Hiking With Young Children

Hiking with young children can be a wonderful experience. Children can show you a new perspective, give you an opportunity to see the world from their vantage point, and prompt you to stop and notice the little things. I was so excited to become a parent and get to experience nature with my children. I wanted to develop in them the same sense of wonder I felt in the woods and awe over the small beautiful gifts of wildflowers and dragonflies. For the most part they have inherited my love of nature. I love being with my children in the woods, and taking my family on a hike is one of our favorite fall and spring rituals. We hike in the summer and winter, but the best times to hike in Oklahoma seem to be the early and late seasons. I have found that with a few tricks up your sleeve you can have a successful hike with the most reluctant and stubborn toddler.

Walk on Toddler Time:

The first thing to remember if you are hiking with young children is that this is not a time for you to meet personal fitness goals and take on a huge trail from start to finish. Hiking with young people is a process and best enjoyed stopping to stare at a butterfly’s wings in the light or marveling over an old fallen tree with its roots exposed. This is the speed you will be going when hiking with little ones. You can always strap them to your back in a carrier to pick up the pace. We often put our two year old in a carrier for at least some of the hike. I have found, as my children get older, that holding them the whole time leaves me with a backache, and we all end up super cranky in the end, so carrier time is limited. Left to roam beside you, toddlers have the capacity to hike far and fast when they feel like it.

Take many breaks and eat snacks:

Breaks are a young child’s way of processing the experience they are having. As you take a break, try closing your eyes and counting all the sounds you hear. Open your eyes and see if you can spot any of the sounds. Now count how many flowers you spot, how many insects? What colors are the rocks around you, is there moss anywhere close by? You can take out a nature journal and color pencils as well and try drawing some of the things you have seen and heard.

Breaks are a great time to bring out snacks. Remembering to bring an assortment of healthy snacks and water ahead of time will save you in the end. Full tummies make the journey so much sweeter. It also helps the adults to slow down and notice the nature and connect with your child.

Entice them with the possibility of seeing wild animals:

On a hike you never know what is just around the corner. Teaching your children to try and walk the way an animal walks is a great way to get them engaged with the animal life that is all around them. Encourage them to be sneaky like foxes or coyotes or to gallop like horses when you want them to speed the pace up. Be on the look out for animal habitats, caves and hollow logs and see if you can find signs of animal life like tracks or animal poop (scat).

Create scavenger hunts:

Engaging the children with what they are seeing is the most fun part of a hike, and a great way to do this is inventing a scavenger hunt of things for them to find while trekking. With the young child it is easy to come up with a check list of things you hope to see ahead of time such as a pinecone, a butterfly, a heart-shaped rock, etc. Consider the environment you are hiking in and what you think you might see. Having a plan and checklist can help organize the hike in a way that makes it extra exciting.

When in doubt, use fantasy games and stories:

Nearing the end of a grand journey my children often get the most cranky: they have pretended to be animals, examined moss during a break and are now preparing to go home. This can be the whiniest time for my kids, and this is when we dip in the fantasy realm. I like to take turns telling fairy and gnome stories with my oldest child. We keep adding to the story as we walk, like “Now the gnomes are hiding from the mocking bird in that thicket of bushes, you can see their tiny red caps under that leaf.” We also make up games, like find the biggest tree in the woods, or pretend we are secret agents looking for dragons. Whatever propels them forward and keeps their minds off the walking seems to help get us to the end of the journey.

Treat yourself at the end:

To sweeten the whole experience I typically end the hike with a special surprise. If it’s in the hot seasons we get to have lemonades or ice cream, if it is colder we have a hot chocolate or hot apple cider. This reward for a job well done and sensation of pleasure at the end of our sojourn helps get the excitement up for the next time I suggest we take a hike.

Hang on tightly, let go lightly:

This old adage is a personal family motto of ours. In my family it means keep trying and persist but also notice when it’s time to throw in the towel. I have been on many hikes with my children where pretty soon after starting they want to quit. They are tired, hot, cold, thirsty, whiny, whatever it is and want to go home. At this point I usually try to entice them to stay on trail, I point out the cool things we might see just up ahead if we keep trying. If the complaining persists and seems like it won’t stop we then re-assess how far we will go that day and turn around. This can feel really bad for the parents like us that really enjoy hiking and want our children to develop a love of the endurance of being physical in the outdoors. But I have found if we occasionally give into the request to turn back it gives our children a say in how the experience is going and sometimes makes them more keen to try it again knowing it won’t be a walk of doom the whole time.

Remember, keep trying, you are building endurance and a love of the natural world by hiking with your children. Also toddlerhood is a phase, your child could go from tantrum hikes to a pleasurable one in a period of months or moments. We experienced this with our two year old. She went from throwing fits if her feet touched the ground to hiking up steep hills without complaint in just a few short months. We persisted and believed in her, even when it was hard, and it worked!

At Under The Canopy we go on many nature hikes and outdoor adventures with families. Check out the Facebook page to learn more about hiking events happening this fall! http://www.facebook.com/underthecanopynature

Check list for before you leave for a short hike:

Pack a backpack that includes:

Band-Aids, bandana, healthy snacks, water bottles, Hot Hands hand warmers on cool days, a change of clothes for the children if its going to be muddy or wet, safety whistles to keep track of children when they go far ahead on the trail. Good sturdy and comfortable shoes with long socks for all. Wipes are always useful as well. A nature journal and set of color pencils with one page that has a simple scavenger hunt written on it. Bug spray and sunblock ahead of time.

Having a backpack stocked with these items in the back of your car can be a great way to be ready for adventure! Good luck and happy trekking!


Margaritte Arthrell-Knezek is a naturalist, writer and community educator committed to teaching the skills of sustainability and instructing children and adults on how to connect with the natural world that surrounds them daily. Arthrell-Knezek hails from New Haven, Connecticut where she began her work in the arts and environmental activism in 1997. She graduated from The Evergreen State College In Olympia WA, 2010, with a bachelor’s degree in multi-media art and sustainability studies. She has traveled the world and landed in Tulsa, OK where she is the Executive Director and Lead Educator of Under The Canopy LLC. She is a parent to two awesome children and wife to Mykey Arthrell-Knezek. You can learn more about the programs she teaches at www.underthecanopy.org She also keeps a personal blog about parenting in all its real and messy forms www.adventuresofmulletmom@blogspot.com  

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