I love summer. The longer days and warmer weather make me want to stay outside all day. So this is usually the time of year when my family goes on longer hiking adventures. When small children are along, these excursions require much more planning. This helps ensure that these adventures are successful and enjoyable for everyone. Below is a list of tips and strategies from myself and our wonderful Hike it Baby community for embarking on longer-distance day hikes with babies and toddlers in tow.
1. Variety Is the Spice of Life
Who doesn’t love a little variety – especially our pint-sized humans who seem to get bored with things at lightning speed? (Or is that just my toddler?) For longer hikes, that means three main things for my family:
- A myriad of snack choices – This includes favorite snacks they have frequently and also snacks they only get while on outdoor adventures (such as gummies or chocolate).
- Differing scenery – We try to plan longer hikes that have a variety of ecosystems to explore, such as woodlands, wetlands and preferably a water feature (such as a waterfall or lake). Interesting trail features help to push us all along when we start to get worn out!
- Multiple modes of transportation for little walkers – My toddler likes to start on his own feet. Then he hitches a ride in the carrier on mommy or daddy when his legs get tired (or if he wants to be lazy).
Variety in every part of the hike is key. We took our two girls, 4 and 2, on a 6-mile hike yesterday and that is how we played things. Variety in our snacks and switching between walking and being carried. – Kelsey from the Augusta, GA, Branch
Whenever we do longer hikes, I always try to bring a variety of snacks and drinks (water, juice, etc.), especially treats that my child only gets on the trail. Now that my daughter is older, she can communicate to me when she wants to get out of the carrier and take a break. If it’s not at a particularly good spot (like a place with poison oak or a drop-off) or I’m trying to power up a hill, then I might tell her about or point out our next break stop. If it’s an out-and-back hike, we tend to take an extra-long break at our destination to play and explore – bonus if she gets water play at a waterfall! – Nicole from the Orange County, CA, Branch
2. Build Up the Distance Over Time
Building up mileage over time will increase your chances of a successful long-distance day hike. This is true whether you are carrying a baby up a mountain or encouraging your older toddler to hike longer distances on their own feet. When first starting out, shorter distances and less elevation gain can give you a baseline from which to build. Over time, increasing distance and elevation in increments helps to condition the whole family for longer treks. For example, make each new hike a quarter of a mile longer or a hundred feet more in elevation gain.
Our 3- and 6-year-olds hiked 7 miles on their own feet (I did carry the little guy a very short distance) yesterday. We’ve built up to this distance over time. We let them pick their favorite trail snacks and lunch the night before, took lots of short breaks. We find that we talk more as a family on the trail, and these conversations really help keep our boys moving. – Denise from the Harrisburg, PA, Branch
3. Use Naps to Your Advantage
When I first started attending hikes with my local Hike it Baby branch, my son was about 9 months old. I was terrified of messing up his nap schedule. (I was a first-time mom … and terrified of everything!) That was until I saw how many babies slept during the hike and discovered that many parents preferred hiking during nap times. I started using it to my advantage, getting in longer hikes while he napped on me. Now that he is a rambunctious toddler, I let him start out hiking on his own feet until he is tired and sleepy. Then I use his nap time to hike faster and longer distances.
My husband and I recently took our daughter on a 6-mile hike. We planned it around her nap time and had let her run around all morning. She napped for the first half of the hike and woke up at the turn-around point. (It was an out-and-back hike.) We took a break and enjoyed the lunch we packed. After giving her some time to run around, we headed back. She walked until we reached the point in the trail where it was no longer safe. I think nap time, a variety of snacks and a lunch, and allowing her to walk some at a slow pace led to our success. – Sharlie from the Whidbey Island, WA, Branch
We let our 23-month-old walk for the first 45 to 60 minutes, exploring/hiking at his own speed. We then get him in the pack and have a snack while hiking. He usually falls asleep if the hike goes into afternoon. He sleeps and we hike faster. If he wakes, we take a break, play, and lately he’s been wanting to walk down. – Jill from the Juneau, AK, Branch
4. The Power of Distraction
This can come in many forms and depends largely on the age of your kiddo(s). When my son was a baby, we never left home without a binky, his monkey and banana teether, and a small stuffed animal. Other than that, a few rounds of “Wheels on the Bus” or “Old McDonald” along with funny faces and he was good. Once he became a walker, it was harder to keep him distracted and happy on longer hikes. (Apparently stubbornness came with his walking ability.) Now snacks, games, songs, nature yoga and trail dance parties work wonders for us. In addition, it can be a lifesaver to have another kiddo to run around with. If you have an only child, planning an outing with a friend may be a good option!
