Mom Goes Camping

What to Bring When Hiking with Kids

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen people hiking with kids in flip-flops or without basic provisions like a rain jacket.  While you probably aren’t going to die or even get injured without “professional” gear, there are definitely some things you should always bring while hiking.  


Do I Really Need All This Gear When Hiking with Kids? It’s Only Going to Be a Short Hike…

I am a minimalist and try to bring as little stuff as possible when outdoors.  In general, more stuff = more stress.  Since I’m the one carrying it all (my daughter and I hike alone), I also want to go minimal so my back doesn’t hurt like hell.

But hiking with kids is not the time to skip on crucial gear.  Even if you think it will be an easy hike, bad things can happen.

  • The weather might suddenly change for the worse.
  • The hike might take much longer than anticipated.
  • You could get lost and end up having to spend the night in the wilderness.
  • You or your child may get injured, meaning you need to perform emergency first aid or wait to be rescued…

This actually happens a lot more than you’d think. Just ask Mountain Rescue.  Day hikers actually have to get rescued the most (even more than overnight backpackers) because they often go out unprepared thinking it will “just be a quick trip.”

In addition to the whole responsibility thing (being an adult is so much fun, eh?), you will enjoy hiking with kids more if you have the right gear.  The kids will whine less.  They will hike faster.  And you will be less likely to end up carrying them down the mountain.  So pack all of this gear!


What to Bring When Hiking with Kids

1. Good Hiking Shoes

Ideally, everyone should wear boots when hiking. Boots are best when it comes to preventing sprains.  They provide protection against snake bites. Since kids aren’t very careful about watching where they step, having hiking boots can spare them from getting drenched feet when they accidentally jump in a puddle.

However, my kids often hike in sneakers.  It’s easier for little kids to run in sneakers (and thus they are less likely to fall).  I also don’t like shelling out a lot of money for new boots each season. 


2. Water Bottle/Water

Ideally, your kids each have a small backpack which contains their own water bottle.  The reason?  If they get separated from you, then they will still have water to drink.  You can go 3 weeks without food but only 3 days without water!

How much water to bring on your hike if you can’t refill along the way?  The general rule is this:

  • Adults: 2 cups of water for every 1 hour of hiking
  • Children: 1-2 cups of water for every hour of hiking

I like to err on the side of caution and bring 2 cups/hour for my child.  Plus, there is always the risk that your kids will knock over the water bottle and spill some 😮 .  Drinking from a water bladder might be better for kids than a standard Nalgene-style water bottle for this reason.

Read this post about How to Calculate How Much Water to Bring on a Hike.

platypus hydration pack

This water bladder by Platypus can take a beating, can be used hands-free, and your kids can’t knock it over and spill all your precious water!


3. Rain Jacket

But the forecast says it will be sunny, you say?  The weather can change very quickly while hiking – especially in the mountains.  Getting wet = cold.  So make sure you have a rain jacket with you.


4. Appropriate Clothes, Worn in Layers

Layering allows you to adjust your body temperature easily as you hike.


5. Hat with a Brim

This is great for keeping the sun out of your eyes.  It also keeps rain out of your eyes in bad weather.


6. A Whistle

You need this in case you get lost.  A lot of backpacks have whistles built into the straps now.

Osprey hikelite 26

The Osprey HikeLite is one of the most popular daypacks for hiking. It has a whistle built into the sternum strap. You can buy it here.


7. Snacks. LOTS and LOTS of Snacks!

Even if you think you will only be gone on a short trip, bring loads of snacks.  Kids get cranky quickly if they don’t have snacks.  And, again, if you were to get lost, you’ll be happy for that sustenance.

Tip: Let your kids pick out their own hiking snacks.  You should probably also give them their own snack bags too.  Otherwise they will eat all the good stuff out of the trail mix bag, leaving you with nothing but the boring stuff.


8. Headlamp

If you get lost or the hike ends up taking a lot longer than anticipated (read Calculate How Long It Will Take to Complete a Hike), then you could get stuck outdoors in the night.  You will each need a headlamp for hiking back home in the dark. Here are some headlamp recommendations.


9. Backpack

In the ideal world, each person would have their own backpack with essential gear in it.  That way, if you get separated, everyone still has important gear.  Realistically though, I always end up carrying my daughter’s backpack.  Since I don’t want to carry two backpacks while hiking, I only bring one on our day hikes.

