Confessions of hiking with toddlers

Morning light breaks. A new day. We choose a trail, a chance to see the mountains up close. A pristine alpine lake scooped out of silvery-blue peaks. Always beautiful. Wildflowers, hummingbirds, berries await. We pack diapers, wipes, sippy cups, and snacks. Cheerios that will inevitably work their way into the one thousand hidden corners of the car, and stay there for years, multiplying in their clandestine glory. We leave the house three hours, three hours, later than we planned to. We endure the one-hour drive punctuated by tantrums and whines for objects that they accidentally drop to the floor below their carseats, or toys and shoes that get taken away and put into time-out for being thrown from one carseat into the other, and at several points just flat out nonstop screaming.

We arrive and find a parking spot at the nearly empty trailhead because it is mid-day and the whole world has been awake for hours, has already hiked this trail, and is now long gone. A blessing in disguise. We pop the trunk and lay everything out, taking inventory before unbuckling carseats, pulling on socks and boots on tiny feet for the third time this morning. Because our children rub their feet together like crickets and kick off their shoes and socks. Since birth. Both of them. Baby shoe Houdinis. Sockless siblings. Barefoot toddlers.

I get out my trekking poles. I start adjusting one, while my son – the nearly-three-year old – runs off with the other one. It’s the best way to check the depth and thickness of the closest mud puddle. But that isn’t enough fun. So he jumps in with both feet, and makes a splash. Quick-dry toddler sandals are marvelous. After twenty minutes of wrangling and preparations, and “do you need to pee?” mind games, pre-hike snacks, retrieving trekking poles from little hands that constantly steal them away – “no, minnnnnnne” – we’re off. Ryan fights our daughter – the nearly-one-year old – into the hiking carrier, while our son bounds ahead. I try to keep up.

Onward and upward, pretending to ignore the soft small voice that is already asking “snack? snack?” not two minutes into our hike. We find interesting things to show the kids. Slimy slugs, spider webs shimmering in sunlight, a chipmunk scurrying off with a wayward Dorito. I try to imagine how it must feel for a chipmunk to stumble across a Dorito, with its neon orange cheese-like talc found nowhere in the natural world of edibles.

We hike through old growth forest. Douglas firs older than my grandmother, my house, the country in which I live. It boggles my mind. Everyone is quiet. The baby is snuggled in the carrier, staring up at the forest canopy, mouth wide open. She’s about to fall asleep. Everyone is happily hiking.

We clear the old growth and emerge into a meadow brimming with wildflowers and berry bushes weighed down with ripe fruit. “Hucka-beyyy!” My husband and I exchange a look. Our son is a huckleberry fiend. We’re going to be here for a while. Ryan sets the hiking carrier down, and our daughter Arya, on the verge of a nap, wails unhappily. She doesn’t like this unplanned stop. She had it all figured out and was just settling in. We bribe her with a huckleberry, which she gobbles up before snatching five or six more. Bright purple juice dribbles down her face and straight onto her romper. Five minutes later, when every bush in sight is picked clean, we try to convince our son to move on. “Johann, why don’t we keep hiking?” “Up, up, I need up.” He says he is tired and pleads with big brown eyes, to be carried. But the hike isn’t long, the trail isn’t difficult and we know he can do it. We try again. “I think we’ll see more huckleberries just up ahead on the trail.” He raises one eyebrow. He is an expert and can spot them from twenty yards away. But, he takes the bait. “Oh there’s more over there!”

Ryan hoists the hiking carrier over his shoulders once again, and off we go. Not five minutes later, sure enough, more ripe berries demand little hands’ attention. But this time we find thimbleberries, a much rarer delicacy. We just stopped, we shouldn’t lose momentum and get tired out so soon, we cannot be here all day, but we pick our battles. We stop for more berry-picking, and water. It is ninety degrees and there is no shade. Ryan heaves the carrier down, and I peer at my daughter. She has fallen asleep and is missing all of this. Her romper clings to her drenched in sweat, as we all are. My son has run off with the trekking poles yet again. Giving your toddlers a break during your hike sometimes means giving up your own break so you can chase them and keep them from accidentally rolling down the side of the mountain. Break over, we marshal our energy, and start up the trail again.

Finally, after forty more minutes that seem like hours of hiking, we arrive. The lake shines. The last of the snow clings to craggy peaks above. We sit. We breathe. We enjoy this beautiful slice of earth. The baby wakes, sensing the stop, and uncomfortable after a massive poop. Thank God for enough baby wipes and hand sanitizer. Thankfully, we didn’t forget it this time. A small voice interrupts me as I get out a clean diaper. “Amma, it’s really nice here,” my three-year old sings. He is watching whatever is sending up bubbles in the lake. The baby wobbles around, then squats, scoops up a handful of dirt and sifts it back to the ground. My son finally sits for a moment, now he enjoys the rewards of his effort. They are tearing into the sandwiches we packed for our late lunch. They are seeing, they are feeling, and they are discovering new things. We are experiencing this amazing natural world. We have one more experience to strengthen our family bond. We have what we came for. Our hearts are full. We’ll be back soon.

