10 Essentials for Hiking with Kids
I’ve led many family and adult hikes, and I almost always get asked the question “What should I bring with me?”. Regardless of whether you’re just starting out or you’re a seasoned pro at hiking, this question has likely crossed your mind at some point.
While the contents of your backpack will rely heavily on who you are hiking with and how long you plan to adventure, there are some items that experts recommend you keep in your pack to be prepared for the unexpected.
Below is a list of what is considered the “10 Essentials” along with some extra items I recommend bringing along just in case. And don’t worry, most of the items listed are very compact and packable so you won’t feel like you’re packing for a trek up Mount Everest every time you hit the trail!
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Choosing a Hiking Backpack
Before we get into what you should include in your backpack, it’s worth a short discussion on choosing a pack that fits your family’s needs. Shopping for a hiking backpack can be overwhelming with so many to choose from. The one you choose relies largely on personal preference, but a few things to consider are the size of the pack and extra features you find important.
For example, I prefer a pack that is compatible with a hydration system so that I can easily slip a water bladder in and have the hose handy whenever I need a drink. I also look for adult and kid packs that have a built-in whistle on the chest strap so it’s easily accessible in case of emergencies.
I highly recommend visiting a local retailer that sells a variety of packs (such as REI) to compare features and choose what works best for your family.
Check out this guide from REI for choosing an adult day hiking backpack or an adult backpacking pack. For quality kid hiking backpacks, check out our full roundup of the best hiking backpacks for kids.
The 10 Essentials of Hiking Gear
1. Navigation Tools for Hiking
With today’s technology, it may be tempting to rely solely on your phone’s GPS functions and apps such as Gaia and AllTrails to find your way on the trail. However, it’s always good to have backup navigation tools in case you lose signal or battery power.
Carrying a map with your planned route marked along with a compass not only provides peace of mind, but also serves as a learning tool to teach kids how to find their way without technology.
Check out this article from REI on map and compass navigation basics.
Bonus tip: The compass can also serve as a distraction for those littles who like to claim they are “bored” on the trail.
2. Bring a Light Hiking
I prefer a headlamp (such as these options from REI) to provide a hands-free light source (which is generally essential as a parent of rambunctious little ones), but a flashlight can cast a powerful beam as well. To prevent the dreaded light outage halfway through your dark adventure, keep some extra batteries in your pack.
3. First Aid Kit
You can either purchase one of the many ready-made kits on the market or opt to make your own kit to suit the needs of your family. I regularly use both depending on the type of adventure we have planned. Pre-made kits (such as the various options available from Adventure Medical Kits) can take the guesswork out of deciding what items to include in your kit, and personalized items (such as medications) are easy to add yourself.
However, they can be a bit big and bulky to carry if you have a short trail hike in mind. I like to carry small homemade kits with us for short outdoor excursions. Check out this article for more information on choosing (and making) a kit for your family.
4. Sun Protection
Regardless of the season, sun protection for both the eyes and skin is a necessity. Look for sunglasses or goggles that fully block both UVA and UVB rays along with sunscreen for all exposed skin with an SPF rating of at least 15.
And don’t forget your lips! If you have ever had a child with sunburned lips, you know that the healing process is not a happy time! Consider UPF-rated sun clothing for the warmer months when layers are not needed and top it off with a quality sun hat. Check out our article on the best sun hats for your kiddos.
5. Insulating Layers
No matter how many times you check the weather before your hike, Mother Nature tends to have a mind of her own. You can stay prepared by including an extra layer of clothing such as a packable synthetic mid-layer jacket (I love this option from Mountain Hardware) and an insulating hat and gloves.
It’s like my mom always said when sending me off to the bus stop in winter: “It’s easier to remove layers if you get warm than add ones you didn’t bring if you get cold!”
You may be surprised how often you use a knife or multitool on the trail. They are useful for everything from food prep, making kindling, first-aid, and other emergency situations. Last week I used our knife to cut open a snack bag that just would NOT open, which saved us all from the inevitable whining meltdown from a hangry toddler. Check out the plethora of options from REI, from the traditional Swiss Army Knife to the more specialized hiking and camping knives.
