10 Hiking Essentials: The Ultimate Hiking Gear Guide

Day Hiking Essentials Every Hiker Needs

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Heading out for a day hike is one of the easiest ways to escape the business of our day-to-day lives. But that escape isn’t without risk. Time and time again, I’ve seen hikers head out on a hike in sandals, without water. Every hiker should prepare for the unknown by ensuring that have the day hiking essentials in their pack. But maybe that’s just the former Girl Scout in me…

While impossible to pack for every worst-case scenario, this list of day hiking essentials will cover you for 99.9% of scenarios. Plus keep you hydrated and happy on the trail! Scroll down for my full list of recommendations or download the day hiking checklist to reference before your next hike.

1. Day Pack

Before you gather your day hiking essentials, you need something to put them in. Your day hiking pack should be a backpack, not a crossbody, not a messenger bag. A backpack keeps your hands-free and evenly distributes the weight of your essentials while you hike. 

The size of your pack you need will depend on hike length and how much you plan to carry. Pack capacity is measured in liters, based on the volume held in the body of the bag. REI recommends an 11 L to 35 L pack for day hikes. For those bringing only the essentials and thin outer layers, a pack under 20L should work fine. If you’re like me and like to carry plenty of snacks, a camera, or a tripod, you’ll want a pack between 20-35L.

2. Hydration & Fuel

Water

Without a doubt, the most crucial item on this day hiking essentials list is water. This is particularly true for strenuous hikes or hot, arid environments.

It’s recommended to carry at least 0.5L (16.9 ounces) of water for every hour of hiking. Double that for strenuous, high heat hikes. Carry your water in a light-weight, reusable water bottle or in a bladder that fits within your day pack. While I love my YETI water bottle at home or work, the extra weight of a dense steel bottle isn’t practical for a hike. 

For longer hikes, I prefer my 3L bladder. It allows me to carry plenty of water for my hike without the extra weight of multiple water bottles. It also allows for quick drinking on the go, unlike stopping to get my water bottle out of the side pocket of my pack. For shorter, under hikes under two hours, I recommend a 32 oz reusable water bottle.

Water Filtration (in case of emergency)

Every backpacker carries water filtration equipment and every prepared day hiker should too. While you hopefully won’t have to use it, it’s important to carry some way of filtering water in an emergency. Carry either a small filtration device or chemical treatment in your pack.

Snacks

There’s nothing worse than a hungry hiker, so pack plenty of snacks to keep you going throughout your hike. Pack extra food in case you’re stranded overnight.

For hikes, I prefer calorie-dense foods like CLIF bars, RX bars, beef jerky, or trail mix. All these things will keep in your pack for an extended period of time and provide much-needed protein.

Bring a trash bag (or a resealable Ziploc bag) to pack out all trash. Every hiker should leave the trail as they found it and pack out everything brought in.

3. Sun Protection

As with any outdoor activity, it’s important to protect yourself from the sun. A minimum of SPF15 to SPF50 is recommended. While it’s important to apply sunscreen in the first place, reapplying is more important. While hiking, you should stop to reapply sunscreen every two hours, particularly for exposed hikes. Never ever use aerosol sunscreens on your hike!

Sun protection doesn’t stop at sunscreen though. You should also carry a hat and sunglasses to protect your face, neck, and eyes. Most sun hats shade your ears and neck, but if you opt for a baseball cap, reapply sunscreen frequently to your ears and neck. Regardless of the style of hat, look for moisture-wicking, quick-drying fabrics.

4. Extra Layers

Regardless of the time of year, you should have extra layers stored in your pack. These layers should protect you from both colder temperatures and rain. 

Warmth Layer

I like to carry a pullover merino wool base layer. Quarter or half-zip layers are great for venting when you’re between hot and cold. A  merino wool layer provides adequate warmth while able to condense in your day pack.

Rain Layer 

While this may seem obvious, your hiking rain jacket should be waterproof. Look for technologies like GORE-TEX in a rain jacket to keep you dry. If ventilation is important to you, look for a jacket with pit zips. I prefer a rain jacket with a boxier fit to allow for layering underneath.

