Hi friends! As you know, Run Wild My Child is all about helping parents get their children outdoors and back into nature, one adventure at a time. While I wish I could quit my day job and spend all my time traveling and outdoor adventuring with my kids so I could share everything with you, I sadly cannot do it all. However, I’m thrilled to announce that in the upcoming months we will be featuring some great posts from some really awesome outdoor mamas around the country (and hopefully the globe). We’re always looking for fun, unique content about outdoor adventures with kids, so if you have a trip, hike, activity, craft or area that you’d like to be our resident expert on, just click on that CONTRIBUTE button at the top of the website.

Today we are bringing you our very first guest post – a three-night backpacking adventure on the Appalachian Trail with a toddler in tow. Talk about awesome and ambitious (and possibly terrifying)! This post was submitted by Rachel Sims of the OutboundTribe.com and is packed with great tips/advice on how to successfully backpack with a toddler. I’m super impressed with all of Rachel and Bryan’s adventures and wish we lived closer so our families could adventure together. If you have any questions about the post or want any additional information from Rachel, leave a comment below and she’ll get back to you. Enjoy!

Backpacking the Appalachian Trail with a Toddler

When and where 

After our first daughter (Summer) was born, we could not wait to take her backpacking on the Appalachian Trail as soon as possible. We knew there were some initial logistics we would need to work out regarding time of year and where to hike and our first big question was…when? May is one of our favorite months to backpack on the Trail – the nights are usually a little warmer with the days still cool. However, we also knew that in May, somewhere along the trail it always seemed to rain, so we’d have to make sure we account for the weather. We planned our first trip for May 2015, when Summer was 20 months old. This was a great age – old enough to walk a bit on her own and explore, but still small enough to pack in a carrier while hiking.

Backpacking the Appalachian Trail Grayson Highlands State Park

The next big question was…where to go? We knew we wanted to start her off on the Appalachian Trail, but with over 2,000 miles of trail, we had a lot of options. We knew there were some particular things we wanted along our hike, so after much research on different sections of the trail, we chose to start at Grayson Highlands State Park in Mouth of Wilson, Virginia, near Mount Rogers and Whitetop Mountain, Virginia’s two highest mountains. Grayson Highlands offers scenic views of alpine-like peaks more than 5,000 feet high with campgrounds, and hiking trails leading to waterfalls and overlooks. The park also provides year-round access to the Appalachian Trail and the Virginia Highlands Horse Trail.

Here are my top reasons why we chose this spot as our access point to the Appalachian Trail:

  1. We could start at a campground (secure place to park the car)
  2. The 2nd night in we could camp at a campground along the trail (this allowed me to dump the diapers!)
  3. There are several road crossings along the trail (we can easily get off in case of emergencies)
  4. This section has wild ponies and we knew Summer would love that!

Hiking with Toddlers in Grayson Highlands State Park

Four days, three nights on the trail

On May 17, 2015, we arrived at Grayson Highlands State Park in Virginia. We planned to hike 5.8 miles for our first day before arriving at our campsite. However, we didn’t realize there was a 0.8-mile approach trail and 2 more miles inside the state park that we didn’t account for. So at the end of the first day, we hiked 8.6 miles total. We were thrilled that these extra miles did not affect Summer at all. She loved every minute of it! We collected sticks, acorns, and leaves along the way. The first night we camped at Old Orchard Shelter. We decided ahead of time we would bring the tent instead of sleeping in the shelters.

Backpacking the Appalachian Trail with a Toddler - Run Wild My ChildHow to hike and backpack the Appalachian Trail with a Toddler

The next day we hiked 8.7 miles to Hurricane Campground. Our campsite sat right next to a beautiful creek. I will admit that this day I had some struggles. I used the Osprey Poco AG backpack to carry Summer. While it’s a great backpack (by far our favorite), it does not fit me correctly. The frame is designed more for a male, so I had to make a few adjustments (adding more weight to Bryan’s backpack) to get comfortable. Once we made the adjustments, I felt much better. We learned our lesson from this trip and now Bryan carries Summer and I use my Osprey Ariel 65 Womens Hiking Backpack and carry more of the equipment. Live and learn! We spent the 2nd night at the campground and it was such a great decision. This allowed me to trash all the diapers from the last 2 days (wet diapers add lots of weight!). From here we would turn around and head back the next day.

