Last Updated on October 12, 2020
Okay, I’ll admit it: years ago, I would never have been qualified to tell you what to bring on a day hike.
I used to set off on trails completely unprepared for the twists and turns that lay ahead.
I’ve left my rain jacket in my car, and hiked unsuspectingly into chilling alpine storms. I’ve become so dehydrated and desperate that I’ve gnawed the windburned crust off of a snowbank to stave off thirst. I’ve wandered off-trail, become completely lost, and bushwhacked my way into a backcountry meltdown.
Luckily for me, I always came out in one piece, but my failure to prepare could have put other hikers in danger, sent me to the hospital, or worse. Underestimating mother nature is never a good idea.
That’s why I’ve created this essential day hiking checklist for you, fellow hiker. Because years of mistakes have taught me that preparation is everything in the world of hiking. How you plan your trip can be the difference between chaos and bliss.
So, how can you avoid making the same mistakes I did?
Stay tuned, I’ve got you covered.
DAY HIKING ESSENTIALS:
TABLE OF CONTENTS
1. 10 Essentials for Day Hiking
2. Backpack & Storage
3. Worn Clothing & Carried Gear
4. Cold and/or Rainy Weather Gear
5. Food, Water & Purification
6. Navigation & Communication
7. Emergency Gear
8. Health & Protection
9. Photography Equipment
10. Personal Items
11. Final Thoughts: Day Hiking Essentials
Let’s start with the day hiking building blocks.
Listed below are the uber-important survival items that day hikers should consider packing before every trip. This ‘Ten Essentials of Hiking’ list is universally agreed upon in the hiking community and should serve as a baseline for all the necessary supplies you need to bring along on any given day hike.
1. Navigation: map, compass, GPS device, personal locator beacon, altimeter
2. Illumination: headlamp, flashlight, lantern, extra batteries
3. Sun Protection: sunglasses, sunscreen, lip balm, sun-protective clothes
4. First Aid Kit: including medication, bug repellent, and foot care
5. Gear Repair Kit: knife, multitool, repair tape, rope
6. Fire: lighter, matches, fire starter
7. Emergency Shelter: emergency blanket, bivy, tarp
8. Extra Food: extra day’s portion of calories
9. Extra Water: plus water storage, water purification system
10. Extra Clothing: sufficient layers to survive worst-case scenario weather
Beyond these ten essentials, I’ve prepared a more detailed day hiking checklist, broken down into nine different categories. The list is purposely exhaustive and is meant to cover any and all items you might need on a given day hike. Throughout the checklist, I’ll recommend hiking products that I know and love.
The length, weather, and difficulty of your upcoming hike should dictate which items you choose to bring along and which items you leave behind. Use your best judgment and always err on the side of caution.
Study your hike thoroughly, check the forecast, and use the following 52-item checklist to gather all the essential gear you need before your upcoming day hike.
DAYPACK – Use a practical daypack to carry your food, water, gear, and extra clothing while you’re day hiking in the backcountry. No need to get fancy, as a lightweight daypack between 10 and 30 liters should get the job done.
HIP PACK – It’s nice to have quick, easy access to snacks and supplies while hiking, which is why I load up and strap on my hip pack before I hit the trail. Want to hike without a day pack? An intelligently stocked hip pack with slots for water bottles might just be all the storage you need.
PACK COVER/LINER – If your daypack doesn’t come with built-in water protection, then moisture could become an issue. When the rain starts pounding down, you’ll need the contents inside your pack to remain dry at all costs. Bring a waterproof pack cover or pack liner to keep all the gear inside your backpack safe and dry.
When choosing your trail clothes, try to avoid 100% cotton. When the pros say “Cotton kills,” it’s because the wetter cotton clothing gets, the more body heat you lose in cold and/or windy conditions.
Opt for synthetic materials instead, or cotton/polyester blends made from breathable and moisture-wicking fabric. These materials will pull sweat and moisture away from your body to the outer layer of the garment, keeping you dry and warm.
SHIRT/TOP – Stock your day hiking wardrobe with breathable athletic tops. I usually don a long-sleeved shirt for my day hikes. It gives me great protection against the sun, blocks wind, and helps keeps me warm when temperatures drop.
PANTS/SHORTS – Your hiking pants/shorts/etc. should be comfortable and unrestrictive. Avoid jeans or bulky slacks and instead wear breathable hiking bottoms that allow for a wide range of movement.
FOOTWEAR – Feet are finicky and everyone’s body is different, so wear hiking footwear that works for you. Hiking boots that enclose your ankles provide the most support, whereas shorter hiking shoes, trail runners (I wear these), and minimalist hiking sandals are less restrictive but also less protective.
