The gear you need to go hiking with kids from footwear to sports strollers.
Hiking is a relatively inexpensive activity if you compare it to gym memberships, personal trainers, and fitness classes. When hiking solo, the biggest costs you incur are footwear, gasoline, and possibly a park pass, but when hiking with children you also need kid transporting devices such as baby carriers, sports strollers, or kid-carrying backpacks. Fortunately, most of the big ticket items can be picked up for half price if you buy second hand / used / clearance items.
First of all, don’t let anyone talk you into $300 hiking boots. While hiking boots are necessary for full day hikes, scrambles, and backpacking trips, they may not be necessary for short hikes with your children. Running shoes with good treads – not smooth soled sneakers – actually work quite well on easy to moderate dirt and gravel trails. I grew up outside Vancouver and hiked in runners my whole life because
my parents were cheap that’s all I had. If you can’t fathom getting your runners dirty, would like a little extra support and traction, but aren’t ready to invest in proper hiking boots, consider waterproof trail runners. They are light, comfortable, and don’t require breaking-in like leather hiking boots.
Exception: If you regularly do long hikes, scrambles or backpacking trips and/or will be carrying your baby in in a baby backpack, I strongly recommend investing in a decent pair of hiking boots. They cost more, but your feet will thank you. The extra support and cushioning will help prevent dead, lead feet.
Buy the best footwear you can afford, with “best” meaning best fit and best materials for your purposes/personal preference.
- Fit: Fit is critical. If the boots are too tight or rub in places, they will give you blisters. Buy the boots that fit you best!
- Material: I recommend breathable and waterproof hiking shoes/boots like the Vasque Breeze 2.0 ($179 at& Mountain Equipment Co-op), so you can cross small streams without risking wet feet and blisters. While they are light, waterproof and super comfortable, they are not as durable as full leather boots; something to keep in mind.
- Hiking shoes vs boots: Hiking shoes are lighter and many are good for trail running. For longer hikes, backpacking, and scrambling, however, a midheight hiking boot is your best choice. Midheight boots not only provide some ankle support, they also keep debris out, and have a heel lock to keep your heel from rubbing.
Selecting Children’s Footwear
For very young children, running shoes work great because they are comfy and light. Even if you want hiking boots, the smallest size most companies make is size 10. Choose runners with decent treads (not sneakers) so your kids won’t slip on dirt or gravel. Check local outlets for deals – our name brand Nike and Saucony kids’ runners were only $15 and $12 at The Shoe Warehouse! Besides affordability, other benefits of runners are that they are light, breathable, and washable.
Once your children start doing longer hikes (8 km + round trip), backcountry trips, or scrambles, it is time to look at hiking shoes or hiking boots. For used hiking shoes and boots, try Kijiji or Once Upon a Child. It might take a while for your child’s size to come up, but you can save a lot of money! As with your own footwear, buy the ones that fit best. I highly recommend selecting waterproof hiking boots so your child’s feet stay dry, warm, and blister-free.Children’s Footwear Prices – New Running Shoes: $10-$90 Hiking shoes: $55-$85 Hiking boots: $59-$125
Socks and Gaiters
If you want to keep blisters at bay, buy wool or wool blend hiking socks (no cotton!). My kids wear Wigwam Merino Comfort Hiking Socks ($10 at MEC) or SmartWool ($15 at MEC), and I wear Teko Organic Midweight Hiking Socks ($22 at MEC) or Fox River Strive Crew socks ($11 at MEC).Gaiters keep debris out of your boots and are helpful to have if you will be travelling through mud, scree, or snow; or end up accidentally bushwhacking. If you don’t have gaiters, in a pinch, you can tuck your pants into your socks. Sure it isn’t stylish, but it works and keeps ticks out too. If you choose to purchase gaiters, get the Goretex ones ($45 at MEC) that are breathable or you’ll get heat rash all over your calves when it’s hot out.
