I’ve always enjoyed hiking, getting out on the trail and just putting one foot in front of the other to see where I end up! In my twenties this usually meant staying overnight at a cabin and then heading out for a full day of hiking, followed by quite a few hours recovering over drinks. Now that I have kids, my partner and I are still keen to head out on the trail, and want to share our passion for the great outdoors with our kids. But doing anything with the kids requires a bit more planning.
Preparation is key when going hiking with kids. Small problems that adults might laugh off as a funny annoyance can quickly become nightmares when on the trail with kids. That means that it is best to make sure you have everything you need before heading off.
If you are thinking about longer hikes only with adults, then we also have specific advice for that which you will find quite helpful: What to Bring on a Hike - Short, Medium and Overnight.
Packing List for Hiking With Kids
When hiking with kids, you should have two packing lists. One which covers everything that everyone needs to carry and one with things that only one person needs to carry.
Age Appropriate Hiking Shoes
This can be a difficult pill to swallow when it comes to kids, because good hiking shoes for kids are expensive, and kids grow out of them so quickly! With younger kids, pre-school, you can probably get away with a good pair of sneakers, since they aren’t likely to be carrying much, and you aren’t likely to take them on longer, harder walks. For school age kids, proper hiking boots become more necessary, so it’s the art of balancing quality and cost.
You can go for softer soles than you might for yourself as the kids aren’t likely to be carrying heavy loads, and they’ll also probably want to run and play. But still prioritize ankle support and, unfortunately, a good fit in order to avoid blisters. We have found that KEEN and Merrell are both reliable brands. Check out the Merrell Trail Chaser for younger kids, or the Keen Mid Waterproof for older kids. And don’t forget spare socks so that the kids can change them if their feet get wet, or they start to feel blisters forming.
Individual Water Bottle / Hydration Backpack
Everyone should have their own water bottle, both for easy accessibility, and to teach responsibility. In general an adult needs 2 cups of water per hour of hiking, while kids need 1-2 cups per hour, so make sure you get something big enough, but that won’t weigh anyone down.
When your child is old enough to be able to use one, switch them to a bladder. It is fun, they’ll feel like one of the adults, and it will reduce the risk of spillage, and therefore the need to carry excess emergency water.
If you are looking for a bag for a bladder check out the CamelBak Mini M.U.L.E. for smaller kids, and the Osprey MOKI for older kids. Both hold about 1.5 litres. If that is more than you need, just don’t fill it completely to keep the weight down.
Just like you do yourself, you should dress your child in layers so they can take things off and put things on as the weather changes.
Make sure you include a waterproof jacket in case it rains. While your kids might enjoy this at the time, they won’t enjoy squelching back late in the day. Make sure it is lightweight and folds small to fit into their backpack.
Even in the summer, include a long sleeve shirt in your child’s hiking wardrobe. It offers protection against both the sun and insects as needed.
With everyone carrying their own gear, everyone will need their own backpack, which is an appropriate for the size. No one likes carrying a backpack that stretches over their head and hangs down over the back of their legs.
Kids need a lightweight and versatile backpack to carry all their gear. For older kids, again the Osprey pack for kids is a great choice. For toddlers you can go for something more fun like the Deuter Kikki kids backpack or Deuter Pico kids backpack.
Make sure everyone carries their own snacks on the trail. As well as portable fruits such as apples and bananas, think about trail mix (check out the Happy Belly trail mix from Amazon) or cereal and oatmeal bars.
You might also want everyone to carry their own lunches, such as sandwiches, or you may prefer to carry this together in your larger adult’s backpack.
A whistle is an important piece of safety equipment as it can be hard to find people in the woods by voice alone. While you may instruct your children to always stay in sight, or stop at every trail point if they are older and walking ahead, the unexpected happens, so a whistle is essential.
The sound of a whistle travels further than that of a human voice, and small lungs will be able to use a whistle for longer then they will be able to shout for you.
For the Group
Personal Water Filter
You can never be sure that you are carrying enough water, especially with kids that can be prone to dropping or spilling, so bring a water filter for emergencies. Check out this personal filter from LifeStraw.
