10 Tips for Turning Toddlers into Happy Hikers

My kids are pretty good hikers now but that wasn’t always the case and they still have the occasional breakdown on the trail. You will need a full arsenal of tricks to turn your sweet babies into hiking machines, but it’s so worth it. Of course, it’s just plain fun to hike as a family and spend time together in the great outdoors. But hiking also teaches children all sorts of life skills, like working hard to achieve a goal, enduring the elements, overcoming discomfort, being flexible when things don’t go as planned, and the delight of making your own fun instead of simply being entertained. Happy hiking!

1. Start them young, the earlier the better.

We started taking our kids on the trail when they were babies. By the time they could walk, they were used to our hiking routine and thought that was a normal way to spend a weekend. I loved the first time my son woke up Saturday morning and enthusiastically said: “Which mountain are we going to today?” Mission accomplished! So don’t wait until your kids are older to take them hiking. Start as soon as possible.

Also, take advantage of these early years when you can carry your kids or push them in a stroller as fast and as far as you like. Once kids are too heavy to carry, you have to walk slower and do shorter hikes until they gain the stamina and desire to go farther. Each phase has pluses and minues. But when my six year old threw a tantrum on the trail and refused to go on, I longed for the days when I could just strap him into the stroller and carry on.

Lastly, I used to think that our prime hiking years would be when my kids were over 10 and could easily hike 10 km. But now they are so busy with sports, friends and birthday parties, that it can be hard to find a weekend free for hiking. So take advantage of the early years when your kids don’t have other commitments.

2. Let them walk

It’s tempting to carry your child for the whole hike, so you can travel farther and quicker. But young children need practice if you want them to become hikers. It’s important for young children, even toddlers, to walk part of the hike and let them walk more every time you go. Hiking is a different skill than just walking. They will learn to follow a trail, to walk on a variety of terrain, to negotiate obstacles, to observe their surroundings and most importantly, to achieve a goal through hard work.

3. Start small

Even if your kids are still small enough for a backpack or stroller, occasionally pick short trails that the kids can do themselves. It gives a child a great sense of accomplishment. Make sure to select appropriate distances so you don’t frustrate your child. A 1.5 km walk might not seem like a real hike. But for a 3 year old, this might take 30 to 60 minutes and exhaust them for the rest of the day. Start your hike early when your kids are fresh, take lots of breaks and have a plan B if your child gets too tired. Try to focus on enjoying the journey, instead of reaching a destination. It’s more fun for the child when they can leisurely explore their environment and see the rocks, mud, flowers, and bugs up close. This map shows the 2 km “Flower Trail” at Flumserberg, just the right distance for little legs.

I highly suggest planning your day so you don’t have to finish the hike at a particular time. We’ve had unnecessary stress when our kids walk crazy slow and we’ve had to sprint to catch the last cable car down the mountain. Don’t head out on the trail at 11am, counting on being at the restaurant at noon for lunch. Invariably, the kids will walk slow, then have a hunger break down well before the restaurant is in sight. Bring lots of food just in case.

4. Have children help plan the trip

 

My kids are often more interested in our hike if they helped pick out where to go. I’ll pin a few trail ideas beforehand, then show the kids pictures and trail maps to see what catches their interest. Sometimes we choose our destination by the weather. So on weekend mornings, the kids will study the Swiss mountain webcams on SF2 on TV (which rotates through a couple dozen destinations) and inform me where the sunniest part of Switzerland is. I also collect trail maps and mountain resort info wherever we go, so the kids can study the maps beforehand and find the points of interest, like fire pits, playgrounds, waterfalls, etc.

5. Frequent mini goals and rewards

It certainly helps to have some sort of reward at the end of the hike, like ice cream, a lake, a playground, a waterfall, an alpine slide, etc. But most kids have a hard time focusing on the long term, so it’s good to have short-term goals as well. The marble run in the picture above was at the halfway point on the trail. It was a good reward for completing the first half of the hike.

Theme trails are perfect for this, as they usually have games, stories or play equipment scattered along the way to keep the child motivated to keep walking. See Top 10 Theme Trails.

