The Guide to Zero-Waste Hiking with Kids
Updated: Sep 2, 2021
Hiking together is one of our favorite things to do as a family. We load up the dogs and the kids, and then we spend quality (screen-free!) time outside enjoying nature. Now that we’re back in Montana, we go on a lot of hikes to try to make the most of the warmer months while we can.
Of course, hiking with kids--or really any endeavor with children--can be quite the undertaking, especially when your kids are small. Gone are the days of throwing on a pair of hiking boots, grabbing a water bottle and an apple, and heading out for a quick couple of miles on the trails.
No, hiking with kids can be a full-on event, especially if you’re planning to go out for more than a couple of hours. You’ll need to plan for snacks, water, sunscreen, child-carrying equipment, and more...and of course, you’ll want to make sure to do so in a way that limits waste. However, this shouldn’t deter anyone from going hiking with their kids! And when I talk about hiking, I mean more than just a leisurely stroll on a flat dirt path. It’s totally possible to tackle trails with some decent slope over some pretty long distances if you’re prepared.
My husband and I actually set a goal of hiking 100 miles each month this summer, so we’ve got this down to a science. You don’t necessarily need a ton of STUFF to go hiking but you do want to be prepared, especially if part of your goal is to keep your excursions zero waste.
Here I’ve put together my best advice for hiking with kids. Much of it is general advice so you don’t end up with dirty, exhausted, sunburned, nature-hating demons on your hands by the time you get home (instead, the goal is to end up with dirty, exhausted, nature-loving angels who sleep in the car for the entire ride home). However, I’ve also tailored these tips to help you ensure your trips into nature are also sustainable for nature, with simple swaps to keep things Zero Waste.
The three big components of success for Zero-Waste Hiking with Kids comes down to three things:
Food and water are critical for keeping the kids (and everyone) from becoming hangry and dehydrated. If you’re going for a longer hike (i.e. for more than a couple of hours) you’ll definitely want to bring snacks along. While Ziploc and other single use plastic bags are out for Zero Waste hiking, you also don’t want to bring anything bulky, heavy or breakable like glass jars or containers. Instead, opt for reusable silicone bags or compostable paper bags. Even though we prioritize reusing bags, sometimes after a long hard hike it’s nice to be able to toss everything into the composter instead of having a bunch of things to clean when we get home. Even better, look for snacks like oranges that come in their “own” packaging.
Zero-Waste snacks that are good for hiking:
Fruits (i.e.: items that don’t need packaging)
Bananas (as long as you store them on the top of the bag...otherwise they will get squished and gross. We always bring them though because they are easy for our older baby/toddler to eat)
Any other fruit with a firm peel that won’t get smashed or bruised easily.
Dried Goods (get these out of the bulk bins and pack them in reusable or compostable paper bags)
Nut butters. (Instead of buying in single-serve plastic tubes, I move nut butters from the big jar into reusable baby food jars leftover when the kids were babies)
Granola bars or energy balls (homemade or from bulk bins at the store)
Other lightweight/dry snacks like wasabi peas, dried chickpeas, etc...
Other (These also should be packed in reusable or paper bags) :
Nut butter or seed butter sandwiches (like bananas, try to pack them without totally squishing them or else leave them at home. We only pack sandwiches for REALLY long hikes)
Water (in reusable water bottles). Lots of water. Bring more water than you think you need. If it comes down to space for one more snack or one more reusable water bottle, bring the water. If you have a very small child who has trouble drinking from a big water bottle, bring a reusable straw and durable cup to pour water into for them to drink or get a reusable water bottle with a built-in straw.
If you have a formula-fed baby, make sure to designate some very clean water and bring a bottle/formula along with you too. Bring more than you think you need just in case your hike takes longer than expected.
Reusable cleaning wipes for wiping off hands before and after eating (you can learn how to make them in this post).
Snacks to avoid:
Squishy fruits like berries. They are hard to bring along without just getting squashed and nasty
Dairy/meat that needs to be kept really cold. These things tend to sweat and get yucky while you hike
Storebought individually wrapped snacks like granola bars, cheese sticks, etc. They just result in too much plastic.
Chocolate & candy: It just turns into a melted mess and isn’t great energy food for kids. That said, I’ve been known to keep some emergency cookies in the car for AFTER the hike as bribery to get everyone down the hill.
Anything that involves utensils or assembly. It’s just a pain in the butt. Opt for finger foods that are ready to eat.
Other notes on food:
*DON’T TOSS THAT APPLE CORE. Or your banana or orange peel or any other scraps. I know we’ve all done it thinking it will biodegrade. However this is still not a great idea. Those scraps can attract animals to the trails, increasing their dependence on humans for food AND increasing the odds of encounters with humans that can be harmful for the animals (and possibly the humans) involved. Instead, pack your scraps and carry them out to put them in the composter at home. As the old wisdom goes: Pack out what you pack in and leave nothing but footprints.