UNDERWEAR – Ill-suited underwear can make your day hike unpleasant in a hurry, so don’t cut corners when it comes to choosing your skivvies. Pick a lightweight, breathable, and snug pair of athletic underwear that will wick moisture away and prevent chafing.
SOCKS – Hiking socks should be comfortable, breathable, and prevent blisters. For me, those socks are the Darn Tough Hikers, which are made from high-quality Merino wool and offer an unconditional lifetime guarantee.
HAT – A good hat will keep the sun out of your eyes, protect your skin from harsh UV rays, and tame your sweaty hiker hair. I wear a mesh-back trucker hat and will use my Buff underneath to create earflaps if I need extra sun protection.
SUNGLASSES – Bring a pair of polarized sunglasses to protect your eyes from harmful UV rays and prevent damage down the road. Sunglasses don’t have to be expensive either, as you can find affordable pairs online for under $15.
TREKKING POLES – For hikers with sensitive knees, trekking poles are a godsend. Bringing a lightweight and sturdy set of sticks will give you two more points of contact with the ground and help ease the pressure off of your knees.
Before your day hike, it’s important to understand the potential weather you might face on the trail. Study the forecast, research typical conditions, and pack your bag accordingly. While you may not need to bring every item listed below during a day hike, pack all that’s essential for staying warm and dry during a worst-case scenario.
LIGHT JACKET/THERMAL – If you anticipate a chilly hike, pack a light jacket or thermal base layer to protect against the cold. You can layer this with your hiking top, rain jacket, and down jacket to stay comfortable as temperatures drop.
RAIN JACKET – Have a lightweight rain jacket on hand if there is even the slightest hint of precipitation in the forecast. Getting stuck in the wilderness with no protection from rain can leave you vulnerable and at the mercy of the elements.
WINTER JACKET – A packable, lightweight winter jacket is a must-have for day hikes where wind chill temperatures might dip close to freezing. The layers of insulation in your jacket will help trap body heat and keep you warm when things turn nasty.
RAIN PANTS – If your day hike forecast includes the possibility of substantial rain, bring along a pair of packable rain pants to pair with a rain jacket. A solid set of rain pants can mean the difference between ‘shivering, stumbling, and cursing’ and ‘dry, warm, and happy.’
LONG UNDERWEAR – When day hiking in cold weather, bring a pair of long underwear to provide an extra layer of insulation for your legs. Conserving heat in your legs will regulate your body temperature and allow you to push on as temperatures plummet.
WINTER HAT – During cold-weather day hikes, body heat escapes from your head faster than any other part of your body. Pack a warm winter hat to help stabilize your body temperature, and you will expend less energy trying to stay warm.
GLOVES – Day hiking in cold weather with exposed hands can suck the fun out of your day, along with your body heat. It can also lead to hypothermia or frostbite in extreme cases. Protect your digits with a quality pair of waterproof gloves when chilly and/or wet conditions threaten your well being.
FACEWEAR – Constant exposure to the elements — wind, dust, rain, snow, and sun — can do a number on your face, so bring along some proper protection for your next day hike. Multifunctional facewear can be used in a myriad of ways and will shield your face from almost anything nature throws its way.
GAITERS – If significant rain is in the forecast, consider packing a lightweight pair of gaiters — especially if your footwear isn’t waterproof. Proper gaiters will block water and debris from entering the opening of your shoe, keeping your feet dry and undisturbed in the process.
CRAMPONS – When hiking on packed snow and ice, crampons should be an essential part of your day hiking gear checklist. An effective set of crampons will penetrate ice and grip frozen trails, preventing slips and falls that could derail your adventure.
Food and water are your hiking fuels, so kick start your day hike with plenty of calories. A strenuous, full-day hike can easily burn 3,000 calories. Some of those calories can be consumed right before you hit the trail, and the rest should be close at hand in your day pack. Here’s a calories burned calculator to see how much food you should pack.
Always bring at least an extra day’s worth of calories, in case of emergency.
SNACKS – Snacks will be the day hiking fuel that keeps you going, so be sure to pack enough calories to sustain you for a long day of hiking. Bring calorie-dense, ready-to-eat foods like nuts, jerky, and meal bars that will keep you going all day on the trail.
LUNCH – Snacks alone can get boring, so consider packing a lunch for a mid-day morale boost. If you want a hot meal, pack a lightweight stove and a dehydrated meal. Or pack something as simple as a sandwich to reward yourself for a long day of hiking.
