Hiking with kids is a challenge, but so fun and rewarding. This post is not about that. Hiking with toddlers is a whole different story. It’s much higher highs, and much lower lows. :) I’ve been hiking with toddlers for about six years now. First my nieces, and now my own little one who is 2.5 years old. Here are my tips for how to hike with toddlers and keep everyone happy – including you.
1. Start small and don’t think of it as hiking
The goal for hiking with toddlers is to have fun. When your kids get a bit older – 5 or 6 even, you can have larger hiking goals. Then they can understand pushing themselves a little to get to a cool spot etc. When they’re 2 or 3, good luck convincing them they need to keep walking if they’re over it. If it’s easier for you, redefine what “hiking” is. There’s a huge difference in letting a toddler hike and taking a toddler on a hike (in a carrier etc). In the first, your kid is experiencing all the things and fully immersed, in the second, they are observing. Note: I’m not knocking kid hiking packs, there’s a time and place for both type of hiking. Just make sure you and those hiking with you, know which you’re planning to do more of. :P
2. Have an exit strategy
You’ll likely be carrying your toddler at some point. For hikes in the 1-2 miles range, I don’t usually take a carrier now. But I know that I will be doing some combo of carrying or piggy back ride at some point. When he was around 18 months old, I would bring our Lillebaby carrier and let him walk half the time.
Even now as a more capable 2.5 year old, there are times that he will fall or just be tired. Another reason it’s nice to find hikes closer to home so you’re not driving hours just to turn around and pack up for home.
3. Choose easy hikes and set an easy child-led pace.
In Oregon, I’ve always loved the Oregon Hikers website. I usually pick hikes labeled as:
Family Friendly: Yes
Distance: less than 4 or 5 miles, but usually around 2 miles
You want to foster a love of hiking and the outdoors. Not future them resenting you. No pressure! That also means not only choosing an easy hike, but going at an easy pace. We often do a hike here in town that ends at a really cool stone house. Spoiler alert: we rarely make it there. We usually run out of time. The whole point right now isn’t to “reach the destination.” It really is the journey with toddlers. And that journey is snacks and water play and slow exploring, looking for banana slugs, listening to sounds.
Hiking with toddlers can feel grueling some days. But as soon as you release the expectation of wanting to get to X, it can be really fun and random. You seriously just never know what’s going to happen and where you’ll end up. And these younger years of them being easily impressed and excited about the smallest of things will be gone in a flash. So enjoy the easy wins of toddler hiking. Look a slug! In 10 years, they’ll be a whole lot less enthused about any random stick or rock you find on the trail. Enjoy it!?!
4. Find your sweet spot combo of the perfect hiking “recipe”.
For us that’s water play. Our perfect hike recipe looks something like: .5-2 miles + water play stop along the way + fun snacks + 10am-1pm time of day is our best for moods and our ability to go.
For the destination or reward, it’s not that they aren’t excited by a beautiful view. But if they can’t get down and play in it, most 2-3 year olds aren’t going to be excited about it. So that means, not many drop-off cliff type trails or views of beautiful water or waterfalls that can’t actually be reached.
5. Talk about the hike beforehand.
Prepare your toddler for what hiking will be like — where you’ll go, what you’ll do etc. Just because you’ve done a hike or done the research doesn’t mean they have any clue of where you’re going. Play tour guide before hand. Hiking with toddlers is not a surprise party – dropping them at some unknown location without knowing what to expect.
This can also help if you have a kiddo who has difficulty with transitioning from one activity to another. You can say things like: “I wonder if the water will be cold in the creek”? “I think we should take our rain coats in case it rains later”. “I’m going to wear my trail running shoes today in case the trail is slick. Do you want to wear your running shoes or your velcro shoes?” (This is also an easier way to trick them into not wearing a specific thing that you know isn’t going to work well for hiking without it being a tantrum set-off point. ie. flip flops or a bathrobe) This kind of pre-game talk not only can help them start thinking of possible things that could happen today, but also that you don’t have all the answers.
