Hiking with a toddler? No problem, says Fiona Terry. Just allow plenty of time to study rabbit droppings

"It won't take you more than an hour," said the shopkeeper - and, under normal circumstances, he would have been right. To be honest, the three-and-a-half kilometre walk along the river bank was more like a stroll in a national park. Yet I knewit would take us double that time; and the rest.

The shopkeeper hadn't spotted the backpack baby carrier I'd propped behind the counter of his Arkwright-esque grocery store, but, at that moment, my 19-month-old daughter Jasmine trotted through the door, closely followed by my husband, lugging a rucksack stuffed with nappies, waterproofs, sunscreen, milk and food. Trekking really is a different game with a toddler.

We were three days into our hike along Yorkshire's Dales Way and I was already experienced enough to have planned in several hours to complete this route, baby-style. How long does it take to examine every rabbit dropping, every passing duck and sheep and fly en-route? Then there are the stops for nappy changes, milk feeds and hat-chasing over and over again, as Jasmine indulged in one of her favourite games.

"You're mad," friends said when they discovered we were attempting a four-day trek en famille along a portion of the 82-mile path winding from Ilkley on the east of the national park, over the Pennines to Bowness-on-Windermere on the west. I have to admit that in the lead-up to our start date, every time we'd filled up the car boot just to make a simple afternoon excursion I'd wondered what we were letting ourselves in for.

We decided to call in assistance and recruited a company called SherpaVan to take the strain. Not only did the firm help plan a baby-friendly route and lighten our load by hauling our bags each day from one hotel or B&B to the next, but it booked our accommodation. This was a relief - a number of B&Bs we'd approached had turned us down, saying their accommodation wasn't suitable for toddlers.

Not wishing to be too ambitious on our first adventure, we'd asked the company to devise a plan based around a walk of about six miles a day. Pre-baby we'd have settled for nothing less than double that. But our aim was to arrive at each destination before lunch and, having indulged in one of our favourite pastimes, allow Jasmine to spend the afternoons indulging in some of hers. Swings, slides and roundabouts were all on the wish list.

The first day was enlightening. By the time we'd packed away the travel cot (the lightest and most compact I'd found), fed our slow eater a hotel breakfast, brushed teeth in a mouth reluctant to open and thrown bread to the ducks in Ilkley's Hyde Park at the start of the walk, it was nearly midday. We had to stop for lunch after less than a mile.

We quickly realised that we would need a drastic rethink and allow a full day's walking to complete each section. And Jasmine seemed happy enough with that. Sometimes she was content to sit in the backpack and survey the surroundings and wildlife; other times she'd be keen to pop on her own rucksack (tiny and empty) and tramp the route, arms swinging theatrically and firmly refusing to get back in the carrier until complete fatigue set in.

Tree roots across the path, small rocks, steps and kissing gates - things we'd ordinarily have skipped over or through - were exciting and challenging obstacles for a baby who loves to climb and get her knees muddy. She sang some of the way, smiled at fellow walkers and delighted in pointing out cows in distant fields we'd never have noticed; a tractor in a narrow lane. The countryside became a new universe through her eyes.

Six miles on, at the end of that day, we reached The Devonshire Arms, our hotel for the night, and Jasmine still had energy left to do impressions of the chickens. That night our usually light sleeper barely stirred.

We awoke to grey skies and rain. Undeterred, we wrapped Jasmine in her waterproofs and wellies and began our day's trek in earnest. She loved splashing through the puddles and seemed more excited than ever as we negotiated stepping stones across a river swollen by the morning's deluge. Within three hours we were smearing on factor 50 sun lotion as the clouds broke to reveal blue sky.

The path was clear and easy going, though there was one section we were keen to avoid - a steep climb past Conistone Pie. After some research we had found a way to avoid this six-mile section with a 20-minute scenic bus ride through the lush valley from Grassington to Kettlewell. Since Jasmine is a bus fan, this diversion brought almost as broad a smile to her face as the close encounter with the hungry duck we'd met earlier. As we'd settled in a vast, deserted field for lunch it had appeared out of the sky to help itself to her sandwich - straight from her hand.

By the last day we were masters of the form and had even started to really cover miles - with Jasmine asleep in the backpack. Much to our surprise, despite her 12kg mass, this was more comfortable to carry than my husband'srucksack.

It was with sadness that we jumped back on the bus to return to the car. Despite my pre-trek fears I'd happily have continued. We'd walked 22 miles, been lucky with the weather, and at the end of each day had arrived at great accommodation to find our bags, including travel cot and baby feeding chair, already stowed in our room. We felt a real sense of achievement.

Give me the facts

How to get there

Sherpa Van (0208-577 2717; www.sherpavan.com) can arrange accommodation from around £23.50 per person with breakfast, depending on the number of people travelling. It also offers tailor-made itineraries, route maps for a variety of walks throughout the UK and daily door-to-door baggage collection, transport and delivery for £6 per pack per day. The service operates from April to October, and bags should not exceed 20kg.

Further information

Travel cot by Littlelife www.littlelife.co.uk

Muddy Puddles Waterproofs (0870 4204950; www.muddypuddles.com).