Hiking is a fun activity for the whole family, and kids of all ages and abilities can get involved. While the intensity of the activity will change based on what your kids can handle, hiking with kids is a great way to spend time together as a family, to get kids away from screens and connected with nature, and to teach them introduce them to a fun, healthy hobby they can enjoy for the rest of their lives.
Just like adults, kids need gear to go hiking! Obviously, kids can’t carry as much as you can– but if a kid can walk, they may be able to carry an appropriately-sized backpack. Here’s some good information about hiking with kids and figuring out exactly what to pack.
Hiking with Kids: The Basics
Before you pack for a hike with kids, you need to plan the hike. You need to know how far kids can hike and what types of hiking they might enjoy. Once you know what kind of hiking to expect, you can figure out the necessary gear.
How Far Can Kids Go?
The general consensus for how far kids can hike is around half a mile for every year of age… provided they’re capable of walking independently. A 1-year-old obviously can’t walk a whole half mile on their own. For kids ages 0-3, you will likely be carrying them for the entire hike (or most of it, for 3-year-olds). At this age, it’s not about how far they can walk– it’s about how far you can go while carrying a small child.
Kids ages 4-7 can reasonably hike from 2 to 4 miles at a time. However, if you’ve ever spent time around kids this age, you know that they aren’t always compatible with plans. Bring a backup plan like a carrier or rugged wagon for toddlers and young ones. Kids get tired easily, and at this age, many of them still need an afternoon nap. Children age 8 and up can handle more miles depending on their preferences and activity level.
Make sure that you keep elevating gain in mind when referencing the above numbers. When you add in significant uphills, these numbers drop drastically.
Where To Hike With Kids
Knowing where to hike with kids and what types of hiking you can expect a child to enjoy helps determine what to pack. Day hikes and local hikes on well-groomed nature trails can instill a love of the outdoors without being too challenging for the kiddos. More challenging trails or anything involving climbing aren’t just a bad idea, they can be downright dangerous with kids. Kids are still learning motor control, so rough terrain is often too challenging for those that don’t have that type of experience yet.
Additionally, hiking for too long with little kids is often a one-way ticket to meltdown town. Older children might enjoy a weekend camping trip, but toddlers? Not so much. Young children crave routine and don’t always deal well with big changes. If your kiddo still needs regular naps, stick to local hikes that can be completed in a couple of hours maximum, and don’t worry about packing the tent.
Hiking Gear for Kids
So now that you have an idea of the kinds of hiking you can do with kids, it’s time to think about the gear and clothes they’ll need. The gear your kids need will change as they age. As they grow and become more independent, they can be responsible for more of their own equipment, but for really young kids, you can expect to carry everything for them.
Infants need to be carried on a hike, and you really only have three options. Your first option is simply carrying the baby– but this is not a good option. What happens if you trip? You can’t use your hands to catch yourself if you’re holding a baby. Babies get heavy after a while, too. So instead of just carrying the baby, opt for a carrier that you wear or an all-terrain stroller.
If you’re hiking on a well-groomed, familiar trail, you may be able to use a stroller, albeit an all-terrain stroller. These strollers are tough and durable, with large wheels that can handle a bumpy path and a suspension that will keep your little one comfortable as they ride along. Popular all-terrain strollers include the Thule Urban Glide 2 (See on REI) and the BOB Gear Revolution Flex 3.0. Do keep in mind that not all trails allow strollers, and even those that do may have areas that you can’t easily pass with a stroller. Know the trail ahead of time if you want to hike it with an infant!
Wearing your baby is another option. You can use a wrap like the trendy Solly Baby and Boba Baby wraps, or a carrier. Carriers like the classic BabyBjörn will let you carry the baby in front, while other carriers will let you carry your baby on your back. You can even get aluminum frame backpack baby carriers that will let you carry babies and toddlers easily.
