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Winter daypack essentials for hiking with kids

Getting outside in the winter with kids is all about being prepared.

By: Tara Schatz + Save to a List

Let’s face it. Getting outside is harder in the winter. When you’re hiking with kids in cold weather, the secret is to be over-prepared. Just like packing a diaper bag for your littlest babes, your winter daypack for hiking should include all the necessities plus a few nonessentials to make life a bit more fun for everyone.

Your daypack essentials can live right in your backpack so you’re always ready for an impromptu afternoon outside with your kids. Your winter daypack doesn’t have to be used exclusively for hiking. Take it with you when you go sledding, snowshoeing, or cross-country skiing. You never know when you’ll need winter essentials, especially with kiddos.

Carry a small backpack with all the necessities listed below. I also recommend kids carry their own packs to lighten your load and get them used to the responsibility of carrying necessary supplies.

Kids cab carry their own packs starting when they are very young. Photo by Michael Blum.

Winter daypack essentials: What to take hiking with kids

So, what kind of gear do you need to pack for winter hiking with kids? Let’s start with the adult pack. We’ll get to the kids’ daypack in a minute. Here’s what’s in our winter daypack for hikes that are longer than a stroll in the park, but shorter than five miles.

First aid kit
It's always important to be prepared for medical emergencies small and large. Fill a small plastic bag with first aid supplies and keep it in your winter daypack. It should include an ace bandage for sprains, bandages for cuts, and moleskin for blisters. Add common medications like ibuprofen and an antacid, as well as hand-sanitizer and latex gloves. You can also buy ready-made first aid kits for hiking. 

Extra socks
Thick wool socks are a must for winter hiking, as well as an extra pair for each person in your family. I've only had to use our extras once when one of our kids stepped through the ice and into a monster puddle. Those socks were immediately put to good use! 

Hand and feet warmers
If you live in the northern part of the country, you can find hand-warmer packets at most drug stores, discount stores, and gas stations throughout the winter. They make great stocking stuffers for kids, and we bring a pair for everyone on each winter day hike.

Snacks
It’s cold out and your kids are hungry. This is probably not the time to dole out apples or carrot sticks. I recommend treats that are sweet, high in protein, and easy to eat with mittens on — in other words, these super-seed granola bars.

Water bottles
Bring warm water in insulated bottles for winter hikes. I don't recommend using hydration bladders in the winter, as the mouthpieces freeze up easily.

Trail map 
Paper trail maps are still very useful in the modern age! Teach your kids to read a map instead of relying only on your cell phone. Take a look at the map and discuss the trail you will be traveling on before you head out on your hike.

Emergency fire starter
A source of fire is important to have in emergency situations. Bring along waterproof matches and a lighter, just in case. If your kids are old enough, let them carry their own fire starter.

Cell phone and battery pack
Because of spotty service, we know not to rely 100% on our cell phones while hiking, but we do bring them, along with a power bank. Cold weather drains batteries very quickly, so keep that in mind when hiking in cold weather.

Sunscreen, sunglasses, and lipbalm
Winter sun can be harsh and unforgiving, especially when it bounces off the snow. The cold weather can wreak havoc on your lips, skin, and eyes especially when it's dry and windy! Apply sunscreen and lipbalm regularly, and encourage your family to protect their eyes with sunglasses.

Multitool or pocket knife
So many uses in the backcountry.

Emergency mylar blanket
So light and easy to pack, this is one of those boy scout items that we've never used, but always carry.

Extra mittens or gloves
Kids are very apt to make snowballs, fall in puddles, or just futz around with their hands in the dirt. Unfortunately, cold fingers can ruin a trip very quickly. The solution, of course, is to take an extra pair of warm mittens or gloves for everyone in your group.

Extra layers
This depends entirely on the weather, but I will often pack a mid-weight fleece layer for everyone, just in case. Read about how we layer the kiddos for winter

Whenever possible, encourage your kids to carry their own daypacks. Photo by Tara Schatz.

Not-so-essential gear for your hiking daypack

Okay, so you've packed all the essentials and still have room in your daypack. Here are a few nonessentials to make winter hiking more fun.

Hot cocoa or tea
Bring along a small thermos of something hot and sweet for a trailside treat.

A ball or flying disc
I wouldn't recommend this on every hike, but if you're not climbing a mountain, you might want to bring something to toss back and forth while you're walking with your kids. 

A magnifying glass or binoculars
Have you ever looked at a snowflake under a magnifying glass? How about a distant bird through a pair of binoculars? It's fascinating! Tools for helping your kids see things differently make for a lot of fun on the trail. 

Break time is important too! Photo by S&B Vonlanthen on Unsplash

The Kids' Daypack

As I mentioned above, we always encourage our kids to carry a small pack of their own. Now that our kids aren’t really kids anymore, I can say with confidence that starting them young paid off! As they grew, they rarely complained about hiking with a pack, and by the time they were teens, they carried more than I did. 

I think the secret is to ensure that the stuff they carry is both lightweight and important. They should absolutely carry their own snacks! 

Young children will love carrying their own pack with a bit of gear, even if it’s just a few necessities like food and water. As they grow and mature, kids can carry more of the load, making it a bit easier on their parents. Here are some winter daypack essentials for your kids’ packs.

  • Water bottle
  • Snacks
  • Whistle - Remind your kids to blow three times if they’re lost or in trouble.
  • Trail map
  • Compass
  • Pocket knife (if they’re old enough) 
  • Hand and feet warmers
  • Sunglasses
  • Lip balm
  • Emergency mylar blanket 
  • Extra mittens or gloves

While it may seem like a lot of stuff to carry, it’s better to over-prepare for a winter day hike. Aside from the water and snacks, many of this hiking gear stays in our winter daypacks all the time. This way, when it’s time to hit the trail, all we have to do is pack the snacks, fill up the water bottles, and get outside.

A version of this post originally appeared on Back Road Ramblers. Feature Image by MaBraS.

We want to acknowledge and thank the past, present, and future generations of all Native Nations and Indigenous Peoples whose ancestral lands we travel, explore, and play on. Always practice Leave No Trace ethics on your adventures and follow local regulations. Please explore responsibly!

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