Take a look through our blog and you’ll see we go hiking with kids a lot, both at home in the Canadian Rocky Mountains, in the United States and around the world. We know from experience what is essential hiking gear for kids and what is a ‘nice to have’.
When hiking with kids, resist the urge to fill your hiking packs with too much kids hiking gear. It can get heavy and chances are good you won’t use a fraction of the hiking gear you bring.
Based on our years of experience hiking as a family, here is our recommended hiking essentials for kids:
Essential Kids Hiking Gear List
We try to limit the amount of gear we bring while hiking with children for two reasons: 1) we don’t like a sore back at the end of the day and 2) we like to teach our kids to be patient and resourceful.
If we need something we didn’t bring, chances are we can find an alternate solution, or we can simply do without – a lesson kids don’t get often enough.
We received some of the products mentioned below on a promotional basis. This post contains compensated links.
Here is our list of kids essential hiking gear:
- Water: The amount of water you bring on a hike depends on how many people are coming, the temperature outside and how hard your hike is. For our family hydration needs, we prefer to carry 1-2 hydration bladders in our day packs as it’s the best way to carry large quantities of water. Plus, kids enjoy drinking from the spout, making it easy to get them to drink.
- Snacks: We prefer to bring a mix of healthy, high energy snacks like peanuts, raisins, healthy(ish) granola bars, fruit and a fun candy treat to reward good effort.
- Sunscreen: Hiking with kids means spending lots of time outdoors, so we need to protection from the sun. We use lotion sunscreen for ourselves and bottles of sunscreen spray for the kids. We prefer the spray sunscreen for kids as it’s fast and easy to use on fidgety kids.
- Swiss Army Knife: a Swiss Army Knife is a versatile tool which is super light and takes up very little space in your day pack.
- First Aid Kit: Kids love to climb, run and explore when hiking; accidents will happen. Hiking first aid kits are compact and carry a surprising amount of essentials.
- Trash bags: As the saying goes, “Leave only footprints”. Taking our trash home with us helps keep nature beautiful for everyone.
- Day Packs: We typically bring one hiking backpack for each of the adults. This allows us to carry the essential hiking gear described above. We like larger hiking bags with 2-3 separate, zippered compartments to keep food away from the rest.
As you can see, our kids essential hiking gear is focused on the basics: food, water and safety. Everything else is optional based on your personal preferences.
Essential Kids Outdoor Clothing
As long as kids are dressed appropriately for the weather and terrain, they can wear pretty much whatever they want while hiking.
Here are the three items we consider essential kids hiking clothes:
- Kids hiking boots: If your kid’s feet hurt, they aren’t going very far. Having a good pair of kids hiking shoes on their feet is essential to a successful day of hiking with your family. We recommend lightweight kids waterproof hiking boots with good grips.
- Sun hats: Ideally a sun hat should cover the ears and neck, although we confess, we often just wear baseball hats.
- Sunglasses: Don’t buy cheap sunglasses for your kids. Make sure everyone in the family is wearing sunglasses with UV protection.
Optional Kids Hiking Clothes
There are many options available to go beyond the essential kids outdoor clothing:
- Kids Hiking Pants: Ok, ok… convertible hiking pants can look tacky on tourists, but they look super cute on kids. Plus, good quality hiking pants for kids are lightweight, quick drying and offer UV protection. Having the option to wear them as pants or shorts gives great flexibility when dealing with variable weather.
- Kids hiking backpack: As a general rule, we try to keep kids hiking packs at home to help keep their energy up. But if the hike is short, or they want to bring a bunch of toys, then we’ll let them wear their own kids hiking bag.
- Kids hiking sandals: When the weather is nice and the trail isn’t too challenging, we all prefer to wear closed-toe hiking sandals on our feet. We enjoy the refreshing feeling of getting air on your feet on a beautiful day. We love our Keen hiking sandals and have been wearing them for over a decade.
- Fleece: Dressing for the always changing weather is always a challenge. Packing a lightweight fleece for everyone is an excellent option to help keep everyone warm in the mornings or when a cold wind blows in unexpectedly.
