7 Tips for Hiking with a Toddler

Kids are great, but hiking with a toddler can stretch the patience of anyone to their limits. Still, parents need their outdoor time too, and the easiest way – often the only way – to get it is to go as a family. Besides, how will your kids learn to like hiking if they never do it? Over the last couple of years, my wife and I have been fortunate enough to have some great hikes with our kids.

The most important thing to remember when hiking with a toddler is to make it enjoyable for them. You can make it fun by going to places they will enjoy like lakes or streams where they can fish or play in the water, and bringing special snacks. Keep the hikes to a distance your toddler can easily do on their own or be prepared to carry them when they get tired.

You’ve probably heard the story of the tortoise and the hare. Most likely it was a situation that required diligence and the admonition was to be like the tortoise. Slow and steady. Just keep moving forward and you’ll satisfactorily accomplish the task at hand.

When you hike with a toddler it’s time to embrace the attitude of the hare. Go fast when you feel like it. When you see something interesting, stop until it’s not interesting anymore. Then go fast (or maybe just go) again.

In my experience, I’ve found the following ideas help me embrace my inner hare. More importantly, they seem to help my kids enjoy hiking with me.

1. Adjust Your Expectations

Sorry to bring the bad news, but you’re not going to be doing a 10-miler in three hours with a toddler. I’m not saying you can’t do a 10-mile hike but that kid is probably going to need a little time to play, so it’s going to take you longer than three hours.

We’ve transitioned from trying to do 10-mile hikes in three hours to three-mile hikes in three hours. Our son is three and he willingly (with lots of encouragement, snacks, and ‘rests’) hikes the entire distance. Mentally, we know it’s going to take a long time and it feels slow to us, but he has fun and is usually excited to go hiking with us. He likes hiking enough that we don’t even need to bring the kid carrier anymore. He won’t get in it.

If your child is good about riding in a child carrier then you can get in some longer hikes. We did several 6-mile hikes and even backpacked in 7 miles one weekend, all with our son in the carrier. It was still important for us to stop to let him ‘hike’ with us. He wanted to be part of the adventure and journey, not just a passenger.

2. Make it About Them

Toddlers love being the center of attention. It’s no different on a hike. They’re probably not going to enjoy a hike to an overlook with vistas that they’re too young to appreciate, though some might. You know your kid best, so find a hike with a destination, or stops along the way, that cater to their interests.

Usually, this is not too hard to accomplish. One of our son’s main interests is dirt. Mud, sand, soft, or hard he doesn’t care. He just likes dirt, as long as he can play in it. Luckily for us, we like to hike on dirt trails. To keep him entertained we just have to stop every little while to let him check out a new dirt feature, or let him chase us down and throw dirt on our pants.

Water is another one of our son’s favorite things. One of his favorite hikes is Elk Creek Falls in northern Idaho (you can read my write-up here) because just before the end of the hike there’s a place he can play in the creek. He also likes to see the three waterfalls.

Most kids love to spend time outside. If you do a little research and exercise a little creativity you’ll be able to find some destinations that your kids will love. The next challenge will probably be to keep them moving.

3. Bring Lots of Snacks

Food may be the biggest reason our son likes hiking. Some of his favorite snacks are things he only gets to eat on hikes.

We make our own jerky, fruit leather, and dried fruit. Because quantities are limited we reserve those snacks for our hikes. And they are great motivators.

If we’re having a hard time moving along we pick a landmark or feature we can see ahead of us and designate that as a snack location. When we hike Elk Creek Falls our son often has the snack schedule planned out before we get to the trailhead.

He’ll say something like, “I want jerky at the first waterfall, dried plums at the next waterfall, and fruit leather at the last waterfall. Then I want jerky, dried plums, and fruit leather after I play in the water.” Then he’ll proceed to hike as quickly as possible from one waterfall to the next to get his reward. Granted, in between waterfalls we still often need to use snacks for motivation.

