Hiking with toddlers is an adventure all its own. Getting toddlers hiking early in their lives is a great way to spend time outdoors with your family.
The average child over six needs a minimum of one hour of physical activity a day. Children six and under need three! That’s a lot of physical activity many kids miss out on. Hiking with toddlers is a great way to encourage this activity.
We make an effort to hike with our little guy whenever the weather is nice enough to do so. We’ve learned a few things along the way.
Here are 19 of our top helpful tips for a happy hike with your toddler.
Let Them Explore
Hiking is exciting for toddlers. There are so many new sights and sounds to experience. Letting kids explore at their own pace ensures they stay interested in the activity you’ve chosen. This makes it more fun for everyone.
Here are some ideas on how to let your toddler explore while remaining safe and comfortable.
1. Choose a Safe Trail
Before setting out with your littles select a trail you’re familiar with that you know is safe. Some things to watch for in terms of safety include:
- Bodies of water: Rivers, lakes, and streams that could be fallen into.
- Steep drop offs: Ravines, cliffs, and any other potential falls.
- Animal warnings: Watch for warnings of cougars, coyotes, bears, and any other animal common in your area.
Select a trail easy to traverse with a wide trail that is relatively level. This less rough terrain ensures your toddler can frolic freely within eyesight and without fear, they will stumble into something dangerous.
2. Go at a Toddler’s Pace
Little ones like to explore at their own pace. I know with our son, it was tough at first not to scoop him up and keep going.
But, letting kids explore, stop to look around, run a little, or slow down, keeps them interested in the activity. Practice near your house so you have an idea of how far your little one can reasonably hike.
3. Adjust Your Expectations
Hiking as an adult and hiking with toddlers are two very different activities. As a parent, it helps to adjust our expectations of hiking.
Also being aware of which toddler stage your child is at helps determine what kind of hike you should try doing.
Rather than setting a goal to reach a summit, lake, or campground, set a goal to have fun exploring with your little one.
Some things to expect when hiking with toddlers include:
- Extra snack times
- Potential bathroom accidents
- Necessary clothing changes
- Hiking at a slower pace
- Carrying your kiddo when they get tired
Keeping your expectations realistic make for a more positive experience for everyone involved.
Prepare Before You Go
Hiking with toddlers calls for some extra preparation. Being prepared ensures your hiking trip runs smoothly, even if there are hiccups along the way.
Young children are unpredictable, especially outside of familiar spaces. There are a few ways to ease them into hiking to simplify the process for kids and parents.
Here are our preparation tips for hiking with a toddler:
4. Practice Hiking at Home
Before hitting the trails, take your toddler for a few practice runs near home. Start simple, let your toddler walk around in the backyard. Pack a little picnic lunch, complete with a water bottle, and set off to explore all the nature around your house.
Once you’ve mastered the yard, consider a nearby path or park. A little further from home, but still close enough to comfortable familiarity if there’s a problem.
These practice runs will help your child get used to hiking boots, drinking from a water bottle, and safely walking outside.
5. Plan Around Nap Time
Naps are a necessary component of any toddler hiking plan. There are two ways to go with this.
- Have your toddler nap in the carrier on the trail. (You can go on longer hikes this way!)
- Hike before naptime so all that exercise and fresh air tire them out.
Personally, I’m a fan of the second option, but I’ve done both. It’s all about preference and comfort.
Either way, plan your hike with naptime in mind so your toddler gets the best sleep back at the campsite.
6. Bring Snacks
I touched a bit on snacktime above, but this is serious business and worth a second mention. If your toddler is anything like my son, you’ll need to maximize on the snack front.
Toddlers and little kids love choices. As you plan for snacks look at calories, protein, and fat for energy on the trail.
Of course, you can also bring along a sweet treat like a candy, or cookie, but I like to use those sparingly. Be sure to bring lots of water as well.
7. Get Comfortable Shoes
Comfort is the key to hiking with toddlers if you want to avoid carrying them much of the way. Footwear is essential in this area.
Fortunately, toddlers and most young kids don’t need fancy hiking boots, although you can absolutely buy hiking boots for toddlers if you like.
