How to pack for a day hike & grab this packing checklist!

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

(This post contains affiliate links for your convenience. As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases. If you make a purchase through my link I receive a small commission at no added cost to you. See my policy page for more information)

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 little Asher gets hungry, when little Melody 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?

Hey, would you like your own daypack checklist?

How to pack your backpack for hiking with kids

How to pack for a day hike: what do you really need?

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.

all the items in our family day pack

But to help with these questions, let me share what I pack when I’m heading out for an afternoon walk with my littles.

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

Here’s a short ‘packing your daypack packpack’ 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.

7 Tips to packing your daypack: 

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 / older kids that 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. 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.

3. Water

Bring lots.

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

Nalgene are our favorites.

4. 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

5. 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.

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, and water purification tablets

I’ll admit, I’ve never used these tablets in an emergency, but I feel that 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 bag 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 really good 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

Also, 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
  • sunglasses and extra sunscreen
  • bug spray
  • 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 more 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
  • emergency, survival stuff (which many would actually consider must-haves no matter what) 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

A few last day pack tips:

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.

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

What’s next?

Once you’ve mastered the day hike with kids, you may want to start venturing a little farther into the wilderness.  Learning how to prepare yourself and your kids for backcountry hiking and camping can take time and you’ll be most successful with practice.  This article will break your needed preparations down into simple points of consideration.

You might also want to read:

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 for a day hike & grab this packing checklist!”

  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.?

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *