Toddler Hiking: Checklist and Tips

Toddler Hiking: Checklist and Tips

Toddlers are generally chaos machines, and throwing an adventure like hiking on top of their normally boundless energy can feel overwhelming. But in the end, I find the outdoors absorbs the energy of my two-year-old much better than I can!

I’ve made my fair share of mistakes while hiking with my toddler: forgetting snacks and layers, accidentally packing multiple full Nalgenes for an hour-long hike, and getting caught in the pouring rain without jackets all feature prominently in my memory. Having a checklist helps me remember what to check before I go, what to put in my backpack, how to enjoy the moment while we’re out, and how to clean up and reflect when we get home. 

Many of the things I consider for taking a toddler hiking are similar to what I consider when hiking as an adult, but a checklist makes sure I don’t forget anything as I try to pack while chasing my little boy out of the pantry for the n-th time. Some factors are also slightly different when considered from a two-foot-high perspective. I’ll walk you through all the pieces of my hiking with toddlers checklist and how I make my decisions, and there’s also a link to the condensed checklist for downloading/printing at the end.

I’ve primarily used my son as my example; our experiences range from him being 18 months until now, when he’s (almost!) two. But we all know every kid is different! Toddlers’ abilities also change incredibly rapidly throughout what we generally call the “toddler stage.” The most important part of taking a toddler hiking is knowing yourself and your toddler, and deciding what will work for you.

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Planning Your Hike

Preparation and planning can go a long way any time we’re adventuring in the outdoors, and it’s even more true when other people (especially small people) are depending on you. I like to consider where I’m going to hike, when I’m going to hike, and the weather before I even start to pack a backpack. 

However, this doesn’t mean you need to spend hours doing research before you go! I have a mental “short list” of trails nearby that I’ve hiked before, and I can mentally run through the answers to a lot of my planning questions without looking anything up. If I want to go somewhere new, then I do spend a little more time trying to find out some of these things before I go, or I try to find an opportunity to hike it by myself before I take my toddler with me.

Where to Take a Toddler Hiking

Trail Characteristics

I start by looking at the length and elevation gain of a trail. While you can always turn around whenever you want, looking at the length and elevation gain together give you the steepness of your trail. Consider, for example, a one mile trail with an elevation gain of 300 feet; this is nice and flat. On the other hand, a one-mile trail with an elevation gain of 1000 feet is getting pretty steep! 

What you choose will depend on what your toddler enjoys. My son starts to drag his feet and asks to be carried about three steps into any climb, so we generally aim for a flat trail where he can stroll along, while a good friend of ours gets bored if she’s not scrambling up something steep. Your trail choice also depends on what you’re willing to carry them up or down if they decide they don’t want to walk anymore. 

I also like to consider the surface of the trail; is it paved, gravel, or rocky and rooty? Some toddlers, especially brand new walkers, benefit from a smoother surface like pavement or gravel, while other toddlers (like mine) enjoy the challenge of clambering over rocks and roots. The width of the trail also matters if your toddler likes to hold your hand or needs assistance. 

A man taking a toddler hiking on a rocky trail through a forest
A flat trail with lots of rocks to climb on – our favorite kind!

For older toddlers, the “shape” of the trail might be important. Your trail of choice could be an out-and-back, a loop, or part of a large network; there are pros and cons to all of these. Out-and-backs are the simplest, and have an inherent halfway point built in wherever you decide to turn around that day. Loops can be good if your toddler doesn’t want to walk the same trail twice, but also don’t provide that mental “turn-around” point and a feeling of going back to the car.

Larger networks can give toddlers choices at trail junctions, and toddlers love control! The other beautiful thing about a larger network is that it can provide bail points if your toddler decides they’re just done or if weather rolls in. This does require either a map and navigation skills or a good familiarity of the entire network.

Accessibility Considerations

Of course, it’s not just about the trail! The trailhead itself comes with several characteristics I like to consider when taking a toddler hiking.

