Before we had kids, Ross and I were superfans of hiking. We are the crazy people who think hiking through the Grand Canyon in a day sounds like fun.
Ross’s main criteria for finding a state to become our permanent home was that we had to be able to go on adventures every weekend.
When we had kids, we had no intention of stopping our weekend excursions. But we also didn’t want hiking to be a “because we said so” kind of experience for the kids.
We wanted our kids to love hiking as much as we do…which is a pretty tall order!
When our oldest daughter was born, we knew our goal with hiking, but we weren’t entirely sure how we would go from having a baby who had to be carried the entire way, to a 4-year-old who could handle longer, more technical hikes almost independently.
Last August we were hiking at Mount Rainier.
As I was helping my younger daughter through the same walking and riding routine that her sister had done when she was a toddler and watching my oldest daughter hike all but the steepest 10% of the hike by herself, I realized that that we had figured it out!
We had transitioned our baby from spending her hikes riding (and sleeping) in a carrier, into a little hiking machine that could take on a steep incline with a pack on her back and determination in her step.
This post is going to go through the steps we took to teach our toddler to hike, how to make the process enjoyable for everyone, and the gear that is essential for hiking with a toddler.
How to Hike With a Toddler
1) Get a Good Carrier
Since I was a nanny up until I had my oldest, I took advantage of trying the different carrier styles that the family I worked for had on hand.
It helped me determine that I wanted a soft-body carrier with multiple carrying positions for the first couple of years.
I did a bunch of research and decided that the Lillebaby would be my hiking companion for the foreseeable future.
When you are looking for a soft carrier to hike with, here are a few things to consider:
1. Get a carrier that works for infants. If you are planning on hiking when your baby is small, choose a carrier that will work from birth through the toddler years.
A selling point for me was that the Lillebaby worked from 7lbs to 45lbs. (I can still fit my four-and-a-half-year-old in it if I really want to!)
2. Get a carrier with multiple carrying positions. I can’t tell you how many times our hike has been saved just by changing a fussy baby’s or toddler’s carrying position.
Our carrier has six different carrying positions. But the most important positions to me were the front-carry, the back-carry, and the front-carry-facing-out.
A baby or toddler can only look so long at their mom without needing a change of scenery, and the front-carry-facing-out position makes that happen.
3. Get an ergonomically correct carrier. It isn’t much fun for a baby or toddler to ride in a carrier when their hips are in an uncomfortable position or their legs are falling asleep.
Make sure any carrier you consider is ergonomically correct for both the inward-facing positions and the outward-facing positions like the Lillebaby is.
The Lillebaby was the only carrier we used until our oldest was almost two years old.
Then we decided to upgrade her to a hiking child carrier. This was so that Ross could carry her when she needed to ride, and he could also continue to carry part of the gear since I would be carrying her little sister before long in the Lillebaby.
When our younger daughter was born, we redistributed the hiking gear load. I would carry the water and snacks in my Osprey with the baby in the front-carry position, and Ross would carry the extra clothing layers for all of us in the large storage area of the child carrier.
After trying on all the brands and varieties of child carriers at outdoor stores in the area, Ross settled on the Osprey Poco AG Plus Child Carrier.
Not only was it quite comfortable for him to carry, but the frame could be adjusted to fit me if I needed to use it.
Our daughter loves riding in it! A friend of ours affectionately calls it her palanquin.
Pro Tip: If you are making the investment of getting a child carrier, take an afternoon and go to an outdoor store. Most of them will let you try on the carriers, help you adjust the fit, and even let you put your kid in the carrier and walk up and down the stairs a few times to see which one will work best for you!
The child carrier makes it easier to carry a larger child longer distances, plus it has a storage compartment for clothing, snacks, and a water bladder compartment.
Pro Tip: If you are new to carrying a child when you hike, don’t decide to climb straight up a mountain on your first go. Take a few flat, short hikes to get used to everything and gradually work up to longer, more challenging hikes. Your legs will thank you…
Ross’s first hike carrying the new pack was a little 7.8 mile hike that went straight up and down a mountain. Why not since we were used to hiking with a kid, right?
Let’s just say he was hurting for the next few days.
Soft Carrier: Lillebaby
The Lillebaby also has a front pocket for carrying a key or a phone, it has a sunshade built-in and a neck supporter for the baby that can be strapped down when the baby’s neck is strong enough.
