleep.
Going either during active time or nap time depends on what your goals are for that day. The choice is yours. Keep in mind that carriers can be very comfortable and relaxing (while you are slaving away) and your child may fall asleep or doze off anyway. Don’t let this discourage you from using one though. It shouldn’t affect their sleeping schedule too much.
10. Let them take the lead
Hand in hand with the earlier tip of letting them fully explore, toddlers love to take charge too. Give them the special responsibility of leading the way! Make a big deal out of it. They will have more fun and relish the sense of importance.
11. Go on a Treasure Hunt
There are a few ways to do this. One of my favorites is to pre-determine one or two things I want my daughter to find. My typical list is:
-A cool rock
-Different colored leaves
-Animal poop (always a hit)
-A walking stick
-A super small, super big, or very beautiful flower
Along the way, depending on what it is, she can collect things to compare (rocks, leaves, etc.) or we can take a picture to compare or talk about later (flowers for example since I am pushing the “don’t hurt the plants” idea).
Another way to do a treasure hunt is to let your toddler decide what is a treasure. They will come up with some pretty interesting finds!
12. Keep things exciting
Hiking opens up a whole new world to kids, no matter the age. See through your child’s eyes and have fun. Letting them take the lead and creating a treasure hunt are just two ways of doing this, but there are many others that you will probably think of on the spot. If you are happy and excited, chances are they will be too. Some other games include I Spy, Tag, and Simon Says.
Stimulating conversations about observations are great for toddlers. If your toddler is a bit older and going through the “why” stage, then you’ll have an extra good time (wink, wink). There are never-ending questions about nature to talk about. Don’t just talk though, ask a ton of questions yourself. Asking “can you count the ants?” or “which tree do you see that is the tallest?” are some examples that work on and reinforce other skills your toddler is currently learning.
14. Do your research
Choosing the right trail is almost half the battle of taking a toddler hiking. Ask around, either through other families or online forums to see how rough or steep a path is. In the beginning, you want to go for flat, flat, flat. As your child gets older, they can handle a bit more of a challenge.
Don’t be afraid to do some incline with your carrier, but know your limits. In dry or wet weather the ground can be slippery, so just be aware. If you get to a point where you are truly nervous or uncomfortable, don’t hesitate to turn around.
Do some research to become aware of what poison oak and poison ivy look like. Obviously, avoid them at all costs! Some people have a more severe reaction than others but it’s not worth the chance. Another plant that most people aren’t aware of but is quite common is stinging nettle. Learn about this one too. The effect doesn’t last nearly as long as poison oak or ivy, but it’s no fun at all (though it can cure a whole host of physical issues in the form of a tea, but that’s a whole different topic!).
15. Double check the weather
If you’ve made a plan in advance to go hiking or decided to have a consistent hike day (recommended!), check the weather one more time before you leave. I thought the rain was over from the previous night and I got caught in hail one time. It wasn’t fun.
16. Get motivated
Though most young ones are fine if you pop them in the car, drive to a trailhead, and start walking, there is a better way. Take your toddler to the library and check out some books about nature or get some coloring pages. Talk about your upcoming hike when you are outside. For example, you could say something like, “Wow! Look at that tree. It’s so big! We are going to see a lot of big trees when we go hiking”.
17. Dress appropriately
Wearing the right clothes is very important when hiking. What you wear also depends on where you are. Here are some specific dressing tips.
-If you are on a very well maintained and wide path you do not need to worry about clothes as much.
-Even if it is hot, sometimes shorts and a tank top aren’t the best ideas if you’ll be in the sun for long periods of time.
-Wear bright colors. This will make you able to see your child easily if they wander off a bit, and it will make you easy to spot too.
-If on a trail with lots of surrounding plants, keep skin covered. Ticks are a real possibility, but can be largely prevented by wearing pants and a long shirt followed by a quick “tick check” at the end of a hike. There is a correct way to remove an attached tick, but if you get a tick on a hike, it will likely not be attached (and therefore not dangerous) if you find it within a few hours of the hike.
-Bring an extra layer if it’s cold.
Depending on the hike, you will most likely have certain no-no’s. Explain them. If they cannot go off the path because there is a lot of brush, tell them why it’s not a good idea. Though you will probably have to explain more than once (you should be used to that by now anyway), young children will follow directions better if there is a reason behind them.
19. What do to if…
Your baby gets lost. Talking about explaining, it’s never too early to discuss a plan for if you and your child can’t find each other for whatever reason. A good idea is to use the “tree hug” policy. If your child doesn’t see you around, stand by the very nearest tree. Ideally, this would be by the path, but toddlers are just barely able to follow two-step directions, so just the nearest tree will have to do for now.
Your child has a tick. Ticks are nasty creatures, but not particularly harmful if you find them soon. It is possible that they can transmit diseases, like mosquitos do. It’s probably not the best idea to explain what they do (suck blood) to your child. Just remain calm. Ticks actually don’t hurt, so you may not find one until you get home. When you do spot one, grab some tweezers and pinch the tick as close to the skin as possible. Pull it out. If you are concerned, you can put it in a plastic bag for identification by a doctor. Clean the area.
It usually takes many hours for a tick to actually attach itself and start penetrating your skin, and until that happens, there is no danger of any disease, so be sure to check for ticks as I mentioned earlier. Especially check behind ears and in hair. It sounds kind of kinky, but please do check between legs where it’s darker and warmer – that’s a favorite hiding place for a tick! How do I know? I’ve had more than one experience with both attached and unattached ticks. Oh, and by the way, one last word about ticks; the VAST majority of ticks do not carry a disease (ie. Lyme) but it makes good sense to treat each one as if it does!
There’s an emergency! If you are in cell phone range, GREAT! Make that emergency call. If you aren’t in service range things can get complicated fast. Flagging down someone else on the trail is ideal, but when that isn’t possible then you need to try your absolute best to get to an area where you can get help.
20. Take a friend
Though you can go alone, I’ve always found it to be much easier when I have a friend join (parent or not!). That way you have some extra hands. This works well especially if you plan on using a basic carrier that doesn’t have a lot of storage space. Your friend can carry the backpack while you have your toddler as a backpack.
Having a friend with you is also more fun and entertaining. You’ll be even less worried about moving on because you’ll have someone to chat with (besides a 2 or 3-year-old). If they have little ones too, even better.
If you don’t take a friend, it’s always a good idea to tell someone where you are going and send them a message when you get back. This is for your safety!
21. Take pictures!
Though not essential, pictures are a great way to remember the good times, and the bad ones too (which you can laugh at later). You’ll love looking back on these, so don’t forget to snap a few. Just use your cell phone so you don’t have an extra thing to carry around.
So there you have it. That about covers everything you need to know. Enjoy all the moments on the trail. The point of hiking is to have fun, no matter what course it takes. Even if you actually don’t do a lot of “hiking”, it’s the experience that counts. There’s not a lot that beats seeing big smiles and wonderment at the natural world.
One Final Word
My husband Pete (the editor of this site) and I are the parents of 3 awesome kids, and one of them is just emerging from the toddler years! If you’re like most parents, you absolutely adore your kids and would do anything for them. Well, how about offering them the very best parents they could possibly have? Yes, I’m talking about you! There are so many aspects to being a great parent, and we’ve been super impressed by an online audiobook called Talking to Toddlers. It is a blessing to de-stress your life by helping shape your toddler’s behavior, and at the same time, building your relationship with your young one! If you have a moment, please check it out for about 2 minutes and you’ll see the idea! Thanks so much!