Charlotte Mason said in Home Education, “Let them once get in touch with Nature, and a habit is formed which will be a source of delight through life…” The summer months are finally upon us here in the Northern Hemisphere and I hope that means lots of nature hikes for everyone! I attempt to schedule a longer nature hike for us at least once per week and I know that having the right gear for the excursion can either make or break the trip. Obviously, for shorter trips to a local park or even just a path near your home, a whole lot of extra equipment isn’t needed. However, today I thought I might share some of our favorite nature hike gear for longer day hikes. This list was originally written in 2019, but as we’ve gotten more hiking experience and the kids have gotten older, I decided it needed some updating!
I’ve written about my hydration pack before but I can’t go on about it enough. I used an old backpack I got from a former employer for years when we went hiking, but as the kids got older and water bottles got larger, the backpack got heavier and more cumbersome. For the price, this pack absolutely cannot be beaten. It offers better back support for longer hikes and comes with a 2-liter bladder as well as two side pockets for extra bottles. So I have my water in the bladder (which I can drink through the tube attached to my shoulder any time without having to ask the kids to stop), and then room for more bottles in the side pockets for the kids.
It also comes with several other pockets that offer plenty of room to carry whatever I need on the trail, including a pocket large enough to carry a first-aid kit and my camera. One of my favorite parts is that the chest strap has a built-in whistle, so if the kids get too far ahead of me, I let out a quick whistle and they (usually) find their way back to me.
I debated between the blue and green bags but decided on the blue as it’s brighter and if we ever got lost for whatever reason, it’s easier to see from a distance. My only caveat with this bag is that the plastic taste of the bladder that came with it was very strong in the beginning, so I switched that one out for my old CamelBak bladder which has already been conditioned. According to reviews, the taste does go away after a few uses, just make sure you clean it out well between nature hikes. I like to store mine in the freezer to keep it as clean as possible.
(It may seem counterintuitive to buy a pack that already comes with a bladder and then buy another bladder to replace it, but the cost of these two items combined on Amazon is still cheaper than the cost of one CamelBak [which, I feel, makes the best bladders] for the number of pockets and storage options you get with the cheaper pack.)
Here in Colorado, we can go from 30 degrees in the morning to over 90 in the afternoon, especially if you’re changing altitude at any time. For this reason, I’ve learned to dress in layers. In spring and fall, I usually start with a tank top base layer, then a light, long-sleeve t-shirt (to protect my arms from the sun), then either a rain jacket (or windbreaker) or sweatshirt, depending on what the forecast says, as well as a baseball hat. I’ll skip the long-sleeve shirt in the summer and just wear a short-sleeve t-shirt instead (I offer some fun designs here!). I usually go with the sweatshirt option for winter hikes then wear a down jacket over that with gloves (I prefer fingerless as they’re more useful) and a knit hat.
I generally wear hiking pants (the link is to my absolute favorite pair), but another great option that is also comfortable in the warmer months is leggings. In the winter, I layer the hiking pants with thermal leggings. I’m very much a jeans kind of girl the rest of the time, but they just don’t cut it for comfort when we’re hiking.
To save money, I like to get my hiking clothes on thredUP, primarily because I can get good-quality, name-brand (prAna, Patagonia, Columbia, and The North Face are a few favorites) outdoor clothing for much less money than I would at REI or other outdoor stores. If consignment clothing isn’t your thing, Sierra Trading Post also has great deals on outdoor clothing.
In warmer months, I use my trusty KEEN sandals. I bought these several years ago on clearance at REI and they’ve been fantastic hiking shoes as they offer more protection than other types of sandals, but still keep my feet cool and I can walk through water in them. In cooler temps and wintertime, I have a pair of KEEN hiking boots that I love as well. I usually get shoes for the whole family at Sierra Trading Post.
Baby Carrier (optional)
Obviously, this is not a must if your kids are older, but when my kids were under the age of three or four, my baby carriers were indispensable when we went for hikes. The first one I reached for not only for hikes but just for having hands-free days around the house when I had infants was my mei tai. Unfortunately, the company that made the one I used with both of my kids and absolutely loved is no longer in business, but here’s another one that looks good. If you want something a little more structured, the Ergobaby carriers were enormously popular when my kids were babies. We also got a used Kelty on Craiglist for longer hikes as they provided more support as the kids got older.
For the Kids
I don’t necessarily think that backpacks for kids are a necessity for nature hikes (especially if they have a hydration pack – see below- with pockets), though they can come in handy if your child is prone to collecting lots of things in nature (as mine are). We’ve had success with the Everest Junior Backpack, though it’s not large enough to carry a regular-sized notebook, so best left for younger children (they do also sell a larger size as well). Of course, the Fjallraven backpacks are often an accessory in homeschooling circles, but they haven’t fit into our budget quite yet.
Water Bottles/Hydration Packs
- Hydration pack (for older kids – water bottles are a must if you don’t have this)
- Waterbottle (stainless steel, aluminum, or glass)
Water is extremely important on hikes, particularly during the warmer months. Here in Colorado and especially at elevation, we have to be diligent about hydration during hikes due to the thinner atmosphere and lower levels of oxygen. I’m looking at upgrading the kids to their own CamelBaks as the hydration pack that I use is a little too large for them but they’re finally at the age where they can start carrying their own water.
