When I was little, I hated hiking. I just didn’t see the appeal of what was essentially more strenuous walking. On vacation, my parents used to drag us along on hikes, while I would rather swim or play.
As a result, I was convinced that hiking was not for me.
Until I went backpacking through Ireland and Scotland at 26 and realized how amazing hiking can be! Walking through those gorgeous landscapes by myself, I completely fell in love with it. Instead of boring, I now found hiking relaxing. The meditative effect in the rhythm of my steps, the way it allows me to connect to nature, the sounds, the smells, the sights.
And there is nothing like the feeling of reaching the peak of a hill or mountain and being rewarding with a stunning view. That is worth every blister and sore muscle.
Since then, I’ve been on many hikes. Either solo or with friends. My goal is to do a long trek like the Camino de Santiago or the West Highland Way. But I’m nowhere near experienced or fit enough for that yet.
So I mostly content with day hikes and overnight hikes. Day hikes are a great way to get out in nature, even if you’re not particularly athletic or don’t have a lot of time.
The key to having a good day hike is preparation. It starts with planning out a route that’s suitable to your level and the weather. And of course, you need to know what to bring on a day hike!
Packing the right gear, and leaving what you don’t need at home, will make your hiking adventure go a lot smoother. Nobody wants to drag around a too-heavy backpack full of useless stuff or make it halfway through and realize they forgot band-aids (this has definitely happened to me!).
So to help you properly plan your next day hike, I’ll share my hiking essentials list, and give you tips on how to choose the right backpack and hiking boots. Now nothing stands in the way of you exploring nature.
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Carry the right day hike backpack
First things first, if you’re going to pack the day hike essentials, you need something to put them in.
Sure, you could go old school and fashion a knapsack out of cloth and a branch. But there’s a reason those have gone out of style.
You might be tempted to break out whatever old backpack you have laying in the back of the closet. And for a short hike, that would be fine. But if you’re a frequent hiker or plan to go for longer hikes, a good backpack is essential.
The wrong backpack won’t just be more uncomfortable or heavier to carry, it can cause injuries and back pain. Trust me, I would know.
Hiking backpacks are designed in a way to minimize the impact on your neck and shoulders and distribute the weight evenly. This will make it much easier to carry over long distances, and they usually provide convenient pockets for water, phone, and hiking poles.
My hiking backpack is a Vaude Wizard 18+4. It is a unisex backpack made from eco-friendly material and the volume can be expanded from 18 to 22 liter. I also tried on the Osprey Tempest 22, but it didn’t fit me as well.
I highly recommend going to an outdoor or sports store and trying a few backpacks on. Online reviews are great, but ultimately, you need a bag that fits your body perfectly. A lot of brands now incorporate recycled material, but if you want to be truly sustainable, see if you can find it second-hand.
Choose the right shoes for hiking
The other key element for a comfortable hike is footwear. It doesn’t matter how good your bag is if your feet are hurting. While you might be able to get away with trainers or running shoes for a quick hike on flat terrain, it won’t do you any favors in the mountains.
For more challenging hikes, you need shoes that offer sufficient support and grip, so you don’t roll your ankle or slip.
There are a few things to consider when buying hiking boots:
- Foot shape
Hiking boots are classified in A, B, C, and D. This is an indication of the type of terrain they are suitable for. I recommend a B/C boot as an all-round shoe that works for both hills and mountains.
If you’re planning to hike in the mountains, you need a higher, more rigid boot than for a regular trek. The same goes for long-distance with heavy luggage versus a day hike. Breathable, lighter shoes are great for summer, while Alpine or winter requires warmer footwear.
Inexperienced hikers should always go for a sturdier shoe that offers support. And of course, your foot shape and personal preference play a vital role. Hiking boots are generally bought a size up from your regular shoe size and should immediately fit perfectly. No “breaking in”! If they don’t feel comfortable when you first try them on, they definitely won’t feel comfortable 10 km into your hike.
I currently have two pairs of hiking boots: a pair of leather Mountain Warehouse boots that are perfect for winter, and a pair of light-weight Lowa Renegade boots. For short hikes in the summer on flat terrain, I’ll sometimes wear my Teva Originals. They don’t provide much support, but very comfortable and versatile.
Wear the right clothing for a day hike
Now that your boots are sorted, it’s time to pick the rest of your outfit. The keywords for hiking clothing are light-weight, moisture-wicking, and layers. You’ll want to make sure you’re as comfortable as possible, so clothing that’ll keep you dry and warm is essential.
Especially when hiking in the mountains, where temperatures drop the higher up you go and the weather can change in an instant. So always be prepared with rain gear and warm clothes.
While I’m normally a huge fan of natural and breathable fibers like cotton, this is the one thing to avoid at all costs when hiking. The phrase “cotton kills” is often used by outdoor enthusiasts, because the fabric absorbs moisture, which will keep you wet and cold. Two things that will lead to hypothermia in the mountains. Cotton socks will also cause blisters because they soak up the sweat and cause friction.
Instead, go for moisture-wicking materials and sports clothing. Anything you’d use for running will also double up nicely for hiking. Make sure to also bring warm layers like fleece or merino wool. Merino wool is my absolute favorite as it is incredible for temperature regulation, it keeps you warm when it’s cold and cool when it’s hot. Thermal undergarments like long underwear and undershirts will keep you nice and toasty in the winter.
Depending on the season, you can either go for shorts or long pants. If I’m not sure how warm it’ll be, I might toss a legging in my bag just in case. There are also nifty hiking pants with zippers that you can turn into shorts.