The downside to this option is that it’s hard to carry a backpack and a baby at the same time– even if you wear a wrap and have your baby on the front, you will still have an awkward time carrying a backpack. The solution here is to have a second adult who can carry things for you.
Your infant will likely need milk or formula on your hike. If you haven’t introduced water yet, don’t worry about it– but if your infant is older than 6 months, bringing water is a good idea. Hikes with babies this young shouldn’t last too long or occur in extreme weather, so you won’t need to pack too much for them.
Another consideration for hiking with infants: diapers. You need to bring ziplock bags with you, because you need to pack dirty diapers and wipes back out with you (unless there are appropriate trash facilities on the trail). Not all trailheads have trash cans, so make sure you have enough plastic bags.
Toddlers are beginning to walk, which means that they, too, need to be carried for large portions of hikes. You will need a sturdy carrier or stroller for them. If they’ve outgrown the stroller, an all-terrain wagon can be used on some trails– so long as they are established and decently groomed. All-terrain wagons like the Jeep Sport All-Terrain Stroller Wagon often have canopies for sun protection, and the extra space in the wagon can hold water, snacks, and other supplies.
To keep your toddler happy on a hike, bring their favorite snacks– and make sure they have water. A water bottle contoured for little hands, like the Tommee Tippee Insulated Sportee bottle, or a hard-spouted sippy cup that you fill from your bottle when they want to drink will help keep spills down.
Like infants, pre-toilet-trained toddlers may also need diaper changes on the trail. Bring extra diaper supplies and plastic bags to leave no trace.
Pre-K and Kindergarteners
Kids in the 3-5 year old age range might be a little young for a backpack of their own. Even if they can carry it comfortably, it can be hard to find one small enough to fit their frame. Kids this age also love to put things down and forget about them, so you’ll probably want to carry their water bottles for them. A kid-friendly water bottle will encourage them to stay hydrated. Look for a water bottle like the Zulu Kids Flex with features like a built-in straw, a carrying loop or handle, and shock-resistant construction. Small water bladders like the CamelBak Mini M.U.L.E. kids’ hydration backpack are also a good option– just make sure your kids won’t wiggle away from it!
For kids this age, you may want to bring some trail toys for when they get fussy. A pair of kid-friendly binoculars (like this shock-proof pair from Playbea) or an outdoor scavenger hunt game can keep kids happy and engaged with the world around them.
Elementary School-Aged Kids
By the time kids are 6 and up, they are big enough to carry small backpacks and the gear of their choice. These kids can deal with backpacks in the 10-15 liter size range; taller kids can handle 18-20 liter bags. If your hiking backpack has a detachable daypack, it might be just the right size for a kid to carry!
Kids can be responsible for carrying their own snacks, extra clothes, a jacket, and some water. Let them help plan the hike by choosing what to put in their bag– within reason. Give them some clothing options and let them have input on what snacks you bring along.
Kids this age can also deal with more challenging terrain than younger children. For more adventurous children, pint-sized hiking poles like the Go2Gether G2 Kids’ Hiking Poles or the REI Tarn Poles can make their hikes easier and safer.
Like younger kids, older kids will appreciate a few extra fun things on the trail. Thoughtfully-chosen toys can help them connect to nature and appreciate the environment and the outdoors. Nature notebooks and kid-friendly digital cameras (or old-school disposable film cameras) can make a hike even more memorable and enjoyable for kids. Older kids may also enjoy having a field guide on hand to answer their questions about what kinds of plants and animals they see on the trail.
Finally, this is more of a tip for the adults: kids are rambunctious and often accident-prone. Make sure your first aid kit is topped up with bandaids, antibiotic ointment, and wound and skin cleaning supplies like water wipes and Bactine.
Sun Protection for Kids
Sun protection is important enough that it deserves its own category. Everyone should wear sun protection while hiking– kids included! Older kids can wear the same sunscreen that you do, but younger children have more sensitive skin. Choose a sunscreen that is made with gentle ingredients. Mineral sunscreens often are less likely to cause skin irritation.
