Cragmama "Not all who wander are lost…" JRR Tolkien

Toddlers on the Trail – Two Steps Forward, One Step Back

…And don’t forget a few steps off trail to go look at that mushroom under the log…

Cragbaby putting his hiking legs to the test at 9,000 feet in Ten Sleep Canyon, Wyoming.

In the past year we’ve gone from hiking with an enthusiastic little Cragbaby who loved to take in the world from the confines of his backpack carrier to chasing after a headstrong toddler that wants to do it “on my own.”  In some ways its a lot easier (when C decides to hoof it there’s an automatic 30 pound decrease in pack weight…).  But C’s newfound independence has also opened up a whole ‘nother can of issues that we’ve had to work through.  Here’s a few basic ideas that we’ve found useful to get us all from Point A to Point B in one piece.  

-FOCUS ON THE JOURNEY – As rock climbers, 90% of our hiking mileage is logged as secondary to the main event.  The approach hike is simply that – a way to get to the base of the cliff so that we can start climbing.  We don’t waste time and walk at a pretty good clip, rarely stopping to linger at overlooks or picturesque vistas (we’ve figured out that the best views are gained from the side of the cliff, or better yet, a summit). But if you have any experience with 2 year olds, you’ll know that “hurry” is not in their vocabulary.  And that’s the thing – I don’t want him to feel hurried or rushed.  My legs are 3 times the length of his sweet little chubby ones, so it’s unfair of me to expect him to keep up with the grown-ups.  So needless to say as C has steadily increased the amount of time he spends hiking in on his own, so have our approach times.  If my mindset was purely destination-focused, this speed bump would prove quite frustrating.  Instead I shift my focus to the actual journey – and I can see that the extra time on the trail is time well-spent with my son as we discover (often hand in hand) what a beautiful Creation we are a part of.  Which brings me to my next point…

C usually starts off as a strong leader…

ALLOW EXTRA TIME – Taking time to enjoy the process may mean you’ll have to get started a little earlier if you’re itching to be the first to tie in at the crag.  We’ve also had success with sending 2 scouts on ahead to get the rope up on our warm-up, while everyone else saunters along.  Usually the timing works out perfectly, and the Cragbaby crew arrives right as the scouting party is finishing up.  Of course, if the goal of the day is simply to hike rather than climb, you may not have to make any changes other than your mindset, although if your toddler’s pace will put you back by more than an hour or so, I’d recommend packing extra food and water.  

GEAR JUNKIES UNITE – If your closet is overflowing with outdoor paraphernalia, don’t forget that the apple doesn’t far too fall from the tree.  A solid pair of approach shoes (like these from KEEN!), trekking poles, and/or a small backpack can make your little guy/gal feel prepared and part of the gang.  Keep in mind that successfully gearing out a toddler doesn’t have to break your budget, especially if you aren’t afraid to get creative.  Long sticks often make better hiking sticks than their carbon fiber counterparts.  I’ve also found several nice pairs of shoes and outdoor clothes at consignment shops – many of which look like they had never been worn.  

…and he’s determined to tackle every obstacle…



IT’S ALL FUN AND GAMES – Toddlers do not buy into the “no pain, no gain” strategy.  When their legs get tired, their first instinct is to give up, regardless of how close they are to the end or a convenient stopping point.  However, if you can keep a child’s mind occupied with thoughts other than how tired they are, it’s amazing how much longer they can last.  For example, C is really into chasing right now, so a lot of times all I have to say is, “Mommy’s going to get you!”, and he takes off giggling.  (This is also a subtle way to shave a few minutes off your hike time 😉 )  For an older child, turning the hike into a game, such as a scavenger hunt with items that can be checked off along the trail, can be quite effective.  Finally, most kids are quite receptive to bribery extrinsic motivators using treats or other special incentives.  I know one family that doles out M n M’s at certain waypoints along the trail.  We’ve never employed that strategy with C since he’s still in that in between stage – when he poops out, we just load him up in the pack, no questions asked.  But I can certainly see where a reasonable amount of splurge items like candy could come in handy with an exhausted 60 lb child that doesn’t have a “carry me” option.  

…but sometimes it catches up with him by the end of the day.



BE PATIENT IN TRANSITIONS – Know your toddler, and know his/her limits.  Sometimes C is into it, and sometimes not.  On epic hiking days he’s got unbelievable endurance – on several occasions I’ve seen him hike in and out of crags with a steep, strenuous approach that would take most pack-laden adults 20–30 minutes.  But there are just as many other times where he doesn’t want to hike at all.  Most days fall somewhere in between.  Since I want him to grow up with positive experiences of hiking as a family, as opposed to fleeting memories of parents giving out death march orders, we haven’t pushed.  We let him set the pace, and his ability to maneuver over tough terrain continues to amaze me week after week. 

