For outdoor enthusiasts, one of life’s greatest rewards can be showing the next generation the beauties of nature, especially when they’re your own kids. But there are so many challenges to consider before committing to an afternoon of hiking with your toddler.
The 7 steps to hiking with a toddler are:
- Find the right child carrier
- Plan the hike around their schedule
- Make the adventure short and simple
- Let them hike when possible
- Keep them comfortable
- Talk about the adventure beforehand
- Pack the essentials
With the above tips, not only will the adventure be safe for you and your little one, but it will also encourage the curiosity and exploration that toddlers thrive in. If you’re interested in sparking a life-long interest in nature by getting them on the trail at a young age, keep reading!
7 Steps To Hiking With A Toddler
Comfort for you and your youngling are the top priority for maintaining an enjoyable hike and the right child carrier can make all the difference. You may already have a child carrier for walking around town or other types of travel with your toddler, but if you’re new to the idea of a child carrier, there are many factors to consider.
Be sure your child is old enough to be placed in a child carrier. They need to be able to sit up on their own and have full control of their head and neck. When in doubt, consult your pediatrician to be sure your child is ready for a carrier pack.
Child carriers typically function as all-in-one packs to hold your toddler and your gear. Some carriers offer additional accessories, such as rain and sun cover or bug netting for your toddler, a removable pack for essential gear, a diaper-changing pad, and hydration reservoir space.
Many child carriers only hold a max of about 50 lbs. Once your child outgrows the carrier, they’ll likely be able to hike the majority of a short trail without having to be carried.
Look for ventilated mesh panels to allow air flow and keep your child comfortable. Side and top loading options are also ideal for fussy toddlers who may not like getting loaded into the carrier.
Go with the machine-washable options! Whether it’s just a bit of trail dust, or the remnants of a PB&J sandwich, it is incredibly useful to come home from an afternoon of hiking with your little one and simply throw the carrier’s cover into the wash, along with any other dirtied clothing from the adventure.
Stirrups And Pockets
Adjustable foot stirrups will help fit your carrier to your child’s needs, especially as they grow. Hip pockets are a time-saver to look out for too. Keeping things like snacks or car keys ready to go in the hip belt helps avoid frequent stops along the trail every time you need to grab something from the pack.
Consider getting a unisex carrier with a highly adjustable suspension system, so you and your partner can switch carrying your toddler throughout the trail. Always have a test run with your carrier to ensure it works for anyone carrying it and for your toddler. When you go to purchase a carrier, be sure to try it on with weight (preferably your child), just as you would a backpack.
Framed Is Best
Like backpacking packs, child carriers can have internal or external frames. There’s not a big difference in price here, and preference usually depends on the user. There are also options for no-frame (soft structured) carriers, but these are not usually suitable for older kids, nor are they the most comfortable for you or your child.
Similar to a backpacking pack, you’ll want the majority of the weight to sit on your hips via the waist belt, rather than on your shoulders. Carrying a toddler and a full set of gear on even the shortest of hikes can be strenuous. Try not to be too ambitious while wearing your child carrier, for your child’s safety as well as your own.
You should also avoid setting the child carrier on unstable ground, or on elevated surfaces like tables or benches, while your toddler is in the carrier. Even with a kickstand, carriers are not sturdy enough to always stand up on their own, which may present a hazard to you and your child.
The Deuter Kid Comfort Child Carrier comes highly recommended by many hiking parents for its comfort and safety ratings. Although it lacks the storage of some other child carriers, it is praised for the adjustable suspension system and quality durability of material, as well as its mid-range price point.
Like most occasions in a parent’s life, you’ll want to plan your hike around your toddler’s schedule. If your child usually takes their morning nap around 10am, it probably isn’t the best option to hit the trail at that time. You’ll likely just end up with a fussy toddler and possibly cutting your hike short, although some kids fall asleep in their carriers with ease.
Your little one will get the most out of being in nature if they’re interacting with you and the world around them, so pick a time when you know your child is more active and alert.
