Enjoying your time on a hike requires preparation. It also means lugging a few extra items than you would like (including carrying the kids as needed!). However, there is a balance between being prepared and carrying your entire house on your back, so if you’re wondering what to pack for a hike with kids, here’s a peek at what’s in my backpack before I hit the trails with my kids.
I’ve listed my suggestions of what you really need to pack (and leave the rest at home!). For your reference, I linked the actual products we use in case you are curious, want a trusted product, or just want a shopping list made for you—yes, I even linked my favorite trail snacks!
What to pack for a hike – Let’s Get Packing!
We continually keep our backpack packed so it’s ready to go for the next adventure. When I am scrambling to get the kids dressed and out of the door so we can beat the trail crowds, the last thing I want to be doing is also grabbing last minute items to pack in the backpack. Therefore, I recommend having a second “backpack set” of most of these items or be diligent to pack the night before.
See my free printable at the end of this post if you are a “lists person” like me, and want the gratification of checking items off of the list before you go. You can laminate these free printables for multiple uses and even involve the kids in packing!
Before you start packing, the backpack itself is an important consideration for your hikes. We either pack in our daypack or in the storage compartment of our Osprey Poco kid carrier. We are *almost* out of the Poco stage, but we still find it helpful if there is a chance that both of our kids may need to be carried at the same time because we can pack a soft carrier (my favorites in this category are the Beco, the Kinderpack, and the Trail Magik carrier) inside the Poco along with our other gear. Either way, we try to keep everything we need for our family of four in one pack so that the other back either gets a break, or has a free back to carry a child. We’ve gone through all of the pack phases—one in front carrier, one on back carrier, one in soft carrier while the other is in hard carrier, both in hard carriers, and (soon!) neither in carriers.
For our daypack requirements on what to pack when hiking with kids, we prefer a smaller pack because I am in the mindset that the larger the backpack, the more you will bring. So we chose the Osprey Daylight Plus (now the Packlite) because it’s light, has breathable mesh straps, has a large compartment with an interior sleeve to put the backup items you don’t need to access regularly (like extra clothes, etc.), has a decent size front pouch for items you want to access easily, a front panel that comes in handy for shoving jackets and layers when it gets hot or for clipping hats, and has a waist and chest strap for comfort. The only downside is the side pockets aren’t large enough for water bottles, but they do come in handy for stashing gloves, extra trash, etc. Read below on water if you prefer to carry a hydration bladder as this backpack can accommodate that as well. For winter hikes, or if you want to have more space (or you have more kids!), I recommend the REI Traverse 32. It feels HUGE compared to the smaller Osprey but it’s light on it’s own and it can fit everything you need with great pocket options!
What to Pack for a hike – what’s in the Backpack?
When deciding what to pack when hiking with kids, there is an important tradeoff in being prepared and carrying unnecessary weight. If you are able to bring one set (instead of one for each child) for certain “just in case” items, that helps. Alternatively, you can keep a pack for shorter local hikes within cell range and close to civilization and another for longer, more remote hikes where you may need a few more emergency items. The list below is an example of what we would pack for what we would classify a “longer hike,” where we would start in the morning and get back in the afternoon. This is important to note because weather can shift (especially in Colorado!), so that’s a consideration when making my hiking checklist.
What to pack for a hike – The Hiking Checklist
Admittedly, this is usually the heaviest portion of our packs when hiking with kids (besides water), but a very important element that I do not recommend skimping on. Luckily, my husband and I aren’t big snackers on the trail, so we primarily focus on kid snacks. Our go-to snacks for the trail include:
- Dried fruit bars or fruit leather
- Fruit snacks
- Easy to peel oranges
- Almond butter packets
- Bagel sandwiches
- Turkey jerky or beef sticks, like CHOMPS
- Granola bars or protein bars (Zbars are the kids’ favorites currently and I prefer Larabars or RxBars)
- Cheese sticks
- Special treats for bribes like – gummy bears, Skittles, or lollipops
- Loaded trail mix with nuts and chocolate (this one’s for Mommy!)
Water is life! Be sure to bring plenty of water when hiking with kids as dehydration can be serious and water helps to maintain everyone’s energy levels. I know a lot of hikers who swear by their water bladders, but I prefer a water bottle for ease of cleaning and reliability. It does add some weight, but I am one of those picky “I only drink sparkling water, or water from a straw, and preferably ice cold” types of water drinkers, so the extra water bottle weight is worth it for me. I know, I know, high maintenance! My favorite water bottle is the 32 ounce Thermoflask. We also bring a Nalgene for lightweight simplicity for the rest of the lower maintenance water drinkers in my family. For the kids, they each have a smaller Kid’s Thermoflask that can fit into the side pockets of our backpack. As mentioned, if you prefer the bladder, the backpack I recommend will fit up to 3 liter bladder in the hydration reservoir!
