Even hikers who have cut their teeth on many backcountry day hikes have trouble selecting what backpacking gear they want to include in their rucksacks before they set out on the next outdoor adventure. From the absolute essentials like the right pair of hiking shoes or hiking boots to the arguably superfluous backpacking accouterments like trekking poles or a fully outfitted multitool with a fire starter, what hiking gear you pack up in your rucksack will ultimately depend on what kind of day hike you’re planning on having and what level of comfort you want to have while you hike. A day hike in a desolate desert location will necessitate a larger water bottle and sun protection like SPF-rated lip balm and sunscreen to protect against sunburns. A long hike in cold weather will require hikers to wear a base layer and a thicker jacket.
Luckily, backpackers can take some guidance from the 10 essentials and the Leave No Trace guidelines to narrow down their hiking gear to just the essentials and perhaps even cut their rucksack weight down to ultralight levels. Some rucksack standards are critical to have along, such as trail food to replenish the energy hikers expend. Trail mix, energy bars, jerky, peanut butter, and granola are classic staple foods for backpacking enthusiasts, but it can still be difficult to decide on which of these foods to bring and how much food to bring as well. Backpackers will also want to bring hiking gear for navigation such as a compass and an up-to-date map of the area they’re hiking through.
Ultralight backpackers have found many nifty hacks that enable hikers to forego some heavier equipment like a sun hat or inconvenient items like toilet paper in favor of a bandana that offers adequate sun protection and wet wipes which can be much more easily packed into a rucksack. For a long hike, hikers should always have some kind of blister prevention kit packed alongside the first aid kit that the 10 essentials list as a necessity. Ultralight space blankets make for great emergency shelter and a last-option makeshift rain jacket in case of poor weather conditions. Hikers heading off into the backcountry and unlikely to find a water source can leave the water filter behind but should make sure that a sufficiently-sized water bottle is filled up and packed somewhere easily accessible.
As you can probably tell, deciding what to pack requires careful consideration of the hiker(s) striking out, the trail they’re striking out upon, the weather conditions there, and the ever-present decision to go ultralight backpacking or not. Hikers who have packed their hiking gear enough times get the hang of making these decisions fairly quickly. Read on to make planning your next outdoor adventure that much easier by knowing what to bring on a hike.
The 10 essentials of hiking gear
We mention the 10 essentials in our how-to guides from time to time. The list of the 10 hiking gear essentials has been around since the mid-1970s and, while there are many hikers and backpacking outdoor adventure organizations that have altered the original 10 essentials to suit either personal preference or regional differences, the original 10 hiking gear essentials have stood the test of time. Hikers who go out for a day hike frequently probably won’t be very surprised to see what’s made the list of essential hiking gear, which is as follows:
- Navigation: An up-to-date map of the area you’ll be day hiking through which is stored in a waterproof container, plus a compass or some sort of GPS device, is all you need to satisfy this first essential piece of camping gear.
- Sun protection: Hikers should always pack sunscreen and lip balm of a sufficient SPF to protect them from sunburns. A sun hat, sunglasses, and clothing that covers especially sunburn-sensitive parts of the body are also recommended.
- Insulation: This essential provides for cold weather and rain gear for bad weather conditions. A rain jacket with wicking treatment, a hat, gloves, and thermal clothing with a base layer are all must-haves for hikers going into the backcountry in the cold or rainy season.
- Illumination: Just in case you decide to head out to the trailhead early or stay out later than expected, it’s highly advisable to pack a headlamp or flashlight with extra batteries and an LED bulb.
- First aid kit: Make sure your first aid kit has been refilled if you’ve had occasion to use some of the first aid supplies inside. Hikers should also consider bringing a blister kit and some sort of insect repellant and hand sanitizer.
- Fire: Of course this means a fire-starter and some kind of kindling like toilet paper, not an actual fire.
- Repair tools: No need to bring the whole toolkit with you, but hikers can always use a multi-tool, pocket knife, scissors, a trowel, and a securing agent like a rope or tether.
- Food: Always make sure to pack at least one day of extra food in addition to the food you plan to eat on the trail. Beef jerky and peanut butter are great for replenished protein and energy bars with granola are good for quick carbs.
- Water: Hikers should always have a water bottle and/or hydration pack no matter what conditions they expect to face. Water filters are handy for hikers traveling near water sources as well.
- Emergency shelter: Any hiking gear will work for this final essential; a tent, a tarp help up with trekking poles, a space blanket, a sleeping pad, or just a garbage bag will all do the trick. Hikers should make sure to bring something just in case they’re stuck out in the backcountry overnight unexpectedly.
