On Walking a Toddler in the Woods

The way I interact with nature has changed a lot since becoming a parent. I became a mom right around the time the pandemic broke out, and my son was four months old when we were faced with lockdown. To stay sane, we walked Spokane’s Trolley Trail every day for weeks. But hitting the trail with a baby is far different from hitting the trail solo. Some days I wanted nothing more than to lace up my trail shoes and run fast and hard, without the baby; without worrying about rocks that might trip up the stroller, or whether the sun was making my baby too hot, or whether I’d remembered a diaper or pacifier. I wanted to clear my head of early pandemic stress, but I also wanted a break from all the stress of becoming a mother, intensified by unexpected isolation.

People talk about the joy of sharing the outdoors with their kids, but here’s another truth: sometimes it’s just damn frustrating. Now that my son is a toddler, a walk meant to refresh our bodies and moods more often turns into a struggle. We usually take our French Bulldog, Winston, which doubles the stop-and-go pace of the trip. Either one of them will want to stop for a stick at any given moment, but never at the same time and never in the same direction. Both are stubborn and surprisingly strong for their size. When the dog stops to relieve himself, it’s like a secret signal for the toddler to start sprinting toward the least safe place of the trail, most likely over the edge. Which is where the pair tend to drive me, mentally, because I still want the trail to serve me as an escape.

The author's toddler and dog walking on the trail, with trees on side and a downslope on the other.
Walking a toddler: The author’s son and dog on a local trail. // Photo: Lisa Laughlin

Several solutions jump to mind. Leave the dog home, or insist the toddler ride in a stroller or backpack instead of running pell-mell down the trail to his heart’s delight. But I try to embrace the chaos of motherhood as much as possible, and here’s why: usually there’s no other option. Sometimes I coordinate with my husband so I can hit the trail on my own, but a solo run or hike is rare at this point, so I’m invested in examining the chaos. And I’m committed to taking on the challenge of bringing a toddler to the outdoors, because I still believe there’s something we can take away from it, even if it’s unlikely to be a sense of peace.

There are some things that won’t change when hiking with my toddler. I’ll still carry around low-level mom anxiety. I will look into trees for cougars more than I used to. I will eye the edge of the bluff as he wobble-runs down the trail ahead of me, calculating his risk of injury versus the merit of building his physical skills. I do not expect that kind of worry to go away. Nor do I expect the little problems to dissolve that come from taking a toddler into uncontrolled circumstances. More often than not, I will be carrying the toddler—who previously seemed to possess unlimited energy—for the last half mile of our walk (which will probably be up a hill, possibly in the mud, probably with lots of rocks). But it’s occurred to me how I might enjoy myself when the pace is more stop than go, when we’ve walked a frustrating 0.4 miles instead of the full length of the trail, when I feel the resentment start to build: to look at things exactly as my son does, which is to say closely and with a lot less ego.

When I walked my son in his stroller in those early locked-down months, I could tell you precisely which wildflowers were ready to open, or had reached peak bloom, or had just started to wilt. I felt more connected than I did when the trail was a blur on a solo run. I was experiencing seasons of motherhood that seemed to change as frequently as the plants—frustrations and joys that many mothers had weathered before me—and I felt peace in that connection even if I didn’t feel calm on the trail. It’s not the perfect answer, because I rarely have that sort of clarity in the moment, especially when snags happen far from the trailhead. But if I remember to look around when my toddler stops to draw in the dirt, instead of tapping my foot, I might notice something like a thunderhead as it blooms above the pines; how it’s burdened with rain but still rises and stretches and grows.

Lisa Laughlin is a freelance writer, editor, and mother living in Spokane. She serves as an Associate Editor at Out There and has a MFA in Creative Nonfiction. She looks forward (mostly) to bundling up her kid and dog and taking them on the trail this winter.

See a map of Spokane’s Trolley Trail.

Find more stories in the OTO archives about motherhood, parenthood, taking kids outside, and parenting in the outdoors.

Visit the Out There Kids archive to read the full collection of stories about families and children in the great outdoors.

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