Our family loves getting out in nature, whether it’s car camping or an intense day hike. While there’s plenty of outdoor gear for kids out there, depending on where you’re going or how often, you may not want to spend tons of money.
There’s really not a ton of outdoors gear that you absolutely need. In fact, I’ve done plenty of hikes in basic sneakers and whatever clothes I happened to throw on that morning. Still, there are a few things that can make the experience more comfortable and enjoyable, especially when heading out on longer adventures.
Below, I’ve shared some of our outdoor necessities with kids, as well as a splurge option and a save option for each. Read on to see when the splurge is worth it and when it’s not!
If you’re looking for a full writeup on what to take when hiking with kids, check out our post on the best kids hiking gear!
Kids Hydration Hiking Backpack
SPLURGE: CamelBak Mini M.U.L.E. (Available on Amazon, CamelBak, Dick’s)
SAVE: Outdoor Products Tadpole Hydration Pack
If I could only choose one piece of hiking gear for kids, it would be hydration hiking backpacks. One of the biggest deterrents to hiking with kids is that they tend to stop a lot to get drinks and it ends up being a slow process. Which is fine when I’m in the mindset to stop and enjoy every flower. But sometimes, I really just want to get my body moving, too.
That’s when having hydration backpacks handy becomes SO helpful. They can take drinks as often as they’d like without stopping each time, and they’re really helpful in preventing dehydration. Plus, that way the kids end up carrying their own water, which is super helpful.
We’ve had the CamelBak backpacks for about a year and a half and they’ve been absolutely perfect. They hold up so well and are the perfect size for younger kids without being bulky or too long-waisted. The Outdoor Products pack is a bit less expensive, but is definitely a bigger pack, so isn’t as suitable for younger kids. The material also isn’t quite as durable or water resistant. But it’s a good option if you want to save a bit of money!
Kids Hiking Shoes
SPLURGE:Little Kid, Big Kid (or this Big Kid option)
SAVE: Mishansha Kids Hiking Shoes
While my kids have done plenty of outdoors activities in normal sneakers, kids hiking boots or shoes are really helpful if we’re going somewhere that’s muddy, unstable, rocky, or just if we’ll be going long distances. They’re definitely more comfortable and safe and we’ve been so glad to have them as we’ve increased the frequency of our outdoor activities with kids.
In general, I tend to prefer lower hiking shoes instead of high-top ones, as they tend to be more versatile for everyday use. For the options I listed, we LOVE the little kid splurge shoe and I think they’re well worth paying an extra $15 for. One of my kiddos has used them HEAVILY for 6 months and they still look brand new, which is practically unheard of for sneakers. I love that they work great as everyday sneakers but have the traction and durability of hiking shoes. Plus, they’re breathable and super comfortable. Highly, highly recommend.
The big kid ones, while amazing, are quite pricey, whether you get the really expensive ones or the moderately expensive ones. To be fair, both are super durable and have amazing features. Still, they’re quite pricey. So this save option is actually really terrific. They have great tread and a ton of colors and sizes, and are actually pretty durable for the price! Definitely a great option.
Kids Hiking Sandals/Kids Water Shoes
SPLURGE: Closed Toe Little Kid, Big Kid, Open Toe Big Kid
SAVE: Closed Toe Little Kid or Big Kid, Open Toe Little or Big Kid
If there is something to splurge on, shoes are one of the best places to do it, in my opinion. Since you use them so frequently and they can have such an impact on the overall outdoors experience, it’s worth spending a bit more for better comfort, functionality, and durability.
While the SAVE options here worked well and have similar features, they just do not hold up as well as the SPLURGE options. The SPLURGE ones are better constructed and we’ve noticed fewer blisters with them, as well – especially important when wearing them in water situations.
While the SAVE options lasted us a few months before they started fraying and wearing through the soles, the SPLURGE options have been going strong for much longer and still look practically new. It’s worth it in this case to spend a bit more for a better product, especially since the SPLURGE options are still pretty reasonably priced.
