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Springtime is almost here, and it's time to hit the trails. Kids are born hikers. They love to explore, imagine, and have permission to get good and dirty with reckless abandon. Whether it’s a quick walk in the woods, or miles-long trek to a hidden waterfall, family hikes are a fun, free activity that encourages curiosity and gets kid active and connected with nature.
If your family has tried hiking and been met with endless whines and complaints of tired feet or too-hot bodies, some thoughtful gear purchases can turn things around. If you've never tried hiking and are figuring out how to start, we have a list of must-haves to make trekking a little bit easier, more fun, and virtually complaint-free.
1. Some sturdy shoes
Pro tip: Kids need to be able to wiggle their toes. Make sure any hiking shoes you buy have a flexible toe area.
Nothing deters a budding hiker like tired feet. A good pair of hiking shoes are a necessity if you want to walk any amount of distance, cross any streams, or navigate any sort of rocky or root-heavy terrain. If you are only going to invest in one piece of solid gear for your kids, make it a sturdy pair of hiking shoes.
It’s easy to be lured by a deal, but our family has had a lot of hits and misses over the past few years, so there are some things we've learned to keep in mind. Hiking shoes—especially for kids—must be flexible, particularly in the toe area. They should be breathable (sweaty feet are no fun and they encourage blisters), and they should also have a wide sole, which is necessary for helping kids manage difficult terrain—this second point is why we don’t recommend regular sneakers for any hiking beyond fire roads.
Our family is partial to the Cheyenne Jr. by Northside, which have made hiking with a 6-year-old virtually complaint-free. These shoes check all the aforementioned boxes and have a water-resistant seal to make them a good choice for walking through puddles and navigating across shallow streams.
2. Moisture-wicking socks
Pro tip: Don’t wear all-cotton socks when hiking. They absorb moisture and encourage blisters.
It may seem like any old socks will do but—trust us—you’re going to want to get a sock specifically made for hiking. Hiking socks give a bit of compression to keep the blood flowing, which will minimize complaints of tired feet. They should also have a touch of wicking fabric to keep feet dry when they start to sweat.
We love the options by Quechua by Decathlon, which also offer the tiniest bit of padding in all the right areas. These are perfect starter socks for novice hikers and—at $3.99 for a pair—are even less expensive than most regular socks that don’t offer the same supportive benefits as hiking socks. We always take two pairs of socks on the trail with us, in case the first pair gets damp or wet, so this two-pack sets your kids up perfectly for their first hiking excursion.
3. A well-stocked first-aid kit
Pro tip: Make sure any first-aid kit has moleskin included.
It’s not much of an outdoor adventure if you don’t come out with a couple of scrapes—and kids aren’t great at shrugging off a skinned knee. A first-aid kit is an absolute necessity, whether it’s for a true cut or claims that their arm may fall off after being scraped by some thorns.
This kit is lightweight, small enough to throw in a pack, and has everything you need to take care of any small-scale injuries you might encounter on the trail. It also includes the all-important moleskin. For those new to hiking, moleskin helps prevent blisters and provides relief when blisters occur. In short, it’s a hiker's best friend and a daypack necessity.
4. A well-built backpack
Pro tip: A backpack with a sternum strap helps with posture and better distributes the weight of a pack.
You can certainly make do with just about any pack, but some details will help ensure the most comfort on the trail. We are crazy about the CamelBak Scout, which is brimming with bells and whistles (quite literally—it comes with a whistle) that are perfect for hikers from about age 4 to 12.
In our experience, kids sometimes forget to drink as much water as needed—especially during hot hikes. Because a well-hydrated hiker makes for a happier hiker, a backpack with a built-in hydration pack is a necessity in our book. This backpack comes with a 1.5 liter hydration pack and a bite-valve hose that helps to constantly remind kids to drink. This pack also has a sternum strap, which helps distribute weight—so important when maintaining balance when scrambling over big rocks and tree branches.
It also comes with a padded backplate and mesh-covered straps, to help keep things comfortable and to minimize sweating, as well as cool safety features, like a reflective strap and a whistle that’s built right into the sternum strap.
If your kid is a little bit older, or you are looking for something smaller, we also love the CamelBak Mini M.U.L.E, which is good for hiking or biking.
