3 to 6 years
These are the most challenging years. Kids this age are exploding with curiosity, but they’re too big to carry and too young to walk more than 20 paces without stopping to examine every caterpillar. They tire easily, melt down often, and lack the sense to back away from crumbly cliffs.
Strategy Accept this fact right now: Big miles and peakbagging are out of the question. You will only hike as far and fast as the youngest toddler in your group. Adjust your expectations, then try to devise games to encourage him or her to move leisurely down the trail. “I Spy with my little eye…a moss covered tree up ahead.”
Single biggest challenge Preventing meltdowns. Kids this age love adventures, but they also crave the comfort of their normal routine. Keep them engaged and excited about the newness of their surroundings. Make a big deal when you discover animal tracks, scat, frogs, wildflowers, or anything else of interest. Stop and ask your child questions: “What kind of animal do you think made that?” Another big hit: the treasure hunt. Give each kid a zipper-lock baggie and list of items to find: a heart-shaped rock, a red leaf, a pencil-sized stick, a pinecone, a feather. Award prizes (candy) for the best finds.
Unexpected challenge Getting your child to poop in the woods. Many kids this age will hold it as long as they can, rather than do their business without the cool, clean comfort of the porcelain throne. Obviously, this is not a good or healthy option. While it’s not unusual for a child to go the first day of a trip without a BM, after that, you should encourage it. Show them how to squat low (it helps move things along), and take the opportunity to teach Leave No Trace ethics, like burying waste and packing out toilet paper.
The Superman complex Beware: Most kids this age think they’re invincible. Unless something roars loudly and has huge, pointy fangs, they don’t consider it dangerous. So stay especially close at steep overlooks, while bouldering, or when crossing streams on slippery deadfall.
Pack this Headlamps for every child. If you don’t, they’ll beg for yours. Pick a lightweight LED lamp (a set of batteries will last forever if it’s left on). Check out Black Diamond’s website for various models. bdel.com. Also, preschoolers love to carry their own pack–if it’s comfortable and has a pocket for their favorite toy. Check out Hydrapack; hydrapak.com.