Kids outdoor gear, outfitting them without breaking the bank or losing your mind

All parents know the struggle of getting your kids outside. You can read for days about benefits of getting them out the door and away from electronics. This is not about that struggle. This is about the next step, keeping them out there in decent gear.

I had much to be thankful for in 2017. On the list was the fact that I got all my shoes back from my two sons. Sadly (not sadly), both young men have grown to a point where their feet are bigger than mine. My two daughters are right behind them, but I don’t think them needing my prized Kennetrek mountain boots is in the cards. If it is, well, more power to them.

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This was the last hunt when more than two of my boots participated!

From diaper age to college age, I’ve done my best to get our four kids outside. With my oldest now in college, it has been a long journey of ever-changing sizes and needs for quality gear so they can tag along with me outside hiking, camping, fishing, hunting, the whole bit. The challenge has always to have quality gear that fits and will not put me in the poorhouse.

Every parent knows their kids are literally a different size every day. Depending on growth spurts, that size equates to needing different shoe, pant, shirt, jacket, even hat sizes every couple years if you’re lucky. Occasionally, it means every couple months.

We live in Western Colorado where it can range from 100 degrees in the summer to below freezing in the winter. I don’t mind some cold but when it gets below zero, I try not to get outside much. My wife and I grew up in the Midwest. My favorite saying upon meeting other Midwestern transplants is that we now enjoy living somewhere the weather isn’t constantly trying to kill us. My rule of thumb is that anything above zero is still fair game for getting outside.

The first thing I figured out when taking my kids is that they will always be more miserable than you. If you’re a little cold, they are a lot cold. If you’re hot, they’re “dying.” If the bugs or wind are annoying you, it is the end of days for them. It’s just part of being a kid. And if you’d like to keep the kids coming outside with you, the whole idea is to not be miserable. To that end, I usually don’t wear my good stuff.

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That was an exercise in self-discipline. While hunting or fishing, it’s often about getting up that next mountain, or staying out a little longer for hopes of that bigger fish or shot at that big bull elk. I had to get over that. If you hike over that last ridge and do get that big buck, but your son is so miserable he never wants to hunt again, what was the cost of that trophy? For me, that cost would be too much. Oh sure, you push your kids, but you have to learn where to stop in order to not cross that threshold of misery.

To that end, I usually dress a little worse than I would if it was just me or my hunting buddies. I mean, I dress a little colder when I take my kids ice fishing. When I get cold, it’s a good reminder to ask them because we’ll probably be feeling it about the same.

Bottom to top, here goes. BOOTS. Good hiking shoes or boots are probably the hardest issue to solve. Thankfully, most days are dry in the forest, mountains, and deserts around us. That means just plain old tennis shoes will work for at least half the time we go out. Whatever they’re comfy in, that’s what they wear. Once in a while, plans change, junior comes gets home with mud, blood, or other nature on his school shoes and Dad has to dip into the hunt tag fund to go shoe shopping on a Sunday night. That’s a risk I’ll take every day in order to get outside.

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Tennis shoes are just fine for most September bear hunts.

There’s no question you do need good boots though. Both cold and snow are still a reality and wet, cold feet peg the misery meter quickly. The key to our success here has been hand-me-downs. We realized, with four kids plus friends on occasion, we should be able to get a lot of use out of good boots. So we just knuckled down and bought good boots as we found them. Now we have three plastic tubs of various hiking and snow boots. We rummage through there for pretty much every new expedition.

Don’t get me wrong, you can drop serious money on boots. We’ve tried not to do that as much as possible. Over the years there have been Gene Taylors tent sales, Cabelas bargain caves, Sports Authority going-out-of-business sales, I just constantly keep an eye out. Craigslist, yard sales, and even posted notes in sporting goods stores are an option. I remember picking up a nice set of Danners in size seven, still in the two-figure price range, knowing it would still be a year or so before my oldest would fit them. I told the tent sale clerk they were for my son and received a little judgement back with, “Wow, those are nice boots for a kid.” I replied that they weren’t just for him and explained our boot bin. As of today, our youngest fits into those same Danners that her three siblings, a couple of their friends, and a few foster kids have worn. As far as I’m concerned, I’ve made much worse investments over the years.

My advice is to buy decent boots as you find them and keep them forever. If you have multiple kids, B3 (big bin of boots) is the way to go. Odds are, you know other families with whom you can do a boot co-op if you like. Another pro tip…tie the ends of the laces together in the bin. Since most people have two feet, if you lose one shoe, you might as well lose both.

rubber boots

It takes a lot of boots to take the family ice fishing

I’ll also insert a plug for cheap rubber boots. You know, the kind they sell at department stores. They are crap for hiking, but very very waterproof. That makes them great for ice fishing and decent for some other winter fun like sledding and snowmobiling. Just get them plenty big so you can wear a couple pair of good…

SOCKS. They are also a secret ingredient to keeping kids happy. Grownups too, just ask anyone who’s been in the Army how putting on a fresh pair of socks can be like going to the spa. I am a huge fan of wool. I love Smartwool but they are proud of their stuff. Army surplus wool socks are usually about a dollar a pair and they work just as fine. Other synthetics are comparable to wool, but any way you slice it, plastic fiber doesn’t hold up in the dryer as well as natural fiber. If you have someone who just cannot stand wool socks, just get used to packing several pairs of cotton socks in your pack with you to change when things get wet or blistery. Cotton and moisture are a recipe for misery. But so is arguing with a six-year-old all day. Pick your battles.

