What to bring—and what to skip—on a day hike
Be prepared without getting overloaded.
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From cooler temps to colorful foliage, fall is arguably the best time of year to take a hike. And if you feel the urge, you’re not alone. In 2020, nearly 161 million Americans aged 6 and older participated in at least one outdoor activity, according to the Outdoor Industry Association. That's a jump of about 7 million participants from 2019.
I’m one of them—and I have been for a while. I don't go backpacking on multi-day camping-plus-hiking trips, but I've been day hiking since childhood when I became a Boy Scout and my family spent summers in New York's Catskill Mountains. I'm always mindful of recreational safety practices and preparation, thanks to the Scouts and the U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary, for which I volunteer now. I've also taken some hiking courses and became certified in NOLS Wilderness First Aid.
Hitting the trails—whether they're in that urban park near your home or in the wilderness of a national park—can be so fulfilling and rewarding. But it can be daunting and dangerous, too. If you’re just getting started, I encourage you to start small and local: Find a trail near you, pack smartly, take a buddy or three, and plan to be out for only a few hours at a stretch. Here's what else you should abide.
Consider the basics before your first hike
It’s vital to prepare before setting out on any kind of adventure in nature, especially when you're unfamiliar with the location. This doesn't just mean getting the gear on my list, which is a jumping-off point for gearing up but not necessarily comprehensive. This also means:
- Picking a trail suited to your skills and fitness
- Preparing and packing easy-to-carry, calorically dense food to nourish you for the hike (and more, in case of emergency)
- Triple-checking the weather forecast
- Making contingency plans for the unexpected
- Telling someone where you're going and when you expect to be back
- Wearing shoes designed for the trails, such as light hiking boots or trail running shoes, and not regular sneakers or tennis shoes, rubber boots, or ... flip-flops (I beg you never to do this)
Even if you know you're prepared, you may want to consider signing up for a guided hike. This way, you can learn from a pro and get some trail experience before venturing out on your own.
Pack smart, but don't overdo it
I’m a gearhead, so I know as much as anyone that buying stuff for a new activity or hobby can be a lot of fun. But you don't have to buy and bring everything at REI for a day hike, especially if the trail is short and easy to follow and/or near a well-populated area. Here’s what I consider essential—plus a few items you can leave behind for now.
1. A day pack to keep everything together
First things first. You'll need a pack to carry all the stuff that I recommend here, plus your snacks, and perhaps even a book (a light one) to read when you sit down for a break.
Anything bigger than a 30-liter backpack is probably too much for a day hike, so I recommend a durable but light 15- to 20-liter backpack that's comfortable to strap into for several hours. Given that comfort can be such a personal thing, you may need to try a few brands and models before choosing one.
REI’s basic Co-op Flash backpack is a good budget choice for $40. Weighing in at just 9 ounces, the 18-liter pack has breathable mesh shoulder straps, a hip belt to help secure it close to your body, an outside zippered pocket to store small items (such as a map, snacks, or sunglasses), and exterior loops that you can lash other gear to. It doesn't have exterior bottle holders but includes an internal sleeve and hose port so you can add a hydration bladder (a soft-sided plastic vessel with a long hose that can hold more water than most bottles, ideal for longer or hotter schleps).
At $89, the Patagonia Refugio pack (available in sizes intended to fit men’s and women’s bodies, at 28 and 26 liters, respectively) is bigger, heavier, and pricier than some. But it's versatile, and reviewers say its durability justifies the cost. The pack has several zippered compartments, an internal sleeve (for a hydration bladder or even a laptop), exterior bottle holders and lash loops, and adjustable straps that compress the volume of the pack.
The 22-liter Columbia Tandem Trail pack for $60 is perhaps a good middle ground in terms of size, price, and bells and whistles. It has a padded back, breathable shoulder straps, side water bottle pockets, internal sleeve for a hydration pack, attachments to hold trekking poles (for when you graduate to that level), and a roll-top closure, which lets you expand or compress the volume of the main compartment as needed. I haven't used this pack but generally, I've had good experiences with Columbia gear.
* Get the REI Co-op Flash 18 Pack for $39.95
* Get the Patagonia Refugio Pack in men’s (28L) from REI for $89
* Get the Patagonia Refugio Pack in women’s (26L) from REI for $89
* Get the Columbia Tandem Trail 22L Backpack for $60
2. Water bottles or a reservoir to stay hydrated
Some hikers prefer carrying water bottles on a shorter day hike (I do, anyway). Others swear by a reservoir, also known as a bladder, which is carried inside a sleeve in your daypack and has a long flexible hose secured on a shoulder strap for convenient sipping on the go.
The 32-ounce Hydro Flask bottle with the straw lid is my vessel of choice. If you don't mind the extra weight, this insulated stainless steel bottle will keep your water ice-cold for hours—I've left ice in mine overnight and some cubes were still there the next day. Yeah, it's more expensive than most bottles. But Hydro Flask bottles are virtually indestructible; I've dropped mine so many times that it has more dents, dings, and chipped paint than a decade-old Honda Civic but it still keeps my water cold and from leaking out. And I’m not the only one who loves the pricey Hydro Flasks. This one scores an average of 4.9 stars across more than 25,800 ratings on Amazon.
A plastic bottle like the CamelBak Eddy+ won’t keep your water cold for very long. But it will reduce your overall pack weight, which is helpful on a long, full-day hike. This CamelBak bottle is also a fraction of the cost of the HydroFlask and almost as well-liked, boasting a 4.7-star rating over 11,780-plus Amazon reviews.
