Winter hiking with toddlers can seem a bit overwhelming, but with a little effort and ingenuity you can create a worthwhile experience. My two-and-a-half year old son happily hikes in the snow about a mile and a half independently. Here are a few things we’ve learned that make winter hiking with toddlers more fun for everyone:
1. Choose a familiar, narrow, and relatively flat trail.
When choosing where to hike in the winter, it might be tempting to select an extra wide, gently sloped path that’s as wide as a road or even an actual snow-covered road. It seems easier and in turn, more enjoyable for a toddler. It’s not. We’ve found that boredom is the number one factor that cuts our hikes short. Opt for familiar but narrow trails. Trails where snow covered tree branches might extend out over your heads, trails where you might not be able to see beyond the bend that's only fifty feet ahead. The entire experience tends to be much more visually, physically and mentally stimulating. These trails make way for lots of silly side games and activities - peek-a-boo behind a tree, shaking a branch and watching the snowfall from it. A more narrow trail also seems to prompt toddlers to move in a single direction. Whereas hiking on a big road, we tend to do more running around in circles.
2. Celebrate Any Change in Terrain
A fun way to pass the time and distance is to celebrate any and every change in terrain. As you go up a slight hill, comment about how steep it is or how you’re getting closer to the top. When you go down, hold hands and go faster for a little thrill - “woohoo!” When you encounter rocks, use them as stepping stones and count as you go. Encounter mud, play pretend that it’s..oh no, dinosaur poop! You might find your toddler rushing toward the next hill or getting excited about an upcoming rock, and the distance flying by.
3. Go Hands Free
This rings true for all seasons but hiking hands free in the winter is ideal. There are many instances where you’ll be thankful to have both hands available and ready to go. For readjusting mittens, picking them up when they fall down, administering snacks... Opt to use a backpack or fanny pack.
What’s in my fanny pack? My car keys, cell phone, one diaper and wipes, an extra pair of knit mittens, a (smashed) peanut butter and jelly sandwich, a water bottle, a couple of cheese sticks and M&Ms. Micro spikes loop conveniently around the waist strap. I’d be lying if I said I had a first aid kit - but that would probably be a good idea.
4. Give Them Space
In a lot of ways, it’s easier to hike with an infant. The transition to hiking with a toddler can be tough. Allow your toddler the independence to hike on their own and interact with their environment. Be patient. Their stamina quickly increases with each hike and you’ll find yourselves covering more distance in time.
5. Try All The Mittens
Mittens on toddlers are by far the biggest clothing diversion to winter hiking. Put them on at the very last minute, as you conveniently distract them - oo, look at that big dog! The less time they’re sitting still with mittens on, the less of the temptation to take them off. It’s also worth investing in a couple of pairs of winter mittens- you never know which one your kid will totally reject. For us, we found the fact that his mittens clipped together was so distracting that our son would never actually wear them, we had to opt for a less “techie” pair. For backup, the simple knit mittens or gloves are good to have, or an extra pair of wool socks when the mittens just don’t cut it. Yes, if a toddler is putting up a fight over mittens - a pair of roomy, wool socks over their hands might do the trick.
Often the issue with mittens is toddlers feel like they’re limited and as though they can’t use their hands. Show them what they CAN do. We encourage them to push the wiggly tree branch and watch it bounce back, or scoop up snow using both hands. They’re soon to forget their limitations.
6. Choose Mitten-Friendly Snacks
Pick snacks that can be easily eaten without taking mittens off. We opt for peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and cheese sticks. Rod pretzels, bananas, and granola bars are also great mitten-friendly options.
7. Be Prepared to Carry Them
Since my son outgrew the metal frame backpack and tends to prefer hiking on his own. I choose to keep my belongings in a fanny-pack and simply carry my son wrapped in my arms when he gets worn out. Microspikes give me the confidence to do so and the promise of an arm workout is an added bonus. I prefer to carry as little gear as possible. Find what works best for carrying your kid and be prepared to do so. Soft baby carriers or metal-frame are great options to consider, but with bigger toddlers, keeping hikes short is ideal.
8. Get Rid of Expectations
Set standards low and enjoy the day for what it turns out to be. Set a ridiculously low goal for what you’re going to do. I often choose seven minutes. I check the time and commit to working our way down the trail for seven minutes. The logic is, seven minutes down the trail, a minute or two to get turned around and at least seven minutes back, boom that’s fifteen minutes or more of quality time outdoors. What almost always happens is that after a few minutes, we get the blood flowing, start playing a fun game and totally lose track of time.
9. Make Snack Time an Event
There is something magical about eating a pb&j on a log in the forest sheltered by tree branches and surrounded by snow. Snacks can not only be used as motivators to keep moving -- if we can just make it to that tree ahead, I bet we find a cheese stick! -- but as a fun way to break up a hike. Seek out a nice flat spot to sit, like a log or a large rock and make snack time an event all its own. “Look at this awesome picnic spot, wow, there’s even a seat!” Sit and observe your surroundings, like how crazy tall the trees are. We’ve found that taking a nice break and fueling up on snacks breaks up the monotony of hiking and motivates the little ones to keep going. I read somewhere, bringing a small blanket or towel to sit on is really useful. We plan to try this out next time.
10. Create an Oasis in the Car
It’s a big accomplishment getting back to the car. Make it even better by having all the supplies you need to get warm and cozy as soon as possible. A cozy blanket and warm thermos of hot cocoa or tea are game changers. For our toddler, it’s always immediately off with the boots and snow pants - really anything that got wet - and into cozy sweatpants and a dry Sawyer beanie. A towel, snack, and extra change of clothes are standard. Try to create an atmosphere of celebration and they’ll end hiking on a high note and want to do it again.
The most important tip is to manage your own expectations when hiking with a toddler in any weather conditions. We all hope to raise, happy, healthy kids and just getting them outside is half the battle. Hopefully there are a few tips you can put into action this winter and get out and enjoy a local trail with your little one.