To some a day hike may mean picking up sandwiches for a picnic at your favorite caves or waterfall and a leisurely stroll around a short path. For others, it may mean rising well before daybreak to summit a 14er (mountain over 14,000 feet tall, popular to climb in Colorado). Either way, the key to success is being prepared. And, being prepared means having a hiking packing list either on paper, or in your head.
Hiking has long been a favorite pastime of mine. I am working towards getting my kids to embrace it as I have. I’ve had some successes, and some failures along the way. Whatever your level of hiking, hiking with kids adds an entirely different layer of complexity.
This hiking packing list includes all of the essentials to keep everyone happy and safe on a day hike with kids.
Backpack for Day Hiking
The first thing you need for day hiking is a good backpack to store your hiking gear. Hikers heading out for overnighters or out into the backcountry will need more than we are discussing here.
A daypack should start with a good backpack. We are partial to Camelbaks or a backpack with a bladder. The bladder fits into a compartment in the backpack. You fill it with water and the weight is spread fairly evenly.
Every member of our family has their own Camelbak. Our youngest has an ultralight Camelback with a smaller bladder. Our eldest has a larger Camelback with a bladder that holds a couple of liters of water. This enables the kids to carry their own water and any other essentials they want. Hydration is most important for any hike.
If you are hiking with babies, you may be better off with a child carrier like the Thule Elite Sapling Child Carrier. No bladder compartment here, so you’ll need to bring water bottles that fit in the side compartments. And, the toddlers aren’t likely to be able (or willing) to carry much themselves. Baby carriers can provide sun protection too.
Clothing for Day Hikes
The clothing you need will vary by geographic location, as well as season. But layers always are key, as are quick dry base layers. These are an important part of any hiking packing list. You want to be prepared for all weather conditions.
And the right hiking shoes are important for any hiking trip. Depending on your hiking destination, a pair of tennis shoes may work just fine. But if you will be climbing rocks, you may want a sturdy pair of hiking boots. Wearing the wrong shoes is a common hiking mistake.
Socks are perhaps even more important than shoes. To avoid blisters, wear socks made for hiking. I even know hikers that swear by wearing two pairs of socks. Personally, we stick with a single pair of Merino wool socks. Here in Colorado they help keep toes warm. But wool is also a good moisture wicking material, keeping feet from getting sweaty.
Opt for Lightweight Layers
Don’t forget a rain jacket. Many of these are lightweight and roll up quite compactly for easy storage in your backpack. You never know when an afternoon thunderstorm will roll in.
Lightweight hiking pants made of a quick dry material are ideal. We all own a couple of pairs of hiking pants with legs that zip off. If you will be traveling through different elevations and climates these can help you cool off or warm up as needed.
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Patagonia is my favorite hiking clothing brand. From warm layers to jackets, the clothing is comfortable and versatile.
Gaiters and buffs are also great accessories to always have on hand. On a cold day, they can keep your neck, nose and ears warm. On a hot day they can be wet down with cool water to help keep you cool. And, during Covid times, they double as a mask when you come close to others on the trail. While we prefer buffs, a bandana can also work in its place.
Food for Hiking
It is always a good idea to bring snacks on a hike. I keep energy bars in my Camelbak year round. But there are plenty of other types of food that are good to bring on a hike.
Trail mix is always a hit with my family. Cut cheese, meats, nuts and dried fruit work just as well. Beef jerky is another good snack to bring in the daypack. Sometimes I’ll even bring along a bit of candy as a reward after a strenuous hill.
If we are going to be gone during the lunch hour, I’ll bring along sandwiches and chips. Having a picnic is always a fun way to break up the day.
Tech for a Hike?
I always bring my cell phone. And, if I am hiking alone I always make sure that someone knows when I left, where I’m headed and when I should be back. If you are heading out into the backcountry, a beacon is also be a good idea. Cell phones don’t always work when you are truly getting away and out in nature.
I also have a power bank that comes along on day hikes and camping trips with me. These can be useful in situations where your cell phone battery drains quickly, such as in cold weather or when it is constantly searching for a signal.
Essentials for Any Hiking Trip
It is always a good idea to have a first aid kit. Even if it is just a Band-Aid to make the kids feel better, it was worth bringing along. But, truly, you never know when first aid supplies will come in handy.
Staying hydrated is important. They make some portable straws that are water purifiers. Not a bad idea to keep one of these water filters in your pack for an emergency. They are quite lightweight and can turn any water source — rivers, streams, creeks — into safe drinking water.
For fun, our kids have a compass and binoculars. These don’t always make the hiking packing list. But they can add an element of fun to any hiking excursion. At our great National Parks these will give kids the opportunity to truly see the wildlife and geology of the area.
TravelingMom Tip: Hiking is just one of the ways to get outdoors and have fun with your kids.
Winter Hiking List
Winter hiking can be very different than summer hiking depending on where you live. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve seen someone go slip and slide on a surprise patch of snow in a shady area of a hiking trail. YakTrax or other type of foot traction system can be a life saver on an icy trail.
Of course, anything that helps keep you warm in cold temperatures will also be useful. We keep a large box of hand warmers around for ski days. These often make it into the hiking backpack on cold winter days too.
TravelingMom Tip: Here’s how to have fun on a winter hike with your kids!
Other Hiking Gear
Trekking poles are quite popular. I prefer to hike without poles. But I can see how they could be useful. Not only can they keep you balanced, but they can help you judge stream depth and keep you from slipping on icy trails.
A pack of tissues or toilet paper is never a bad idea. But remember, leave no trace.
How long will your hike be? And, will you be taking time to just relax? If so a hammock may be something fun to bring along. Our kids do love to bring these along on our camping trips. I am not one to stop long enough on a hike to set one up. But I could see how it would make things more fun for the kids.
What do you bring on day hikes with your kids? Any hiking packing tips that we missed? Tell us in the comments below!?