Five Reasons To Go Hiking With Your Kids

So, really, there are way more than five reasons why you should take a hike with your kids. But these are pretty cool.

1. The Physical Challenge

Whether you choose to stroll down the sidewalk of your tree-lined street, stomp through the grass around your closest pond, or head for the hills, moving your body and getting outside brings countless health benefits. It is great exercise for both you and your little ones. Even more so for parents toting children in some type of carrier.


In our present stage of life, with an eight-month-old baby, and a two-and-a-half year old, my husband and I each carry between twenty and thirty-five pounds of kids and gear on hikes. I feel both physically challenged and wonderfully satisfied carrying my baby girl up the side of a mountain, and my husband – who carries our much heavier toddler – concurs. It’s a great workout, and it’s free. (Or really cheap.)


2. The Opportunities To Learn And Play

The natural world is full of opportunities to enhance a child’s education. Our oldest is two-and-a-half now, and at his two-year checkup we were told he had a mild isolated speech delay. While he has made huge strides in the past six months, and is speaking full, complete sentences now, taking him outside on hikes has given him and us new opportunities to learn. We spend hours reading books and talking to both of our kids at home or in everyday situations like running errands, but we know that there is more than one way to learn. One of those ways involves using the outdoors to look for educational opportunities. We always talk about what we see on hikes. The moss on trees (“is the moss soft or hard?”), counting how many steps there are on a bridge across a trail, birds flitting about, chipmunks scurrying across the trail with a contraband peanut, the sounds of a creek or waterfall (“are we getting closer or farther from the water?”), sea creatures or clamshells washed up on a beach. Etc. Observation and Processing = Learning.


Hiking is good for play, too. No need to bring along any toys on hikes. Sticks, dirt, mud – these are all the oldest toys in the world, and they’re totally free.

Another highlight of hiking with our kids is that we get to share one of our favorite hobbies – foraging for edible plants – with them. While our son may not know all his ABCs or be able to count to one hundred, he can certainly show off when it comes to spotting multiple edible plants from impressive distances up a trail.


Hiking has given us all new learning opportunities, but it has certainly given my son his moments to shine.

3. You Get To Bond In New Ways

Engaging with our kids on hikes is one of the most rewarding things about hiking. It’s really cool to see or hear them get excited about something during a hike, and to show them that there’s a reward – a beautiful view, a lake, waterfall, or something cool – along the way.


We get glimpses into how their imaginations work, and we notice the world differently through their senses. It’s awesome. Plus, I just love the physical bond of carrying my children while they are still little – these days are short and I want to enjoy them while they last.


4. You Know They Are Safe

Our kids are still little enough that we can strap them into carriers and take them along on most of the hikes we would choose even before we had kids. If they are comfortable, fed, get enough breaks to burn off energy, and feel safe, they’re pretty easy and delightful company on hikes.


We do let our toddler walk on trails that are not too rocky or steep for his little legs, for as long as he wants to and is able to. When he gets tired, he either rides on Daddy’s shoulders or for longer hikes in the backpack carrier. We are accountable for teaching our kids how to hike safely, and how to enjoy the outdoors as we do. Sometimes this looks like going at the ever-adorable yet excruciatingly slow toddler speed, or playing the “red light green light” game for way longer than we want to, and standing aside carefully to let upward hikers pass. When they’re with us, we know they’re as safe as we are.

5. Fringe Benefits

Hiking for exercise or entertainment or both has numerous fringe benefits. We don’t have to worry about how much it’s going to cost, and we don’t ever have to ration it or feel guilty about “too much screen time.” Our kids always come home tired. Sure, the regular schedule might be different on a long hiking day, and naps might not happen when or as they should. But, ultimately, tired bodies = better overall sleep. I’ll take that any day.

In my book, this particular fringe benefit is a winner by far – our kids invariably fall asleep on longer hikes, giving my husband and me chances to have peaceful, uninterrupted conversations on the trail (in the middle of the day – gasp)! We savor these moments for all they’re worth knowing these opportunities are rare at home. Gosh, sometimes, if the trail is wide enough we even hold hands!

And there you have it, folks. Five good reasons to go hiking with your littles. If you’ve got more to add to the list – please feel free to share. I’d love to hear your favorites!

It’s about progress, not perfection

We go hiking a lot. It was something we really enjoyed as a couple in our pre-baby days, and it is something we enjoy as a family of three today. It just looks a little different. And, not at all like we expected. So, I want to share some of the things we are learning about hiking with babies and toddlers.

I remember the very first time we took Johann hiking. He was two months old and, on one sunny, unseasonably warm Sunday in January, we decided to get outside as a family and do our first “real hike” since the pre-baby days. We chose a short hike that was close to home, so in case everything went south we could head back pretty quickly. The important thing to us that day was to just get out and do it. Baby steps. Momentum is key. And, it’s about progress, not perfection.