I try to make a little game out of the hike, especially when they start to get tired/cranky (i.e., on the way up the hill). I would point to something easily pointed out like a boulder, colorful flower, etc., and say, “I’ll give you a grape when you get to that,” which usually makes them speed up! On the way down, same idea, but I might mix it up and test their memory: “You remember that small waterfall we passed? When we get to it, you can have a gummy bear.” This also teaches them that you get rewarded for hard work! – Kelsey from the Augusta, GA, Branch
5. Frequent Breaks
These are a must for everyone! They offer adults a much-needed rest from carrying the load of a child or the extra supplies needed for kids. For babies, it means a chance to nurse or take a bottle (or get a little wilderness tummy time). Toddlers in carriers get to stretch their legs and explore their surroundings up close. Those toddlers walking the whole way get a chance to re-energize with a snack, water or even some nature yoga to stretch things out.
I hiked 13 miles in one day with my son who was 3 at the time. (I was 20 weeks pregnant with my second.) Giving him a chance to get out to walk every 2-3 miles helped a lot, as did a lightweight blanket he used as a pillow for nap. He was in my Deuter KC Air and I tethered a pair of binoculars to the side so he could look through them without dropping them. – Nicholl from the Charleston, SC, Branch
A 6-mile-or-more hike takes us 5+ hours lately, but the breaks are fun for everyone to enjoy the little things on the trail (new flowers, pretty rocks, different plants, throwing rocks in streams, etc.). – Jill from the Juneau, AK, Branch
6. Share the Load
Whenever possible, we recommend that longer hikes that involve young children also include multiple people. This may mean hiking with another adult (such as a partner, family member or friend) or an older child who can carry some of the supplies. Either way, it is a safer option when available. For example, my husband and I went on a 14-mile day hike last summer with our then 20-month-old and switched off carrying him in our framed carrier. We knew our specific setting on the carrier, so switching off was easy and quick. The other person carried the bulk of the supplies and water in a hiking pack. For my sister, sharing the load means her 9-year-old daughter carries a good portion of the supplies in her pack. This allows my sister to carry her 3-year-old son on her back.
7. Lighten Your Load Where Possible
Gone are the days when your hiking pack contains little more than the 10 essentials. Hiking with kids requires 20 different snack varieties, entertainment, diapers, changes of clothes, etc. That said, it’s a good idea to do what you can to lighten your load where possible. For example, we taught our son, who was about 18 months old at the time, to drink from the camelback reservoir so we could leave his sippy cup home. This also ensures that you won’t lose a favorite cup on the trail. (I once encountered a family that had to backtrack 1.5 miles to find a lost cup and stop their screaming child.) In addition, choosing protein-rich, filling snacks and lunches can lighten your load of food. (Think PB and J sandwiches and healthy granola bars.) While a variety of snacks is usually a must with toddlers, try limiting the amount of any particular snack. (For example, bring half a bag of goldfish instead of a full bag.) Just remember to not skimp on the important stuff, like water and an appropriate-sized first-aid kit. Check out this article for more information on what to bring for a day hike.
8. Potty Time Blues
Whether you have an infant or an older toddler, the issue of going to the bathroom when there is no bathroom is worth a mention.
- Children in diapers – Once my son learned how to drink from a Camelback, he LOVED the novelty of it. He also drank way more water than he normally would. This meant he tended to pee through his diapers and clothes while in the carrier. It took a few times for me to finally discover that diaper pads, which we use in his diaper at night, come in handy on long hikes as well! They are literally just a pad that you place in the diaper to prevent overnight leaking. In fact, they resemble a large maxi-pad, which you can also use. It was a game-changer for us since we could bring fewer diapers and changes of clothes on our long hikes!
- Children out of diapers – Your best bet, if possible, is to teach your child to use the restroom in the woods. Wilderness bathrooms can take some getting used to, though. Some children may shy away from the concept of going potty without a potty. You can teach them how to poop on trail or use the “Outdoor Potty Time Hold” Technique. Carrying a lightweight, portable potty is an option. Just be sure to bring bags and extra clothes in case your kiddo has an accident.
We travel with our travel potty bags for long hikes because you never know what accidents will happen and if your kiddo will be comfortable pooping on the trail, especially if they are newly potty training. That way if there’s any messes, you have a quick way to bag clothes and stuff and pack out. Random side tip for those struggling with potty training issues. – Shanti, Hike it Baby Founder
9. Have a Back-up Plan (or Multiple)
I like to have what I call “bail-out” points when I plan longer hikes. These are places that serve as good turn-around spots in case the hike is not going as planned. For example, if you have a 10-mile trek planned, you can have points at the 2.5-mile mark, 4-mile mark, etc., where you can turn around to shorten the hike. That way, if your child is just not having it, you start to feel ill or the weather takes a turn for the worse, you can get back to the car as quickly as possible. Another option is searching for alternative routes along your trek. Many hiking spots have numerous trails which you can use to shorten the hike if needed. Knowing where these trails are ahead of time can make it easier (and less stressful) to bail out if things go south.
Have you been on any long-distance hiking adventures with your baby or toddler? What tips would you add to this list? Let us know in the comments below!
Photos by Rebecca Hosley.
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- 10 Tips to keep kids moving on the trail
- Backpacking 102: Taking the kids