The scenery in front of us was postcard spectacular. The trail we were on was one that people travel from around the world to hike. It was quiet and there were towering rocks, little waterfalls, pools filled with loudly croaking frogs. It was warm enough to wear shorts, but cool enough to allow us to hike comfortably without breaking a sweat. As I stood there taking in the moment my heart was soaring with peace and joy as it often did when I was exploring a new trail. And then there was my husband standing just behind me, brow furrowed and rolling his eyes. “SERIOUSLY MASON!? AGAIN?” he said looking like our toddler, Mason, had just pulled his pants down and pooped in a public place.
No poop. Just Mason sitting on a rock, dead in the middle of the busy Emerald Pools trail at Zion National Park. German, Spanish, Italian, French, Canadian and American tourists all picked their way around our two-and-a-half-year-old with either empathetic or annoyed expressions depending on their experience with three-nagers.
“I sit down,” he said defiantly. For the last half an hour he had been playing a game with us where he would take 2 to 3 steps and then sit in the middle of the trail. Mark and I laughed the first few times because it was cute, but what we didn’t realize is that “cute” would become progressively more annoying as the hike went on. And since we made the mistake of laughing in the beginning, Mason decided to play it up and get more and more stubborn as we tried to move him along or suggest “Mommy’s back.”
“No Mommy back. I walk!” He exclaimed as Daddy tried to go over and pick him up. “Hurt me, hurt me,” he screamed as he kicked his legs furiously, making us apologize to passers by because we looked like evil parents. Mark dropped him back down frustrated. This time Mason rolled over and flopped on his belly making sand angels and taking up most of the trail, forcing any passerby to practically crawl into the bushes to get around us.
Toddler-dom on trail. It’s a beautiful thing and one of the most frustrating things at the same time. The joy in a child’s eyes when they see a caterpillar inching by or they triumphantly climb up a rock will make a parent’s heart swell with love and pride for about 30 seconds. And seconds later it can be a complete meltdown disaster that may just last the remainder of the hike.
My husband Mark works in Alaska, so when he comes home in between his 3-week hitches at work (3 on, 3 off) he not only has to re-learn parenting, but also has to adjust to our child’s Jeckyll and Hyde personality this week. As usual our little man was proving to be very different than he was 3 weeks ago. “Is he always like this now?” Mark asked. I shrugged and then nodded. This did seem pretty normal to me these days.
As we inched along on our hike we tried to think of ways to get him to move. “I bet you can’t get up that rock,” I said to him with a challenge. Success. He moved forward 5 feet and climbed up the rock. Then sat on it with the “I’m not moving from here” look.
My favorite one that has worked for a while now is, “I hide from you,” I say as a run away and crouch behind a tree or a rock. This one got him moving on many a hike, but on this hike there were steep bits and I was nervous abut being out of arms reach of him. So we inched on moment by moment.
Sometimes when hiking with a toddler or baby who just isn’t having it you just have to slow the pace down and accept that this is what it is. You may get a quarter mile in or there could be a magic shift and your littler person will grace you with completing the whole hike. The key to it all though is patience and acceptance. There is no rushing a hike with little children. The end point has be to undetermined and based on the mood of a day.
That said, it’s important to recognize that hiking with toddlers and babies is a learned behavior. Not every child is going to like hiking right off. Whether the carrier is uncomfortable for them, the wind blowing at them is scaring them or getting sand in their eyes, they have a tummy ache they can’t explain to you, whatever the reason, the most important thing to remember is to keep at it, day after day, trying to get out there. It can be fifteen minutes outside or a few hours, both have an effect on your brain. Think of it as a cumulative wellness plan. If you just go outside everday for 15 minutes, this is far healthier than spending a month indoors and then going for an all day hike.
That day at Emerald Pools we hadn’t planned on completing the hike so we were surprised when we pulled it all off. We just told ourselves we would get to the first pool and once we got there we tried for the second and then the third. This ended up being one of our favorite hikes in Zion and the reward was a beautiful waterfall and an amphitheater like end of the trail with a pool of water for Mason to play around in. As we stood there with the waterfall spraying us Mason laughed and danced around saying, “I take a shower!”
Next time you find yourself being “challenged” on a hike with your toddler, stop and look around at the moment. Pick a close spot to be the turn around and just get there. Like places with crazy weather where the saying goes, “just wait five minutes and it will pass” children are the same. Muscle through the rough moments on trail and you are often rewarded with a happier child or even better — a child who sleeps on you the whole way down or in the car all the way home.
Shanti Hodges founded Hike it Baby in 2013 to help families find each other and get out on trails all across North America. She just finished a 5-week road trip with Mason where they hiked 30 hikes in 30 days in 7 states. Follow Mason and Shanti’s adventures @shantisos on social media: Instagram/facebook/twitter