Hiking with toddlers; How to make it FUN!

Hiking with kids can sit firmly on the scale of the most joyous thing we’ve done together as a family, and one of the biggest travelling challenges!

I would love to say there was a magic formula for making it a wonderful family event on every occasion, but the reality is – so much can depend on individual factors on the day! The weather, the mood they woke up in, the colour of their socks… you’re parents – you get the picture!

The best we can do as parents or caregivers taking children with us hiking is to prepare for eventualities. Here we will share with you all our top tips for encouraging toddlers and young children to enjoy hiking with you and make it a family event to be looked forward to, not just endured (or even worse avoided) until they’re older.

This post is part of our travelling with toddlers advice series

How to make hiking with toddlers fun – Get them excited!

Hiking isn’t just a means to an ends like every day walking to get to the shop, for example. It’s about enjoying the journey too so you need to make it FUN!

If you have a reluctant walker a few things you could try:

Sing Songs

Kids are easily distracted from what’s going on around them once you get into the motions of a favourite song. Can mum and dad get the words right or will your little one need to help? Always great for lifting spirits and some happy banter and play along with your little one.

Collect items along your trail

Without damaging your environment of course or taking anything you shouldn’t, what can you collect along the way? A particular type of flower or rock to look for? Having their own little collecting bag will make it even more special.

When you return from your camping trip there are plentiful fun camping and nature crafts you can use your special finds in

Scavenger hunt

This will depend largely on your surroundings, but can you create a list of items kids need to find on their walk? A tickable printout can be a great fun addition for them to add in their pocket with a marker pen.

It will be a little age-dependent but we have found giving kids of different age groups slightly harder lists works well – one with just pictures for toddlers and words and pictures for school-aged kids.

You can base the scavenger hunt on your surroundings like particular plants or animals, or keep it general such as based on what other hikers are wearing, route markers (nothing gets them to that next point faster than “who can find the next route marker?!”)

Bring along friends for the journey

Particularly helpful if you have only one child, can you bring along another family with kids for some company? Kids love the company of other kids, someone new to chat and play with along the way.

Kids holding hands walking through field
Kids love the company of other kids! Do you have any other outdoor-loving friends you can invite along?

Hiking with Toddlers – Bring the right gear

As well as picking the right weather for the occasion (the novelty of rain can wear off pretty quick, even in your favourite wellies), make sure you bring the right equipment and clothing:

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Snacks, snacks and more snacks

As we talked about in our family hiking gear checklist, snacks are truly an essential ingredient to keep up energy levels with kids. As well as keeping kids well-hydrated with water (normally the only item I will make the small ones carry themselves, just to be sure they are constantly taking sips) keep little energy bites on hand as pick me ups.

We try and use the small snack stops as little incentives to go just that little bit further. Also offering a few options helps too; trail mix and dry crackers don’t always cut it with small kids you may want the option of a small chocolate treat or some higher energy fruit-based snacks are great too.

If you plan on stopping for a full picnic lunch though, don’t let little bellies get too full on snacks.

Hiking carriers for toddlers

If you want to hike any sort of distance with your small tots, be realistic. You will not get far without needing to carry a toddler at some point. If it’s just the occasional short shoulder ride or piggybacks then fine. But trust me, your back will thank you for investing in a properly structured carrier for hiking with your toddler.

We’ve personally used the Deuter Kid Comforter and found it amazing, though we know it’s pricey if you’re only occasionally hiking, and bulky to travel with if you’ve got to fly of fit into a tight car boot space with all your luggage. If you can pick one up second hand, it’s a great buy.

Alternatively, a good value option we’ve seen several hiking parents with is the ClevrPlus Deluxe.

I’d also recommend mixing up the carrier and the hiking. Get them used to the fact that they are expected to use their own two feet!

Alternating between the carrier and walking gives everyone a little freedom, and half the point you’re in the outdoors is so your kids can explore! Let them look at things close up and take their time (it’s not a race, as I’ve reminded my husband many times!).

Clothing for toddler hiking

Also, make sure they are equipped with the right clothing. Too hot or too cold? Bound to complain! Jumper feels too itchy? Or our favourite, my feet are soggy!!!

You don’t want to carry too much in your hiking day pack, but DO bring a few weather contingencies with you.

  • If the day is likely to start cold then warm up, start with some gloves and beanies that they can strip down.
  • Good structured shoes are a must – forget their favourite crocs of flip-flops! An outdoor sandal like Keen’s Seacamp is ideal for summer hikes or Keen Chandler enclosed hiking shoes are perfect choices that come in toddler sizing as low as size 4! You can see our full guide to toddler hiking shoes here.
  • A spare pair of socks never goes astray and easy to fit in your hiking day pack
  • If there’s any chance of mud and puddles etc, a nice warm tracksuit they can change into afterwards.
20 Toddler Travel Essentials for 2023 - with packing list

Kids backpacks for toddler hiking

Little kids hiking backpacks are so cute, right? But be realistic. Will your child genuinely carry it the whole way? What’s going in their backpack? In order to control the snack proportions, it’s best if a grown-up carries these, we’d really only recommend a toddler carry their own water bottle. Anything heavier than this may be too much.

  • An option to look at is small toddler backpacks that come with a tether or leash and harness; helpful on busy trails where you want to give your child independence but still keep them close by.
Toddler in winter wear with a toddler backpack harness with tether

Small first aid kit

No matter how cautious you are, kids DO have a tendency to hurt themselves, all the time! Just a small pocket size first aid kit should do for a day hike. Plasters seem to be the most in-demand item when hiking with a toddler, and some small alcohol rubbing wipes to clean around wounds. And of course, sanitiser, lots of sanitising before those snacks!

Hiking with Toddlers – Timing it right

As we know with toddlers, so much can come down to the time of day and how tired your child is when you’re out of the house.

It will vary by family, but most small tots I know are up before sparrows; if this is the case and that is when they have the most energy, get going early in the day and harness that energy. Hit the trails before most others are up and you may even be finished by lunchtime.

Toddler nap times and hiking

Nap times can continue to be a real concern when you’re hiking with toddlers. Ideally, if you are concerned about naps, we try and time it so we start 30 minutes to an hour before their usual nap time – get that last burst of energy in then place them in the carrier for their nap. You’ll be amazed how well (and long!) little ones can sleep in the sway of a carrier and enjoying the fresh air.

Research your route before you set out

Most of us probably pay close attention to the length of a trail before we set off to work out timings, but when hiking with kids you need to do a little further due diligence.

Think about the grade of the path and what type of surfaces you’ll encounter. Steep, narrow staircases, for example, don’t work well with toddlers, nor do slippery paths or anything with lots of stinging nettles of the like.

Where to hike with toddlers

Where ever you live around the world you’re sure to find a hiking track suitable for your toddler. Remember when you’re starting out, keep it simple. If they have a horrible first experience, it will make the next time an even more daunting experience – for you and for them!

More outdoor adventures with babies & toddlers

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This is a guest contribution by our friend Shelley, hiking & outdoors Mama based in the UK and travelling Europe with her two little globetrotter

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Hiking with Toddlers mum in hiking gear and backpack holding up child

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