Chances are you already have what you need to start hiking. Do you have sneakers, athletic clothing, and a backpack? Pack the backpack with snacks and water, along with additional layers and you’re ready.
You don’t have to go to an outdoor retailer and buy all the gear until you know you actually enjoy hiking. There are so many choices out there and everyone has different body shapes and preferences. What I like might be different than what my husband likes or my friends like.
I have always enjoyed hiking as exercise because it gives me variety and gets me outside. My pursuits lately have complicated gear lists, so when I’m packing for a day hike these days, I always think I’m forgetting something.
Depending on time of year, below is what you will find an extensive list of what to pack for a day hike.
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Most of the gear can be found around the house. I’ll continue to remind you to evaluate the gear you have and what would make your hiking experience better. Will you want a bigger backpack or one with more cushion or one that weighs less? The more miles you get out and hike in boots or shoes will help you understand your limits and what makes you comfortable. You don’t have to be the most stylish hiker on the trail to enjoy it. Women used to hike in petticoats. Can you imagine?
Start with a small backpack. Most backpacks are measured in liters and come in a variety of sizes and colors. If you went to any type of school, you may have a backpack. Fill the backpack with a bunch of weight and wear it when you’re cooking dinner. Does it sit well on your shoulders and lower back? Then take it hiking.
I use a 20 liter daypack that has padding on the back and shoulders. I like to carry my DSLR camera, which isn’t soft, so backpacks with only a thin layer of fabric, like the REI Flash Pack, become uncomfortable for me and my spine.
A good beginner backpack can be a commuter backpack, you know the ones you take to work on the bus to protect your computer. Notice what you like and don’t like about the fit and movement when you’re hiking uphill or downhill. Does it bounce? What straps do you want to tighten or loosen? Does it handle a sweaty back?
Hiking boots or shoes
When I started hiking, I jumped right in and did 50 miles of backpacking in the Grand Canyon carrying an overnight pack with my shelter and food in one big backpack. I didn’t know what I was doing, but I invested in hiking boots.
I have used hiking boots for many years, and they were my preferred footwear choice when hitting the trail. I like the protection from feeling sharp rocks on my soles to having the ankle support. Fortunately, you can find a large range of hiking boots for your hiking needs from burly and waterproof to breathable and nimble.
In the past couple of years, I started to try to go more lightweight, which means I started using what some call sneakers and others call trail-runners. Now, I don’t trail run, but I found that I like my ankles to be able to flex a little more than they were on rocky trails for balance.
I can go on forever on the conversation on hiking boots though for the purposes of getting people to try hiking, try what you have or what you can walk in for miles. Consider finding a boot or shoe you can grow into since they don’t come cheap. Are you going to love hiking so much that you might want to sleep in a tent miles from cars? Then consider buying something with support for carrying 30-plus pounds.
Trekking poles are a good idea, especially if you have prior knee or ankle injuries. I recommend carrying trekking poles as you start and your stabilizing muscles strengthen. As you add more weight or elevation to your hike, you may want to consider bringing them along.
I’ll start by saying that synthetic clothing is optimal depending on location and conditions. Make sure to keep an eye on the weather and add more layers for wind or rain as needed, usually in the spring or fall that you may not need in the summer.
Now, let’s start to dress properly and add some extra essential gear to your backpack or body.
On really cold days, you may want a base layer leggings. If you plan on hiking with rain in the forecast, consider a pair of cheap rain pants that zip most of the way for ease of pulling over your boots and pants.
T-shirts and tank tops are popular in the warm, summer months. I choose a comfortable fit ones, especially that protect my shoulders from backpack rub.
I always bring a base layer on my hike because my arms get cold when I stop moving and the breeze picks up, plus it is an item on the 10 essentials list. I’d rather be warm than cold. Add a mid-layer, like the Patagonia R1 Fleece, to your pack if you plan on camping overnights or not moving fast or in warm weather.
A light down jacket (synthetic or goose) will keep you warm and insulate you for your snack breaks and in cold weather. An outer layer, like a hard shell rain jacket goes into my pack if there is even a slight chance of rain or high winds.
