How to pack a daypack for hiking, & a daypack packing list!

You’re heading out for a family walk in the woods, not packing for Armageddon.  It’s good to be prepared, but surely there’s a limit to how much you can comfortably carry! 

When I’m out for a family day hike, I absolutely hate carrying a heavy backpack.  And, if you’re like me, you hate it even more when your back gets all sticky and sweaty and your shoulders start to ache… all for an afternoon walk through the woods.

So, what should you have in your daypack and what can really just stay at home? Well, read on and get your questions answered.

an open daypack sitting on some rocks overlooking a river and town, text reads best tips for packing your daypack

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On the trails we frequently come across families with oversized packs, walking sticks, bear bells, fancy fanny packs… you know, those families gettin’ their hiking bling on.  And, if you’re into that, and it helps get your family out into nature, then great, go for it!

… however, I’m not into carrying all that extra stuff. 

Sure it’s important to have what you need when the little one gets hungry, skins her knee, and when you have to pee and there’s no outhouse around (realizing, perhaps, you shouldn’t have had that extra cup of coffee on the drive to the trail head). 

But, really, what’s the balance between bringing what you really need and knowing when you’re just packing way too much?

Click here to get a daypack packing list!

How to pack your backpack for hiking with kids

What to pack in a daypack?

Well, unfortunately, there isn’t one straightforward answer.  You’ll need to take a few different things into consideration: age of your kiddos, duration and difficulty of the walk, the weather, remoteness, and the time of day.

Generally, you should pack the following into your daypack:

  • A warm layer for all hikers: windproof/waterproof jackets, mittens and toques (if in a cooler climate)
  • Communication device: cell phone if in an area with reception, a satellite device if in remote locations
  • First aid supplies
  • Bear Spray if hiking in an area frequented by bears or other predatory animals
  • Whistle
  • Food
  • Water
  • Sun protection (hats, sunscreen)
  • Bug spray if hiking in a location with annoying bugs

Grab this printable day pack packing list to help make sure you bring everything you need!

all the items in our family day pack

What’s in mama’s daypack for an average hike in the woods?

Here’s a short ‘packing your daypack’ video clip where I’m packing our bag for just myself and my 4 year old daughter.  We were preparing for a 4 hour hike and ate lunch along the way.  At the farthest point, we would be only 2 km (1.2 miles) away from the very busy trailhead and would have cell phone reception at all times.  I make note of this, because if you are going further into the wilderness, you should be bringing along a few more emergency extras.

Let’s chat about what you need for that day hike in a bit more detail:

1. Coats for everyone

Lightweight and waterproof jackets are the handiest as they’ll protect against rain and keep kids warm if the wind picks up.  If you are hiking in cool weather, you might also want to throw in toques and mittens.

We’re really liking our compact down-filled jackets. They are very warm and fold up small making it easy to add these into our daypacks.

2. Water

Bring lots.

I’d suggest leak-proof water bottles. You don’t need anything fancy, but I prefer wide mouth Nalgenes since I can get my hands in them for better cleaning and scrubbing once in a while, and they are just so durable!

Nalgene are our favorites. Click here to see REIs Nalgene Selection.

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3. Food and Snacks

Easy-to-eat and light-to-carry snacks are best for hikes with kids.  Some go-to snacks are sandwiches, crackers, muffins, dried fruit or dried fruit bars (fruit to go), granola bars, easy to peel oranges, carrot sticks, and apple slices.  I like to pack a few extra granola bars or Clif Bars as the ‘just-in-case’ extra or emergency snacks.

Get more snack ideas here: This article is full of easy, healthy, and yummy hiking snack ideas!

a bag of muffins and water bottle sitting on some rocks on a mountain hiking trail
muffin snacks, and our Nalgene on a day hike!

4. Your Phone and Wallet

These days people don’t seem to go far without their phone.  They’re a lightweight alternative to a heavy camera and getting those cute memories of family hikes and adventures are important.  The cell phone also provides a means of communication in case of emergencies (assuming you have cell reception). 

Leaving your wallet behind in the car or at home means a little less weight to carry and if you are concerned about needing cash, just tuck a twenty into a hidden pocket of your bag and it’ll be there if needed.

If you’re travelling out of cell reception frequently, you may want to consider a satellite communication device. There are a bunch of different options these days. I’d suggest visiting your local outdoorsy supplier store and talk to them there to get the most appropriate advice in purchasing one of these.

5. Sun and Bug Protection

Having hats and sunscreen are important, especially when out in hot weather.