One big one is the distance to the trailhead. I generally try to keep my drive-time within twenty minutes, a half hour if I’m pushing it, because otherwise my toddler falls asleep on the way home and that’s the end of naptime! Of course, some of my favorite trails are farther than that, so I save them for big adventure days when I’m ok with throwing naptime out the window.

I’m fortunate to have quite a number of trails within my twenty minute window, but there’s a lot of places that aren’t hiking trails first and foremost where you can practice taking a toddler hiking. Try looking for bike paths, river walks, nature centers, and parks that back up to open space as places that might have a path for your toddler to follow.

A toddler in winter clothes leaning on a rock overlooking a construction site
The closest “trail” to my house is an aqueduct access road. It’s very popular year round!

Once I get to the trailhead, I’m thinking about how much parking there is; it’s a huge bummer to get everybody all packed up and not be able to do your planned hike because parking is full. I also think about what other amenities exist at the trailhead. Are there bathrooms? With or without running water for washing hands? Picnic tables? Shaded areas? All of these can make the beginning and end of the hike much more comfortable.

Special Attractions and Hazards

Having a special attraction on a hike can be a huge motivator for toddlers. These are things like a summit or high point, a view point, a pretty meadow, a place to play in water, caves, or special wildflowers or wildlife (including bugs). There’s a trail near my house that has an outdoor playground about a half-mile up from the trailhead!

A man watching a toddler splash in a lake
Taking a toddler hiking means getting wet and dirty. Our hike out was been particularly soggy this day.

Special attractions don’t have to be fancy though. They could be a special rock to climb on, a log to sit on for snack time, or a tree you’ve given a personality to. My son is especially enamored with bridges at the moment, which I discovered completely by accident.

Taking a toddler hiking across a bridge through a marsh
Crossing bridges is especially fun for us right now!

Most of us like to hike to something or for some reason, and what we enjoy depends on the person and the day. Similarly, toddlers have different interests and are motivated by different things. Experimenting has been my main method of figuring out what’s interesting to us.

Equally important but not as much fun to think about are hazards on the trail. These are sometimes different or more exaggerated while taking your toddler hiking than with adults, so it’s worth thinking about from a two-foot-high perspective. For example, my toddler really likes walking right on the edge of the trail, so I avoid any trail with a significant drop-off or with poison ivy nearby. 

A mom taking her toddler hiking in Arches National Park
The edge here is not so scary to fall off. Also note I’m wearing our baby backpack; my toddler hiked about 30% of that day and rode in the backpack the rest of the time.

Other hazards to consider are slipping and tripping hazards (especially for new walkers), exposure to the elements, wildlife encounters (I spend a lot of time watching for rattlesnakes in the summer, for example), or snow hazards like the snow depth and avalanches.

A woman tries to help a toddler hike through deep and fresh snow
Calf-deep snow on us is thigh-deep snow on toddlers! This was too deep for my little boy.

I also consider who the common users of the trail are; I tend to stay away from trails that are popular with mountain bikers and horses right now because my toddler’s current listening and trail etiquette skills are questionable at best! As a mountain biker myself, the idea of coming around a corner to see a loose toddler is somewhat horrifying, and as a mom I find I can relax a lot more on trails that aren’t as popular with bikes rather than constantly listening for a hub.

When to Hike With a Toddler

Trails can change a lot depending on when you’re on them. My family lives in Utah, where our summers are hot and our winters are snowy. This means I seek higher elevations in the summer to enjoy the cooler temperatures and stay on more popular trails in the winter so the snow is more packed out. Some trails have special attractions on a seasonal basis like spring waterfalls or fall leaves, and some have seasonal hazards too, like the infamous hatching season for biting gnats near The Great Salt Lake. 

Which day of the week you hike can also change your experience. While almost all trails are busier on the weekends, some have better capacity to handle the increase than others. Some multi-use trails have restrictions on what days are for hikers and what days are for bikers to help eliminate trail-use conflicts. 

The most important “time” decision for me, though, is what time of day I want to go out. This matters in terms of your toddler’s temperament and the daily weather patterns. 

Both my toddler and I are generally morning people; we both have more energy and patience before lunch. Other toddlers wake up from their nap ready to go, or need to burn off energy during the pre-bedtime hypers.

