Post Summary: A full guide on how to go hiking with toddlers so they learn to enjoy and love the great outdoors.
How To Go Hiking With Toddlers
It’s no surprise that toddlers love to be outdoors. Nature is alive with stimulation and vibrancy that peaks and titillates their curious hearts. With infinite rocks, streams, trees, and bugs to examine, one would think that hiking with toddlers would be an easy feat.
After logging over 800 hours of hiking with a three-year-old across the US, we’ve learned that sometimes a toddler needs a little coaxing. And, parents need a little guidance to cultivate an environment where hiking with a toddler is a fun and adventurous activity.
We’ve made a complete guide that goes beyond “hiking with toddler tips” but rather aims to help your little ones love and adore the times they get to walk through the magic of nature. After all, isn’t that what it’s all about?
Here are our experience based suggestions on how to go hiking with a toddler so that the entire family has fun.
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WHY HIKING WITH TODDLERS IS IMPORTANT
Before I dive into how to hike with a toddler, I wanted to take a moment to expound upon why time in nature with your kids is so important.
1. If you want kids to value wildlife and the outdoors, then they need to spend time outdoors. It’s as simple as that. Experience and a true relationship to the wild is the best way to create a lifelong love for nature.
2. Physical development requires toddlers to move their bodies and be active. Contemporary lifestyles are structured around a sedentary way of life. Getting outside and developing stronger physical acumen can help to balance out a life of electronics and sitting.
3. Nature is the best antidepressant out there! It’s well researched that nature is good for your mental health, so why wouldn’t you use this free dose of medicine? When my son starts to swirl and become a hurricane in the house, I know it’s time to get outdoors and let fresh air, sunlight, and trees work their magic.
4. Family time spent together in nature is sure to leave an indelible mark on your child’s sense of value and worth. Kids love to have their parents undivided attention. Strengthening the bonds of family and creating lifelong memories where you are together without the distraction of electronics will nourish your child’s natural need for your warmth and attention.
12 TIPS FOR HIKING WITH TODDLERS
1. Consistency Is Everything
The best thing we did for our son was to establish a routine where walking in nature is as commonplace as going to the grocery store. As any parent knows, consistency is everything for whatever you’re trying to teach or instill in your child.
Ideally, hiking with your toddler at least once a week will go a long way towards implementing excellent hiking habits and a love for the outdoors (we hope!).
The first two years of our son’s life, we lived in a big city with hiking trails that often required a long drive. While hiking a tree-lined forest is what we would have preferred, we would often opt for simple walks in a city park, a multi-use bike path, or a walk in a pretty neighborhood. Yes, big, beautiful nature is sublime, but the act of repeatedly going out outside and walking with him was about setting the groundwork for a life spent outside and in your body.
2. Let Your Toddler Walk
When hiking with toddlers, we think it’s best to let them walk as much of the trail as they can comfortably do. Instead of using a toddler carrier or immediately picking up our son when he asks, I gently and firmly reinforce that he’s capable of walking.
Refusing to pick him up is about building his strength, and, to some extent, I want to teach him that you don’t stop walking just because you’re slightly uncomfortable.
I’m not advocating for cruelty or forcing them to walk longer than their body can handle, but rather encouraging their autonomy and innate physicality. It’s up to each parent to gauge what’s true distress and what’s just typical toddler behavior.
Yes, the walk will take longer, but you’re setting the groundwork and expectation that your child is responsible for walking.
Toddlers seem to have a never-ending reserve of energy. Having them walk on their own and strengthening their own endurance is a great way to channel that exuberant energy.
3. Use A Toddler Hiking Carrier
That being said, don’t be afraid to use a baby carrier! Not to totally contradict myself, because I do believe having a toddler walk is more beneficial in the long run. Still, there were definitely times when a toddler carrier was a lifesaver.
Great reasons to use a high-quality toddler carrier:
1. Your toddler is tired and genuinely needs a break from walking.
2. The hike is for your own needs and health, in which case you don’t want to stop every 10 seconds to examine leaves.
3. The hike has dangerous sections, and you want to contain your child.
4. You’ve got a toddler with a more lackadaisical temperament, and letting them walk the entire way would mean an 8-hour hike.