PANTS aren’t nearly the dilemma that footwear is. We’ve had great luck with surplus Army BDU pants. They’re baggy, have an adjustable waist, and lots of pockets. They come sized in two dimensions, width and length. When you see “large-regular” it means they fit a fat 45-year old man about 5’ 9” tall. “Medium-long” will fit a skinny high school junior about 5’-11”. So, for little kids, anything with “small” in the waist size works well and you can roll or just cut off the legs if they’re too long. “Small-short” is the holy grail, grab those whenever you find them. Jeans and sweatpants work just fine too, provided it’s not wet. I care way more about how quiet clothes are than how camouflaged they are.

Bear Quote

Baggy pants are good for wearing long undies, sweatpants, or even gym shorts underneath if it makes your kiddo warmer or otherwise more comfortable. Long gym shorts and tall socks keep a person nearly as warm as long underwear.

Options for JACKETS are infinite. Choices have gotten better over the years, but you still have a hard time finding anything besides cotton for little ones. My best defense here has been to, again, get over the color. If you can find camouflage in quiet, water resistant, kids size clothes, that don’t cost a fortune, snatch it up. But any neutral color like green, gray, or brown is fine for 95% of your hunting. Besides that, odds are you want bright colors for fishing and hiking so you can keep track of your kiddos. We had a stretch where every trip to the grocery store involved me tying a helium balloon to the back of my toddler who will remain anonymous. So far, I’ve never lost one outdoors, but grocery stores tested my tracking skills to no end.

Ski gear is good for warmth and waterproof, but it’s usually noisy. Fleece is awesome for insulation and even pretty good at shedding water. But fleece’s downside is lack of wind resistance. Kids or adults, you can cover a lot of ground with a synthetic shirt, fleece jacket or sweatshirt underneath some sort of lighter outer jacket or shell. Just avoid cotton whenever possible. It’s fine when things are dry, but can literally kill you when wet and cold.

Something else to consider when it’s cold is proper circulation. Again, you really have to watch that growth spurt thing. What worked at the beginning of turkey season may be too tight at the end of turkey season. If there is grunting when they’re pulling on their boots, you probably need something bigger. If the jacket zipper is hard to zip up, you might be squeezing a lot of the insulating value out of those underlayers and that outer jacket will make them colder than they’d be without it.

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A person can go crazy with hats, scarves, baklavas, neck gaiters, all of it. I have found that letting my kiddo pick out what they wear there will drastically increase the odds of them keeping it on their heads. Up until about middle-school age, the goofier the better. Embrace it. The woods are not a fashion show. Anything that keeps them warm, quiet, not sunburned, and happy gets the nod. Go shopping in the off season if at all possible. Buy boonie hats in the winter. Buy winter hats and face covers in the spring when all the ski and winter gear is on sale.

Here is another sidebar for people who do not wear glasses, you lucky dogs. Glasses suck in the winter, and it’s worse with a face covering. Some ski face masks are good at directing breath down to prevent fogging of goggles. But your kid’s glasses will fog up, ice up, the lenses will fall out with temperature changes, and they’re hard to take off with gloves and mittens. Prepare yourself for frustrated kiddos.

BACKPACKS proved a challenge with the little ones right away. After much exasperation with taking it off, putting it on, forget to zip it closed, repeat the process every 100 yards, I had an epiphany…FRONT PACKS. What I mean is lumbar or fanny packs, and nowadays there are a few places that make actual chest rigs.

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My son, Ethan, is sporting his first bull elk…and a chest pack from Hill People Gear, founded in Grand Junction, Colorado.

You can take a lumbar pack and sling it diagonally across a kid and it’s just right. Then, they can just hand-over-hand it around to the front so they can get into it reasonably quietly. Boom, a front pack on the cheap.  The dedicated chest rigs have grown on me too, so they work at any age.

Once they’re old enough to carry more gear, there are many good pack options. Just help keep it sized right. Show them how the sternum straps, hip belts, and all the adjustment features work. Your kids might just surprise you about how well they can handle all of that. That’s good since, again, they’re a different size every day. Keep them happy and you might just have a helper hauling out your elk meat for a long time!

What you put in that pack is its own subject. You can read for days all the opinions of people way smarter than me. My top three items in all my little one’s packs have always been snacks, snacks, and more snacks. I carry the raingear, water (it’s too heavy, Dad!), firestarters, all the stuff to keep us alive and actually hunting.  My little kids carried their own snacks and food.  And again, it’s in their front pack so it’s right under their nose and you don’t need gymnastics to get those fruit snacks.

Every parent learns quickly that one great way to keep a child quiet is to keep their mouth full! This fact can be critical when you’re hunting animals with ears. I’m no biologist, but I think that’s nearly everything we hunt. Plan food accordingly for your activity, most stuff straight from the store is noisy with crinkly wrapping. Some quiet snacks are sandwiches, homemade granola bars, pizza, hamburger patties, soft cookies, gum, licorice, marshmallows. I’ve had good luck with potatoes that are sliced, spiced, microwaved and wrapped up. They’re good for about a day in a pack. Pop tarts seem to be a favorite with all my kids. When they’re not looking, I throw out the foil wrap and put them into sandwich bags before we head out. They’re going to get smashed up anyway, they might as well be quiet food instead of noisy food.

I hope all, or even some of this helps you get kids outside and keeps them going back for more! Taking a kid outside, even once, will make the world a better place. With a little luck and planning, you can keep taking them outside your entire life.

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