I also hike at different times of day to take advantage of daily temperature fluctuations. In the summer, mornings are far more tolerable than the full heat of the day. I’m also less likely to encounter rain or thunderstorms in the mornings as compared to summer afternoons. In the winter, we usually wait for maximum sunlight to warm everything up a little bit before we head out unless we’re avoiding wind or a storm.

Weather

Weather is the number one thing I forget to check before I hike, with or without my toddler! But getting surprised by the weather is a really good way to turn a good hike into a miserable one. 

I usually just check the weather the morning of the hike unless I’m going to be out all day, in which case I’ll look several days ahead of time as well. I also use as specific a location as possible, and do my best to look not just at the temperature and precipitation, but also at the wind. Windchill can make a huge difference on cool days or if it’s going to be wet!

There are a lot of great weather apps out there! My go-to is the NOAA weather website. It provides a 7-day forecast with temperatures, wind, and precipitation. It also provides hazardous weather warnings and explains them. My favorite part, though, is that you can click anywhere on the map and get weather for that specific location.

Before You Go Hiking with a Toddler

What to Wear

Gear discussions can get long and involved, especially when considering lots of different weather scenarios across seasons. This blog post walks you through ALL the best hiking gear for kids, while this one focuses specifically on clothing.

I have found that, especially for taking a toddler hiking, it’s really important to consider their hands (if it’s cold) and their feet. It’s so tempting to buy shoes one (or several) sizes too big so they last just a little longer! But poorly fitting shoes can ruin a hike faster than almost anything else. 

It’s also important that your toddler has some decent traction, which not all toddler shoes provide. Toddlers take tumbles; it’s rather unavoidable. But constant slipping and falling can really undermine their confidence and enjoyment of hiking. You can find our recommendations for toddler hiking shoes here.

Packing Your Backpack

This is the number one most important time for me to use my hiking checklist. Most of my misadventures with my son have happened because I forgot to bring something important. As I mentioned before, there’s no magic here; most of these are things we know we need to bring. The key is making sure they actually make it in the backpack before we head out!

I use the Osprey Sirrus 24 for my half-day and trips. It has more than enough room for everything I want to carry in the summer, and it also works for winter hiking. The internal frame makes even that (accidental) third Nalgene feel pretty light! And as an extra bonus? That internal frame provides a ton of support for my toddler when I boost him up on my shoulders when he’s done walking.

One other important thing to remember! As moms, we’re packing for ourselves as well! It’s just as important for you to have snacks, water, and appropriate layers as it is for your toddler.

Taking toddlers hiking gear laid out on a counter, including hats, sunglasses, extra toddler clothes, keys and wallet, medical kit, water bottles, snacks, diapers, wipes, and a changing mat.
Here’s (almost) everything I normally put in my backpack in the summer. I decided, after looking at the weather, not to carry rain jackets that day. I did notice after I took this picture that I’d forgotten sunscreen! This is exactly why I use a checklist.

A quick note: In making my packing list, I’m assuming that I’m going to be out for 1-5 hours and that I’m going to be within one, maybe two, miles of the trailhead. Even if I’m going back up a hill, I know I can carry my toddler out two miles in under an hour in the case of an emergency, and I can go much faster if it’s flat or downhill. The longer and/or farther out I go, the more I compensate by bringing more and additional first aid and safety gear. 

You can read more about first aid on the trail in this blog post. This covers a lot more scenarios and is written for longer hikes but it’s an awesome resource!

First Aid and Safety

I always carry a very small first aid kit with me when I hike even though taking a toddler hiking tends to be over pretty short distances. Mine includes hand sanitizer, antiseptic wipes, band-aids, gauze, medical tape, and tweezers to address the scrapes that come with toddler tumbles. I think of it mostly as a patch kit to get us back home; I can dig out splinters and generally do a much more thorough cleaning job in my bathroom. 

I also carry minimal blister prevention (like moleskin) primarily for myself; if my toddler gets a blister, I’m just going to carry him out.

