Hiking with Toddlers: 10 Tips to Keep Everyone Happy on the Trail

We’ve come to the point where we can’t go to (or even drive past) any natural area without Bergen (2.5 years old) yelling out in question and excitement: “HIKE???”.

He knows what he likes and that’s getting to be outside on the trail exploring.  Whether it’s among the towering cedar trees at home in the Pacific Northwest or the giant saguaro cactus waving from the dusty Arizona desert, on the trail seems to be where he’s most content.

Hiking with Toddlers: 10 Tips to Keep Everyone Happy on the Trail | WildTalesof.com

Lucky for us, he’s a mover and can log his fair share of steps.  In fact, more and more, he’s becoming uninterested in being carried.  As a side note, we’re even in a phase of big fits and tantrums at the sight or talk of getting into the stroller for our afternoon walks.  Our daily ritual may need some alterations very soon.

As a couple, Slaed (husband/Dad) and I enjoyed hiking.  Adding a baby into our trail adventures wasn’t such a stretch thanks to great carriers like the Ergo and Osprey.  However, with a little guy involved in a lot more than just getting out of the carrier to stretch his legs, we’ve had to be more thoughtful and creative.

Sure Bergen already loves to hike, but that didn’t happen over night, and it doesn’t mean we are always moving along the trail at our desired pace.  From our experiences, we have some insights to pass along: 10 tips we’ve picked up as we put in the time and logged the miles with our toddler by our side.  That is, of course when he’s not running off or we’re not stuck waiting for him to stuff one last rock into his pocket!

Hiking with Toddlers: 10 Tips to Keep Everyone Happy on the Trail | WildTalesof.com

1. Walk often.

Sometimes we kick ourselves for this because now he wants to walk all the time, but if you want your child to be able to move along the trail, you have to provide opportunities for them to walk off the trail.  We started with our quick morning walk with the dog.  Once Bergen was sure on his feet, we ditched the stroller for this little jaunt and over the years, he’s built up good stamina.

On our longer afternoon walks, we still use the stroller, but Bergen gets out and walks for a good portion to get some exercise and exploring in. But it’s not just walking for the sake of going on a walk, we also have him walk while we’re running errands, he walks to our local bakery when we’re picking up coffee, and walks from the car to our destination frequently.  Independence and moving by the power of his own two feet is very important to us.

2. Choose your trail wisely.

Before you even set out on the hike, do your homework and research trails that will work well for your kids.  My advice is to first choose a short trail, or just know when to turn around.  Know your limits and have an idea of the mileage. Start with small expectations, and you and your children can grow from there.

Especially during the week when we often don’t have a ton of time to dedicate to hiking, I think of parks with nature trails or short loops (Bergen hates turning back, he thinks it’s over!). You can always add on to the hike if interest is high.

3. Keep your kids’ interests in mind.

What would your little ones enjoy most? A big tree (or two) they can try to wrap their arms around? A waterfall? A large water feature like the ocean, a lake, or even a pond? Large bouldering rocks?

Do some thinking (and some research), and then base your hikes on what would excite them the most. Just make sure that the features can be reached in a reasonable amount of time without a lot of mileage to log.

4. Pre-load with books and other resources.

Once you choose your hike, take some time to learn about the natural history of the environment.  Grab some books from the library (or your own collection) that feature some of the plants and animals you might find along the trail.  When kids know what to expect not only will they be excited about the upcoming adventure, but once there, they’ll have something in their mind to connect to the experience.  Maps are another great resource.  Talk about the route you plan to take, and be sure to bring the map along.

5. Ration snacks and use treats for motivation.

We are strategic with our food and use it wisely.  We like to ration out the treats and snacks throughout our journey.  We let Bergen know what to expect, and also set goals.  For example, he knows when we get to x-part of the trail, we’ll stop for a snack and water break.  When necessary, we make a game out of moving him along the trail.  Last week when we were in Arizona, I’d have him run or hike to an upcoming giant cactus, and then reward him with a gummy treat.

6. Allow collecting.

Our little guy, and I think this is true for most toddlers, loves collecting natural items. At times, he’ll stuff his pockets full of rocks and pine cones.  We welcome this hoarding, and in fact, encourage it! I believe Bergen feels a greater connection to the space when he can take souvenirs along for the ride. Plus, you never know when the perfect puddle, pond, or stream will come along giving the opportunity to throw those found items!

Thankfully by the end of our hiking journey, Bergen has always somehow or another emptied his pockets of all his treasures so they never go further than the trail head, but you’ll have to make your own judgement for what items get taken home, or leave for others to enjoy.

7. Let them lead.

Allowing Bergen to take charge works well when hiking a series of shorter trails (leading back to tip #2) in a large park or natural area.  We all know the adults are ultimately directing the show, but when you give your toddler the sense that he or she is making all the decisions on which direction to go and which trail to go down, their interest is going to skyrocket. When I let Bergen choose the trail, his speed dramatically increases as well.