Hiking with a toddler can be a slow-going adventure. Whether you’re carrying them or letting them explore, you’re likely going to need to make plenty of stops to keep everyone happy and comfortable.
Remember, you’re the expert in knowing what your toddler needs, so to keep them from getting fussy, try taking several short breaks for snacks and water, and keep your hikes no more than 2 miles long. Breaks also allow them to explore their surroundings. When you do decide to stop, pick a place that’s relatively flat and free from obvious hazards so they can toddle around as desired.
Whether you are an advanced hiker or a total beginner, it’s a good idea to start off with a short hike (half a mile or less) your first time out with your toddler because you have no idea how they might react to certain elements. This is also a great time to try out your new gear like your carrier backpack to make sure it’s comfortable for both you and your kid.
Once you know that you and your little one are comfortable with your gear set up, you can venture out a bit further. Hike It Baby is a great online resource for finding the perfect trail to take your toddler on. The site does require you to sign up for a free membership, but the information and community make it worth it!
It’s recommended that any hike with a toddler does not exceed 2 miles. This is for several reasons, the simplest being that toddlers get fussy quickly. When they’re fed up, it’s time to head home. Keeping the hike short helps to avoid exceeding that window of time.
Two miles is also a relatively short distance from the car or civilization in case of emergencies, or if you need to run back for more diapers, spare clothes, or anything forgotten. As with any hike, be sure to do your research for any trail you plan to attempt with your child.
It’s important to let your child hike for part of the trail if they’re capable of it. Just make sure it’s a safe portion of the hike for them to be walking on their own first. This gives them the chance to develop their motor skills, as well as engage their curiosity by interacting with their surroundings and asking you questions about all the new things they’re seeing.
This ensures they truly experience nature, rather than just witnessing it from the carrier. Not to mention, you’ll get a break from carrying so much weight for at least a little while. Be aware that, just like at home, most of what they touch will go straight into their mouth, so be sure to keep a close eye on what they’re touching.
If you’ve got a high-energy toddler that may want to be out and about for larger portions of the hike, it’s a good idea to teach them (and reiterate before each hike) that when you call their name, that means they need to start heading back your way for their safety. Younger kids may not always abide by this rule, but this is a good place to start that conversation for the future.
If hiking with a 3 or 4-year-old who can handle walking longer sections of trail, it can mean the world to them to have their own small set of gear to carry. This allows them to experience the independence that toddlers strive for.
Get them a small pack to carry their water bottle and some snacks, maybe even their favorite toy that they never leave the house without and a few colorful band aids for small cuts or grazes that may occur along the way. Keep in mind that, if and when they get tired, you’ll end up carrying them and their gear anyway, so be sure to only let them pack essentials.
Aside from having a comfortable carrier for your child, it’s also important to keep them warm in cold climates, cool in warm climates, as well as dry, fed, and hydrated.
Toddlers should dress similarly to how adults dress on a hike. They need a moisture-wicking base layer close to their body for keeping their skin from getting damp and chaffing, a warm mid layer to keep their core temperature up, and a waterproof outer layer for keeping them dry.
This layering technique is especially important for cold weather, and you’ll absolutely want to look into getting the best snow gear or rain gear in that case. Pack extra accessories like gloves, an umbrella, or booties depending on the weather.
Be sure to have sun protection, such as a wide-brimmed sun hat that will cover their neck and sunscreen to keep their arms and legs from getting sunburned, even if it’s cloudy out. Always make it a point to monitor your toddler’s temperature frequently on the trail. Check the back of their neck as well as their hands and feet often to get an idea of their core temperature.
Since most parents and caregivers carry their toddlers for the majority of hikes, toddlers don’t typically need hiking shoes. This is probably a relief to hear since kids grow out of their clothes so quickly!
The only exception would be if you’re planning for your toddler to hike on their own for prolonged periods through rough terrain, like through water or over rocky surfaces. A sturdy pair of sneakers is recommended for toddlers hitting the trail. As they get older and begin to walk further distances, you can invest in hiking boots for them.
