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Day hiking with kids is such a rewarding experience, and a lot of fun, but preparation is a big part of making sure the hike goes smoothly. It can be the difference between “Let’s go again!” and “We never should have gone.” We’ve hiked with our kids for 14 years, and here are some of our favorite day hiking gear for families that we are sure to pack for every short day hike.
I’m organizing our packing lists by age…toddler, school-aged kids, teens, and adults. I will also explain why I’ve chosen each item and how we came to love each hiking essential. Day hiking gear for kids doesn’t have to be expensive or fancy, but it has to work!
Day hiking gear for toddlers – what to pack for ages 1-5
Toddlers can’t carry much, of course, but they can carry some basic essentials if they want to wear a small backpack.
- Child-sized backpack – a backpack sized for toddlers will ensure they don’t carry too much, that it will be comfortable for them, and hopefully that you won’t end up wearing it yourself. We love the small size and bright colors of Skip Hop back packs. These are perfectly fitted for children ages 2-6.
- A few snacks – applesauce pouches are nice because they won’t crush. But we often pack granola bars or bags of Cheerios as well. Whatever your child likes and will find motivating (as in, hike to that big tree and we can stop for a snack!)
- Good quality shoes with tread – finding actual hiking shoes for toddlers is surprisingly difficult. We like Stride Rite high top boots for our toddlers. The high top protects their ankles and usually they have pretty good tread for gripping the trail. We’ve also found Stride Rite to hold up well…they’re meant to be used, not just look cute. Carters also has some nice boots that work well, but they don’t hold up as well in my experience.
- Bouncy ball – nothing motivates a kiddo to hike a little further like chasing a bright bouncy ball
- Sun Hat – for my toddlers, I absolutely love My Swim Baby hats. They fit great and have a tie under the chin. These live in our van year round for sunny hikes, beach days, or walks through the snow.
- Frame Pack Carrier or Toddler Soft-Structured Carrier – Consider carrying an empty carrier in case your kiddo can’t hike the entire distance. We often do this, so in many of our photos you’ll see my husband with an empty frame pack. But sooner or later, one of our little ones needs to use it. My husband prefers the Deuter Kid Comfort II frame pack, and I love the Toddler Tula, a soft-structured carrier.
Day hiking gear for school-aged kids – what to pack for ages 6-12
- Youth-sized hydration pack – We love the Camelbak, partly because they’re easy to find and also easy to buy spare parts for (are my kids the only ones who constantly bite through their bite valves? Apparently not!). I also love them because they’re just the right size for our kids to wear. And they each include a couple of pockets for snacks, cell phone, etc. My big kids, ages 6, 9, and 14, all have one now. One of my kids even fills his with ice. There’s no insulation, and I think on a hot day it could condensate down his back, but it makes him happier to have cold water. Also, one great feature is that every Camelbak hydration pack has an emergency whistle built into the chest buckle. We’ve shown our kids how to use them, and talked about when to use a whistle.
- Extra Valves – for the aforementioned biting through the valve. We don’t need to replace them every hike, but we need them often enough that I keep a package on hand. They aren’t expensive, and come in packs of 4, each a different color so you can color code the bite valves. More on this later! There’s a cheaper option, too, for an off-brand bite valve that includes more colors.
- Sun Hat – my 9-year-old prefers baseball hats, but the sun still burns his bare neck, so I try to convince him to wear a hat with a brim. He outgrew his old hat, so we’ll be on the hunt this year for a new, “cool” sun hat!
- Snacks – Everyone loves snacks, it’s a fact.
- Good shoes – so, good shoes kind of goes without saying, some trails you really don’t want to attempt in flip flops. But by school age, I don’t usually buy hiking shoes. Their sneakers are fine, and sturdy close-toe sandals work great too. Whatever fits well and will be comfortable. I don’t recommend Crocs as they can rub blisters if their feet get sweaty.
Day hiking gear for teens – what to pack for ages 13+
My teen packs for herself now, but she’s been through the routine so many times, she knows exactly what to pack.
- Hydration pack – We don’t actually use these on every hike, but anything longer than a mile, my kids prefer these to a water bottle. And so do I, because I usually end up carrying 8 water bottles and that’s a drag. Literally. So add a Camelbak hydration pack to your Amazon wish list, or their Christmas list, and make the investment. I wish we’d bought them earlier.
