Day Hike Essentials

Day Hike Essentials: What To Pack for a Day Hike

Packing for a day hike is more of an art than a science, in that you’ll start to tailor your kit as you gain experience, but there’s a baseline of items that you should always bring. Before you go, check the forecast and try to zero in on the exact location that you're headed. Is it going to be really hot? Then maybe you’ll throw in extra water and electrolytes. If the trail is steep and rugged then you might bring trekking poles. 

It also helps to estimate how long you’ll be out. As a general rule, expect to hike at about two miles per hour, and add an extra hour for every 1,000 feet of elevation gain. Fit hikers can travel as fast as three miles an hour on moderate terrain, and steep, rough trails can slow your pace to one mile per hour. Knowing how long you’ll be gone will help you pack the right amount of food and water (always carry a little extra). 

Regardless of how long you’ll be gone, here’s what you should have with you:

  • Backpack: Just about any daypack will work, but ideally you use one that fits and has the best features and capacity for you. If you’re going on a longer, more complicated day hike you might want a 20-30L pack so you can carry everything you need. If you’re going out for a short hike, then a 10-15L pack is probably better. 
  • Water: On average, you’ll want to have half a liter of water per hour, but if it’s hot then bump that number up to one liter per hour. Use a water bottle or hydration pack (or both), and remember, it’s always better to bring more water than you think you need. But if there’s water available on your route, you don’t necessarily need to pack it all (see water treatment below). 
  • Water Treatment: Before you go, check to see if there are water sources on your route. Modern water treatment options are so light and affordable, it’s worth it to use one in order to save the weight of bringing extra water (a liter of water weighs 2.2 pounds). Options range from filters to UV light to chemical tablets to ozone.
  • Food: The good news? You can survive for days, if not weeks, without it. The bad news? Underestimating your calorie needs can make any hike a lot less fun, and can actually be dangerous in cold weather, when hypothermia is a threat, or if you run into trouble and are out longer than expected. A good estimate for a full day of hiking is 2,500 to 4,000 calories per person. That’s a lot! Bring snacks that don’t need cooking and that you’re actually excited to eat: jerky, trail mix, energy bars, candy, pizza, fresh fruit, perhaps even an MRE.
  • Hat: A basic ball cap or bucket hat will protect your face from the sun and the elements.
  • Sunglasses: Bring sunglasses that are rated to block 99% to 100% of UVA and UVB rays, and 75-90% of visible light in order to protect your eyes. Are you hiking on snow or at higher altitudes? UV levels increase exponentially as you ascend, and the snow also reflects radiation, so you’ll want darker glacier glasses. Look for glacier glasses that block around 93-95% of visible light, and have side shields to prevent light and wind from coming in. 
  • Sunscreen: Bring sunscreen that’s at least 15 SPF, but ideally in the 30-50 SPF range. Make sure to reapply every few hours. SPF lip balm is a luxury to lips, so throw that in your pack as well. Also, consider clothes that block UV rays, like a lightweight sun hoodie.
  • Headlamp: A headlamp should always come with you. If for some reason your hike takes longer than expected and you’re out after dark, you’ll need it. A flashlight works too, but it’s nice to be hands-free. Extra batteries are a must and, as an extra precaution, you can carry them in an extra headlamp.
  • Layers: The clothes you’re wearing should be made of a moisture-wicking material, like synthetic fabrics or merino wool. (Cotton doesn’t dry if it gets wet, which can be dangerous in cold weather.) Pack extra layers for the conditions you’ll encounter. If it’s a warm day maybe you’ll just want a windshirt or a light fleece, but if you’re going above treeline in the mountains, you’ll definitely want a puffer jacket, raincoat, gloves, and a hat.
  • Shoes: Your footwear depends on personal preferences and trail conditions. Trail running shoes are enough for some hikers, while others prefer the support of sturdy hiking boots that come up over the ankle. 
  • First Aid Kit: A few key items can make a huge difference when accidents happen. Blisters can be a total day ruiner, so always have something in your kit to treat them (like moleskin or adhesive bandages). Bring gauze, pain meds, bandages, tape, wrap, and disinfectant. To keep weight down, bring smaller quantities of these items and restock at home if you use anything. But you’ll want to be able to wrap a sprained ankle, treat scrapes, and stop bleeding. 
  • Navigation: Always carry a paper map and compass (and know how to use them), even if you’ll be using a GPS unit or navigation app. Remember to download maps for offline use. Nowadays, it’s easy to use your phone to record a track as you hike just in case you need to retrace your steps. If you’re relying on your phone, bring an external battery. 
  • Shelter: Depending on the weather conditions and your destination (like a summit hike that could take all day), consider bringing shelter, like a lightweight tarp or emergency bivy. 
  • Knife: A lightweight knife or multitool will be handy for lunch, and essential in a survival situation. 
  • Fire starter: On a day hike, you should only need this in an emergency, but then you really need it. Pack a lighter or matches, and a fire starter like dryer lint.
  • Other things to consider: Trekking poles, gloves, a warm hat, gaiters (if it’s snowy or you’re hiking on scree fields), a watch, hand sanitizer, waste disposal (a trowel/toilet paper), and a gear repair kit (duct tape, ski straps, zip ties).

All articles are for general informational purposes. Each individual's needs, preferences, goals and abilities may vary. Be sure to obtain all appropriate training, expert supervision and/or medical advice before engaging in strenuous or potentially hazardous activity.