When our son was about two, too young to do much hiking on his own, we visited Glacier National Park. By this age, he wasn’t too fond of being in the carrier, but he didn’t mind it so much if I picked a handful of fresh huckleberries from along the trail and handed them back to him as we hiked. When there weren’t huckleberries I tore dried apricot into small pieces.

Dried fruit and jerky may not be what works for you, but I’m willing to bet you can find – or already know about – some snacks that would motivate your little ones.

4. Make if Fun

Kids seem to have endless amounts of energy, as long as they’re doing something they think is fun. If they’re not having fun on a hike then you have to stop to ‘rest’ every five steps, or less.

There are lots of easy things you can do to up the ‘fun level’ of your hikes. The funny thing is that you never know what kids will like the most.

We’ve done a lot of races. We’ll pick something to race to up ahead. Our son gets in his 3-point stance and yells, “Mark! Set! Gooooo!” Then takes off in his toddler run. Sometimes he only makes it halfway to the ‘finish line’, but it still got him a little way down the trail.

Sometimes we turn parts of the hike into a game of hike-and-seek (see what I did there?). One of us will run up the trail and hide (usually in a pretty obvious spot). Once we’re found we’ll do it again, or ask our son if he can go find a good hiding place.

Often, it’s the simplest, silliest, most unexpected things that become the favorite games.

One fun game we found was for one of us to get a little way ahead on the trail and then get ‘stuck’ on a rock, some mud, or some sand. Then we yell back to our toddler that we need his help to get ‘unstuck’. He comes running up the trail to give us a big push on the rump and get us out of our situation, followed by the question, “Daddy are you going to get stuck again?” Then repeat.

You don’t have to be ‘creative’ to find those fun little activities. My method is to try whatever silly thing pops into my head and not get discouraged if my son doesn’t think it’s fun. Eventually, I find something he likes.

5. Break it Up

Toddlers aren’t going to be able to go for long stretches without stopping for some reason. I’ve found it’s best to just embrace this instead of trying to change it.

You don’t have to try hard to break up the hiking. As you probably already know, your toddler will do this for you. Every time they find something interesting they stop to examine it, often ad nauseam. It can be hard to get moving again.

One way we limit the stops, while still breaking up the hike is to look ahead and try to find fun objectives to get to before stopping. This really goes hand in hand with my previous tips of bringing lots of snacks and making it fun.

We’ll race to signs, count trees, and find rocks to sit on. If you can point out a location, goal, or object up ahead it sometimes (that’s the keyword, sometimes) helps the toddler to focus on that objective and bypass some of the distractions along the way. Most importantly, perhaps, is that they’ll know they get a reward (a short rest, a snack, or something to play with) once they get there.

6. Bring Alternate Transportation

I always like to have a way to carry the little ones (besides holding them in my arms) if they can’t do all the walking themselves. Once kids get to be about 6 months old they do pretty well in a backpack carrier. If you’re going to do a lot of hiking and are doing hikes longer than a mile or two it’s worth investing in a backpack carrier.

Having some transportation for your toddler that’s comfortable for both of you will make your outings more enjoyable. Even though our three-year-old hasn’t ridden in his carrier for the last several months I’ve brought it on every hike, just in case.

7. Go With Someone Else

Whether it’s a friend for you, friends for your kids, or both, the additional company can make hiking more fun and manageable for everyone. Kids really enjoy having others their age around to play with. As a parent, I really appreciate it when I have some adult help to take over when my patience starts wearing thin, and to engage in non-toddler conversations.

Ask around to see if any of your friends or neighbors also enjoy hiking. You may also find some local groups in your area.

Some Final Thoughts

With two kids, our hikes are a lot more work and a lot less distance than they used to be. I don’t get the same physical rewards I did when hiking with other adults, but in many ways, it’s much more rewarding to introduce my children to the outdoors and see them gain enthusiasm for wild places. Hopefully, these 7 tips (and a good dose of patience) will help you have some enjoyable outings with your young ones.

Konrad Hafen

Konrad is a natural resource scientist who spends much of his free time hunting, fishing, hiking and backpacking on America's public lands.

Recent Posts