We tried to avoid buying any expensive toddler hiking gear, but if you’re set on getting some gear, use our tips to try to get the best deals.
For toddler hiking shoes I recommend well-fitting shoes with a proper soles for walking outside. No dress shoes, no soft foam soles, and no open toes.
Even in the summer, we opt for closed-toe sandals or sneakers to keep pebbles and brush out.
We all do it. Our toddlers get tired and we scoop them up. It’s fine to carry your toddler during a hike, but you certainly don’t want to carry them the whole way.
Here are some things to think about in terms of carrying, as you plan your hike.
8. Don’t Hike Farther Than You Can Carry Them
This is an important rule when you take toddlers hiking. A toddler is obviously going to tire first.
What we sometimes fail to realize is that by picking them up we get tired faster too. That means the easy hike you planned isn’t so easy anymore.
Plan to hike only as far as you could carry them naturally. Remember to include the time and distance needed to get back, unless the trail looks back to the parking lot.
9. Get a Good Child Carrier Backpack
We highly recommend the structured hiking carrier over the soft structured carrier. We loved our Osprey Poco Plus and took it everywhere.
If you’re going to buy a baby carrier or a toddler carrier, look for a child carrier pack with comfortable shoulder straps, a storage compartment for your 10 essentials and front enclosures to stabilize your load and balance the weight.
Toddler carriers still leave you carrying your child, but it’s easier than simply picking them up in your arms.
The weight distribution lets you carry them longer and more comfortably. Just be sure to look at weight restrictions as you shop for toddler carrier.
Having a good toddler hiking carrier saved our sanity on hikes. It allowed our son to burn off some of his toddler energy at times, and fall asleep in it other times.
10. Bring a Stroller
Bringing a stroller isn’t giving up! Bringing a stroller is genius. This makes hiking with a toddler much easier and lets you go on a long hike if that’s your style.
Having a stroller handy also helps plan around nap times. If your hike takes longer than you thought, your child can nap in the stroller on the walk back.
11. Don’t Always Give In
I’ve been guilty of this myself, but giving in isn’t always helpful. Rather than giving in on the first request to be carried, I recommend kneeling down to your child’s level and asking what’s wrong.
Maybe their shoe is rubbing on their ankle funny. Maybe they need a rest and a snack break.
By determining the cause for the sudden change in activity level, you might avoid using the baby carrier for your kiddo altogether. If not, at least you can stall them for a little while.
Ways to Encourage a Toddler to Hike Farther
Even the most active kids may not want to be active when you do. There are many ways to do this, and you need to find the way that works best for you.
There are many lists of hiking with toddlers tips out there, here are some of the things we’ve actually tried with our son.
12. Play Trail Games
Games are usually the number one answer to how to make hiking fun for kids. Trail games are a great way to foster creativity, engage with your child, and keep them interested in the hike. Some fun games to try include:
- Scavenger hunt: You can prepare a list ahead of time, or pick items as you go. It doesn’t have to be a Pinterest worthy pre-printed sheet. Small children love to run around and collect rocks almost anywhere they are.
- The alphabet game: Start with “A” and find something on the trail for every letter (X is the hardest).
- If I were a rabbit: This is a silly game I play with my son. Find a gathering of trees, a hole in the group, or a bush, and point to it saying, “If I were a rabbit, I’d live here”. You can pick different animals.
- Who’s fastest?: Carefully race to objects pointed out by whoever is “it”. Who can make it to that tree stump fastest? It works every time!
Make up your own family hiking games based on your child’s interests. Kids are much more excited to get involved when there’s a game in it.
13. Change Up Your Hike
Rather than walking the trail as you usually do, think outside the box. Find new ways to make the trail new and interesting. Take short stretches of the hike and do something fun like:
- Walking backward
- Sideway walking (crab-walking)
- Hopping on one foot and then the other
We also have brought his strider bike and it’s gone over really well. Letting a toddler ride their bike is a good way to get them to love hiking and tolerate longer trips.
Kids respond to novel stimuli. This will make the experience fresh and fun, which will keep them going after things get comfortable or boring.
If all else fails, sing songs while you hike. Kind of like whistle while your work, it’ll keep your toddler entertained long enough to forget they were cranky.