You may also want to consider bug spray if bugs are an issue where you’ll be hiking.

6. The Other Must Haves

You should always have a small selection of first aid supplies with you. In fact, even in my every day mom purse I always carry a small tin with band aids, tweezers for slivers and ticks, antihistamines, some pain medication (like Tylenol) and water purification tablets

I’ll admit, I’ve never used these tablets in an emergency, but because they’re so small I’ll just keep carrying them, just in case. 

Also, pack Kleenex for runny noses or peeing in the woods and a small baggie for your used tissues and garbage. 

Because we live in bear country, we’ve always got some bear spray with us as well.

And a whistle is also a really smart safety item to have attached to your pack!

7. And all the other Extras…

This is where your pack can get really heavy.  Sometimes it’s fun to bring trail guides, binoculars, cameras, special yummies or motivational candies, walking sticks, and activities for the trail (like scavenger hunts and such). 

a kid eating a sandwich while looking at a map

You might need to bring along family particulars such as:

  • diapers, wipes, and an extra sleeper
  • hand sanitizer or sanitizing wipes
  • a special sippy cup
  • epi-pens and inhalers
  • and warmer or extra clothing

Plus, if you happen to be hiking on less-used trails or want to make sure you’re well-prepared for emergencies, you may also want to consider:

  • a better-stocked first aid kit
  • a map of the area
  • a small flashlight or headlamp
  • a small, lightweight tarp (for shelter, for sitting on, for wrapping or carrying)
  • some fire starting supplies
  • an emergency blanket
  • emergency, survival stuff such as a whistle , a compass, a knife, a hook, and some strong thread
a day pack, water bottles, and jackets sitting on a large rock

How to pack a backpack for day hiking, tips:

1. Start with a good backpack

Think about the bag you’re using.  Make sure it’s comfortable with adjustable straps and is lightweight.  I’m always surprised when I pick up empty packs and find them already heavy.  Remember, that all those extra zippers, pockets, and fancy gizmos add weight.

Daypacks don’t have to be expensive either. One of my favorite packs to use was my little guy’s Thomas pack we picked up at Walmart. It was super light, a smaller size, and had nice padded straps.

This link will bring you to REI’s daypack shopping page.

A few tips for choosing a casual family daypack:

  • Side pockets for carrying water bottles
  • A comfortable fit for all adults and older kids who might share in wearing it
  • Padded and adjustable straps
  • A cross chest support strap is nice
  • A cross hip support strap is nice too
young girl carrying the family daypack on a hike
My daughter ‘carrying’ our day pack on a hike

2. How to pack a daypack: specifically, what should go where?

Does your pack have a hard back?  If so, the placement of items inside might not matter so much, as long as you don’t squish your food.  I prefer to place flat, hard-sided items to rest against my back as well as hard, squared items to sit on the bottom of the pack.  These placements will help shape the pack comfortably against your body.

Weight placement will also affect how comfortably it sits on your back. While the tendency might be to place heaviest items first, doing this can sometimes cause the pack to pull down on your shoulders and hips. Play around with the weight and see if putting the heaviest items between your shoulder blades feels better or not.

I also like to make sure the weight is distributed evenly. A heavy water bottle on one outside pocket could make the pack feel off center.

Lastly, it can be helpful to pack the frequently-needed items in an easy to access pocket or on top of everything inside the pack. Tissues, sun glasses, your phone, and small first aid supplies should all be easy to find.

Remember, when hiking with kids: know your priorities and keep your expectations reasonable. 

It should be more important that everyone have a great time than counting the miles hiked or the mountains climbed. 

Making sure everyone has a great time means being well-prepared without being over-burdened. Knowing how to pack for a day hike is the first step to your fantastic family adventure.  So, you should be all ready to go now, how about your take your kids and head out on that next adventure!

To make packing your daypack especially easy, I’ve put together a daypack checklist for you to print out and have on hand every time you need to pack up to hit the trail.  Go ahead and get it below.

Free Printable Daypack Check List for Hiking with Kids
Hiking with kids | Packing tips and check list #hiking #kids
Packing your daypack | Hiking with Kids | #printable
How to pack your daypack | Family hiking. #daypack #hikingwithkids

1 thought on “How to pack a daypack for hiking, & a daypack packing list!”

  1. Let’s not forget Doggie! Many people bring their dogs too.
    Dogs can also carry their own light packs that are made like a vest and contain their water and collapsible dish plus smacks.🐾

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