Hiking with kids can sit firmly on the scale of the most joyous thing we’ve done together as a family, and one of the biggest travelling challenges!
I would love to say there was a magic formula for making it a wonderful family event on every occasion, but the reality is – so much can depend on individual factors on the day! The weather, the mood they woke up in, the colour of their socks… you’re parents with small children – you get the picture!
The best we can do as parents or caregivers taking children with us hiking is to prepare for eventualities. Here we will share with you all our top tips for encouraging toddlers and young children to enjoy hiking with you and make it a family event to be looked forward to, not just endured (or even worse avoided) until they’re older.
This post is part of our travelling with toddlers advice series
How To Make Hiking With Toddlers Fun – Get Them Excited!
Hiking isn’t just a means to an end like every day walking to get to the shop, for example. It’s about enjoying the journey, too, so you need to make it FUN!
If you have a reluctant walker, you’ll need some fun activities up your sleeve. A few things you could try:
Kids are easily distracted from what’s going on around them once they get into the motions of a favourite song. Can mum and dad get the words right, or will your little one need to help? Always great for lifting spirits and some happy banter and playing along with your little one.
Collect items along your trail
What can you collect along the way without damaging your environment or taking anything you shouldn’t? A particular type of flower or rock to look for? Having their own little collecting bag will make it even more special.
When you return from your hiking or camping trip, there are plenty of fun camping and nature crafts you can use your special finds in.
This will depend largely on your surroundings, but can you create a list of items kids need to find on their walk? A tickable printout can be an excellent way to engage small children with their surroundings.
It will be a little age-dependent, but we have found giving kids of different age groups slightly harder lists works well – one with just pictures for older toddlers and words and pictures for older kids.
You can base the scavenger hunt on your specific surroundings, like particular plants or animals native to a region. Alternatively, keep it general, such as based on what other hikers are wearing or spotting route markers (nothing gets them to that next point faster than “who can find the next route marker?”!)
It’s easy to make up your own, but if you want the hard work done for you – absolutely no judgement! – try these pre-made options:
Bring Along Friends For The Journey
Particularly helpful if you have only one child, can you bring along another family with kids for some company? Kids love the company of other kids, someone new to chat and play with along the way.
Kids love the company of other kids! Do you have any other outdoor-loving friends you can invite along?
Hiking With Toddlers – Bring the Right Gear
As well as picking the right weather for the occasion (the novelty of rain can wear off pretty quickly, even in your favourite wellies), make sure you bring the right equipment and clothing:
Snacks, Snacks and more Snacks
As we discussed in our family hiking gear checklist, snacks are essential to keep energy levels with kids. As well as keeping kids well-hydrated with water bottles (usually the only item I will make the small ones carry themselves, just to be sure they are constantly taking sips); keep little energy bites on hand as pick-me-ups.
We try and use the small snack breaks as incentives for our little hikers to go just that little bit further, “just as soon as we reach that next big tree stump!“
Also, offering a few options helps too; trail mix and dry crackers don’t always cut it with small kids. You may want the option of a small chocolate treat, or some higher-energy fruit-based snacks are great too.
If you plan on stopping for a full picnic lunch though, don’t let little bellies get too full on snacks.
Hiking Carriers For Toddlers
If you want to hike any sort of distance with your small tots, be realistic; you will not get far without needing to carry a toddler at some point on longer hikes, but do you need to invest in a backpack carrier?
If it’s just the occasional short-shoulder ride or piggyback, then fine. But trust me; your back will thank you for investing in a properly structured carrier for hiking with your toddler.
We’ve personally used the Deuter Kid Comforter and found it amazing. However, we know it’s pricey if you’re only occasionally hiking and bulky to travel with if you’ve got to fly or fit into a tight car boot space with all your luggage. If you can pick one up second-hand, it’s a great buy.
Alternatively, a good value option we’ve seen several hiking parents with is the ClevrPlus Deluxe.
A soft-structured carrier will also do the job on shorter hikes, but we wouldn’t attempt long distances without a framed hiking backpack.
Some recommend toddler carriers to try:
I’d also recommend mixing up the carrier and the hiking. Get them used to the fact that they are expected to use their own two feet!
Alternating between the carrier and walking gives everyone a little freedom, and half the point you’re in the outdoors is so your kids can explore! Let them look at things close up and take their time (it’s not a race, as I’ve reminded my husband many times!).
Clothing For Toddler Hiking
Also, make sure they are equipped with the right clothing. Too hot or too cold? Bound to complain! Does the Jumper feel too itchy? Or our favourite, my feet are soggy!!!
You don’t want to carry too much in your hiking day pack, but DO bring a few weather contingencies with you.
If the day is likely to start cold, then warm up; start your little hiker with some gloves and beanies that they can strip down.
Good structured shoes are a must – forget their favourite Crocs of flip-flops! An outdoor toddler sandal like Keen’s Seacamp II CNX is ideal for summer hikes, or Keen Chandler enclosed hiking shoes for Toddlers are perfect choices that come in sizes as small as toddler 4! You can see our full guide to toddler hiking shoes here.
