by Diane Spicer
Great question, right?
Why do your kids hike?
If you've read this far, you have an interest in kids on the hiking trail, regardless of why your kids are interested in hiking.
So let's get down to the nitty gritty of hiking gear for kids, beginning with backpacks.
You can't put an adult pack on a child sized body.
Well, you can, but you're defeating the purpose of the pack and setting up a conflict of interest between gravity and young bones & muscles.
A large backpack encourages overfilling. Too much gear = too much weight on developing hip and knee joints, not to mention the spine.
When that occurs differs with kids, but keep in mind the epiphyseal (growth) plates at the ends of the long bones. If the child is continuing to add height, the plates haven't fused.
So don't put too much stress on the leg bones by carrying an overloaded pack.
For some pointers on how to select a backpack, check out my suggestions here.
For tips on selecting the right girls backpacks, start here.
Boys backpacks? Gotcha covered here.
Many gear companies are catering to hiking families.
Some of the gear is too cutesy to be of much use for anything beyond a short day trip over flat ground. But some of it seems durable, and worth a look.
REI, a well run and reputable gear coop, is a good place to start looking at kid's backpacks.
You will want advanced features for backpacking trips, such as
Next up: foot wear. Sore feet create cranky hiking kids, which in turn creates stressed adults.
Don't get on the trail with anything less than supportive footwear.
No kidding!! (as in no kids will go out on the trail with you again)
If you're serious about creating happy hiking kids, please heed my warning. Foot wear will make or break your attempts.
Check feet often, keep toenails trimmed, and nip trouble in the bud with some first aid.
Other hiking families are usually great sources of information, too.
And don't be shy at trailheads or when passing families on the trail - ask for advice and feedback on the gear they are using.
And please don't neglect to put the appropriate socks on your kid's feet.
You want hiking kid's feet to be comfortable, so avoid socks which are too bulky or hot.
And there should be no chance of rubbing against the foot wear with each step.
Need a little hiking sock info?
Blister prevention tips here.
When my kids were little, I brought along (or they carried in their packs) water shoes like these on most hikes.
But they didn't wear these shoes for hiking (see footwear tips above).
As I said, I'm in favor of hiking kids carrying their own food and water. But I didn't say it had to be boring.
Water bottles come in a dizzying array of colors and styles.
You can personalize them, too, which appeals to younger kids.
Or you can purchase a water bladder (hydration system), if the back pack accommodates it (most do).
Some kids are thirsty all of the time, and stopping often for water breaks takes the whole group out of a pleasant hiking rhythm. So a bladder may be the way to go.
Keep an eye out for BPA as an additive to plastic bottles. I'd recommend metal bottles - they dent rather than crack if they happen to slip out of small hands.
Lunch sacks can be something simple like a brown paper bag with stickers on the outside.
This can be decorated by busy little hands while you're making sandwiches the night before.
You can also let your kids select their favorite hiking snacks to tuck into a backpack pocket.
Clothing for hiking kids is pretty basic.
If your child is at all outdoorsy, you probably already own sturdy pants, shirts and jackets.
Just be aware that some clothing is wind and rain proof, others not so much.
Educate yourself about the distinction between "water repellent" and "water proof" - it may become very important if you have to hike back to the trail head in a driving rain storm.
Clothing should be loose fitting to allow full range of motion for arms and legs.
Carrying a change of clothing for puddle-face-planting-prone kids is also a great habit to get into.
Hats are a must-have item for blocking excess solar radiation, biting or stinging insects, wind or rain.
Tip: Bring a change of clothing for happy trails.
But you already knew that, you smart hiker!
Hiking nutrition depends upon the preferences of developing taste buds AND good understanding of how important hiking nutrients are for growing bodies.
I'm not going to lecture you about good food choices.
But keep in mind that your child's body is working a lot harder when out on a hike.
Supplying a steady stream of energy in the form of complex carbohydrates is going to keep your child in a hiking frame of mind.
Experiment with the kid energy bars on the market, but be forewarned: they run sweeter than the adult versions, so sample them yourself.
My kids never had much attention span for a lengthy lunch during a hike. They would eat a little, just enough to kill their hunger pangs, and then be off exploring.
So I knew I needed to sneak in a big bunch of nutrition in a small space.
Sandwiches didn't work.
Instead, I packed small chunks of cheese, chicken, and fruit in small containers.
I also encouraged my hiking kids to carry snacks in their pockets.
They were in charge of how much, and how often, to eat.
Of course, Mom had veto power over any
unwise bulk bin choices! She who pays is the decider!
Gear is important to an enjoyable hiking experience.
But so is knowledge.
Talk with your hiking kids ahead of time about what to do in case of an animal encounter, sudden weather changes, or other unexpected events.
You might not have time in the moment to give clear instructions such
as "never run from a cougar".
Consider what would happen if you were to be separated from your child.
Would s/he know what to do to stay safe? Spend some time going over the basics.
I don't think it's too much of a stretch to train your hiking kids in basic first aid, starting when they're in lower elementary grades.
The higher their comfort level with putting on band aids or cleansing a wound, the easier it will be for you to take care of their needs.
Or yours, should an unforeseen event occur.
Give your hiking kids a heads up about poisonous or venomous plants, animals, and insects which could be encountered on the trail.
Make it a fun family project to put together a family first aid kit to ride along in mom's backpack.
My kids always enjoyed carrying a few "special" band-aids in their pockets, Scooby Doo for my daughter and Sponge Bob for my son.
Carry a few diversions in your pack, for when you need to buy just a bit more trail time.
Say you need to cover another half mile to a planned camping spot, or there's still a mile to go back to the trail head.
And don't overlook the power of just observing what is in front of you.
Watching a bug crawl up a log could take hours!
It's often the adults who get restless, so channel your inner mindfulness and enjoy the show.
Pay careful attention to the questions your kids ask you on or about the trail, and use them as opportunities to open up new doors.
How about a memory games with an outdoor theme?
If they're old enough to read, provide a few field guides to pique their interest. Select some with great photos, and make it a game to find the "real thing" on a hike.
And just between you and me, kids who hike have better eye-hand coordination and balance than "city kids" with limited exposure to the outdoors.
As kids get older, their interests and gear needs change.
Hiking kids are a welcome sight on a trail.
I love meeting families in my wanderings, but sometimes I cringe at how unprepared they seem.
It's a fact of the trail that you cannot predict what's going to happen, no matter where you take your children.
But take some time today to prepare your hiking kids mentally and physically.
Hiking With Kids
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About the author
Diane is the founder of Hiking For Her.
She’s been on a hiking trail somewhere in the world for nearly five decades & loves to share her best hiking tips right here.
All rights reserved.
Photo credits: All photos on this website were taken by David Midkiff or Diane Spicer except where noted.
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