We have been hiking with our kids, who are now tweens & teens since they were babies and we have tested a lot of hiking gear for kids over the years. This guide is intended to help you determine the best hiking gear for your kids based on the products that we have used ourselves and recommend.
What Hiking Gear Do I Need?
The truth is that kids don’t need a ton of hiking gear, but there are specific items that can certainly make hiking safer & more enjoyable. I recommend starting with some hiking gear basics and adding additional gear as needed. Have your kid try things on and test them out to make sure the gear fits well and is comfortable! There have been times when I’ve bought gear for them because I liked it – only to have my kids try it out and not like it. If they won’t wear it or use it then it’s useless.
If you take a look through my other posts, you’ll see my kids hiking in sweats, leggings, and plenty of cotton while wearing Vans and other inappropriate shoes. Is this the best? Definitely not. Do I pick my battles? I sure do. Most of the time I’d rather spend my energy getting them out on the trails than worrying about what they’re wearing.
This list of the best hiking gear for kids will help you identify what gear is essential or just nice-to-have for your kids.
** I only recommend products I would use myself and all opinions expressed here are my own. This post may contain affiliate links. This means I may earn a small commission at no additional cost to you.
Hiking Shoes For Kids
Start with hiking shoes or hiking boots for kids. Many kids wear athletic shoes in their daily lives that will work perfectly fine on flat, paved, or well-groomed trails. But once you’re on a trail that’s uneven, slippery, steep, muddy or unstable those athletic shoes may not offer enough support or traction.
Our favorite brand for kids’ hiking shoes is Merrell because they are sturdy, well-made, and last until I’m finished passing them down from kid to kid. I recommend getting waterproof hiking shoes which are great for rainy or muddy hikes or really any trail with a puddle or stream because ALL kids will jump in those. Our kids prefer these low-top Merrell Moab youth waterproof hiking shoes because they look like regular shoes and the low cut doesn’t rub uncomfortably on their ankles. If ankle support is important, Merrell also makes a waterproof Moab Mid Hiking Boot which our kids have also worn.
Hiking Water Shoes For Kids
One variation of shoe worth considering is hiking water shoes or hiking sandals for kids. There are many sturdy options that provide traction & support while allowing little feet to breathe in hot weather. We’ve also found these extremely handy for protecting feet when wading in water or wearing them while kayaking, rafting, tubing etc. We often incorporate these adventures with a hike and don’t need to worry about carrying multiple pairs of shoes or going barefoot. Our kids love these Keen Hiking Water Shoes. They have the support & durability of a shoe but stay light & mobile in the water and dry quickly – plus they stay secured to their feet and won’t slip off in the water! The adjustable hook & loop strap makes them easy to get on & off and they are machine washable!
My youngest now prefers fully closed hiking water shoes like these. He claims they are more comfortable (less rubbing on the top of his feet) and they prevent small rocks & sand from getting stuck between the bottom of his feet & the shoe.
Investing in a good pair of hiking socks is smart. We always buy these Smartwool hiking socks. We first bought Smartwool socks for skiing and loved them so much that we tried them for hiking as well. They are lightly cushioned to make hiking more comfortable and moisture-wicking to keep feet dry and prevent blisters. They are tall enough to wear comfortably with hiking shoes or boots and they are fitted to prevent rocks & dirt from slipping down inside.
Hiking Backpack For Kids
We are day hikers, not backpackers, so we don’t need to carry much gear and usually only ask our kids to carry their own things. We insist they always carry their own water and have found a hydration pack is the easiest way to do this. Each of us carries our own hydration pack so we know everyone has enough water and can drink hands-free while hiking. I recommend at least a 1.5 liter bladder for kids and 2+ liters for adults. The size of the pack will likely depend on the child’s age. We started our kids with this 50oz Kid’s Hydration Pack which weighs only 7.5 ounces (empty). It has space to stick some snacks in the pockets, but there is not room for much else. Older kids may prefer this 50oz Hydration Pack with a larger pouch to keep additional food, layers, binoculars etc. We also wear these hiking packs while biking & skiing.
