Do you get a little stressed at the thought of hiking with a toddler in tow? My husband and I were used to intense backpacking trips with other young adults, so our approach to hiking needed a HUGE adjustment after having a little one. And I won’t lie to you…it can be a struggle. It’s much more difficult to figure out logistics while also taking all the needs of a little person into consideration.
But it was something I wasn’t willing to give up, and the benefits of sharing the outdoors with a little one are tremendous and every bit worth the struggle! Through a lot of trial and error at every different stage, we’ve been able to figure out what worked best for us. Here are some of the things we’ve learned to make hiking with a toddler the best possible experience!
1. Expect to go slow.
Obviously, our three-year-old can’t maintain the same pace as us (not to mention when he was one and two). On top of that, he’s prone to constant distractions. He really can’t pass up a good stick. But I consider that a good thing! It just meant we had to shift our expectations from what we could accomplish alone to what’s feasible when hiking with a toddler.
Now we generally take shorter, less strenuous hikes so we don’t feel pressured to go faster. The point has become to explore as we ramble along rather than getting somewhere quick. Let them get sidetracked and investigate things that interest them!
When our son was a new walker, we’d still wear him in our Ergo baby carrier during hikes since he couldn’t really cover much ground. But every now and then, we’d take him out for a bit and let him explore a few different spots. We loved wearing him, but we also wanted him to do some active investigating on is own rather than being stuck on us the whole time without any freedom to roam.
2. Talk about what you observe.
This is a great way to encourage curiosity and learn about natural processes that are occurring around us! We like to make statements about what we see, then follow it with a question. For example:
“Do you see that bird in the tree up there? That’s called a woodpecker. Why do you think it’s making holes in the tree like that with it’s beak?
“Wow, look at the leaves on the trees changing colors! Why do you think they’re doing that?”
Conversations like these are one of the highlights of our hike, and it’s always fun (and entertaining) to hear our little guy’s thoughts on why things happen.
3. Engaging the senses is a great way to keep young kids involved.
Encourage your kids to touch things and feel the different textures of squishy mud, rough tree bark, smooth stones, and shaggy moss. Pay attention to sounds of animal chatter, running water, or the wind rustling the leaves. Look around and observe the clouds in the sky, the sunlight dappling the earth, and the colors of each season. Enjoy the smell of pine and cedar, flowers in bloom, or decaying leaves. Perhaps not taste…let’s leave that one alone for now. Unless you brought a picnic!
4. Let them get dirty.
Actually, let me rephrase that. They’re almost guaranteed to get dirty, and it’s more a matter of just being okay with it. Few things detract from an outdoor experience more than worrying about staying clean. Well, that and mosquitoes. But for outdoor exploration, we stick to old clothes that have been designated for play.
5. Everything is cool.
I love hiking with our toddler because his enthusiasm is endless! He thinks EVERYTHING is cool- acorns, mud, rocks, moss, sap on the trees, sticks…especially sticks. My husband once showed our son some sap on a tree, and now every time we go back to that place he says, “Let’s learn about sap!” Instead of bypassing something we may think is boring, let’s cultivate interest! Seriously….who’da thunk a two-year-old would be interested in tree sap!?
6. Give them a mission.
Our little guy gets SO excited when he feels like we have a goal he’s helping us accomplish! Let them help you read the trail map, do a scavenger hunt together, or play follow the leader. It can be something as simple as looking for rocks to throw in the water or pretending to blaze a trail like Papa Bear in one of our favorite Berenstain Bear books!
7. Be prepared for the season.
Make sure you recognize the different challenges that each season can present. Find some quality boots and rain gear so that you’re prepared for rain and muddy trails during spring and fall. In the summer, remember sunscreen, hats, and bug spray. Make sure to layer up for wintertime. REI has great info on how to dress your kids for the season if you’re not quite sure where to begin. And regardless of the season, always bring plenty of water.
8. Know when to call it quits.
There’s nothing wrong with admitting defeat after a valiant effort. Sometimes the circumstances work against you or the kids just aren’t having it. We experienced one of these occasions after a new snowfall last year. Finn and I had gone to our favorite nature preserve to go for a walk. We soon found out that there was a hard crust on top of the deep snow, which makes for really tough going for one with such short legs. On top of that, it was crazy windy! We were both in agreement that the struggle of that particular hike wouldn’t be worth it.
On the other hand, it’s a great skill to know when to push on and better yourselves in the effort of overcoming hard things. On one occasion, we decided to hike up a (small) mountain with Finn. We soon realized it was quite muddy, and some of the boards constructed over part of the trail were completely under a stream of rushing water due to recent rains.
Rather than turn back, we took off our shoes and crossed the stream barefoot while carrying our two-year-old. We made it to the top and had more fun along the way because of the obstacles we had to push through. It was fun getting a little wet and muddy along the way!
Next time you’re on a hike with your toddler, try out some of these ideas! And you don’t need to do them all at once. Just pick one or two that seem actionable for your family and see how it works! And if there’s anything that your family likes to do when hiking with a toddler, tell me about it in the comments!
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