This post is sponsored by Moon Travel Guides. All opinions are my own.
Travel with little ones always presents unique challenges, and perhaps even more so when taking young kids into the great outdoors. Our traveling family has found that hiking with our children, even in the extra-challenging toddler years, is incredibly rewarding. From national parks to simple trails right near home, making the extra effort to go hiking with a toddler has been worth it.
With our first child, we didn’t go on as many outdoor adventures. We thought roughing it might be too much of a challenge and were worried about issues like diapers and naps and logistics. But like all parents, we lived and learned with our second child. We were ready to explore the great outdoors more regularly by the time our son came along.
My son is 4 now, so we have just finished up the toddler stage. We have hiked with him in a wide variety of places, from the deserts of Arizona to the volcanoes of Oregon and from the redwoods of California to the vistas of the Smoky Mountains. As a result, we have a lot of travel tips and lessons learned about hiking with toddlers from the other side. Time to share them before our toddler travel years become a distant memory!
So without further ado, here are my family’s best tips and tricks for hiking with toddlers.
(Trips With Tykes uses affiliate links which means I may earn a small commission if you purchase through links in this post. See our full disclosure policy linked in the menu at the bottom of this site.)
7 Tips for Hiking with Toddlers
1. Bring a Good Carrier or Hiking Backpack
While I applaud those parents who can train their children to hike at a very young age, the reality is that hiking with toddlers involves some extra manual labor. If you want to do hikes of any substance, you are going to need to carry your toddler at least some of the time. A good carrier or hiking backpack is essential.
With younger toddlers on shorter hikes, we found our regular ErgoBaby carrier was more than sufficient. For longer adventures, however, a structured hiking backpack is a must. My good friend and baby gear expert over at Lucie’s List has an excellent roundup of the best toddler hiking carriers and backpacks to help you make a smart selection.
2. But Make Your Toddler Walk Too
Although backpacks and carriers are a necessity, if your toddlers can walk, they should! One of the joys of hiking is being out in nature. It is hard for a toddler to fully experience that without putting his or her own two feet on the ground and being able to stop and pick up a rock or smell a flower. When the conditions allow it safely and toddlers are in a good mood, let them hike trails themselves. It is good exercise and good training for more challenging hikes in the coming years.
3. Time Hikes Appropriately
Time your hikes for success around toddler schedules. Almost all toddlers need at least one early afternoon nap (and younger toddlers may even still be on a two nap schedule). The last thing you want is a toddler melting down and hitting an afternoon wall when you are miles away from your car or a resting place.
I tend to think mid-morning is about the right time for most hikes with toddlers. Go for a few hours and break for lunch before making time for a rest. If your toddler can sleep in a carrier or backpack easily, then you can go for longer! Our son has napped through many a hike which has made for some cute photos and funny memories.
4. Always Do Your Due Diligence & Preparation
With all hiking and outdoor adventures, knowing what to expect is key. You’ll need to do your homework to make sure a chosen hike is safe and likely to be enjoyable for little ones. Is the hike on terrain that is toddler appropriate? Unprotected sheer cliffs are probably not the best call for this age and stage. Is the terrain in the right condition for the season in which you want to hike? Muddy paths, for example, are hard enough for adults but can make for real toddler mess and frustration.
Always consult quality resources and travel guides before you go. I live in the San Francisco Bay Area where there are so many amazing local hiking opportunities for every skill level. We have been referring often to Moon 101 Great Hikes San Francisco Bay Area (buy it on Amazon or Barnes & Noble) to scope out age-appropriate hikes for our family this summer. Being able to compare features like trail length, elevation change, and even not-as-obvious logistics like available parking helps us make choices that work for our family. And Moon Travel Guides is a brand I’ve trusted for years. So I know the information to be as accurate as possible.
If you are hiking in national or state parks, another great resource to lean on are the rangers and park employees. They’ll know the latest conditions on the ground to avoid any last minute surprises.
5. Bring the Necessary Supplies
On other side of the preparation coin, you’ll need all the proper supplies for hiking too. That means not only the kinds of supplies you’d need for any hike but also supplies that your toddler requires regularly. A few essentials we never travel without for day hikes with toddlers:
- Food & Snacks (including a few treats – hey, I’m not above bribery!)
- Bug spray
- Wet Wipes
- Hiking backpack or carrier
6. Buy Good Hiking Boots or Shoes
Proper footwear is essential to hiking success. Especially if you plan to even carry your toddler on your back, you need boots with support and grip to keep everyone safe.
What about boots for your toddler? It may seem like a waste to buy hiking footwear for a toddlers when they’ll wear them so little before they outgrow them. I hear you – hiking boots may be overkill. At the very least, however, your toddler needs sneakers with good treads to hike safely.
If you plan to hike more extensively, consider investing in good hiking boots even for the kids. We always buy gender neutral outdoor gear for our children (a tip that really has saved us money on our ski vacations), so we can hand down gear and clothing among siblings without issue.
7. Don’t Be Too Ambitious
Last but certainly not least, be realistic about what you can do with a toddler. Yes, I know someone who hiked the Grand Canyon 25 miles rim-to-rim with their three year old. But most toddlers – and parents – aren’t that extraordinary!
Hiking with a toddler will not be done at the same pace you hiked before. Start with easier hikes to learn your child’s interests and tolerance. Also remember every child is different and will respond differently to a new challenge like hiking. Some may be more adventurous while others will be more timid at the exact same age. And mercurial toddlers may seem like hiking pros one day and then regress or melt down another. Plan for the unexpected and adjust.
Monday 14th of June 2021
I agree with most of the points, except one: with a toddler over 2 years old, we decided to leave the baby carrier in the garage... We just did yday a 4.8km/230m elevation small hiking (Mont Donon, in France) with 2.5, 4 and 5.5 years old kids and went so great. Sure, the toddler did "only" ~80-90% of the path, but it was much easier to just put him in the shoulder and on the first occasion (an ant, some strange rock...) let him going back on its own feet (plan LOT of time..). With a baby carrier, and all the strings, it's all more complicated and unnatural..On the shoulders it is a moment to put him up.. but also to put him back :-)
Edit: an other point I disagree is the boots.. the kind of trekking you do with small kids do not normally require boots. .that would just add weight.. if in the summer, some trekking sandals would most likely suffice.
Sunday 6th of June 2021
Thanks, just getting into hiking with our 18 month old, any tips on elevation and what you've learned?
Saturday 26th of September 2020
This is very fantastic place. thank you for the post.
Saturday 5th of September 2020
Appreciating the time and effort you put into your website and the in depth information you offer. It was such a most valuable concept about hiking with toddlers. Nice explanation and you have pointed out some valid points exceptionally well. Thanks for your help!
Saturday 13th of June 2020
We love hiking with our kids! We use Deuter carriers with our 3 y.o. boys, hopefully they will serve us for one more year! We started our outdoor exploration in woods near our home, we weren't sure if boys would like it and how long they could sit in the carriers. But it turned out they loved it so we started more long-distance walks and hikes. Sometimes we get a bit sweaty but we enjoy every minute of it :)