How to Hike with Infants
by Amy Potter, Visitor Center Manager (child age 1)
Hiking with a newborn can sound completely overwhelming but getting out in nature and exercising is a great way for parents to decompress. After the birth of my son last year, I knew it would benefit everyone if I quickly learned how to get out on the trails with a baby on board.
I started small to not only allow myself time to become more physically fit, but also to become mentally comfortable with hiking with a baby. Our first hike was about 200 yards on a flat path next to a river until I found a nice rock to sit on while everyone else swam. In the subsequent weeks, I worked my way up to hiking Stowe Pinnacle when he was 6 weeks old. By the time he was three months old, we had summited White Rock, Camel’s Hump, and Mount Mansfield.
With so many developmental changes happening during the first year, it felt like I was constantly adjusting my gear and hiking routine. Now that he is a year old and we have more mileage under our feet, I have learned a lot of lessons on how to (mostly) successfully hike with a baby.
Getting out of the house can be the hardest part of hiking with a baby. I have learned that a checklist and packing the night before is helpful. Water, snacks, extra clothes, diapers, wipes, sunscreen, hat, and maybe even a toy (but a flower or rock can also work as a toy!). It can be so easy to think about the baby’s needs that you can forget to think about what you need as well. Don’t forget enough water and food for yourself!
Breastfeeding moms need to think about their clothing for ease of feeding on the trail. Most of my old hiking clothes wouldn’t easily work to feed my son on the go. Tip: I found a nursing bra with any loose shirt worked well.
Parents with formula-fed babies need to think about bottles. A tip for formula-fed babies: pre-measure formula beforehand.
When he was a newborn and exclusively breastfed, I didn’t have to worry about extra food or bottles, but diaper changes and blowouts were frequent. I have changed many dirty diapers on the summits of Vermont’s beautiful mountains (remember to Leave No Trace and pack out what you pack in, including diapers). I had to find a good balance of bringing enough extra diapers and clothes, but not too many in order to save on pack weight.
Snacks are our main concern these days. I try to give him similar food to what I eat like a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, but I also bring easy, quick snacks that I can give while we hike. Snack bars and dehydrated yogurt drops are our go-tos.
The most important piece of gear throughout the first year is a carrier, of course! Until they can sit and have good head control, a front carrier is necessary. A front carrier means they will be directly next to your body the whole hike, so expect lots of sweating if you are on a strenuous hike. I found he needed an extra change of clothes just for the sweat factor. The other downside of a front carrier is lack of pockets. There is not a lot of storage, so a hiking partner to help carry everything is helpful.
A back carrier is much more comfortable for everyone and has a lot more storage, but it is also much heavier. Remember to choose a hike that you are capable of carrying 30-40 pounds on.
The biggest piece of advice I can give is to just hike as long as it’s fun. Sometimes you may have to quit early. Being flexible is important, but the infant stage can be a great time to adventure as most babies under a year aren’t walking and just enjoy being carried around. The caregivers are usually the limiting factor when choosing where and how far to hike, so take advantage of this moment to enjoy time with your baby out on the trails.
How to Hike with Toddlers
by Alicia DiCocco, Director of Development (children ages 2 and 5)
Transitioning from the infant stage, of carrying your baby on any hike (for as long as you can stand it), to the toddler stage is an important step to allowing your child to explore trails and experience hiking in a way that is tangible and enjoyable for them. It’s also a time when you can start showing them where you are going on the map before you leave and engage them in packing for the hike.
In the beginning toddler stages, we tended to start with low mileage, high reward hikes. It also provided us with the opportunity to put the toddler in a hiking pack at some point during the hike and give them a goal of reaching the top when we returned. While visiting popular trails with many people isn’t something I seek when hiking alone, it is great with children because most people seem to give amazingly positive and genuine compliments along the way. Both of my children were able to climb Mount Philo around age 2 and Sterling Pond around age 3.
