So you’ve decided you want to go on a hike. The mountains (or waterfalls or rivers or woods) are calling and you must go. What should you bring? How should you prepare?
Well, here I am to tell you about your day hike essentials. Maybe you are brand new, never hiked before. Maybe you want to try out a new form of exercise or adventure. Maybe you’re someone who already goes on occasional “hikes” who is still in the drawstring-bag-wearing phase, or worse- one of those people who doesn’t even carry a water bottle and wears their casual shoes. Face palm.
Today, we are NOT going to talk about a “hike” that’s a half mile flat walk to an observation deck. Let’s call these “drive-to” hikes. You basically drive to the point of interest and walk a relatively short distance on pretty easy terrain and your car is just right there. Blah. It’s probably usually crowded. If you trip and fall, everyone is going to see and be able to help, so you’re really going to be just fine. If you run out of water, you can walk back to your car. This is not really a hike. There’s not a lot of reason to carry anything particular here.
I’m talking about a real day hike.
Let’s start at the very beginning for those of you who need it and define what a day hike is. A day hike (as opposed to just a “hike”) is more specific to a hike that is going to be done in one day. Hike is a broad term that covers all types of hikes: hikes that include camping over night, hikes that follow a trail for 80 miles and several nights of camping, hikes that take you from dusk ’til dawn, and hikes that take ½ an hour.
A day hike includes any hike that can be done without the use of camping equipment. I would say it’s a hike that takes place between sunrise and sunset, but there are some “day hikes” that require starting or finishing at dark and require a headlamp, like my recent 23 mile hike you can read about HERE.
Let’s also include some shorter hikes in this definition, but they must require enough strain to make you sweat and/or catch your breath. Stone Mountain, a hike near where I live in Georgia, is a good example of this. It’s only a mile to the top, which doesn’t sound like a lot, but it’s all uphill. I’m in shape and I still have to pause on my way up to catch my breath. This will be different for everyone and obviously, mileage isn’t everything. A flat mile and an uphill mile can be the difference between a walk and a hike!
So, what are your day hike essentials?
Well, that depends on the hike, the weather, your health and capabilities, and lastly, your idiosyncrasies. If you are walking to an observation deck on a paved trail where your car is only 1/4 flat mile away, you may not need to bring anything, aside from your camera of course. But like I said, not actually a hike. You must research your hike before you go. I always use the app, All Trails or the Googles to find info about a hike before I go. This will tell you what to expect and therefore you can plan accordingly. Also, check the weather!
Especially if you plan on doing more hikes, it’s a good habit to get in to pack up a bag and bring it with you even if you may not need it, so that when you do do a hike where it is necessary to have, you don’t forget anything.
Here is a list of what I consider to be day hike essentials, with explanations to follow below:
- trail map
- food & trash bag
- bathroom kit
- first aid kit
- good shoes & socks
- appropriate clothing
- optional fun & extras
Water is life. Water is essential. If you are NOT bringing water to go do exercise, are you educated? No, but really. It’s okay if you aren’t, but if you are and you don’t know to bring water, were you paying attention in school? Our bodies NEED WATER. Maybe you just forgot it, but WHOA, let’s change that. No forgetting water. Water is the most important thing to have on a hike! I personally use a hydration bladder to make it easier to access and carry, although some avid hikers still prefer water bottles.
If you choose to bring a disposable water bottle, remember that the trail is not a trash can- Carry your trash out. No one comes on a hike to see your trash. 100% though, ALWAYS. BRING. WATER. Bonus points if you bring electrolytes. I love my Ultima Replenishers electrolyes; they’re sugar free and keep me extra energized. I like the blue raspberry flavor; it makes it taste good, which makes it easier to drink more. On average, you should be drinking about ½ a liter per hour on a hike. Not sure how much water to pack? See this post here. (Go to Top)
A trail map. Duh. Now, obviously, there are some popular trails that are super well-marked with signs that are pretty easy to follow, especially when there’s plenty of people using the trail. But, there are trails where there’s lots of intertwining trails and turns and “faux trails” (caused by erosion. It looks like a trail but it’s not) and sometimes trail markers just aren’t very visible. I recommend the app, All Trails, for a general map and trail information before the hike, but I prefer Gaia when I actually need to pull out a map on the trail. There are several other options as well, but these are just what I have the most experience using.
You need to download the map on your phone before you go, in case there’s not service. Or you can go the old-fashioned route and purchase a paper map, though I find these a bit more confusing personally. If you are planning to use your phone as a map, you need to make sure you have plenty of battery. If you have a phone with a shit battery life, I suggest carrying in a battery pack as well. I like this one, but it’s for backpacking trips and several charges. You may only need one charge for a day trip, so a smaller version will do. (Go to Top)
A day pack.