Your socks may be the most important item of clothing you put on. The right socks can make or break a hike. You want something that’ll keep your feet warm, but not too warm, and keeps friction to a minimum. Always get designated hiking socks, they are designed to minimize blisters and maximize support. And bring an extra pair in case you get your feet wet.
Finally, what you put on your head matters as well. A good cap keeps the sun off your face and out of your eyes in the summer. Essential for healthy skin and good visibility! If you’re hiking in the winter, a warm hat helps you retain heat.
Bring plenty of food & water
Hiking is a strenuous activity, especially if you’re going for a long hike in the mountains. If there is one thing you bring on your hike, let it be water!
Dehydration is one of the main causes of rescue expeditions for hikers, aside from injury and hypothermia. So make sure you bring plenty to drink. A rough guideline is 0.5 liter per hour. If you’re hiking in a hot and dry place, or have a particularly challenging trek ahead of you, bring more.
A nifty tool to limit the amount of water you need to carry is a water filter. You can sanitize water with iodine pills or UV gadgets, but I recommend investing in a reusable water bottle with built-in filter.
LifeStraw is a popular brand, that sells “straws” that filter the water as you drink it. You can use it to drink straight from any sweet water source. WaterToGo uses a similar system. My personal favorite for hiking is the Grayl. These bottles have a system where you push the water through a filter that immediately makes it safe to drink.
These kinds of bottles are great, because they filter out 99.9% of all contaminants, like bacteria, viruses, and pollution. As long as you’re near a water source like a stream or lake, you’ll be all set for water.
Of course, you’ll also need fuel to keep you going on your hike. High carb and high protein snacks are the way to go. You preferably want a mix of food that’s slow and quick release for energy. I tend to pack sandwiches for lunch, and granola/protein bars, trail mix, and fruit as snacks.
And remember: pack out what you pack in! Respect the natural landscapes you’re moving through and take any and all trash back with you. And make sure not to drop any seeds or pits of non-native species as to not disturb the ecosystem.
Be prepared with hiking essentials
With all that sorted, we get to the final step of packing for a day hike. It’s time to gather all the hiking essentials and tools you’ll need for your trip.
Number one is navigation. GPS and phones are great, but they can break, run out of battery or lose signal. Bring an old-school trail map and compass (and learn how to read them). And bring a powerbank for your phone, just in case.
Bring a wallet with a bit of cash, ID, credit card, and insurance cards.
If you’re hiking in the mountains, consider if you need to bring poles, spikes, or other gear.
Hiking, especially solo, is not without risks. You could injure yourself in any number of ways. That’s why you should always have a small first aid kit with you. It doesn’t need to be elaborate, but at least contain disinfectant, bandages, blister pads, and gauze. That way you can treat minor cuts and injuries as you go.
Depending on where you are, wildlife could pose a risk as well. Learn which animals live in the region and how to safely interact with them. Always bring bear spray if you’re hiking in an area that has bears!
Insects can make your time outdoors a lot less fun, so bring bug spray and a tick remover. You don’t want to end up covered in bites. A sunburn is equally undesirable, so apply sunscreen regularly and liberally. The sun is stronger at higher elevation because the air is thinner, so be especially careful when hiking in the mountains.
Lastly, there are a few items that are very handy to have in your backpack:
- Duct tape: for quick fixes like a broken zipper or strap and wrap on your feet to prevent blisters
- Flashlight or head lamp: in case you run out of daylight for whatever reason
- Pocket knife: to make anything from sandwiches to emergency shelter
- Toilet paper: for obvious reasons
- Trash bag: don’t leave any trash behind in nature (that includes used toilet paper)!
- Whistle: to signal for help in case of an emergency
- Lighter: In case you need to start a fire
Whenever I go on solo hikes, I always bring a book as well. That way I can read when I take a break.
More useful travel gadgets? These sustainable travel items make great gifts!
Bonus: respect and safety
If you are hiking on native land, pay proper respect by learning about the history and culture of the indigenous inhabitants. You are a guest in nature and a guest on their land, act accordingly.
That same level of respect should be extended to your fellow hikers. Everyone should feel welcome and safe on the trail.
Don’t litter, don’t disturb the eco-system, don’t stray from the trails. Pack out what you pack in, nothing more, nothing less. Live by the words:
Leave only footprints, take only memories
What to pack for hiking is only one element of your preparation. I cannot overstate the importance of safety, training and education.
Be realistic about your level of experience and fitness. Most hiking injuries and accidents occur because people overestimate themselves and underestimate the trail. Always leave enough time to come back before sundown. It is better to hike a trail you know you can comfortably finish, than one that might be too challenging.
Take the time to learn about proper hiking, wildlife, and mountaineering safety, know self-defense and survival basics, as well as first-aid/CPR. Being informed and trained can mean the difference between life and death.
Before embarking on your hike, always check with local authorities (like park rangers) what the trail conditions and the weather are like, and if there are any wildlife sightings. Follow rules, regulations, and advice, they’re there for your safety.
Hiking is an amazing way to connect with nature, experience beautiful landscapes, and move your body. Even if you’re not very athletic, you can still find trails that are suitable to your level.
Now that we’ve covered boots, backpacks, food & drinks, hiking essentials, and safety, you are about ready to embark on your hike. You now know what to pack for a day hike, and how to find the right gear for your outdoor adventure.
And I’d love to hear your take! What are your favorite boots or bags? What essentials do you bring on a day hike? Let me know in the comments below.
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