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If you’ve ever wondered what to pack on a day hike, good. When it comes to day hiking or any outdoor adventure, it’s very important to be prepared.
Prior planning is going to set you up for success and help you adapt if things don’t go perfectly.
If you’re a beginner hiker, this post contains what is sometimes referred to as the “ten essential systems” for hiking.
But you’ll find more than ten systems on this list because I think there’s one more “essential” that’s important to talk about.
Please keep in mind that things like the length, duration, time of year, location, and weather all factor into exactly what I pack on a hike, but this post goes over the core items that I always have.
If something unexpected happens, or if you have to stay out in the wilderness longer than you thought, you’ll be very glad you packed these essentials.
It might seem like a lot at first, but most of this gear is small and light, so it won’t take up too much space in your backpack or weigh you down.
Let’s dive in!
Disclaimer: This post cannot alert you to every single hazard. It is intended to provide general information. When you follow any of the procedures described here, you assume responsibility for your own safety. The links below may contain affiliate links.
The Essential Systems for Day Hiking
Make sure you know how to navigate. Please do not enter the wilderness with no ability to navigate, or be completely dependent on your cell phone.
At the very least you should have a map and a compass that you know how to use.
Here are some resources for learning how to use a map and compass:
If you’re using a GPS, again, make sure you’re familiar with how to use it, and have a backup method in case the GPS fails, breaks, or you accidentally drop it in a river.
Even if you have a GPS, pack extra batteries for the GPS and have a backup map and compass that you know how to use.
There is an old adage: “two is one, one is none”. For the essential equipment that you depend on such as a GPS, you must have redundancies and backups packed.
Your ability to navigate and orient yourself on the trail is going to be crucial, which is why navigation is one of the essential systems.
Further Reading >> Navigation 101
2. Extra Water
Hydration is crucial.
It’s important to pack enough water for your day hike. But it’s also important that you have a way to get more water if you run out or need to stay on the trail longer than expected.
This is one of the most common areas that I see beginner hikers overlook.
I see people all the time heading out for a hike with either a small water bottle in their hand or no water at all. That is not a good idea.
I always carry the Sawyer Squeeze system. That’s my choice of water filter because it’s easy to use, small, and lightweight.
Before a day hike, I fill up my water reservoir at home and put it in my backpack.
On most shorter day hikes I don’t need to refill my water, but if I do, that’s when I would use the Sawyer Squeeze with whatever water source I’m hiking near.
Hiking Tip >> Use a water reservoir instead of water bottles. If the water reservoir hose is right by your face, you’ll sip on the water a lot more frequently throughout your hike than if you have to dig a water bottle out of your backpack.
Lastly, going back to that old adage “two is one, one is none”, I also carry water purification tablets as a backup.
3. Extra Clothes
How much extra clothing you pack depends on things like where you’re hiking, how long, the weather, and the time of year.
Weather can change fast in the mountains and it’s often unpredictable.
It’s important to think through the extra layers you might need if that happens.
If you get very sweaty while you hike and then stop to take a break, all that sweat can easily make you cold once you stop moving. So again, having additional clothing is important.
Having extra layers of clothing will allow you to adapt to unpredictable and changing weather conditions while on the trail.
Dive Deeper >> Hiking Clothes 101
4. Extra Food
I always pack more hiking snacks than I think I’ll need on a hike.
For a day hike, the rule of thumb is to pack an extra day’s worth of food.
I typically pack extra energy bars, trail mix, jerky, and/or dried fruits. You can even pack an extra dehydrated backpacking meal just in case.
You can never have too many snacks!
5. First Aid
A first aid kit is more than just band-aids and aspirin.
This video I made with my friend Austin goes over a lot of the common injuries he sees as a member of our local Search and Rescue team.
I personally also like to add tweezers and Tenacious Tape to my hiking first aid kit.
The size of your first aid kit should be adjusted based on the size of your hiking group and the duration of your hike.
Also, if you use trekking poles (which I recommend), they can have some first aid uses if you get creative!
