Hiking with toddlers and preschoolers is quite different from hiking with older children. Especially if you’ve been an avid hiker with only adult-sized people, you are going to have to dramatically change your expectations.
Nonetheless, hiking with 3-6 year olds really *IS* possible, and you can even ENJOY your hike together. We hike often with our family (8 kids who are currently age 14 down to 2 months), and enjoy it. You can, too.
- Choose hikes with things they will enjoy— see it from their perspective. Going through the woods, non-stop, for hours, won’t seem like a blast if all they get at the end is an “amazing view.” Are there waterfalls along the way? Streams with frogs to play with? Boulders to jump along? Funny-looking mushrooms? Animals they’ll encounter? Ask yourself: what would you notice if you were viewing it all at their height? Then point those things out.
- Motivation candy – once/hour. We don’t do this for shorter day hikes, but for longer hikes (6+ hours), or for multi-day hikes, this is a great way to give your preschoolers some motivation AND keep them energized for the hike. Sour Patch gummy worms are a favorite for our kids.
- PLENTY of snacks & meals & water.
- Stop for the little things: bugs, mushrooms, huge root balls, berries, tadpoles (remember they tend to care less about the “big” stuff– views, mountains, vistas, and more about the the “small stuff”– tiny bugs, etc.)
- Make regular things on the trail into something fun (i.e., if you are crossing a lot of bridges, count them. If you are hitting a lot of switchbacks, you can make silly faces each time you reach one, and say, “ANOTHER SWITCHBACK???!”). Even though things get “old” to us as adults, toddlers and preschoolers LOVE repetition. It brings security and drives words and concepts deeper into their brains.
- Always stop to play in water– ponds, streams, etc. (Note: on the Wonderland Trail, it’s more like “stop often,” simply because you pass water so much– often dozens of times a day.)
- Let them use a walking stick or trekking pole to hold/use different ways to distract themselves.
- Be careful about skipping naps for kids who have always needed one. You need to modify your expectations if you’re going to ask this of them. They’re working harder, and going on less sleep. They will be more fussy, less reasonable, and more tired/weak.
- Use trekking poles to help them make big jumps across streams (put yours on either side of them), or to pull themselves up big steps.
- Use trekking poles to keep them safe on thin ledges/sketchy places. You can criss-cross your poles into an “X” beside them so they can hike through tricky places with more confidence.
- Take on the trail at their pace. If you’re doing longer hikes, or multi-day hikes (like our 12-day backpacking trip), have one parent set out 30-60 minutes earlier than everyone else, with the slower-walking children, at the start of the morning. At the end of the day, one parent can hang back and move at their pace, while the rest of the family books it to camp to set up and get dinner going.
And here’s our BIGGEST tip:
Keep them mentally preoccupied.
This is the way to have a happy hike with a 3-6 year old. We do this with:
- retell the plotline of favorite movies, point by point (this can kill a LOT of time)
- ask them to choose names for the animals you see
- plan parties for rock marmots/bears/frogs/mountain goats you see
- ask questions/discuss the lives of the animals you pass (silly questions, too, like: “would he like to eat pepperoni pizza, do you think?”)
- list the animals you’ve seen already on the hike
- list the colors you’ve seen on the hike (autumn: leaves, spring: flowers, etc.)
- ask them questions about people/pets/toys they love
Basically, keep them talking, OR, keep them thinking, about things OTHER than:
- “I’m so tired.”
- “The sun is hot.”
- “My legs hurt.”
- “When will we get there?” etc.
IN THE COMMENTS, PLEASE SHARE:
What would you add? How have you found ways to enjoy hiking with kids that aren’t yet to school age?
FOR THOSE (like me) WHO LIKE TO LEARN OBSERVATION: Watch our 52-minute video of our 12-day trip around the Wonderland Trail.