Hiking with Toddlers 101

When you had kids, you swore you would do all of the same things you did when you were young, carefree and only answered to yourself. Then reality set in and you realized everything with a toddler requires a creative new strategy. Lacing up your hiking boots for the first time and trekking off with a toddler in tow suddenly feels daunting. Rest assured you can still plan a successful hike, as long as you prepare in advance and adjust your expectations. Here’s how to get started.

Bring the Right Gear

Toddlers may love roaming and sprinting in high gear, but that doesn’t mean they’re ready for a long-haul hike. Make sure to bring the right gear, from pint-sized hiking shoes to a backpack carrier. Test out the carrier with your child riding on your back several times before you set out to make sure it’s both comfortable and manageable. If it’s not, you can always consider a national park with paved trails and bring along a stroller for smooth sailing. Some parks also have a combination of paved and rugged trails so you can mix it up as needed.

Find the Right Trail

Choosing the right trail is key to a successful hike with a little one. The path should be manageable for your family, whether you’re trading off carrying your toddler or letting them walk on their own. Research the trail in advance to make sure there are no unexpected drop-offs or long stretches where your car is totally inaccessible in a pinch. The right trail should also include something captivating for your child and their interest. Waterfalls, sweeping vista views from the safety of a secure area or even something enchanting are all toddler-approved. For example, the Fairy Trail located in New Jersey at South Mountain Reservation features whimsical creations, tiny fairy cottages, ladders and more.

Pack the Right Snacks

The usual fare of Goldfish and dried fruit may be a big hit at home or in the car, but your toddler probably needs some serious fuel for a day outdoors playing, hiking and absorbing a whole new environment. Bring along some of their favorites, but include options with protein. If your child is old enough to handle nuts, pack some tasty protein bars or make your own Larabars from dates, peanut butter and ground cashews. It’s also probably wise to bring along a tasty bribe like yogurt melts or a yogurt-covered pretzels in a cooler bag. They’ll come in handy if you’re facing a meltdown while in the middle of a trail with no end in sight.

Set the Right Expectations

Your child may love playing outdoors and exploring in the nearby woods, but that doesn’t mean they’re ready for a proper hike with the family. Decide that being together outside, somewhere on the trail, is enough to make the day a smashing success. Whether you never get past the trail head or face a meltdown after just 20 minutes, just know you’re still building memories and spending quality time together.

Plan the Right Post-Hike Fun

Just like grown-ups, kids need some downtime after a big activity like hiking, but that doesn’t mean they’re going to be ready for an immediate nap or quiet time afterwards. If your family does screen time, a show or videos of nursery rhymes can allow for some quick decompression after a day on the trails. Activities that don’t require a lot of physical excursion, from playing Play-Doh to painting with water colors, are also a good bet for winding down. And, if the family is hot, take a dip in a toddler pool or turn on the sprinklers for a lazy afternoon outdoors.