I like the airflow edition because it is cooler to wear than regular cloth baby carriers. If you didn’t know this already, wearing a baby is hot.
Hiking Backpack: Osprey Poco AG Plus Child Carrier
We heart Osprey so much because they make quality products that are built for adventures. Plus they have an amazing lifetime warranty on any and all of their products. (Even if they no longer make that product!)
My previous day-pack frame got bent and I sent it in for repairs. Since they no longer made that product, they let me pick from any of their other day packs! Talk about customer service.
In addition to Osprey being fantastic, the Poco AG Plus is built with the parents and kids in mind. It has several roomy pockets for storing gear, complete adjustability for going from one parent to the other, stirrups for the kid’s feet so their legs don’t go numb from dangling, and even a sunshade!
2) Start Hiking When They’re Little
If you don’t start hiking with your children as babies, don’t worry, they can still learn to hike. But I like starting them early for several reasons:
1. Babies and toddlers love nature. Even our younger daughter who was by far the fussier of our two children, would calm down and start taking in the scenery on a hike.
2. Some babies will learn to nap in the carrier. Our oldest daughter would take crazy long marathon naps on hikes even though we usually hike with friends and have lively conversations the whole way.
Her sister on the other hand, never, ever, EVER! slept on a hike. (Even when she was tiny!)
It didn’t keep us from hiking, but she was exhausted when we would get back in the car after a long hike.
Most of the babies and toddlers I know will take some form of a nap in the carrier on a long hike… Apparently, we got the exception to the rule.
3. They will get used to not being entertained. Aside from their special sleeping toy and/or blanket, I have never brought anything specifically to entertain the girls on a hike.
They look around and take in the scenery for their entertainment.
The reason I bring the sleeping aid is just for that, to help them get to sleep even with the noise and bright light all around them.
4. The transition to hiking will be gradual and pleasant. One day your toddler will want to walk for a few feet on your hike. The next time they will walk a little farther. Until eventually, your child will be doing the whole thing on their own.
I think it’s easier to start early instead of waiting until they are old enough to hike. If you start later, they may be physically capable of walking that far, but they will have no idea what hiking looks like or that they can do it.
3) Hike With Their Schedule, If You Can
If you are taking a shorter hike, plan it around naps and mealtimes if you can.
If your child likes to sleep while hiking, plan to hit the trail well before they should be falling asleep. That way they won’t take their nap in the car instead.
If you can’t plan around their nap times and mealtimes, don’t panic. Just give them plenty of time at home to catch up on sleep the following day.
4) Have a Plan
Try to figure out the carrying situation that will make everyone happiest during the hike before you hit the trail.
Our plan for hiking with one child was that I would carry the child and Ross would carry all the gear, water, and snacks. I liked having the snuggle time, especially when they were really little.
After our second daughter was born, we decided Ross would carry our first daughter (when she needed it), extra layers, diapers, and a little bit of water in case we got separated. I would carry the baby, the food, and most of the water.
Pro Tip: Water can be very heavy, especially if you are going on a full-day hike. But you can have each adult and older child carry a smaller amount instead of one person carrying water for everyone.
There are many different ways to distribute the weight, but I recommend thinking about it before you start the hike and sticking with it until the end of the hike.
Worrying about who has the largest load and trying to move things around when you are tired and your feet hurt won’t do any good.
5) Go on Hikes and Walks Often
Most toddlers thrive on repetition, especially when they are learning a new skill.
When our girls were between one and two years old, I started taking them on walks throughout the week. After breakfast, I would take them on a little mile-long loop around a sports complex near our house.
While we were on the trail, I would encourage them to walk as much as possible.
Before long, they could do the whole loop by themselves.
As their legs got used to walking more, they would hike longer each time we were on a trail.
Plus seeing adults that they love and care about hiking and walking over and over makes them more inclined to try it.
Our experience has been that a child can hike the same number of miles as their age, as long as their legs are used to walking.
6) Let Them Walk Whenever They Want To
If you want your toddler to learn to hike, this is the most important tip to remember:
Let your toddler get down and hike any time they want to.
Even when they are slow.
Even when they are tiny.
Even when you know they will only walk for 30 seconds.