We have always purchased CamelBaks and have found this brand to be extremely durable. We have never had a problem with them ripping or tearing and the zippers have always remained functional. The only thing we have ever had to replace is the bite valve because our kids chew on them or they just rip over time. We have also replaced the bladder for our adult versions after years of use when the water began to have a stale taste. We have a cleaning kit like this one that we use after every few uses, but over time it gets tired. This bladder replacement fits the 1.5L CamelBak and includes a new bite valve or bite valves can be purchased separately here. I usually have extras on-hand because when these rip they are useless.
If we’re just going for a quick hike, often the kids will just prefer to carry a water bottle. Our favorite water bottle brand is Hydroflask. We’ve accumulated them in a variety of sizes over the years. My kids love the fun colors and I love how durable they are. Ours have weathered multiple falls on hard surfaces, they keep our water cold, they don’t leak, and the color doesn’t peel or chip off even after years of washing (we hand wash ours).
Hiking Clothes For Kids
Kids tend to dress in comfortable clothes that are easy to move in – so often they can just wear whatever they have on hand when hiking. However, we have bought some basic non-cotton kids hiking clothes over the years – usually for special hikes or trips.
When I’m in need of specialty outdoor clothing, I typically head straight to REI. We are members which means we enjoy a dividend at the end of the year based on our purchases, but mostly I think they do an amazing job of vetting products and selling only quality items.
Hiking Pants For Kids
Kids hiking pants are one of the first articles of clothing I’ll buy. We look for durable lightweight options in neutral colors so they generally pair well with any color jacket and can be passed down from my oldest to my youngest. My daughter is now 15 and opts for women’s styles, but when she was younger I found there was no significant difference between boys hiking pants and girls hiking pants – aside from the color options.
Look for kids hiking pants made from quick-drying material like nylon or spandex. Many are now made out of material with SPF as well as a water repellant finish which is great for hikes in the early morning dew or any hike with mist or water. I like these REI brand Sahara Convertible Pants that can zip off into shorts or these Patagonia Hiking Pants that have a tab and button to roll up the bottoms to mid-calf. And pockets! Most hiking pants for kids have a variety of pockets to hold rocks, leaves & other treasures they find along the trail.
Summer Hiking Gear
For summer hiking gear we mostly repurpose our kids’ daily clothing. Moisture-wicking fabrics keep kids cooler than cotton blends so we aim to stick to those. My boys wear athletic shorts and my daughter typically does too (Lululemon/Athleta Girl type shorts) which work great on hikes. If we need hiking shorts then we’ll zip off the bottoms of their convertible hiking pants. Shirts are typically athletic shirts (Nike, Under Armour for the boys) and (Lululemon/Athleta Girl shirts/tanks for our daughter). I’m not opposed to cotton t-shirts on shorter hikes, but they can be uncomfortable on longer hikes, especially as kids get older and start to sweat. This 5-pack of youth dri-fit shirts comes in a variety of colors and is a great starter pack. For more sun protection, I like these long-sleeve quick-drying hooded shirts with SPF 50+. The material is thin & breathable to help keep kids cool even in the sun.
Additionally, any sort of brimmed hat is essential hiking gear for summer. At a minimum, I insist they wear a baseball hat, but even better if they’ll wear a bucket hat.
Winter Hiking Gear
Our California winters are mild so we generally do not need a lot of hiking gear for cold weather. However, in the Bay Area, the weather can change drastically from the coast to inland or even hour-to-hour as the fog rolls in or burns off. We always bring a variety of jackets, fleeces, vests, and rain jackets (even in the summer!) because we never know what to expect until we get to the trailhead.