*If you find berries along the trail and you are certain they are 100% safe to eat (such as raspberries, huckleberries, and thimbleberries) by all means take a few. The kids will probably think it’s really cool. However, make sure not to clean out the bush so you leave some for wildlife. Also don’t go trampling off-path for more as this can disturb plants and animal homes (you can read a bit more about foraging for food in this post about places to source Zero Waste food).
*If this were a camping trip instead of a hiking trip where we would be going for several days, there would of course be a lot more on this list. However even for long hikes, just a few of the snacks from this list should be sufficient until you get home for lunch or dinner.
Clothing & Footwear:
This is big. If the kids aren’t dressed right or they aren’t wearing the right shoes, be prepared for a really miserable time. All the snacks in the world are not going to distract kids from blisters on their feet or from being too hot or too cold. Everyone needs:
A hat: A baseball cap or sun hat with a brim is best for keeping the sun off of heads and faces. These don’t have to be new. Secondhand and hand-me-down hats are fine. For cold weather, swap the brimmed hat for a warm knit cap.
Socks: Make sure the kids have comfortable, ideally moisture-wicking socks on, and bring at least one extra pair. Whether you come across a stream to cross or an irresistible mud puddle, wet feet make for unhappy (and stinky!) feet. Bring the extra socks. You’ll thank me later.
Good Shoes: Kids don’t need $100 fancy hiking shoes they’re going to grow out of in a month, but they do need a pair of sturdy shoes with ankle support and some tread on the bottom. If buying used, make sure the shoes or boots aren’t completely stretched out and that the insoles aren’t worn down so kids don’t get blisters or extra sore feet from ill-fitting footwear. If you’re hiking in the summer, you’ll want the shoes to be more breathable. That said, I recommend against so-called hiking sandals. They are a great way to stub your toes and get rocks and sand trapped under your feet. Even with close-toed sandals, stones and rocks get trapped really easily. There’s nothing worse than having to stop every three minutes for a kid who has rocks in their shoes. In the colder months prioritize shoes or boots that are warmer and waterproof. Merrell is a company with good sustainable practices that makes some good hiking shoes for kids that are not overly expensive and I have seen kids’ hiking footwear on Poshmark.
Layers: Depending on where you’re hiking, the weather can be really variable. We have gone from snow to blistering heat and everything in the span of a few hours on some of our hikes. I suggest making sure everyone has a short-sleeve t-shirt/tanktop, a long sleeve t-shirt, a hoodie or sweatshirt, and a waterproof layer, especially if you’re going to be out for more than a couple of hours. If your hike takes longer than you expect (which it often does with kids) you’ll want to have those extra layers in case evening comes on faster than you expect. Kids can take the layers on and off as they need, and keep an eye on babies to make sure they aren’t overheating or getting too cold.
Diapers: If your child is still in diapers or training pants, make sure to bring diapers, wipes, and a blanket or mat for a trailside diaper change. You’ll also want to bring a bag or something to stash dirty diapers in so you can pack them out. You don’t need to bring your entire diaper bag, but have the basics so your little one stays comfortable and dry.
You don’t need a ton of gear just to go out for a day hike, but there are a few essentials you will need to make everyone’s life easier and to make things pleasant enough that your family actually wants to go hiking again.
Baby/Child Carrier: If your kids are under the age of 5, you’re going to want to have a baby carrier or a child carrier. The age and size of your kids will determine which carrier you’ll want to get. REI Co-op and many children’s consignment stores will carry gently used baby carriers and/or children’s hiking frames. You can also get gently used carriers from ErgoBaby through their Everlove program.
For us, child carrying is one thing we considered worth investing in new, because we knew it would be used for many years by multiple children, and after our children, can be passed on to cousins and friends. I’ve actually used a few baby carriers over the years, both new and as hand-me-downs. Over the years, here are the carriers I’ve tried and found best for hiking:
ErgoBaby Omni 360: (For babies/toddlers) I’ve had our Ergobaby carrier since our son (who is five at the time of this writing) was a newborn and he was able to fit into until he was three years old. Now our daughter (who is currently just shy of a year) rides in it comfortably. Even though this isn’t marketed as hiking carrier necessarily, both of my kids really enjoyed (and my daughter continues to enjoy) riding in it, because they could ride in the back or the front, nurse, and take a nap. I like wearing it because I feel like I have better balance with the baby closer to my body. It’s breathable, which makes it a good choice for summer hiking. Again, you can also find these used through ErgoBaby Everlove.
Boba Wrap: (For babies and small toddlers) When we envision hiking with kids, we don’t always envision hiking with a baby-wearing wrap. However, I’ve had good luck hiking with the wrap even on long hikes. It’s especially nice for cooler weather, as the wrap’s layers add some extra warmth. My daughter is a much larger baby than my son was, and I think she especially appreciates the extra comfort provided by the wrap. The wrap is also a very economical choice, they hold up well for multiple kids, and they are relatively easy to find second-hand at children's consignment stores. However because the wrap does not have a built-in weather shield, you’ll want to be extra sure the baby is wearing a hat and/or bring a light blanket to shield their head.
