This got me thinking about how families would be able to determine if it was the right hike for their little ones. Search the web and a trail guide might say "easy," but that's because they aren't taking into account carrying 20+ pounds of baby. With babies in tow it's tricky. The first thing to think about is what age your little one is and then take it from there.
Hiking with Infants
The wonderful thing about hiking with infants is that as you get on trail, they often nod off to a deep sleep thanks to the swaying movement of your body. The tough part is that new parents, especially the moms, may not recognize that what they hiked 9 months prior to baby may not be the level they are back at mentally or physically.
Hike it BabyRecognizing that exercise can produce hormone surges that may not be conducive to steep tricky trails with a lot of roots and rock underfoot is important. Also, remember if you are front wearing your baby, your feet may not be easy to see, adding an extra hazard. This is not to discourage trickier, longer hikes, but as you go up, think about what the down is going to look like too and adjust accordingly. Keep in mind exposure to wind, sun and rain with a baby, and what happens if the weather shifts suddenly. Bring a thin muslin cloth for shade or carry a light umbrella for shelter from rain or shine.
Hiking with Crawlers
Don't be afraid of dirt! As babies begin to crawl, you want to think about giving them an opportunity stretch their legs after 45 minutes of hiking so they can regain circulation in their dangling legs. Look for 5-7 mile trails with a climb where you can carry for a bit, but still have good flat space to stop and have a snack, nurse or change a diaper followed by a crawling break for your little one.
At 6 months you can move baby to your back, which opens up more hike options because your balance and visibility improves with a back carry. The good thing about this stage is that kids can't get away too quickly, so it allows you to be more adventurous on trail with baby and hike longer distances.
Hiking with Toddlers Waddlers
18 months to three years old is often the hardest time to pick trails for most parents. Encourage their adventurous spirit with flat open trails, slowly sloping hills and minimal drop offs. Expect to go slow as molasses. Nature preserves can be great for toddlers who are beginning to understand animals and plants.
To make a hike move along faster, point out birds and different species of trees, find benches and stumps to climb across. As children advance from teetering precariously to running, you want to make sure the trail gives them room to roam. Keep hikes with this age group short (under 2 miles), even if your kid is capable of more. Meltdowns far from the car are not awesome.
Hiking with Pre-K Kiddos
Once communication is firmly established and children have a better understanding of risk on trails, it's time to venture out a bit more. Look for 3-5 mile hikes with railings where there are cliffs or switchbacks, and bridges that don't have slats with wide gaps. Stay away from high trafficked trails where adventurous little ones might run ahead and block the path of an unsuspecting mountain biker hammering down the trail. Unfortunately dogs, bikers, dirt bikers and little kids can be a tricky mix, so be aware of how crowded the trail you picked is and what the busiest days are.
Pre-K kids are going to be more curious, so look for trails with a view or a waterfall destination to help answer the "are we there yet?" question. Bring binoculars, collapsible nets for catching tadpoles, vests they can stash rocks and other goodies.
Remember that each of these stages are short-lived. Enjoy the moment with your little one. Before you know it your kid will be dragging you up the mountainside, so appreciate these early days when he or she is just learning to love the trail.