Even when they get distracted by every stick and rock along the way.
Let them walk!
From the time our girls could toddle, we would put them down any time the trail was safe.
If they asked to walk on a steeper section, we would let them as long as they held one of our hands and would stay on the inside of the trail.
Be cautious about falling, though. Up until about age 4, if the trail dropped off on one side, we would grab their hands and have them walk holding our hand on the inside of the trail.
Our rule was as long as they were making forward progress, we would let them hike as long as they wanted.
Did it take forever? Yes. Was it sometimes annoying? For sure.
But it was an important part of teaching them how to hike on their own two feet.
Don’t give up. They will get tired before too long.
My only exception to the rule is if they are wanting down just so that they can ask to be picked up again.
I’m sure we’ve all had a toddler who likes to play that little game. Our rule is if they try that more than twice, then they just have to ride for a while.
When we were at this point with either of our girls, we would do a few things to make sure we were not on the trail too late:
1. We took a lot of shorter hikes. We are usually the type of people who love a long hike. And while we continued to do longer hikes with the girls riding most of the way, we also added in a lot of short hikes into our routine to condition the girls to walk on uneven ground and/or steep terrain.
2. We conditioned their legs by taking other walks during the week. Like I mentioned in the previous tip, lots of little walks eventually turn into longer walks.
3. We would go on flatter hikes. We love a good challenge and usually, our favorite hikes have a lot of elevation change.
When the girls were starting out though, we would pick more hikes that were walking along creeks.
4. We would start WAY early. If we were going with a group of friends on a long hike, we would get there an hour or two before the determined start time to give ourselves plenty of time to get the girls layered up and let them walk as much as they wanted.
Our friends always caught up with us before the turnaround point.
7) Let Them Run
As long as you are on a safe spot on the trail, let them run up ahead a little bit. Even if it means that you have to jog to keep up with them.
Kids love running and if they discover that this is another place that they can run, it will be a hit.
Here are some safety reminders if they are running ahead:
1. Keep Them In Sight. Teach them to stop and turn around periodically to make sure they can see you, too. (Once the kids get bigger and I can trust that they will be safe on the trail, they can start running ahead and playing with friends as long as they are in front of the adults.)
2. Be sure they understand basic commands. Only let your child run ahead if they listen when you ask them to stop running, to come back to you, and if they understand and listen to the word “no”.
There are a lot of unexpected things on hikes and they need to be able to listen if they want to run ahead.
3. They should understand how to stay to the inside of a trial. If you are constantly having to pull them back from the edge even when they are holding your hand, then they aren’t ready to run ahead yet.
Sometimes trails can drop off quickly or lead to water. So they should have a basic understanding of what danger would look like and how to handle it before they run ahead.
8) Let Them Stop
Even the best little hikers need breaks more frequently than adults.
Let them stop to admire a rock or a tree stump. If they get tired, suggest taking a break instead of being carried.
Try splashing in puddles or climbing on a fallen tree for a few minutes!
Sometimes that is all they need to get excited about going forward again.
9) Play Games
If you haven’t noticed, toddlers and kids love to play games!
One of the best games to play when you’re hiking to keep them moving forward is chase. We would have them chase us for a while, then we would switch and chase them.
Just remember to do this on safe, flat areas. We aren’t playing chase on the side of a cliff or anything!
Our friends were awesome with this! When our oldest would get bored with playing chase with us, we would suggest we catch up with the closest friend we could see. (Our friends had usually passed us by this point.)
Sometimes we would pick her up and walk quickly to catch up, but then we would put her down to let her chase them. I remember one hike when one of our friends played chase with her the whole way back!
Another favorite game is hide-and-seek. One adult runs ahead with the kids and finds a good hiding spot for them just off the trail. When the rest of the adults catch up, the kids jump out and scare them.
It can be a good time, especially when the adults forget that someone was planning to scare them!
10) Go With Friends
Adult friends and kid friends alike work well for motivating a toddler or young child to hike.
Sometimes toddlers will just need to mix things up in order to keep going. Especially if your child is more extroverted, see if they can walk with one of your friends for a few minutes.
We often hike in a tribe of 10-12 people and most of them are adults. My girls’ rule is that they must be with an adult from the group.