Hiking Tip >> Make sure that you frequently check your first aid kit for components that have expired, and replace them accordingly.
In case of an emergency or survival situation, you want to make sure you have a reliable way of starting and maintaining a fire.
Here are a few fire-starting options:
- waterproof matches and a lighter
- waterproof tinder and sparker kit
7. Sun Protection
Sun protection is important when you’re hiking.
It’s not enough to put sunscreen on before your hike, and call it good, especially if you’re someone like me who gets sunburned easily.
Make sure you have what you need to keep protecting yourself throughout the hike. This includes things like sunscreen, a hat, sun-protective clothing, SPF chapstick, and sunglasses.
This Patagonia Capilene Cool Daily Hoody is my favorite hiking shirt for hot sunny days.
I love it because it’s lightweight, designed to keep you cool, and I don’t have to worry about reapplying sunscreen on my shoulders or arms because it has built-in UPF protection.
Most likely you won’t need a headlamp for a day hike, but if you do, you’ll be so thankful you have it!
A headlamp can be crucial if your hike takes longer than expected.
These are the two headlamps that I own:
- Black Diamond ReVolt Headlamp – This is my main headlamp that I use a lot for backpacking. It’s expensive but durable and the batteries are rechargeable.
- Black Diamond SpotLite – This is the headlamp I pack on a lot of my day hikes. It’s a lot cheaper but not as powerful as the ReVolt headlamp above.
I also pack extra batteries for the headlamp and made sure everything is charged and working properly before a trip.
Tip >> When the headlamp is in your backpack, make sure it’s in the locked mode so that it doesn’t accidentally turn on while you hike and run the battery empty.
A knife can be helpful for so many things such as first aid, preparing food, fixing gear, making kindling for a fire, and emergency situations.
I personally opt for a multitool, which not only has a knife, but also a few other potentially useful tools all in one place.
10. Emergency Shelter
An emergency shelter can be used to protect yourself from the elements like wind and rain if you get stranded out on the trail and it also can help keep you warm.
Some examples of an emergency shelter are an emergency space blanket or an ultralight tarp.
This is the emergency blanket that I carry: Adventure Medical SOL Emergency Blanket
Communication is sometimes lumped in with navigation, but I think it deserves its own category.
How will you communicate in an emergency? Most of the time there’s no cell service in the wilderness.
That’s where a Personal Locator Beacon (PLB) or satellite communicator comes in. There are pros and cons to each.
A personal locator beacon or satellite communicator can be used in an emergency to trigger an SOS signal to the 24/7 search and rescue monitoring center.
A satellite communicator even has the ability to exchange text messages while beyond the cellular range, but it does require an open area with a clear view of the sky.
I carry a Garmin inReach Mini in order to communicate in an emergency.
Hopefully, I never have to use it, but it’s nice to know that I’ll have the ability to get help if needed when I’m off the grid. Some of the Garmin GPS units even have the InReach technology built into them now.
Having a way to communicate in an emergency is important and something that’s frequently overlooked.
Other Signaling Methods:
Having a PLB or satellite communicator is by far going to be the quickest and most accurate way to communicate and signal for help.
Some other options for signaling are a whistle, a signaling mirror, or a bright-colored signaling panel. These items can be used to help others find you. A lot of backpacks even have whistles built into the strap clips now.
How to be a prepared day hiker:
These are the “hiking essentials” that I pack on every single hike.
Remember, things like the duration, weather, time of year, location, difficulty, and distance of the hike should be taken into account when choosing your gear.
Also, make sure you know how to use all the gear you pack!
For example, a water filter will do you no good if you don’t know how to use it or take care of it properly. A compass and map will not help you navigate if you don’t know how to use them.
Little things that are very easily overlooked pay dividends in the wilderness when you’re trying to enjoy yourself on a hike.
Paying attention to having the proper equipment and knowing how to use it will always facilitate a much safer experience outdoors.
If you have any questions, just ask me in the comments below!