Our son is three and a half, and is a pretty phenomenal hiker for his age, but that doesn’t mean we can do any trail, nor that every day we decide to go for a hike, he wants to go for a hike, but the key for us is we are prepared for anything, and we find a way to have fun as a family.
As an adult, hiking is typically about the peak to climb, the river to see, etc, but with a toddler, it’s rare to always make it to the end, so you must accept that “the Journey is the Adventure”.
Proper Planning Prevents Poor Performance
This means that if we start out on a trail and S is not in a good mood (“my legs are tired is current nom de guerre), we can quickly get him up and onto my back and get somewhere interesting enough to make him want to come down and play.
Second, take a lot of snacks and water. We have a couple of Osprey water bladders and S can quite easily chug his way through 2 liters in a couple of hours. Having snacks means you can break up a longer hike with a recharging snack stop, or just give them enough energy to make it that final mile.
Third, bring hiking poles, especially in elevation walks, or in bad weather. They’re incredibly helpful in spreading the weight of a toddler on your back and preventing any accidental slips (which are very scary if you’re carrying) and if your toddler does want to walk, they’re a great way to keep their hands busy (and not pulling plants).
Finally, the standard of sun cream (we like Adorable Baby), layers of clothing (great option is the Patagonia sun tops discussed in https://mattyadventure.com/2019/05/16/five-things-we-cant-live-without-on-the-road-with-kids/), snacks for you, kids sunglasses and hats, and gloves. It’s easier to strip offs layers, so start for arctic and work your way back.
Share the details of the journey
We make sure the journey is the adventure for S. It’s easy as an adult to suffer a long hike in order to get to an incredible mountain lake, or lookout point, but when you’re three, you simply don’t care. We talk through the hike and what he might see on the journey and try and set some activities.
In National Parks, a great one in the junior ranger program as it has activities to complete whilst on the trails (activity bingo especially), and if not, try and pickup a hiking bingo card (we have a set of reusable ones) which you can use to keep toddlers occupied. If they have a mission on the journey, they’ll stay focused on task and forget about their legs.
Lower your expectations
Just because you can hike 10 miles and 2,000 feet elevation, doesn’t mean you should. Day long hikes are generally not popular with our three year old, so we try and focus on half days
Some days on a walk when S is in a particularly observant mood, we may only manage 1/3 mile in an hour as he points out every bug, flower and plant along the way. Even more so if he comes up with a new game that typically requires us to stop and “fix the trail” which translates as hitting a bit of rock with a stick. You’re not doing this to build fitness (not physical anyway), but there is a purpose.
Start ’em young
I am forever grateful that my parents were hikers when I was young. I can vividly remember some of the hikes we did as a family when I was very young in the UK, in Yorkshire, Wales and the Isles of Scilly. Whilst I don’t remember many details of the hikes themselves, the fact we hiked on every holiday meant that it was and is hardwired into me that hiking is a holiday (and thus fun) activity.
I hope and believe that by introducing S and E to hiking in their earliest years and making it fun for them both, we’ll pass on the same love of nature and hiking.
You didn’t go for a hike to stare and your phone, to check your email, you went to spend quality time in nature with your children. So leave your phone in your pocket (you probably won’t have signal anyway) and take a toddler led hike and experience a trail in a new way.
Walking a trail you’ve walked a thousand times before can be a totally different experience when you let your toddler show you the way. You’ll find bugs, invent new games, spot wildlife (real and imagined) and create stories to discuss for weeks and years to come. Take the opportunity to slow down and smell the flowers, to pick up a slug and listen to a songbird, after all the Journey is the Adventure.
Accept you might not make it all the way today…
Sometimes it’s just too much, and there’s no shame in deciding it’s time to turn around and head for home. The important thing is to recognize when everyone is at their limit, and not push beyond. With toddler hiking, you’re looking to make it fun, and that means sometimes that the highlight of your hike is seeing an interesting furry caterpillar even though you know if you’d walked on another half mile, there was an incredible waterfall.
The most important thing is you and your little hikers all had fun, not what the fun ended up being, and remember, you can always come back another time.