One of the highlights of hiking for our kids is carrying a backpack like mom and dad. I suppose it makes them feel self-sufficient and grown. It’s also nice that they now get to carry their own water, jacket and other stuff.
But how much weight should a kid carry when hiking?
Studies and medical experts recommend no more than 20% of a child’s body weight. However, this weight is meant for school bags, not hiking backpacks. The American Occupational Therapy Association recommends going with 10% of body weight or less.
This means that if a child is 60 pounds, their backpack (bag and contents) should weigh 6 pounds or less. That said, it’s important to look beyond body weight when gauging how much weight a child should carry when hiking.
Finding the Ideal Weight
According to Dr. Pierre d’Hemecourt from the Division of Sports Medicine at Boston Children’s Hospital, hiking is similar to any other sport. Gauge the child’s endurance level, how experienced and conditioned they are, and most importantly, the terrain.(We have discussed types of hiking for kids here.)
For instance, a kid who has been hiking their entire life can handle a little more weight than one who is going for the first or second time. Similarly, it’s easier to carry a little more weight if the terrain is flat and easy compared to valleys and hills.
One last thing few people consider is adolescence. Adolescence comes with rapid growth, and the spine is already overstressed. Dr. d’Hemecourt recommends sticking to 10% of body weight, even though it looks like kids at that age can handle more.
How Much Weight Should Kids Carry when Hiking at Every Age Group?
Let’s break down a weight guideline by age and also what the said kids can carry in their backpacks.
Ages 2-4 years
Do not be fooled by their eagerness to carry a backpack. That excitement will wear off three minutes after you start the hike, and you will end up carrying both the backpack and the kid.
For this reason, keep the bag incredibly light. I would say about a pound or so. We usually carry carabiners to tie the kid’s backpack to our own instead of having extra luggage by hand.
As for what to put in the backpack, a few light snacks, binoculars and a toy will suffice.
Ages 4-7 years
Now, a 4 to 7-year-old can carry their backpack for an hour or so, but rarely can they do it through the entire hike. This means you will carry their luggage at some point. I recommend keeping the pack at 5% of their body weight, which is around 2 pounds.
The bag’s contents should be the same as what you packed for toddlers, but you can add water.
Ages 8-11 years
At this age, the child will carry their own backpack the entire hike, provided it’s not too heavy. 10% of their body weight is good enough, but you can do less.
Our 8-year-old is on the heavier side, so his 10% ends up being heavier than what a typical eight-year-old kid should carry. And since he’s already struggling to hike, we like to keep the bag pretty light, so he will have no excuse.
The average 8-11-year-old is around 80 pounds. This means their ideal weight should be 8-10 pounds. What do you pack for this age? Water, jacket, snacks and binoculars.
Ages 12-17 years
As adolescence kicks in, we want to keep the child’s spine straight and stress-free. Straining the back and shoulders can cause spinal issues and scoliosis.
So even though they can handle 20% of their body weight, it’s better to keep it at 15% or below.
Teens can carry sleeping bags, water, clothes, snacks and toiletries. We usually put bigger but lighter items in the older kids’ packs because their torso can handle a larger one. Items like sleeping bags, snacks and toilet paper are bulky but weigh very little.
How Big Should a Kids Hiking Pack Be?
Weight and conditioning aside, you must also consider the size of the backpack, especially the torso length. A 30L backpack, for example, will not work on an 8 year old kid, no matter how light it is in weight.
Luckily, hiking backpacks come with age recommendations, so it’s not hard to figure out what size you should buy. If you are in doubt, this simple size guide should help.
- 2-4 years old: Under 10L
- 4-7 years old: 10-20L
- 7-10 years old: 18-30L
- 10-17 years old: 30+L
I love the Deuter Kikki 8L pack for toddlers, and you can get it on Amazon. It’s super affordable, cute and appropriate for school too. Alternatively, have them wear this kid’s hydration backpack, which carries just enough water for the kid. As they grow older, you can graduate to the 12L and 18L Deuter Junior Pack.
When choosing a kid hiking backpack, ensure the following;
- Its height extends from 2 inches below the shoulder blades to the waist level, or slightly above the waist.
- It has well-padded shoulder straps on both sides so the weight is balanced. The pack should also snuggle closely to the body/back as opposed to hanging low around the hips.
- The hip belt sits directly on the hips, not the waist.
- And as one Dr. Stephanie Canale says, the sternum strap should attach across the sternum, not the breast bone.
As a parent packing or supervising the child’s pack, you can distribute weight evenly by loading the heaviest items close to their back. Be sure to also check and weigh the teen’s and preteens’ backpacks before leaving because they will always try to carry more than they should.
One Last Tip
Always weigh the child’s backpack before leaving. Do not estimate and guess how much it weighs because looks can be deceiving. The idea here is to err on the lighter side because, as one Reddit parent said, we want to ensure we don’t create opportunities for the child to relate backpacking with discomfort.
Hiking, after all, should be a fun, memorable experience. It’s also very beneficial and we have looked at the benefits of hiking for kids here.