If you’re a parent, grandparent, aunt, or uncle who loves hiking, you might want to take the important kids in your life hiking with you. Hiking and getting out in nature is a wonderful experience for kids. Kids who get exposure to nature have better learning and behavioral outcomes. Hiking with kids is a great way to build healthy habits, reduce screen time, and develop an appreciation for the environment.
But what about really little kids? Can kids who aren’t walking, or just beginning to walk, go hiking with you? The answer is yes! Kids of any age can enjoy a hike, although you may have to change your expectations. (Trust us: toddlers cannot thru-hike!) Here are some of the best ways to take even the littlest kids out on an adventure.
How Young Is Too Young?
We’ll start by saying that even though you can definitely hike with babies and infants, you should wait until they are at least 2 to 6 months old. Why? Bug spray and carrying methods.
Infants that are younger than 6 months old can often struggle to hold themselves upright, making a carrying backpack potentially not feasible. Therefore, carrying via a different method is required, which makes it a bit more difficult to actually hike.
In addition, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that children not be exposed to DEET before they are 2 months old. Other insect repellents, like oil of lemon eucalyptus, shouldn’t be applied until a kid is at least 3 years of age. If you have a stroller, you can protect babies with mosquito netting– but strollers can be hard or even impossible to take on a hike. In addition, some environments don’t really need bug spray, and also some backpack kid carriers have built in netting.
To ensure that no pesky bugs bother your baby, wait until they’re old enough to safely be protected. Two months is just eight weeks– that’s not even a whole hiking season!
Sun Protection for Babies and Toddlers
It’s not great for kids under 6 months old to wear sunscreen due to concerns with rashes. In addition, the FDA hasn’t yet approved sunscreens for use on toddlers due to lack of studies. Therefore, the best practice is to avoid direct sunlight for any child under 6 months old.
If sunscreen is needed, it should be mineral sunscreen to avoid irritation and other risks, and it should be applied minimally. Sunscreen can be applied in an emergency, but it’s better to protect their skin with clothing and hats.
Once they’re 6 months old, it’s safe to use sunscreen on them. Sunscreen formulated for babies often uses gentler ingredients and has a mineral or physical formula instead of a chemical protectant. Mineral sunscreen is less likely to cause skin irritation. Remember to apply sunscreen every two hours– even if it seems like they aren’t sweating very much, it’s so important that their skin is protected to the best of your ability.
Babies also have very sensitive eyes. In general, kids under 10 have more sun-sensitive eyes than adults. Even their eyelid skin is thinner and more vulnerable than adult skin, and the lenses of their eyes are completely clear. This lets in more UV radiation, which can cause damage to their retinas.
This means that you should protect their eyes with sunglasses and a wide-brimmed hat, like a bucket hat. This will help protect their eyes and keep the sun off of their face.
Outdoor Protection for Babies and Toddlers: Quick Reference
It can be challenging to remember when it’s safe for children to be exposed to different types of protective chemicals. Here is a chart based on the American Academy of Pediatrics’ and the FDA’s recommendations
|Protective Substance||Age of Earliest Safe Use|
|Insect Repellent with DEET||2 Months|
|Insect Repellent with Plant Oils||3 Years|
|Insect Repellent with Picardin||6 Months*|
|Baby Sunscreen||6 Months|
|Adult Sunscreen- Mineral/Physical||6 Months|
|Adult Sunscreen- Chemical||6 Months, but monitor for skin irritation|
*Although the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has recommended picaridin as an alternative that may work as well as DEET, the AAP hasn’t released a recommendation pending long-term follow-up studies. However, Consumer Reports notes that it is generally considered safe for kids, and the Canadian Pediatric Society recommends it for kids ages 6 months and up.
Baby Hiking Carriers
The most important thing you will need when hiking with a baby or toddler is a good carrier. If you try to carry them in your arms the whole time, you’ll get exhausted quickly. We have a complete guide to baby and toddler hiking gear here that gives you more information about carriers and other necessary gear, but let’s quickly go over some baby carrying options.
Strollers and Wagons
Heavy-duty all-terrain strollers like the Thule Urban Glide 2 (See on REI) and the BOB Gear Revolution Flex 3.0 are an option for well-groomed, familiar trails that allow strollers. Not all do, and even trails that technically allow strollers might be too rough for a comfortable ride. Utility wagons like the Jeep Deluxe Wrangler Stroller Wagon are an option for toddlers who have outgrown the stroller.
There are several styles of carrier that work for hiking with a baby. Wraps may work for very small infants and young toddlers. Front-mounted carriers, like the BabyBjörn, are an option for carrying the baby in front, and backpack style carriers are also an option. You can even get aluminum frame backpack style carriers like the Kelty Journey PerfectFIT Elite Child Carrier (See On REI) that let you carry both hiking supplies and a small child!
If you don’t have a carrier like this and want to try one, or if you’re traveling to a hiking destination with your family, baby equipment rental companies like BabyQuip make it easy to use a carrier for short durations.
Hiking With Babies Ages 2-6 Months
Babies ages 2-6 months are very easy to hike with… so long as you can carry them! At around 6 months, babies have developed head control. They have a sense of object permanence and are interactive with their environment and other people. While they are too young to speak, they may make excited babbling and cooing sounds when they see something they’re interested in.
What this means out in nature is that you can show your baby some of the beautiful things you encounter. Let them feel leaves, or gently place their fingers in a flowing stream. Let them smell bright-colored wildflowers and strong-scented pine needles. At this age, they are beginning to really enjoy sensory experiences, so make their time outside fun.
