You’re ready for an epic day hike. Not only have you picked out the trail, but you’ve also done your research and know all the important details like distance, conditions, elevation, and logistics. After checking the weather and getting the stoke level high, it’s time to gear up. The only problem is, what day hiking essentials you should bring on your hike to keep you safe and comfortable on the trail?
If you’ve ever wondered this, you’re certainly not alone. There are dozens of hiking gear lists on the internet to answer this exact question. But what we’ve found at Bearfoot Theory is that many of these gear lists have a bunch of items that most hikers never take with them on the trail. So how is our day hiking essentials list different? This is the practical stuff we at Bearfoot Theory actually bring on an average day hike. Nothing more and nothing less.
Whether you are an experienced hiker or are just starting out, here are the day hiking essentials you should bring with you on every hike.
1) A Daypack
The first thing you’ll need for your day hike is a good hiking daypack. You can get away with using an old JanSport from your closet if you’re not going too far, but if you are serious about hiking and want to be comfortable on the trail, you’ll want something a little more robust.
For size, a typical day hiking pack ranges from 20-35 liters. This is enough to hold your extra layers and all of the other day hiking essentials that we talk about below. Other features you’ll be looking for when you choose a day pack are:
- An interior pocket or sleeve for a hydration pack (which makes drinking water while hiking easier)
- A hip belt that will place the load on your hips rather than your shoulders
- A sternum strap which prevents the pack from shifting when you are hiking
Your best bet is to try a daypack on in the store to make sure it’s a good fit for your torso and body type. Here are a few of my favorite daypacks that I’ve used over the years:
- Osprey Mira 22L Hydration Pack – This pack is a great all-around day pack and I took a similar Osprey backpack with me to Everest Basecamp and to Canada a few summers ago. It’s got lots of pockets, a comfortable hip belt, and it comes with a 2.5-liter hydration reservoir.
- Deuter Speed Lite 20 – This is a comfortable (and more affordable) day pack that’s just the right size. It’s lightweight with a padded hipbelt and an interior sleeve pocket where you can slip a hydration pack in for easy sipping on the trail.
- Cotopaxi Luzon 18 – This daypack is a little smaller than the packs above, but it still fits all the essentials and is perfect for shorter hikes (plus we love all the fun colors it comes in!). This daypack doesn’t have an internal frame meaning it’s super packable and easy to take with you on road trips or airplane travel.
2) The Right Hiking Layers
Some of the most important day hiking gear is the kind that you wear! No matter what season you’re hiking in, wearing layers out on the trail is important for both comfort and safety reasons. Check out our guide to what to wear hiking for more info.
Start with a sweat-wicking base layer that’s breathable and regulates body temperature. Avoid cotton because in cold environments, wet cotton doesn’t provide insulation, is slow to dry, and can make you even colder. In the heat, cotton traps warmth, which isn’t ideal either. So try to steer clear of this material if you can. I personally wear a lightweight sweat-wicking shirt on warm summer days (long-sleeved for extra sun protection). Then, I will add an additional mid-weight layer on top when it’s cooler.
If there’s any chance of it being chilly out or there’s a possibility you’ll be out longer than you expect, pack a fleece or insulated jacket. It can be surprisingly cold on summits or in the shade when you’re taking a break, and the difference between mid-day temps and morning and evening temps can be significant. It’s no fun being cold, throwing an extra layer in your backpack won’t add much weight, and you’ll be happy you have it if it does get chilly!
Always pack a lightweight raincoat that you can stuff in your pack and a hat and gloves if you think it might get chilly. I usually also wear a buff, which is a lightweight layer that goes around your neck. It works well for wiping off sweat, protecting you from the sun or wind, or keeping your neck warm if it gets cold.
On your feet, choose a pair of sturdy hiking boots and socks that can handle whatever kind of terrain you’re hiking in. Go for lightweight trail shoes if it’s an easy or moderate trail and protect your ankles on tougher, more challenging surfaces with high-rise, thick-soled boots.
3) Sun Protection
To shield your skin from the sun while you’re hiking, bring along a bottle of sunscreen that is at least UPF 30 and won’t come off when you sweat. Also, pack a breathable brimmed hat and sturdy sunglasses to protect your eyes and face.
While these might be obvious for hot and sunny hikes, it’s not as commonly known that going for a hike in the snow on a sunny day can also cause sunburn from “snow blindness”. During winter hikes, the sun reflects off the snow and sends some pretty strong rays back at you.
