This post is sponsored by REI. All opinions are my own.
When we first started hiking as a family, I would generally wear the baby and Dan would carry the stuff in a family hiking backpack. It would include snacks and drinks for everyone, camera equipment, jackets, bear spray, etc. It was a lot for him to carry but we just had a few tiny kids so it wasn’t terrible and also they weren’t quite ready to carry their own stuff for long stretches of time.
Fast forward a few years and most of our kids are able to carry at least a small kids hiking day pack on their own. We found and invested in some awesome, durable, and well-fitting kids hiking backpacks, all of which are available at REI, and our kids get genuinely excited to carry their own food, gear, and supplies. It’s great spreading around the stuff and also wonderful for them to have ownership and responsibility over what they choose to bring along on adventures. It helps them feel even more included in the experience and they love choosing and caring for their own things.
Over the last few years, we’ve gotten a good feel for what is useful to pack in a kids hiking backpack and what isn’t worth the weight. Especially when hiking with kids, it’s definitely a balance between being prepared (and allowing them to feel mature ownership over carrying all the needed items) and also not weighing them down and thus tiring them out too quickly.
This kids hiking backpack packing list has served us well through a variety of outdoor adventures of various lengths and difficulty. They’ve been great for long and short hikes with kids, as well as things like camping and boating adventures. It has everything that we need and find useful without adding in a bunch of unnecessary items that will have our kids dragging their feet minutes onto the trail. I hope it helps you as you pack your own kids’ hiking backpacks!
Best Kids Hiking Backpack
For younger kids, I love having them wear a kids hydration backpack. This hydration backpack available at REI is our go-to kids hiking backpack for our younger kiddos. It’s what our kids use exclusively from about ages 3 to 6 or 7. Our kids have comfortably worn it until age 10 or 11, but they tend to start to prefer a slightly bigger pack with more room for other supplies once they’re about 7 or so (which is also about when they can reliably carry a slightly heavier backpack for the entire hike). But they still use the hydration backpacks for short jaunts all the time when they just need some water with them, and as a smaller adult, I’ve even worn them comfortably a few times!
Once our kids get to about mid-elementary school age, these kids daypacks from REI are our very favorite hiking backpacks for kids. This smaller 12L kids hiking backpack is great from about age 5, or we’ve gone straight from the hydration backpack to the slightly bigger 18L pack by age 7 or 8. They’re so well made with lots of compartments, and are comfortable and fit young kids really well. This is also the point when my kids can start carrying a few more things in the below kids hiking backpack checklist. It’s great for them to start to be prepared for their own adventures and to get a feel for what is a good idea to take along to be prepared!
1. Water Bladder or Water Bottle + Food
Water is definitely the number one thing I always want to make sure my kids have as part of their day hiking checklist. For my younger kiddos who are wearing a kids hydration backpack, they have a water bladder inside the pack. This tends to be less weighty than a separate water bottle, and is easy to drink from while walking so we don’t have to stop as often.
When carrying their bigger kids hiking day packs instead of a hydration backpack, my older kids prefer a separate water bottle to a water bladder. They usually carry their stainless steel kids water bottles that keep drinks cold for ages. It’s definitely nice to have some ice cold water on the trail! My kids also love occasionally carrying along a filter water bottle to fill up at any fresh water sources along the way (we have this one, but this one from REI also looks amazing and durable).
And, of course, be sure to pack whatever food is needed while out exploring. A tiny treat like a box of Tic Tacs is often helpful to pop in, as well!
2. Waterproof Cover
Our kids always keep a waterproof rain cover for their hiking backpacks with them. These work great and weigh almost nothing. My kids like to hook them to the outside of their kids day packs with a simple carabiner so they’re always handy for use.
Speaking of carabiners, they’re useful in so many ways! We always like to clip a few on the outside of our family hiking backpacks to attach jackets, rain covers, and even to hook on water bottles so they don’t fall out of side pockets. These carabiners from REI that screw to close are great because they’re extra secure.