This is also a good moment to consider whatever hazards might be on your trail. Think about if you need to carry bug spray, bear spray and bear bells, or anti-itch lotion. If you have lots of cacti, that pair of tweezers can come in super handy!

Sun Protection

For me this starts with sunscreen, which I apply at the trailhead and then leave in my backpack in case we need to reapply at any point.

I also put lots of other things in this category as well. I make sure my son and I both have sunglasses and, in the summer, sun hats. I also will consider sun shirts, long pants, and/or buffs for us if we’re going to be in lots of direct sunlight or if the bugs are going to be really thick. And the thing I forget the most often? SPF chapstick makes a huge difference for me!

Extra Clothes and Layers

This is something I think more about in the winter but is equally important in the summer! Taking a toddler hiking means finding dirt, mud, and water, so extra clothes are always very handy for us, even if we weren’t planning on getting wet that day. Even if I’ve chosen long pants for sun/bug protection, I try to remember shorts in case we end up playing in water. I also bring a rain jacket if there’s any chance of rain or wind. 

It can also be handy to leave extra clothes in the car; then they’re guaranteed to be dry when you get back no matter what happens on the trail.

Winter layering is an art form; you can read other great posts about it here and here. I find having an extra dry pair of socks and mittens can keep my toddler warm and comfortable a lot longer on a good winter hike. I also like to bring one more layer for him than for me for the times I carry him. At that point, I’m working hard and usually feeling pretty warm, but he’s sitting still and will get chilled more easily.

A toddler stands in a snowy playground dressed in winter gear
Winter hiking is really fun! Until someone get cold. Then it’s less fun.

Snacks and Water

I am and have always been a snack person, especially while adventuring outdoors, and I have yet to meet a toddler who’s not a snack person! When I’m considering snacks, I bring 1.5 times the amount of snacks I would give my little boy at home. If we’re going to be out for multiple snacks and/or over lunch, I bring a whole extra set of snack food for him. This is one place where I’m willing to carry way more than I need!

My son is especially distracted while we’re outdoors, so while he loves his snacks and needs them to feel good, it can sometimes be hard to get him to pay attention long enough to eat more than a couple of bites. For this reason, I have special adventure snacks that I only break out during hikes (or other adventures like road trips or airplane rides) like veggie straws, gold fish, fruit chews, and trail mix. These are good snacks because I can dole them out slowly along the trail as we hike! 

I try to make sure I have a mix of sweet and salty flavors for him to choose from, as well as something a little more substantial like a snack bar or a muffin. I also usually pack cut fruit for summer hikes and hot chocolate (so long as I remember to cool it to a toddler-friendly temperature before I put it in the thermos!) for winter hikes.

A toddler eats a muffin while sitting on a bridge during a hike
This bridge is slightly more than halfway on this hike and lets my toddler stop and play in the creek for a while. This muffin snack was a hit!

Water is another thing I usually carry (a little!) more than I think I need in both my bottle and my son’s bottle. Taking a toddler hiking is unpredictable, so I’m never really quite sure how long we’re going to be out! I also sometimes end up using my water bottle to help us wash off hands before snacks or rinse out scrapes.

How much water you need depends on the temperature and how long you’re planning on being out. And taking a toddler hiking is particularly unpredictable! I like to leave an extra water bottle, preferably an insulated one, in the car in case I’ve misjudged.

Diaper and Potty Stuff

This is the one category that’s toddler-only! I always bring a foldable changing mat to keep my toddler out of the snow or dirt, way more wipes than I could possibly use (they’re great for cleaning up dirty hands too), and of course the diapers themselves. The other thing I forget constantly is a plastic grocery bag to put the dirty diapers and wipes in. For toddlers who have mastered the potty, this might include a fresh set of underwear and pants in case of an accident.

For more tips, check out Diapering in the Outdoors or How To Help Your Kid Poop Outside!

Bonus Items

Depending on your toddler and your trail, this category can vary wildly. My son likes a magnifying loupe to look at leaves and rocks and bugs, and he also loves it when I bring a cup if we get to play in water. Some toddlers like to bring a friend (a lovey or a stuffed animal) on their hike, while others like to have their own special map. One of my friends motivated her toddler by letting her throw a small foam ball down the trail and chasing after it!