Sun protection is a day hiking essential that will help you to prevent injury. Here are some of our favorite essentials for sun protection:
4) Map / Navigational Tools
There are a lot of great websites and apps for finding trails. We highly encourage you to have a few of these downloaded on your phone. For navigation, Gaia is one of our favorite GPS apps that allows you to see your location in real-time on your phone.
While many people rely solely on their smartphone’s advanced GPS to navigate on a trail, it’s also important to have a good backup. In the outdoors, there are plenty of places where there is no WiFi connection or cell reception and unlike a map or a compass, the battery on your phone can die. If you happen to get lost and find yourself with a dead smartphone, that could be a real safety concern. So unless it’s a trail you’re super familiar with and have hiked before, always pack the appropriate waterproof and tear-proof map, plus a compass to help you find your way. If you’re worried about your phone running out of battery, consider packing a portable power bank.
I also recommend packing an emergency communication device, like the Garmin InReach Mini, which allows you to send text messages when you are out of cell service. We’d also recommend letting someone know of your hiking plans and what time you expect to return, just in case they need to alert rescue if you don’t check back in by your established time.
5) LOTS of Water
Your body needs water to function at its very best. Bringing extra water, and even a water filter for long hikes in case you run out is a really important day hiking essential to have while you’re out there bagging peaks. In any weather, staying well hydrated can help you avoid dehydration or even altitude sickness, but moreover, it simply helps you feel good and have fun.
Many daypacks have space for a hydration reservoir which can be filled with water and allows you to drink from an attached tube. Since it’s nestled in between you and the pack, it’s easy to carry and is a great option for staying hydrated on-the-go. An alternative to a hydration reservoir is storing one or two lightweight water bottles in the side pockets of your backpack for easy access. You can even bring a water bottle with a filter built in.
6) Energizing Snacks
It’s important to bring enough food for the day to stay full and keep your energy up. Snacks that are packed with nutrients are best, so grab some granola bars, nuts, trail mix, or dehydrated meals if you’re going on a long hike and really want to pack light. Sturdy fruits and veggies like apples or carrots that won’t get squished in your bag are also great options. Or you can always pack one of the classic trail snacks: a good ol’ peanut butter and jelly sandwich.
It’s important always to make sure you have enough food, but the point of having extra is really in case of an emergency. You’ll also be burning more calories than you might be used to, so don’t skimp on snacks and nutrition.
7) First Aid Emergency Kit
It’s a good idea to invest in a portable and lightweight first aid kit that you can always keep in your backpack with your other day hiking essentials. While it’s unlikely that you will have an emergency, things like blisters, cramps, and minor cuts can happen.
The Adventure Medical Kit Ultralight/Watertight First Aid Kit is a pre-made first aid kit that has the basics for dealing with minor injuries. If you go this route, make sure you are familiar with what’s in it, and adapt the kit to your personal medical needs as necessary.
We also recommend throwing a lighter and waterproof matches into your first aid kit in case you get caught after dark and need to build a fire, as well as a small whistle that you can use to garner attention in an emergency.
8) Flashlight or Headlamp
In case you get caught on the trail after dark, you’ll want a source of light to help you find your way back to the trailhead. Carry a headlamp with you for hands-free light or a small and lightweight flashlight if you don’t have a headlamp. Make sure the batteries are charged, too.
9) A Multi-Tool & Mini Repair Kit
A mini repair kit will help you fix something like a tear in your backpack, a loose trekking pole, a broken strap, or any other unforeseen issues that may come up while you’re out there. While the contents of repair kits can vary between products, it’s always good to have multi-purpose tools with you like a pocket knife, leatherman, repair patches, safety pins, or strips of the ever-handy duct tape.
A good tip is to wrap some duct tape around a lighter so you have it handy in case you need it in a pinch.
9) Trekking Poles
Trekking poles might not be considered a “day hiking essential,” but if you are a beginner hiker or you are tackling steeper, more challenging terrain, trekking poles can be extremely helpful. Trekking poles take the pressure off your knees, give you more power on the ups, and help maintain a rhythm while you’re hiking. Check out this list of our favorite trekking poles and a more detailed explanation of their benefits and how to choose the right pair for yourself.
10) Toilet Paper or Pee Rag
No matter how short of a hike you’re going on, you should always be prepared in case you need to use the bathroom. Brush up on Leave No Trace principles and make sure you know how to properly poop outside – just in case! I always have my Kula Cloth anti-microbial pee rag attached to my daypack for #1 and travel-sized toilet paper for #2. Be sure to bring a Ziploc bag to carry out your used TP!