When I was still planning to carry the kids’ water bottles in my pack, I wanted ones that were as light as possible but still stayed away from plastic. Klean Kanteen and SIGG bottles are lightweight and the perfect size for day hikes. If you don’t mind the extra weight, we also really like the LifeFactory bottles.
Wide-brimmed hats (the link is to our favorite brand) are an absolute must when we go on a nature hike and I actually also make the kids wear them when they’re playing in the yard (yes, I’m THAT mom). Usually, they wear long-sleeved, light-colored t-shirts to protect their arms from the sun (I get these in cotton as it’s breathable and keeps them cooler), though on some rare occasions (see note below on sunscreen in the “In the bag” section”) we do short-sleeves and sunscreen. Depending on the forecast, I’ll also carry rain jackets for them in my bag.
In cooler temps, they usually add on a sweatshirt or sweater, a jacket, a knit hat, and sweatpants and/or snowpants when they’re called for. In the summer, they wear shorts to stay cooler but they know very well what poison ivy looks like and I also keep a watch out for it if they head off the trail. I generally get their clothes at thrift sales, Primary, or Target.
I get the kids new sandals every year when temps are higher, so the brand may vary, but usually, they’re either KEENs or Tevas. I also make sure they are water-friendly as most of our hikes run into water at some point and they like to splash around in it.
In the winter and cooler weather, I get them Kamik Snobusters boots as these come with a removable liner, so they keep their toes dry and warm in the winter but we can still use them in the warmer months, particularly the spring when the trails are still very muddy. I also like to get all of their shoes on Sierra Trading Post.
A good first-aid kit also a must on the trail. I have one that I bought years ago at REI for backpacking and have just replaced and added to over the years as necessary. This is another great option if you want one pre-assembled, but you can also make your own (or a more holistic version). I made one for us out of an empty Welly tin with a few of their bandaids as well Arnica (for bumps, bruises, and bleeding), Apis (for bug bites and stings), Rhus Tox (for poison ivy/oak), and healing salve (for burns, cuts, scrapes, etc.). A trail first-aid book is also good to have. Often, if you buy a pre-made one, it will also come with survival equipment like matches, thermal blankets, whistles, glowsticks, etc. which can be literal life-savers.
I know there are apps for identifying just about every bird/flower/tree/mammal/rock under the sun, but out in the wild, sometimes cell coverage can be spotty, and sometimes it’s just better all-around not to pull your phone out. In these cases, field guides are quite handy. Our favorites are from Stan Tekiela who makes several field guides on various topics for several different states. These are the perfect size for the trail and are easy to page through and find what you’re looking for. In addition, a good pair of binoculars is a must for identifying far-away things (as birds so often are).
In the Bag
Other random things you might want to consider including are:
- Though we don’t always pull ours out, I try to remember to pack our nature journals and watercolor sets (brush pens and a paper towel are also useful but not necessary). Usually, we end up finding something on the trail to bring home and paint later, but it’s good to have the option if creativity demands it.
- A whistle and a small mirror in case you get lost and need to draw attention to yourself. It probably seems silly, but getting lost in the wilderness does happen, and carrying these two small items is not much of a sacrifice.
- A magnifying glass for looking at plants, bugs, rocks, etc. up close! Some have built-in flashlights which are good not only for lighting up dark spaces, but also to have on hand in case of an emergency.
- If you don’t bring a good multi-tool, it is inevitable that at some point or another, you will need a good multi-tool. Sometimes pre-made first-aid kits come with them but they’re not the best quality.
- I also like to bring plastic grocery bags to pick up trash on the trail as well as plastic zip-lock bags to keep the many things the kids pick up that they want to bring home (usually leaves and millions of acorns).
- My kids like to collect bugs either to keep as pets or to feed to another pet (usually mantises, frogs, or toads), so we usually bring along some kind of small, clear, plastic cup with a lid. If you want to collect water-bound lifeforms, an aquarium net comes in handy as well.
- We don’t usually go the sunscreen route, opting for long-sleeve shirts and hats instead, but when we do, Badger makes the best. The same goes for bug spray.
- Hand sanitizer spray is not only good for spraying hands after playing in the water, but also for cleaning out cuts and scrapes.
- For longer hikes, we bring snacks including fruit leathers or Larabars and homemade trail mix (usually just a mix of crispy nuts, raisins, coconut, and chocolate chips). These offer a lot of protein, fat, and carbs in a small package, so they’re a good smaller and lighter-weight alternative to sandwiches/chips/etc. If you do want to bring a bigger meal for a longer hike, I absolutely love the ideas in The Little Lunchbox Cookbook.
- I never go on a nature hike without my DSLR. My cell phone is always an option, but my larger camera allows for a lot more creativity. Generally, I use my 50mm or wide-angle lenses.
- If you’re going on a hike that’s further away from civilization, you’ll want to also bring a map of the area and definitely stay on the trail. A GPS is also handy to have for places with spotty cell coverage.
These are not necessarily things to bring, but are related to hiking!
- Many areas have lots of great local, free trails or open space, but it’s also nice to have state and National Parks passes (the National Parks passes are free for fourth graders!) as these are often less crowded. Our library district even has a program to get a free pass to state parks for a week – yours may also!
- If you have a GPS, I highly recommend looking at Geocaching in your area. This is a great way to entice kids who might be a little resistant to hiking to go on a treasure hunt instead. 🙂