- Water bottle – If your teen doesn’t like carrying a hydration pack (my daughter doesn’t always) then a water bottle is a must-have item. There are a zillion water bottles, but after 14 years of hiking with our kids, we’ve come to really adore the Yeti containers. They really are built for everything. We’ve had them roll down hills, be thrown from bridges into creeks, and fall out of the van without denting or scratching. Even the colored water bottles are dishwasher-safe (a MUST for busy families!). I used to think they were just hype, but they live up to it. We now own several, our teen’s favorites are the 18-ounce Ramblers. She even asked for one for Christmas, in her favorite color, which she now uses for school. She says it’s the first water bottle ever that can handle middle school. High praise, indeed!
- Sun hat – We’re blessed that our daughter still acquiesces to wear the pink sun hat we bought when she was about 7 years old. But honestly, it’s a great hat. Adjustable, washable, and it works well. Find one your kid will wear, and you’re gold. Hers is a Sloggers Classic Cotton Hat, but anything they’ll wear will work fine.
- Shoes – always shoes, but I don’t fight battles over shoes with this age. If she wants to wear flip flops, I let her. But my teen learned quickly that sneakers are much better for hiking. This year, I’d like to buy her some waterproof hiking shoes, but we haven’t done it yet.
- Snacks – always and forever on the list! Granola bars and fruit snacks are popular options.
Hiking gear for adults – what to pack when you have kids
Who are we kidding? We’ll mostly be carrying children! But with a little ingenuity, you can still carry a few other things, too.
- Frame Pack Carrier or Soft-Structured Carrier – My husband prefers the Deuter Kid Comfort II frame pack, which has very roomy pockets under the seat and extra pockets pretty much all over. Unfortunately for him, this means he also ends up carrying whatever anyone else discards: jackets, water bottles, trash. Sometimes rocks and sticks if the kids sneak them in. I love the Tula soft-structured carriers, and I have them in both the standard size for babies and the toddler size. These have just one tiny pocket on the waistband, enough for my phone but that’s about it.
- Sun hat – yep, again with the sun hats. They’re important, ya’ll! Hiking is much more fun without the sun directly in your eyes. We went to REI and tried on a bunch till we both found one we liked. Amazon also has a gigantic selection. Look for a hat that’s washable (even if it can’t be dried, and many can’t since they’re usually cotton and could shrink), one that has a flexible-but-not-floppy brim, and that ideally has some form of ventilation holes. It doesn’t have to be fancy to be functional.
- Hiking shoes or boots – we sometimes do just wear sneakers, but I highly prefer my waterproof Keen hiking shoes, and my husband buys a new pair of Timberland hiking boots every few years. I like hiking shoes (as opposed to boots) because of the freedom of movement. They feel more like a sneaker to me, and I think they look better with shorts (not that I’m very fashion conscious, but I do have my lines in the sand). My husband lives in his Timberlands, and he’s worn a pair for as long as I’ve known him, more than 20 years now. He likes the way they hold up, and says their rugged durability means he’s ready to go anywhere, anytime. We both prefer waterproof because anytime there’s water nearby, having to fish a kid out of it is pretty much inevitable. It’s nice not having to hike in wet socks.
- Backpack – if you’re not carrying a kiddo, then you’ll probably need a backpack. I’d love to say I use a fancy hiking backpack by a big name brand, but I don’t. Actually, I still use my college backpack from 1998. It’s a Jansport, with a leather bottom and roomy pockets, and it still rocks. Does it make me sweaty? Heck yeah! Does it have an internal frame support system and an ergonomic waist belt? Heck no! But it works just fine, so why change it up? (But if you’re from a big name brand company, and you’d like me to try your fancy hiking backpack, I’m all in. Contact me! Joking, of course. Kind of. Call me.)
- Water bottle – I’ve already waxed poetic about Yeti, and I’m a huge fan. I carry the 18-ounce Rambler on hikes, but we also have a 64-ounce behemoth Rambler that lives in our van to refill water bottles. Having a half gallon of clean water all the time is just good planning. Yes, it’s expensive, but once you’ve used it a few times you’ll wonder how you ever drove around without one.
Extra Tips for Day Hiking with Kids
- Camelbak Bladders – to keep them from getting gross, put them in the freezer between hikes! I drain them, and shake out the hoses, but otherwise all I do is freeze them. We have room in our deep freeze, but they also stack pretty small for a standard kitchen freezer.
- Pack extra clothing for toddlers to leave in your car. They always seem to find mud or water, and having extra clothing, including socks and shoes, makes a more comfortable trip home.
- Use wet bags (like for cloth diapering) to bag up the wet stuff. Perfect for soiled diapers, wet clothing, muddy shoes, etc.