Hiking with toddlers, like camping with toddlers, is a fun activity if you are prepared and have grounded your expectations. When you are active on the trails, there are also added health benefits of hiking, while spending quality time with your kiddos. And just like with every area of parenting, you may hit the ground with success or it may take a bit longer to find your groove. We promise the joy of spending time together on the trail and hiking with a toddler will very soon be worth any hiccups along the way.
We grew up running around the woods but didn’t really take on hiking and true outdoor adventuring (you know the kind that requires actual gear!) until right around when we had the boys. And not only have we learned as we go, but we also have done a TON of research, too. Check our top 9 tips from the past several years of hiking as a family.
Tip 1: Research the trail
Select a trail that isn’t too difficult in distance or elevation. For a young walking toddler, start with a nearly flat out and back or a short (1-2 mile) loop. For a toddler in a carrier you can scale up a bit, but that extra weight will be hard on your knees, so don’t go wild on elevation or long hikes to get started. As you grow in your comfort and experience you can add elevation and miles to your adventures!
Finding new trails to hike with toddlers
We love Alltrails to learn more about new trails with a ton of helpful detail included. Read recent reviews to learn about current conditions. They even have a kid-friendly search filter for trails. If you show up to a closed or flooded or ice-covered trail, all of your other prep will be for not. The same goes for rolling up to a hike that is far beyond your or your toddler’s ability. We also always turn to our favorite and trusted family bloggers for recommendations and tips about trails.
A few of our guides on toddler-friendly hiking trails:
10 Family-Friendly Hikes in Arches National Park
7 Best Family-Friendly Hikes in the Boulder area
Cleveland MetroParks with kids (coming soon!)
Day hikes near NYC (coming soon!)
Tip 2: Prepare for all weather
Always over-prepare for bad weather, specifically a temperature drop and rain. Especially for little ones in a carrier or being carried along the trail, they won’t be working up a sweat as much as the bigger kids, so an extra layer to ensure the cozy ride is essential for breezy early mornings or evenings.
Tip 3: Bring more snacks and water than you think you need
Adults usually get pretty hungry after the hike, tiny metabolisms seem to be hungry at the beginning, middle, and end. We bring a few different options of high-calorie, light-weight snacks for even our shortest hikes and have never thought “gosh I wish we didn’t bring so many snacks today!”.
And water! Someone’s water bottle is going to leak, someone is going to touch something gross, or skin a knee that needs to be washed with water. Suddenly your extra reserves are gone. Ensure each kid has their own water supply and fill your bladder with about 2x the water your plan to drink or bring an extra water bottle.
Tip 4: Bring Extra Clothes
Young children are drawn to puddles and water like a moth to a flame. When it turns out the ‘puddle’ is about 6-inches deep, your ‘soaked to their knees’ toddler isn’t going to be very pleasant dripping down the trail. Swap out those pants and socks and happy hikers will march on! Our pack always has a pair of wool socks, a pair of leggings, and a quick-dry towel.
Tip 5: Make hiking with toddlers fun!
At this age, most kids love running around outside, they love being dirty and the freedom of running down a trail. But maybe not every single time you hike. If you are excited about the trail, your toddler will follow suit! And if they don’t… because let’s be real, sometimes they are just crabby, you can play games, sing songs and enjoy yourself until they come around. It’s okay if not every hike is amazing or long, it won’t be.
Tips and tricks for an entertaining hike with toddlers:
- Grab a map at the visitor center. If you are hiking a national or state park, grab a map or activity book to guide your exploration. In a few years, they will be ready for the Junior Ranger Program.
- Play follow the leader. Move your arms and legs in silly ways (i.e. waddle like a duck, fly around like a bird).
- Take a snack break! Take two!
- Carry a stick or pinecone or leaf. Toddlers love tiny things and being able to hold onto a piece of nature during the hike has saved MANY of our adventures. Just make sure you leave it in nature before you leave the area.
- Stop to watch tiny bugs and creatures. Our kids are bug and spider obsessed, a few minutes to zone into an anthill or watch a caterpillar cross the trail, is a near guarantee mood and energy booster.
Tip 6: Pack a complete toddler- smart hiking first-aid kid
We pack the hiking backpack with a pretty hefty first aid kit. We have used nearly every item in it at some point to save the hike!
- Bug Spray or Anti-bug balm
- Anti-itch Cream or lotion (for when the bugs bite)
- A complete first aid kit with tweezers (to remove ticks/splinters/cactus spines)
- Toilet paper (+ bag to pack-it out)
- Diapers and wipes (+ bag to pack-it out)
- Hand sanitizer
Tip 7: Be smart about your toddler hiking gear!
Hiking can become a very, very expensive activity. I walked around the woods for free as a kid and it doesn’t have to a budget buster today either. For each gear item below we have ‘getting started’ and ‘getting serious’ gear recommendations and advice for babies and toddlers.
On flat and dry terrain a good pair of running shoes are great for adults and kids alike for hiking shoes.
If you are heading out into more uneven surfaces or tend to frequent muddier trails, a structured trail boot might be in your future. When it comes to kids’ hiking shoes or boots you are looking at a small investment we actually take the kids into the store to try them on and encourage you to as well! Once you get a sense of the shape and brand that work for your kiddo you can get back to trusty online shopping. We have a whole article on buying kids hiking boots you can check out for all the details.
Toddlers aren’t known for their focus and stamina on a single task so some level of carrying is going to need to happen if you want to cover any distance. Younger toddlers can shift in and out of a soft baby carrier worn on the back. We loved our Ergo 360 for all of our kids until they were around 18 months old for shorter hikes. Ergo also has their brand new Omni Cool-Mesh that gets rave reviews and even comes with a removable fanny pack.
Longer hikes are going to push you toward a more structured carrier for comfort and storage. We love our Osprey Poco baby carrier and the lifetime warranty on parts by Osprey. The Deuter Kid Comfort and Kelty Journey also get great reviews from hiking parents. Before you buy new, do checkout used and local swap sites. We love Outdoor Gear Exchange and belong to several local Facebook swap groups. These big-ticket items are built to last and a gently used carrier will save you some serious cash!
Our kids live in cotton pants and tshirts when we are at home, but when we are out explorng we try to get them into syntheic materials that will dry quickly and can be easily layered up.
Dig out whatever non-cotton gear your kids already have. Fabric including polyester, fleece, rayon all works great. Bring back-up gear to change out of any cotton that gets wet.
As you buy new clothing for your kids, focus on quality and durable materials. We have been slowly building up the kid’s wool gear through Buy/Sell/Trade groups and online sales. Good wool socks are a smart purchase as well as a wool base layer for any cold winter hiking. Our favorites are REI mid-weight long underwear and Helly Hansen wool pajamas for our kids. Our kiddo who is pickiest about the feel of fabrics strongly prefers his Helly Hansen set!
Tip 8: Create good nature habits and teach Leave No Trace
Even tiny toddlers can learn about Leave No Trace by leaving the nature they find and taking out all of their trash and gear. We start by always leaving any sticks, rocks, or flowers we find within the park.
Tip 9: Have fun!
Okay, we did say this in tip 5 but this is for the grown-ups. Hiking with little kids gets easier! The hard work of dragging them out as toddlers will pay off in dividends for your mental health and nature therapy for years to come. Our kids have become so much more confident and wilderness-wise the more time we spend outside and this has carried over into so many other areas of life. So hang in there and have fun!
Have an amazing time out on the trail and please send us your questions and your stories, the good and the ones you grew from!