Kid Transporting Devices
There is so much I could write about kid transporting devices, having owned so many of them, but in short, if you are looking at baby carriers, a baby/child carrying backpack is best. Why is the backpack best? It is easier on your back and more comfortable for your child if you get something higher end like the LittleLife or Deuter. Our kids loved being able to see everything by sitting up high,facing forward. Thoughtful details like cushioned chin/headrests, sunshade, stirrups (so your child’s legs aren’t dangling), and well-padded shoulder straps and hip belt, mean everyone will be more comfortable and you’ll actually want to take your child hiking again. A high end baby backpack is around $300, but we found a used one for only $40.
Baby backpacks allow you to get into more rugged terrain or access trails you can’t with a sports stroller (ones with stairs for example), and they are more compact, but sports strollers have their own advantages. First off, you don’t have to break your back carrying your kid! Secondly, you can bring extra gear without worrying too much about weight (but depending on your stroller, you may not have much cargo space). Finally, if you have a cover for your stroller, you get extra protection from bugs and the elements.
There are several sports strollers on the market, but our favorite is the Thule Chariot Cougar. The features that make this sports stroller/bike trailer desirable are as follows:
- weather/bug proofing: close that bad boy up when it’s windy, rainy, dusty, or buggy and your child is protected
- warmth: closing up the doors and vents ensures your child stays warmer in cold temperatures
- can double as a bike trailer; Chariot also has attachments so you can cross country ski with the trailer (Note: extra charge for xc ski attachments)
- available as single or double stroller
I wish the Chariot had a bit more cargo space. My MEC double child trailer could accomodate a few bags of groceries, but the Chariot Cougar 2 (double) could only hold a few things in the divided cargo compartment. While the Chariot has an optional cargo rack (about $100) for additional cargo space, I still find the cargo space limited as the cargo rack cannot hold much weight. Now for pricing… wait for it… A single Chariot (Cougar 1 model) will set you back $700, and the double is $800. We were fortunate to find a used single Chariot for $350 and a used double Chariot for $400.
A complete list of daypack essentials, is here.
The clothing is very important; always pack a midlayer and windproof/waterproof layer in case the weather changes. Don’t have a waterproof jacket? A plastic poncho is cheap, light and effective, as is a plastic garbage bag.
If you are heading into the mountains, I highly recommend carrying bear spray. It’s like insurance; you hope you never need to use it, but if you do need it, you’ll be glad you have it. Learn about bear safety before heading out, teach your kids, and carry the bear spray just in case. I’ve been up close to “friendly” grizzlies a couple times, but never with my kids because they’re so loud. Finally, a place where my kids’ incessant noisemaking is an asset! Read our story 10 Bear Safety Tips for Hikers for ways to avoid surprising bears.
Visits to National Parks require a National Park Pass. You may purchase a daily family/group pass for $19.60 and an annual family/group pass for $136.40. We always purchase the annual pass as it pays for itself in only seven visits. Note: Canadian AMA members can save 7% when purchasing their National Park Pass from AMA.
Hiking poles are not necessary until you are doing long distances or very steep hikes. I have a pair that I use on backpacking trips, long hikes (20+ kilometres) or on the descent if I’m scrambling. When you do easy hikes, poles are just extra weight and tend to get in the way. I prefer to have my hands free to help my kids or take photos!
If you feel you must have trekking poles, cheap ones are available for as low as $10 (non-retractable), some semi-decent ones can be found in the $20-40 range, and Black Diamond makes beauties for about $150. The best ones are not too heavy and retract into thirds rather than half or not at all. Look for light, telescoping poles with external locking systems (NOT the internal locking ones that you have to twist).
In closing, buy the best fitting footwear you can afford (boots not necessary unless you are doing long hikes, scrambles, or carrying a heavy pack/kid) and a decent pair of socks, look for a good baby backpack and/or Thule Chariot on Kijiji, pick up a canister of bear spray, and make sure you have all the essentials listed in my pack list. Ask Santa for a Park Pass for Christmas and you’re all set.
It may seems like a lot of money now, but most of these items will be used on a daily basis, not just for hiking, so you will get your money’s worth. Besides, if you invest in this gear now and get your kids hooked on hiking, maybe you won’t have to buy video games in the future. Here’s hoping! Where have you found the best deals on outdoor gear?