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How to Keep a Toddler Engaged on the Trail

Posted by Shanti Hodges on

exploring little hiker boxOne of the first things I often hear from parents who head out hiking with new little walkers is, “How do you do it? My kid is so slow it’s painful.” I’m not going to lie, little legs travel slow and the toddler mind works in mysterious ways. One minute he is running down the trail at full speed and you’re freaking out that there might be a drop-off around the next bend. The next minute he’s on the ground screaming and kicking because you wouldn’t let him pick a flower. Don’t despair though. We all feel your pain. Here are some of the tried and true Hike it Baby tips that we’ve found can help keep the trail experience fun and moving forward. Photo credit: Ashley Schneider Photography

  1. Snacks for the win! Always bring things your kiddo likes. Squeezie packs, small packages of nuts or raisins, fruit leather, pre-cut apple, Ritz crackers or Annie’s Cheddar Bunnies. These have worked for us. Keep something like a lollipop or a little chocolate in your pocket for those moments of extreme meltdown. Ideally, you don’t want to have to pull this out, but you never know.
  2. Trail games make it fun. This only works with older kids but having a little notebook and a pencil or downloaded fun sheets with activities where you can identify things on trail can help move a kiddo along. This will most likely only work with 3-5-year-olds, but you can try with younger ones. If they can mark off the things you are looking for as you move along that will keep them excited to get to the next spot.

portland little hikerPhoto credit: Jen A. Campbell

  1. Pick a magical destination. We have a trail we like to hike in Portland called Lower Macleay. It’s just an urban trail and only about 1.5 miles, but toward the end of the out and back there’s an old broken down stone house that we call the “Witch’s Castle.” Really it was once a bathroom for the trail in the 60s or 70s, but the city found it too costly to keep up mid-trail with limited park resources so now it’s just a cool, mossy covered old building that they took the roof off of. If your little one begins to visualize that the trail has magic, they will be more interested in getting to that destination.
  2. Take a rest. Make sure the trail has lots of visual stopping points. While you may want to get your work out in, a long flat road might be boring for your kiddo, so if you are stroller hiking with them for example and trying to get some miles, take the time to stop and let them out to throw rocks, spot birds, take in a view even if it’s a flat landscape. Hiking around sunrise and sunset with beautiful skies can be really exciting for a child as they watch the colors change from day to golden sunset.

little hiker restPhoto credit: Jen A. Campbell

  1. Keep it short. Don’t try to pull off an 8-miler your first time out there. Work your way up. Some kids do well in carriers and others need time to adjust to them, especially if you start hiking with your child when they are already past 12 months. Babies who are raised to sleep on hikes and are used to the constant movement of you on the trail, will grow into toddlers who love to hike.
  2. Bugs, slugs, and uggs. These are easy distractions. Look for crawlers and creepers on the trail and get your kiddo to count them. Tell them you are going to look for 10 bugs or 10 slugs (or other similar things to your area. Some places you might be counting spiders or snakes). Get super excited when you find one and make an even bigger deal when she finds one. Let them know when you find 10 the hike will end.

palo little hikerPhoto credit: Jen A. Campbell

  1. Crab walk, backwards walk. Toddlers like walking every which way but straight on a trail. Giddyup like a horse (this works great is a toddler or baby is fussy in a carrier on your back) and even “neigh” for them. This gets a laugh. Walk sideways like a crab and put up your pinchers then walk backwards. Flap your wings like a bird and tell them her it’s time to fly.
  2. Up - Downs are great. There’s no reason to train a toddler to walk distances. Make sure you always have a soft carrier on hand to pop out of a pack so you can put your kiddo up if they are just not moving forward. Let him know you will carry him for ten minutes and then put a timer on and when it rings, that’s time for more walking. Kids who are forced to hike will never love hiking. Guide them to loving it by making it easy.

little hiker on trailPhoto credit: Ashley Schneider Photography

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