Avid hiker Elen Turner is introducing her daughter to the great outdoors by bringing her on a selection of New Zealand’s stunning toddler-friendly hikes. Here, she gives some advice to parents keen to bring their child into nature while they're still in nappies.

Author Elen Turner and her daughter hold hands in a shallow body of water; both are looking into green woodland
Being exposed to nature can help with a child's early development © Elen Turner

Many studies show that getting outdoors—and specifically, communing with trees—is essential to brain development in kids and emotional wellbeing in everyone. Other studies show that the first three years of a child’s life are the most critical time for shaping their brain architecture. So, I’m fortunate to have been able to introduce my two-and-a-half-year-old daughter to the beauty of the natural world in her toddlerhood, through numerous short hikes I’ve done with her in New Zealand

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As an avid hiker myself, I didn’t want to completely give up this pastime once my daughter came along. But, parents of toddlers know that this is a challenging time to travel with them. Toddlers aren’t as portable as infants, not nearly as fond of sleeping, and have an enormous will to be independent (sometimes!). Walking—let alone hiking—anywhere with a toddler can be slow going, and a lesson in patience for parents. 

A woman and her daughter are standing on rocky ground and smiling towards the camera. Both are wearing hats.
Turner's daughter would often notice small things that she missed © Elen Turner

One of the many beautiful things about toddlers, though, is that they’re amazed by the little details often missed by adults. What my daughter remembers about when we hiked to a beautiful waterfall is the earthworm she saw wriggling on the path on the way. She spots things I don’t, like white stripes on a black rock that make it look like a zebra, and empty cicada skins clinging to a tree trunk. Even simple hikes offer a kaleidoscope of experiences for her, which is a pleasure for me to watch.

We have preferred to keep things simple and stick to hikes that can be done in a day, ending with a drive back home or sleeping at a serviced campground. But New Zealand’s network of Department of Conservation (DOC) huts and campsites means that families seeking a longer hike can book a bunk or place to pitch a tent and turn a day hike into an overnighter with minimal hassle. ‘Basic’ grade campsites are free, but most families with toddlers will find ‘serviced’ campsites more comfortable, and you must pay to stay in these. 

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It’s important to know though that when hiking in some national parks in New Zealand, you must carry all rubbish back out with you, including when you stay at campsites on national park land. You can’t leave anything there. So, if your toddler is still in nappies, you’ll need to carry everything around with you for the duration of the hike. Look up whether the national park and the campsites you want to stay at implement this rule, as it will make a huge difference to your ability to do a multi-day hike with your toddler.

Here are some of my favourite places to hike with my toddler, which happen to be close to where I live, but are among the best hiking destinations in the whole of New Zealand. 

A man with a child holstered on his back looks on a lake over some shrubbery
Toddlers can easily be brought to hike at the beautiful Cullen Point Scenic Reserve © Elen Turner

Marlborough Sounds

Famous for its three-to-five day Queen Charlotte Track, the Marlborough Sounds also have many other shorter trails that are ideal for families with toddlers. With a 150-kilometre-long coastline, there are many little bays with small campsites that can be used as a base, or a final destination. Our favourites are the serviced DOC campsites at Momorangi Bay and Pelorus Bridge, which have good bathrooms and kitchens, and even a kids’ playground and a glowworm grove at Momorangi.

At the Pelorus Bridge Scenic Reserve there’s an easy two-hour (return) hike to a couple of waterfalls. Toddlers will need to be in a hiking pack for this one, as some of the terrain is uneven and hilly, and there are some drop-offs beside the river. The second waterfall at the end has a beautifully clear pool that’s very refreshing on a hot day. 

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There’s another toddler-friendly walk at the Cullen Point Scenic Reserve, near the start of the Queen Charlotte Drive. Stick your toddler in a pack and take a short stroll to the lookout or hike the 3.5-kilometre Coastal Loop Track. Both have phenomenal views over the sounds, and are close to the town of Havelock, famous for its green-shell mussels. Here we discovered—much to my delight and my partner’s horror—that our toddler loves big fat mussels!

Abel Tasman National Park

The Abel Tasman National Park is New Zealand’s smallest, and one of its busiest. But its popularity is one of the things that makes it great for families with toddlers. It’s easily accessible from the towns of Nelson and Motueka, and there’s a network of ferries and water taxis that hop along the coast, dropping hikers off and even transporting gear up and down the coast (for a fee, of course). If you want to do an overnight hike with a toddler, staying at the park’s DOC-administered campsites, you can arrange for your gear (including nappies, in whatever state!) to be picked up and dropped off at your next destination.

Abel Tasman is especially good with toddlers because of the abundance of incredibly beautiful beaches. The white and golden-sand coves with turquoise waters are up there with the best beaches you’ll find in New Zealand, and little kids love splashing in the sea. You’ll need a hiking pack to hike with toddlers here, as many trails are quite hilly, with drop offs, but there are portions that toddlers can walk on their own.

A small child is standing at the bank of Lake Rotoiti, New Zealand. A group of mountains is visible in the background, as is a small pier to the right of the shot.
Taking in the sights at Lake Rotoiti © Elen Turner

Nelson Lakes National Park

The Nelson Lakes National Park—especially around the small town of St. Arnaud and Lake Rotoiti—is especially good if you have a wilful toddler who won’t stay in a hiking pack for long. Short trails start from the lakeshore at St. Arnaud, and are mostly quite flat, leading down to pebble-strewn lake beaches that are the stuff of toddler dreams. You may find yourself skimming stones into the lake for longer than you actually hike (and arguing with your toddler about how many stones they can stuff into their pockets for later). Water taxis also operate in the summer and are convenient if you want to do more than a one-two hour hike.

Don’t forget your insect repellent at the Nelson Lakes. There are a lot of sand flies, especially in summer, and the advice “Don’t scratch it, you’ll make it worse” falls deaf on toddler ears. While Lake Rotoiti is quite buggy, Lake Rotoroa further down the road is even worse.

A man with a child on his back in walking down a hill in The Centre of New Zealand. The pair are walking through the woods, and their shadows are long on the ground.
The Centre of New Zealand offers a great view over Tasman Bay © Elen Turner

The Centre of New Zealand

You really don’t have to travel into the wilderness in New Zealand to enjoy some great toddler-friendly hiking. Many cities, small and large, have nature reserves within their city boundaries, with well-maintained trails, great views, and easy access. The paths tend to be better maintained than in more remote areas, which is good if you have a sturdy stroller.

In Nelson, the popular Centre of New Zealand walk is an easy 15-minute walk from the bottom of the hill, to the eponymous lookout over the city and Tasman Bay, with the Abel Tasman National Park visible. Energetic toddlers could walk it on their own, with a bit of bribery, although expect that to take considerably more than 15 minutes. If you have a sturdy stroller with good wheels and suspension or a hiking pack, continue from the centrepoint along the trails through the Sir Stanley Whitehead Reserve, through farmland with grazing sheep and eucalyptus groves. 

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