That can give them a lot of variety! On many of the longer hikes, our oldest daughter has taken turns walking with just about everyone.
Sometimes conversations with friends are more exciting than conversations with mommy and daddy!
And Mom and Dad will enjoy the break, too.
If you can find some friends with kids who like to hike, that is always a great motivator as well. Before long, your little one will be trying to keep up with the other kids.
And, of course, the more people you hike with, the more people there are to play games with (see tip #9).
11) Bring Plenty of Water
Thirsty toddlers are grumpy toddlers!
Don’t leave for a hike without plenty of water. Even in the winter, they will need a lot of water with all the moving around that will *hopefully* be going on.
I like to use my Osprey Water Bladder for hikes because I don’t have to worry about carrying water bottles in my hands and the water pouch gets very light as the water is used.
I usually take 1 liter for a 2-hour hike with just me and the girls, and 2-3 liters for a full day hike for all of us, depending on the intensity of the hike.
We also bring our Lollacup for our younger daughter because she has a hard time with the bite-suck action that is required for the bladder. She is starting to get it though and enjoys trying to drink like the rest of us while she is riding (another great source of entertainment!).
12) Bring Plenty of Snacks
Our girls eat at the same four times every day. But when we are on a hike, this rule goes out the window. (This may or may not be a favorite part of hiking for them…)
We keep a stash of healthy snacks for hiking at home to choose from.
We always have a snack or lunch at the halfway point. But if the hike is especially long and they are starting to get cranky, we will let them snack on something as we walk.
Since this feels like such a special treat for them, it is usually all the motivation they need to keep putting one foot in front of the other.
13) Have Lots of Layers and Extra Clothing
Your toddler is going to get dirty on a hike. There is just no way around that.
There will be falling.
There will be playing in the dirt.
And if there is water within a 12-mile radius of the hike, there will be splashing in puddles.
There seems to be a magnetic attraction between kids and dirt and water.
To minimize the damage to your car on the ride home, and keep the cranky factor under control, bring several changes of clothing.
One or two to take in your pack on the hike, and one or two that you can leave in the car and can change them into when you get back.
Here are some tips to help you keep your toddler warm and dry:
In cold weather, layer, layer, LAYER!
If it’s chilly outside they should be wearing:
1. A base layer. This layer insulates the skin and keeps the heat next to your child. Think long underwear or warm tights.
We love these 32 Degrees Base Layer sets. They don’t have them for tiny kids, but we just get the smallest size and roll them up for our toddler.
2. A mid-layer. You can do regular clothing if it is just a little cold, or your mid-layer can be fleece if it is really cold or wet. The fleece will help insulate and wick away moisture if it is raining.
3. An outer layer. If the weather is slightly chilly, we will use our fleece pants and jackets as our outer layer.
If it’s really cold and wet, your outer layer can be either waterproof rain pants and raincoats or heavy coats.
This baby will keep them completely dry and clean on the inside no matter how wet and filthy they are on the outside. And all you have to do when you get back to the car is take it off.
Here is my sweet little niece modeling her Hapiu Rain Suit:
4. Shoes and Socks. This may seem obvious, but warm socks and shoes can make a world of difference for a hiking toddler.
You can read here about the time when we didn’t have waterproof shoes for our toddler and regretted our decision.
I recommend getting waterproof hiking shoes or boots for hiking any time of the year. They will keep your kids dry while splashing in puddles and keep them warm and happy after the splashing is over.
If it is cold, you should also try to find them some wool or synthetic wool socks.
I did a little research as I was putting together this post and found these MERIWOOL Merino Kids Hiking Socks. I was so excited that their XS size fits our youngest.
They fit her perfectly at almost two years old and they fit her two-and-a-half-year-old hiking buddy (and can even fit our five-year-old in a pinch!)
In the past, we haven’t been able to find the tiny sizes for wool socks, but we just get the smallest size we can find and have the socks double as leg warmers.
5. Hats and Gloves. It’s always a good idea to have hats and gloves in your pack just in case! Especially on a cold day, you’ll be happy you have them, but I’ve used ours in the summer more times than I can count.
If It’s Warm Outside
If it is summertime, you don’t need as many layers, but I
would still bring a couple of extra pairs of socks and clothing just in case there is water to be played in or dirt to be rolled in… don’t ask me how I know.
