As a Dad of two adventurous children that started hiking when they were babies and toddlers, Dan Human offers tips on getting started.
Hiking with a Toddler
Your tots may have started hiking by comfortably riding in a kid carrier but now that they can walk, it is time to let them hike with their own little legs. Before planning an Appalachian Trail thru-hike with your three-year-old though, you may want to take things a bit slower at first. Here are a few tips to help you turn your toddler into a trail ninja.
Find Local Places to Hike
Sure, heading up the mountains for the weekend is awesome but anyone who has driven any distance with kids knows that shorter trips are best. Plus, if they melt down two-hundred feet down the trail, you be thankful for the gas money saved.
Before hiking with my own kids, I never realized the diversity and adventure that laid within our local parks. Towns and counties have excellent hiking opportunities. that often go unnoticed. As an adult, I've learned more about the flora and fauna of our local woods because we stayed local and hiked at a toddler's pace.
Plan Your Hike
Planning your hike has three main benefits. The first is that you'll be prepared for what is out there. You don't want to end up carrying a kicking three year old through waist deep muck because you didn't realize you were heading into a swamp. Print a map, make a goal and prepare your gear.
Secondly, this is a safety thing. When you plan your route, leave this plan with someone back home. If something happens and you don't return when you said you were going to, search and rescue will know where to look.
Lastly, planning a hike is a good cognitive development strategy for your kids. Show them the map, ask what they want to see and what they want to do. My daughter always wanted to see waterfalls and my son always wanted to climb on rocks. They become a trip planning partner and begin to realize that forethought results with rewards.
It's Okay to Go Slow
Don't plan on setting any speed and distance records with a toddler on your favorite trail. If you track mileage with a GPS, it may seem like you are heading backwards at times. As a hiker, the lack of miles can be personally frustrating.
At this point, hiking kids are less focused on the trail and more with what interests them at that moment. It might be a huge tree that begs to be climbed, rocks that fit in their pockets or a stick. It is best to let them play and explore and get it out of their system unless you want tears over that awesome looking stick you threw into the woods.
Bring the Carrier but Encourage them to Hike
With most carriers like the Kelty Pathfinder able to bear loads of forty pounds, most toddlers can still ride inside of a kid carrying backpack. However, if you want them to grow and explore it is best that they do it on their own two feet. That said, if they still fit in the pack, you may want to bring it along with you.
The thing is, without notice, a toddler will suddenly be overcome with exhaustion. Granted, this is most likely because they've been trying to run the entire trail and haven't learned how to pace themselves. If you have the carrier with you, it is easier to finish the trail as carrying them piggy back style isn't as safe or comfortable.
Carry Emergency Gear
Accidents sometimes happen. With toddlers on the trail, accidents happen all the time. I tried making the family rule of "no first aid today" but that didn't seem to work. Sooner or later, you'll have to bandage a bleeding knee or remove a stubborn splinter.
Adults should be carrying the 10 Essentials with enough equipment to keep themselves and their children comfortable if things don't go as planned. Think to yourself, what would we do if we became lost and had to spend the night? Beyond the standard ten essentials, you might need to pack a special stuffy, extra pull-ups and a fresh package of wipes.
Outfit Kids with Their Own Hiking Gear
Get kids in the mood for a hike by getting them their own hiking gear and clothing. Like a baseball uniform at the tee-ball field, hiking gear is their uniform and their admittance to our tribe. You probably don't need to outfit them head to toe in performance apparel from The North Face but you might consider picking up a piece or two.
Start with hiking shoes that can get muddy, have good traction and are preferably waterproof-breathable. Make sure they fit well as happy feet make happy hikers. Spraying the shoes with tick-repelling permethrin will keep many of the bugs at bay.
My kids started carrying mostly empty backpacks at age two and I progressively added gear as they grew older. I bought the Sprout model backpack from The North Face and both my son and daughter used it. Start with carrying their own snacks and they'll feel like part of the expedition.
When you realize how much a hungry toddler can eat on the trail, you may wish that you opted for a larger day pack. Most of the time, frustrated worn out kids need to sit, have a drink and chow down. After that kind of break, you can usually get them back to the trailhead without carrying them.
Though we want kids to eat healthy nutritious food, you also have to accommodate their pickiness. To be a toddler is to be a picky eater after all. You might want to think about having special food (like Swedish fish) that you only eat on the trail. For us, hiking to a spot to have cocoa was always a hit and something they anticipated.
Start Nature Collecting
We should begin educating children in the principles of Leave No Trace backcountry ethics but we also have to entertain their capacity as natural collectors. Parents should teach them we shouldn't pick flowers because the butterflies and animals use them as food. Even little kids tend to understand that.
There are things like acorn caps, pebbles and sticks that might make it back home and that is okay in most circumstances. Toddlers are curious little hoarders and that pocket full of acorn caps and dirt is a good motivator to inspire them to study the natural world.
As they get older, break out an old digital camera and have them start a digital nature collection. Many times by being good examples like picking up trash, being careful with fire and minimizing our own impact kids will pick up the more adult version of no-impact hiking.
Don't Let the Weather Stop You
Anyone who has ever watched a child play in a puddle, knows that kids don't mind being soaked to the bone with muddy water. They'll also dance like Gene Kelly given the chance to play in the rain. When the snow comes, they'll howl with delight as their noses turn red because they refuse to wear a face mask.
Weather doesn't bother toddlers it bothers parents. Get over it. Yes, you vehicle interior will look like a mud bomb went off but it comes off eventually. Soon, you'll figure out to bring an extra set of car clothes for the ride home. Sure, it's our responsibility for their safety but give into their desire to jump in that gooey puddle.
Reflect on the Hike
When you return home and scrub the dirt off your child's fingers and take the rocks out of their pockets, it is time to reflect on your hike. Have them recount what they saw as storytelling builds critical language and memory skills.
Another post-hike activity is to have them draw a picture of something they saw or did on the hike. Toddlers love any excuse to break out the crayons even though their trees may merely be lines. My son loves drawing maps of where we hiked. Granted these maps aren't suitable for navigation later on but they were fun for him to draw. Collect these drawings and start a trail journal.
© 2020 Dan Human
Chardie Cat from Northern Mindanao, Philippines on May 03, 2020:
Great tips, Dan. This is equally informative and inspiring. It turns me on to think of taking my 7-year-old nephews on a short trail or outdoor adventure after the pandemic is gone. A great way to also teach them to love and take care of the environment while bonding. Thanks for the insights, Dan.