6. Snacks, glorious snacks!
We save our best snacks for outdoor adventures. At home, we [most of the time] don’t eat small packaged snack items. We save those for “adventures.” It’s not a bribe, ok sometimes it is. But in our house, most anything that comes in a “single use” type package is for outings. It also makes it easier to provide and show healthier eating options at home and set limits. For example, toddler finds a fig bar pack in the kitchen and demands to open it. Me: “oh that looks really good but we’re going to save that for our next adventure”. And then distract: “if you’re hungry I can offer x or y”. Or “where should we go on our next adventure: a hike or the river?”
Our go-tos right now are: Nature’s Bakery Fig Bar packs, Stretch Island Fruit Leather, and Annie’s gummies. I always recommend having some surprise snack up your sleeve. When our little guy was around 18 months he would follow us down the trail as we doled out one more gummy. :)
7. Play games
One of the awesome things about toddlers is that anything can be a game. We rely on a lot of game playing when we’re hiking. Sometimes it’s about finding the best hiking stick. Other times it’s about getting to the next tree. Or using your hiking stick to make a gate for the trail path.
You know your kiddo best and their interests. You can use other things they’re interested in to talk about on hikes. For example, on one of our last hikes, I made the “bbbbbrrrr” sound that “Stick” from the Tumbleleaf show makes. And he perked right up and said “Oh! I’m Fig the fox and this is my best friend stick! Stick are you in this tree?” and we laughed and talked about what tree stick was most like. Completely random and of course not all kids want to carry on long dialogues through the forest. But use their interest to play games.
You can also experiment with bringing a toy. I almost always limit this to one thing. First, I want him to have at least 1 hand free to catch himself. Second, I don’t want to carry a bunch of extra stuff. Right now he’s really into trucks and construction vehicles so we’ve been bringing his tiny backhoe with us. For a few weeks, he was really into taking his net out. We have also taken his Strider bike on shorter trails that allow bikes, like in Forest Park. That’s been wonderfully motivating for him and nice for me to not have him saying “Pick me up!” at some point.
8. Go easy on the “Leave No Trace” rhetoric.
Yes, we need to teach our children about not leaving trash in nature. But so often “Leave No Trace” has morphed into “don’t touch anything, don’t experience nature, don’t ruin it!” As I was reading the There’s No Such Thing As Bad Weather book, she has some great quotes in there about younger children really needing to experience nature to foster a love for it. So let them pick some flowers, throw some rocks, climb on things etc. (unless there’s an obvious sign that says “stay on trail” or “don’t pick flowers”).
9. Normalize weather
Try to normalize all weather and get outside in all weather. This is a hard one, [for me]! If you’re cranky about the rain or snow, your child is going to assume we don’t like rain or snow. Obviously, some of us like different weather more. That’s ok, but try to find things to appreciate about all weather. I’m definitely a summer person. I love sunshine and all that summer has to offer and being outside constantly. It’s my favorite season. But I try to find things I love about all seasons. And to laugh at myself a little if I’m grumping about the weather. Which in the rainy Pacific Northwest, we get our share of rain and gloomy grey weather. But we also usually have the best summer weather! So rainy or winter weather – we try to make a habit of getting outside at least once a day. Sometimes it’s a very short jaunt! Which leads us to our next important thing: There’s no such thing as bad weather, only unsuitable clothing.
10. You don’t need full-on outdoor gear to explore nature. Use what you have and plan ahead for new items.
You definitely don’t need fancy gear to get outside! I could write a whole post about outdoor gear and seasons. But for now, the best time to start getting more outdoorsy is of course when it’s good weather! (not too hot, not too cold). For mild weather, they really just need running shoes or others with some tread. Our 2.5 year old is usually most comfy right now in his See Kai Runs or his Keen River shoes with socks on. Toddlers don’t need hiking boots. You would probably only get a few wears out of them anyway.
So what do we wear? I usually put him in some kind of leggings pant that are easy to roll up for wading in water. Leggings are thin so not too hot, but also not shorts for his inevitable falls when he trips on the trail. With shorts, they get more scraped up, thus more tears etc etc. We usually take a thinner fleece in case it’s colder in the forest, a hat, sunscreen and bug spray.
For non-summer hiking we obviously have a bit more “gear” type items. Rainy season (that’s fall through spring here in Portland), we have a raincoat (size up if you can so it lasts longer), rain boots, and rain pants. For winter, we have Patagonia beanie that’s fuzzy on the inside, a puffy coat (I’ve found the Target Cat & Jack ones to be great quality and washable, but friends swear by their Patagonia puffies for the kiddos), mittens, and an extra layer of pants or the rain pants. For the rarer snow occasion we also have snow pants and snow boots.