While knives and kids don’t always go well together, you should always have a knife while hiking, for tasks such as opening food packets, cutting cords, making a spark for fire, splitting wood and so forth. If you are hiking with older kids and are planning to teach them to use the knife, a fixed blade is easier for them to handle. The Leatherman Leap can be a good choice for teaching kids as they will enjoy the multipurpose element and it is designed for small hands. Whatever knife you choose, make sure you can store it securely and where your kids won’t accidentally get their hands on it.
You just never know what you might need this for, something serious like towing a car, repelling down a mountain or making a splint, or the more mundane such as replacing a broken bootlace, tying a trash bag to a tree or even fun and games.
You might be tempted to think you need a flashlight for everyone, but when hiking with kids you shouldn’t be planning to be out after dark. And you should always know how long your hike will take so you don’t get caught out. Camping is a different story and everyone should definitely have their own light, preferable a head torch which enables them to use it hands free.
Toilet Paper and Shovel
This is a great opportunity to teach your kids about leaving nature the way that they found it, but they don’t all need to carry their own toilet supplies. Remember to avoid using wet wipes as these aren’t very biodegradable.
Sun Protection and Insect Repellent
Again, while everyone in the group will need to use protection, you don’t need to weigh everyone down. Make sure you have appropriate products for every age and skin type. Instead of insect repellent, try giving everyone an insect repellent bracelet, they work very well and removes one stress from the day. We currently like this bracelet from Itcheless, but this cheaper SelpHBalance bracelet also works well.
First Aid Kit and Waterproof Matches
While you should always carry a first aid kit while hiking, remember that you may need a few extra things when hiking with kids such as kid size and friendly bandages and anti-itch cream (kids don’t have the same kind of self-control). You might also like to read our advice on first aid for different types of locations.
Hiking with Babies
Hiking with babies is more about gear for you than your child, as you will be doing the heavy lifting. As well as everything you always need to bring when you take your baby out and about, you’ll need a carrier for your baby.
Carriers are only appropriate of babies of 6 months or more. Young babies should be swaddled and carried on your front. Your baby should be at least 16 lbs and have full head and neck control to travel in a carrier. Check with your doctor if you aren’t sure.
Features you should be looking for in your carrier:
- A suspension system that enables you to secure the carrier to your body easily and comfortably and that is easily adjustable if you will be sharing the carrying duties.
- Kickstand to create a stable base when loading and unloading your child.
- Gear storage capacity, including removable day bag for diapers etc.
- Diaper changing pad.
- Removable rain/sun hood for protection.
- Removable bug netting.
These last two items are often sold separately.
Make sure that the weight you are carrying, with your baby and all your gear doesn’t exceed more than 50 lbs. Also, considering the weight you’ll be carrying, make sure you have proper hiking boots to protect your feet and ankles. Remember, this kind of carrier is only appropriate for activities such as hiking, not for more intense activities such as skiing or climbing.
On the Trail with Kids
Once you have prepared everything you need, it’s time to head out on the trail. The trip itself will always be full of unexpected surprises, mostly joyful, such as an interesting bug find or learning something new about your child and their interests. However, to try and avoid some of the less pleasant surprises, here are a few tips to bear in mind:
Have realistic expectation about how far you think you will be able to hike with your child and their little legs. Bear in mind that your child may also hurt themselves, or for some reason simply refuse to walk any further, and you may need to carry them the rest of the way. Know how long your hike will take, and be realistic with what you child can accomplish. You may be pleasantly surprised, and be able to plan something more challenging next time.
Plan multiple stops at safe, fun places where you kid can explore. Kids often struggle to stay focussed on goals like reaching a certain location by lunchtime, so spread fun activities throughout the day. Consider bringing some portable, lightweight games with you as well, for the unlikely event that the kids don’t manage to entertain themselves.
While it is great to have a loop hike with kids, so that you don’t need to go back on yourself and you are never too far from base camp, it is a good to have a destination, such as a waterfall or a swimming hole, for the kids to look forward to.
Pay attention to the weather. If rain (or worse) threatens, think about cancelling your hike. Not only will your kids be miserable, but it makes the trail more treacherous for little feet.