7 Tips for Hiking with a Toddler

Bonbon Break

It feels like it wasn’t that long ago that we had a baby we could snuggle into a soft carrier to take hiking, and who would fall asleep for long portions of the journey. But things have changed rather quickly, and we now have a toddler bubbling over with personality and propelling herself with her own two feet.

Though the newness of doing outdoor activities with a baby can be overwhelming, once that little person sleeps less and walks more, you’ve got a whole new set of wonderful (and totally manageable) challenges to contend with. Of course, this depends on your toddler. Some can sit longer than others. Some sleep anywhere. Mine is a restless little ball of energy who doesn’t want to miss a thing.

Either way, all toddlers are inherently busy and explorative, so if you have two-foot-high trail buddy in tow, these tips should come in handy.

Prepping for a hike into the backcountry in Banff National Park. Photo Meghan J. Ward collection.
Prepping for a hike into the backcountry in Banff National Park. Photo Meghan J. Ward collection.

1. Snacks, Snacks and More Snacks

A hungry kid is never a happy kid. More than that, though, the trail is no different than running errands around town or hopping on an airplane: food is entertainment. We love snacks that we can give in small portions without filling up our daughter too much. And when things become a bit desperate (ie. bubs just won’t settle), I have a few special snacks in my back pocket, literally, to whip out at a moment’s notice. My friend Teresa’s kids over at Expect Adventure call their favourite treats “hiking worms” because they only get gummy worms on the trail. She says she’s fine with spoiling them more on the trail than at home, and I like that.

My favourite toddler snacks include:

  • bite-size dried fruits
  • dehydrated yogourt bites
  • cereal bars
  • rice cakes
  • nuts (cashews are good because you can easily break them into smaller pieces for safe chewing)

2. Let Them Walk and Explore

These little breaks can feel like an eternity when you’re on a longer hike and are itching to get somewhere, but your child desperately needs them. Kids get fidgety for a reason; it’s a sign they haven’t had enough movement! So if yours is pulling your hair and nothing seems to entertain them anymore, see what happens when you release them from the carrier and let them explore. Ours stops whining immediately, gleefully gathers rocks and twigs, and bounces up the trail. We genuinely love watching her explore.

We let our daughter walk until the point that she wants to be carried again. Once she is back in the carrier, we can set off at a good clip again, though I’m surprised at how quickly her little legs can go!

Here's mine, walking up the trail, lured by dried fruit (combining tips #1 and #2!). Photo Meghan J. Ward collection.
Here’s mine, walking up the trail, lured by dried fruit (combining tips #1 and #2!). Photo Meghan J. Ward collection.

3. Add More Time. Then Add Some More.

You may already be calculating hiking times differently as a parent, but I’d advise you to add even more time. Sure, you may get to your destination faster than anticipated, but adding more time takes the pressure off of trying to stay within the constraints of an unrealistic timeframe. With even lower expectations you’ll feel less discouraged if things don’t go as smoothly as you’d hoped. Adding extra time may also help you pick appropriate hikes for you and your toddler.

4. Keep Items Accessible

Come up with a system that lets you keep important toddler items accessible – water bottle, snacks, toys, layers, etc. I promise you’ll get annoyed with all the stopping/starting; taking the pack off, putting it back on; and digging through items in a bottomless storage compartment. The more you can grab without needing to even stop, the better.

For instance, since my daughter has not yet learned to drink from a hydration tube, I macgyvered a system that let me attached her water bottle to the backpack so that if she dropped it, it didn’t fall to the ground. I also kept snacks in my back pockets and in the hip belt pockets and side pockets of the backpack. Sunscreen, bug spray, hat, sweater and shoes were all stuffed into the bottom compartment, and while this still presented a few annoyances, there was simply nowhere else to put it.

My contraption for keeping that water bottle from falling when my toddler chucked it. Nothing a carabiner and sling can't fix. Photo Meghan J. Ward collection.
My contraption for keeping that water bottle from falling when my toddler chucked it. Nothing a carabiner and sling can’t fix. Photo Meghan J. Ward collection.

6. Keep the Fun Toddler-Style

When life is so hectic and you spend most of your time with toddlers, it’s tempting to use trail time to chat and catch-up with your adult hiking partners (if you have them). This certainly has its place, and kids shouldn’t require constant entertainment. But I think it’s important to make the trail as fun an environment as possible for kids, especially when they don’t yet enjoy hiking for themselves. Toddlers love songs and dance parties, so incorporate them into your hike. Count and tickle your little one’s toes and talk directly to them as you move along. When they feel like they are a part of things, they are sure to enjoy it more.

6. Let Mother Nature Do Her Thing

As outdoor lovers you know that hiking is so much more than getting from Point A to Point B on a trail. And Mother Nature offers us plenty to observe along the way. It sounds pretty basic, but take her cues, and use your hike as a chance to teach your child about nature. Stop and point out the birds and chipmunks and let your child’s fingers graze a fern or touch some tree bark.

When you aren’t singing songs and entertaining, encourage your child to listen to the wind in the trees or the birds chirping. Not only will this help teach your child to love nature, it will help you tune into it more yourself. And even though a toddler may not understand it all, these experiences in nature are some of the most important and formative experiences of their young lives.

7. Baby Legs!

Check out a wide assortment of Baby Legs at babylegs.com.
Check out a wide assortment of Baby Legs at babylegs.com.

I have to add this one because I thought it was a small stroke of genius on my part. On a recent hike we were expecting to hike in quite hot temperatures around midday, but early in the day it was quite cool. To avoid having to do a pant change, I dressed my little girl in shorts and pulled some Baby Legs onto her legs (tube-style leg warmers). These kept her warm, but also prevented mosquitoes from attacking her juicy little thighs. When temperatures got hot enough for shorts, the Baby Legs were easy to pull off, even over her shoes. Bonus: my husband could pull them off while she was still in the carrier. Trust me, that’s a big deal!

What tips to you have for hiking with a toddler?

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Author: Meghan J. Ward

Meghan J. Ward is an outdoor, travel and adventure writer based in Banff, Canada, and a Fellow of the Royal Canadian Geographical Society. Meghan has written several books, as well as produced content for films, anthologies, blogs and some of North America’s top outdoor, fitness and adventure publications. She has a forthcoming travel memoir (Fall 2022), to published by Rocky Mountain Books.

14 thoughts

  1. Meghan: I so enjoy reading your blogs and about how much you love the outdoors and want your little one to enjoy it as well. I don’t know if you remember me or not but we were at KBC when your family moved to Kanata. We left in 2000 to move to London.

    Linda Smith

  2. Just finally got time to hike with my 1 year old son, I have used an ergo baby for the time being but I am thinking of upgrading… the ergo baby has no place to store anything… Any suggestions on a good pack to buy?

    I totally agree of these tips… My son loves to walk a bit and about the time he gets too tired or too distracted I throw him in the carrier and along we go on our merry way. And honestly hiking wears him out physically and mentally, which is wonderful because nap time is mommy’s time to herself!!

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