What To Pack For A Day Hike

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Packing the right gear for a day hike can be a frustrating task. Too much and you’re weighed down with unnecessary gear, too little and you risk being underprepared for a bad situation. It’s tough to find a good balance of necessities and items that make your life easier out there. To make things simple, we’ve used our years of hiking experience to come up with a list of what to pack for a day hike, starting with the 10 bare essentials.

10 essentials we have on every hike:

  1. Hiking outfit with extra layers (Includes hiking boots. I group this into one item, you’re not going to start a hike with half an outfit).
  2. Day pack
  3. First aid kit
  4. Flashlight/headlamp
  5. Hydration pack/water bottle
  6. GPS
  7. Fire starter
  8. Knife/Multitool
  9. Food
  10. Sun protection

The Day Hiking Essentials List

1. Hiking Outfit With Extra Layers (And Boots)

Here’s everything I consider a necessity for a hiking outfit:

Hiking boots or trail shoes: As we’ve talked about before, a good pair of hiking boots are needed. Invest in a quality pair with all the right features. Trail shoes are also a good option on easier trails. Make sure to get sized properly before purchase.

Wool or synthetic hiking socks: Merino wool socks are the best option for hiking. Synthetic fabric is also good as they will keep your feet dry in moisture.

Hiking Pants- Purpose Made (shorts if this is your preference in warm weather): For someone that prefers pants, purpose made hiking pants are going to be water and wind resistant which will keep you warm. They’re also going to be breathable for the warmer weather. Hiking shorts made of synthetic fabrics are another viable option for hot weather conditions.

Synthetic fabric base layer: This will be your t-shirt or undershirt. Have a base layer made of synthetics like nylon or polyester. They’re going to be moisture wicking and lightweight. Avoid cotton at all costs.

Comfortable underwear: Performance underwear to keep you comfortable and wick away moisture during your day hike.

Hat/bucket hat: Wear a hat to protect your head and face from the sun.

Sunglasses: Sun protection for the eyes is imperative for day hiking. Don’t take your best pair, just something that will protect the eyes.

Watch: There’s a lot of benefits to wearing a watch for hiking. The tech in these small devices is insane. You can get your ABCs (altimeter, barometer, compass), health markers, and so much more. They also help for tracking progress and situational awareness.

2. Day Pack

The day pack is a must for every hike. It doesn’t have to be anything complicated, just something to make carrying your gear easier.

Day pack with hydration reservoir: There are many choices for a hiking backpack but I travel with a day pack on day hikes. This will usually be a pack around 15-35 liters which is plenty of room for everything you need on a day trip. I also make sure to have one with a hydration pack. It allows me to carry more water, be hands free when drinking and has the insulated pocket to keep things cool.

3. First Aid Kit

Everyone should have a first aid kit when they’re out on the trails. Things happen and even the smallest accident can turn into a worse problem if not dealt with properly. Later on we’ll talk about some of the things you should include in your kit.

We have two different ones we’ll carry. A more essential kit for short, day hikes and a big one loaded with everything we might need during a multi-day hike.

4. Headlamp/Flashlight

Have some kind of light source with you on every hike. If you take more time than expected you might need it to help with visibility in the dark. Or if you get lost it’s a good signaling device that will catch searchers’ eyes. Make sure to have extra batteries for these devices.

5. Extra Water

My first source of water is the hydration reservoir in my pack. I will also bring an additional full water bottle. Even on shorter hikes, we lose a lot of fluids, so I try to have more than needed.

6. Food

Same as the fluids, we lose nutrients when we are active so having some easy snacks to eat will help replenish what we lose. Think jerky, trail mix, bananas, etc.

7. GPS

I use the term GPS, but this can really mean anything for navigation. A GPS is nice because it gives you situational awareness of where you’re at and keeps you from getting lost. Some are also satellite phones for making emergency phone calls.

8. Fire Starter

Even for a day hike, you should have a fire starter with you. I’ll usually have a flint and some waterproof matches as backup. Fire is essential for survival, so you don’t want to be caught out there without it. Make it easy on yourself and carry these pieces of small, lightweight gear.

9. Knife/Multitool

I carry both of these, but you should have at least one of them with you on every hike. A multitool can be useful in many situations. My knife is always with me as well. Seems redundant to have it since a multitool has a blade, but I’ve never been a fan of any multitool blade. My knife is more versatile and stronger when it comes to cutting.

10. Sun Protection

You should always have some form of sun protection. You should put sunscreen in your pack and leave it. We talk about the importance of sunscreen in our guide to hot weather hiking.

Other Hiking Gear To Pack For A Day Hike

Many times you’re going to need more than the bare minimum for a hike. Here are some categories to think about, but this is usually what we’ll carry for a long, extended day hike.