- Get the CamelBak Kids’ Scout hydration pack at CamelBak for $60
- Get the CamelBak Mini M.U.L.E. at Dick's Sporting Goods for $49.99
- Get the CamelBak Octane adult backpack at Amazon for $125
5. A whistle
Pro tip: A whistle is an important safety necessity in case a child gets lost on the trail.
Our favorite pack comes with a built-in whistle, but if you get a pack that doesn’t, a whistle is an absolute safety necessity when hiking. A kid is always going to veer off a trail at some point and if they get scared they could get themselves even more lost. A whistle is a tell-tale trail sound that helps you find your child, helps alert other hikers that someone is lost, and is an important tool when a child may be unable to call for help.
This four-function whistle comes with a compass and a magnifying glass—the latter of which we love for curious observers who want to get a close-up view of plants and critters.
6. Some convertible pants
Pro tip: When in doubt, size up. A roomy leg and rear is important for movement and if the pants are too big you can use them as shorts until they grow into them.
It always seems that when you start out on a hike there’s a morning chill to the air, but by mid-day the sun is blazing down and you regret the long pants you started the day with. Solution: Convertible pants, a modern marvel in the hiking world!
These have SPF 50+, lots of pockets, a roomy rear (so necessary for easy movement), breathable fabric, and they are both water repellant and quick-drying if a rain comes through. They also have adjustable shock-chord ankles, which is so useful for keeping the ankle area snug to protect against ticks, mosquitos, or poison ivy, and it’s a perfect feature for when they want to dip their tired feet into a trail-end stream.
7. A tear-free sunblock
Pro tip: They are going to work up a sweat; choose a sunblock that is gentle on the eyes to prevent any irritation.
You chose a shady hike, but somehow that sun still comes blazing through. It’s time to up your sunscreen game. This choice is made for babies, but we like it for the whole family—including adults. It’s chemical-, fragrance-, and dye-free, so it protects the skin without irritating it.
Since this is a mineral-based sunblock, made with naturally sourced zinc oxide, not only will eyes be free from burning and irritation, it provides broad spectrum coverage against both UVA and UVB rays. It’s also water resistant, making it a good choice to stand up against sweating.
- Get the Coppertone Pure & Simple baby mineral sunscreen, SPF 50, at Target for $9.99
- Get the Coppertone Pure & Simple SPF 50 sunscreen lotion at Amazon for $8.97
8. A sun-blocking hat
Pro tip: Get a hat that also gives shade to their neck as added protection in case the sunblock sweats off.
We love a hat that can stand a lot of wear and abuse. This one is packable and crushable and still pops into a perfect shape, even when it’s been sitting at the bottom of a backpack for two miles. It’s also reversible and adjustable, so it fits an assortment of sizes and moods and can grow with your child. It’s moisture wicking and has the all-important breakaway chin strap, which is a smart safety feature that prevents against accidental strangulation—especially in very young hikers.
9. A compact rain poncho
Pro tip: Make sure any poncho you buy for your kid has an attached hood!
Surprises happen! Be prepared with rapid rain protection. We like ponchos over a rain jacket for full-body protection, and this one packs up so small and so light that throwing it in the pack is a no-brainer to get them through any unexpected showers.
10. A headlamp to illuminate the path
Pro tip: Be sure to get a waterproof headlamp with a strobe feature, because getting lost in the rain is never fun.
Sometimes the trail back goes a little longer than expected. Maybe you took a little extra time exploring, or maybe you got lost on the trail. Whatever the reason, a good hiker should always prepared. Teach them young to never leave home without a light source to illuminate their path. We are partial to the headlamp, which leaves hands free for climbing.
This one is lightweight, waterproof, adjustable, and has a tiltable face, which allows for better illumination on a hiking path and allows kids to focus the light exactly where they need it. It also has seven different lighting modes, including an SOS-mode and strobe.
11. A book of inspiration
Pro tip: Getting outdoors can lead to improved self-esteem and an increased sense of purpose.
Hiking can be a perspective-changing pastime. It’s more than just a fun way to get some fresh air and exercise, it can turn kids into stewards of nature and protectors of the earth.
This graphic novel is the story of John Muir, the early environmentalist, inventor, and adventurer who co-founded the Sierra Club, went camping with Teddy Roosevelt, and helped established national parks at Yosemite and the Grand Canyon. Kids will admire his adventurous and curious spirit and learning about him will help spark not only an interest in the outdoors, but a perspective in how one person can pursue their passions and how a sense of adventure can lead to great accomplishments.
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