Hiking with Toddlers Tips

Hiking with Toddlers

Many parents find their stride living life outdoors while carrying or pushing their babies, and may even enjoy long outings while baby sleeps. But the toddler years present a lot of challenges, and it can be frustrating if you aren’t ready to back up a bit on the speed and distance you may have enjoyed in the baby days.

While this is mostly about the wonderful, delightful, button-pushing sweetness that is our toddlers, embracing these principles will help you enjoy hiking with your kids through all their stages of childhood. Because the primary message here is slow down, and listen to them.

“How do I get them to…” questions abound especially for this age group. Most of us learn pretty quick that snacks make life so so much easier with little ones. Letting them pick out and carry their own snacks is even better. Involve them in the process and bring a variety of things to keep your energy up and your spirits high.

Goals: In short, try not to have them. Or at least reframe your goals from distance goals to just a goal of having fun. A goal of exploring something new.

Hiking with small children especially gives you this wonderful opportunity to look underneath things, to look up at things, to see things in a way you normally don’t. To watch ants carry eggs from one place to another for 10 minutes and remain fascinated. Time to let go, breathe deep, and be in the NOW.

Distance: How far can toddlers hike?

As discussed above, if possible don’t have a solid goal for the day when hiking with a toddler. Trails where you can go out and back, rather than loop trails, often give you a lot more flexibility to shorten your hike when needed. You go as far as everybody is willing to go that day (more on hiking as a family in a bit).

“How do I get my 2 year old to hike for five miles?” You don’t.

Maybe they’re that really active kiddo that just loves hiking. I had 1 of my 3 like that, and if you have one it’s awesome but you can’t force it in them if it’s not there. But you can trust that it will come in time if you don’t push them and make it a rough experience every time you go out. Hiking with a two year old or hiking with a three year old is tough….but it’s not impossible.

Finding places where you don’t even have a destination can be so freeing at this age. Spending a lot of your outdoor time at lakes or on very short trails where you can just explore several different environments takes so much stress off the parent and the child.

This might not completely fit into the “hiking” category, but when we find a lake to explore with buckets and sprayers we do a fair amount of walking along the lake and streams to play in different areas, so in my book it’s a toddler hike.

Trails going along streams are some of the best. Everybody is calmer around water, and if you’re walking along a stream (or lake), that’s already “the destination” as far as your toddlers are probably concerned. They’re much more likely to be interested in exploring a streambed and playing in and around it for hours, than they are to hike a steep trail for the view. You’ll appreciate the view, and they may also, but it won’t be worth the work from them if there isn’t a lot of play areas along the way.

Often these steeper climbs just leave you exhausted, because you spend the whole time trying to motivate your toddler, and then potentially dealing with steep/uneven terrain where you have to be more vigilant with them anyways. The mountains will be there when they’re ready.

Going toddler speed on hikes

Toddler speed is sloooooooooowwwwwwwww. It can be slow for a host of different reasons, either they’re dragging their feet and just not enjoying their time, or they’re finding too much to explore in every square foot of trail to make much progress. You’ll tackle these two varieties of slow in different ways.

How to hike with a toddler when they’re an unenthusiastic hiker

When your toddler (or any child) starts dragging their feet because they don’t want to be there, that’s a problem for everyone. If you have a big family and the rest of you are enjoying yourselves, it does become an issue that different families will handle differently; does “majority rule” or does everybody need to be having fun to continue?

These are big questions, but with three young kids I have to make the “should we just call it?” judgment call surprisingly seldom. I tend to be more in the majority rules camp, and then focus my attention on whoever is struggling and try to make it fun (or sometimes settling for bearable) for them so the other kids can continue.

If your toddler isn’t loving hiking, the first questions to ask yourself are:

  • Are they just having a bad day? Is this a place they usually like to be and they’re just struggling to get into it? If so, offer some encouragement, and try starting some trail games.
  • Are they hungry or thirsty? How long since they ate? Maybe they need an energy boost. Are they hydrated? When did they pee last?
  • Are they too hot or too cold? Pack extra layers to keep them comfortable. Some of my children always require more layers than others.
  • Is the trail too hard? Think about what you’re expecting of them. Under normal circumstances, can they do this trail? Think about adjusting expectations.

Sometimes when my youngest has “tired leg syndrome” (which usually has nothing at all to do with her legs, but everything to do with her spirit), she enjoys holding hands and “trail running”. The mere mention of “wanna trail run” brings an instant sparkle to her eyes.

Obviously running takes a lot more energy than walking, but it quickly improves her spirits and giggles lighten everyone’s mood. Find out what quirky thing like this works for each of your children.