Osprey Poco Plus: (For babies up to preschoolers) This thing is a beast. It can carry from 7lbs 11oz to 48lbs 11oz, so it works for our baby and for our five-year-old (who is a bit small for his age). Even with our son riding, we can pack water and snacks into the pockets and still get under the weight limit. Our son does mostly walk (or run, or climb on rocks), but it’s good to have the bigger carrier for longer hikes in case his legs need a break. Also if our daughter gets sick of riding in the ErgoBaby or wrap, she can take a turn in the Osprey so she can get a better view of what’s going on around her. Because it has lots of pockets and special straps for hanging toys, it's useful even when the kids aren’t riding in it. That said, I only recommend getting this if you’re really going to be doing a lot of hiking, because it is on the expensive side. If you think it’s worth it, it will last a lot of years and hold up through a lot of kids. It would a gem of a find to get it second-hand. If you're lucky, you may be able to find one in REI Co-Op's used section.
Both the Osprey and the Ergo carriers have a fabric shield you can pull over the baby’s head. If you get a different type of baby carrier, I strongly suggest getting one with a sun/rain shield or bringing something with you that you can pull over your child’s head to better protect them from the elements.
Backpack: If your child carrier doesn’t also double as a supply pack, you’ll want a sturdy but not overly huge backpack (you don’t want to be weighed down if you need to pick up and carry a kid). There are lots of fancy packs out there, but honestly just get the best quality you can afford with enough compartments doe food, water, etc… You may be able to find a gently used pack somewhere like REI co-op or at a thrift store. You can also get this inexpensive pack from EarthHero.
Sunscreen: You'll want plastic-free sunscreen of at least SPF 30. Even if you think the trail will be shady, bring sunscreen and reapply often. It’s getting easier to find plastic and package-free sunscreen. You could try this SPF 50 sunscreen that comes in a reusable tin or this Baby/Kid Specific Sunscreen.
Bug Repellent: This Badger bug spray comes in an aluminum bottle that can either be reused or recycled. You can also find this solid bug repellent in a reusable tin. Especially if you’ll be hiking anywhere near a lake, pond, or other standing water, you’ll want to keep the mosquitos off.
First Aid Kit: Always have a first aid kit. While this might involve a little bit of plastic for bandaids and other medic supplies, it’s worth it in case someone gets hurt. I also suggest keeping a flashlight with fresh batteries in your pack just in case.
Bear Spray (optional depending on where you live): If you live in a place with a lot of bears, like the first aid kit, this is a “better safe than sorry” situation. Even though we live in a place with a lot of bears around, we’ve never had a need for bear spray because our dogs and kids alert everyone and everything for the next 10 miles that we’re around.
It looks like a lot all written out, but once you get into the groove (and figure out how to arrange everything in your pack) it’s really not that bad. Do I bring all of these things every single time we go hiking? If it’s truly going to be a short hike on a trail we know well, then no, we bring a bit less. But for longer hikes or in hikes in new places, I strongly believe in being prepared (but not going overboard with unnecessary and expensive equipment).
Keeping kids Happy
Remember to take breaks and have fun. Kids riding in the carrier need a chance to stretch their legs and play, and kids who are walking will need to rest their legs. You’re not racing to any destination, and if you move slower or need to turn around before completing your hike, it’s not the end of the world
Make the hike about more than just walking from one point to another. Turn it into a scavenger hunt to see if kids can spot specific things (for example a wildflower, a hawk, and a beetle). To encourage kids to refrain from picking flowers and leaves or disturbing bugs and other critters, try installing an app like iNaturalist on your phone. The free app will identify plants, bugs, and other animals so you can take pictures to identify wildlife instead.
Young children in carriers tend to nap pretty well, but when your little one is awake, give them an opportunity to explore by pausing to let them touch rocks and tree trunks on the way by. We turned this into a game for our daughter and it keeps her entertained (plus helps her build some new vocabulary) for quite a while.
Final Words of Wisdom:
Be aware of your surroundings: Depending on where you’re hiking, there can be unexpected drop-offs, encounters with wildlife, and other hazards. You may also be sharing the trail with mountain bikes or ATVs. All of these things can be navigated safely, but it is always best to keep children close and discourage them from running ahead. We generally hike with one parent leading the way, children in the middle, and one parent taking up the rear. That way we always know exactly where everyone is.
At the end of the day, the important thing is to get outside with the family, have fun, and teach our children a love for nature so they understand why we work so hard to produce less waste and take care of our planet. It’s easy to keep your adventures zero waste. With a little preparation, you can easily bring waste-free snacks and source gear sustainably. And of course, no matter where you are hiking, always remember to pack out whatever you pack in, from food scraps to diapers.