Hiking with Toddlers: 10 Tips to Keep Everyone Happy on the Trail | WildTalesof.com

8. Play Chase (and other games).

Yes, I know this seems contradictory to my tip above.  Weren’t we supposed to let them lead? But the thing is, when your hiking with a toddler, you have to have a whole arsenal of tricks! Sometimes the toddlers are leading the way, and that works for a while, and then you might find them lagging behind or spending more time than you’d like investigating some dirt along the trail.

When I need to move Bergen along, I run ahead and encourage him to come and catch me.  This is especially successful when you have more than one toddler and they all get in on the chasing action.  Scavenger hunts, letterboxing, geocaching, and other more organized “games” can also work really well to motivate little ones down the trail.

9. Bring a carrier along for back-up.

Bergen is still small enough (about 35 pounds) to be carried when the going gets tough, so I often bring along the ergo carrier, especially when I know we might want to hike longer than his little legs can handle.  Simply strapping on the ergo doesn’t tack on any extra weight and doesn’t get in my way on the trail, so I don’t mind this extra precaution that gives us a little piece of mind.

On a recent hike in the Phoenix area, we traded off (hiking and carrying) with Bergen hiking the bulk of the journey.  Those breaks in the carrier were helpful in moving along the trail a little faster (so we could get to lunch), and also provided him with some rest.

10. Slow down , enjoy the journey, and learn something new.

The season of hiking with toddlers isn’t a forever one.  Take this time, this slow-stick-and-bug-filled time, to enjoy and savor the trails and nature areas of your region.  It’s not the time to focus on mileage or goals (other than the goal of having a good time).  Now is a great time to really get to know the flora and fauna of the land you explore since you’ll have plenty of time to stop and study.  Take along a field guidebook or laminated card to help you learn about and identify what you see.

Have you hiked with young children or toddlers? What’s the hardest part? What tips can you share?

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10 thoughts on “Hiking with Toddlers: 10 Tips to Keep Everyone Happy on the Trail

  1. We rarely use a stroller anymore…and are actually getting ready to sell it as it just sits in our house. I love being outside as do my girls. I think it helps that me and my husband enjoy the outdoors that our girls can happy and comfortable to explore and learn.
    PS – Great photos!

    • Thanks, Anna!

      Wow–that’s great that you’ll be able to sell your stroller! We are not quite at that point yet as we still take long walks daily (part of our (and the dog’s!) exercise routine).
      Hooray for getting outdoors with your girls! Bet you are welcome spring as much as we are…:-) -Kate

  2. Great tips! I definitely remember using the #5 when we were in Olympic National Park. We were walking through the beautiful forest to see some waterfalls, and I had to constantly talk about the awesome granola bar my little guy would get when we finally reached the falls. I had no clue I could talk about granola bars for that long, but that’s what it took. For collecting, making a masking tape “bracelet” with the sticky side out is a good place to put leaves and other light things you find on the trail.

    • Thank you, Michele!

      I love your story about the granola bar! I can COMPLETELY relate!

      Regarding the bracelet—What a cool idea! I’m thinking Bergen would be all over that–such a fun and easy way to show off treasures. I’ll need to give that a try.

  3. You’ve nailed it! I think this age is the hardest to hike with, and it lasts a few years – but it can be so rewarding. I think for me it was most important to let go of my own expectations, and to let the kids go slowly. To be content with whatever they could do. And also to understand that what they could do one week, they might not be able or willing to do the same the next week. But getting out as often as possible really helps, and you’ll reap the rewards from your patience when they are older.

    • Thank you so much, Jennifer! That means a lot coming from the hiker mama! 🙂

      You are so right–re: what they can do one week vs. the next…(and day to day). I find that with Bergen too-sometimes he’s barreling down the path, sometimes inching along…
      Ahhh, and I love to hear we’ll be rewarded later on down the road! Thanks again for your comment! -Kate

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  5. Great ideas, Kate! We’re at a rough spot with our 3-year-old right now, she just doesn’t like to walk at all…We get out every day but I usually end up carrying a lot, unless I want to deal with a meltdown…But I figure we’ll get out of this phase soon, or at least so I hope! I have noticed that she’s much more motivated if the hike has a purpose. For example, the other day we went to the trail at our local park and she started throwing a tantrum as usual, until I noticed a bunch of litter and suggested that we could pick up trash. She LOVED it and kept going for over an hour! We had a great time and did community service in the process, ending up with three bags full of trash!

    • Thank you, Linda! Yes, I bet if you keep at it, and make walking a routine and something the family just does, you’ll start to see the resistance less and less. I love that you discovered the purpose motivation–that’s such a good tip. We found similar results when we went on a trash pick-up walk in our neighborhood–and it’s such a win-win! 3 bags of trash–wow. Well done!
      Let me know if you stumble upon other purpose-driven motivation–has she showed interest in scavenger hunts? -Kate

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