I do insist that my kids wear a breathable non-cotton top during the cooler months like this Classic Thermal Merino Crew Base Layer from Smartwool. It helps wick moisture away from their skin and has natural odor resistance which means it can be worn more than once without washing which is key especially when traveling.
Jackets & Fleeces
My kids typically own a fleece as part of their regular wardrobe and whatever they have on hand will usually do just fine. Sometimes we even unzip the removable fleece layer in their ski jackets and use that for hiking. But often my kids use a fleece as their “winter jacket” as our winters are so mild. I always prefer a full-zip fleece as I find them easier to get on/off. Patagonia & Columbia make great well-made options.
My favorite winter jacket for kids (and adults!) is the Patagonia Nanopuff jacket. It provides warmth without the bulk, blocks the wind, and comes in a rainbow of colors & a variety of sizes from adult to toddler.
A good hat can make hiking in the cold or wind a lot more bearable. Beanies keep heads & ears warm at the same time and can easily fit under the hood of a jacket. Our kids have really loved these beanies from Carhardt and the NorthFace makes beanies in some really fun patterns & with pompoms on top!
Rain Gear for Hiking
With waterproof hiking boots and water-repellant pants, there’s much additional rain gear needed for hiking aside from a good rain jacket. I like a thin rain jacket so the kids can wear them over a jacket or fleece and still be able to move their arms easily. With a good jacket or fleece, the rain jacket only needs to keep the rain & moisture out and doesn’t need to add an additional layer of warmth. The rain jacket also needs to roll up compactly so I can shove it in our backpacks without taking up much space – or so the kids can tie it around their waists when not in use. We like the REI Rainwall rain jacket. Other rain gear for hiking you might want: an umbrella (what kid doesn’t love to carry an umbrella?) or a poncho to wear over a backpack. I buy packs of ponchos that don’t take much room to store and fit easily into our backpacks. These adult ponchos are 40 inches long so can fit most school-aged kids as well. The ponchos in this 5-pack for kids are 30 inches long and will fit smaller kids.
So what other kids’ hiking gear might you want?
- Sunglasses – I recently found Goodr sunglasses and am obsessed. My kids are like me: blue-eyed and very sensitive to the sun. It’s important to me to protect their eyes with quality glasses but it’s hard to spend a lot as they are extremely skilled at losing sunglasses. These sunglasses are reasonably priced, polarized, super durable, well-fitting, and don’t slip.
- Binoculars – kids are so observant! Give them a pair of binoculars and let them look all around to see what they can find. Our kids love searching the trees for birds and scanning the sky and water. Our kids have these Carson binoculars which are fantastic. We splurged on these when we went to Costa Rica and have since used them on trips to Panama & Kenya where animal sightings were a big part of the trip. This kids set is probably a better starting point.
- Camera – You can just give them your phone – OR – get them their own digital camera so they can see their pictures instantly and it’s theirs to keep!
- Sketch pad & pencils – if they aren’t ready for their own camera yet – or just prefer to draw – let them sketch what they see when you stop for a break or on the way home.
- Sunscreen – We wear sunscreen every day of the year because of our fair skin. We have tried the gamut of sunscreens trying to find a mineral-based option that consistently works, but we just keep coming back to Neutrogena. We put Neutrogena Age Shield Face SPF 110 on our faces, ears & necks and Neutrogena Beach Defense SPF 70 on the rest of our exposed skin. Skin cancer runs rampant in my family and I am considered high-risk. I see my dermatologist FOUR times a year for skin checks so I have a very high bar for my sunscreens.
- First Aid Kit – Not really for the kids, but they are the ones who usually require it! We have this one that is extremely lightweight & compact and easily fits in a Camelbak.
Hopefully, this kids’ hiking gear review helps you to better understand what gear you may already have on hand to repurpose and the best hiking gear for kids we think is worth purchasing. The bottom line is: just get kids outside enjoying the trails – and if they’re comfortable they’ll last longer with fewer complaints!