Whenever you go hiking with a baby on your back or a toddler in tow, you’re likely to get one of the same four responses from the other hikers you meet:
- “Awww, they’re so cute!” (True.)
- “That looks heavy.” (Also true. I like to joke that I do regular army ranger training with my 25-pound pack.)
- “Sweet ride, little dude!” (Said with a shaka sign.)
- “I can’t believe you’re doing this!” (Thanks, judgmental person?)
The thing is, getting outside—no matter what it looks like—matters more to me than what people say. That’s why as soon as I felt up to it, I strapped my son into his carrier and started hiking with a baby on my back.
And when you’re a hiking mom, you learn pretty quickly that a lot of other outdoorsy parents feel the same way. “I wanted to feel like myself again and I didn’t want to be stuck at home,” says Hailey Terry, a blogger and mother of two. “Hiking looks different than it did before, but it’s so much fun.”
Kids are never too old to learn how to hike. I can recall on one hand the hikes I did before college, and here I am taking my son out every week on the trails where we live. So, whether you’re a seasoned hiker or just someone who’s ready to try something new with the kids, here are some helpful tips for hiking with a baby, toddler, big kid, or even a tween or teen in tow.
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1. Choose Age-Appropriate Trails When Hiking with a Baby (or Any Other Age)
When you’re outdoors with kids, use the term “hike” loosely. The summer before I had my son, I spent nearly every weekend somewhere in New Hampshire trying to hit all of the 4,000 Footers, which often meant scrambling up sketchy-looking granite slides or stringing together multiple peaks in a day. Someday I’ll get back to my quest to do them all, but for now, hanging out on town trails suits me just fine.
Hiking doesn’t have to mean bagging peaks. You might explore an old rail trail that’s now a bike path, protected conservation land, or state parks. America’s best national parks are known for their accessible and kid-friendly trails, too, and local state parks are another kid-friendly hiking option.
“I always recommend finding a hike with a waterfall or other feature at the end,” advises Kay Akpan, a mom and full-time digital nomad, “so even if you’re not climbing a mountain, there’s still something interesting to keep the kids going.”
2. Time Your Hikes with Snacks and Naps
Bring. More. Snacks. No matter what age you’re hiking with, snacks are a must. “We take frequent breaks along the way, and I often use snacks as an incentive to keep going,” says Akpan. “Sometimes hiking is hard, and we’re tired, and it’s the snacks that can help us get through the hike, because it’s worth it in the end.”
When you’re hiking with a baby, both breastfeeding or bottle-feeding is easier to do on trail than you’d think. For formula, measure it out ahead of time in a plastic bag and bring a thermos with pre-boiled water kept to temperature. For breastfeeding, try to offer a feed in the car first, and wear clothes you can nurse in. Otherwise, bring a blanket, try to find a comfortable spot on a nearby log or rock, and do your thing.
That same timing goes for naps. If you’ve got a little one that will conk out in a carrier, all the better. But if they’re more of a princess-and-the-pea type sleeper, work around their nap schedule for your hikes. That may change the types of trails you choose or just require you to turn around sooner than you’d like to, but any time hiking with your kids is its own kind of reward.
3. Bring the Right Hiking Gear
Whenever I hike even a short trail with my son, I look like I’m about to enter a five-day expedition into the wilderness. At least, that’s what it feels like with the amount of gear I bring as part of my baby packing list for day hikes. As he gets older I’ll be able to bring less and less with us, but at least right now I’m not worrying about abandoning minimalism. You don’t want to get to a summit just in time for a blowout and realize you don’t have any extra clothes like I once did. That’s not a mistake you make twice!
I always bring two bags, one that stays in the car with extra snacks and clothes, plus the pack I wear. That means bringing multiple changes of clothes, more diapers than you think you need, plenty of water, and lots of snacks.
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Your carrier makes all the difference when hiking with a toddler or baby. There are two kinds of carriers you’ll want to look at, depending on age and weight: soft carriers and framed carriers.
Soft carriers like the Ergobaby 360 Omni Breeze take the weight off your shoulders. Most models on the market allow you to position the baby facing forward, facing inward, or on your back. You can use this from 7 to 45 pounds (until they’re two or three years old) so it’s a worthwhile investment.
Framed carriers, like the Osprey Poco Plus, require your child to be able to hold their head up independently (six to eight months) and can carry up to 48 pounds. Unlike soft carriers, which don’t have much by way of pockets, this carrier is all-in-one. It’s heavy (the pack alone weighs almost eight pounds) but the bigger they get, the more the weight distribution feels manageable.
With older kids, empower them to carry some of their own gear. Giving them a small travel backpack or fanny pack of their own to bring snacks, toys, water, or binoculars can make hiking that much more fun for them. You may also want to bring a magnifying glass, animal identification book, toy or instant camera, or walkie talkies.
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“One thing that’s a must for us is water backpacks,” says Akpan. “We make sure everyone has one with ice in it so you can always stay hydrated. The other really important piece of gear for older kids is the right shoes. It makes a huge difference on hikes.”
Finally, make space in your hiking backpack for important safety gear. This includes a first-aid kit with kid-sized band-aids and medicine, a trash bag to carry out dirty diapers, kid-safe sunscreen and bug spray, duct tape, and (depending on where you live or what trail you’re hiking) bear spray and water purification tablets.
4. Make Your Kids Part of the Experience
Before you set out hiking with a toddler or bigger kid, set expectations for them. No matter what age, preparing them is the best way to make the hike fun for everyone. “I spend time talking about the hike the night before, especially with my three-year-old,” says Terry. “We talk about how we’re going to get our hiking clothes on, and then drive to the trail, and that we’ll look for leaves, or play in the snow. It’s great to remind them that this is fun.”
Agrees Akpan. “For us, it’s a family activity. We try to plan a hike every time we travel, and we bring them in and ask them to help plan it, so they’re that much more excited about it.”
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While babies are mostly along for the ride, toddlers and older kids are endlessly curious about what’s around them. This may mean slowing way, way down as they explore the trail—though be sure to point out trail etiquette whenever possible, like staying on trail and leaving no trace. “I enjoy hiking to the top of a mountain as much as the next person, but with kids, I’ve grown to appreciate the little things,” says Terry. “We look at wildflowers, we find bugs, we stop and feel the tree bark. I have genuinely grown to enjoy that aspect of being outside and to experience the outdoors through my kid’s perspective.”
This is a great way to show them what you love about the outdoors, too, whether it’s pointing out interesting flora and fauna, asking for “help” navigating with trail signs and markers, looking for animal tracks, listening for bird calls, or enjoying the view. Play games, tell stories or funny kids jokes, ask riddles and rhymes, sing songs, and make it fun.
“My son loves looking at rocks, trees, and birds,” says Akpan. “We use an identification app so we can walk up to a tree and see what it is. Or if we hear a bird, we’ll use an app to identify the call and figure out what we’re looking at. It adds another layer to the hike and gets everyone excited as you’re going along.”
5. Remember to Have Fun
When hiking with kids, forget about the summit or the destination. Would it be cool to see that waterfall or stand on that iconic peak? Of course. But with kids, that’s not always going to happen. Embrace the small moments of joy and that you’re able to do something fun together.
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“Kids are still going to have tantrums outside. They’re still going to refuse the snacks you brought or act out. That doesn’t change just because you’re in a new place,” says Terry. “But I notice that when my toddler is able to get his energy out running around and explore, he’s a much happier kid overall.”
Remember that even a little time outside is worth it. “The more often you hike, the more your kids get used to it,” says Akpan. “Now, when I say we’re going on a hike they’ll have their shoes on already.”