WATER – Staying hydrated is as important as consuming enough calories on your day hike. Bring enough water! Or purify as you go, providing there are reliable water sources along the trail. Consume at least one liter of water per two hours of hiking, and even more on hot, strenuous, high-altitude hikes.
WATER PURIFICATION – If there are multiple, year-round water sources along the trail, a lightweight water purification system is a good option for filtering as you go. Other options include using iodine tablets or zapping your water with UV rays. All these methods allow you to carry less water weight as you hike and will allow you to clean water sources in case of an emergency.
WATER STORAGE – You’ll need to carry liquids while hiking, so choose a water storage system that works for you. Large-volume hydration packs, insulated containers, collapsible pouches, or old water bottles — the choice is yours.
Losing your way in the backcountry can be stressful and even life-threatening, so come prepared. Arm yourself with an accurate map (print and/or digital), a reliable compass, and the skills to stay on track even when the unexpected happens.
MAP – Though many trails are very easy to follow, always bring a detailed print map for less-established day hikes into the backcountry. Should you get lost or disoriented, a good topographical map will show you the contours of the land and guide you back to civilization.
COMPASS – If you don’t know your direction of travel, a map alone might not be enough to get back on the right trail. Always pack a reliable compass — magnetic or digital — and use it in conjunction with your map to keep moving in the right direction.
CELL PHONE – Many hiking purists choose to travel with only a printed map, but the truth is that smartphones can also be excellent tools for navigating the wilderness. Just make sure your smartphone is equipped with GPS technology that doesn’t rely on cell phone tower connections. And keep your battery charged and a backup map close at hand.
POWER BANK – Your cell phone won’t do you much good if its battery dies, so pack a lightweight power bank to charge your cell phone as needed. You likely won’t need a power bank on most day hikes, but it’s a good piece of gear to have in case you get sick, lost, or injured and need to spend the night on the trail.
OFFLINE DIGITAL MAPS – Many smartphone navigation apps allow you to download an offline map of your hike before you hit the trail. Doing so will let you trace your live location along the trail route without the need for cell service. My personal favorite app is Gaia GPS.
Nobody ever intends to get into an emergency situation on a day hike, but it’s important to come prepared for a worst-case scenario. Whether you become lost, threatened, injured, or sick on your hike, bringing along the all-important emergency gear will help you right the ship and return to civilization safely.
FIRST AID KIT – Prepare for injuries both big and small and pack a basic first aid kit on your next day hike. You can purchase a lightweight first aid kit or piece together one from your medicine cabinet. Here’s a helpful first aid kit checklist to ensure that you don’t leave anything behind.
WHISTLE – If you become lost or injured on your day hike, a loud, piercing emergency whistle can attract & guide rescuers to you, even if they’re miles away. Some hikers keep their whistles close at hand, but many modern day packs have whistles built into their buckles. Choose & learn your preferred method for summoning help in a potential emergency.
BEACON – Personal locator beacons can be expensive, but they consistently save the lives of hikers in emergency situations. These beacons have technology that tracks your location anywhere in the world, and some can also download maps, send SOS messages, and load weather forecasts.
LIGHTER/MATCHES – Bring a lighter, matches, or a fire starter in case an emergency leaves you lost, injured, or stranded during your day hike. The ability to start a controlled fire to signal for help or to keep warm in the cold could be life-saving.
MULTITOOL/POCKET KNIFE – Though you hopefully won’t need to use one on your day hike, always pack a multitool or a pocket knife to help deal with the unpredictable. A basic multitool can repair gear, assist in first aid, make kindling, and prepare food in an emergency.
HEADLAMP – If your day hike stretches into the night, you’d better have packed a headlamp to help you find your way. A powerful light source can safely guide you down dark trails or can help you signal to rescuers for help if you’re lost or injured.
EMERGENCY BLANKET – In the dreadful event that you get stranded overnight on your day hike, a lightweight emergency blanket could save your life. An emergency blanket’s reflective qualities will trap your body heat and protect you against hypothermia when temperatures drop and you need to hunker down for the night.
BEAR SPRAY – If your day hike takes you into an area known to have bears, bring some potent bear spray to defend yourself against any aggressive ones. The highly-concentrated pepper spray will temporarily blind and disorient the bear from as far away as 35 feet, giving you time to make a quick getaway.
Take care of your body and the environment on your day hike by packing the items needed to manage your basic health along the way. The items below will help protect you against sun, bugs, bacteria and allergies, all while leaving no trace.