For those tantrum moments, keep your toddler going with their favorite foods and snacks. Everyone will burn calories faster while they’re out on the trail and the little ones are no exception. Especially if your toddler will be independently walking and exploring for the majority of the trail, you’ll want to bring plenty of snack options.
This can be the perfect time to break out those snacks that they don’t often get to have. Since their body will need the energy, it’s ok to pack snacks with a little extra fat or sugar content to entice and fuel them through your journey. It’s also a good plan to keep some extra snacks in the car for the end of your hike, or consider taking them to their favorite lunch spot as an added treat!
Children are naturally curious and pick up more information than a lot of people think, so play to their curiosity. Tell them where you’re going and what you’re going to do while you’re there. You are the biggest role model for your kid and they’re more likely to enjoy doing something because they see that you enjoy it, too.
Leading up to your adventure, tell your toddler things like the types of animals they might see on your hike. For example, a Blue Jay is a fairly common bird that inhabits a variety of ecosystems. You can teach them what sound a Blue Jay makes, what colors it’s feathers are, and what types of things they like to eat.
The more you play it up beforehand, the more excited they’ll be and the more fun they’ll have, especially when they actually see a Blue Jay while you’re out on your hike! Soon, they’ll associate hiking as a super fun activity that they look forward to doing with you, helping them grow up to appreciate the great outdoors and that their parents took the time to show it to them.
They won’t want to walk the whole way, so to keep your child from getting fussy while they’re sitting in the carrier, try playing simple trail games. Introduce them to games like I Spy, or help teach them colors by pointing out different flowers you pass. You can have a scavenger hunt or sing a song about nature while you hike.
Bringing a toddler on the trail with you can be daunting and you’re bound to forget or miss something your first time out. But you’ll also want to avoid over-packing for your hike because the extra weight will slow you down and make hiking less enjoyable for everyone.
To make it simple for hiking parents out there, here is a list of essential gear for hiking with your toddler:
- Diapers/pull-ups: You’ll probably need to bring 4-5, depending on how outdoor-potty-trained your toddler is.
- Wet wipes: Don’t take the whole container! Instead, pull a small stack out and store them in a Ziplock for the hike to reduce weight.
- Diaper cream: This is something you should bring even if you don’t think you’ll need it because you rarely or don’t use it at home. It will help avoid rashes and chafing while on the trail.
- Waste bags: For the soiled diapers/pull-ups. It’s also a good idea to bring an extra bag for storing dirty clothes, too.
- Changing pad: If your carrier doesn’t come with one built in, you’ll need to bring a pad or blanket for changing your little one. This can also double as a rest stop seat.
- Plenty of water: You can pack a kid-sized water bottle for your toddler and a hydration reservoir or large water bottle for you to ensure everyone stays hydrated.
- Lots of enjoyable snacks: high-calorie, high protein snacks like pre-packaged fruit bars or individually portioned bags of Goldfish crackers are just a couple ideas, but just bring what your toddler will readily eat.
- Sun protection: Bring sunscreen (SPF 50 is strongly recommended for children), as well as sunglasses and a hat for each person.
- Bug spray: DEET free is a smart choice for your toddler.
- First aid kit: Band-Aids, tweezers, antibiotic ointment and hand sanitizer.
- Small camera: Great for capturing first moments. Your cell phone is fine for this.
- Extra pair of socks: This will help keep your toddler’s feet dry and avoid blisters or other discomfort.
- Spare set of clothes and fresh diaper for the car: It’s always good to have a backup for when you’re done with your adventure, so that the ride home isn’t uncomfortable for anyone.
With the right gear and a bit of research and preparation, hitting the trail with your toddler can be a cinch. Like anything, the more you do it, the easier it will become, and the more you’ll get a feel for how you and your toddler operate together in nature. After a while, you’ll see how your child appreciates the wonder of the great outdoors because you took the time to introduce them to it!