Hiking with Toddlers
Ross and I have always loved being outdoors and hiking. Living in Utah, we had some of the best alpine hiking in the world right outside our door, and were just a short drive from Southern Utah, which is home to five National Parks and known for its amazing canyon and desert landscapes! Before kids, we were outside the majority of our free time and we didn’t want having a family to change the lifestyle that we’d grown to love. Fast forward four years, we now find ourselves hiking with two toddlers and absolutely loving it! I’ll be honest, it isn’t always easy and our hiking looks a bit different than it did pre-kids, but we wouldn’t change it for the world. That being said there are a few things we’ve learned over the past four years that make our outings more enjoyable for everyone. Here are a couple of tips to make hiking with toddlers feel like a walk in the park.
Chose your hike wisely
As I mentioned, hiking with toddlers does look different than when we were two 20 somethings. Probably one of the most noticeable differences is the hikes themselves. We now have to make sure we choose a destination, trail, etc. that is the right fit for everyone in the family.
Finn is four years old and is no longer in “the pack”. Right now, he can hike roughly 2-3 miles by himself before he reaches his limit and needs to be carried. He also has a tough time with too much uphill hiking and is still learning to navigate rougher trails that involve going over rocks. That being said he loves trails with water features and anything that he can climb.
I mostly use the AllTrails app to pick our hikes. It makes finding hikes that are right for our family a breeze. I have preset filters that will only show me hikes that are under 3 miles and are considered easy. They also have a kid-friendly tag that helps me in our decision making process. When we get to a new area, I will look for hikes near me, using our filters, then save the ones that look just right for us.
No matter how prepared you are, if you chose a hike that does not meet your toddler’s skill level, you will not have a good time. It’s important they are physically able to do the hike and feel comfortable and confident along the way. Plus getting outdoors is all about having fun and when you have two tired toddlers nobody is going to be having fun!
Just like hiking without kids, your gear can be a game changer when it comes to hiking with kids. If your little ones are still riding in a pack, having the best one can make a big difference. The first time we took Finn for a legit hike, he was six months old, and we intended to summit Bald Mountain in the Uinta Mountain Range of northern Utah. We knew nothing about baby carriers and borrowed one from a friend. Well, it turned out to be a little bit of a disaster. Baby Finn was smooshed up against Ross’s back the entire time and just looked like the most uncomfortable little thing we’d ever seen. It was extremely sunny yet windy that day, and even though he had a hat on, his face was getting sun and wind burnt all at the same time. We ended up turning around before hitting the summit. On our way down we saw another baby riding comfortably on his dad’s back. We asked about his pack, went home, looked it up online, and decided then and there we’d need to invest in a quality carrier if we wanted our hiking days to survive the birth of our first born.
We are now the proud owners of an Osprey Poco child carrier. We love how this pack keeps both baby and parent comfortable. The rigid, box-like carrier frame keeps the little one snug and secure yet not uncomfortably smushed up against the parent. The pack adjusts, so it remains comfortable and safe as the baby grows. This pack also has a built-in sunshade that comes in handy in both sun or rain. There is a ton of storage that easily hold everything we need including diapers, water, and snacks. Both Finn and Hazel have used our Osprey Poco child carrier, and it has been essential in making our hiking with toddlers experience enjoyable.
As the kids get older and are doing more (or only) walking on our hikes, little hiking shoes have become more critical. We are all big fans of Keens. Whether hiking in warm or cool weather, their sandals and boots have been great. They hold up long enough for the kids to grow out of them and then some! Hazel is currently rocking hand me down Keens from Finn, and they are still in great shape.
The kid’s hiking clothing is also important. We always do layers. Depending on the weather, we generally have a short or long sleeve base layer, followed by a middle layer fleece, then topped off with an outer layer coat if needed. Nothing will end a hike quicker than a hot or cold toddler.
Here is a complete list of our must-have gear for hiking with toddlers:
Take your time
If you’re on a schedule and need to complete your hike in any sort of reasonable time frame, hiking with toddlers might not be for you. Between tiny legs, snack breaks, chasing butterflies, and throwing rocks in streams, you will be moving very slowly. And, that is okay! Moving at a slower pace might be one of the best things about hiking as a family. Kids have a funny way of making you take in your surrounding and enjoy the moment. We stop a lot to rest, have a snack, and drink some water. It’s amazing the burst of energy that comes after a short break. We can tell when the kids are about to turn from happy little hikers into not so happy campers, and we stop. 99% of the time it works every time.
Besides snack breaks, we also stop to play. Shockingly, just walking isn’t that thrilling for a toddler, so we stop and play, a lot. That can be throwing sticks in a river, playing in the sand, exploring rocks, or just goofing off. Everyone feels refreshed after a little play time.
Like I said, just walking for multiple hours on end isn’t always that fun for toddlers. I have found if you keep them entertained, everyone has a better time. I almost like to make the kids forget that we are hiking but rather just out in nature and having fun!
I talk with the kids to keep their minds occupied. We will talk about our surrounding such as what we see and what we hear. This quickly turns into a homeschooling opportunity as we discuss the different birds and plants we see along the way, and the best part is they don’t even know they’re learning! We use a couple of apps that help us identify unknown bird and plant species. These types of conversations have also helped us learn about our sense. The kids now know how to use each of their five senses and how to use them when on a hike. When hiking in National Parks, we always make sure to grab a Junior Ranger booklet on the way in. This helps us explore the area in new and creative ways. The Junior Ranger program takes some of the entertaining pressure off of old mom and dad!
If the kids aren’t into talking about our surroundings, we turn to actual entertainment. We will sing songs or tell stories. This is a great way to turn a tired toddler’s frown upside down. The Ants Go Marching In is one of our favorite songs to sing while hiking. I’ll make up rhymes that the kids find hilarious. This can easily keep them entertained for a good 15-20 minutes! I will either tell familiar stories such as The Three Little Pigs or make it up as we go along with classics such as Sasquatch and His Unicon. Note: Do not tell stories about sasquatch if you are in the middle of the forest and your toddler is terrified of sasquatch.
Teaching our kids to love and appreciate nature as much as we do is so important to us. It is something that really drove us to decide to travel full time. To ensure they have a great experience and feel good, we’ve used these tools to help keep everyone happy and comfortable. Don’t be scared to get out there and hike with your toddler. It is so worth the little bit of extra effort and will create memories and instill values that will last a lifetime.
Have you found ways to keep hiking with little ones enjoyable? Share your advice in the comments below!!