14. Take Breaks
Sometimes we just need a break to rest our feet and minds. Taking a break lets your child stop for special hiking snacks, a drink, or just a rest.
When you start going again they might be able to hike a little farther before you call it a day.
15. Toddler Hiking Gear
Getting your toddler their own hiking gear might go a long way to getting them out on the trails. A small hiking backpack with zippered pockets is the perfect thing for them to collect treasures in.
Older toddlers may have fun picking out their own version of the 10 essentials for hiking, which is an easy way for them to carry their own extra outfit.
Troubleshooting Hiking With a Toddler
Don’t give up when hiking with a toddler. I know it’s tough sometimes. Believe me, I’ve been in your shoes (metaphorically of course). But, giving up isn’t good for anyone. Sharing your interests with your children is important and getting them out and active even more so.
Before you call it a day, here are a few ways to troubleshoot your hike.
16. Is the Trail Too Hard or Too Easy?
This is a common issue when hiking with toddlers. It’s harder for adults to see a trail as difficult, especially if you hike a lot.
You might forget what it was like when you started hiking, or what it might be like for tiny feet and legs who tire easily.
Look at the trail system you’re using and see if there’s a simpler route. Look for a path that remains level, without too much debris or climbing involved.
On the other hand, many hikers like a little challenge. Allowing them to scramble up some rocks or take a minute to climb a tree will challenge them in a good way and break up the boredom of a flat trail.
17. Are They Too Hot or Too Cold?
Children have a tougher time regulating their body temperature to the weather. As you dress your little one, be sure to put them in light layers, and pack for the temperature.
Bring along extra warm socks, mitts or gloves, a hat, or rain gear if you might need it. If you don’t bring rain gear, they may end up taking yours and making you switch hats.
In the summer, be sure to bring sunscreen, a sun hat to block the sun from their face, and cool breathable clothing.
18. Check Their Hunger and Thirst Level
Kids might not always tell you when they’re hungry or thirsty because they might not realize that’s what’s wrong. Pack plenty of snacks and water for the hike, and think about when the last time your toddler ate or drank.
Listen to their needs as they voice them, but also remain aware of your parental instincts. Children should drink 1 to 2 cups of water per hour. Less for young children, but more during hot days.
19. Big Emotions
Finally, the problem could just be attitude. Little they may be, but they have big emotions. Toddlers aren’t always great at sharing emotions or even understanding them. They may be tired, hungry, frustrated, or sad, but unable to express it.
If you notice your toddler having a hard time on the hike, try to get to the bottom of it. Maybe they need some cheering up, a snack, a nap, or a rest. Or maybe they’re just having an off day and you need to try again tomorrow.
We get a lot of questions about hiking, and unsurprisingly, there are more for hiking with toddlers and babies. Here are some of the most frequently asked questions we receive.
How Old Should My Baby Be To Go Hiking?
Any age! Hiking is for everyone. The younger your child, the more carrying you’ll do. If you’re hiking with a baby you’ll carry them the entire way. I recommend investing in a stroller or carrier if you plan on hiking with a child under two.
When Should Kids Start Hiking?
The earlier the better. Our brains are made to change and rewire to the activities we do. Hiking early normalizes it as a family activity and prepares your toddler to enjoy it. If you hike often as a family, early trips with your child help them engage with the activity and your family early.
How Far Can A 2 Year Old Hike?
This changes depending on your 2 year old. Obviously, your 2 year old can’t hike as far as you can, but this is where the stroller comes in handy. Generally, I opt for a mile per year they are old. If you have a 2 year old, they’re not likely to go more than 2 miles, if that. (1.5 km per year). The more you hike with your child, the further they can go on their own.
Hopefully, this guide has been useful in building strategies for hiking with toddlers. These tips have certainly helped our family go further and have more fun in great outdoors together. As always, happy hiking, and be safe out there!
I’m Molly Foss, aka Momma Critter. I’ve been camping since I was 9 years old and I always wanted to be Robin Hood and live in the forest when I grew up. I’m excited to share my love of camping with my son as he grows up. My favorite thing to do while camping is roast marshmallows over the fire.