Honestly, the drawstring bag I was making fun of earlier is a quick and easy fix for beginners. It is no longer one of my day hike essentials, but I started with one of these before I realized my love of hiking. Whatever backpack you have at home will do for small hikes, just to test your feet in the water, but drawstring bags are NOT good when your bag starts to get weighted because then the strings dig into your shoulders (not fun!).
If you need more than a pound or two of stuff, I definitely recommend investing in a day pack like my Cotopaxi Luzon Del Dia 18L if you like the stuff-it-all-in-and-go type of bag. It’s super lightweight and I’ve found mine to be quite comfortable for what it appears to be. Or if you’re a bit more organized and like to have different pockets for everything, try upgrading to another style of Cotopaxi bags OR one of these popular Osprey bags.(Go to Top)
Duh. Of COURSE this is one of my day hike essentials! Who wants to go on a hike to an amazing picnic location and NOT have something to munch on? Also… erm.. energy?!? Of course, if it’s a shorter hike like two hours and you ate a good dense meal beforehand, you’re probably fine! Again, you really have to determine this for yourself, but I always recommend bringing things just in case. Food is a staple!
Your hike difficulty will determine how much food to bring. I started out bringing WAY too much food on my hikes. Now that I’ve been on a plethora of different types of hikes, I kind of know almost exactly how much I will eat, so I’m able to pack less. When you’re first starting out, I always recommend bringing more than necessary because you may surprise yourself with how hungry you get. The great thing about hiking is: if you’re going on a tough hike, calories are necessary! Who doesn’t love a good calorie?
I suggest things like your favorite protein/energy bars like Cliff bars or Cliff Builder bars, a sandwich or wrap, tuna packets, PEANUT M&M’s (Ok, this is just a personal preference. Do NOT bring these on a hot hike!), apples, nuts, beef jerky etc. When you get into hiking enough to try a backpacking trip, you’ll even get to bring meals to COOK! We’ll save that for another day though.
Bring what you’re willing to carry that’s calorie dense and yummy. Remember to practice LEAVE NO TRACE and pack out all your trash. Again, no one goes on a hike to look at your empty chip bags and coke cans. This also means, don’t leave your apple cores or toilet paper (What? But these are biodegradable! Why can’t I leave these? I will tell you why in this blog post HERE.) (Go to Top)
You also need a bathroom kit. What’s that, you ask? Well, sometimes nature calls and there’s no bathroom around. I mentioned above that you should NOT leave your toilet paper in the woods, so I always bring toilet paper, wipes, a couple of grocery bags and/or ziplocs, hand sanitizer and my trowel.
Trowels are for digging holes if you have to go number 2! Yes, you don’t get to poop on top of the ground like the animals do. That’s another post for another day. In one of your ziplocs, you will throw away your used toilet paper. In a grocery bag or another ziploc, you keep your trash bag, trowel, toilet paper, wipes, and hand sanitizer together. Boom, organized.
Men may not need this as much as women, but having some irregular digestive issues, I just recommend it. If you don’t bring it and you only have to go number 1 the whole hike, you can always use a leaf. Be careful to make sure it’s not a leaf that will give you an ..erm… itch.
But if you have to go number 2? You’re a SOL my friend, Hope you can hold it in. Better to bring the kit and have it! 🙂 Because as part of Leave No Trace principles, you will be doing a disservice to everyone by leaving your on the ground. Don’t know how to properly dispose of waste in nature? Go here. (Go to Top)
First aid kit.
You never know what can happen in nature, however I think the chances of you needing food or water or to use the restroom are far greater than you getting hurt. It is definitely possible, which is why I consider this to be an essential, but just a lower probability than the others.
I have yet to personally witness a serious injury that debilitated anyone from getting back to their car, however, if you twist your ankle- having a wrap is going to make that journey a heck of a lot easier. Certain day hike essentials just don’t seem necessary until something happens and you DIDN’T BRING IT. What should you have in your first aid kit? Read this post here. (Go to Top)
A camera or phone.
I will always include this in a list of my day hike essentials because obviously, you’re going to want to take pictures! Hikes are beautiful! I love my Samsung Galaxy s20. It takes amazing photos and I don’t need to haul a heavy camera with me. Plus, if there’s phone service where you find yourself hiking, a phone is always great for emergencies! If you’re especially into photography like me or have a group and don’t want to go the selfie-route, you can always bring a mini tripod like this one. (Go to Top)
A good pair of shoes and socks.
There are trails you can get away with just sneakers, but if you’re going to be hiking more, I at least suggest upgrading to a good pair of trail shoes. I love my Altra brand trail runners and hiking boots because they have a wide toe box, but they are not for everyone. You can check with your local REI or outdoor store and they will help you find the best shoe for you.