Overnight Backpacking on the Appalachian Trail with a ToddlerHiking the Appalachian Trail with a Toddler

The third morning we woke up to rain. Luckily, by 10:30 am it moved out. The original plan was to hike back to Old Orchard Shelter; however, we decided to push the limits and see what Summer could really handle and ended up hiking all the way to Wise Shelter which was 14.5 miles away. About 1.5 miles away from Old Orchard Shelter the rain returned, but we had the rain cover for the backpack, so Summer never got wet and actually thought the rain was very entertaining. Once we arrived at the shelter we took cover for about 45 minutes until the rain cleared. That’s when we made the decision to head on to the next shelter.

Backpacking the Appalachian Trail with a Toddler in the rain hikingWhere to go Backpacking on the Appalachian Trail with a Toddler

The evening ended up being absolutely beautiful. We hiked through the grassy hills where the ponies roam right around dusk. Summer did start to get a little cranky but we were saved by other hikers. One hiker shared his Goldfish while another one gave her some peanut butter cookies. All it took was a little food and she was a happy little hiker again. Lesson learned! We finally reached the shelter around 7:00 pm.

Wild ponies on the Appalachian Trail Grayson Highlands State Park Virginia

On the fourth (and final) day, it was a quick 2.8 miles back to the car since we’d hiked so many miles the day before. By 10:00 am we were at the parking lot and packing up to head home. As soon as we reached the car Summer started crying, “I want to go hiking!” and didn’t want to leave. We could not have been more proud!

Tips for backpacking with a toddler

Want to try backpacking with your family? Here are some helpful tips that helped make our experience successful!

  1. Take Plenty of Breaks – Let your little one(s) get out of the backpack and explore. There’s no magic number when to stop for breaks. If they are happy keep moving along. Sometimes Summer is perfectly content for two hours while other times she’s ready to stretch those legs after 30 minutes. Let them set the pace.
  2. Sing Songs & Play Games My husband loves to create songs as we’re hiking along. His silly songs entertain Summer and I get a good laugh. Sometimes we will have her point out objects or name everything she spots green.
  3. Cut Back on Miles – Before baby, Bryan and I could hike anywhere between 15-20 mile days. Now we plan 8-10 mile days. Start off small. It’s better to get to your campsite early than pushing everyone and exhausting yourself.  You don’t want to make the experience miserable.
  4. Prepare your Toddler  Before you leave on the trip show your child pictures where you will be hiking. Set up the tent in the backyard and let them explore inside. I’ll even wear the backpack around the house with Summer in it or take her on a few short hikes in a park or our neighborhood. This gets her use to being in the backpack so it’s not a surprise when we’re on the trail.
  5. Bring their Favorite Snack – This one was very useful for us. At some point in the trip, every toddler has a meltdown – trust us, it happens to everyone! When all else fails and Summer is just getting cranky we make sure her bunny crackers are a hand reach away. This will buy us at least 10-15 minutes and we can regroup. Most of the time after her snack she’s a happy little hiker again.

Outbound Tribe Sims Family Backpacking the Appalachian Trail with a Toddler

Rachel and Bryan Sims have been married for eight years and are the proud parents of two young daughters. They’ve enjoyed the outdoors together since their first date backpacking a section on the Appalachian Trail. They love backpacking, rock climbing, caving, camping, kayaking, road/mountain biking, any anything outdoors.  They now share their passion for adventures and the outdoors with their girls. You can read more about their family, travels, and outdoor tips at Outboundtribe.com.

Now who’s ready for a hike?!!