My husband and I joke that our 60-mile endurance mountain bike race adventures (before parenthood) were a walk in the park compared to a simple hike with our pre-schooler. While we joke about this, we know deep down that it is actually true, and we sometimes long for the days when we could do whatever we wanted without worrying about the health and wellbeing of our part joyful, part melancholic 4-year old.
So, why bring your kiddo along for a hike if it is such a challenge? Well…first of all, if you don’t go as a family, you might not be hitting the trail very often. Unless you are fortunate enough to have family or friends to watch your kiddo(s), babysitters cost a fortune. There are other reasons for bringing your tike along. Going for a hike has tremendous benefits to little ones. It instills a love for being outside; offers endless opportunities for teaching about nature, conservation, and the environment; boosts your child’s immune system; helps build their microbiome; and builds their motor skills.
During Well Child Visits, one thing I always talk with the parents about is making sure their child gets enough exercise and outdoor time. Today, I’d like to share some of the things that my husband and I have learned (often times the hard way) to help your family hike be an enjoyable experience.
Start small. Select an easy 1-2 mile hike to start. You may be surprised at how much of this hike your toddler will do!
Plan the hike at a time that your toddler does their best (likely well before or after nap time). Hiking with an infant while they are sleeping is great! But, when they grow up to be toddlers, having them more awake so they can carry their own weight and engage with nature is a much better experience.
If your little one can still fit in your baby/toddler carrier, bring the pack (its so nice to have if you need it)! If you have two adults, one can carry the mini-human pack and the other can carry the pack of food, water, etc. Investing in a nice toddler/child carrier will help save your back, but we just picked up an old Kelty at the second hand store.
Bring plenty of their favorite snacks and water to avoid tantrums. Trust me on this one…we have been mid-way through a 5 mile hike with no snacks, navigating our child’s hanger tantrums. If this does happen to you, distraction, water, and plenty of conversation and encouragement can help.
Be prepared! Dress your kiddo in layers. If it is winter time, make sure they have a hat, gloves and jacket. If it is sunny, be sure they have sunglasses. If it is summertime, be sure they have sunscreen, lip balm, a sun hat, and natural bug spray. And, don’t forget the diapers and wipes if your kiddo is not yet potty trained.
Invest in some decent shoes for your little one. By decent, I mean shoes with some grippy tread that fit them well. We have mistakenly left the house with shoes with no tread, and our little guy was slipping and sliding more than hiking.
Bring a small towel and extra pair of socks for your toddler. If there is an opportunity for them to wade in a shallow stream, your toddler will love it!
Allow for their sensory needs while still moving along the trail. Have your child pick one rock at the top of the mountain to carry down. Or, find an appropriate walking stick for your child to hold.
Be patient! It is completely normal for toddlers to wander, and be more interested in climbing the rock they see than to stay on pace down the trail. Just know that this is how hiking is now. Allow them to safely explore and climb, and then let them know when they have 1 more minute, when it is about time to move on.
Ask your child if they would prefer to walk or be carried. You can also ask if they just want to hold your hand. Giving your child the choice allows them to feel empowered and safe, so that they look forward to hiking adventures.
Be creative! Little minds are so imaginative. Channel your inner Mr. Rogers and play make believe. It could be dinosaurs, or a safari, or whatever (non-scary thing) your child is into at the time.
Learn about the flora and fauna so that you can teach your child about them. I love to teach my son about the plants we see along the trail. In Colorado, gum weed, yarrow, plantain, sage, and mint are good ones to know and teach your children about. Look for bugs along the trail. One time, my toddler found a praying mantis!
Sing songs or recite nursery rhymes as you hike. This will help them learn to love language, which is the first step in learning how to read!
Bring a first aid kit and definitely some “boo boo salve” (calendula salve). If something should happen where they scrape up their knees, get more severely wounded, or get sick on the trail, you want to be prepared. Stay tuned for a post about my naturopathic first aid kit.
Encourage your partner, breathe, and know that every moment is fleeting.
Hopefully this will help you avoid some of the unpleasant situations we have ran into in some of our hikes. Enjoy the car ride home…usually our little one is completely snoozed out. Treat yourself to a Colorado brew or nourishing cup of tea and an epsom salt bath when you get home. You earned it!
Boulder, Colorado Tip: Stop by the Ranger Station at Chautauqua Park and check out a toddler/preschooler hiking backpack. It includes bug catching equipment and binoculars. My little one adored this for an afternoon of play.