5. You want to do a long hike that a toddler can’t manage.
If you’ve got a young toddler and will be doing small hikes, a simple soft structured carrier can get the job done. We like the Ergobaby 360 for its mesh design so that you and your toddler won’t get too sweaty.
If hiking with your toddler is something you’ll be doing a lot of, then investing in a high-quality backpack carrier is the way to go. A soft structured carrier can’t replicate the structure and support of a backpack carrier. The creme de la creme of backpack carriers is the Deuter Kid Comfort Pro. Its price point is pretty high, so if you want something more economical, check out the Luvdbaby Backpack Carrier.
We have an entire post about choosing the best toddler carriers for travel. Be sure to read that if you want our in-depth reviews on toddler carriers and which ones are best for hiking.
4. Keep It Short
When you’re first hiking with toddlers, aim to do short, simple hikes. When we started hiking with our son, we would do 3-mile walks, knowing that we would need to carry him for a portion of the hike. Eventually, we stopped needing to carry him, and now he can comfortably do three to four-mile hikes without needing to be held.
Every toddler will be different. Some are more physical and will relish a longer hike. Other toddlers aren’t as physically adept, and you’ll need to cap your hikes at one to two miles. Experiment with your toddler to find what’s best for their physical strength and stage in development.
5. Let Go Of Being Goal-Oriented
As adults, we understand that a hike entails choosing a trail and completing the entire walk. For a toddler, that’s the furthest thing on their mind!
They only exist in the present so if a rock pulls their attention, they’re going to investigate. Rather than being focused on completing the hike, see if you can allow your toddler some time and space to explore without restriction.
If you become too focused on completing the hike, you run the risk of your toddler not enjoying hiking. You want them to think of hiking as an enjoyable family experience.
Make sure there’s plenty of time for a toddler to be a toddler. Let them jump off rocks, collect leaves, and watch ants as they march across the trail. You’re fostering a love for the outdoors, so…let them love up on the outdoors!
Embrace their curiosity and maybe even let them teach you a little about being in the moment.
That being said, it’s also okay to coax them to continue along the trail. You’re gently and slowly teaching them about hiking and the joys of completing a hike.
6. Research The Hike
Before you go on a hike with a toddler, research the hike to see if it’s going to be a good fit for your family. We like to use the All Trails app to see the length of the hike, the terrain, elevation changes, and user-submitted reviews of the hike.
All Trails is also a good source for learning about kid friendly day hikes near you.
Reading what other people have submitted helps to know details like if it’s too rocky, muddy, if there are steep drop-offs, or the potential animals that could be spotted on the hike.
You can also often get helpful tips about parking, if there’s a bathroom, and if the trailhead is hard to find.
7. Time It Perfectly
You’ll want time for your outing so that everyone is well-fed, well-rested, and ready to walk. I mean…we all know what it’s like to be with a hungry toddler, right?
Going on a hike in the late morning has always been the best time for our son. He’s the most alert and will hopefully burn off all that toddler energy so he can take a good long nap afterward.
If you have a rambunctious toddler that needs a lot of physical activity, timing the hike before nap time is an ideal scenario.
Some parents like to hike during nap time and have their toddler sleep in a carrier. If that’s the case for you, make sure you buy a carrier that you and your toddler will find comfortable.
8. Hiking Snacks For Toddlers
Always, always, always bring snacks and water.
If I’m honest, snacks might be my primary tool when hiking with a toddler. The moment he starts to get antsy and asks to be held, I ask him if he wants some pretzels. The answer is always yes. It helps to keep him nourished and energized, but it also puts his mind somewhere. I like to pack a little bag that he gets to hold himself and dip in to as he likes.
Great trail-ready snacks are pre-cut apples, granola bars, pretzels, trail mix, oranges, and peanut butter jelly sandwiches. Sometimes I pack a sweet treat like these fruit snack rolls from BEAR for when I really need to keep him motivated. We also never hit the trail without his kids HydroFlask water bottle.
