How to Hike With a Toddler

 Papa Bear and the Little Bear near Ophir, Colorado. 

Papa Bear and the Little Bear near Ophir, Colorado. 

Soo...you’ve decided to take your toddler hiking have you? Great! Congratulations! Way to rock this mom thing! You will spend the day in the fresh air and sunshine teaching your child to be one with nature! No electronics for you! Maybe you’ll get a shiny medal that says “Mom of the Year!” for this!

But don’t feel too smug too fast, you do have to get out the door first….

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Step 1: Choose your location.

You want to consider factors such as length and elevation gain and distance from home. Do NOT leave out the “distance from home” part, as too long in the car seat at the start of the day will turn your happy hiker into a screaming gremlin faster than you can say “granola bar”.

It is advisable to do this the night before as any attempt to study a map with a toddler in the room will be punctuated by whining, potty accidents, requests for popsicles, and/or the toddler attempting to abscond with the map. This type of distraction can be disastrous leading you to mistake a 30 mile hike for a 3 mile hike. Not good.

 I'm so glad he loves maps as much as I do....but it does make route planning difficult.

I'm so glad he loves maps as much as I do....but it does make route planning difficult.

Step 2: Plan to get an alpine start!

You remember those right? From your pre-kid peak bagging days? You go to bed nice and early so you can be on the trail with headlamps by 5 AM. Of course, a toddler alpine start looks a little different. This version includes mom being up at 5:00 AM to make sure everything is packed, loaded and ready to go so that the moment the tiny dictator awakens you can put them in the car with their portable breakfast right away.

This is a crucial step, so please don’t skip it. There is an extremely small window of “happy and well rested” between morning rising and the pre naptime melt down. If you wait to begin too long and the start of your hike begins to collide with the grumpy hour, you will be sunk. But if your toddler is happily engaged in the activity when this time hits, they are much more likely to sail through it until back at the car where they can pass out on the way home.

So, go to bed early with every intention of whistling around the kitchen at 5 AM packing snacks. Of course….what will really happen is the toddler will have a nightmare and wet the bed on two separate occasions between midnight and 2:00, eventually landing them in your bed where they will wriggle and writhe in a manner reminiscent of a crocodile doing a death roll. They WILL kick you in the face no less than 3 times.

 They always sleep so peacefully as soon as it is time for you to get up, don't they?

They always sleep so peacefully as soon as it is time for you to get up, don't they?

When 5 AM rolls around and the toddler is finally sleeping peacefully, drag yourself out of bed to make a pot of very strong coffee. Despite your best intentions, sit staring at the wall through at least 1.5 cups of magic brown elixir as you attempt to pierce the fog of a night with little sleep. Reassure yourself that you still have plenty of time since the kiddos tends to sleep until 7:00 these days. By 5:45 when you wrench yourself off the couch, the toddler will awaken with a mighty roar and require comforting, another trip to the potty, and the reading of three books.

Briefly consider throwing in to towel on this whole endeavour. But don’t. Don’t throw in the towel.

 I assure you something like this WILL happen...and it's ok. Roll with it. It will be worth it. I promise. 

I assure you something like this WILL happen...and it's ok. Roll with it. It will be worth it. I promise. 

3. Pack all the things.

And I mean ALL the things. Snacks of all kinds of course. Bars, dried fruit, peanut butter sandwiches, jerky, and some kind of “secret weapon” snack. The one you pull out when the toddler is about to go full nuclear at the point furthest possible from the car. We like dum-dums around here. (Note: the anti-sugar mom brigade may not like this suggestion. But you skip this step at your peril. Trust me. A dum-dum or three isn’t THAT much sugar and can make the difference between a pleasant and happy return trip, and one that involves endless howling.) Not only do the dum-dums make an excellent bribe to keep toddlers happy towards the middle/end of a hike, if you save this special treat only for hiking and similar activities it becomes a fun and special association that helps them view this as an activity they want to do again.

 Do not be afraid to deploy the sugar mamas. After all, if you can't eat lollipops and fruity snacks while hiking, when can you!?

Do not be afraid to deploy the sugar mamas. After all, if you can't eat lollipops and fruity snacks while hiking, when can you!?

In addition to food, you will want to bring everything that could conceivably be needed for general comfort. You will of course have checked the weather, but this will have only minimal bearing on packing. Going to be 80 degrees? Let’s throw in a sweater just in case. Not going to rain? Better at least have a poncho! Kid been potty trained for 3 months? Throw in a couple of diapers. You never know.

Contemplate carefully if you want to bring the baby carrier backpack. Be warned that if you leave it at home, your toddler will whine to be carried the whole time. If you bring it, he will howl like a banshee at the mere suggestion of riding in it. “NO mama! I RUN!!”

4. Check the weather.

Being at the top of a mountain during a lightning storm, or the bottom of a canyon in a flash flood with your child would DEFINITELY endanger that “mom of the year” award. Nuf said.

5. Hit the trail!

Whew! Through all the trials and tribulations of getting here, you have finally made it! As you hike with your little munchkin, pepper the walk with games like “hide and seek” and “kick the rock”. Look for insects and animals. Marvel at flowers and the texture of tree bark. You will have to walk a fine line of letting the toddler dawdle and experience the outdoors in their own way, while keeping things moving so you get home before dark. There will be scraped knees, tantrums, and stand offs. Deploy those dum-dums as needed mama...and keep em coming! But despite the challenges of hiking with your toddler, the truth is that a day at home isn’t really that much easier. You would still have scraped knees, protestations over the shape of their sandwich, and arguments about how many episodes of Clifford the Big Red Dog they can watch. And you would have missed out on the sunshine, the play, the thousands of things they are learning by climbing on rocks, peering at caterpillers or splashing in creeks. And the pictures wouldn’t be half as good.               

 At Hope Lake near Telluride, Colorado. 

At Hope Lake near Telluride, Colorado.