Travel with little ones always presents unique challenges, but the challenges can be even greater 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.
Before my son finished the toddler and preschooler years, we hiked with him in a wide variety of places. These included the deserts of Arizona, the volcanoes of Oregon, the redwoods and granite monoliths of California, and 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 the least expensive standard ErgoBaby carrier was more than sufficient in backpack carry mode. For longer adventures, however, a structured hiking backpack is a must.
If you are going to hike only occasionally or on short or medium hikes, a basic framed model will do. The well-reviewed Chicco SmartSupport Aluminum Frame Backpack Carrier is a popular and budget-friendly choice that has two different positions as kids grow. It holds up to 40 pounds so should cover most kids until they are 3-4.
If you are a more avid hiking family likely to have a toddler on your back for several hours at a time, invest in a higher end model for longer hikes with all the bells and whistles like the Deuter Kid Comfort or Osprey Poco Plus Child Carrier Backpack.
If you want to test out carriers before committing to a purchase, consider renting a hiking carrier for a weekend getaway. Some outdoor stores offer child backpack carriers for rent or you can locate many baby gear items – including hiking carriers – on BabyQuip, my go to site for rental baby gear in destinations all over the US and beyond.
My good friend and baby gear expert over at Lucie’s List has an excellent roundup of the best toddler hiking carriers and backpacks with additional choices to help you make a smart selection.
2. But Make Your Toddler Walk Too
Although backpacks and baby carriers are a necessity, if your toddlers can walk, they should! One of the joys of hiking is being out in nature and the fresh air. 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. You might also be surprised at what they are able to do!
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 taking 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 longer day 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 before hitting the trail. Make sure your chosen hikes is safe and likely to be enjoyable for little ones. Is the hike on terrain that is toddler friendly and age appropriate? Unprotected sheer cliffs with steep drops 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. 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. Scope out local conditions on websites like All Trails and consult fact-checked hiking guidebooks that cover where you are exploring.
If you are hiking in national or state parks, another essential 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. And their websites are usually up to date on any closures or special considerations that may help you decide whether to forge ahead with or modify your trip plans.
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 packing list essentials we never travel without for day hikes with toddlers:
- Food & plenty of snacks (including a few treats – hey, I’m not above bribery!)
- Bug spray
- Wet Wipes
- Hiking backpack or carrier
- First aid kit
- Rain gear
- Extra layer of clothing (hoodie, jacket, etc.)
6. Buy Good Hiking Boots or Shoes
Proper footwear is essential to hiking success. Especially if you plan to carry your toddler on your back, you need boots with support and grip to keep everyone safe.
What about toddler hiking boots? It may seem like a waste to buy hiking footwear for a young kids 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 or hiking sandals to hike safely.
If you plan to hike more extensively, consider investing in good hiking shoes even for younger 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 and exchange gear and clothing among siblings, cousins, and friends 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.
The Bottom Line for Hiking with a Toddler
Last but certainly not least, have fun! We’ve made so many happy travel memories together in the great outdoors. Hikes have brought our family together and challenged our kids to explore and discover. I hope more families will be able to have similar experiences. It may seem daunting to take on the challenge of both an outdoor adventure and a toddler, but I’m confident the payoff is worth the leap of faith!
This post was originally published in partnership with Moon Travel Guides. It has been updated independent of that relationship since that time. As always, all opinions are my own.