Many organizations in hotter climates advise more water than food since there aren’t many water sources there. Some sort of ice-ax is recommended in wintry places and for mountaineering, while some other hikers have added two or three additional essentials like a signal flare and personal items. There is also an updated approach called the 10 essential groups that some hikers prefer to use. Overall, though, these 10 essentials are enough of a starting point to decide what hiking gear you want to bring on a hike.
Selecting the right boots for day hiking
We’ve already written a considerable amount about hiking boots here, but for a quick review, remember that hikers should select hiking boots that offer enough arch support for their planned terrain, with durable construction and the right waterproofing treatment. Hikers heading for shorter day hikes or seeking to train for a thru-hike might prefer to go with hiking shoes rather than bother with hiking boots that can possibly offer too much support and weaken the muscles in the ankle and foot, preventing them from providing the natural load-bearing that they normally should. Day hiking can often give hiking boots and hiking shoes both a beating, so hikers might even go as far as to pack an extra pair of bootlaces with them.
The most important factor when it comes to hiking boots and hiking shoes is the prevention of blisters, which can not only put an end to an otherwise enjoyable day hike by causing hikers too much pain to go on but can also become infected and lead to complicated health issues later on. The right socks and the right lacing on your hiking boots and hiking shoes can all work to protect against blisters and moleskin with a sanitizer is critical in your first aid kit for treating blisters before they form or protecting blisters from infection when they have. Always remember not to pop a blister if you can possibly avoid it.
Is a cell phone proper hiking gear?
There are many hikers who have integrated cell phones and smartwatches into their backpacking gear for either navigation or to keep track of their progress via photos of gorgeous backcountry vistas or step-tracking apps. Many hikers find that carrying a cell phone with them gives them an added sense of security. For long hikes that go deep into the backcountry, remember that most cell phone plans might not provide any service.
It depends on where you’re going but as a general rule of thumb, it’s completely fine for hikers to bring a cell phone with their other backpacking gear, but not advisable to plan on depending on the cell phone 100% to accomplish critical goals like navigation. A paper map and compass are still the only surefire ways to make sure you’ll always have a way to get through – and out of – the backcountry. Even the hiking gear purists among us will probably appreciate having it around if they hang on to the cell phone just in case of an emergency situation.
Do I need trekking poles on my day hike?
There are many advantages to trekking poles but some hikers find them either superfluous or ineffective. Ultralight hikers either prefer not to take trekking poles because of the added weight or swear by trekking poles as handy tent poles for lean-tos if they’re going camping without a tent. When used properly, trekking poles can offer support and spare hikers a lot of the pressure on their knees if they’re out on a backcountry hiking trail with a high elevation gain. It takes some time to get used to using trekking poles, so if it’s your first time using them you should be patient.
If you’re trying to achieve some kind of trail speed record and want to pack ultralight, then you should only bring trekking poles if you are already familiar with their use. Depending on the particular situation, trekking poles are probably not going to be considered essential hiking gear, but they can solve some of the peskier problems that plague backcountry hikers.
Wearing gaiters with hiking boots
Gaiters are great for keeping debris and precipitation from coming in through the tops of your hiking boots or hiking shoes. Hikers know all too well that hiking boots with wicking or that are otherwise designed to be waterproof are only as waterproof as they are watertight in the end. That is, the whole hiking boot can be waterproof but it won’t matter if the water is coming in through the top. Gaiters are great for rainy weather conditions and icy, cold weather where snow is likely to settle on your feet and then melt. They’re useful gear for hiking in possibly inclement weather conditions. If you’ve never used gaiters before, here’s a very quick rundown:
- Gaiters are either calf-height or ankle-height, so you can use them with either hiking boots or hiking shoes. Both models open and close with a front closure that will enclose your leg and hiking boot inside the gaiter.
- Nicer models of gaiters have lace hooks that attach to your hiking shoe or hiking boot to keep the gaiter closed, further preventing debris from entering. A strap for hikers to wrap around the instep of their foot is also included in almost all gaiter designs for more security.
- To put the gaiter on, just open it up and place it so that the closed section of the gaiter is on the backside of your leg and the opening will close on your shin. Step into the instep strap and fasten the gaiter closed on the front of your leg. If there are lace hooks, you should fasten them to your hiking boots before you close the gaiter.
- If the gaiter is not snug anywhere, use the buckle on the instep strap or the buttons at the top if there are any to make it nice and tight. You can put additional layers on the outside of the gaiter for added protection against rainy weather conditions.
