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Take Your Tyke on a Hike

The little one in your family is getting bigger. They’re walking. They’re running. They’re climbing. They’re grabbing things. They’re examining things. And yes, they’re even tasting things.

The toddler in your family is bubbling over with personality and propelling themselves with their own two legs!

Enter the toddler in our family, my grandson, Jackson.

He is a restless little ball of energy and doesn’t want to miss anything! Jackson, at 16 months of age, prefers to get down and explore. He is inherently busy and curious. I can’t think of a better way to harness those characteristics and spark his interest in outdoor activities, than to take him on a hike! But, how do you make the hiking adventure enjoyable for the toddler and not stressful for the adults?

Taking a child 12 to 36 months old on an outdoor trip can certainly be a tricky undertaking. It boils down to a delicate balance between keeping them entertained and comfortable, and not pushing them too far. That being stated, here are the insights I want pass along when it comes to taking your tyke on a hike. I have picked up these ten tips from the outdoor experts at REI (Recreational Equipment, Inc.) and by logging many miles with toddlers (my own children as well as others) at my side.

Your blogger and his grandson, Jackson Edward Wagner, take a break on a hike. Photo by Zachary Wagner.

(1) Weather. Select a day or part of a day with warm sunshine and calm breezes. Make certain there are no threatening storm fronts or rain events in the weather forecast for where you’re planning to hike with your toddler. Take along a smartphone or iPhone to periodically check current temperatures, wind speed and direction plus other conditions.

(2) The right gear. Your child needs the proper clothing for a hike. Focus on choosing apparel that protects your little one from the sun and helps keep them cool and dry.  It needs to be breathable, moisture-wicking, wind-resistant and sun-proof. Lightweight layering of garments should be done as well. Suitable footwear for a hike is a must, too. The most important aspects of hiking footwear are comfort, support, and tread. A child-carrier backpack for toddlers is also a good idea to have on a hike because the tot will inevitably tire of walking. This backpack is especially important if there is only one adult with the youngster on the hike. Don’t forget to add bottles of nontoxic sunscreen and insect repellent to the pack!

(3) Ample water, snacks and diapers. Bring plenty of water with you on the trail. My rule is one water bottle per person, but I generally will share one with my toddler. If I do share on the trail, I always have fresh, cold water waiting for us back at the vehicle. Having a variety of healthy, snacks available for toddlers on hikes is critical. Hiking uses a lot of energy and children need to replenish their energy reserves more frequently than adults. Suggested snacks for toddlers on hikes are fruits such as  bananas, apple slices, sliced strawberries, etc. and original, plain Cheerios cereal with those wholesome little “o’s” put in Ziploc sandwich bag. Bring a couple diapers and a small package of wet wipes with you on the hike, just in case. Leave the big diaper bag in the vehicle.

(4) Choose tot-friendly areas or trails near home. Keep your hiking destination relatively close to home. You can more easily manage naps, feedings, and an all-out bad experience if you are within a short distance of the house. The tyke hike doesn’t have to be in the woods necessarily. You can take a hike on a farm or acreage, in a city park or state park land, or on a wildlife management area or nearby wildlife refuge. I like to look for a bit wider trails that are what I call tot-friendly with flat spots that don’t contain rocks, roots, clumps of grass and steep, uneven terrain. Always have a fun and really cool objective with the hike – a creek, waterfall, rock formation, or something equally special.

Your blogger’s grandson, Jackson, being held by his mother and my daughter-in-law, Kristin Wagner, can’t wait to explore a creek bottom on the southeastern Nebraska family farm. Photo by Greg Wagner/Nebraska Game and Parks Commission.

(5) Let them lead and dictate the pace. I adhere to the phrase “embrace the pace” when it comes to hiking with toddlers. Let that youngster lead up front and establish the pace, however slow (or fast). Yes, they will make frequent stops inspecting things. In fact, they may even completely change course on you. Remember that your mission is to follow, monitor and ensure safety. Consider this: When you give a toddler the sense that they are making all the decisions on which direction to go and which path to take, their interest is going to skyrocket!  

(6) Allow them to wander. During your time out on the trail with a toddler, let them wander. You may only “hike” for about 30 minutes – but you might wander around and examine every rock, leaf, pile of dirt and bug within a 50 foot radius of a trail head for 2 hours or more. Just be okay with really doing nothing more than that and everyone will have a wonderful outing.

Inquisitive grandson, Jackson, on a recent hike. Photo by Greg Wagner/Nebraska Game and Parks Commission.

(7) Encourage them to touch, feel, smell. Do not be afraid to stop and allow your toddler an opportunity to pick up (and throw) rocks, touch leaves and tree bark, smell blossoms or pine cones, etc. Express your own sense of wonder. On a recent hike, my grandson, Jackson, would get excited about something because I was excited about it. Take note of unique changes that are happening outside with the seasons and get enthused about it.   

Jackson studies the branch of an eastern red cedar tree. Photo by Greg Wagner/Nebraska Game and Parks Commission.

(8) Play games. In nature, you can also turn the simplest things into a game. For example, wooden hike/bike bridges in parks are very special, and made for toddler stomping. You will just have to say and demonstrate that once, and every bridge the rest of the weekend will be a “stomping bridge” that those young children will be thrilled to cross. Another neat game for toddlers is to put a leaf on the trail with an acorn or small rock on it every so often and watch your toddler go from acorn to acorn or rock to rock just like a treasure hunt.

(9) Reinforce the fun factor. The overriding goal on a hike with a toddler is for them to have fun! The fun factor is key so they will want to go again. Forget any itinerary. Have a positive, lighthearted, laid-back attitude. Let your toddler go as far as they want, and when they are finished, head home. Over time you can get them interested in the route.

(10) Other stuff, odds and ends.  Although the point of hiking is often to unplug from technology, I rarely leave home without my camera and/or smartphone. Photography is a huge part of my family outdoor experiences to capture memories. I also like to keep my smartphone with me in case of emergency and for access to maps and hiking apps, if needed. I think it is incredibly useful to leave your backpack, a full change of clothes for your toddler, a simple diaper pack, a travel-size first aid kit, and a towel in your car at all times.

Though it may be years before you spend a night in a tent or a morning in the wild turkey hunting blind, or go fishing with a fly rod or embark on a long hike in a majestic landscape, you are planting the seed for a potential future outdoor enthusiast. The hours you spend with that toddler looking for cool rocks in a creek bottom or scrambling up grassy hills, may just be the link to help you get your kids outdoors a few years down the line.

My son, Zachary Wagner is pictured with his wife Kristin and their son, Jackson, on a high hill on the family farm (Referred to as “The Pike’s Peak of southeastern Nebraska”) . Photo by Greg Wagner/Nebraska Game and Parks Commission.

About greg wagner

A native of Gretna, NE, a graduate of Gretna High School and Bellevue University, Greg Wagner currently serves as the Communications and Marketing Specialist and Manager for the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission's Service Center in Omaha. On a weekly basis, Wagner can be heard on a number of radio stations, seen on local television in Omaha, and on social media channels, creatively conveying natural resource conservation messages as well as promoting outdoor activities and destinations in Nebraska. Wagner, whose career at Game and Parks began in 1979, walks, talks, lives, breathes and blogs about Nebraska’s outdoors. He grew up in rural Gretna, building forts in the woods, hunting, fishing, collecting leaves, and generally thriving on constant outdoor activity. One of the primary goals of his blog is to get people, especially young ones, to have fun and spend time outside!

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