Hiking with a Toddler without Going Crazy

Toddlers love to…well…toddle! Between the ages of 1 to 3, they increase their toddling speed to walking and eventually running. But what if you have a toddler, like mine, who didn’t learn to walk until she was 14-months? Yet at the age of 6-months, she was already climbing stairs and playground equipment!?! Well, you teach them to hike.

Hiking with a toddler isn’t what most would think of as “hiking”. You aren’t going to cover 10 miles at a good clip or crest that gorgeous vista by noon, just in time for lunch. Hiking with a toddler is slower, meandering and repetitive. At the age of exploration, toddlers see the world as fresh and new, ready to be conquered. Ready to be inspected at minutia.

A World of Possibilities

Think about your favorite hobby, whatever it is. Then think about everything and anything related to that hobby that you could buy or experience. For example, what if you are a train collector. Imagine every type of gauge of model train, every track, every car. Boxes of model mountains, trees, people, and moldable terrain. Now put everything you’ve just imagined into one enormous room and gift it to yourself.

How exciting would that be! An entire room full of possibilities of the exact thing that makes life so much fun.

This is what the world is like when we open the front door to our toddler. They see a world of possibility and exploration. Sometimes it’s to run and feel their body pumping with energy. Sometimes it’s to slow down and watch a bug crawl on a piece of grass. For my daughter, it’s jumping in puddles and climbing rocks, rolling in the sand and inspecting dead cactus’.

Adult Hiking

I’ve noticed that adults fall into two categories of hikers: those that get to the summit as soon as possible, and those that explore the terrain. I, personally, am a “summiter”.  I put my head down, follow my feet, and methodically trudge along. I’m slow compared to trail runners or even just people with higher energy, but I can go forever once I get started. I’m a long-distance hiker. However, and this is a big however, I like to get all the hiking done at once so I can enjoy the destination as much as possible.

Therefore, hiking with my daughter was (at first) torture. If I could only be more like the second category of hiker! The one who takes breaks, who bird watches, who looks around. We were on such short hikes at first. Why couldn’t we just get to the end and enjoy the view!!

Toddler Hiking

Ducky on Rocks

The truth is that my daughter would not have enjoyed the view. She wouldn’t have cared less about long sweeping vistas and seeing mountains in the distance. What she cares about the most are bugs and puddles, dead cactus and small boulders, tiny rocks and taking her sweet time. The world is “zoomed in,” and so my expectations had to change.

The hike pictured in this article, for all three pictures and the video, is at Enchanted Rock in Wine Country Texas, near Fredericksburg. It’s a short 1 mile to the summit, and we certainly didn’t make it, even with her on my shoulders at the end. She just wanted to visit the trees and climb the boulders.

The best thing about this hike was the opportunity for her to practice a repetitive movement the Montessori world calls “flow.” The video illustrates when a child (or even an adult) is doing the right activity, at the right time, and uninterrupted they can repeat it as often as their brain deems necessary. They learn to completion, and the result is energy and excitement, rather than exhaustion. You see it clearly in my daughter’s behavior.

My Suggestions

Now that I’ve been hiking with my daughter for quite some time, I’ve learned a few things about what she needs. Here are my best suggestions if you had a child like mine.

  • Don’t use a child carrier
    • There is a caveat to this: If you are hiking in order to camp, or simply to complete hiking as an adult with your child tagging along, by all means use a carrier! But if you are hiking for the child to enjoy themselves, leave the carrier at home.
Ducky on Mommy's Shoulders
  • Pick a very short hike and have low expectations of completing it.
    • For us a small 1/8 of a mile circuit was actually perfect when she was 18 months old. She was barely toddling at this point and we enjoyed picking up pine cones and finding bugs more than walking a distance.
    • Now, at 2 ½, we choose a 1-mile hike and she runs part of the way. We still pick up hiking sticks and take time to climb rocks, but she meanders and stops.
  • Consider getting a child-sized hiking backpack.
    • Hiking or not, getting my daughter a backpack was one of the best things I ever did. For a full week after getting it, she wouldn’t take it off. I just kept filling her water bladder and she walked around drinking out of it like she just got out of the desert.
    • I bought her an REI toddler-sized backpack and then a Camelback 2L water bladder. The backpack called for a 1.5L bladder, but I want to use the same bladder for a slightly larger backpack later. I simply don’t fill it all the way before putting it in the backpack. At first, I hardly filled it at all because a lot of water is heavy. But we worked up to more water later.
    • When hiking, my daughter carried her own water and a change of clothes.
    • Now, at 2 ½, she carries water, change of clothes, a snack, and small emergency kit.
    • Eventually, I will get her maps, compass, whistle, small flashlight, you name it!

She always makes sure to pack some of her own stuff, like a small toy cow and one of daddy’s handkerchiefs.

Ducky with Backpack 2

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