4. Jacket or Outer Layer
Depending on the season/region, we usually pack some sort of layer in our kids hiking day packs. When it’s cool and dry, we like these lightweight insulated jackets. They’re warm and layer well, but not so heavy that kids get too hot while being active.
If there’s any chance of wet weather whatsoever, our kids always pack along these awesome rain jackets and rain pants from REI. They’re lightweight, durable, reasonably priced, and, most importantly, have fantastic waterproofing to keep everyone dry and comfortable. Both are easy to wear on top of regular clothes.
Again, depending on weather conditions, a sun or cold weather hat is definitely a good idea to take along!
6. Basic First Aid Supplies
You’re never too young to carry a few basic first aid supplies while out exploring! My kids actually really love carrying a few of their own basics in the event of any cuts or scrapes. They often just put a few bandages (these are my favorites because they stay on super well) and maybe a little packet of antibiotic cream in a plastic zip-top bag to keep in their backpacks. If your kids’ backpack doesn’t include a built-in whistle (ours do), be sure to include an emergency safety whistle along with the first aid supplies.
7. Insect Repellent/Sunscreen
This isn’t always necessary for my kids to carry as we usually have a family bottle of each in either the family hiking backpack or in a side pocket of the toddler hiking backpack carrier. (This is our favorite insect repellent that’s easily available at REI, as well as our favorite sunscreen.) But a couple of my kids like like to carry their own sunscreen for their hiking day packs. Doesn’t hurt to be prepared!
8. Mosquito Head Net
When in really buggy areas, these mosquito head nets from REI are an absolute lifesafer. They work best over some sort of hat so they’re lifted away from the face a bit, but they still work great even just over the head. I love that they both repel and also create a physical barrier and I was honestly amazed at how big of a difference they make! These also weigh next to nothing, so they’re easy for my kids to clip onto their packs so they’re available any time we need them.
9. Hand Sanitizer
Always good to have a mini bottle of hand sanitizer attached, especially if someone needs to go to the bathroom out in nature.
10. Pocket Knife (for older kids!)
My older two love carrying their pocket knives with them while out exploring! It’s great to have something to cut fruit, mini scissors or nail file if needed, etc. My oldest loves one with lots of little tools on it, but REI has tons of different pocket knife options available from very basic to super intense.
For kids, I love this little monocular scope to spot wildlife or other things in the distance. It’s much less bulky than binoculars and very powerful. Perfect for spotting animals from afar.
If you’re planning on hiking in any darker times or visiting any caves, a headlamp is a great thing to keep handy in kids hiking backpacks. Way easier to use than a flashlight, especially if they’re also using hiking poles! Plus, it’s an important safety item to always have on hand in case of an emergency. This is our favorite super high quality and durable headlamp, but REI also has tons of other headlamp options that are much more basic and inexpensive – perfect to include in a kids hiking backpack checklist.
13. Hiking Poles
Speaking of, hiking poles can be great when in areas with rockier terrain. While they’re absolutely NOT a necessity, they can be nice to take off some of the strain and to help kiddos with balance. With younger kids, they might be more effort than they’re worth, but with elementary aged kids and above, they can be very useful in feeling energetic for a longer hike and also to help with steep inclines/uneven paths.
This pair of kids trekking poles from REI is lightweight so they don’t cause extra strain when clipped onto a kids hiking pack, and they’re also relatively inexpensive but well-made. They also extend enough to be used by a shorter adult!
14. Wet Wipes
A small pack of baby wipes or body wipes is always welcomed for cleaning hands, utensils, or going to the bathroom. Keep a zip top plastic bag with it to pack out any trash!
15. Other Options
Here are a few other things that can be useful to include in a kids hiking backpack essentials list:
- Cooling neck towel if it’s very hot
- Compass if navigating in backcountry
- Bear Spray (we usually just have one for our family that an adult carries)
- Deuce (important for going to the bathroom outdoors! Again, we just have an adult carry one for our group)
I hope that’s a helpful recap of what we include in our kids’ hiking backpacks. I’d love to hear if there’s anything you find useful that we missed!