Studies show that there are endless health benefits to spending time outdoors as children. Getting out in nature, away from TV screens, and into green spaces is essential for a child’s health and development. Being the proactive parent that you are, you put “Paw Patrol” on pause and pack up the family to hit the trails.
Suddenly, the idyllic day hike you imagined turns upside down when reality sets in — cranky children having melodramatic meltdowns and making you wonder why you even strapped on your backpack in the first place. Hiking with toddlers and young children can be a challenge, but these tips will help you achieve whine-free hiking this summer.
1. Choose a family-friendly trail.
When looking at your hiking options, select a trail that is suitable for your child’s age, skill level, and stamina. The goal shouldn’t be an ascent of Everest here, folks. Lower your expectations and be realistic about the distance your kids can handle. Be sure to save some energy for the return trip. Look for a trail with cool features that will keep your kiddos interested: a creek to dip their toes in, rocks to scramble on, a mini-summit to see the land from a bird’s-eye view. You can search for kid-friendly trails at AllTrails, a database of over 50,000 trails across the US.
2. Pick the right time of day to go.
Aim for a time of day when the weather is pleasant and the kids are well rested and ready to rock. A sleepy, cranky kid makes for a bad hiker, so be sure to work around naptime and only hike when everyone’s likely to be in a good mood. Early morning, when the sun isn’t too hot and energy levels are up, is typically a great time for a hike with the kids.
3. Dress for success.
Yes, your little angel may throw a fit if she doesn’t wear her Princess Sofia the First jelly shoes, but mama says “too bad.” Hiking requires shoes with sturdy support for all-terrain fun. Keen Footwear has a wide selection of shoes for active kids. For summer hiking, Big Kid’s Newport H2 is a light, comfy, quick-dry shoe that breathes but still protects the toes. With colors like ribbon-red gargoyle and purple heart periwinkle, this shoe is a fun alternative to the classic hiker boot. Before any hike, make sure the kiddos break their shoes in at home so their little feet don’t get blisters out on the trail.
4. Protect against the sun.
Even if it doesn’t seem that hot out, little ones can easily burn. Slather on that sunscreen and, of course, wear a hat. Dress the kids in lightweight, long-sleeved shirts made from breathable fabrics to protect them from the sun. Patagonia sells fun pink and blue hoodies with 50+ UPF sun protection. They are also quick dry, so moisture is wicked from the skin to keep kids cool and dry when they inevitably splash in a mud puddle or douse themselves in water.
5. Buy kid-sized gear.
Kids love having their own gear, so get your toddler a small pack to carry some lightweight items like a hoodie. While hiking, the weather can change quickly, so dress the kids in layers and pack a warm jacket in your backpack in case the temperature drops. Eddie Bauer and Columbia sell some brightly colored windbreakers and fleece jackets for even the littlest hikers.
While it’s great to be prepared, don’t bring too much stuff! Do know that whatever the kids bring in, you’ll end up carrying out. If you don’t want to feel like a pack mule, be kind to yourself by packing light and leaving extraneous stuffed animals or beloved toys at home.
6. Give your arms a rest.
True, carrying your kid for miles through the woods may be great for your biceps, but it sure is exhausting. If you anticipate hiking with your little one in your arms, a baby hiking backpack is a must. While there are many to choose from, The Deuter Kid Comfort 2 Child Carrier is among the most well-reviewed. Lightweight at only seven pounds with an adjustable harness, five-point child safety system, and plenty of pockets, the backpack can hold up to 48.5 pounds (weight includes your gear and kiddo). This weight restriction means that even older kids (not just babies) can comfortably fit in the carrier, giving the product far more longevity.
An alternative to the carrier is a durable jogging stroller. BOB strollers have heavy tires, good suspension and can easily maneuver through all kinds of rugged terrain. If you have young kids who can’t walk very far before they need a rest or a nap, this kind of stroller could be a hiking life-saver.
7. Pack snacks and drink lots of water.
Before you set out on your trip, get the kids to help with a little DIY trail mix. Set out pretzels, raisins, nuts, Goldfish crackers, and M&Ms, and let kids put together their own snack mixes for the hike. Healthy portable snacks such as apples, granola bars, and homemade chocolate protein balls are also good things to have on hand. Don’t forget to have a few emergency lollipops in your back pocket in case you need to bribe or coerce your children with high-fructose corn syrup. Pack the kids’ CamelBak water bottles, and be sure to take frequent water breaks.
8. Pack a first-aid kit.
Dr. Mom and Dr. Dad should have a few first-aid items on hand for possible toddler tumbles and scrapes. REI sells a hiking first-aid kit with an assortment of adhesive bandages and antiseptic towelettes for $13, or you can make your own first aid kit.
9. Gamify the hike.
Keep the kids engaged by turning the hike into an epic outdoor scavenger hunt. Check out Pinterest for free nature-themed hunts. Print out the list of things to gather (everything from pine cones to dandelions), glue the paper to a small gift bag, and voila! Kids can collect all the “treasures” they find and store them in their bags. Be sure to include a pencil or crayon so they can check found items off the list.
10. Become a junior naturalist.
Encourage your child’s natural curiosity by giving them a magnifying glass, kid-sized binoculars, a journal, and a small container (even an egg carton will do) for any cool things they find. Encourage them to make observations by using all their senses. “What does it look, feel, sound, taste, smell like?” Download cool nature apps like iNaturalist and Plant Snap Plant Identification to help identify plants and trees as you walk past them. For animals, insects, birds, and butterflies, check out: MyNature Animal Tracks, Meet the Insects, Audubon Birds, and Butterfly Collection.
11. Keep it fun.
Reward the kids for a great job done! Remember: hiking should be fun, so try to prevent possible PTHD (post-traumatic hiking disorder). Make the kids feel successful, and they’ll be excited to hike again in the future.