Gloves

Consider carrying a pair of gloves if you’re hiking somewhere where temperatures drop overnight or in a cold-weather season. My favorites are the Smartwool Liner Tech gloves for mild weather and the Black Diamond Screen Tap gloves for cold weather.

5. Illumination

Every hiker should carry some sort of illumination. And no, your cell phone flashlight doesn’t count. I prefer a headlamp over a flashlight to keep your hands-free while hiking.

Make sure your headlamp has fresh batteries or carry a backup set of batteries.

6. Navigation

Even with a keen sense of direction, you should carry some sort of navigation on your hike. The most reliable of which is a physical, hard copy map. You can pick one of these up at the park headquarters or sometimes at the trailhead. I also take pictures of the large trail map on the sign, if there is one.

While physical maps are most reliable, I like to use digital maps from All Trails to track my progress on the hike. With All Trails Pro, you can download hikes and make them available offline.

I also always download Google Maps offline in the region I’m hiking. GPS location on your phone will still work without a cell signal. This can be crucial for navigating when lost. To learn how to download Google Maps to your device, check out Step 9 in my Travel Planning Guide.

7. First Aid Kit

Another important day hiking essential that most hikers go without is a first aid kit. Hiking can result in unexpected injuries and you should be prepared to handle common situations. Most first aid kits are sized based on trip length and number of people in your party. For a day hike, a small two-person, two-day first aid kit should suffice for a few people. If you’re in a larger group, have multiple people carry first aid kits.

If you’re hiking with a dog, bring a first aid kit for your pup too. Regardless of if you’re tending to a human or a dog, a little first aid training goes a long way. The American Red Cross has an intensive (I’m talking 121 pages) document on Wilderness and Remote First Aid.

8. Emergency Preparation

Every day hiker should carry essentials for surviving overnight in the woods. You’ll need small, compact gear to shelter, start a fire, navigate, and signal for help. This sounds like a lot of gear, but you can actually carry this in a quart-sized bag.

If you are stranded overnight, you’ll need an emergency shelter (think elements-resistant, heat-containing sleeping bag) and a way to start a fire, rain or shine. Other must-have emergency gear includes a whistle to call for help, a pocket knife, and a compass to navigate. It doesn’t hurt to have a hard copy park map either. 

Hopefully, you’ll never have to use these items and they can remain stuffed away in your day pack, but as the old saying goes, it’s better to be safe than sorry.

9. Sanitary Items

Staying clean on the trail is important, particularly if you’ll be stopping for a picnic or snack. Keep your hands clean with a travel-size container of hand sanitizer. Always use before eating or touching your face.

When you gotta go, you gotta go, so be prepared to go to the “restroom” on your hike. If you don’t want to rely on the “shake dry” approach, bring a small amount of toilet paper and a resealable Ziploc bag to pack it out. It is extremely important to pack out any toilet paper. Under no circumstances should you leave toilet paper in the park. Same goes for any feminine hygiene products. A trowel (a small tool used to dig holes for human waste) is a smart tool to bring to protect the environment you’re hiking in. Burying waste helps it biodegrade and doesn’t disturb the surrounding wildlife.

10. Protection from Wildlife

Last, but not least, is protection from wildlife, both big and small. When you’re hiking, you’re visiting all sorts of creatures’ homes, and while most of the time you’ll be fine, it’s good to be prepared (sensing a theme here?). 

Bear Spray

If you’re in an area home to bears or other large wildlife, you should carry bear spray if it is allowed. Similar to pepper spray for humans, bear spray is a nonlethal irritant that temporarily impairs the eyes and respiratory systems bears. This should only be used in an absolute emergency situation and within close range (around 25 feet). You should carry bear spray in an easily accessible place on your hike, like a waist belt or side pocket of your pack, and know how to use it.

Check with the park service or state guidelines before bringing bear spray. Some places, like California, don’t allow it.

