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How to Hike with Toddlers & Young Kids

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How to Hike with Toddlers & Young Kids

Hiking with toddlers and young children can be quite a challenge. Many parents pre-empt the manic meltdowns and fatigue tantrums of their little ones even before the first backpack is strapped on. However, studies show that there are a multitude of health benefits for children spending time outdoors. Despite the physical challenges, it can turn out to be one of the most memorable and rewarding experiences for a family. 

So it’s time to switch off that TV, grab your kids and hit the trail. And don’t worry – we’ve got you covered with a few nifty guidelines that will hopefully make this experience a pleasurable one for all.

Before You Embark:

A Trail for All 

Picking the right trail can solve, and prevent, a lot of problems. Be sure to pick one that is close to home. This choice will come in handy when you have to deal with emergencies and meltdowns (also if you need additional equipment or nutrition – in case you forgot it or have run out). It’s also important to find a trail that is not too physically strenuous for the little ones. We suggest a trail length of no more than 7km, and start early in the day when the energy levels are still up. Lastly, be sure that the trail is stimulating and loaded with interesting sights, fauna and flora for them to experience and explore.

Kit them out

As adults we know the importance of the correct hiking gear. Be sure to invest in proper hiking shoes, clothing and backpacks suited for children. Not only do you protect them from the elements, but they won’t feel left out, as “proper gear” validates them as “avid hikers”, like mommy and daddy. However, don’t over compensate with trail gimmicks, equipment and toys, because at some stage you will have to carry which they won’t. If you have a baby or toddler who can’t walk yet, be sure to pick a baby carrier/papoose that is comfortable and form fitting for both parent and child. Be sure to pack a small first aid kit as well, as accidents do happen.

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Nutrition is Key

We all know the value of nutrition and hydration on the trail. Pack as much water and flavoured electrolytes as possible. Also get the kids involved in helping you prepare snacks for the road ahead. Pick an easy recipe, such as a trail mix bar, that they can help with or make themselves.  This will get them excited for the trip ahead… and for extra brownie points, name the snack after them – it instils a sense of pride and accomplishment even before the hike has started.

In case of emergency (this is a last resort), pack their favourite sweets or chocolate a.) as a reward for a special accomplishment on the trail, b.) as a bartering tool amidst a tantrum, and c.) as a sugar rush for when they start to fade and run low on energy.

On The Trail:

Make them feel important

Remember that this is a family outing, and that the playing ground is levelled. Assign each child with a title and a responsibility, e.g. the team leader, the team doctor, the navigator, the water bearer, the animal spotter, the entertainer, etc. It gives them a sense of purpose and it focuses them. Remember to switch these roles up, as to avoid animosity or sibling rivalry. It is also important to encourage and praise them consistently, instead of forcing them to keep up or demanding them to “stop their nonsense”.

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Bonding time

Engage in conversations with your children. This is an opportune time to get to know them and to listen to their stories and opinions, without the interruptions and distractions of daily life. Once again, switch it up by letting each child have an “alone” moment with each parent. Share anecdotes about your childhood and experiences they can relate to, pique their curiosity and pander to their sense of humour. This will also distract them, and make them forget about the strain of the trail.

Stop & Explore

This outing should be more about the journey than the destination. Every parent knows their child fitness and fatigue threshold, so when they start to get tired or a bit disgruntled, stop and take a break. Never force a child to “push on” in an aggravated manner. If you know the trail already, map out pit stops with landmarks, interesting features or play a mini-game to take their minds off the fatigue. If they get tired before a pit stop, encourage and praise them about their progress so far or simply remind them about the final destination/reward. When exploring a pit stop, it goes without saying, that parental supervision is very important at all times. This is also a great opportunity to take selfies, fun family pictures and pictures of the surroundings.

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Games & Distractions

Another way to keep them focused and entertained on the trail, is to distract them with simple games and little tasks. “I spy” is always a winner, and is great for developing their cognitive skills. Alternatively, you could create a mini-checklist (almost like an eco-friendly treasure hunt) for things they can expect to find on the trail, and as they go along, they can tick off what they find – a reward will also be in order for the ones who complete the list. Also teach them interesting facts about plants, insects and animals you stumble upon. Maybe even provide them with little container to catch and collect flowers and little insects, for them to show and tell during and after the hike. A magnifying glass is also always a great tool for exploration and discovering new things.

The Final Destination

The best way to keep them on the trail is to promise and reward them with the final destination or the ultimate reward. This will make the trip goal-orientated and naturally push the children to reach the end destination. A rock pool, a picnic spot, a waterfall or even a great vista atop a mountain will serve as a great reward for all, as well as a great time for all to unwind, eat, drink and be merry. Once again, strict adult supervision is advised. A great way to get them excited about this final destination is to provide them with a custom map, so they can also track and see how far away they are from the reward (also a great introduction to navigation).

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No hike with children will ever go smoothly, but there will always be many tips, tricks and gimmicks available to entertain and keep children happy on the trail (leaving the parents with some semblance of sanity and peace of mind). The only guarantee we can leave you with is that you will never know until you try, and you will most definitely return home with great memories and experiences, that can last a lifetime - as a family, for your family, forever.