Many other jacket options exists that include soft shells and lightweight packable jackets.
Since you are hiking for a day, cotton socks can work but wool or synthetic blends may keep your feet from blistering. I’m not a foot expert but I do know that I like good meaty hiking socks. Use ankle socks for lower cut boots or hiking shoes.
You can add thin liners to try to wick away the moisture from your sweaty feet, which I did for a few years and then stopped using them. Instead, I make sure to have some blister tape or mole skin with me until I know the hotspots or rubbing areas between my feet and shoe that cause my feet to blister.
Add to the hiking clothes and protect yourself from the elements. It may not make sense to have some of the items with you depending on the time of year, but I do like to always at least have them on my packing checklist.
Beanie hat – My ears tend to get cold. If I don’t bring a beanie because the weather looks nice, I usually add a small earband just in case my sensitive ears are exposed to brisk gusts of wind.
Neck gaiter – A great way to protect yourself from wind or the sun. It can double as mentioned earband or pulled up around your face if the sun is too much. Neck gaiters come in a variety of weights so adjust accordingly to the season.
Gloves – I’ll bring at the minimum liner gloves on hikes with me. Chances are my hands are normally warm when I’m moving but if I stop for a snack, my hands are the first to get cold. If you’re hiking with colder temperatures, consider thicker gloves or even overmitts to add to your liners for extra warmth.
Sunglasses – You never know when it will be sunny. Sunglasses don’t only protect against the sun but also if you’re hiking around snow and it is overcast, your eyes can still be sensitive to the bright reflections around. I tend to keep mine on if it is misting with wind to help keep my eyes sharp.
Sunscreen – Unless for some reason you never get burnt, sunscreen is a must. I find myself getting a little red even on overcast days as sun rays can still penetrate cloud layers and affect your skin. It’s better to be safe than sorry.
Hiking food and hydration
Depending on the length of your adventure, you may only need one liter of water compared to three. I prefer Nalgene water bottles over Camelbaks because I am worried the bladders will leak on my camera and gear. If you’re hiking on a trail with available water, you can bring a lightweight filter to reduce the amount of water weight you have to carry in your pack.
In addition to water, make sure you have a few snacks. Hiking burns calories, and your body needs to replenish them. My favorite trail snacks are nuts, like peanuts or cashews. If I want a heartier lunch or meal, then I’ll pack a PB&J sandwich plus a few food bars for variety. I am never sure what I’m going to crave, so I try to have a good combination of sugar snacks, like gummies, or savory snacks, like salami and cheese.
The ten essentials are arguably the most important things you can pack on every outdoor trip. I’ve been using this list for 10-plus years. You’ll find that some of the things I’ve added above appear on the list. I find that extra layers, while important, don’t end up in my pack. I’d rather have more jackets than an extra light layer even if mine is wet from sweat.
Navigation: Maps, compass, or GPS application
Don’t forget to know where you are going. It is helpful, especially on those longer trails with multiple junctions, to have the right tools to keep you found. Print or buy a map of the area you plan on hiking, bonus if it actually has the trail you plan on hiking. Make sure you know how to read a topographic map before you go and learn how to find where you are on the map as well.
There are many resources out there that will help you plan your hike, like Gaia GPS or AllTrails to a state-specific websites, such as Washington Trails Association.
I actually go into depth about how to use Gaia GPS here.
I’m a firm believer that the more memorable trips are ones spent with someone else. When possible, bring friends or family with you on the hike. You’ll have someone help you forget that you are working hard to gain the elevation or that you’re only on mile 1 of 15. Plus, if you bring a friend, the less selfies you’ll have to take.
Don’t forget to Leave-No-Trace
It’s important when we recreate to know the best practices to keep the outdoors accessible for future generations.
Disposing of your toilet paper – use a ziplock bag to store and keep your toilet paper (TP) dry. Add an additional ziplock bag within the bag to store your used TP. Even better, use a pee rag or handkerchief and wash it after each trip.
Trash bag – I like to carry a plastic shopping bag or even better a ziplock bag for my trash, including food trash. Don’t leave anything behind on the trail and having a place to store your garbage will keep it in one place to avoid any accidental littering.