7. Fire Supplies
While a small lighter is the most convenient, waterproof matches (or matches stored in a waterproof container) are also good to have as a backup. In addition, you will need a Firestarter that ignites quickly and sustains heat such as small candles, tinder, or lint trappings.
8. Emergency Shelter
If you happen to get stranded or find yourself in some unexpected weather conditions, you will need a safe, dry place to hunker down. Thankfully, there are various ultralight options available such as space blankets, tarps, or even a large plastic trash bag. I bought a few of these super affordable SOL Emergency Blankets and and keep one in each of our hiking backpacks.
9. Extra Water
I recommend always carrying more water than you think you will need, especially when adventuring in the warmer months. It’s also a good idea to bring along a simple way to purify water on longer treks, such as a small purifier (like this Lifestraw) or water purification tablets (such as these from Katadyn).
10. Extra Food
If you are going on a longer family trek (or have ravenous children), it’s a good idea to include at least an extra days’ worth of food. This can include energy bars, nuts, jerky, vacuum-sealed meals, etc. Check out our article on kid-friendly trail snacks for some great options the whole family will enjoy.
Other Items to Consider
In addition to the 10 essentials, I recommend keeping the following items in mind as you plan your family’s next outdoor adventure. While these items are not considered essential, they have all come in handy for me at one point or another:
1. Duct Tape
I almost always carry duct tape with me, whether in my hiking pack, in my car, and even in my stroller. I have used it to reattach the sole of my hiking boot when I was miles from my car. I used it to reattach my car bumper when I got rear-ended and needed to move my car to safety. I have even used it to temporarily repair a hole in my stroller’s sunshade. My kids call it “magic tape” because I use it for so many things. You can make it extra packable by wrapping long strips around a popsicle stick or even around your hiking poles.
2. Trekking Poles
Whether you are carrying a child on your back or traversing across rocky or slick terrain, trekking poles can come in handy for both balance and stability. Many options on the market (such as these from black diamond that I have used for years) are collapsible and can easily attach to your hiking pack. You can also find kid-sized poles for your little hikers, or make a game out of finding walking sticks along the trail to use for stability.
3. Insect/Animal Repellent
This item will greatly depend on your location. For example, while living in both Southern Georgia and Upstate New York, I learned that having insect repellent on hand could mean the difference between a comfortable hike and a miserable bite-infested nightmare (not to mention the fact that bites from pests such as mosquitos and ticks can result in severe reactions). In Washington state, I learned that it is wise to carry bear spray as a precaution and use a bear bell to make your presence known.
4. Portable Charging Device
For longer family treks and camping trips, a portable charging device can come in handy to keep your phone and other devices charged. Thankfully these devices have become much more compact and there are various ultralight options available, such as this charger from BioLite.
If you have ever wandered a little too far from the trail to find the perfect coverage for your potty break, you know that the trek back can be a bit stressful if you get turned around. Instead of making yourself hoarse from yelling to your hiking companions, having a whistle on hand can make things a little less complicated. Not to mention using it to signal for help if you get into a pickle!
6. Toilet Paper or Cloth Wipes
Whether you experience runny noses, “potty” emergencies, or muddy faces, having toilet paper or cloth wipes (such as the “pee cloth”) can keep everyone comfortable on the trail. Just don’t forget to pack it out with you (see next item)!
7. Extra Bags
I always keep an extra bag in our pack, and we almost always use it. I like having a “dirtbag” (I have this one from Deuter) so we can pack out our trash (along with any we find on the trail) along with a “wet bag” to keep wet diapers, wet gear, etc. While I prefer to use eco-friendly bags since they can be washed and reused, plastic bags work as well if that is what you have on hand!
Pack Once and Replenish as Needed
While this list may seem a bit daunting, many of these items can stay in your backpack and be replenished as needed. Taking the time to pack these items can provide the satisfaction of knowing that you will be more prepared for the unexpected (and with kids, there tends to be a LOT of unexpected events) when you set out on your next trail adventure.
What to pack for a family hike
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