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Packing for a day hike? Ask 50 hikers what you need to bring, and the chances are you will get about 50 different lists of items.
In my experience, you do not need a 20-item hiking checklist before you head out on your first hike.
I have scaled back my list over the years, and I think that hiking is a lot more enjoyable when you find the perfect balance of gear to bring. Enough to feel safe should an issue come up. But not too much to feel that you will never make it to the summit because of how heavy your pack weighs.
Packing For A Hike: The Essentials
Water + Electrolytes
First aid kit
I would consider these the 4 essential pieces of gear/things that you should have with you on every hike, no matter the conditions.
There are definitely more pieces of gear you should consider taking, depending on the conditions and other factors.
But you could be fine with these 4 things on shorter day hikes in ideal conditions.
Water + Electrolytes
Whether it is a water bottle or a hydration reservoir (bladder), you need to make sure you have enough water to get you through your hike.
On mild days and easy terrain, I recommend taking 1/2 liter (roughly 17 oz.) of water per hour.
For harder terrain and hotter days, you will want to anticipate taking around 1 liter of water per hour.
These estimates can vary depending on if there is a water source along the trail. Make sure to bring along a way to filter water if you will be collecting water from natural water sources. (rivers, lakes, etc.)
Water is fairly heavy (1 liter of water = 1 kilogram or 2.2 lbs), so it is advantageous to be able to resupply with water along your route. But do not skimp on the amount of water you take with you just to save a pound or two. I have found myself miles from the car with no water left, and it is not a desirable scenario to find yourself.
Along with water, consider bringing an electrolyte mix/tablets or an electrolyte drink. Particularly when it is hot and you are sweating a lot! If you do not replenish electrolytes, you will find yourself starting to cramp up and feeling like your energy has been drained.
You can also supplement sodium loss with salty snacks, which can help balance your sodium loss while providing calories.
Depending on how long your hike is, you may just need a small snack, or you may need to account for multiple meals out on your hike.
There are endless possibilities for what you can bring on a day hike!
It could be more traditional backpacking food. (bars, nuts, TRAIL mix, jerky, etc.)
Or it could be a more elegant option. (hummus and pita, chips and guac, meats and cheeses, etc.)
I like to target 400-500 calories per hour of hiking, and I like a variety of options so I usually switch it up each time depending on what sounds good!
Regardless of what you decide to take, remember to hike out your trash and dispose of it properly. Finding litter out in nature is such a buzzkill.
Cell phone apps are the most common way to navigate trails.
There are some paper maps and compass folks still out there. (and there is definitely a place for those!) But if you are on a popular or often-traveled trail, you will survive with a cell phone as your map.
I like to take a picture of the trail map before I hike so that I have a screenshot of an overview of the trail system. This ensures that I don’t have to rely on having internet if I need to double-check a turn-off or trail junction.
I would advise against going out onto a trail blind. (with no reliable map of the area)
Even if the trails are traveled regularly, you do not want an innocent wrong turn to leave you lost out in the wild.
First Aid Kit
My rule of thumb with first aid kits is to have enough to treat common conditions and be familiar enough with the equipment to be able to use it.
Common medications, bandages, antibacterial cream, etc. will do fine for a first aid kit.
As you gain more experience hiking, you can tailor your first aid kit to your specific needs. Adding and subtracting to make it best suited for yourself.
Don’t think you are the person who doesn’t need a first aid kit. Also, there is no need to try and pack a hospital’s worth of supplies in your pack.
You can get a hiking first aid kit, there are often prepackaged and come with all the basic first aid kit supplies.
Items That You May Need For Your Day Hike
Extra insulating layer
These are items that I would consider bringing on a day hike, but I would not say they are essential items for every hike.
My suggestion is to pack to your level of comfort. If you are the type that wants to play it very safe and prepares for every possible scenario, then do that! And if you are the type that likes to fly by the seat of their pants, there is no shame in that either!
This is a rather wide-encompassing suggestion. It could mean sunscreen, a sun hoody, a sun umbrella, or anything else that provides shade.
If you are hiking in a heavily forested area, sun protection may be something you can be fine without.
Rather, if you are hiking in a high-elevation, exposed area, extra sun protection is a must! Otherwise, have fun with your sunburn peeling the next week. (no fun!)
Just consider the conditions of the trail, the weather forecast, and the duration of your hike.
This category can also include a lot of items.
A rain jacket, rain pants, rain pack cover, or any other rain gear you can think of! (yes an umbrella can double as sun and rain equipment!)
Consider the conditions and forecast when deciding what to bring. It isn’t a bad idea to bring a waterproof bag for your valuables, particularly when there is a chance of rain.
I like a poncho because it can double as a rain jacket and a pack cover!
Extra Insulating Layer
Like the two above, this is weather dependent.
When in high-elevation areas or during winter, it is a good idea to have an extra layer to keep warm.
Especially if you plan to be hiking in the morning or evening, these times can experience rapid temperature increases/decreases. I often like starting with an extra jacket in the morning to stay and then stowing it in my pack when I warm up from hiking or the temperature increases.
Additionally, if you are planning to hike into the evening, definitely consider bringing an extra layer in case you find yourself stranded overnight.
If you are in a warmer weather area, you may not need an extra insulating layer.
This is one that is more essential backpacking gear, but for day hikes, it is more dependent on the scenario.
If you are hiking in the early morning or late evening hours, then I would strongly consider some sort of lighting. (headlamp, flashlight, etc.)
In most cases, a light from a cell phone will be sufficient. (I once hiked 3 miles off a pass with my phone flashlight, no ideal though!)