Bug Spray

Not all wildlife will be large or create imminent threats. You’ll also want to protect yourself from bugs and mosquitos. I prefer bug spray without Deet. All-natural lemon eucalyptus sprays repel mosquitos as effectively as a Deet spray. Deet-free sprays are not effective against ticks, so always do a tick check after a hike. As with sunscreen, opt for non-Aerosol alternatives when hiking.

Optional Items

Not everything in your pack needs to be essential. If you have a larger pack, you can fill the extra room with items to enhance your hiking experience. 

Camera

I always have a camera on a hike, sometimes it’s my cell phone, but often it’s a DSLR camera. I have the Nikon D3300 (replaced by the newer D3500) and it’s the perfect starter DSLR camera.

Peak Design makes camera clips that will clip on to your day pack shoulder strap. This allows you to secure your camera for hands-free hiking. It’s also easy to clip and unclip your camera to get a quick shot of wildlife. 

Binoculars

If you’re hiking in a wildlife-filled environment, like Glacier National Park, you’ll want to keep binoculars handy. If you’re close enough to see without binoculars, you’re too close (remember to keep at least 15 years away). A compact beginner pair of binoculars is more than enough for the average hiker.

Hammock

If you’re planning on relaxing halfway through your hike, consider bringing an Eno hammock and a good book.

Packing Your Bag

Once you’ve organized everything on the day hiking essentials list, it’s time to put it in your pack. Start by putting lighter, less used gear on the bottom. This includes your first aid kit, emergency supplies, toilet paper, and headlamp (unless you’re hiking at night).

Put your heaviest items in the middle of your pack, against your back. This may be extra water bottles or your water bladder than rests at the back of your pack.

Last store items you’ll need frequently at the top of your pack or in outer pockets, like extra layers, snacks, hand sanitizer, your primary water bottle, and sunscreen.

A Quick Day Hiking Essentials Recap

Once you’ve organized everything on the day hiking essentials list, it’s time to put it in your pack. Start by putting lighter, less used gear on the bottom. This includes your first aid kit, emergency supplies, toilet paper, and headlamp (unless you’re hiking at night).

Put your heaviest items in the middle of your pack, against your back. This may be extra water bottles or your water bladder than rests at the back of your pack.

Last store items you’ll need frequently at the top of your pack or in outer pockets, like extra layers, snacks, hand sanitizer, your primary water bottle, and sunscreen.

Before you step out onto the trail for your next hike, make sure you’re prepared for any scenario with these 10 day hiking essentials.

  1. Day Pack: 11-35L backpack to carry all your essentials
  2. Hydration & Fuel: 0.5L of water per hour and snacks, plus a way to filter water in an emergency
  3. Sun Protection: Sunscreen, hat, and sunglasses
  4. Extra Layers: Warm pullover, rain jacket, and gloves
  5. Illumination: Headlamp or flashlight
  6. Navigation: Physical trail map, plus downloaded All Trails and Google Maps
  7. First Aid Kit: At least a 2 person, 2 day medical kit for a small hiking group
  8. Emergency Preparation: Fire starter, emergency shelter, whistle, pocket knife, and compass
  9. Sanitary Items: Hand sanitizer, trowel (if needed), toilet paper (if needed), feminine hygiene products (if needed)
  10. Protection from Wildlife: Bear spray, insect repellent

Optional items include a camera (and clip to fasten your camera for hands-free hiking), binoculars for viewing wildlife, and a hammock for a relaxing hike break.

 

Do you carry these day hiking essentials in your pack? Let me know in the comments! I love hearing from fellow hikers ?

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Hi, I’m Julia! I’m a national park lover and avid planner on a mission to visit every U.S. national park. My goal is to empower you to visit America’s national parks by providing super-detailed national park guides and the tools to grow your hiking and camping skillset so you can feel confident outdoors.

Hi, I'm Julia!

Welcome to Well Planned Journey. My passion is exploring America’s national parks and I’m so happy to be able to share that passion with you! My mission is to provide you with super-detailed guides to the U.S. national parks and empower you with the outdoor skills you need to explore them to their fullest.

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