Some other hiking trail games to offer encouragement include:

  • Singing Songs: Group singing is great fun. Sometimes you can have a topic you all sing a little verse about. Or sing a song you know.
  • “I Spy”: A perennial favorite, and one that is great for the trail. A fun wrinkle we add when hiking is when it is something you can pass by quickly you can say “I spy with my little eye a time sensitive thing that is red!” (that’s what we say, you can word it however you want). It’s even more engaging for them to try to “look quick before it’s gone”. Sometimes they’re very specific (that red berry. No, not that one, THAT one.) or less specific (the sky).
  • Skipping, Hopping, Funny Walks. Monty Python anyone? We love doing silly walks, it brings giggles for me and them when I start it up and they are very creative with their own.
  • Racing to the next Tree or Flower or Rock
  • Guess How Many?: Guess how many steps it will take you to reach that tree, ready? Let’s count!
  • Playing Outdoor Bingo (we usually have a card in our pack, or I could make one on the fly as someone always has paper and crayons.
  • And definitely check out this TMM post by Team Member Emily about 50 Hiking Games for Kids, it has some great ones!
Hugging trees also can’t help but make you smile

Every child is unique, and needs different accommodations on the trail. If they’re having a hard time, this is not the time to “crack the whip” if you’re wanting to raise kids that WANT to hike! Even if you know their legs aren’t really hurting, or whatever their complaint is is bogus… (“you’ve gone ten feet, how are you already tired??”), it doesn’t make your response different.

Have patience and compassion. Children have a harder time communicating and sometimes it’s not their legs that are tired but whatever the reason is, they need to slow down and that’s the excuse they have handy. So let them.

I usually have a carrier with my as my 4 and almost 6 year old’s sometimes need a little break, but my oldest has started offering piggy back rides to both his sisters to keep them going on the trail! The win-win here is that he relishes the extra workout, and they get a break!

Hiking with toddlers – Finding too much to explore

Are the kids just finding too many things they want to stop for, and you’re trying to coax them along the trail so you can make “progress”? Really, you don’t have a problem here. The only issue is your expectation, and under almost all circumstances you can adjust this! You may have big dreams of climbing mountains, but try to slow down a bit and let your toddler experience the world at their pace. I can almost guarantee you will learn a lot about the world in this process.

Slowing down does need to be intentional, especially if you’re used to living a fast-paced multitasking lifestyle. But when you are exploring outside, just BE THERE. Doing whatever it is you’re doing, without thinking at all about where you may need to be next or about reaching any mile marker.

Have fun on the trail with toddlers – wear costumes!

Ever have the kind of day that you know from the moment everyone wakes up it’s going to be a bit of a struggle? If you’re set on a hike that day, why not make it a costume hike? My son loves bringing his wood sword along, and the girls have various favorites too and are always delighted to wear something fun outside.

This post about Raising Girly Girls in the Great Outdoors has lots of great tips about how to encourage little ones to glam up their adventures. (And it’s not just for girls!).

Saying YES to these sorts of requests helps them bring some of their creativity into the adventure. Having an assortment of playsilks, wings, wigs, crowns, etc can go a long way towards trail happiness. This could even be a sneaky surprise you pack. Pull it out when it’s needed and say “who needs a crazy wig?!”

Best hiking snacks for toddlers

Toddler and food. Small children are notoriously picky eaters. Some days, it seems like they don’t eat anything! Some days they refuse their favorites.

When you pack snacks, let them help choose and carry them. Both of these things help them feel more in control (and won’t lead to “I don’t want THAAAATTTT!!!”), and toddlers especially are often starved for control. What I’ve found works best is to have a small snack as soon as you start walking on the trail, something you can eat while walking. It helps to keep everyone’s energy and spirits high and start the hike off on the right foot.

Here are some great ideas for hiking snacks for kids of all ages.

Take toddlers hiking often

Toddlers thrive on consistency. All kids do, but toddlers especially are just starting to understand their world and how their day unfolds. Make outdoor time part of their day every day. This is easy for homeschooling families, but if you’re a working family and/or a family with your kids in school, you can absolutely still do this.

It doesn’t have to be an epic adventure every week, and it can be as short as 30-60 minutes. Take the time you have and spend it out exploring something. An after dinner walk around the block can have just as much magic to a toddler as a stunning mountain peak.

Before you know it they’ll be running up the trail and you’ll be calling out “wait”!

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How to hike with toddlers

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  • Kristin grew up in Western Massachusetts but moved north to Alaska in 2008 in search of more snow and bigger mountains. She homeschools her three children and tries to spend as much time as possible learning outside. Kristin loves hiking, camping, puddle stomping, laughing, igloo building, reading, science, baking, photography, and watching the sun go down from on top of a mountain; and is passionate about sharing her enthusiasm for the natural world and her knowledge of the gear that can get you out there in every kind of weather. She works part-time from home as an Environmental Scientist and technical editor.

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