I also learned to bring some kind of waterproof/insulated pad on winter hikes. This could be a bleacher seat cushion or a cut-off piece of an old-style foam camping mat. I got in the habit while I was nursing but found it’s still a great way to take a break and hang out in the snow without getting soaked.

Preparing Your Toddler

It can also help to prepare your toddler for your hike! Toddlers are not generally great with surprises, and getting them involved with the preparation process can help give them a sense of independence and ownership of their own adventures. 

It’s really important to make sure your toddler is familiar with however you plan to carry them when they’re done walking. My son and I practiced having him ride on my shoulders on our regular short walks around the neighborhood before we tried it on a longer hike. We also let him explore his baby backpack before putting him in it and increased the amount of time he was in it as he got comfortable with it.

It’s also helpful to have your toddler be as familiar with all the other gear as possible before going for a hike, particularly in a new place. This includes shoes, sunglasses, hats, jackets, water bottles, snack containers…if your toddler is going to use or wear it on a hike, they should have used or worn it before! My son and I use a lot of his gear and clothing on backyard adventures and during walks around the neighborhood. This helps your toddler focus on the exciting adventure and not on fussing with new gear when you actually get to the hike!

Another way to include your toddler in your preparation process is to have them help you pack. Toddlers love getting (age-appropriate!) choices, so you can have them choose some of their snacks (gold fish or veggie straws?), pick out their socks/hat/sunglasses if they have more than one, fill water bottles, and help you put things in the backpack. Depending on what we’re preparing, I do some of these things the night before and some the morning of.

Older toddlers can enjoy helping you draw your own map of the trail. This allows them to add their own favorite landmarks, both real and imagined! You can then use their map during the hike to help motivate them to reach their favorite section of trail or landmark.

And last, it’s important to talk even with our youngest toddlers about trail safety and etiquette. I’ve taught my two-year-old the word “side” so I can tell him to move to the side of the trail for other trail users (which works about 75% of the time). We’re also working on looking at but not picking the flowers we see, picking up our trash (and trash we find), and asking for help when he feels unsteady.

One thing I try really hard to do while hiking with my toddler is to NOT say “be careful!” It’s so hard not to blurt it out all the time! Instead, I try to name the hazard for him. While we’re in the car on the way to the trailhead, I’ll list some hazards I think we might encounter and what we might do about them. Then when we see them, I can name the hazard and help him figure out how to respond.

For example, I tell him to watch the edge (of the trail, bridge, etc.), that the dirt or rocks look loose and slippery, or that there’s a low-hanging branch. This helps him notice what’s around him and gives him the opportunity to do his own miniature risk analysis and decide how to respond, knowing I’m right behind him to help him.

The Condensed Toddler Hiking Checklist

  • First aid kit (antiseptic wipes, band-aids, gauze, medical tape, tweezers, moleskin)
  • Safety/Hazard Mitigation (bug spray, bear spray/bells, anti-itch lotion)
  • Shoes that have good traction and fit well (for mom too!)
  • Sun Protection (sunscreen, sunglasses, sun hats, sun shirts, SPF chapstick)
  • Layers and Extra Clothes: Summer (extra outfit, rain jacket)
  • Layers and Extra Clothes: Winter (dry socks, extra dry mittens, bonus layer for you, two bonus layers for your toddler)
  • Snacks and water (your snacks, 1.5 times normal toddler snack, lunch if necessary, bonus snack, warm drink for winter, your water bottle, toddler’s water bottle/cup)
  • Diaper stuff (foldable changing mat, wipes, diapers, plastic grocery bag for trash)
  • Bonus Items (magnifying loupe, a cup, a stuffed friend, a special map, a ball, a waterproof/insulated cushion for winter)
  • Child carrying system

During Your Hike With a Toddler

Whew, you made it to the hike! Sometimes it already feels like I’ve had the adventure by the time I get to the trailhead. But get ready, because this is where the magic happens.