Note: most of our gear has come to us via hand-me downs from friends, from consignment shop finds, and from sales in off-season. This is an area it can pay to plan ahead. For example, we bought his REI raincoat last summer in end of spring clearance. Half the price of what it is once fall rolls around.
11. Bring a friend!
One of my favorite hiking secret weapons is to invite another family or mom with a toddler. Having a friend not only is fun, obviously to hang out and socialize. But it’s also great natural peer pressure to keep going and have fun. Bonus, you get someone to talk to when your toddler has spent the last 7 minutes and 21 seconds watching a slug cross the trail. Yes, I timed it one time.
I know things are different right now with COVID. But physically distanced outdoor time with friends about once a week has really helped us not to feel stir crazy. We haven’t always been the best about keeping them six feet apart. But it is outside and toddlers are constantly moving, so it’s seemed like a reasonable risk. They’re not sitting on a blanket together face to face snacking out of the same bowl and hugging and holding hands or feeding each other like they used to. :P And we will probably have to be more distanced in the next few months as we go into regular fall and winter flu season.
12. Safety: Let their “weaknesses”, help you find their hiking strengths!
Act like your kid is the most capable adventurous brave toddler in the world. Even if they are timid, or cautious, or impulsive or clumsy. There is always a flip side to what you’re seeing. If they are cautious or slow to get started – think of it as them watching and observing and taking it all in. This translates to a thoughtful, steady on their feet and perseverance. They’re usually the last to leave an activity! Or adaptable and having a long attention span which makes a dedicated explorer. If you feel like they’re impulsive and clumsy — this translates to being energetic and brave, a lead explorer. Congratulate them for trying new things. Caution them when you know they’re not paying attention to where their feet are going. Set limits when you need to keep them safe.
Short and safer hikes are also a great opportunity to let them explore taking small risks and working on balance and coordination. For example, if they’re standing on a short rock and look like they’re going to fall in to the creek, which is two inches deep. Provided you don’t think they’re going to slip and crack their skull open, let it play out or ask them a question versus swooping in or shouting for them to be careful. I often say things like “Do you have something to hold onto if you need?”, “Watch where your feet will go”. If they inevitably do fall in and get their shoe wet or scrape their knee, don’t freak out. Try to be calm and laugh it off like “wow, that was a little surprising! Is your knee ok? You swooped off that rock just like an otter!”
Safety Note: You know your toddler best. Safety-wise, if it’s a hike I haven’t done before, I try to do a little bit of research. I’ll search online and read the hike description on Oregon Hikers. And I also look at the Google maps listing for reviews, pictures, and map overview of where we’re going. Another tip is to look use the Instagram search feature. You can search for the location and then select Places. This gives you the latest pictures. For more popular hikes this can give you an idea of how crowded it is on any given day but also what it looks like this week – in terms of conditions and terrain or water level. This can also alert you to potential spots where you might need to be more careful.
13. Talk it up after to reinforce good memories.
Finally, talk up your adventure, post-hike. Toddlers have short memories and sometimes they’ll kind of remember what you remind them about. Sometimes on the way home I’ll say “oh I can’t wait to tell dada about our hike” etc. Or I’ll brag to his dad about him finding such a neat walking stick or something interesting he did like floating a leaf down the creek, or an animal he spotted etc. He’s usually so proud, and often wakes up after nap or the next day saying he wants to go on whatever adventure was last — “the river!” “A hike!”
It’s not just about only remembering the good and pretending you had a fantastic time. Sometimes we talk about challenges too. “And then [his friend] fell down, but she was ok. Him: “and she cried and cried.” Me: “yes, and we checked on her and tried to think of things that could cheer her up!” Him: “And I did think I would find a butterfly to cheer her up! And I would find a lady bug, that would cheer her up…” Me: “oh yeah, and then we talked the whole way back about all things she might like huh?!”
And there you have it, my tips for hiking with toddlers. So I hope this has given you some ideas and inspiration to get outside with your littles. It will be messy, there will be tears, and laughter, and you’ll mostly only remember the good parts, until next time. :)