A spare pair of socks never goes astray and is easy to fit in your hiking day pack
If there’s any chance of mud and puddles etc, a nice warm tracksuit they can change into afterwards.
Kids’ Backpacks For Toddler Hiking
Little kids hiking backpacks are so cute, right? But be realistic. Will your child genuinely carry it the whole way? What’s actually going in their backpack? In order to control the snack proportions, it’s best if a grown-up carries these; we’d really only recommend a toddler carry their own water bottle. Anything heavier than this may be too much.
An option to look at is small toddler backpacks that come with a tether or leash and harness, helpful on busy trails where you want to give your child independence but still keep them close by.
Small First Aid Kit
No matter how cautious you are, kids DO have a tendency to hurt themselves all the time!
Just a small pocket-size first aid kit should do for a day hike. Plasters seem to be the most in-demand item when hiking with a toddler, and some small alcohol rubbing wipes to clean around wounds. And of course, sanitiser, lots of sanitising before those snacks!
Or grab one of these ready-made hiking first aid kits
Hiking with Toddlers – Timing It Right
As we know, with toddlers, so much can come down to the time of day and how tired your child is when you’re out of the house. But is there a best time to go hiking with a toddler?
It will vary by family, but most small tots I know are up before sparrows; if this is the case, and that is when they have the most energy, it’s a good idea to get going early in the day and harness that energy. Hit the trails before most others are up, and you may even be finished by lunchtime!
Toddler nap times and hiking
Nap times can continue to be a real concern when you’re hiking with toddlers. Ideally, if you are concerned about naps, we try and time it so we start 30 minutes to an hour before their usual nap time – get that last burst of energy in, then place them in the carrier for their nap.
You’ll be amazed how well (and long!) little ones can sleep in the sway of a carrier and enjoying the fresh air – hence the importance, even as your child grows more independent, to still pack a hiking carrier.
Research your route before you set out
Most of us probably pay close attention to the length of a trail before we set off to work out timings, but when hiking with kids, you need to do a little further due diligence.
Think about the grade of the path and what type of surfaces you’ll encounter. Steep, narrow staircases, for example, don’t work well with young kids, nor do slippery paths or anything with lots of stinging nettles of the like.
We have found AllTrails to be a pretty good app for judging how family-friendly a hike is.
Where To Hike With Toddlers
Where ever you live worldwide, you’re sure to find a hiking track suitable for your toddler. Remember, when you’re starting out, keep it simple. If they have a horrible first experience, it will make the next time an even more daunting experience – for you and them!
While jumping straight into a national park adventure is tempting, remember they can be big and busy! You shouldn’t start with a full day hike if it’s your child’s first hike, or if it’s your first time using a hiking carrier.
A great place to start can be local to home, a small forest, a nature trail or a reserve where you and your toddler can get ready for your first family-friendly hike in the great outdoors.
Beginners should always seek out easy trails with a relatively flat grade, and where it’s easy to shortcut or turn back to the parking lot or your accommodation if you need to call it early.
As your confidence and experience grows, start seeking out places for longer family-friendly hikes. It’s a great idea to rope family and friends along, too, for a family outing. As we said at the outset, having company can be one of the greatest incentives for those little legs.
More Frequently Asked Questions on Hiking With A Toddler
What Age Should I Start Hiking With A Toddler?
Honestly, as soon as you’re both ready. If you’ve been an avid hiker since before children, it should be an easy transition from baby hiking to toddler hiking. There’s no fixed age, and no matter if they are highly independent walking alone or prefer to be carried at any possible moment, start with short hikes and work out what is comfortable for you.
Don’t be afraid of regression, either. If they were bound full of energy last month, yet now they refuse to move, don’t give up! Maybe it’s the weather, time of day, or lack of company. Try another of the strategies I mentioned above and if it’s not working and little legs refuse to budge, have a backup plan and try another day.
When Should You Stop Carrying Your Child?
Again, this will be super personal to your family and your child’s personality. My first would happily have been carried until he was six if I let him; my next, bounding around independently from about 18 months, never wanted to be carried until he literally fell asleep!
Generally speaking, all things being physically well with your child, as they approach between 3 to 4 years old, you should encourage them to undertake short hikes completely on their own.
How do you carry a 2-year-old hiking?
The answer will depend a lot on the length and difficulty of the trail, and if you will be carrying the whole time or letting your 2-year-old walk as much as possible.
If you are undertaking a family hike for anything over an hour, I’d highly suggest looking for a structured hiking backpack. Forward-facing soft-structured carriers really only work well with smaller infants. For a 2-year-old, you’ll find a framed carrier helps to evenly distribute the weight.
More Outdoor Adventures With Babies & Toddlers
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This is a guest contribution by our friend Shelley, hiking & outdoors Mama based in the UK and travelling Europe with her two little globetrotters
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