3) Warm Hats & Gloves
Unless you are hiking in the summer in the desert or very warm areas, I recommend a warm hat and gloves all year long. Sometimes summits or portions of our hikes can be extremely windy and having cold kids is a recipe for disaster. The few times we have bailed on hikes has been primarily due to wind and not being prepared for cold weather, so having extra warm clothesis worth the weight for me. When my kids were younger, I was more particular about the type of hat they wore (to keep it on their heads), so I recommend one with Velcro like this. My favorite warm waterproof gloves for kids are SnowStoppers, but for non-winter hikes any mittens or gloves that they will keep on will do!
4) Extra Socks
Wet feet are prone to blistering and other dangerous side effects, so keeping everyone dry should be a priority. If you feel pretty confident that it will not be a cold hike and you decide to ditch the pair of gloves in your back, then I recommend you bring the extra pair of socks that can double as mittens. My favorite hiking socks are Smartwool, plus I am also a sucker for their hats! If you are prone to blisters, breaking in new shoes, or going on longer hikes, Wrightsocks are awesome because they are double layered, which helps prevent hotspots and blisters. I even like to wear a second layer of Wright socks. Here’s a throwback of us drying our socks over the fire on a backpacking trip we took in the Wind Rivers in Wyoming while I was pregnant with Emerson. Roasted socks anyone? And an example of my kiddos wearing socks as gloves on our first trip to Rocky Mountain National Park because we were not prepared for the Colorado wind!
Depending on the weather and location, you will want to bring either a light layer jacket, a rain jacket, a windbreaker, or a puffy jacket. I usually will start with the kids’ warm jackets on if we are starting the hike early, and then take them off as they get warm. But if they are not starting in a jacket, I always pack one—even if the forecast doesn’t call for cold weather. Again, cold kids can ruin a trip, so I like to err on the side of being over-prepared when it comes to warm clothes. We are a hand-me-down jacket kind of family, but some of our kid favorites have been from Columbia. My personal go-to jacket for most weather is my Eddie Bauer puffy. It’s super versatile and packs light. I can’t think of many times I leave home without it.
6) Extra clothes
We keep one extra set of gender-neutral clothes, assuming that both kids won’t need them on the same hike. This is a risk, of course, but (knock on wood) so far so good.
7) Sunhat & Sunglasses
These were my favorite sunglasses when my kids were little because they actually stay on! Now I let them wear “real sunglasses” and honestly they rarely keep them on, but I don’t push it unless we are hiking in the snow and it’s very bright. For sunhats, I recommend something with UV protection and full coverage like the i play hats. Now they get to be cute and stylish with snapback trucker hats that we clip to the outside of our backpack.
8) CHARGED PHONE & IDs
There is nothing to buy on the trail, so I recommend leaving your wallet at home and only carrying your ID in case of an emergency. A charged phone is important and keep an eye on battery power while on the hike as maps and extreme weather can drain your phone’s battery. If you are a heavy phone user on the trail (for pictures, mapping devices, etc.), I recommend adding a solar battery charger to your packing list.
9) Hiking Map & Driving Directions
A lot of the trails we visit have poor or limited cell service, so don’t count on having your map load at the trailhead or route you as you get close. We are old school and prefer paper maps for most of our hikes (besides the local ones), but there are plenty of apps like AllTrails that have capabilities to download maps in advance.
A headlamp is a precautionary extra that we always carry for longer hikes in case we take longer than planned to get down and get stuck in the dark. Or for those times we are extra ambitious and hit the trails before sunrise!
11) Hand Sanitizer
We have one like this always clipped on the outside of our backpack. This was a pre-COVID staple that is even more of a necessity right now.
12) Wet wipes
These come in handy for trailside potty breaks, as well as for cleaning up peanut butter and jelly hands and faces.
13) Doggy poop bags
A small pack of tissues is light and takes no space, so worth bringing for trailside sniffles or bloody noses.
16) Chapstick with SPF
17) Bug Spray
I don’t have a bug spray recommendation because I feel like nothing works for me (they just love me!). If anyone has a rocking suggestion for ME, please drop it in the comments. I will say that one thing that has worked well is bringing wipes as opposed to spray since they are lighter and easier to always keep in your backpack in case bugs sneak up on you. These are what we used when I was trying to be a good “deet-free” mom. Here is an alternative if you prefer to bring on the deet!