It’s important to remember that children this age need lots of naps. Even a short hike might interfere with naptime and be too much activity for them. Know your child’s activity patterns– and know that while they might fall asleep in your arms, it won’t be the same as sleeping in a low-stimulus, high-support environment like their crib. They may be fussy when you get home!
You also need to bring a bottle or be prepared to breastfeed on the trail. If you’re nursing, consider bringing a blanket or cover, even if you usually don’t use one. This will protect your baby from the sun while you stop to feed them.
Hiking With Infants Ages 7 Months-1 Year
At around 6-9 months, babies begin crawling. This means that they’re going to be a little more wiggly and a little more mobile. You’ll still need to carry them on your hikes, though! The woods aren’t a great place to crawl around, after all.
Children this age are curious about everything, and regularly reach out to grab things. Be aware of what they’re reaching for. Some things are perfectly safe– others, like poison ivy, are not! They don’t have the greatest precision grip at this stage, but you still need to pay attention.
At this age, kids are drinking more than formula or milk– they need water. Make sure that you have water for them, along with whatever they’re eating (whether that’s formula, milk, or baby food). They still need frequent naps, and will probably fall asleep in the carrier or stroller. You can go hiking around naptime so that their sleep cycle isn’t interrupted.
Hiking With Infants 1 Year-18 Months
This is a fun stage for infants, because it’s when they learn to talk and walk! Your child will likely start using simple words in this stage, and now’s when you can start teaching them the basics of nature. They may also start to use their fingers to grasp small objects more effectively, enabling them to pick things up… and immediately stuff them in their mouths. Keep a close eye on them and make sure they aren’t exposed to choking risks.
Since babies this age start to walk, you might want to let them take a few steps on their own. You don’t need hiking boots for kids this age– sneakers are just fine. Choose shoes with rubber soles and protected toes, and hold onto their hands to make sure that they don’t fall down. This is less about making progress on the hike and more about helping your kids learn balance and confidence as they walk.
Hiking with Toddlers 18 Months-3 Years
At this age, kids will be able to walk a little bit on their own! You’ll still need to carry them for most of the hike. Use your best judgment– kids this age are always a little clumsy, and even terrain that’s pretty easy for you might be too difficult for them. Anything with loose stones, big roots, or slippery leaves is a no-go for toddlers.
Also, kid leashes are a bad idea on the trail, regardless of whether you love them or hate them. They present a fall risk and can lead to entanglement. Instead, it’s safer to hold your toddler’s hand and gently guide them over safe terrain.
Toddlers are also quite vocal about their preferences and have a better sense of anticipation and understanding of how time passes. Help them get excited for hiking by letting them pick their favorite snacks. If they have a small backpack, they can keep their snacks and some water inside– but do realize that kids have short attention spans, and you will probably end up carrying it for them!
Toddlers have relatively short attention spans, so if they get fussy, be prepared with some simple games to distract them. Asking them to “find something green!” or talking to them about the plants and animals they might see are good options.
A final word about this age range: Be prepared for the dirt. Kids this age love to get messy and seem to have a sixth sense for finding mud. Our advice is to roll with it and let them play. You can wipe them down before snack time and when you get back to the car– don’t drive yourself crazy trying to keep toddlers perfectly clean. A little dirt never hurt anyone!
How Far Can Kids Go?
For infants and toddlers, you can’t expect your children to complete any meaningful part of the hike on their own. You will need to carry them, and while you might think that means you can hike as long as you want… well, kids often have their own agendas.
Babies and toddlers need naps, frequent feeding, and don’t have the heat or sun tolerance that adults do. They get fussy and need soothing– and put yourselves in their itty-bitty hiking boots for just a second. For kids this young, the world is a big place full of so many new things. Everything is new, and when you’re a little kid faced with all of the new information that a hike presents, you can get overwhelmed, even if you’re having fun.
You want to make sure that hikes are fun for your kids to encourage a love of nature and activity. Don’t start by taking them on an all-day trek! Instead, start small. Go for short hikes in your local area. A well-groomed local nature trail might not be a huge adventure to you, but it’s a whole new world for them.
Diapering On The Trail
If you’re hiking with a kid under the age of 3, you are almost guaranteed at least one diaper change on the trail. Even toddlers who are in active toilet training may still need their Pull-Ups or other training pants changed.
You will need to bring diapers, wipes, and a way to pack everything out, like a wet-dry bag and plenty of zip-locks. Leave No Trace applies to everyone– babies included.
You should also bring a mat, blanket, or even a towel in a pinch, so that you aren’t diapering on the ground. A rolled-up mat might take up some space, but it will keep your little one comfy during changing. It’s also a good idea to bring a change of clothes, just in case. You never know when a diaper is going to be really bad.
Hiking with toddlers and babies can be an incredibly rewarding experience for both you and them. Getting outside is important for childhood development, and spending time together in nature is fun for the whole family. Hiking with babies and toddlers is different than hiking with older kids, but is no less enjoyable. So long as you’re prepared and ready for anything, you’ll have an amazing time together.
Max DesMarais is the founder of hikingandfishing.com. He has a passion for the outdoors and making outdoor education and adventure more accessible. Max is a published author for various outdoor adventure, travel, and marketing websites. He is an experienced hiker, backpacker, fly fisherman, trail runner, and spends his free time in the outdoors. These adventures allow him to test gear, learn new skills, and experience new places so that he can educate others. Max grew up hiking all around New Hampshire and New England. He became obsessed with the New Hampshire mountains, and the NH 48, where he guided hikes and trail runs in the White Mountains. Since moving out west, Max has continued his frequent adventures in the mountains, always testing gear, learning skills, gaining experience, and building his endurance for outdoor sports. You can read more about his experience here: hikingandfishing/about