As for socks? Merino wool socks are your friend- they keep your feet cool when it’s hot and warm when it’s cold even if they get wet. I love my Darn Tough socks; their lifetime warranty is amazing! They come in other styles and thicknesses so shop around if you click that link. Smartwool is also a great brand! However, your normal exercise socks are probably okay for a lot of smaller dry day hikes. You do you!
If you’re blister-prone- try out a good pair of sock liners; they help prevent blisters (and make sure you have some moleskin in your first aid kit). Sneakers will do in certain situations, but please PLEASE don’t be one of those people I’ve seen hiking in flip-flops, unless you’re asking for an injury. (Go to Top)
What to Pack for Different Weather
The rest of what you might need on a hike is kind of condition-dependent. What’s the weather going to be like? And how prone to cold are you? This is all things you have to decide on your own and learn from trial and error, in my opinion. You definitely want to wear sweat-wicking materials like polyester blends (most generic sports clothing) or wool.
On a hot day, I’m typically just in running shorts and a sports bra and maybe a sports tank. On a cold day, I like my Smartwool base layer pants and shirt and if it’s really cold, I may need winter pants and a puffy jacket, as well as hats, gloves, scarves. I don’t think you’ll be doing too much of that as a beginner day hiker though.
I’ve only been on a few winter hikes myself, so I’m not your best source for winter gear info right now. I’m still figuring out what gear works best for me. For now, I’m working with a Patagonia Nano Puff and some winter pants I bought from Wish that happened to turn out great. 😀
If it’s going to rain, you will want to invest in a rain jacket and a pack cover, if it did not already come with your backpack. If it’s cold and rainy, you may want rain pants as well. I do not own these yet, I typically just don’t go for a day hike if I am expecting lots of rain. This is gear that becomes a bit more important when you get into backpacking and will be several days on the trail. Weather is a little less predictable when you’re going to be there for several days and you need to be prepared for everything.
If it’s going to be in a muggy, wet area, you probably want bug spray! Likewise, if it’s going to be hot and exposed, sunscreen is key!
If you’re going to be gone all day, for example, you may also want to pack a headlamp, extra food and water (or a water filter, if you’re going to be hiking near a water source), and even some in-case-of-emergency gear like an emergency sleeping bag, a lighter, and fire starter. It’s always good to have in case something doesn’t go as planned and you have to call it a night in the woods. Most likely, this is not the case as long as you did good trip planning, but it does occasionally happen even on a simple trail. Better to be over-prepared, right? (Go to Top)
What Other Extras You Could Bring
Next, you may want to consider extras that I don’t really consider day hike essentials, but can make a day of hiking an even more enjoyable experience. If, for example, you’re going somewhere with lots of trees (highly likely), perhaps you want to consider carrying in a hammock. I love taking my hammock to relax at the end of a trail, especially if I’m staying for a sunset view. Don’t bother with the weight if there won’t be trees though.
Is it a waterfall/swimming hole hike? Maybe you want a bathing suit or a pack-able towel. If I’m planning to hike in and swim all day, I bring a bathing suit. But if it’s just a plan to go the falls and back, sometimes I’ll just swim in my sports bra and shorts. To each their own here!
There are many things to consider, depending on each individual’s preference and style. Like I said earlier, you have to consider yourself and your own body. For example, something that’s not necessary that I like to bring on my really long hikes is my lacrosse ball to massage out muscle kinks.
I also bring a foam roller in my car (but not on the hike) for post hike, as I’ve learned this helps me out a lot. I seem to have chronically tight muscles, so this has been a newly found must-have for me. If you’re prone to ankle injuries, a wrap is essential to have in your first aid kit. I’m obsessed with carrying KT-tape for any tendon support.
Some people really like to have a beer at the end of the trail.
There are people who really love their trekking poles. I bring one trekking pole for extra difficult hikes, like some of the ones I did in Washington recently and my 23 mile hike, but I don’t usually bring them otherwise. They really help the knees in the steep downhill areas and stabilization at river crossings.
Others like to bring a speaker and put on music (be mindful of others with this- I personally recommend headphones unless you will be far away from others because sometimes other people go for the quiet nature sounds!).
The list of variables goes on. So as you can see, there a few things that are KEY and should always be brought on a hike and there are a few things left up to the hiker’s discretion. Most importantly, when you decide to go for a hike, make sure you practice Leave No Trace principles, which you can read more about in my blog post here. (Go to Top)
The last of my day hike essentials is a smile. Because I’m cheesy and you like it.
Barf. Just kidding. You can hike with or without a smile, it’s up to you. I usually go in order to put a smile on my face, but I don’t always start out smiling. Hiking heals and most importantly, the trail never judges you. And I’m only cheesy sometimes. Too much dairy gets me constipated.
That just about wraps things up. I hope this post has been helpful for you and to see you out hiking soon! I’d love to hear from you if you have any day hike essentials you like that I didn’t include in this post. Leave a comment below! Happy Trails! (Go to Top)