Successful hikes with little children require planning and preparation. Here are some suggestions from local parents and from several helpful web sites.
Most experts say you shouldn’t hike with babies younger than one month. If you’re carrying an older infant in a front carrier, plan for only 20 or 30 minutes at first. You might be able to hike for an hour or more with an older baby in a good back carrier. The distance will depend on weather, conditions along the trail, your fitness, and whether you and your baby start out well rested.
Babies can’t let you know that they’re starting to get sunburned or windburned. Make sure your baby has a hat. Use sunscreen recommended by your pediatrician. Check your baby’s skin often.
It’s easy to provide for breastfed infants. For other babies, keep milk or formula in an insulated bag.
Even for a short hike, bring an extra diaper or two. Remember, you MUST take used diapers home with you. Never bury or burn diapers. (You might want to dig a “cat hole” and scrape poop into it before wrapping the diaper in a plastic bag for carrying home. You can also put used diapers on a rock in the sun while you’re taking a snack break. They’ll weigh less and be less smelly.)
You’ll be able to hike for longer distances with a year-old baby on your back than with a toddler who wants to do some of his own walking. Plan on slow hikes with lots of time for poking in puddles, staring at bugs and picking up rocks. Many two- to four-year olds can complete hikes of a mile or two, especially when the day is warm but not humid. You still might have to do some carrying, especially toward the end of the hike. There are good back carriers available that will hold up to 60 pounds.
A toddler’s first hiking experiences should be short and successful. Carry lots of fluids and snacks. Plan for some specific activities or adventures. Head home early if your little one is getting over-tired or cranky.
Look in your own neighborhood for beginning hikes. Start with a walk up the hill in back of your house or to a local beaver pond. Hike along a bike path or a dirt road. Prepare for these local hikes the same as you would if you were driving to a trailhead, with the same gear and clothes.
Before each hike, talk to your little one about the adventure. Talk about being in the woods. Describe climbing over big rocks. Maybe show pictures of a waterfall or a meadow you’ll see.
Don’t take your child on a trail that you don’t know. Walking the trail yourself before a family hike will alert you to poison ivy or stinging nettles. You can also prepare yourself for things that might frighten a child, such as open rock faces, steep drop-offs or gaps in the trail.
Most hiking parents find that it’s best to start soon after breakfast. (Don’t get the kids up unusually early. Follow your family’s normal morning schedule.) You can hike a while, have a mid-morning snack on the trail, and be home in time for lunch and a nap.
What gear you should tote depends on your child’s age and daily habits. The most important things are liquids and snacks. Carry lots of both. Don’t wait for your child to ask for something to drink. Kids can get dehydrated even if they’re in a carrier.
Pack a small first-aid kit and maybe a towel or blanket to sit on during stops. You might want to bring a small shovel for digging or closed containers for treasures such as pine cones and interesting rocks.
Put sunscreen on your child at the beginning of the day and reapply frequently. Make sure your child has a wide-brimmed hat. It’s probably better if children wear long pants and a long-sleeved shirt. If you decide on shorts and a T-shirt, bring warmer clothes in your pack. Little children lose body heat quickly. Children should wear hiking boots or good sneakers, not sandals or “crocs”.
Carry antibacterial hand wipes, especially if your child is still in diapers. Don’t fret about other kinds of dirt. Adults and kids get dirty hiking, and that’s part of the fun.
Love the Little Hike!
Little children aren’t peak baggers. Reaching some specific location isn’t as important as what you do along the way. Don’t get hung up on miles or destinations. You want your little one to love hiking. Make sure all of her early adventures are successful and happy!
There’s a lot of excellent advice on the web, including information about videos and other resources. Just search “hiking with children”.