The goals can be as simple as reaching a point ahead on the trail. “Let’s see how long it takes us to reach that big rock.” On an especially hard hike, I brought a kids’ book with me. After every 5 to 10 minutes, we stopped and I read them one chapter. I was surprised how well this worked. Encyclopedia Brown would be a good choice, as you could read the mystery first, then read the solution after the kids walked the next section.

When all else fails, I always have a bag of gummy worms in my backpack. I dole out the gummy worms one by one along the trail, often rewarding the kids for small achievements, like reaching the next trail sign or hiking for another five minutes or reaching the top of a steep climb. I also have a stash of lollipops that are reserved for whiners so their mouths are too busy to say anything.

6. Use a route tracker

My kids are always asking some version of “Are we there yet?” It might be “How long have we been walking?” or “How much farther do we have to go?” or “Where are we???” There are dozens of route trackers apps that will track your speed, distance and route so your kids can get these answers for themselves. I use Strava, which also has a social element so my family and friends can easily see where we hiked. My boys liked comparing our pace for each km and tried to walk faster to improve our speed. We also have FitBit step trackers, that the kids use to compete with each other on how many steps they can get. Whatever works!

7. Play games

Most kids will eventually get bored and tired on the trail, so be prepared with a variety of distractions. On one trail, my husband had our tired kids “power up” Super Mario-style by touching their walking stick to each trail marker. So now they race ahead to find the next marker and jump on it, yelling “Power up!!!” Sometimes we play “I Spy,” looking for things along the trail: mushrooms, pine cones, animal tracks. Anything to distract from the hard work on hiking.

My kids like to play 20 Questions, guessing animals, i.e. “Is it a mammal? Does it eat grass? Is it bigger than me?” One time I played this for three hours straight on the the trail and I thought I might go insane. But my kids happily kept walking and we reached the mountain hut before dark. We also like to look for monsters and faces along the trail, like the one shown below. We take a picture then draw the monster over the picture back home.

I motivated one sad little hiker by inventing a story with him, where I’d periodically ask him to fill in details, like the name of character or which animals they meet. Be creative!

Singing helps too. Many a hike has been saved by involving the kids in a never-ending round of “The Ants Go Marching.” Download the lyrics for a few onto your phone in case you lose connectivity in the mountains. Check out some camp songs here.

8. Walk by Water

When possible, we like hiking a trail near a lake, stream or waterfall. Our kids never tire of throwing rocks into the water. If you’ve chosen a trail by a lake, you can often finish the day with a short cruise on the lake, a nice way to cool off and relax. Some lakes also have small motor or pedal boats you can rent (though child-size floatation devices are rarely available). This can be another reward for the kids to look forward to after a hike. See hikes to Waterfalls, Lakes, and Rivers.

9. Walking sticks

Walking sticks not only give a child more support, they are fun play things – pointing at bugs, hitting weeds, making noise. Looking for walking sticks along the trail can also motivate the child to keep walking, continually searching for a better stick. My kids love looking for new walking sticks every time we go hiking. Then they give their dad careful carving instructions, as he whittles away nubs and scratchy parts. We have a large collection at home, some that eventually become firewood.

10. Bring friends!

Friends make everything more fun, especially hiking. My boys walk so much faster when we hike with friends. They often run down the trail, racing each other, and we have to hurry to catch up. They complain less, laugh more and always ask to do it again next week.

Here are some short and easy hikes to do with your little hikers.

See also all my tips for hiking with kids…

Well, that’s all folks. It’s been fun putting these Top 10 lists together. I hope you have lots of ideas for hiking this summer. Let me know how it goes.

Don’t forget to Pin this for later…

10 tips for turning toddlers into happy hikers. Start them young, let them walk, help plan the trip...

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3 comments

  1. Where was this fabulous post when I was little?

    My parents definitely should have read it!! My Dad is a huge hiker, but he lacked patience, so it was him, “running” and a km further behind, us kids, whining, and Mom, stuck in the middle, trying to come up with a distraction 😉

    Do you guys do Geocaching?

  2. These are such great tips! I love the pictures. Thank you so much for making all the many Switzerland adventures easier to navigate. It's so important to get out there as a family. I'm excited to use your top 10's as a guide for us this spring and summer.

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