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Photo by Jennifer Campbell.

How to Train Your Little One to be a Hiker

Shanti Hodges is the creator of Hike it Baby, which started as a few women taking short walks and has expanded to a nationwide group of parents getting outside with their kids. | By Shanti Hodges

Shanti Hodges with her son, Mason. Photo courtesy Shanti Hodges.
Shanti Hodges with hers on, Mason. Photo courtesy Shanti Hodges. 

Mason doesn’t hike much. Let me start off by saying this. It’s not that he doesn’t love hiking, he just often doesn’t feel like walking and so “mommy back” is a common thing I hear when we hit the trail. What’s funny is people both on the trail and on my social media often comment with “Isn’t he a little too old to be carried?” My feelings on this: Nope. He’s out there on the trail and that’s all that matters to me.

If I have learned anything over the last five years of adventuring with a baby, then toddler and now preschooler, it’s that if you try and force it, it’s not going to happen. Fostering a love of nature and trails needs to start with the simple understanding that nurturing kids on the trail, whether that’s bringing yummy snacks (bribes), carrying them part of it, turning it into a story time where you walk a tiny bit and then just sit down, is all part of raising a little hiker.

Here are some of my tips to help ensure your child will learn to love the trail as much as you do.

Families on trail. Photo by Tais Kulish.

1. Know that not every day will be perfect. Some days you will head out for a hike and it’s not going to happen. Don’t abandon hope. Have an outdoor back up plan. If Mason won’t hike I bring a book and sit down on a bench and read to him or visit a nature center. This is still fostering a love of hiking.

2. Bring snacks and toys. This can help you move along and keep your little one busy. I often keep small packets of jelly beans in my pocket. Sure, this is sugar, but I get the organic kind so it’s ok, right? No really, bribes often do work.

3. If you have a child who doesn’t like the car ride, leave ample time to get to the hike and spend time calming your child down. This might mean nursing for a while when you arrive or just playing a game before you rush out to the trail. Give yourself an extra half an hour before you plan to start your hike.

Kids walking on logs. Photo by Anastasia Novosyolova.
Photo by Anastasia Novosyolova.

4. Find trail buddies. Kids travel further and have more fun with a friend. This was one of the big reasons I founded Hike it Baby. I wanted to make sure Mason (and I) both had someone to connect with when we were hiking so we could explore more and go further.

5. Hike often. Don’t make it a big deal or a special occasion. Plan regular hikes and keep them short. Maybe do 1-2 long ones a month, but don’t try and plan regular epics. I like to keep most of our hikes under 2-3 miles. There are days when we will just do ¼ of a mile and I feel great about that.

6. Look for beautiful views, waterfalls, fun bridges to cross and rock walls that kids can climb, but make sure it’s all safe. If the hike allows children to roam freely and you aren’t having a heart attack around every bend, you will both have a lot more fun.

Mom and son hiking. Photo courtesy Shanti Hodges.
Photo courtesy Shanti Hodges. 

7. Learn about nature together. Before I had Mason I didn’t know that much about birds, trees and plants. Now I feel like a walking Encyclopedia of nature knowledge. Take time to learn about the natural aspects of your area.

8. Plan to hike on bad weather days. It’s easy to be a fair weathered hiker, especially with kids, but getting out on a windy, rainy or snowy day will help teach your child that hiking is just an everyday thing you can do whenever. Just modify your hikes on those days and go out for 15-20 minutes. You never know when a rainy mud puddle day can turn into an amazing adventure that you both love.

9. Don’t hesitate to carry your child when they are tired or just not having a day where they want to hike. Forcing a kid to hike will not make them tougher or excited about the trail. I do what I call the “up downs” where we carry Mason for five minutes and then ask him to walk for five minutes and then lift him back up.

Family on trail. Photo by Judith Furst.
Photo by Judith Furst. 

10. Join online groups on Facebook like Hike it Baby that will help inspire you to get out. Look for inspirational Instagram accounts with kids in nature. Filling your social media feed with kids in nature will not only boost your spirit daily, but it will help remind you to get out.

The plain and simple truth is the more you get out and make hiking a family habit, the easier it will be to get your kiddo to love hiking. A love of hiking inevitably leads to a love of nature and raises children to protect our trails. 

Shanti Hodges is the founder of Hike it Baby, a nonprofit dedicated to getting families on trail with children birth to five. Her book “Hike it Baby: 100 Awesome Adventures with Babies and Toddlers” in in bookstores now. 

Father and son hiking. Photo by Jessica Bora.
Photo by Jessica Bora.