Mindset for Taking a Toddler Hiking

As I’m getting out of the car, I try to always remind myself that the goal is to get my son outside. When I’m outside with him, I’m ready to get dirty, whether we’re splashing in puddles, digging up rocks, or drawing in the dust. And I also remind myself that I’m definitely not trying to set any distance or speed records! Taking a toddler hiking is about more than just the hiking.

Some days, he runs down the trail giggling as the tall grass brushes his face. Some days, he sits in the middle of the trail and pretends to be a backhoe. Some days, we finish the whole loop, and some days, I can still see the car when we turn around. All of these things are awesome because we’re outside having an adventure together. This post has a wonderful reflection on the mindset we can use to take our toddlers hiking.

A toddler sitting in the middle of the trail playing in the dirt
Backhoe sounds were included. We both got very dirty and had lots of fun.

Motivating Toddlers Forward

That being said, sometimes it feels really good to actually get somewhere, and I want to teach my toddler that enjoyment too! So I have several tricks to keep him moving down the trail. My go-to list includes:

  • Take silly steps: big steps, small steps, stomping, shuffling, spinning, high kicking, or jumping
  • Singing songs (a big favorite right now is the call and response song “The Other Day, I Met a Bear”)
  • Pointing out fun features further down the trail, like rocks to climb on or bees on a flower
  • Offering my hand as help
  • Hiding “surprises” farther down the trail (5-10 feet away) like little snacks, sparkly rocks, or a cool leaf
  • Having a walking stick (make sure your toddler is stable enough to walk and carry a stick)
A toddler hiking waving a stick in the air
Look at this super cool stick, Mom!

Older toddlers might enjoy telling stories while they walk, wondering what’s around the corner, playing games like I-Spy, or referring to their map they helped make before you left. 

For kids of any age, a play break can be refreshing before continuing on. I do my best to let my toddler stop and explore what’s around him – splash in that creek crossing, poke all those flowers, cross the bridge three times – and then he’s usually ready to keep going.

Parent-Powered Hiking

And then there are the times when little legs are just done. I have found that a huge key for successful toddler hiking trips include being ready for some parent-powered hiking, which means somehow carrying my little boy. This is important not only for supporting toddlers and helping them enjoy the experience, but also for moments when, for whatever reason, you just really do need to move more quickly.

There are a lot of ways to do this! Soft carriers like an Ergo baby, baby backpacks, and backpacking carriers like Trail Majik are all awesome for taking a toddler hiking in their various settings. We have a post where we review baby and toddler carriers here.

I also find that, unless we’re going to be out all day long, it’s simplest for me to boost my toddler up onto my shoulders and let him ride there for a while. This works well for us right now because we’re in a stage where he wants back down after a pretty short time period. The only caveat is that I’ve definitely bonked him on some low-hanging branches before!

A mom hikes with a toddler sitting on her shoulders.
Taking a toddler hiking also means hiking while carrying a toddler. This is our go-to strategy for half-day hikes.

How to Snack

A key component of taking a toddler (or anyone, in my opinion) is your snack game. When I was growing up, having a snack at the turn-around point (wherever that happened to be that day) became a hiking ritual my mom established and maintained and I still sort of expect whenever I’m hiking! It was a cue to my younger brother and I that we were halfway there and we could do it!

As I hike, I try to keep an eye on my little boy’s energy level. He’s always taking breaks to check out this flower or rock or bug or to caw at birds, which I love! The whole world is new to him so it makes sense that he wants to check it out. 

But as those breaks get longer and I see he doesn’t really want to get started again, I’ll announce snack time. I also try to do this in a place where there’s somewhere fun to sit if possible! With older toddlers, you could also use snack time as a last-ditch motivator. However, most toddlers developmentally don’t have a concept of time yet, so this can backfire if you say “snack” and said snack does not immediately appear.

Being Aware of Conditions and Knowing When to Bail

It’s easy to get sucked into a very tiny view while taking a toddler hiking; watching them, watching their footing, and enjoying noticing all the tiny details they notice is part of the joy of taking a toddler hiking! However, it’s super important to remember to look up and keep an eye on the weather conditions. 