The American Academy of Dermatology recommends that babies under six months of age shouldn’t wear sunscreen. Their sensitive skin is more likely to experience side effects like rashes. Instead, babies under six months should wear wide-brimmed sun hats (that tie on so they can’t take them off), sunglasses or goggles that they can’t pull off, and loose long-sleeved clothing. Babies should be kept in the shade as much as possible, and kids should wear wide-brimmed hats to keep the sun off of their faces.
Older kids should also wear sunglasses– the whole family should wear them. Polarized sunglasses reduce glare and filter out damaging UV rays. Make sure to choose sunglasses that are designed with kids’ facial proportions in mind so that they aren’t constantly slipping down or coming loose.
Hiking Clothing for Kids
When it comes to clothing, infants don’t need anything special, other than clothes that are right for the weather. However, as kids start to walk on their own, they will need appropriate shoes for hiking, as well as clothes that will keep them safe.
Hiking Shoes for Kids
Baby Timbs are cute, but are they ideal for hiking? The best hiking footwear for kids is supportive, comfortable, and– crucially– easy to put on. Hiking shoes like the Merrell Unisex Child Trail-Chaser Junior have a Velcro closure that can’t come untied.
Other important footwear features include rugged soles and a snug fit. Shoes that are too loose or too tight can both cause blisters. Kids also need nice, thick hiking socks, just like adults.
If your hike requires water crossing, or you’re hiking in the summer and your child prefers footwear with an open construction, hiking sandals are a must. Look for water shoes with a protected toe and a rugged, non-slip sole like the Keen Unisex Child Seacamp 2 CNX Closed-Toe Sandals.
Hiking Clothes for Kids
When picking out outdoor clothes for children, look for the same key performance features found in adult clothes. While baby clothes are often made of cotton because of how soft it is, cotton is a bad choice for hiking clothes for kids. It’s ok for babies since you won’t be out long and the baby won’t be exerting themself, but older kids need clothes made from moisture-wicking material. Kids can use the layering system, too!
Kids have a smaller body mass than adults, meaning they lose heat faster. Kids often need jackets on days that are comfortable for adults. Packing an extra layer for them won’t take up much space, and can be vital on cool fall days or at nighttime if you’re camping.
Overnight Gear for Kids
If you’re camping with kids and staying overnight in the woods, make sure that you’re able to pack a sleeping bag, warm nighttime clothes, and enough food. Bring extra night lights for the tent, especially if your child is afraid of the dark, and consider bringing some camping games for evening entertainment.
For most kids, car camping is a better option than hiking into the woods to pitch your tent. This is especially true for kids without much camping experience– a fun night under the stars with a campfire and home just a car ride away is a much more secure experience for a kid’s first time camping. Remember that while you might have loads of camping experience, the backcountry is full of unknowns and can be a scary place for a kid. Build their confidence with camping experiences and wait to take them on a real backcountry trip until both of you know that they are ready.
Hiking is an incredible experience for kids. It gets them outside, away from screens, and lets them connect with nature– and with you. Even the tiniest kids benefit from spending time in nature, so don’t be afraid to hit the trail with them! Just make sure that you have the right gear for kids at the right age.
Max DesMarais is the founder of hikingandfishing.com. He has a passion for the outdoors and making outdoor education and adventure more accessible. Max is a published author for various outdoor adventure, travel, and marketing websites. He is an experienced hiker, backpacker, fly fisherman, trail runner, and spends his free time in the outdoors. These adventures allow him to test gear, learn new skills, and experience new places so that he can educate others. Max grew up hiking all around New Hampshire and New England. He became obsessed with the New Hampshire mountains, and the NH 48, where he guided hikes and trail runs in the White Mountains. Since moving out west, Max has continued his frequent adventures in the mountains, always testing gear, learning skills, gaining experience, and building his endurance for outdoor sports. You can read more about his experience here: hikingandfishing/about