Tips for hiking with kids: how to make hiking with toddlers and young kids fun for them and you
Going on family hikes has been a great resource for us in the last few years both at home and abroad however, getting our kids to enjoy hiking did not happen overnight.
For the longest time, at least one of the other simply did not want to hike at all and any attempt of doing it anyway saying ‘oh, they will enjoy it once we are on the trail’ hit the wall of two stubborn toddler who simply would not move a step.
As we rest at the end of a nice walk on the Dublin mountains, watching the kids giddy and happy after the hike, I cannot believe how far we have come from those times.
We managed to turn the situation around with time, persistence and some good tips we picked up along the way.
If you are struggling to get your kids to enjoy hiking, maybe we can help!
These are our best tips for hiking with kids and enjoy it!
Tips for hiking with a baby
Hiking with a baby is not like hiking on your own however, the change from pre-baby hiking to hiking-with-baby is less dramatic that what we expected.
When you have a baby, you are the only one walking and while some adjustments are necessary, they are nothing compared with the adjustment needed for the toddler years.
To hike with baby, I recommend:
Get a good hiking carrier (not a city one)
A hood hiking carrier was one of the first purchases we ever made when it came to baby travel essentials and one we never regretted.
Hiking carriers are purpose made to help you hike mountain terrain with a baby on your shoulders and they are the safest option for you and for them.
Choose them with a solid frame, good materials, padded straps and go for those that have extra items such as a sun shade for baby.
The one we used and love is the Deuter Kid Comfort, which we have used for years and, two kids and several hikes later, is still in perfect conditions!
Choose the right trail
Carrying a baby on your shoulders gets tiring fast so make sure you choose your first trail with care.
Go for one that is not too long or too strenuous so you can gauge how you are doing once you have a plus one on your shoulders and go for terrain that doesn’t have crazy sheer drops as your balance may well be affected.
Some great hiking destinations have trails that are suitable for families: never assume if you have a baby you cannot go!
Gear baby up
Your child will not be walking but this doesn’t mean they do not need special gear.
Make sure you they are dressed for the weather and check often if they are comfortable while you are moving, they are not.
Protect them from wind and sun and allow them to change position regularly.
Bring all your baby essentials
No matter where you are, you will have to have with you baby gear such as diapers, wipes etc.
Make sure you have all you need and add a little more if you are going on a trail you don’t know and you think you may be longer than expected.
Consider getting a backpack diaper bag for the person who is not carrying baby to have on their shoulders.
Some double up perfectly as day bags and hiking bags!
Bring food and drinks for you and baby
If you are breastfeeding, make sure you load up on water and you will need more than usual.
Tips for hiking with toddlers
Hiking with toddlers, like traveling with toddlers or truly doing anything with toddlers, is when things get hard!
Getting your toddler on a trail is a wonderful ting that will help them use up energy, connect with nature and get some fresh air but this is the time when hikes as you knew them truly come to an end and adjustment is needed.
As good at walking as your toddler can be and as motivated as you can be to have them on you shoulders, you can be sure the pace will be slower, the stops will be numerous and reaching the top optional!
My tips for hiking with toddlers are
Manage expectations (yours)
Hiking with a toddler is very different from hiking with a baby or an older child, so different in fact that ‘hiking’ can sometimes feel like a misnomer.
With a toddler, what you are most likely going to do is get on a trail, start walking and then stop a million times as they collect a stone, a leaf, a twig and so on.
This may be cute, heartwarming or infuriating depending on the experience we are hoping to get so my advice is: do not go on a hike expecting a wonderful energizing walk that will leave you legs aching, your heart pumping and your lungs singing.
Expect a walk full of stops and false starts: if you get anything more, that’s a bonus!
When hiking with a toddler it is truly all about the journey and not the destination.
Accept that you may not get to the end of the hike and that this is ok!
Gear them up
Once children can walk they need to have shoes suitable for the terrain they are on so if you are bringing them hiking it is a good idea to give them hiking shoes.
Hiking shoes for toddlers don’t have to be expensive or super high tech but it is a good idea to put them in shoewear that protects them from bumps, rocks and that gives them a good bit of grip.
Make sure the soles are not too stiff, make sure they can take mud and some water (they will go into that paddle) and good cushioned or at least thick socks for extra protection.
You can find our favorite hiking shoes for toddlers here.
As well as shoes, I find it handy to put them in comfy trousers (waterpoof if you are in wet conditions) and at least a couple of top layers, so you can make sure they are not too hot or too cold as they move.
Sunglasses and sunhat are always handy too.
