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Winter Daypack Essentials: What to Take Hiking with Kids

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

Your daypack essentials can live right in your backpack so that you’re always ready for an impromptu afternoon outside, and 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 your daypack essentials, especially in the winter.

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

What is the Difference Between a Backpack and a Daypack?

A daypack is a type of backpack that is designed for short hiking trips lasting less than a day, hence the name. They are smaller than backpacks that you would use on multi-day hikes, usually 10 – 25 liters, which is perfect for the hiking essentials, but not suitable for long trips where you have to pack lots of food and clothing. I use my daypack every single day in both summer and winter. It’s kind of like a purse for the outdoor adventurer. 

The Best Winter Daypacks for Hiking

You don’t necessarily need a summer daypack and a winter daypack for hiking, although you should make sure that your winter daypack is rugged, water-resistant, and large enough to carry some extra layers. In the summer, I usually use a Gregory Nano 18 H20 Hydration Pack. It is super small and light, with just enough room for snacks, a rain jacket, and a small first aid kit, and it includes a 3-liter reservoir for easy access to water.

I don’t recommend using any type of hydration system in the winter, so when it’s cold and snowy, I pack the Osprey Sirrus 24 Pack, which comes with an integrated rain cover, has four exterior pockets and is large and rugged enough for a long family day hike. In the summer, I use the Osprey for longer hikes. It is compatible with hydration bladders – I just don’t like dealing with them when it’s cold. 

The Winter Daypack Essentials: What to Take Hiking with Kids

A boy sits on a rock near a stream in the winter. He is wearing colorful clothing and a blue daypack.
Kids should carry their own daypack for more independence.

So what kind of gear do you need to pack for winter hiking with kids? Let’s start with your hiking daypack. We’ll get to the kids’ daypack later on. Now that you’ve chosen your daypack, it’s time to fill it up. 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 – We keep a plastic bag with basic first aid supplies at the bottom of our winter hiking daypack. In the winter, our most commonly used item is our ACE bandage, Bandaids, and moleskin for blisters. You can buy a ready-made first-aid kit for hiking, but we usually make our own. This article from Backpacker lists everything you need in your day hiking first aid kit. I would only add a list of emergency numbers for the location we’re hiking in – hospital, police, and veterinarian.
  • Extra socks – Everyone wears thick wool socks for winter hiking, and I always bring an extra pair for each person. I’ve only had to use the extras once when one of the kids stepped through the ice and into a monster puddle. Those socks were immediately put to good use! Our favorite socks for winter hiking? Definitely, Darn Tough Vermont socks, which are made in Vermont and unconditionally guaranteed for life. They are made of the softest merino wool and come in sizes for kids and adults. For the kids, we buy the cushioned ski socks for winter hiking. We’ve had the same socks for more than five years, and they’ve still got plenty of cushion left.
  • Hand/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 every 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 (2) – Depending on how cold it is, I will sometimes carry warm water in an insulated Hydroflask bottle. Otherwise, our drinking water becomes ice-cold half-way through the hike. 
  • Trail map – Everyone carries their own trail map. We look at the map and discuss the trail we are taking before we embark.
  • Emergency firestarter – A source of fire is important to have in emergency situations. I carry waterproof matches and a lighter in my hiking daypack, and my kids are old enough to carry their own as well.
  • Cell phone, battery pack, and device warmers – Because of spotty service, we know not to rely 100% on our cell phones while hiking, but we do bring it, along with a power bank, and these device warmers, which help preserve the battery. 
  • Satellite messaging device – If you know you will be hiking where cell phone service is spotty (most of Vermont, ha!), it is worth the peace of mind and the small subscription fee to have a satellite messaging device. We use the SPOT X, which allows you to communicate with family and friends even if you’re out of cell range, plus it has an SOS feature that can communicate with search-and-rescue organizations if you ever need help in the backcountry.
The SPOT X 2-Way Satellite Messenger
  • Sunscreen – We are a bunch of redheads, and the winter sun is harsher than it looks.
  • Sunglasses
  • Multitool or pocket knife – We love our Opinel pocket knives. 
  • Lip balm – I find this especially important in the winter months. I keep mine in my pocket, so I can use it often.
  • Emergency mylar blanket – So light and easy to pack, this is one of those boy scout items that I’ve never used, but always carry.
  • Extra mittens/gloves – Cold fingers can ruin a trip very quickly, and kids are very apt to make snowballs, fall in puddles, or just futz around with their hands in the dirt. The answer, of course, is 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 midweight fleece layer for everyone, just in case. Read about how we layer the kiddos for winter if you’re curious. 

Not-So-Essential Gear for Your Hiking Daypack

A boy hikes through the woods with a blue daypack.
Whenever possible, encourage your kids to carry their own daypacks.

Okay, so you’ve packed all the essentials listed above and you still have room in your bag. Here are a few winter nonessentials for your hiking daypack, simply to make your hike more fun.

  • Hot cocoa or tea in a small thermos is always a hit in our family. In fact, it’s pretty much expected! 
  • A ball or something to throw – I wouldn’t recommend this on every hike, but if we’re not climbing a mountain, we often bring something to toss back and forth while we’re walking.
  • A magnifying glass or a pair of 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.

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! 

The Best Hiking Backpacks for Kids

Two kids sit with their backs to the camera. They are wearing colorful clothing and hiking daypacks.
Kids’ daypacks don’t have to be fancy or expensive!

We’ve got a couple of suggestions for awesome daypacks for kids. Of course, any old backpack will do, but if you can afford it, I’d get a dedicated hiking backpack, which will be lighter and more rugged than a backpack that is meant for carrying books to school. Here are our top choices for daypacks for kids.

  • Osprey Daylite Pack – Kids’ – The Osprey Daylite Pack is a lightweight 10-liter pack with comfortable padded straps and a sternum strap for extra support. It has three exterior pockets and comes in red and blue. Oh, and as of this writing, it’s quite affordable at $38. 
  • REI Co-Op Tarn 18 Pack – Kids’ – This 18-liter pack comes in under $30 and it’s got padded shoulder straps, a hip belt, and a sternum strap. Side compression straps help balance the load, and it is hydration bladder compatible. The Tarn 18 comes in two colors – Nightsea and Redrock, plus reflective accents.
  • REI Co-Op Tarn 12 Pack – Kids’ – Exactly like the Tarn 18, only smaller. The Tarn 12 is a 12-liter pack that comes in two colors – Clean Green and Goji Red. 

What to Pack in Your Kids’ Daypack for Hiking

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) – Opinels are inexpensive and fun to use. 
  • Hand/feet warmers
  • Sunglasses
  • Lip balm
  • Emergency mylar blanket 
  • Extra mittens/gloves

While it may seem like a lot of stuff to carry around, it’s better 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.

Did I forget anything? What does your family carry in your winter daypack when hiking with kids?

Want to read more about adventuring with kids? Check out these posts:

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A collage of hiking photos with the text: Winter Daypack Essential: What you need for Hiking with Kids
Two kids sitting with their backs to the camera. They are wearing colorful clothing and daypacks. Caption reads: Tips for Hiking with Kids. Packing your winter daypack.