You don’t need to be exceptionally adventurous, super fit, or have the latest gear to go hiking with your toddler. All you need is a toddler, a nature trail, and time for exploring.
When it comes to hiking with toddlers, most parents think that they’re too young to hike and happiest tucked into a carrier. And yes, I’ll be the first to admit that it’s much easier to hike with my toddler in a carrier. We can cover more ground and my toddler can’t put weird things in her mouth. However, allowing toddlers the freedom to move on trails helps them develop skills in leaps and bounds. Why is that? Walking on uneven and varied surfaces outdoors help toddlers develop balance, strength, and coordination. Outdoor trails also offer a variety of things for toddlers to touch, smell, and see, making it a perfect place for sensory play and discovery.
Perhaps the idea of giving your toddler free rein on a trail makes you feel a little nervous. That’s normal and I’m here to help. With a few tips, ideas, and activities, letting your toddler take the lead on your next nature walk will be a fun adventure for both of you.
Start off on the right foot
Before bringing your toddler on a hike, always be prepared. If you plan on adventuring alone, especially somewhere less trafficked, tell someone where you’re going and when you plan on returning. Also, make sure to have basic supplies with you:
- Weather-appropriate clothing (Here are some tips on how to dress for every season!)
- First aid supplies
- Healthy snacks
- Change of clothes, diapers, and baby wipes for toddler
- Carrier or stroller (optional but helpful)
Time it right!
Toddlers can go from rainbows to thunderclouds in mere seconds. (Or at least mine does.) To fill your adventure with as many rainbows as possible, time it right. My toddler enjoys exploring nature when she’s well-rested, so I time our adventures first thing in the morning or after a nap. I also make sure she’s had something to eat before we head out. Some toddlers may prefer adventures before a nap, which can improve their sleep. Either way, tune into your toddler’s cues to figure out the best time for your adventure.
Pick a toddler-friendly trail
A toddler-friendly trail doesn’t have to be boring, but it should be free of serious dangers like steep drop-offs, technical rocky terrain, and fast-flowing water. For young toddlers still learning how to walk, an easy flat trail is a good start. Older toddlers can handle more varied terrain. If you aren’t sure what kind of trail to start with, go with an easy one at first.
Yes! Bring a baby carrier or stroller
If you think your toddler will tire easily or you want to get in some extra steps before heading home, bring a carrier or a stroller. I usually roll up a soft structured carrier and put it in my pack. When my toddler gets tired, which usually means she’s stumbling and showing signs of frustration, I place her in the carrier. A stroller also works if the trail is flat.
Check your expectations
If this is your first time trying a toddler-led hike, it’s important to check your expectations. Truthfully, you won’t be going on an epic hike. It’s more likely that you will wander in circles or perhaps sit in one spot for a period of time. It’s possible that you won’t get more than a few metres from the parking lot. That’s okay! This is very normal for toddlers.
The nitty-gritty: How to go on a toddler-led hike or nature walk
You’ve packed supplies, picked a trail, and shuttled your happy toddler to the trailhead. Now it’s time to take a step back and watch your toddler explore. The world is magical in the eyes of a toddler so try not to rush the process. However, if your toddler is struggling or getting into trouble don’t hesitate to lend a helping hand or redirect as needed.
As your toddler explores, follow her closely, get down to her level, point out interesting things, and most importantly, have fun exploring together. It’s time to head home when your toddler shows signs of being tired. Keep an eye out for those cues so that you can end your adventure on a happy note.
Toddler nature walk or hiking activities
If you toddler is feeling unsure about being in nature or needs a little encouragement, here are some fun activities that are helpful:
Nature peekaboo: Find some leaves, a tree trunk, or pine cones to play peekaboo with your toddler. This is a fun activity for young toddlers.
Make a nature face: Collect items from nature and make a face with them on the ground. Ask your toddler if they can point to the eyes, nose, and mouth of the face or of themselves.
Go on a colour hunt: See if you and your toddler can find all the colours rainbow along the trail: red, orange, yellow, green, blue, and purple. Point out the colour as you find them and encourage your toddler to try repeating the colour words.
Hop like a bunny, waddle like a duck: Explore different ways of moving on the trail by calling out different animals and moving like them: hopping (frog, bunny), waddling (duck), wiggling (worm, snake), running (dog, cat), trotting (horse).
Pick up rocks and sticks: Bring a small pail or paper bag and encourage your toddler to collect rocks and sticks. You can even make it a counting game and see how many your toddler found at the end of your adventure.
Sing a favourite song: Toddlers love songs and this can be a great distraction if your toddler is starting to feel tired or needs some encouragement.
Have a snack: When my toddler looks tired, we have an energy break: a healthy snack and some water. This might be enough to boost her energy for a bit more exploring, but even if it isn’t, taking a snack break is one her most-loved nature walk activities.
Toddlers might be little, but they’re not necessarily too young to hike. They won’t be scaling mountains anytime soon, but time on a trail helps them develop strength, balance, and coordination. If you feel a bit apprehensive about going on a toddler-led nature walk or hike, reach out to a friend and go together. Friends always make adventures more fun!