What To Bring Hiking: The 10 Essentials

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What To Bring Hiking

If you are wondering what to bring hiking then read on. Simply put you need to have vital items to make sure you’re prepared for all types of weather and situations. Knowing what to bring hiking can ensure you will be safe and comfortable if you need to survive the night. As a matter of fact, most search and rescues can’t rescue people after dark. This is because it is too risky for their safety due to not being able to use air support. So if you get lost hiking then the following ten essential items may make or break your adventure.

Before The Hike: Planning 

Before even stepping foot on the trail you need complete some tasks. First you need to inform a reliable person where you are going. Second, you should also tell them when you expect to be home, so if anything goes awry they can call the authorities. Finally leave this person with a detailed trip itinerary too. Especially if you are hiking long distances or undertaking ambitious routes.

Next learn your route and plan how long it will take based on your fitness level. Don’t attempt a solo black diamond route if you have never hiked before, this is a recipe for disaster. Instead, find a route that is easy to moderate and one with serviced rest stops. Or if you do have hiking experience, then there are two instances to always plan for. 

  • Are there any emergency exit points and if not where will you sleep in an emergency?
  • Where can you reup low supplies? Such as water sources like streams. Always find 2 sources because “dry spells” can occur in the wilderness.

Use a map to plot these points and take it with you on every hike, regardless of the distance.

Once you have your map plotted you should then check the weather. Keep in mind that the weather at the base of a mountain is often different than halfway up a mountain.

After you check the weather you need pack, below we explain what to bring hiking with the ten essentials. Remember to test each piece of your gear before hitting the outdoors as well. One last thing to mention, this list is not exhaustive, it is only a starting point. As hikers become more experienced they often add to their packs according to the season and each route. With this in mind we added some additional gear options at the end of the article.

The Ten Essentials

1. Flashlight or Headlamp

You need this in case you get caught out in the dark. It is scary how easy it is to under estimate the remaining amount of daylight left, especially in forests. Often, hikers who need rescue did not start out lost, but simply ran out of daylight. In fact lack of light is the single biggest reason for lost hikers. So take a high quality flashlight with an extra bulb and battery per person. Another option if you find holding a flashlight cumbersome is a headlamp. Headlamps are great because they are lightweight, hands free with long battery life.

2. Fire-Making Kit

Making fire can be crucial for staying warm outdoors. Especially during a change in the weather, an injury, or an unplanned overnight event. Creating fire when lost has many uses such as heat, drying clothes, cooking, or even signaling. A kit could be waterproof matches/lighter or an actual purchased fire-making kit. We also bring a fire-starter like a lint ball from a clothes dryer, stored in a zip lock bag. Another item you can add to your kit is a small candle for extra illumination.

3. Extra Food and Water

This is important no matter how short or long your hike is. Extra food and water can be the difference between an extended stay and a survival situation. So bring enough food and water to sustain for the day, plus some extra calories for the unexpected. A snack with more sugar like a chocolate bar is a good source of quick energy.

Water is more important than food though, since you can survive 3 weeks without food, but only 3 days without water. In general for water many rescue organizations recommend 1 liter per person. While a good amount for a short hike, we always take 2 liters person for a hike over 4 hours in length. Also a good idea is to bring sport drinks to replace electrolytes lost from sweating. If you hike near streams, pack a water filter or chemical treatment to get clean refills for your bottle.

4. Extra Clothing

Unexpected or quick changing weather is the reason for extra clothing. Your strategy for clothing is all about layering and good breathe-ability. When this strategy is successful it prevents overheating or sweating which causes dehydration. If not corrected you can get hypothermia in cold weather and heat exhaustion in hot weather. The one thing to always remember is that the most appropriate hiking clothing is non-cotton.

Look for lightweight clothing that lays close to skin that will wick sweat away. Wool, fleece and Gortex are great materials for hiking clothing. Likewise jacketswith zippered vents in the armpits and pants with vented leg areas are great. Because they allow excess body heat to escape in times of heavy exercise in severe weather.

If you have poor circulation it is also a good idea to bring Goretex or wool gloves. Bring ones that allow you to perform tasks such as holding objects when trekking terrain.

One last item we consider a bonus is plastic shopping bags for trekking through water. Place them over the dry socks inside your boots to add a layer of water-proofing for your feet.

Photo of three hikers on mountain at sunset

5. First Aid Kit

Self reliance is critical in the outdoors and often there is no cell service either. Thus all hikers are well advised to take wilderness first aid certification. As for a first aid kit you can buy many excellent pre-built kits from rescue organizations. Good kits should contain many items like gauze pads bandages, disinfectants, a splint, and so on. We also customize our kits by adding over the counter pain killers. Having these items can make all the difference in a survival event.

6. Emergency Shelter

This is a bivy sack, which is a large orange tarp or blanket. It could even be a large orange plastic bag like a garbage bag. Not only can crawling into the sack/bag help keep you warm and dry in an emergency. But also the bright orange color will be visible to search and rescue. If you use a tarp, it can be very useful in creating a makeshift shelter. Having shelter or a bivy sack may be the difference between getting hypothermia or not.

7. Signaling Device

Two good signaling devices are either a pocket mirror or a whistle. You use the mirror to create reflections of light to signal search and rescue aircraft. Infact these reflections are visible up to 5 miles in distance.