What to bring on a group hike
Hikers who aren’t striking out solo into the backcountry have the obvious benefit of a more social trek that will build camaraderie and they can also split the various essential pieces of hiking gear among however many hikers are traveling in the party. Even a group of ultralight hikers can split some of the bulkier items amongst themselves. This is especially useful when it comes to food items like trail mix, energy bars, jerky, and granola. Make sure that everyone has an adequate supply of food in case they are separated from everyone else. If you aren’t planning on adding overnight camping to your outdoor adventure, then most of the 10 essentials won’t be able to be shared because everyone will need their own. Items like headlamps, water bottles, and rain gear will have to be packed one-per-person, but other shareable backpacking gear can be carried by just one hiker.
Repair tools like a multitool, fire starter, and a pocket knife can be carried by one hiker and used by everyone. The same goes for consumables like sun protection gear such as sunscreen and lip balm as well as first aid supplies like repellents and sanitizers. Water filters to treat water from a water source are shareable but hikers with more than two in their troupe might want to bring more than one water filter so there isn’t a long delay waiting to pass around the water filter and get drinking water to everyone. Each hiker must have their own water bottle no matter what backcountry environment you’re hiking through.
Leave no trace with the right hiking gear
The Leave No Trace guidelines are really helpful in planning all aspects of a long hike, especially what to bring on a hike. Leave No Trace includes seven guidelines that are probably familiar to most hikers even if they haven’t seen them directly before. That’s because much of the effort we put into planning our long hikes and day hikes, including this guide, are already very much in the spirit of the Leave No Trace principles. Briefly, the 7 guidelines are:
- Plan Ahead and Prepare
- Travel & Camp on Durable Surfaces
- Dispose of Waste Properly
- Leave What You Find
- Minimize Campfire Impacts
- Respect Wildlife
- Be Considerate of Other Visitors
Now, as you can likely tell just from looking at them, not all of the Leave No Trace guidelines are applicable to a day hike where camping is not on the agenda. For the purposes of this guide, minimizing campfire impacts is not so important. But you can see that this comprehensive consideration of what to bring on a hike is covered by the first principle and touches on the 3rd, 4th, 5th, and 7th principles.
Hikers interested in aligning their outdoor adventure with the Leave No Trace guidelines can plan ahead by packing smartly and only packing what they need. If you bring a glass jar, be ready to carry it back out of the backcountry with you so you can dispose of it properly. Single-use energy bars in plastic wrap are tricky because hikers will have to collect their garbage while they hike and keep it with them unless they are in a public park with garbage bins available. Homemade energy bars are easy to make and create much less waste.
Outfitting your rucksack with only reusable hiking gear is good for the environment and smarter for hikers who don’t want to deal with the hassle of collecting and transporting their own trash with them for the entirety of a long hike. Hikers who don’t create lots of refuse are better for the wildlife whose habitat will be preserved longer and more considerate of other visitors to backcountry hiking trails. If you can follow the Leave No Trace guidelines and pack the 10 essentials, you should have everything you need to strike out on your next hiking trip.
Hikers who are new to outdoor adventures or just tired of carrying around a bunch of backpacking gear they never end up using on the trail can easily remedy any anxiety they have about packing all the proper hiking gear on their next outing by considering what is absolutely essential and what will create the least amount of trash and impact their natural backcountry surroundings as little as humanly possible.
If you aren’t completely sure how long you will be out on the trail, make sure you have a headlamp or a flashlight with extra batteries and some kind of emergency shelter like a space blanket, which is ultralight and works in a pinch. Always make sure to have an extra day’s worth of food, even if it’s only snacks like trail mix, energy bars, jerky, peanut butter, or granola.
A first aid kit and sun protection gear are also essential. Hikers with light skin can burn in as little as 20 minutes if they don’t have sunscreen with the right SPF rating and lips can quickly succumb to sunburn or dryness if there is no lip balm included in your rucksack or in your first aid supplies.
Blister prevention will be essential to making sure you can complete your hike. Backpackers and hikers traveling in cold weather or bad weather conditions should add gaiters to their other rain gear and make sure they’re familiar with how to properly use gaiters to prevent precipitation from entering through the tops of hiking boots and hiking shoes.
Packing for a day hike or a long hike is one of the very first things hikers do when they’ve decided to strike out on their next outdoor adventure. It’s also one of the most important stages of a long hike because the rest of the backcountry trek will be directly impacted by what you do and do not bring along with you. Trekking poles are debatably skippable, but there are many more things hikers should not head for the trail without.
Luckily, we have the 10 essentials and the Leave No Trace guidelines to help us decide. Use both strategies and study up on your chosen trail before you leave on your next outdoor adventure and you’ll be much more comfortable and the envy of your fellow hikers now that you know what to bring on a hike.
Bonus tip: Still curious? Let Ranger Mike tell you what he considers to be basic gear for a day hike!