Creating a toddler-approved active lifestyle

Being out in nature is where I feel most comfortable, happy, and at peace. Hiking is how my husband and I spent the majority of our weekends while dating and in early marriage. These pre-kid hikes usually involved double-digit mileage and year-round crack-of-dawn departures. I was sure to plan my long runs on Saturday before Sunday hiking days: our hiking adventures were often just as – if not more – taxing than my concentrated long runs.

Fast forward: our daughter, now 2 ½, loves to be outside as much as we do. Her little legs are stretching out in length, her coordination is growing by the week, and she has her own tiny backpack for when we “go on a ‘ike” that holds her water bottle, stuffed monkey, and a zippy bag of dried cherries. Bundle of energy that she is, she is still a toddler: those little legs get tired, snacks get eaten, and enthusiasm wanes.

On the run.
On the run.

As parents our hiking goals include getting exercise and enjoying a weekend dose of wilderness; our toddler is mostly interested in exploring, filling her pockets with rocks and picking up sticks. We’ve adapted our outlook to blend these different goals. Here are a few tactics that we use:

  1. Choose outings for the ‘fun’ features

We spend a lot of time picking our hiking routes that feature known or new “cool” features (e.g., waterfall/really awesome tree/rock fort). We talk up that waterfall/tree/fort prior to and during the hike. We look for the feature while we’re hiking. Ususally, our toddler is so excited to reach our goal she will barely allow us to take water breaks, and she’s gotten to the point where she will now request specific hikes or walks, naming them by the specific feature she remembers.

Playing in her "boat"
Playing in her “boat”
  1. Feel good about doing ‘equivalent’ work

We recently spent a day hiking in the Albuquerque foothills. Don’t be fooled, there’s nothing gentle about these hills: these mini-mountains are rugged, exposed, and gorgeous. My husband and I switch off with toddler-toting duty and this morning I was carrying an extra 30lbs of toddler + backpack + gear + food on my back. When we finished our last push uphill to top out at ~9,200’ in elevation, my quads were quivering, my heart rate was through the roof and I was sweating as though I was running a hard minute tempo run. Was it a precisely, exactly calculated and executed tempo run? No. Was it a freakin’ hard work that left my legs and body exhausted and thrilled? Yes. Did I count it as my run for the day? Absolutely.

Leading the way.
Leading the way.
  1. Double up

I am lucky to have a husband who supports my running and is keen on having an outdoor-oriented family life. On weekends, I will occasionally swap one of my usual trail-based long runs for a house-to-trail run through the city. I run to meet my husband and daughter, who’ve driven to the trailhead. He brings me a change of shoes and clothes (and if I’m lucky a breakfast burrito!) and we take off from there. This saves me the ‘running commute’ time of driving to and from the mountains, which means I get to sleep in a little later AND I get my training effort in. Any amount of post-long run hiking is icing on the training cake.

  1. Tailor the activities.

Toddlers have lots of opinions! Certain activities call out to them more than others. While my husband and I love to sport climb, we agree that there are a lot of safety issues involved with bringing a highly mobile and curious toddler to a cliffy, desert location and expecting her to sit quietly under scant supervision while her parents (and fellow climbers) cruise up and down the rocks. Divided attention is bad news on the safety and fun fronts for all involved: the climber, the belayer, nor the toddler.  Snowsports are also awesome: my husband is an avid downhill skier and I love to cross country ski and snowshoe. We’ve taken our daughter on some few snow excursions, but she’s tiny, and she gets cold quickly, so instead of an all-day mountain snowshoe into a yurt like we love to do, we are more apt to have sledding days or small snow explorations from roadside trailheads that usually only involve minimal snow-hike time to return to dry clothes and a thermos of hot cocoa at our car. I talk so much about hiking here because we’ve found hiking to be the perfect fit for our family in terms of an acitivty we can all do happily. Our babe has the mobility and freedom to walk, but can still be tossed in the pack when she gets tired.

  1. Tailor the timing.
Before all else: pancakes!
Before all else: pancakes!

I am a pretty hardcore morning person. As in, I believe the best part of the day is mostly between 5-8AM. I love the quiet darkness before dawn, I love the sunrise, I love being done with my running before the sun is up, and I love starting a hike in the light of my headlamp with a steaming cup of coffee in one hand, the sunrise barely a hint on the horizon. (I know, it’s weird) With a toddler, we’re lucky if we leave the house before 10 AM on a weekend day. Which, if we stop for my daughters’ potty break and then maybe my husbands’ coffee break, puts us starting out at the trailhead around 11. It’s an attitude adjustment, but a noontime hike is just as fun as a sunrise one – we just have to remember to bring our hats and sunscreen.

  1. Togetherness >> Badassery
Taking a break while hiding from 'bears'
Taking a break while hiding from ‘bears’

Becoming a parent changes many things, and becoming an active, outdoor parent takes adaptation. I am an avid athlete and I revel in pushing my body to exhaustion when exploring the out of doors with my husband. However, as a mom, I’ve found that I value the time we spend together much more than the miles we cover, or elevation we traverse. There is still a time and place for epic outdoor adventures (like our upcoming Valentines’ weekend back-country-ski-to-yurt trip while our toddler spends the weekend with her grandparents), but I’ve come to greatly appreciate the time we spend as a family introducing our daughter to the great outdoors.

These are some of my philosophies and practical tweaks for planning and enjoying time outdoors with a toddler. Do you have any strategies you have discovered and want to share?

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