- Kids Rain Jacket: Hiking in the rain with kids can be a lot of fun, but if there’s a chance of rain, make sure everyone has a lightweight rain jacket. Good quality rain jackets for kids roll up super small.
- Explorer vest: Go to any national park and you’ll see tons of kids proudly wearing explorer vests. They are mesh, lightweight and have tons of pockets for their treasures.
Optional Hiking Gear for Kids
- Camelback for kids: If your kids are old enough to carry their own day pack, then consider having them carry their own water supply with a Camelback backpack for kids.
- Picnic blanket: This is the one piece of outdoor gear we always kick ourselves for forgetting. If your family hiking plans involve eating lunch on the trail, having a dry, clean picnic blanket to sit on is a real luxury.
- Hiking poles: We tried hiking poles once before a trip to Nepal, but to be honest, we didn’t like them. But tons of people swear by them to improve balance and the reduce impact on their knee joints. Kids likely won’t need hiking poles for health reasons, but they may prefer to use them if they see their parents using them.
- Binoculars: Kids love using binoculars, but we’ve found through experience that they stay in the day pack unused over 90% of the time. Bring binoculars if you have a good chance of spotting wildlife, otherwise leave them at home.
- A compass and a paper map: Chances are that we all have a compass and hiking trails apps on our phones. If you are hiking a less popular route, we recommend bringing a compass and paper map. It’s a good chance to teach your kids a fun & valuable survival skill and it’s a good backup in case you drop your phone on a rock or in a creek. (Learn how to use a compass)
- Walkie-talkies: Kids love walkie-talkies and the forest provides great opportunities for kids to run ahead and use them. Make sure you buy a good quality pair as ‘toy’ walkie-talkies are usually junk.
- An insect viewer: We bought our kids a bug viewer while hiking in Shenandoah National Park and they loved it! The kids loved the challenge of capturing bugs, and then they spent hours looking at the bugs through the insect viewer’s magnifying glass. It’s fun and sneakily educational.
- Camera: We enjoy letting our kids take pictures while they are hiking. It’s fun to see what they find important or beautiful enough to take a picture of. We’ve had mixed results with toy kids cameras, but you can always let them use an old cell phone or a shock-proof sports camera.
- Outdoor adventure kit: Smaller kids will enjoy having an outdoor adventure kit. Don’t expect great quality stuff, but it’ll give your kids the tools to start enjoying and learning from nature.
Hiking with a Baby or Toddler
We started hiking with our kids when they were a couple of months old. We carried our kids in a wide variety of children’s hiking carriers as they grew older. Our companion website, Baby Can Travel, has a great post on Best Baby Carriers for Travel, which outlines all the best baby hiking carriers and toddler hiking carriers.
Cold Weather Hiking Gear for Kids
We live near Banff National Park in Canada (eh!), so we often go hiking in cold weather. We have a few favorite items which we recommend for cold weather hiking with kids:
- A merino wool base layer: Wool is a miracle fabric when it comes to cold weather activities. It’s thin, breathable and wicks moisture away from your skin. Most importantly, a wool base layer will keep your kids warm, wet or dry.
- Ella’s Wool tube pants: a perfect companion to a wool base layer are these thicker wool knit pants. Our kids wear Ella’s Wool tube pants all the time during the cold Canadian winters.
- Wool socks: Can you tell we like wool products for winter?? A good pair of wool hiking socks is essential to keeping your kids feet dry and warm during a cold weather hike. Nothing will ruin a winter hike faster than freezing cold feet.
- Ice cleats: Snow covered trails get be pretty icy in spots, so having strap-on ice cleats for your kid’s hiking boots will make hiking easier and safer. If you can’t find spikes small enough, you can also try beginner snowshoes for kids.
Games and Books for Family Hiking Adventures
- Outdoor family scavenger hunt game
- Backpack Explorer: On the Nature Trail: What Will You Find?
- National Geographic Illustrated Guide to Wildlife
- North American Wildlife: An Illustrated Guide to 2,000 Plants and Animals
- The Young Adventurer’s Guide to (Almost) Everything
If you have any questions about this post or travel tips to offer other parents, join us over in our private Facebook group for traveling parents! Join here.