Essential Outdoor Gear for Kids
August 19, 2012

From AMC Outdoors, July/August 2010

Those dang kids. They're small. They're tall. They're everything in between. And tomorrow they're completely different all over again. You can spend a lot of money trying to outfit a fleeting size range with outdoor gear. So what do you realistically need to equip your kids for outdoor adventure? Not as much as you might think.

1-2-3 clothing basics
One: Synthetic good. Cotton bad. Anything made of fleece, nylon, or polyester works great for any kid's outdoor adventure. Cotton absorbs a lot of water, takes a long time to dry, and can be a discomfort at best or hypothermic at worst. If you prefer a natural fiber, go for wool. You probably already own children's garments that are perfect for hiking or other outdoor activities. Two: Bright and visible. Stand-out colors like yellow, red, and pink make children easier to spot. Add reflective tape to their outer layers for enhanced nighttime visibility. Three: Know the growth curve. Buy on the big side to accommodate future growth. Some manufacturers produce jackets and pants with removable stitches; pop these to extend the sleeve and leg length an inch or two.

Style for young adventurers
Instead of shorts, consider a pair of lightweight hiking pants to protect young legs from rocks, branches, bugs, and other skin-piercing hazards. A hooded fleece makes an excellent insulation layer and provides always-there head warmth (unlike that elusive hat). If you're off on an overnight excursion, carry a set of long underwear tops and bottoms. Finally, good raingear is essential for the often damp Northeast. Don't spend the extra money on some fancy waterproof breathable garment. It's not worth the minimal performance gain—something kids probably won't notice anyway. Opt instead for an inexpensive, non-breathable set of top and bottoms together.

For the feet
The primary purpose of kids' outdoor footwear is to provide protection from the muck and mud, rocks, and brush. Focus less on whether the shoe has an aggressive Vibram sole and excellent arch support, and more on its degree of protection. Waterproof footwear is nice for puddle-happy hikers. A shoe with a higher ankle collar offers maximum defense. Open-toe sandals do not. Don't worry whether the shoe is all leather or all fabric—it probably won't fit long enough to wear out. Young children are notoriously hard to size for shoes. Most can't communicate whether their shoes fit well, or horribly, or somewhere in between. The only realistic measure you have is whether the toes hit the front (they definitely should not), which you can feel with your thumb. Consider buying on the big side and adding extra socks until they grow into them.

Backpacks and weight
Young hikers are easily discouraged by too much weight. Children should not carry more than a third of their body weight, and realistically, you want them to carry less than that. Larger capacity, overnight backpacks are available beginning around age 6 until age 10; the next size range typically accommodates 10- to 14-yearolds. These should fit just like an adult's, with the majority of the weight carried on a snug-fitting, padded waistbelt. Another option is a kid-size hydration pack. Smaller models hold a liter of water and a small amount of gear.

Other essentials
Even if your child carries only a small amount of weight, have them carry at least a few basic essentials. Buy them a whistle and attach it to an easily accessible pocket, strap, or zipper on the pack. Teach them the universal call for distress—three short blasts. Have them carry a water bottle and some snacks. For overnight trips, make sure they have their own flashlight or headlamp. Before you know it, your young hiker will be leaving you in the dust. More weight, anyone?


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Help a neighbor: Whether it’s the season for shoveling snow, raking leaves, or weeding their garden, your kids will get double benefits from being outdoors and building community.

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