Bring a carrier
If you are determined to reach your destination, I recommend you bring a good hiking toddler carrier.
Make sure you are up for the challenge as toddlers can get very heavy on a trail, and consider using the carrier for the second part of the hike only.
If hey get tired walking first, they may be quieter when they get to sit on your shoulder making the hike easier for everyone.
You can find here a list of my favorite carriers for toddlers (good for hiking too)
Bring snacks and water
Snacks are the key to any activity with a toddler and hiking is no exception.
Snacks we love for them are rice cakes, fruit, carrot sticks, raisings and small sandwiches.
Like on any day our with little ones, always carry diapers and changing essentials if using.
Make sure you have a bathrooms stop before tacking the trail if your kids are newly out of the diaper years!
Give them a little bag for treasures
We do not encourage taking anything from the woods (no picking flowers etc) but twigs, small pebbles and leaves are fun for toddlers to pick up and collect.
Giving them a little bag can be a good way to motivate them – make sure you study the area before you let them touch anything thought to avoid poisonous or irritating plants etc.
Bring a first aid kit
We use the same first aid kit carry on our travels
Tips for hiking with kids of primary school age
Set expectations (theirs)
When the kids are a little older I find it is all about setting expectations.
Tell them exactly how long the hike is supposed to be and what type of place it is: is it a wood, mountains, what will be at the top?
I find that telling them what the place is going to be like (as far as you know) is a good way to avoid overpromising an delivering.
Give them a scavenger hunt
Younger kids may find hard to enjoy the walk unless they are entertained and in that case we always found ascavenger hunt to work wonders.
You can buy forest scavenger hunt cards but it is very simple to make your own.
Before leaving the house, I just write down a list of things they are likely to see on the trail (plus a few harders ones) with a checkbox and I give them the list, a support and a pen.
That’s all they need and the fun is disproportionaltey higher than the effort to make the game!
Bring a compass
You may not need a compass to find your way on a family hike buy it will keep kids engaged for ages!
This is a good thing to have especially if you have kids who have been learning geography in school and a good way to mix find and learning.
This is a lovely present for kids who hike.
A little like the compass, this is an easy to carry and inexpensive piece of gear that will keep them busy and help engage with their surroundings.
You can find here our favorite binoculars with kids
Gear them up
Proper clothing and hiking gear is crucial if you want a safe and pleasant walk.
We usually make sure the children have good hiking shoes, suitable trousers, layers (from short sleeve to wind breaker to whatever jacket they may need if hiking in cold weather) and we always give them a hydration backpack.
I also like to give children a hiking backpack or a anyway a day pack that they can have on their own shoulders with essentials such as a snack and water.
I find this is a good way to teach independence and saves you from constant requests for food too!
Our favorite kids hiking backpack is the Kikki Deuter for little ones – it has lovely padded shoulders, a chest strap and it is just perfect for hiking with young kids.
Pick the right trail
When choosing a hike it is easy to look at length and level of difficulty however, with kids, we also look at how varied the view is.
If possible, for hikes with kids we prefer trails with a variety of views and terrains, to keep things interesting.
Looking for family friendly hikes, or kid friendly hikes is a good starting point however, I recommend you always check a little more in depth what each trail entails, especially if nothing is mentioned about kids.
Sometimes, a trail may not be marked as family friendly as it is not suitable for strollers but is ok for older kids.
I usually search on line ‘name of trail’ suitable for kids with a question mark: this usually lends me on great local mom blogs with super in depth info!
Teach kids trail etiquette
Hiking has its own rules and a great educational opportunity.
Especially on a new hike or in a new area, it is a good idea to remind your kids how the trail markings work, what behavior is on the path and what is dangerous, what plants they are likely to encounter, what to do in case of an encounter with wildlife etc.
It is also a good idea to make provisions should your children dash ahead.
How far ahead can they go, what should they do if they don’t see you, how can they call for help?
Even on a short easy hike, setting ground rules is a good idea.
Check for kids programs
Some hiking areas such as US National parks have wonderful educational resources for children that are wonderful to get kids hiking and learning about the park while having fun.
The national park junior ranger programme is the best example of this type of programme we have ever seen but you may have similar initiatives where you are, in a smaller scale.
One of our local parks in Dublin for instance has a printable tree trail with rubbings the kids can take of different native leaves – it is a great motivation for them to keep going and makes a lovely memento from the walk!
Bring water, snacks and bags to collect your own garbage
So you are comfortable on the trail and leave no trace!
I hope you enjoyed these tips for hiking with kids and it helped you feel more prepared for your first family hike. Stay safe!