Take a Hike: How to Bring Your Toddler Out on the Trails

young family hiking, looking at the map together
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Grocery shopping with your toddler often can feel like running a marathon. Now imagine literally hitting the trails for a two-mile hike with your 2-year-old in tow. It can be done, and experts agree that the simple act of being outside with your child can lead to more focused and less stressed families.

"I think people start children outside too late," said Shanti Hodges, founder and owner Hike it Baby, a national, non-profit group based in Portland, Oregon, that offers a virtual and in-person community to thousands of parents who are looking to learn how to get outside with their children.

"The rain, the sun, the bugs, the tics, the strangers on the trail. All the fears that you have with a newborn and venturing on to trails, that's what we're trying to get around."

But when is the best time to introduce your young child to hiking? According to Hodges, at about four weeks—that's the time to start instilling an appreciation for nature. Because gone unexposed "by fourth grade your child could already be a video game addict."

Experts agree that getting your child out of the house for physical activity—especially in this age of electronics—is important. In fact, research has shown high-level stimulation from screen time can be counteracted by being outside and getting dirty.

"It is theorized that being in nature helps children and adults recover from mental fatigue," Andrea Faber Taylor, a researcher with the Landscape and Human Health Laboratory through the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, said.

 "Being in green spaces or nature seems to support both children and adults' capacity for directing their attention, and managing impulsive behavior and stress."

Hike It Baby, which began in 2003, has grown to more than 120,000 families in 260 cities. About 500 volunteers help organize, schedule and host hikes in their respective cities, which are largely promoted through social media and word of mouth.

Hodges, who had a background in media and building websites, said her goal is to help families safely get outside. She also hopes to see the data being collected used to increase awareness of lesser known parks and help states determine funding for parks

The women—and some men—who participate with their children say they join for a variety of reasons. Some are battling postpartum depression; others are simply struggling with the logistics of how to be outside with her newborn, toddler or preschooler.

"I think people want community, even if they never used to hike," said Elizabeth Cruz-Stoughton, a Tucson Hike It Baby trail leader, explaining why the local group has grown so quickly in the year since it formed. "(Hike It Baby) is presented in a way that's not intimidating."

Cruz-Stoughton learned of the group shortly after having her son in early 2015. Already a hiker and climber, she knew this would be a good fit for her family. 

"This is absolutely the best thing that could happen to me or us," said Cruz-Stoughton, adding she and her husband were struggling to find their new identities post-baby.

"I'm a psychotherapist so I really believe in getting people outside, especially after having a baby," Cruz-Stoughton said. "I know how hard it is to get out, and I know how good it is."

Want to hit the train with your baby or toddler in tow? Use these tips from Shanti to make sure your hiking experience is a positive one:

  1. Lower your expectations. The distance you once hiked as a non-parent will not be the distance you go now so just relax and enjoy the scenery. 
  2. Snacks are key. Bring lots of snacks. They are a sure thing in case your toddler needs a little coaxing to enjoy the hike. 
  3. Come up with games. Play hide-and-seek on the trail to compel you child to keep moving when out on the trail. Yell out, "I'm hiding," and duck behind a tree up ahead and peek out. 
  4. Bubbles and stickers rule. Stop a toddler from a launching into a crying fit by handing out stickers on the trail or blowing bubbles. It's totally worth leaving these things in your car. And, it's a better, healthier option than candy!
  5. Sticks and stones. Young children typically love carrying sticks and stones on hikes. You can knock two stones together and make noise; sticks can be used as walking sticks or a sword or a baseball bat. There are so many things you can imagine with sticks and stones on the trail. Just make sure your toddler isn’t swinging or throwing them in anyone’s direction.
  6. Recognize the signs of a meltdown. Toddler tantrums happen fast and can be super fierce, so if you are having an amazing time and nap hour is fast approaching, turn around if you need to. Don’t be afraid to cut a hike short if it means a better time will be had by all.
  7. Schedule your naps into the hike. Hoist your toddler onto your back in a carrier when it's nap time and head out for a hike. That way even if your child is fussy and cranky, the woods will calm him and the nap will happen while you are on the trail. 
  8. The carrier matters… a lot. Got a cheap, old, hand-me-down carrier from a friend? That’s great, but if you really want to have a happy baby out on the trails, consider investing in a good carrier. Frame or soft, make sure it's the appropriate carrier for the age and weight of your child. Try them on and remember: A good carrier will protect your back with good lumbar support. 
  9. Go with friends. Toddlers hike better when in a pack. Find two or three friends to get out with you or look for groups like Hike It Baby in your area. 
  10. Go often. Make walking and hiking a regular part of your family’s life. The more kids do it, the more they crave it. Regular physical activity in the great outdoors also keeps kids healthy. The younger you start, the more likely you’ll have raise a child with a lifelong love of nature and activity. 

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