This seems so obvious, it's easy to forget - and sadly that is EXACTLY what happens so often.
Dehydration is the number one enemy against safe nature play and is far more common than any injury or allergic reaction on the trail.
Even in cooler weather, especially in cooler weather when you are not thinking of it as often, remember to pack full water bottles for each and every adult and little on your hiking adventure.
In addition to your water, be sure to throw some healthy, energy-packed snacks in your pack to keep you and your littles fueled for the hike. Hunger and exhaustion have a way of sneaking up on us when we're midway on our loops, furthest from the trailhead and rest!
I know I'm not at my best when I'm hungry, thirsty, and exhausted. You can bet your children aren't either, and when we grow hungry, thirsty, and exhausted, our coordination and awareness decrease while our likelihood of injury increases!
Keep everybody in your crew safe and satisfied with healthy-fat and protein-packed trail snacks such as homemade trail mix, your favorite protein bars, or jerky.
Keep some fresh fruit, pureed fruit porches, or dehydrated fruit strips in your pack so a blood sugar boost will be there at the ready any time you hit the trail and find you or the littles need help to finish out your hike.
2. wear Proper shoes and clothes
Please, do not take this as a declaration that you need to go buy those $300 hiking shoes at the novelty outfitter a few towns over!
While I'm as much a sucker for good gear as any, I am ADAMANT that you do not need to break the bank to get your family outside.
That being said, please please please do not go out for a hike, even on an easy paved bike trail, wearing flip-flop sandals or crocs, or allowing your child to wear similar.
You are asking for trouble in an environment that will not pay you any favors!
Bad Shoes = Clumsy Kids = Injured Kids
The best shoes for any time in the outdoors will be closed-toe, closed-heel, with a thicker sole and ample treads.
I do not recommend going out and buying toddler Chacos or Merrell boots because... well... growth spurts.
Most tennis shoes you can find at Target or on Amazon will do the trick just fine until they get a bit older. Our Wild Child hits the trail almost every day and I swear by her Champion "Running Shoes" (Yes, there are some affiliate links in this post! If you choose to buy a product we recommend through Amazon, our playschool will receive a small kickback we will use to buy supplies and gear!) in the summer, and her Target rain boots with varying thickness and layers of socks for the Fall-Winter-Spring.
But before you think shoes are the end of the ball-game, don't forget about thorns, thistles, bristles, and other rash-inducing plant adaptations or insect bites!
Even in the warmest of weather, we always encourage full leg coverage on the trail (simple lightweight unisex leggings are trail favorites for myself and both my young children). Now that winter is upon us, layers are the name of the game. We layer up with simple base layers, fleece pullovers or coveralls, and water/wind resistant top layers to keep our toddlers warm without turning them into (grumpy) immobile marshmallows!
Nothing on Amazon can hold a candle to the affordable outdoor gear available from experienced retailers in the field -- I steer every family asking over to the truly amazing online shop: Biddle and Bop for amazing outdoor children's gear at accessible price points for the average family. **NO, we do not receive ANY commission for recommending Biddle and Bop gear to our followers and families... they're really just that good!
3. slow down
As a family and as a Playschool, we refuse to ban children from running on the trails unless in especially harsh environments, because if not here, WHERE!? Children have such few safe havens left in this world where they are allowed to actually RUN and not just walk!
Still, we work hard to balance between calm moments and gleeful moments to maintain a safe experience for all on the trail.
There is a fine line between Free Play and Reckless Play and it is so important to mind this line for the safety and well-being of our children.
Reckless Children = Clumsy Children = Injured Children
As parents or caregivers, it is important that we help children mind their bodies, as they have not mastered this crucial skill of self-care yet.
If you notice your children getting a little too reckless or rowdy on the trail, work to inspire more intentional play by encouraging a "Slow-Motion hike," (exactly what it sounds like!), or playing a classic game of Red Light, Green Light to get the giggles and energy out before carrying on with your hike.
4. pack a first-Aid Kit
First-Aid kits can make or break your experience on the trail, especially with toddlers! There are some great ready-made First-Aid kits you can grab just about anywhere - try your local drugstore, Target, or this easy All-Inclusive Kit from First Aid Only on Amazon.
An ideal first-aid kit for any hike will contain a variety of tools such as bandaids, gauze, sanitizing wipes, antibacterial ointment, and anti-sting/rash ointment.
We recommend toddler-fying your First Aid kit with silly bandaids that can cure a vast multitude of toddler ailments, biodegradable wipes to clean any wounds or dirty hands, and a list of numbers to call in case of emergency (local emergency, poison control, emergency contacts, etc.).
Another important fact to remember: if you are the only adult on your hike, should something happen to YOU, your children could be alone, potentially without anyone who knows their address, telephone number, or any other important information.
Always be sure to notify least one other adult of exactly where you are going on any trail adventure, and have a check-in system in place - a simple "Safely Home!" text will suffice - to ensure the safety of you and any children in your group.
On our Wild & Free Hikes, we carry a large, easy-to-find or visible note that has emergency contact numbers, names, ages, and location of medical forms for all adults and children on the hike.
It is not enjoyable to think about the worst-possible scenarios, but it is more important than ever when out in the wild to ensure you are prepared.
While I firmly believe you should feel comfortable walking out your door to any local beginner's trail TODAY, I also encourage anyone interested in promoting more outdoor play to employ a simple Google search to find the next local offering of Red Cross or American Heart Association free trainings for First Aid and CPR.
Safety first, safety second, safety always.
5. Learn your LOCAL Flora & Fauna
When I begin a conversation with anyone about safety tips in the wilderness, without fail their mind is brimming with intricate questions about flora and fauna...
Which plants should I stay away from? Which bugs could kill me? Is this a Brown Recluse? What secret plant should I crush to stop the burn of Poison Ivy?
While I can and would LOVE to have those conversations with you alllllllllll day long, I want to remind you that this is listed here intentionally as the last of five important safety tips. I assure you, the first four concerns I've listed here can ruin your day far quicker and more effectively than most plants and insects you are likely to encounter on your front-country toddler hikes.
Still, it is helpful to have beginner's knowledge of what natural hazards are local to your area and backup resources to help you be confident in your identification skills.
Poison Ivy vines have a friendly Virginia Creeper look-alike that often keeps nervous hikers away from innocent trails; the seemingly benign Stinging Nettle has lulled many a beginner into a false sense of security, only to surprise them halfway through a hike with a horrible hour-long stinging sensation all over their arms or legs!
Remember: While you will often see me encouraging toddlers to smell, touch, and taste the plants around them, be honest with yourself about your own knowledge level.
Never encourage children to taste a plant you are not 100% CERTAIN is edible; when in doubt, wait for an expert or trained professional before introducing ideas such as the edible outdoors to your children.
Once you teach your toddler that a leaf or a plant is edible, it is highly likely that they will attempt to eat more leaves and plants, edible or not! It's important to be hyper-aware of your littles on the trail. We set firm and simple rules such as, "All trail treats have to be held by Miss Shayn first," and we repeat them again... and again... and again.
Creating a magical culture of exploration should never come at the expense of firm boundaries designed to keep your children and yourself safe.
I hope these tips helped you! Comment below with your favorite toddler hiking tips or biggest safety questions and I will be sure to answer them!!