Toddler Activities: Hiking with Toddlers

By Celeste Stewart

One of the best, and least expensive, outings for a family involves strapping on hiking boots, filling canteens, and hitting the trails. Hiking the local trails is fun for the entire family. But what if you have a toddler? Should you wait until he’s older or should you tote him along? While hiking may not be the first thing that pops into mind when thinking about toddler activities, it’s definitely doable and enjoyable!

First, consider where you’ll be hiking. The best hikes for toddlers are nearby and relatively short. Ideally, look for a short loop trail with few hazardous areas. Loops are ideal because there’s no need to double back which can be tedious with an overtired toddler. Avoid intimidating trails such as steep, cliff side trails or trails alongside raging rivers. While flat paved loop trails are the best hiking trails for those first hikes with toddlers, consider venturing off on slightly more rugged trails if you have an older toddler. Look for interesting terrain and diversions.

If you can find a state or county park close to home with a visitor center, you’re in luck! Pack a picnic lunch and take the family. Plan on visiting the visitor center first so that you can introduce your toddler to some of the critters (or their tracks) you may encounter on the trail as well as pick up any self-guided tour materials. Most park visitor centers have hands-on exhibits specifically designed to delight toddlers and children. In addition, easy loop trails and park gardens are often located close to the visitor center as are shaded picnic areas.

Once you’re done checking out the visitor center, go take a hike! To ensure a fun toddler activity on the trail, pack a small backpack with binoculars, a magnifying glass, and a crayon and paper. Your toddler will enjoy wearing the backpack as well as using the binoculars and magnifying glass on the trail. Use the crayon and paper to make rubbings of leaves, bark, and other items.

As you’re hiking with your child, remember that this adventure is all about the journey. This isn’t going to be a heart-pumping hike and you’re not going to get anywhere fast. Take your time and enjoy discovering bugs, wildflowers, and wildlife tracks. Stop at interesting landmarks and make the hike fun. Another way to ensure that your hike becomes a fun toddler activity is to put your child in charge. If it’s safe, allow your toddler to take the lead from time to time. If the trail is too treacherous for that, let your child hold the map or alert you to any interesting discoveries along the way.

Hiking with toddlers sets the stage for later hiking adventures. By starting early and making the hike a fun toddler activity, your child will look forward to future excursions.

Scavenger hunts are great for hiking motivation

Went on an hike with a 5-year-old, 4-year-old, 3-year-old (and carried along an 8-month-old) this past weekend at Ludington State Park in Michigan. The slow-paced hike among the dunes was completed without any complaints due to bringing along a few bags to collect scavenger hunt items!

Made up a short list in advance with things to find such as all sorts of different bugs, leaves and objects, as well as something smooth or rough, something beautiful, something funny, etc. Abstract items such as certain sounds or smells were also a lot of fun for the kids.

Afterward we turned all of the items they collected into more fun by glueing them up on a piece of paper that they could label and identify.

Great times!