At this age, it is also important to know the terrain of the trail. People of all ages vary in skill and ability, but this is especially important to notice and prepare for in the toddler years. With my cautious firstborn, we never had to worry about the landscape, cliffs, or the number of rocks. But with my seemingly wild two-year-old (who is almost as tall as his five-year-old sister), we have to be careful. He will sprint off before we realize it, not caring if he falls on rocks, slips on roots, or lands in a river.
Toddlers can trick you though. On one trip we were taking to hike Camel’s Hump View, which is a one-mile relatively flat hike, my daughter cried and whined the entire way there proclaiming that hiking is the worst, only to get out of the car, scream with excitement and start on the trail before anyone else had their packs on. Additionally, if there is a sudden lack of interest on the trail, I try to distract them by asking if they can find the next blaze or ask them what shape leaves they see. Typically, within a few seconds, they have totally forgotten that they were whining, which really was only happening because they are a toddler, not because they were hiking.
Also, snacks. Always have lots of snacks. Yes, this is true of traveling anywhere with a toddler, but it’s especially important on a hike. Having a variety of snacks to be used at different times is helpful too. As they get older, have them pack their own snacks and talk about when you are going to eat them.
Additional snack tip: Save a special treat for the way down or at the car. While hiking up to a peak or pond, the scenery can often serve as the motivator, leaving you with a tired and uninterested mess of a child to hike down with. But if you have a reward at the end of the hike (or even half-way down), it can make a big difference.
How to Hike with Kids
by Keegan Tierney, Director of Field Programs (children ages 7 and 10)
As kids grow out of the toddler years their coordination and endurance improve dramatically. If they have hiked a bit as toddlers you can begin completing more mileage and start considering extended trips in the backcountry without much more consideration than you would give a new adult hiker. As many adult hikers know, there are a few key considerations to an enjoyable hiking experience. Making sure kids have the right footwear, a backpack that fits well, and carry the right amount of weight will make the experience not only doable but enjoyable. Also as with an adult, the right choice of footwear, pack, and weight will depend on the ability of the child and what works best for them. For our young hikers, we worked with them to pick a sturdy athletic sneaker with appropriate traction. The backpacks with comfortable straps and a waistband that we chose were actually smaller than those our kids take to school. We were advised pack weight should be between 10-20% of their body weight. We erred toward the lighter side to ensure our kids enjoyed their first hikes. As any parent who has survived the infant stage may expect, we carried a LOT more than we did pre-children.
At ages 4 and 7 we were taking multi-hour hikes on some of Vermont’s lower mountains with up to 1000’ of elevation gain. At ages 6 and 9 we tackled our first 4000 footers in Vermont. Finally, at 7 and 10, my partner and I planned our first multi-night backpacking trip. Depending on a child’s experience leading up to their first time backpacking, that age can be years earlier or later. For us, the key for all of our hiking experiences was ensuring we planned something that our kids would enjoy and that would become an accomplishment they’d have enduring pride in. We also chose to do our first backpacking trips with another family as having a broader option of people to talk to and the peer encouragement to keep going were both huge benefits.
The Monroe Skyline was the first backpacking trip for us. The combination of plenty of bailout options, lots of shelters and camping spots, amazing views, and close proximity to home made it a perfect location. Now our kids can look at the ridgeline from a distance and tell their friends, grandparents, and babysitters that they hiked across the whole thing! While we have tackled the bigger mountains of Vermont and the kids enjoyed backpacking, we still do the majority of our hiking at this age at the areas they have become familiar and comfortable with. Every time we go out to Raven’s Ridge Natural Area, Bristol Ledges, or another of our local spots, their memories of our bigger hikes get rekindled and they build anticipation for the next one.
Want to try getting out there with your kids? Check out GMC’s Walker’s Guide to Vermont for easier walks and hikes to get them started. Then you can build up to hikes in the Day Hiker’s Guide to Vermont and the Long Trail Guide. And of course, follow general preparedness tips in addition to these tips for kids. Let us know how it goes!