MEDICATION – Bring along an assortment of medication, prescribed or otherwise, that you might need during your day hike. Backpacker Magazine has written two great posts on this topic: one for over the counter meds and one for doctor prescribed meds. If you have any allergies to food or medication, let your hiking partners know beforehand and tell them how to help in case of a serious reaction.
SUNSCREEN – Bring along a heavy-duty sunscreen (30 SPF or higher) to protect against the sun’s powerful UV rays and prevent sunburns that can lead to skin cancer. Sure, hiking hats and UV-rated clothing often do well in protecting against UV rays, but they’re not always enough.
BUG SPRAY – Insects can often overwhelm you in the backcountry, so bring some effective bug spray if you anticipate pesky insects on your day hike. By keeping mosquitos, ticks, and others at bay, you’re protecting yourself from such harmful diseases as malaria and Lyme’s disease.
CHAPSTICK/LIP BALM – Cracked, chapped, and sunburnt lips are common among day hikers but are incredibly easy to prevent. Be sure to pack a tube of long-lasting, UV rated chapstick — especially on dry and sunny hikes — and your lips will thank you later.
HAND SANITIZER – Hand washing in the backcountry is cumbersome and not always environmentally friendly, so bring an alcohol-based hand sanitizer to keep clean while you hike. Always use hand sanitizer before you eat to neutralize any bacteria, parasites, or viruses that you may have encountered along the trail.
TROWEL – If the urge to go #2 presents itself on the trail, make sure you’re prepared to bury your waste properly with an ultralight hiking trowel. Dig a hole at least six inches deep — 200 feet from any water sources, trails, and campsites — and bury your waste entirely, letting it compost naturally into the earth below.
TOILET PAPER – Always, always bring toilet paper on your day hike, even if you don’t think you’ll need it. And always pack out your TP and avoid burying it at all costs. Many brands of toilet paper have harmful chemicals that will be released into the earth when buried.
WASTE BAGS – While digging a cathole and burying your poo properly is classic hiking etiquette, some trails require that you pack all of your waste out. If that’s the case, come prepared with wilderness waste pouches that allow you to pack your messiest waste out safely and odor-free.
Though photography equipment isn’t essential day hiking gear, it will help to capture the stunning beauty you encounter along the trail. Hikers and backpackers tend to opt for lightweight and durable photography gear that can withstand the rigors of the trail.
CAMERA – While smartphones are the simple solution to capturing photos during your day hike, a packable camera can take your backcountry photography to the next level. Mirrorless cameras are popular among hikers and backpackers because they are compact and capture high-quality photographs.
EXTRA LENS(ES) – If you’re bringing your camera along on your day hike, don’t forget to pack any extra lenses you might need to capture the adventure. Wide-angle lenses are great for capturing epic landscapes, whereas zoom lenses are better for long-distance photos of wildlife.
TRIPOD – Bringing a lightweight and compact tripod on your hike will make you a more versatile photographer in the wilderness. Tripods will allow you to snap stunning backcountry portraits and also help stabilize the camera, capturing more clear and vivid photos.
WATERPROOF BAG – Cameras and water don’t play together well. You can use a Ziploc or a simple rolltop dry bag to give your photography gear the extra layer of protection it needs. Consider using a silicon lens cover to prevent lenses from fogging and accumulating water during especially humid conditions.
PEN & PAPER – While a pen and paper are great for taking notes or doodling during your day hike, their usefulness could help save your life in case of an emergency. Whether you’re forced to leave a note to communicate with rescuers or you need help starting a fire, a weatherproof hiking journal and reliable pen will be there for you when things go awry.
WALLET/IDENTIFICATION – In the event of an emergency, it’s important to provide rescuers with your medical profile and basic personal information. With this info, they’ll have a better idea of how to help you. If you have serious allergies, leave an allergy information card in your wallet, as it will alert medics to any medications or food to avoid.
I’ve learned over the years that day hiking is more than just throwing some food and water in a bag and hitting the trail. Hiking is about preparation, diligence, and respect for mother nature. Reckless decisions can lead to life-threatening emergencies when you’re at the mercy of the backcountry.
And that’s why I created this extensive 52-item day hiking essentials list for you. I’ve experienced first hand how risky failing to prepare can be. Day hikes, both big and small, deserve thoughtful preparation.
So, get ready for your next day hike the right way. Utilize my extensive checklist, get your hands on the proper gear, and hit the trail relaxed and full of confidence.
And, next time you ask yourself, “What should I bring on my day hike?” I hope you know exactly how to get started.
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Are there any day hiking essentials that should have made my list? What essential hiking advice would you give to a beginner? What piece of gear do you bring on every single day hike? Let me know by leaving some feedback in the comments below!