Chasqui Mom's Toddler Hiking Cycle

Bonbon Break
Since I've been pregnant I've hiked with my children, who are now toddlers.  In my last few hikes and in particular on my most recent hike to  Tilden Regional Park in Berkeley, I clearly saw a "Toddler Hiking Cycle" (as I will call it) with both my children.  We've done one to twelve mile day hikes with our toddlers and this "cycle" seems to repeat itself no matter the distance.

Note: This chart is not based on scientific fact, but my own personal observations on my own children over the years.  Each child has different levels of energy and each parent should know their own child's limitations.  Times are just an approximation.

"Lets Go" Stage (15-30 Minutes)
This stage starts from when the car hits the parking lot.  My kids (and myself included) are so excited to get out of the car, that many important items may be forgotten.  In my most recent hike, my son got fixated on going through a street tunnel that we drove by so he refused to take his token "Cowboy Hat" and his flashlight.  Five minutes into our hike he was on a verge of a meltdown because he didn't have his flashlight and 20 minutes later he was wearing my sunhat.  I quickly ran to the car and grabbed his flashlight but did not bring his hat.  As the parent, being organized, bringing "comfort items" and being relaxed go a long way for a smooth transition.

"The Groove" Stage (1-3 hours)
"The Groove" stage is my favorite part of the cycle because everyone is happy and hiking!  Energy levels are up, and the whole family is moving along and enjoying the outdoors.  I know my 21 month old daughter is in the "groove" when she's singing on the trail or when she say's "Mommy, look at me! I'm hiking!".  Depending on how long your toddlers can hike this stage can last between one to three hours so enjoy it as much as you can!

My daughter singing on the trail!

"Carry Me" Stage (30-60 Minutes)
I normally try to calculate ending our hikes during this stage to avoid going into a meltdown later on.  Currently, my three year old son can hike approximately 3-5 miles and my 21 month old daughter can hike 1.5 miles.  My husband and I usually take our large carriers for longer hikes and for shorter easier hikes we take one large carrier and our ERGO baby carrier.  When they ask to be carried, I usually try to coax my toddlers to hike a little longer with candy or chocolate.  Sometimes that gives them the energy boost needed hike another 30 minutes.  Parental actions such as hand holding, giving candy/chocolate, putting your child in their carrier or on your shoulders, is essential to hiking with toddlers.

"Nap Time" Stage (1 hour)
I prefer for nap time to be during the car ride home after hiking because my kids have never been good "car seat" kids.  Also, if they fall asleep during the "Carry Me" their naps might be disrupted during the transition to their car seats.  I'm more of a free-spirited parent when it comes to nap time but if your child has a specific daily nap time, just make sure your child is in their carrier at that time or you can always lay a blanket down on the trail and proceed with their normal nap schedule.  Who wouldn't want to sleep outside?  Here's our son during his "Nap Time" at Pinnacles National Park during this past winter.

My suggestion to parents is either hike fast to cover lost ground during the nap or slow down and enjoy the scenery to let your toddler get a restful nap.

"Meltdown" Stage (15-30 Minutes)
Every parent has experienced a meltdown whether at a home, store, restaurant and they also occur on the trail.  Usually hiking meltdowns occur because my children have reached their hiking limit and are tired.  More recently hiking meltdowns are caused because we leave a fun water source, so I let our kids have their time at a creek, pond or even a puddle.  That's why I try to calculate to end our hike during the "Carry Me" Stage before their complaints turn into a full down meltdown.  Sometimes meltdowns are inevitable so I just let me kids have their meltdown on the trail until they are done.  Remember it's nature and no one is usually around to hear all the crying so don't stress about it.  Parents should stop hiking and normally proceed with whatever method you use to stop a meltdown but most importantly take a breather and be patient.

Someone is not happy!
I was recently asked how did I get my toddlers to hike "long" distances, so I'd like to give a few tips on how to "train" toddlers to hike.  Just like a runner who trains for a marathon, toddlers also have to "train" to hike:

  1. Walk every day - Start small, leave the stroller behind and walk with your toddler around the block.  Once your toddler is comfortable with a distance add a little bit more distance.
  2. Walk or hike slow - Hike at your child's pace and make sure you have time to complete a one or five mile hike without feeling hurried.  I consider myself a "hiker" and our family averages one mile in one hour.
  3. Motivation Toys - Motivate your toddler during daily walks to run, bring a scooter, toy doll stroller, etc.  My daughter will run around the block if she has her baby stroller because that is what I do with our jogging stroller.
  4. Attractive Locations - Pick hiking trails that have attractive qualities for toddlers. My toddlers love water, so I usually pick parks that have little streams or an ocean park.  Parks with caves or tunnels are also good locations because the children are having so much fun they will forget they are hiking.
If you have anymore suggestions or questions just let me know by leaving a comment below.  Remember be patient, enjoy the scenery and have a fun time hiking with your little ones!

Related Posts:

  1. Toddler Nap Time During a Hike