While a whistle will increase the chance of rescuers hearing you when lost. Especially after your voice becomes too hoarse from sustained shouting for help.

In general if you are sending a distress signal with a whistle you should do the following. Whistle out three short blasts in timed intervals of 1 to 5 minutes. Do them in several directions from where you are standing, so rescuers above, below or to the sides of you can hear you. This is especially important if you get lost in canyons. If you hear rescuers approaching, continue very short blasts every minute. Do n’t stop until they make voice contact and then follow their instructions.

what to bring hiking photo of woman looking at a map

8. Navigation/Communication Aids

At minimum always carry a map and a compass. You could also carry a Global Positioning System (GPS), like a cell/satellite phone or hand held radio. Knowing your location and being able to communicate your location is vital outdoors. Yet, knowing orienteering with a compass and a map is more important than relying on technology. Consider a GPS as a good supplement to a map and compass. But don’t trust only GPS devices, as batteries can die or gadgets can break. Particularly if you are trekking in terrain with natural obstacles such as canyons.

9. Pocket Knife or Multi-Tool

Having a pocket knife can be useful in many situations such as helping in shelter building and firewood collecting. But even better is a multi-tool that contains knives, screwdrivers and scissors. A multi-tool is useful because they can handle many tasks and pack small. Some uses include opening cans or removing thorns from fingers with tweezers. For day hiking we like the knife-scissors-tweezers combinations.

10. Sun protection

Heatstroke can be very dangerous for anyone outside. Sun exposure can lead to burns, dehydration and hypothermia. In snowfields the sun creates a bright environment that can lead to snow blindness. Conditions like these are painful and dangerous. So it is critical that you stay protected from the sun at all times. This means you need bring a hat that can shade to your face and neck, as well as sunscreen, and sunglasses. Finally a great idea is to also wear clothing with ultraviolet protection factor (UPF).

man overlooking glacial lake

Beyond The Ten Essentials

But wait, what about shoes and a backpack? Well we don’t include these items in the essentials, since they are items that go on at the start of a hike and stay on. At the same time each play an important roll for what to bring hiking. Therefore let’s discuss a couple tips about footwear and then about a  backpack.

Any type of hike will involve significant use of your feet, so you need to take care of them. Footwear selection will depend on the type of activity and the type of terrain you will travel in. Often you are walking uneven ground, climbing small boulders, and trekking through water. So the ideal choice is hiking boots, not running shoes as running shoes risk slips and sprained ankles.

Hiking Boots

When choosing a hiking boot look for a pair with ankle support, as well as waterproofing. When you try them on, pay attention to how your feet fit in the boot. If your foot moves around a lot, rubbing against the boot, then expect some blisters while out on the trail. To help to minimise pain on your adventure, break in your boots before you go hiking. Finally, quality hiking socks are a must as they will wick sweat away from the feet, further reducing the risk of blisters or skin issues.

what to bring hiking photo of man wearing hiking boots


Next if you don’t already have a backpack for hiking you’ll want one that is comfortable and of useful size. Try to avoid getting one that is too large though, as we can often over pack with unneccary items to fill empty areas. Another feature that you want to look for is a backpack rain cover; some packs come with one built-in. If not you could use large zip lock bags to store your essential inside. Otherwise buy a rain cover because nothing is worse than soaking wet gear.

Optional Hiking Gear

Futhermore we tend to mix and match some extra items depending on the time of year we trek out into the wilderness. What to bring hiking may also include additional hiking gear such as the following:

  • Cell phone – Keep it turned off until you need it, thus saving battery life.

  • Bug repellent – Especially in when hiking in Spring.

  • Guidebook – Good reference incase you need an emergency exit during a hike.

  • Duct Tape – The single most versatile tool on earth. Use it to patch bags, clothing and more.

  • Toilet paper – You never know when nature will call and it’s better than a leaf.

  • Ziploc bag – Use to pack over items for waterproofing or to carry out waste.

  • Hand Sanitizer – For after nature calls and before eating meals.

  • Chapstick – Great when trekking in windy unprotected areas.

  • Binoculars – Take advantage of the great views for wildlife watching.

  • Camera – Bring an extra battery.

  • Thermos – Hot drinks for cold weather.

  • Waterproof pencil & pad – Helpful in emergency situations.

  • Trekking Poles – Great for people with weak joints or anyone who wants extra stability.

  • Bear spray/ bangers – Crucial for deep wilderness hikes.

For After A Hike

Once you finish your hike you will often be sweaty and most likely tired. For these reasons we always keep a few things in the car to help make the ride home comfortable.

Clean Change of Clothes

Either keep these in your car or store them in a dry bag at the bottom of your pack. Make sure to include dry footwear, so you can change out of dirty and wet clothing.

Spare Water/Food

Keep some extra water and snacks in the car or resevere some in your pack. Having these will help to get your hydration back to normal levels and replenish energy.

Clean Towel

We like to have one stored in our car to dry off and warm up after an adventure. Some people like to carry a towel while they hike, either way it’s your choice.

Finshing up

Knowing what to bring hiking will ensure you’re properly stocked for your journey. Over time as you become more experienced, you can mix and match your pack to suit the conditions. Regardless of distance always remember to consult weather reports before you set out. Most of all keep your trips manageable and remember to tell someone where and when you are hiking. Be safe and have fun out there!

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