In the mountains where I live, a summer weather front can roll through incredibly quickly! I’ve definitely been surprised before, even though I grew up in an area like this one and I know all the warning signs (wind picking up, clouds rolling in, temperature drop). Of course, this usually happens to me at the farthest point from the trailhead and on days I’ve forgotten everyone’s rain coats. 

Trail conditions can also vary and force you to change your plans; maybe a trail is wetter or dryer or looser than you anticipated. Maybe there’s a big wasp nest you don’t really feel the need to walk past. I’ve also gotten surprised by bike and running races on the trail I wanted to hike on. All of these conditions are very worth paying attention to, especially as they change throughout the day.

It’s hard to let go of the plan I had for the day, especially if I put a ton of time into planning a trip, but flexibility is super important for any outdoors adventure. When you’re taking a toddler hiking, it’s even more important. Knowing when to bail and come back another day is a highly underrated skill!

Reasons to bail could include changing weather, realizing you’ve forgotten something important, someone acquiring an injury (big or small), running out of food and/or water, getting tired, or simply not feeling it that day. While hiking is a great place to teach perseverance, there is absolutely nothing wrong with bailing!

After Your Hike

It’s very easy to get home from a hike, drop the backpack next to the door, and want to collapse on the couch. But just a little bit of effort can go a long way in making the next hike easier and more enjoyable.

Taking care of our hiking gear is important for a couple of reasons. It helps our gear last longer, which is good because gear can get expensive! It also helps my toddler learn to be responsible with his gear. And usually the most motivating thing for me is that putting everything away properly makes it a lot easier to get ready next time.

When we get home (and after immediate bathroom and snack needs are met), the first thing we do is unpack the backpack. My two-year-old is good at sorting out the accumulated trash and throwing it away, and he can also put away his own shoes, hat, and sunglasses (and mittens, in the winter) which I keep in a basket that he can reach. I help him hang up any wet stuff to dry and put away gear (like the first aid kit) that lives up higher.

It’s also important to both celebrate the high points of the hike and to reflect on any low points. Celebrating your adventure helps cement that adventures are fun and helps everyone look forward to the next one. And reflecting on low points helps you and your toddler learn both how to have a smoother adventure next time and that we’re all capable of handling hard things.

Telling stories about my adventures is my favorite way to celebrate and reflect at the same time. While my two-year-old doesn’t have the language to tell a story yet, I can narrate it for him in the car on the way home. He loves to reenact the cool things we saw, especially buzzing like bugs or zooming like planes or bikes, as I tell the story of our day. Older toddlers can also draw pictures of what they saw on their hike that day, or use photos to help them narrate their adventure.

Toddler on a hiking trail who has stopped to check out a giant fluffy seed head
We reenacted blowing this seed head apart many times after we got back from this hike!

A special snack after your hike like a popsicle or hot chocolate can be a good celebration; I remember the popsicle I got after all my bike races when I was a kid more than anything that happened during the races themselves! 

Reflecting on lows is primarily a learning opportunity. This is when I modify my packing checklist or mentally change a trail description. And sometimes there just isn’t something you could have done to control the situation; then it’s a good opportunity to talk with our toddlers about perseverance. I’ve also found this is also a good moment to teach (and practice!) laughing at our mistakes.

Toddler Hiking Fun!

Taking a toddler hiking is an exercise in flexibility, patience, and chaos management. It’s hard work to pack everything up, to get out there, to motivate your toddler and carry them when they’re done, and then to put everything away afterwards!

Taking a toddler hiking is also an exercise in awe and wonder as we watch our little humans explore their world. On our most recent hike, my son discovered acorns on the ground that had fallen from the scrub oak trees and his delight was boundless. It’s a great way to let them burn off all that frenetic toddler energy while we both get to enjoy the calm and beauty of being in nature.

The key to getting to more of the awe and wonder (and hopefully less of the chaos) is to be prepared. Choosing a good trail and a good time to hike it, packing the right stuff, and being able to celebrate and reflect (and laugh at mistakes!) afterwards all contribute to a good hike.

And with any luck, the very last thing you do? Start daydreaming about your next hike!

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