Newbies to hiking often misunderstand the dangers of visiting the back country until it’s too late. Yet what to bring hiking isn’t a difficult topic, as long as you ensure you’re prepared for all types of weather and situations. Take into account the duration, weather, difficulty, and distance of the hike when choosing the gear for your day hike.
By knowing what to pack, you can ensure you’re safe and comfortable in the event you need to survive overnight. Did you know that most search and rescue groups can’t rescue people after dark? This is because it’s too risky for their own safety due to not being able to use air support. So always take the following ten essentials, it may make or break your adventure. Another piece of advice, is to remember to test each piece of your gear before trekking outdoors.
It’s important to understand that this list isn’t exhaustive, it’s 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, I added some additional gear options at the end of the article.
We updated this article in December 2020 to reevaluate the information to ensure it meets 2021 standards. Read on to learn about what to bring hiking: the ten essentials.
Before stepping foot on the trail, you need complete some tasks. First inform a reliable person where you are going and when you expect to be home. This is critical for situations where things go awry, they can call the authorities. I like to leave this person with a detailed printed trip itinerary too. Especially if I’m attempting multi-day, 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.
As a reminder for intermediate hikers, these 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 re-up 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. Next, check the weather, remember that the weather at the base of a mountain is often different from halfway up a mountain.
The Ten Essentials
These are the ten essential pieces of gear every smart hiker packs for any trek. No matter the duration or difficulty always have these items with you when you trek out in the back country.
1. Flashlight or Headlamp
You need illumination in case you get caught out in the dark. It’s scary how easy it is to under estimate the remaining amount of daylight left, especially in forests. Often, hikers who need rescue didn’t start out lost, but simply ran out of daylight. In fact lack of daylight is the single biggest reason for emergency rescues. 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. Other than heat, fire is a necessity for drying clothes, cooking, or even signaling. A kit could be waterproof matches/lighter or an actual purchased fire-making kit. I usually 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.
Comparing the two, water is more important than food. This is because 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 this is fine for a short hike, I always take 2 liters per 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.
Tip: Use a hydration bladder with drink hose instead of water bottles. The drink hose sits right by your face, allowing you to sip on water throughout a hike. Ease of use plays a big part in hydration, since digging for a water bottle out of a backpack is a nuisance.
4. Extra Clothing
Unexpected or quick changing weather is the big 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 sweat wicking fabrics that lay close to skin. Wool, fleece and Gore-Tex are great materials for hiking clothing. Likewise, jackets with zippered vents in the armpits and pants with vented leg areas are great. Having vents allows excess body heat to escape in times of heavy exercise in severe weather.
If you have poor circulation it’s also a good idea to bring Gore-Tex or wool gloves. Pack ones that allow you to perform tasks such as holding objects when trekking terrain.
One last item bonus item I take is plastic shopping bags for trekking through water. Place them over the dry socks inside your boots to add a layer of water-proofing.
5. First Aid Kit
Self reliance is critical in the outdoors as many hikes are in areas without cell service. In fact, it’s ideal for hikers take a wilderness first aid course before heading outdoors.
Next, bring a well-stocked small first aid kit whenever you venture outdoors. For the first aid kit, build your own or buy an excellent ready-made kit from a rescue organization. Good kits should contain items like gauze, pads, bandages, disinfectants, a splint, and so on. I also customize my kit with over-the-counter pain killers, tweezers and gear repair tape. Having these items can make all the difference in a survival event.
6. Emergency Shelter
By this I mean a portable 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 is 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 to pack are a pocket mirror and a whistle. You use the mirror to create reflections of light to signal search and rescue aircraft. In fact these reflections are visible up to 5 miles (8.05 km) 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. Don’t stop until they make voice contact and then follow their instructions.
At minimum always carry a topographic map and a compass. Look online for available topographic maps for local recreation trails like national parks and forests or state parks. You could also carry a Global Positioning System (GPS), like a cell/satellite phone or hand held radio.
Understanding 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 beacon to the 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 with shelter building or firewood collecting. But even better is a multi-tool that contains knives, screwdrivers and scissors. It’s useful because it can handle many tasks and pack small. Interesting uses include opening cans or removing thorns from fingers with tweezers. For day hiking I like models with 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. Thus it’s critical that you stay protected from the sun at all times. Which 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 choose clothing fabrics with ultraviolet protection factor (UPF).
Beyond The Ten Essentials
But wait, what about footwear choices and a backpack? I don’t include these items in the 10 essentials, because everyone knows to wear shoes and carry a pack. At the same time though, each of these items play an important roll in hiking. Therefore, let’s discuss a couple tips about footwear and the backpack.
Any type of hike will involve significant use of your feet, so you need to take care of them. Your footwear selection will depend on the type of activity and the type of terrain. Often you are walking uneven ground, climbing small boulders, and trekking through water. The ideal choice is hiking boots, not running shoes as they lack grip to prevent slips and sprained ankles.
To choose a hiking boot, look for a pair with good ankle support and superior waterproofing. Try them on and pay special attention to how your feet fit in the boot. If your foot moves around a lot, rubbing against the sides, then expect some blisters while out on the trail. To help to minimize pain on your adventure, break in your boots before you go hiking. I like to add a pair of quality hiking socks too as they wick sweat away, reduce chafing, and maintain foot warmth. Plus soft socks help further reduce the risk of blisters or skin issues.
Next if you don’t already have a day pack for hiking you’ll want one that is comfortable and of useful size. Try to avoid getting one that is too large though, as people often over pack with unnecessary items. Another feature to look for is a backpack rain cover; some packs come with one built-in. Without an actual rain cover, you could supplement with large zip-lock bags to store your essential inside.
What To Bring Hiking: Optional Gear
As an experienced hiker, I tend to mix and match extra items depending on the time of year I trek out into the wilderness. What to bring day hiking may also include additional hiking gear such as the following:
Cell phone – Keep it turned off until you need it, to save battery life.
Bug repellent – Especially in when hiking in Spring.
Local Guidebook – Good added reference in case 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 calls” and it’s better than a leaf.
Ziploc bag – Used it 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 – Document your fun. Remember to 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 or Noise-makers – Crucial for deep wilderness hikes.
Items For After A Hike
At the end of the hike both men and women are often sweaty and tired. For these reasons, 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 boots.
Keep some extra water and snacks in the car or some in your pack. Having these will help to get your hydration back to normal levels and replenish energy.
I like to have one stored in my 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.
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!