Pro Tip: It is easier to cool down than it is to warm up on a cool day. Dress them warmly and they can always remove clothing if necessary. If you wait to layer them up until they are cold, they will probably be pretty cranky for a while until they feel warm again.
14) Teach Them to Pee Outside
Depending on what age you decide to potty train, learning to pee outside will probably be necessary for little hikers.
With little boys, it’s super easy and they probably have been doing it since they could stand.
With little girls, just hold them in a squat position with your hands behind their knees and their back against you. That way you can move their feet out of the way easily if necessary.
It may take them a couple of tries to get used to it, but before long, you will have a system down!
15) Think of a Small Reward
On especially long hikes, having a small reward to look forward to can make a big difference.
Think of a goal before you start.
Do you want them to hike farther than they did last time? Do you want them to not whine the whole time? Do you want them to do the whole hike on their own two feet?
Once you have a goal, think of a reward. A snack, a treat, a piece of gum (if they are old enough to chew it).
Let the child know at the beginning of the hike what the goal is, and what the reward will be.
We used this method when we did the Skyline Trail last year, and our oldest daughter did 90% of the hike on her own two feet without complaining… all to get a piece of gum when we got back to the car.
I would suggest using this idea sparingly. You don’t want them to think they will get a treat anytime they stretch their legs a little bit!
The Ultimate Gear List for Hiking with Toddlers
Even if your toddler is a great little walker, they still may need to be carried for part of the hike.
Walking on uneven ground is different than walking in a house.
The type of carrier that you may want is a completely personal preference. I prefer to wear the soft carrier with a day pack on my back, while Ross prefers the hiking pack.
We love both of these carriers:
Soft Carrier: Lillebaby
Hiking Pack: Osprey Poco AG Plus Child Carrier
2) Waterproof Shoes
I can’t tell you enough what a game-changer this will be for your kiddos! Soggy shoes are no fun to walk in.
Recommendation: Don’t buy kid’s hiking shoes for retail prices. Go to a second-hand kid’s store or a second-hand outdoor store.
We have scored two pairs of almost new, waterproof hiking shoes for our oldest daughter for less than $20 each this way.
Right now she is obsessed with her shoes because they are the same brand as Daddy’s… and they kind of look exactly like his because they are boy shoes.
You will also pay way less for hiking shoes if you are fine with your girl wearing boy shoes! No pink tax, people!
Hiking Boots: Vasque Breeze
3) Warm Socks
We have had a challenging time finding hiking socks that are small enough for a toddler’s toes.
To combat this problem, we get the smallest size we can find and use them as additional leg warmers!
Don’t be afraid to get creative. Once, when we forgot our daughter’s socks on a hike when she was two. We borrowed a pair of our friend’s socks (not a child!) and they went the whole way up her leg. She was nice and warm and thought it was pretty cool to be wearing “adult socks”!
When I was doing some research for this post, I found hiking socks in our toddler’s size!
I ordered them and they fit her and her little friend! The girls and eighteen-months-old and two-and-a-half years old.
Recommendation: Get wool or synthetic wool to keep moisture away from their little feet.
Wool Socks: MERIWOOL Merino Kids Hiking Socks
4) Layers, Layers, and More Layers
I know when you’re hiking you want to carry the least amount of weight possible.
But when you’re hiking with toddlers and little kids, extra layers will be worth their weight in gold when your little one is cold.
Recommendations: Take the weather into account, then add one more layer.
We have started so many hikes in shorts and tank tops only to be very glad we had our fleece jackets and hats when we got to the top.
Base Layer: 32 Degrees
Hats: Get hats that cover your little one’s ears and tie under the chin like these.
5) First Aid Kit
We never, ever, EVER used our first aid kit until we had children. Now we use it about every other time we hike.
Sometimes, it’s for our kids, sometimes it’s for someone else’s, but we are always glad we have it!
Recommendations: Keep a First Aid Kit with you on all hikes, but especially when you have children with you.
Make sure that your kit has moleskin in it. That stuff has saved us so many times when feet were starting to hurt!
First Aid Kit: Medical Kit
6) Day Packs for the Parents
If you are like Ross and prefer to have your day pack and kid carrier all in one, this doesn’t apply to you.