However, kids do feel “cool” when they have their own little pack with gear.  So, if you can convince them to keep the pack on through the hike (don’t give in like I do!!!!), then get them their own pack.

Osprey Youth hiking backpack

Osprey also makes this youth hiking backpack in 12 and 18 liter sizes. It has nice features like a sternum strap whistle, side pockets for water bottles, and lots of pockets. You can buy it here.


10. Water Filter

A water filter means you can safely drink water from backcountry lakes, streams, creeks, and even puddles (if it comes to it).  This is great because then you don’t have to bring as much water with you on the hike.  Considering that a liter of water weighs 2.2lbs, this is a huge benefit.  I use the Sawyer Mini water filter.

using sawyer mini

Making a stop to refill our water bottles using our Sawyer Mini camping filter –Buy It Here


11. Mini First Aid Kit

Bad things sometimes happen, no matter how careful you are.  So be prepared by packing a first aid kit while hiking with kids. Here is a checklist of my mini first aid kit.  If you don’t mind carrying extra things and like to be very prepared, here’s my full travel first aid kit checklist.


12. Toilet Paper and Shovel

This is how you go to the bathroom in the woods when there is no outhouse on the trail.  Don’t be a jerk and leave your nasty TP on the trail!


13. Lighter and/or Waterproof Matches

The ability to make a fire is crucial for survival.  If you end up spending an unplanned night in the woods, you’ll be glad you brought a lighter.


14. Knife

A knife is your ultimate survival tool.  You can use it  for things like cutting a bandage, making a shelter, digging, or foraging for food. Here are some awesome knives which cost less than $70.


15. Rope

Rope is another one of those survival items you should take hiking. Admittedly, it most often gets used for things like tying my daughter’s stuffed animals onto a pack so it can still “see” while we hike.  It is also good for things like broken bootlaces.


16. Sun Protection and Insect Repellent 

Bring the whole damn bottle with you while hiking with kids.  Even if you slathered up before setting off on the hike.  You will all sweat and need to reapply.  Or your kid will fall into a creek and you’ll need to reapply. 🙂


17. GPS and/or Map and Compass

I personally don’t rely on a GPS. If the batteries die, then you will be left without a way to navigate.  For me, a map (in a waterproof plastic cover) is much more reliable.  Of course, this is contingent on knowing how to read a map!  On another note, it’s great to bring a paper map instead of just a GPS while hiking with kids because they have fun reading it and will learn a valuable skill.


18. Bags for Trash

You will end up with some trash.  Don’t try to stuff your trash (like granola bar wrappers) into your pack.  They might fall out and then you’ll be the jerk who littered on the trail.  A few plastic bags for trash are absolutely necessary.


19. Child Carrier Backpack

If you are hiking with very little kids, you’ll probably end up carrying them for at least part of the hike.  You’ll want to bring a child carrier backpack.  Or, if the trail is accessible, a hiking stroller.



Optional Gear for Hiking with Kids 

  • Camera
  • Field guide
  • Lightweight toy/s
  • Walking stick/trekking poles
  • Extra socks
  • Pencil and notebook
  • Binoculars
  • Notebook and pen
  • Extra food
  • Backpacking stove (read about the options here)
  • Utensils for eating the food
  • Wet wipes (pack them out — they take up to 100 years to decompose!)
  • Quick-dry towel
  • Emergency blanket
  • Emergency communication device (don’t count on your cell phone working)
  • Specimen collection cups (for all the nature stuff your kids will inevitably want to bring home — like the time we brought a dead mole home for our bone collection)
kid with binoculars hiking in backcountry

Kids love taking binoculars hiking, even if they are just a cheap toy pair

Image credits:
A Day at the Briar Patch” (CC BY-NC 2.0) by  Chiot’s Run
Table Rocks Environmental Education” (CC BY 2.0) by  BLMOregon 

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About the author /

Diane Vukovic grew up camping and backpacking in upstate New York. Now, she takes her own daughters on wilderness adventures so they can connect with nature and learn resiliency. With dozens of trips under her belt, Diane is an expert in minimalist camping, going lightweight, planning, and keeping her kids entertained without screens.

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