SAFETY FIRST – If you’re goal is to turn your toddler into a happy hiker, make sure to choose kid-friendly trails more often than not.  Each successful outing will lead to another and another.  On the other hand, don’t feel bad if every now and then you want to hit up an area that is less conducive to toddler tracks – just be safe about it.  Sometimes we hit sections of trail that aren’t okay for C to handle on his own.  He may not always be happy about it, but his brief forced stints in the backpack are long forgotten once we get to our final destination.  

Who else out there has gone through the transition from Cragbaby to Happy Hiker?  I would love to hear some more input, especially from those with older children (it’s always nice to get a glimpse into the next “phase.”)  What has (or has not) worked for your family on the trail?


7 Responses to “Toddlers on the Trail – Two Steps Forward, One Step Back”

  1. At 3 1/2, M loves hiking. Ask him what he wants to do today and the chances are he’ll say “hiking in the mountains”. We’ve learned a lot in the last two years of his hiking. Some days he’ll surprise us with his abilities and endurance, others will be a contest of wills. Overall it’s an experience that I wouldn’t miss for the world and I love our adventures on the trails.

    For toddlers it’s all about the journey and the best trails are those with interesting stuff along the way. Let them climb the boulder and use the log as a balance beam. Let them throw rocks into the stream. Be prepared for those days that you never make it to the end of the trail but spend your time jumping from rock to rock across the stream… again and again.

    What type of frog is that?: What flower is that? What plants do you NOT touch? Bring along a field guide and learn about the fauna and flora of the area. Bring snacks or lunch and stop for a picnic – it’s a great way to get a second wind out of them when they want to quit. Another thing is you have to pick your time… pick a high energy time that doesn’t interfere with any usual nap/quiet time.

    The most important thing to remember is it’s supposed to be fun and enjoyable for everyone, if it’s not, what can you do? Enjoy the trails and have fun creating memories that you’ll remember for years to come.


  2. Super post with excellent points! I have a 6 and almost 9 year old and it is still about the journey! Top things that make it fun for them on the trail, games, snacks, and friends! They also love historical points of interest and at this age they are really loving technical hikes with water crossings, climbing rocks and trees, etc. Basically, obstacle course type hikes. We may not get far, but we have fun getting there. Have fun!


    • Erica

      Suzi – We are bigtime field guide folks here at our house! We rarely go to a new area without some sort of guidebook to use along the way!

      Traci – I love the term “obstacle course hikes.” Those are C’s favorite ones to tackle as well (at least til he poops out, that is!)

  3. Child #1 loved to hike in his pack, and at almost 6 years old I’m sure he still would if he would fit. When child #2 came along as soon as he could walk be wanted to be doing whatever child #1 was doing. Child #1 was walking, so Child #2 ALWAYS wanted to walk. He’s 3 and has only ridden in the pack a handful of times. We slowed down significantly that year! 🙂


  4. Sarah

    My kid (3.5) is currently in a big map phase. He keeps his map in his backpack and stops to check it about….ohh…every two minutes or so. I just took another mom friend hiking with her two kids and mine, and I had to give her the pep talk— it’s not at all like hiking as an adult, and you’ll only go insane if you push your kid that way. It’s, stopping to look at the map, oh but now I’m thirsty, hey what is this on the log, a mushroom? What is mushroom? Yuuucckkk, but let me crouch down and study and think about touching it for ten minutes, and hey, here’s a bug and what kind of bug is this….
    And on and on it goes. And you just go in knowing it will be like that.

    As for approach hikes…as with everything in climbing, our life has been waayyy affected by becoming parents. And then again as parents to two (and now a third on the way). And just like hiking, we’ve had to change our mindset about what a good day climbing is. Practically speaking this boils down to only picking climbs with reasonable approaches (shorter, no bush whacking). For example, with an infant in tow at new river gorge, we pretty much stick around junkyard wall. Usually this works great for post partum me to get back into a groove and love affair with some easy to hard top rope. For times with little toddlers who will tolerate being carried, we can stretch it out to places like Bubba City or places at Summersville Lake. We save long treks and exploring new places for the times in between babies and breast feeding where we can sneak out on our own. It’s not the “glory days” of climbing, but we are old, parents to little ones, and still climbing and it seems like that’s getting close to unicorn status. Haha.


    • Erica

      Lindsey – That’s funny, but it definitely makes sense – the younger kiddos always want to be “big” just like their older siblings!

      Sarah – Thankfully I think more and more “our types” are growing in number too much to be considered unicorn status…maybe just an endangered species that is hopefully making a comeback? 🙂 That’s the great part about the New – so much good rock that you can decide based on what kind of hike you want to do! Speaking of Summersville, we’ll probably be there this weekend! 🙂

  5. I was looking for this particular information for a long time. Thank you and best of luck.


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“Not all who wander are lost.” —JRR TOLKIEN