We had been carrying Johann around the house a lot in the Moby wrap (which was a lifesaver for us since he wanted to be held a lot in his first three months of life), so that is what we used to carry him on the hike. I think the Moby people would not endorse that behavior. But we didn’t have any other baby-wearing devices and, whenever possible, we are all about making do with what we have. We knew we would be more comfortable with a proper baby carrier as he got older so, about a month later, we got an Ergo carrier – which, to date, is hands down the best thing we have ever bought for Johann. It is worth its weight in gold for how valuable we still find it now over a year later! But the Moby was fine at that time, since he was only two months old and so tiny.

What we packed:

  • diapers and wipes
  • a bag to hold the foul ones
  • burp cloth (one)
  • change of clothes for Johann (one)

Johann was also nursing about seven or eight times a day back then, so in terms of timing that was something we had to consider since I could not nurse him while he was in the Moby. But nursing meant that we didn’t need to carry around bottles or anything for his feeding and we were extremely grateful for that. He never really took a pacifier, but we hadn’t completely given up on it yet so even though he didn’t want it, we carried one anyway on our first few hikes. Besides these, and the essentials for ourselves, we didn’t pack anything else. All our stuff fit neatly into one small daypack. A couple of months later, we even stopped bringing a burp cloth. Since Ryan and I each always carry a handkerchief around, we just used those in case of spit up, which, with Johann peaked at 4-5 months. Isn’t parenthood glamorous?

When he started sitting up on his own, once or twice we brought along a small toy to give him whenever we sat him down on the ground during breaks, but it proved to be completely unnecessary as he was just so much more interested in the natural environment around him. We haven’t brought any toys on hikes since then. After he crossed the six-month mark, we started putting sunblock and bugspray on him – and it was simpler for all of us to just use the same kind so we only needed to bring one of each. As he stopped nursing and started drinking water or milk, our packing list didn’t change much except for the addition of his sippy cup. Since he has started snacking, he just eats what we eat on hikes so we typically don’t bring any special foods that are just his.

We also found, starting with that very first hike, that it works well to clear out the trunk of our car to create a flat diaper changing space. We changed Johann’s diaper before we left the trailhead and, even though we were prepared, he was good until we got back to the car 1.5 hours later.

Well, we enjoyed the hike, but Johann did cry right at the beginning, for about ten minutes straight. He calmed down and fell asleep soon after, but his crying episode was enough to rattle us and make us briefly wonder why we had subjected ourselves to this. The crying didn’t last long, but the tension that Ryan and I were feeling was still there. So, as Johann fell asleep, we took a moment to remember our why. And while we hiked, we talked. We talked about all the things we want our kid to learn from us over the next eighteen years. We considered the kind of relationship we want to have with him. We considered the kinds of experiences we want to give him. We considered how to set examples for him of pushing ourselves to face new challenges, and then enjoying the reward at the end – just like a great view that awaits at the end of a trail.

A sleeping baby + a beautiful hike = Joy

I know that Ryan and I would love our why to mould and shape the foundation and the worldview that Johann will have someday. Sharing these kinds of experiences with the people we love, are cornerstones of ours. That first hike may not have been perfect, and we may not have had all the best gear. But, it got us going. It allowed us to do something we enjoy, with our baby, in a low-stress manner. And, it was important to us to start then, and to keep doing it, learning as we went. For instance, here’s one of the things I am so glad I learned: When we got our Ergo carrier, I figured out how to nurse Johann while carrying him in it. In so doing, I felt a huge sense of freedom! That opened up a whole new host of possibilities: I could now nurse him completely hands-free while hiking, walking, sitting, standing, hopping on and off of buses or trains, visiting with friends, at parties, etc. all while still being discreet, which was a boon for crowded areas. But all this didn’t happen right away. It took some getting used to on my part, coupled with practice and patience. It’s about progress, not perfection.

Now, Johann is an eighteen-month old active toddler. On our hikes these days, as long as it’s relatively safe, we let him walk a bit on his own power. We go at his pace, and stop a lot, basically whenever he wants to explore something, and we’re happy to do so. It is an amazing thing to experience a trail through Johann.

A friend of mine recently coined an expression that has become popular in our house, “Johann and his sticks!” It’s true, he is especially interested in sticks outdoors, and curious about so many other things around him, whether pinecones or a rushing river, or chipmunks and gray jays that scurry over to us in hopes of finding food (please don’t feed the wildlife!). He’s still learning how to navigate rooty and rocky terrain. He has no sense of self-preservation, so it takes work on our part to keep him away from cliff edges, poisonous mushrooms, snakes, etc. which is always in his best interest as well as our own. But we’re noticing that with a steady supply of rest stops, curiosity-breaks, snacks and water, he can go up to a mile and a quarter on his own. We’re meeting him halfway, and we’re starting to see tangible signs of a kid who is loving nature the way we do. That’s exciting.

I’m sure our hikes will change as Johann grows and becomes an active participant in the things we do overall, rather than someone who is just along for the ride with his parents. But we’re on that journey and we cannot wait to experience it together.

Momentum is key. Again, it’s about progress, not perfection.

Do you hike with your baby or bigger kids? What do you like or dislike about it?