Baby Hiking Backpack (Child Carrier Backpacks)
SPLURGE: Deuter child carrier backpack
SAVE: Chicco child backpack carrier
The thing with hiking carrier backpacks to transport a small child on a longer hike is that they have to be comfortable, or they just won’t get used. In my opinion, if a pack is only useful enough to use for a few miles, it’s probably not worth having the carrier at all. Instead, I personally much prefer using a soft-structured carrier, which is a lot more versatile in terms of where you’d use it and for what age.
So this is really a case of if you want the functionality of a framed backpack carrier – that is, if you want a pack that distributes weight well to the hips, supports your child, and isn’t overly heavy, then I’d recommend spending the money to get the best.
SPLURGE: Guardian Bike
SAVE: Schwinn Koen
Family bike rides are some of our favorite things to do all together, whether at home or exploring public lands. And safety is the number one priority for us. The Schwinn is a great, standard kids bike and is probably fine on short jaunts and if you’re always watching out for obstructions in front of your child.
However, I VASTLY prefer the kids Guardian bike because of its incredibly safe braking system. It’s the only kids bike around that has this type of system that hugely reduces the number of instances of going over the handlebars, one of the most dangerous biking mishaps for kids. For me, especially since we go biking a decent bit as a family and since I like giving my kids independence to bike on their own, the safety and peace of mind from a slightly more expensive bike is most definitely worth it.
We own a Guardian for both our 10 and 6 year olds and absolutely love them, and are planning to move our 8 year old to one when she outgrows her current bike (which is darling but less functional for any sort of trail).
Kids Bike Helmet
SPLURGE: Thousand Helmet
SAVE: JBM Skateboard Helmet
Speaking of bikes, helmets are just as (if not more) important. Dan gifted me a Thousand bike helmet recently and I LOVE it. It’s so cute and fits so well.
However, my kids’ standard bike helmets work just fine. They fit well and stay secure, and protect them well. While they’re still growing so quickly, I don’t know that I necessarily want to pay nearly triple the cost just for aesthetics (especially when I don’t know that they’d really appreciate the retro look, anyway!).
SPLURGE: Sunbum Sunscreen or Tubby Todd Sunscreen
SAVE: Neutrogena Pure and Free Baby Sunscreen
Sunscreen is easy to overlook, but it’s super important to me to make sure we have quality stuff on hand. The skin is the largest organ so I want to make sure it’s protected, especially for little ones.
We switched to mineral sunscreen a few years ago and I haven’t gotten back. Not only does it tend to be reef-safe, but it also sits on top of your skin instead of chemicals penetrating the skin.
The Sunbum and Tubby Todd are the best sunscreen for kids because they actually rub in really easily and don’t leave us looking like ghosts! Lots of mineral sunscreens leave a white cast but these go on so smoothly. The Sunbum one also smells amazing (like coconut) if you like a scent, while the Tubby Todd is unscented if you prefer that.
This is a slightly less expensive mineral option, and it works well. However, I find that it is quite difficult to rub in and leaves a white cast, especially on darker skin. It’s readily available and effective, though.
If you really want the best of the best for mineral sunscreens, this one is dermatologist-recommended and super effective, but is rather pricey.
SPLURGE: Magma 15
SAVE: Coleman Mummy sleeping bag
If you’re doing some serious backpacking (or even car camping) in cold weather, you need a solid plan. There’s nothing more miserable than being cold in the middle of the night and not being able to sleep.
That said, I’m very much a fair weather camper with kids and am quite okay with it. 😉 I get cold super easily and have no desire to sleep outside when it’s freezing, even when I have an ultra warm sleeping bag. And when we’re car camping, an extra ounce or two of sleeping bag weight doesn’t matter at all.
So if you’re planning some serious cold-weather adventures, be sure you have terrific gear to stay safe and warm. If you’re not, your cheap sleeping bags (coupled with a sheet or blanket inside if it’s chilly) is probably totally fine. We also just use standard adult sized ones for our kids instead of kid-specific ones. We find it easier to find decent quality ones that are reasonably priced and they don’t outgrow them. Our kids have slept in them since they were 2 years old just fine.
SPLURGE: Darn Tough kids wool hiking socks
SAVE: Eocom 6-pack of wool blend socks
I used to think it was absolutely ludicrous to spend more than a couple bucks on a pair of socks. Until I tried good wool socks. Holy game changer.