Rain And Cold Weather Gear

If there’s a chance of rain or we’re going in cold weather, we’ve got this hiking gear packed with us. These items become essential in wet weather hikes, but they’re lightweight so it doesn’t weigh us down too much.

Jacket: What type really depends on the hike you’re doing. If rain is in the forecast, have a rain jacket with you. Really cold weather, make sure you’ve got an insulated jacket. I like 3-in-1s because you get the rain layer, wind layer, and insulated layer in one. Then just zip out the layers you don’t need.

Gaiters: These are great with purpose made hiking pants. Because the pants aren’t fully waterproof, the gaiters add a layer of protection around your shoes to keep water and mud from getting to your feet.

Thermal long underwear: Absolutely necessary for colder weather. Long Johns or thermals are great for maintaining body heat in cold, wet weather.

Warm hat: Instead of a bucket hat, opt for something to keep in the heat. This will protect your ears as well.

Gloves: Our fingers are some of the most at risk for frostbite. They lose feeling first, so have some good gloves to protect them.

Day Pack Storage Items

It’s counterproductive to just throw everything in your pack. You waste space and make it a pain to find anything quickly. Storage bags are great for keeping things organized.

Trash bag: A storage item I always have tucked in my pack. Whether it’s for holding trash or wet clothes after the hike I always seem to use it on my hikes. If you get caught in really bad weather, it turns into an emergency rain cover too. It weighs almost nothing so there’s no reason you shouldn’t have one with you.

Extra ziplocks: I pack my snacks in ziplocks as well as some gear that I want to keep dry. I always have a few extra in my pack for storage.

Waterproof cover: Necessary for the rainy weather, this will ensure your backpack stays waterproof in the rain.

Waterproof stuffable bag: Similar to the trash bag, this waterproof bag allows you to protect things from the rain while keeping it organized in your pack.

Navigation/Communication Equipment

Nav and comms equipment is necessary for every hike. We consider a GPS device one of the day hiking essentials, but there are many other pieces of useful equipment in this category. They become more necessary as you get into longer, more backcountry hikes. These devices give you better situational awareness and the ability to call for emergency help if you need it.

Downloaded digital trail map and hard copy: I make sure to download all trail maps I’ll need for the hike I’m doing. It’s important to know where you’re going. I also carry a foldable hard copy of the area for redundancy. Things can happen on the trails so I’d rather have a backup if necessary. Low carry weight, high reward if it’s needed.

Compass: Even though my watch has one, it’s again for redundancy. Have a physical compass with you. Better to have and not need.

Personal Locating Beacon (PLB): A useful device that will send an SOS signal to emergency services. They don’t have much more functionality than that, but there are no subscription fees and works in remote locations. You won’t be able to send messages, but PLBs have the strongest signal and battery life of these devices.

Satellite messenger: Similar to a PLB, but these allow you to also send messages and have communication with the outside world. They do however require a subscription and have less battery life than a PLB. They also don’t offer as good a signal and need clear view of the sky to work properly. Cell service is hard to come by in remote locations so at least a PLB or satellite messenger is good to have on your hike.

First Aid, Health, Emergency Gear

Health and emergency gear can be life saving equipment, even for a day hike. Accidents and injuries happen so be prepared for worst case scenarios.

Mosquito and tick repellent: Bugs are incredibly annoying and can carry diseases. Carry some bug spray to prevent these annoyances. Ticks seem like they get worse every summer, with many carrying diseases like Lyme Disease, so have repellent to keep these pests off you.

Whistle: If you get lost or injured, it might be tough to find help. Having a whistle will allow you to signal for help without making the situation worse. The noise can travel several miles, so it’s a good tool to reach out for help.

Lip balm: Sunscreen for your lips. This is going to give some protection from sunburn and dryness.

Toilet paper: Even on day hikes, sometimes you have to go. Always bring a roll of toilet paper for these moments. You should pack out the used toilet paper, don’t bury it. This can be detrimental to the environment.

Hand Sanitizer: There’s not much room to carry soaps and cleaners so having hand sanitizer is the easiest option. You can get the travel size bottles almost anywhere so keep two in your bag.

Emergency blanket: In the awful event you get stranded overnight, it will pay to have an emergency blanket. It can be used to stay warm as the temp drops overnight or used as part of an emergency shelter.

Bear spray: in bear country, it’s good to have some bear spray with you to deter any you may come across. These canisters can spray over 30 ft. and give you the best chance to prevent a bear attack and get away.

Food And Water Needs

Aside from the essential food and water we always have, there’s a few extras we like to bring on a day hike.

Water purification: This is more useful in a survival situation but it’s good to be prepared. If you get stranded, having water purification pills or a water purification system will help when you run out of your packed water. Clean water is a necessity for survival.