It doesn’t hurt to have one in your pack if you are hiking in the evening, just in case you have to stay an unplanned night out.
Another one that is essential for backpacking, but not necessarily so for day hikes.
It is nice to have if you use the bathroom while out on the trail or if you want to just clean your hands.
It is pretty easy to tuck a small bottle in your first aid kit or in a pocket. If it is a short day hike, you likely will be okay if you forget it though.
It is not a bad idea if you regularly go on long hikes; you never know what can happen out there!
But if you are sticking to a shorter hike, take it if you feel like you need to. Otherwise, you will likely be okay without it. (famous last words…)
These are particularly helpful if you commonly hike outside of cell service range.
This could range from a GPS watch/tracker to an emergency locator beacon.
It can be handy to have a way to view a map or send an emergency message without the need for service.
If you are doing your first hiking trip in a remote, rugged area, I would consider purchasing or renting (as they are expensive) a GPS or locator beacon. It provides peace of mind for yourself and your loved ones.
This encompasses any clothing item.
It could be hiking pants, hiking socks, hiking shoes, or anything that you may want an extra of while on your day hike.
For me, the most common is extra socks. It is super nice to have a change of socks after you have to pass through a knee-deep creek.
Extra shirts can also be nice, particularly on longer hikes or hot days. Being able to change out of your sweaty shirt during your hike can be a surprisingly huge morale boost!
Items For Specific Circumstances Or Personal Preferences
These are things that I would consider bringing on a day hike in certain circumstances, but they could also be brought for personal preference.
If you are hiking in grizzly bear country, then yes, you will want to strongly consider bringing bear spray. You can rent it in/near popular hiking destinations. (Yellowstone and Glacier National Park being two popular places)
If you are hiking in an area with just black bears, make sure to check the park regulations, as bear spray is actually illegal in some places. (Yosemite National Park being the most popular)
As with all equipment, make sure you know how to use it before stepping onto the trail.
Some people prefer a bug net and long sleeves to bug spray, so go with whichever you feel most comfortable.
Personally, I like a bug net and wearing pants/long sleeves (it is lighter and more versatile for backpacking trips as well) when in areas where mosquitos are prevalent. Unfortunately, there is nothing you can do to make it more enjoyable when you run into a cloud of mosquitos.
Also referred to as trekking poles, some people use them on every hike, while others never use them.
They come in particularly handy on steep hikes and hikes with uneven, rugged terrain. There are a lot of options for trekking poles, some heavier and sturdy, while others are more lightweight.
You would be fine without on many hikes (it is rather rare for me to use them), but it’s completely a personal preference decision.
If you are into the more survival side of hiking, then chances are you have a fire starter of some sort.
It is something more relevant to backpacking than a day hike, but if your preference is to carry something to help you start a fire to stay warm, there is nothing wrong with that!
As I have noted before, make sure you know how to use it if you are going to bring one.
Like the fire starter, this is something you would consider bringing for worst-case scenarios. You can get emergency bivy shelters that are pretty cheap and very light, so it is not really going to set you back too much from either perspective.
But if you are just going for a few-mile loop through a nearby park, odds are you will not need one.
I do not carry one on a day hike, but again it comes down to personal preference.
Factors To Consider For Additional Hiking Gear
Are you hiking easy, smooth trails? Rocky, steep trails? Sandy, coastal trails?
The specific hiking gear that you want to bring will depend on the trail terrain and conditions.
From hiking footwear and clothing to hiking gear/equipment, the trail ultimately decides what is best for you.
If you are on easier terrain, you may be fine with trail runners or hiking shoes and the bare essential hiking gear.
Tougher terrain may call for hiking boots and a lot more day hiking gear and snacks. (can anyone really complain about more snacks)
Rainy? Snow? Sunny?
This determines whether you need that rain jacket, sun umbrella, or cold weather gear.
Make sure to check the forecast in the days leading up to your hike and the day of your hike. If you are hiking in high-elevation areas, know that the weather can change quickly. (I once went from sunny skies to being hailed on in a matter of 20-30 minutes when summiting a peak)
This is a big one for knowing what hiking gear to bring.
If you are going on a three-mile hike, your pack will look (and feel much lighter) than when going on a 12-mile hike.
Tailor your day hiking gear to your hike, no two hikes are the same, nor should two gear lists be the same.
This is maybe the biggest factor to consider.
If you are on your first ever hike, you may be under-confident or over-confident in your abilities. Both can lead to a less than enjoyable hike.
It is not fun to carry around 20 pounds of gear that you never use. Likewise, it is not fun to get caught in the rain with no way to keep yourself and your equipment dry.
My day hiking essentials have changed over the years as I have gained more experience. I find things that I like to carry and things I find myself never needing. Over time you will add/subtract things and find your essential day hiking gear.
What Not To Bring On A Hike
Anything that you do not know how to use
You can find lists of things that people say not to bring on a hike, and most are decent advice. But as far as I am concerned, if you want to wear expensive diamond earrings to look good on a hike, more power to you.
I just say do not bother bringing anything that you do not know how to use.
If you have no clue how to use a compass and paper map, why bother bringing them other than just to portray the image of someone who does.
There are endless personal preference items out there that people like to bring on a hike, but I could never cover them all.
This article gives you a rather comprehensive overview of day hiking essentials and many things that are dependent on the situation.
Often times people bring a lot of gear when they first start out, and over time, they widdle down their gear to their essentials. This comes with experience over time and in different conditions.
Chances are, if you have a pack with water, food, first aid supplies, and a way to navigate the way, you will have an amazing hike!
Don’t let the feeling that you need a 50-item checklist of essentials stop you from getting out and exploring!