Real, well-made wool socks are worth their weight in gold, as far as I’m concerned. I love them for travel and outdoor recreation because you can easily wear them more than once before washing since wool is naturally odor-resistant. And while the cheaper wool-blend ones are very cute and comfortable, they just don’t function anywhere near well-constructed wool socks.
The Darn Tough socks are my personal favorite kids hiking socks because they are SO soft, made in Vermont by a family-owned business that still contributes to the community, and because they have a lifetime warranty. On socks. They will literally replace socks that wear out. It’s unbelievable.
The Eocom socks, on the other hand, are warm and functional for a while, but ours wore out after about 6-8 months of regular use. Not bad for socks, but nothing close to the Darn Tough socks. To me, it’s worth paying a few dollars more to have a product that I know won’t get holes while we’re hiking, supports a small business, and is better for the earth.
The Smartwool kids socks are also terrific, but in my experience don’t hold up quite as well as the Darn Tough socks, and don’t have the same type of small business. I’m a Darn Tough devotee for life!
SPLURGE: Patagonia Kids Nano Puff Jacket
SAVE: Uniqlo Insulated Jacket
Living with California and often hiking with a baby, we don’t often hike in sub-zero temperatures. And when we do, we’re pretty good at layering. So while I have no doubt that the Patagonia jackets would be warm and amazing, they haven’t felt necessary for our purposes with kids outdoor gear.
The Uniqlo ones keep my kids surprisingly warm – even the ones who run cold! Plus, they pack up small, are a bit water-resistant, and come in tons of cute colors. We love them. And they have regular sales, making them even less expensive. So far, the SAVE option here has worked fantastically for us!
SPLURGE: Wool Base Layers
SAVE: Heattech Base Layers
We love base layers as kids hiking gear in cold weather. They’re also great for all kinds of outdoor recreation, or for using as pajamas while camping or travel.
Our personal favorites are wool base layers for the same reason we love other wool products (including socks) – they can be worn multiple times, and they’re lightweight, soft, and warm. They also resist odor and moisture and work well in warm or cool weather. From what I’ve found, most readily-available kids wool base layers are similar in price and quality.
They are pricey, however, and if you’re not spending a lot of time either traveling or outside, you may want a less expensive option. The Heattech line is very warm and cozy and though they don’t resist odors nearly as well and don’t use natural fibers, they’re a fantastic and inexpensive option. In ultra cold weather, we’ve even layered the Heattechs with our wool to create an ultra warm underlayer.
Kids Rain Jacket
SPLURGE: Glennaker Rain Jacket (also available here)
SAVE: IjnUhb Rain Jacket with Hood
There’s almost nothing worse than being cold and wet when spending time outside. I’m a firm believer that gear that functions as it should helps make a really enjoyable experience regardless of the weather.
In this case, since the tried-and-true version is only a few more dollars than the less expensive one, I would choose it every time. It’s a brand I know and have trusted for years, and one I believe will stay waterproof through all our adventures – because that’s not something I want to take a chance with once we’re there!
Adult Day Pack
SPLURGE: Cotopaxi Allpa 35L
SAVE: Osprey Tempest 20
To be fair, this isn’t an outdoor gear item for kids. Instead, it’s for the parents who are often taking along lots of stuff! Snacks, camera, diapers and wipes, etc. are all essentials. The Osprey is a terrific pack that holds a lot and has good organization.
The Cotopaxi bag, on the other hand, isn’t just built as a hiking pack. Instead, it’s an all-around adventure pack, including for travel and hiking and other outdoors rec. I love that it zips completely open and has many, many separate compartments. It’s also super rugged and durable and has spots for small essentials (perfect for a pacifier!). We really love this thing and it’s been indispensable in carrying everything we need while recreating outdoors with our kids.
I’d love to hear if there’s any kids outdoor kids you love and feel is worth the extra money!
IF YOU LIKED THIS SPLURGE/SAVE POST ABOUT OUTDOOR GEAR FOR KIDS, YOU MIGHT LIKE THESE POSTS TOO:
- 7 Tips for Enjoying Hikes with Kids
- 65+ Things to Do Outside with Kids At Home
- Backyard Camping Ultimate Guide: Printable Checklist
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