9. Toddler Hiking Gear
You’ll want all the necessary toddler gear for when you’re hitting the trail together. While you can go down an internet rabbit hole trying to find the best hiking shoes for toddlers or toddler hiking clothes, it’s really not necessary. Yes, those can be good, but don’t let expensive toddler hiking boots get in the way of your time outdoors. Most of that is just clever marketing.
Chances are you already have everything you need. What do you need to go hiking with toddlers?
1. Snacks + Water Bottle
4. Bug spray
5. Comfortable walking shoes with good traction
6. Comfortable breathable clothes
7. Layers if it’s cooler weather
8. First Aid Kit basics like bandaids, Neosporin, itch cream
9. Child carrier if wanted
That’s it! The only other optional thing I would add is a hiking backpack for toddlers. Our son didn’t enjoy wearing a backpack till he was three years old. Now that he’s comfortable with it, he loves bringing it with him!
A backpack can be a great addition to hiking with a toddler because you can begin to teach them they are responsible for carrying their own stuff. Also, if you have a toddler that likes to collect rocks and leaves on their walk, they can put them in their backpack instead of you lugging everything around.
We use a toddler backpack from United By Blue, but you can also peruse through different toddler backpacks here to find more varieties. We also really like the kid’s backpack from Deuter. You’ll want one that’s small, lightweight, and will excite your toddler.
10. Playfully Teach About Nature
Engage with your toddler about everything you’re experiencing on the walk. Point out the birds, the shape of the roots, the different color leaves, the types of trees. If you’re not versed in the different species of birds and trees, that’s okay! You don’t need to be an expert to encourage curiosity.
I’m no authority on bird types, but I love to point them out to my son. A fun thing to do is to make up a fun name for the bird. I like to ask my toddler what he wants to call the bird. Facts and finite information can be valuable and educational, but imagination and storytelling also have their place in the childhood experience.
Another fun way to engage is to have your toddler point out shapes and colors. Where are their circles in nature? Where are their rectangles? Can you find a red leaf?
Once when I needed to focus his attention and keep him going, I told my son he needed to find a blue leaf. I got five minutes out of that one!
Another fun game that will be more effective with older toddlers is to do geocaching on the hike. Geocaching is looking for “treasures” that have purposefully been left for others to find. You can learn about geocaching and if there are any hidden treasures near you HERE.
11. Use Redirection As Needed
When your toddler starts to feel a little fussy and starts to complain, use redirection as a tool. While some would call it a distraction, I prefer thinking of it as a redirection of energy.
I will always be a champion for toddlers being allowed to have their feelings, but sometimes a toddler is just straight up complaining.
When that’s the case, I’ll redirect with fun games. When we were hiking in Yellowstone, and he started getting antsy, I taught him the song 99 bottles of “milk” on the wall. Oh gosh, he loved it so much. Now that song is a regular occurrence on our hikes.
Sing a fun song, tell a story about the “fairies” that live in the woods, or teach them how to skip. Anything that will help to redirect any looming tantrum you see starting to spin.
Lastly, I’ve seen other parents do this, and I think it’s pretty cute. Bring toddler-friendly walkie talkies like these with you and talk on the hike together. They can run ahead of you and follow the directions you give over the walkie talkie. It’s also a great tool if you have siblings and want them to play together.
12. Teach Trail Ettiquite
From the very beginning, you can start teaching trail etiquette and how to respect the outdoors. Guidelines like staying to the right when someone is coming in the opposite direction and stepping to the side to let faster hikers pass you are simple guidelines that a two-year-old can understand.
Other valuable things to teach are a strict no littering rule and to pick up trash when you see it.
I like to always explain the “why” of all of these concepts so my son can understand how his actions affect the earth and other people.
Are you ready to go hiking with a toddler?
I hope you found these hiking with toddlers tips helpful. Here’s to fostering your child’s innate curiosity and adventurous spirit. Happy trails!
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