Packed lunch: This goes along with the essential snacks we pack, but when you hit the trails for a day hike, it’s always nice to have a packed lunch. If it’s sandwiches or something cold we store it in the insulated pocket of the hydration pack.

Electrolyte powder: These are great for getting some quick nutrients into your body on a strenuous hike. I usually go with Liquid IVs. They hydrate you quickly, get you some much needed electrolytes, and taste pretty good.

Photography

Camera: Hikers love taking photos of their adventures. It’s a great way to document your trips. A decent camera can get you breathtaking photos that a phone camera may not be able to capture. I’ve taken plenty on a cell phone and many times it doesn’t do it justice.

Cell Phone: If you don’t have a camera, your cell phone camera is still a great option.

Camera harness or strap: If you’ve got the camera, you’ll want to make sure it doesn’t take a tumble or get banged up. Having a wrist strap or harness can help free up your hands while securing your camera.

Tripod: This will get you stable shots and free up your hands when taking photos of yourself.

Waterproof Camera Bag: Camera equipment is expensive so have a carrying case that will protect the equipment from moisture.

Other Gear

Trekking poles: These aren’t necessary for every day hike, but they can be a great piece of equipment to support you in wet, slippery weather. Trekking poles are useful for steep hikes too.

Extra batteries: it’s always good to have a few spares. Lots of gear uses batteries so make sure you have enough to run the essentials.

Carabiner: I like having one of these, it’s clipped to my pack. I find it useful to hold lighter gear such as extra water bottles. It gives you a little more carrying real estate and can help hang things if you have an unplanned night on the trail.

Repair kit: It’s pretty easy to throw together a small repair kit for hiking. You need a kit that has enough to repair most things. My multitool and knife can be used in place of most tools and I’ll also include duct tape, some rope, and a bottle of heavy duty glue.With this, I should be able to repair most of my hiking gear.

Binoculars or Spotting Scope: Sightseeing is a joy when hiking. The views are what we live for! And some of us are lucky enough to encounter the wildlife while we’re out. Unfortunately, it’s usually off at a distance which is why binoculars are a fun item to bring along. Some models give you great magnification to see the animals in detail. I also know some people who will hike with smaller spotting scopes to see the wildlife up close.

Wallet/ID: Travel with your wallet and ID everywhere. I’ll usually store them in a ziplock bag in a smaller pocket of my pack.

Portable Charger: If you’re on a long hike, your phone or other chargeable gear might run out of juice. Carry a fully charged battery to give your gear a quick charge if it needs it. You can even get some solar powered ones to cut down on the number of cords you need.

Tips For Day Hikes

Let someone know where you’re going: It’s always good practice to let someone close to you know where you’re going for the day. Give them the area you’ll be in, the name of the trail you’ll be on, and your starting point. It’s even better if you can give them an itinerary of what you plan to do that day. This is just good preparation for any hiking trip.

Research before you hike: Do your research on where you’ll be hiking. Take a look at maps and guides of the area. Get a sense of the trail condition and difficulty. Will you be on smooth trails or a more moderate trail? A lot of this info will help you decide what hiking gear you need to bring. Some things to plan for a day hike:

  • Where the car will be parked
  • Name of trail(s) you’ll be hiking
  • What sights you plan to see
  • The miles you’ll cover
  • The timing of the hike

Refill your first aid kit before each hike: This is a good habit to have before every hike. Like I said earlier, we have a basic first aid kit for day hikes and a more extensive one for multi-day hikes. Whichever you’re doing, it’s good to check your hiking first aid kit before going out.

Check the weather: Always look at the forecast before you hit the trail. Even day hiking brings crazy weather changes so be in tune to what it might do the day of your hike. Be as prepared as you can and bring everything you deem necessary for your time out.

What Not To Bring On A Day Hike

Expensive Jewelry: When you’re hiking, there’s really no need to have expensive jewelry on. There’s a risk you lose it or damage it on the trails, so better to leave it safe at home.

Anything Cotton: All cotton material is your enemy when hiking. It holds moisture and isn’t breathable so once it gets wet, you’re not drying it out. It’s also heavier than the synthetic materials. There really is no benefit to cotton when it comes to hiking.

Final Thoughts On Day Hiking Essentials

The gear you bring is largely dependent on what type of day hike you’re going on:

  • Quick 5 miles?
  • Longer day hike, say 20 miles?
  • Where are you hiking (Local trails close to town or deep backcountry trails)?

These are important questions to determine how much gear you’ll need for your trip. A short hike usually just needs the bare essentials we covered at the beginning of the article. On longer hiking days or backcountry hikes, I’m bringing the extras though. The goal is to stay lightweight while being prepared for every situation that could arise on the hike.

No one has ever enjoyed packing, but we hope our guide to the essential day hiking gear will make this task that much easier for you. Always have the necessities and use your judgement when it comes to everything else.