Thursday, June 07, 2012

How to survive a toddler hike

Last weekend we had one of those hikes where you really hope nobody recognizes you as a family hiking expert!  I just kept thinking, "Oh, dear God, please don't let anybody on this trail today find out that I actually write about this kind of stuff - often giving advice on how to make it pleasant and fun!"  It was one of the least enjoyable hikes we've done as a family and we ignored every one of the guidelines I usually try to follow when planning a toddler hike.

This is where our hike should have ended, playing in this pond

One - hike with friends who have children around the same age(s) as yours

Give a child a friend to hike with and you are essentially giving them a superman cape.  They will hike faster, longer, in better spirits, and have more fun.  I almost guarantee it!  Almost, because nothing is really guaranteed when it comes to children.  I've seen my three year old walk up to 4km with friends on trails that really weren't all that interesting at times and then I've seen him refuse to walk more than 1km on trails that I thought would be fun when he was alone.

Our lone little hiker

Two - choose interesting trails with a varied terrain

I know that for my child, any hike we do has to have at least a couple of the following features:
  • Boulders to scramble around and over

  • A creek to throw rocks in, wade in, or cross on bridges and boardwalks

  • Stairs (it adds a challenge to the hike and therefore makes it interesting)

  • Short hills for running down or powering up (again for a challenge)

  • Narrow, windy paths (big, wide cross country ski trails or fire roads would be the worst scenario for a hike with small kids.)

Add a waterfall or large meadow to run around in and you have a winning hike.

This was as interesting as our hike got

Three - plan for free playtime

Kids of any age aren't going to go for a long hike without stopping to play and explore.  Walking in and of itself is not an adventure.  Hike to a creek that the children can play in.  Take a short walk to a waterfall the kids can explore.  Climb up to a big open meadow where the tots can run around. If your child has friends along, it's even better.

A lovely hike but viewpoints are more interesting to adults than kids

Four - know when to start and finish your hike

Bad times to start a hike:
  • Right as your child is entering that cranky time of day and should be napping

  • In the heat of the day

  • When your child is hungry (bananas offer very quick energy for hiking if you want to have a picnic lunch on the trail and just need a pre-hike snack)

  • When Mom or Dad are in a bad mood, sick, or otherwise under the weather (let the parent who is less than cheerful stay home or relax in the grass by the car and maybe just do a shorter hike - it'll be worth it!)

I'd go as far as to say that if your child hasn't had his daily bathroom trip yet, you could be in trouble.  My son is learning to pee in the forest but there's no way he's squatting to do anything else!  And if he has to go to the bathroom, he gets understandably grumpy until it's come out and we've found a place to clean him up a bit.

As for knowing when to finish your hike - often the smartest thing you can do is recognize the hike is not going well, turn around and just go back to the car.  Stop for ice cream on the way home and try again another day.

This may have been a good spot to say goodbye to our friends, turn around, and head back

Our hike last weekend was a failure on so many levels.  We joined a group hike with no walking children even remotely close to my child's age and were quickly walking by ourselves. 

We chose a trail with no interesting features other than one pretty viewpoint which meant more to us than our son.  There was no free playtime allotted on our walk, and we started right after lunch.  This meant that our son had a full belly but was cranky and tired.  He hadn't slept on the way out to the mountains and really just needed a nap. 

To further complicate things, Dad was feeling slightly under the weather and wasn't exactly in the mood to deal with multiple tantrums on the trail, screaming, wailing and general whining.  Then again, is anybody ever in the mood to deal with that?  I know I wasn't!

Lesson learned - follow my guidelines above and hopefully next time we go out, we'll look a little more like an experienced outdoor family and less like a family out on their first-ever day hike. 

I'd love to hear about your misadventures.  What have you learned on the trail about keeping children happy?


  1. Is that a trail near Bragg Creek? We did that with our twins then aged 16 months and it was carnage! A bit boring and it was so hot!

    1. Yes, it was the Fullerton Loop - a trail I love!! However, it isn't very exciting for young kids. I've usually done it as a chariot hike and it's an awesome work-out! In fact I hope to do it tomorrow as such. My son will be happy riding and I'll be happy training for summer adventures where I need to be in shape.

  2. That was really great Tanya, lots of great advice!

  3. oops! out of curiosity what group did you go with so I can avoid the same situation (it you don't want to post that, I understand)

    1. It wasn't an official group and was actually a group of friends. It was just unfortunate that those with toddlers didn't join on the hike. There were two babies being carried and the rest of the kids were school-aged or teens.

  4. I am learning to turn around before they need to, so they can make it back to the trail head!

  5. "Unfortunate" the families with toddlers didn't go along, or maybe they were following your advice and decided to stay behind! ;)
    Great advice, though. My little one is still backpack-portable, and I'll have to remember this for when the time comes.

  6. The best advice I can give is to know when to call it quits, not make a big deal of it, like you said, stop for iced cream, and try again another (the next) day.

  7. You guys are so amazing and inspiring. There is some comfort knowing that you sometimes have one of those days with your kids in the outdoors,too:)

  8. The other day I was thinking how easy it is to hike with a baby...and how that's all about to change once once my baby learns how to walk, and run ;) I'm always looking for good advice on hiking with kiddos--thanks for sharing!

    1. Yep, hiking last summer was easy! Long live the days when they are happy to ride in a backpack. (or at least light enough to carry)

  9. I think we all have days like this with our kids. Whether it is a long, boring hike (from the child's perspective) or a long, ill-timed grocery run. It looks like a beautiful hike though!

  10. Hiking with toddlers is little bit risky for me but I enjoyed it most.
    Thanks for sharing a great post!