I hike with my kids (currently ages 3, 5, 7, and 9) kind of a lot. We are definitely a nature-loving family. We like to camp. Our house backs up to a forest. We live near a lake and spend a lot of time there every summer. I try to take my kids on hikes to some fun destination at least a couple times each month when the weather is nice. I consider myself pretty seasoned when it comes to hiking with kids.
However, yesterday, some friends and I went on a hike with our kids where nearly everything went wrong. We parked in the wrong place. We took a wrong turn at a fork. There were mosquitoes. There was a rattlesnake just to the side of the trail. My son fell and skinned his knee.
A 3.1 mile hike to a waterfall which I estimated would take about 3 hours roundtrip including time to play at the fall turned into a 6.8 mile, nearly 7 hour hike. The waterfall was spectacular. It was a memorable, epic day and I’m glad we went. However, a lot of our mistakes were avoidable.
This got me thinking about all the things that I, a veteran hiker mom, did wrong yesterday. I decided to make a list of what I SHOULD have done to ensure a more successful day. Some of these things I did. Some of them I only wish I had done. Below is a gear checklist, plus a checklist for the night before and the morning of a hike with kids.
Click here to get a free printable copy.
- Water Backpacks – This is a must for our family. Everyone who is able carries their own water. This means I have water backpacks for myself and my 5, 7, and 9 year olds. My 3 year old drinks from mine. Be sure to let them dry after each use so they don’t get moldy. I use this inexpensive one for my kids which just has room for water and a couple snacks. For myself I use one with multiple pockets and pouches to carry all the rest of the gear. I own this one that I got at Costco and love it.
- Bandaids – Your kids will fall. I wish it wasn’t true, but it is. The ground is uneven, they are excited, they run. It basically happens EVERY time. That’s why I’ll reiterate that pants are a good idea. But bandaids are also a must. You could also bring Neosporin, but I usually don’t. I leave my full first aid kit in the car.
- Headache Relief – This could be child strength ibuprofen or a peppermint roller. Especially if it’s hot, someone is likely to get a headache, which could ruin everyone’s day if it’s a vocal child. Remind the kids to drink water and likely this won’t be a problem.
- Wipes – You will need them. Hands are dirty and kids are hungry. Someone will have to go to the bathroom. You could also bring hand sanitizer if it makes you feel better. Personally, I’m okay with just baby wipes while hiking.
- Ziplock bags – If someone needs to use those wipes while going to the bathroom, you will want a sealed place to put those used wipes.
- Sunscreen – Everyone should already be sunscreened up before you leave, but you will still want to bring some in case reapplication is necessary.
- Insect Repellent – Yesterday was the first hike I have ever been on that was infested with mosquitoes. Today everyone in our family has at least 10 mosquito bites. Whether you want to use commercial bug spray or an essential oil blend, from now on I will definitely be taking something with me in my bag to hopefully prevent mosquito bites.
- Charged Camera – For some people this will be their phone. For me, it’s my DSLR. When you visit gorgeous places, make sure you have a way to save those memories.
- Time-Keeping Device – Again, for most people this will be their phone. However, my phone has a short battery life, so I like having a watch as well so we don’t end up too far from the car when it starts getting dark. Time can go faster than you think while enjoying nature.
- Compass – I have never had to use one. We stay on the trail, not only so we don’t get lost, but because I don’t want my kids running through the bushes and encountering unfriendly creatures like rattlesnakes. However, it takes up almost no space in my pack and makes me feel better. If somehow we were to get lost, I always know which way the highway is relative to our hike.
- Baby Carrier – I suppose this depends on the age of your youngest child. My youngest is 3 and I still take our Ergo with us clipped around my waist. Normally I don’t have to use it. Yesterday, I was so thankful for it. When our 3 mile hike turned into over 6, I ended up wearing my 3 year old on my back for much of the hike. By the end of the day, he was completely done. I’ve also used the carrier to get him up and down steep slopes safely. I’ve never had to use it for medical reasons thankfully, but if one of my bigger kids were to get injured, I also like having a way to carry them out on my back.