But if you are like me and prefer the soft carrier in the front with a day pack on the back, then you will need to choose something to put your essentials in.
Recommendations: Get something that can fit all your necessities for a day without going overboard. You will most likely fill up whatever size of backpack you get, so get the smallest size that will work for your family.
Day Pack: Osprey
Water Bladder: Osprey Water Bladder
7) Daypacks for the Kids
This is definitely not a necessity if you feel like your kiddo won’t carry it more than a couple of feet and you will end up doing double duty.
But for our kids, getting to carry their own backpack was pretty much the best thing ever.
Our oldest daughter loves to carry the snacks for everyone… then she likes to take the first pick of the treats when we get to the halfway point.
Pro Tip: We started having them wear backpacks around the house or on short walks before we took them to the trail.
Hiking Backpack for Kids: We use the REI Tarn 12 for our girls, or this one has similar features.
If you are looking for a good day pack for your kids, here are some features it should have:
Chest and waist straps: Your child may be a little unsure of all the buckles at first, but once they start having weight in the backpack, the straps will make it more comfortable and easier on their bodies.
Plenty of Pockets: You’ll save time on the trail if you can easily find what you are looking for instead of needing to dump out the contents to find something that fell to the bottom of the pack.
This will help them learn to organize their own pack as they grow.
Bladder pouch: Although a three-year-old isn’t ready to carry a full pouch of water (don’t forget how heavy water can be!) a seven-year-old is absolutely ready. A bladder pocket will give them more room for gear and snacks once they are doing longer hikes and they are ready and able to carry more water.
Whistle: In the unlikely event that they get separated or need to call for help, I want my girls to have easy access to a whistle. Some hiking packs for children have a whistle attached to the chest strap so if the child were stuck and unable to get into their backpack, they can still whistle for help.
The whistle is a lot of fun to use for the children, but teach them not to use it constantly so people will know if someone truly needs help.
Choose one that will work for several ages: I have seen 12 liter packs on kids as young as one and as old as ten. Just be mindful of the weight and the age of the child when you are deciding how much they should carry.
This backpack is fully adjustable for different heights and weights, which is handy with growing kids.
I hope you are excited to start hiking with your toddler!
Here is a quick re-cap of the things to keep in mind on your hikes with toddlers:
- Get a good carrier
- Start Hiking When They’re Little
- Hike With Their Schedule, If You Can
- Have a Plan
- Go on Hikes and Walks Often
- Let Them Walk Whenever They Want
- Let Them Run
- Let Them Stop
- Play Games
- Go With Friends
- Bring Plenty of Water
- Bring Plenty of Snacks
- Have Lots of Layers and Extra Clothing
- Teach Them to Pee Outside
- Think of a Small Reward
You May Also Enjoy…
If you have little kids along with your toddler, check out 11 Tips for How to Hike With Little Kids.
If you struggle to keep your house clean with a toddler running around, check out 5 Steps to Creating a Cleaning Routine That You Can Actually Stick With or My Simple Weekly Cleaning Schedule: The Routine That Took Me From Overwhelmed to In Control. Be sure to get your toddlers involved in the cleaning too with A Beginners Guide to Toddler Chores.
Other posts for toddler parents: The Best Intentional Gift Ideas for Children and Our 12 Favorite Toddler Books that Parents Will Enjoy Too.
And you may also enjoy 10 Reasons to Make Bread With Your Kiddos!
Ready to Get 7 Extra Hours in Your Week?
Then check out Simply Streamlined!
In Simply Streamlined, you will learn how to
- Declutter Your Home
- Put Effective Routines in Place
- Create a Set-It-and-Forget-It Meal Plan
- Get Your Finances Under Control
Simply Streamlined walks you through exactly how to Completely Streamline Your Home in just 15 Minutes a Day!
Plus you will receive
- Cluttered to Calm Lessons, Workbooks, and Spreadsheets
- Put Your Home on Autopilot Lessons, Workbooks, and Spreadsheets
- Set-It-and-Forget-It Lessons, Workbooks, and Spreadsheets
- Master Your Money Lessons, Workbooks, and Spreadsheets
- AND Weekly Live Coaching Calls!
I hope to see you inside the program!
(Or if you are more of a do-it-yourself kind of gal, you can check out my DIY Streamlining Resources!)