18) Soft Carrier
For kids who need to be carried for most of the hike, my favorites are the Beco or Kinderpack. These can either be rolled and packed in your hard carrier (if you have more than one child) or worn around your waist like a backpack when not in use. We used the Beco while our kids were little and now that we have “big kids” we love the Kinderpack Preschool pack, which can carry kids up to 55 lbs (if your back and quads are also up to the task). It has saved us with our preschool and kindie aged kids! I find the soft carriers to be much more pleasant on my back and shoulders, as opposed to the hard carriers. However, a significant benefit to the hard carriers, like the Osprey Poco Deluxe we use, is that it doubles as your daypack, storing everything you need for the hike. But my preschool/kindergarten kids PLUS gear is too much for my shoulders at this stage so I stick to the soft carrier, as needed. The hiking carrier that we wish we knew about sooner is the Trail Magik. We now carry this on every hike because it’s super light and small (packs into a water bottle size) and clips onto your hiking backpack. This is great for hikes where your kids will hike most of it, but you *may* need to carry them. Or just to always have for emergencies! I go into all of the details on these carriers in my post: Our 4 Favorite Kid Carriers for Hiking == from Infant to Preschool Age.
19) First Aid Kit
You can either purchase a kit that likely has more than you need but you know has the essentials, or you can make one at home and put the contents in a reusable bag. Here are the must have recommendations for your kit:
- Tweezers for splinters, slivers, or cacti
- Waterproof Band-Aids
- Blister pads
- Disinfectant spray (or wipes) for minor cuts
- Gauze and bandage wrap
- Allergy cream for bug bites or ivy
- Treat for the patient (lollipop, gummy bears, whatever treat makes your kid smile)
20) Emergency Kit
21) Plastic Bags for Trash
Be sure to bring bags to pack out your trash and Leave No Trace. In fact, bring a few and give one to everyone in the family so everyone can pick up trail trash they find!
A few Extra Considerations when you pack for a hike with kids
A few items that are not on my above list that you may want to consider depending on where and who you are hiking with:
- Swimsuits & water shoes/sandals if hiking to swimmable water—regardless, I recommend having sandals in the car to let everyone’s feet breathe after the hike!
- Medication, glasses or spare contacts
- Diapers, bottles, and pacifiers if traveling with baby. Maybe even a backup pacifier. Bryce can attest to many extra miles running back up trail for a lost paci!
- Bear spray if hiking in bear country—luckily we have never had to use this so I can’t give an experienced review but this is what we carry with us when hiking in Glacier National Park, Teton, Yellowstone, and the Canadian Rockies.
- Hiking poles—There are so many hiking poles on the market, and I’m not an expert in this area as I’m not a regular user. But our kids have ones like these, and they love hiking with poles!
- Tripod—If you are seeing that perfect family photo, this could be worth packing. We have a bendy tripod for such occasions but I find them to be quite bulky, so instead we ask a fellow hiker or stick to the classic smoosh face picture (that’s the original selfie, if you didn’t know).
The Hiking Checklist for Parents– Easy Printable Version
Feel free to pin, download, and save my half page checklist freebie below of what to pack when hiking with kids. I recommend the half page size so you can print, laminate, and keep it in your backpack it for multiple uses and easy packing!
Click on this link to download –> Packing List for a Day Hike with Kids
Now that my kids are getting older, my 5 year old has started carrying her own backpack. We’ve made it!!! If your kiddos carry their own pack, be sure to download my Kids Hiking Checklist freebie below. It also includes some items that don’t go in their pack, but that they need to gather to prepare for the outing. I recommend laminating this half sheet and keeping it with or in their backpack so they can check off these items the night before your hike! Our kids hike with the REI Co-op Tarn 12 Pack, and I also recommend the Osprey Daylite Kid version for all of the same reasons I love the adult pack. These make awesome birthday gifts for kids! This is our “go to” birthday gift for kids 2 years old to 6 years old!
The Hiking Checklist for Kids– Easy Printable Version
Click on this link to download –> Kids Hiking Checklist
As we are entering this new phase of backpack independence, my kids are both quite proud of themselves (although Walker, my 4 year old, packs his bag and then we dump it all in our bag at the trailhead because he’s not quite there yet and the last thing we need on a hike is another something to carry!). Regardless, they have taken a liking to the hiking preparation, which is a win. Check out the video they’ve made explaining what they have in their packs for a day hike. Please subscribe to our YouTube channel for more tips and tricks for hiking with kids!
If this list looks like A LOT, I get it. You might be wondering how I am going to fit these 21 items (times 4 for many of these for our family of 4!) into my small daypack. Check out this video below to see if I can do it, plus a few tips to make it all fit.
Lastly, if you are new to hiking with your kids, be sure to check out the First 5 Things to Teach Your Kids About Hiking before you hit the trails. I hope this information helps you feel more prepared when deciding what to pack when hiking with kids. If you found this helpful, please share this post with a friend!