- FOOD! – Don’t neglect to take high calorie, on-the-go energy sources. Your kids will be hungry. You will be hungry. A hangry family does not make for a happy hike. I try to not overdo it on the amount of food I carry to minimize weight. Yesterday for our family of 5 (not including dad), I brought a sandwich size ziplock bag full of turkey jerky and another one full of homemade energy balls made with dates, nuts, coconut, and maple syrup. I had 2 beef sticks for each person and a snack-size ziplock bag full of almonds. At the last minute threw in a quart size ziplock bag filled with about 20 mini banana muffins. Had we only been away from the car for 3 hours where we had a cooler full of food, this would have been plenty. Since we were gone 6 hours, we’d eaten nearly everything. However, I still had half the bag of almonds when we got to the car, so they clearly weren’t starving. I think it was about the right amount for us, though next time I’ll take a little more to be safe.
Night Before the Hike
- Print a Map – On a lot of hikes, especially in the mountains where we live, you lose cell service. The more info you have on hand, the better.
- Research Parking Info – If it is a hike you haven’t been on before, read what is already posted about it online. I started to do this and got distracted. I had the name of the campground we were supposed to go to and the trailhead sign info, but that ended up not being enough. Thinking I couldn’t park in the campground, I parked in the day-use area just off the highway right next to the campground. This ended up being a mile from the trailhead sign. It turned out there was trailhead parking, which meant we ended up adding 2 miles to our hike. Also, make sure you know whether you need a special parking pass or not.
- Research the Hike – I also messed up by not researching the hike, because there was a fork in the trail that I was not expecting. Needless-to-say, we did not choose correctly at first. This also resulted in added distance to our hike.
- Get your Gear Ready – Although I normally prepare as much as I can the night before, yesterday I did not. I’ve done it so many times before I figured I could just get our backpacks ready right before the hike. I did not foresee a bunch of morning events, like my son’s allergies acting up or that extra errand I had to run. This resulted in us not only leaving later than I planned, but also my kids not having a sufficient breakfast.
Before you Leave the House
- Feed Your Kids a Solid Breakfast – This is again something I wish I had done yesterday. Normally I try to give them oatmeal or bacon and eggs or something I know will fill them up for awhile. Yesterday they each just got a prepackaged granola bar for breakfast which was a mistake. They were hungry about 10 minutes into .
- Pack a Cooler with Food – You will not want to carry all of this with you on the hike, but if your hike accidentally goes longer than expected, you will have plenty of rations. Thankfully, I DID do this yesterday. My kids were able to fill up a bit before we left on the hike since they didn’t really get breakfast. We ended up getting back to the car around dinner time with a 40 minute drive home. We had already finished all the snacks we had been carrying (which probably should have been more). My kids and I were able to gorge on fruit, cheese, granola bars, and beef jerky from the cooler before we headed back.
- Put Extra Water in the Car – I like to use a one gallon jug filled with ice water.
- Dress Kids in Pants and Appropriate Footwear – Kids have a tendency to fall on hikes. Especially if there could be snakes, ticks, pokey bushes or other threats to their little legs, pants are a good idea. Yesterday, my 5 year old wore flip flops without me noticing. They kept falling off all day. Personally, I like to hike in sandals, so I’ll leave it up to you whether you feel closed toed shoes with ankle support is a must.
- Apply Sunscreen – My husband is a sunscreen Nazi, so all my kids know this is a requirement before we leave. If they are going to be bringing their swimsuits or wearing them under their clothes, I always have them come out in their swimsuits to get their sunscreen before they finish getting dressed.
- Have Kids Use the Restroom – Normally I do this too, but yesterday I forgot. This resulted in a side-of-the-road potty break.
- Have Kids Choose a Couple Snacks/Treats – I always let my kids pick a treat for the car ride home to celebrate their accomplishment. Usually they pick something like bunny fruit snacks, but sometimes I let them take candy that won’t melt. I’ll also let them pick a granola bar or two to stick in their water backpacks or to eat on the ride home.
Final Thought on Hiking with Kids
Hiking with kids can definitely be a challenge. There will likely be tears and skinned knees, tired legs and whiny voices. If you prepare adequately, a lot of the unpleasantness can be avoided or at least made less awful.
Even with the issues that come up, I always consider hiking with my kids to be worth the trouble. Once you make it back to the car, it seems like all of the bad memories melt away. Even with all our mistakes, my kids did not tell their dad about the length of the hike and how tired they were yesterday. They told him about the wildlife they saw, how they got to use a rope to climb down to the waterfall, and how much fun they had playing in the water.
At the end of the day, the things that went wrong will only add to your story. What stands out the most, especially in the minds of children, is the majestic, magical environment and the epic adventure they experienced with family and friends. This is what I want my kids to remember when they look back on their childhoods.
Is there anything I’m missing that you consider essential for hikes with kids? Let me know in the comments below!