As far as water bladders are concerned, the the Hydraulics Reservoir from Osprey is a great call. It’s well-reviewed on Amazon (4.8 stars across more than 3,100 ratings) and comes in either a 2- or 3-liter version. The reservoir is structured in a way that allows it to stay flat, even when it’s in a crowded backpack and it features a bite valve that allows water to flow when you want it to. This means you can fill it up and slide it inside the sleeve holder of your day pack and take sips as you move through your trek.
- Get the Hydro Flask Water Bottle with Straw Lid from Amazon for $49.95
- Get the CamelBak Eddy+ BPA-Free Water Bottle (25 ounces) from Amazon for $14
- Get the Osprey Hydraulics Reservoir starting at $40
3. A first aid kit just in case
A quality, well-designed first aid kit with enough items to cover you for a day hike is light, compact, and may save your life. The Hart Outdoor Day Hike first aid kit includes bandages, gauze, antiseptic, medication for pain and allergies, and a splinter remover. The company says it contains the amount of supplies appropriate for the “typical needs” of two people on a day trip. It also includes an instructional guide for people who aren’t familiar with administering first aid.
4. A field knife for odds and ends
A knife is handy on a day hike for many reasons, both crucial and recreational. You may need it to cut apple slices, trim gauze, or whittle a fallen branch into a souvenir. A folding knife—that is, a pocket knife—is fine, but I love this affordable 3.6-inch stainless steel fixed-blade knife from the Swedish brand Morakniv (and the more than 1,580 Amazon shoppers that gave it a nearly 5-star rating agree with me).
I've used this on hikes, yes, but also for gardening and cooking in the backyard. The stainless steel helps the blade stay sharp for long periods of time, and it comes with a protective sheath that allows you to clip it onto a waistband and hide the blade when it isn’t needed. Just make sure to know where the knife is at all times, and always keep it sheathed when you aren’t using it.
5. A flashlight to illuminate your path
What's that? You plan to be back from your hike before dark so why bother with a bulky, heavy flashlight that requires four D batteries? Nonsense. First, you just can't predict a minor or major event that could delay your return. And second, haven't you heard of LED flashlights? These devices are so light, compact, cheap, and ridiculously bright that you have no excuse to not pack one even if you think you'll be back by lunchtime. The Hausbell 7-watt mini LED flashlight is tiny but powerful, has three modes (high, low, strobe), and is powered by just one AA battery. Buy a four-pack or more and give one to everyone in your party.
6. A whistle to send an alert
This is another one of those items that is inexpensive, small, and light, yet could literally save your life if you get lost or injured off-trail and need to signal where you are to people close by. Why a whistle when you can just scream for help? Because a loud emergency whistle is much louder, and the sound carries farther than your voice could. Plus, not having to yell will save your breath, which could matter a lot if you're badly hurt.
I like the LuxoGear emergency whistle two-pack. This whistle has both a lanyard and a belt clip, so you have options for storage. If you keep both for yourself, I recommend lashing one to a loop on your day pack and the other to your body (say, on your belt loop).
7. Bug spray to avoid itching
Mosquitos and ticks are annoying, gross, and vectors of disease. Lyme disease and other tick-borne bacterial illnesses can be very serious and debilitating, so protect yourself from bites with an insect repellent. Choose one that has either DEET (30%) or Picaridin (20%) as the active ingredient, as these are proven to work.
I use Sawyer Products 20% Picaridin insect repellent on hikes. Although an aerosol can is faster, a spray pump like this one is smaller and thus easier to carry in your pack. The brand claims it provides up to 12 hours of protection against mosquitoes and ticks and eight hours against flies, gnats, and chiggers, and the repellent itself feels non-greasy and comfortable on the skin.
8. Sunscreen to prevent painful burns
You probably already know this, but you should always coat exposed skin with a water-resistant, broad-spectrum sunscreen. Yes, even on a fall or winter hike—the sun can still be powerful, even if you feel cold. In my experience, Thinksport’s SPF 50+ mineral sunscreen is the way to go. This 20% zinc oxide-based cream goes on easily and doesn't have an odor. Other reviewers—the sunscreen has a 4.5-star rating across nearly 4,000 reviews—say it prevents burns and resists water and sweat well.
9. A packable rain jacket and insulated jacket for inclement weather
The weather can quickly take an unpleasant turn and catch you off-guard, especially on hot and humid days when afternoon thunderstorms can come out of nowhere. It’s also important to be prepared for an unexpected cool-down, particular in the fringe seasons of fall and spring.
For rain, I’m a fan of Columbia’s packable gear and own two packable rain shells that have held up well over the years. Other good Columbia options are the Watertight II jacket, which comes in men’s sizes small to XXL and the Arcadia II jacket, which comes in women’s sizes XS to XXL. Both are waterproof but breathable hooded jackets that fold up into their own pocket for convenient carrying. The Watertight II has more than 1,000 reviews and 4.7 stars and the Arcadia II has more than 2,000 reviews and 4.7 stars, and reviewers rave that both are a boon for all kinds of outdoor adventures.
For chilly days, you’ll be thankful to have the Patagonia Nano Puff, which comes in men’s sizes XS to XXL and women’s sizes XXS to XL. You can sometimes find this pricey puffy pullover from Patagonia on clearance at REI and elsewhere—and if you do, buy two of them. I got one on sale several years ago and I'm obsessed—it's comfortable, versatile, durable, water- and wind-resistant, and warm—Patagonia says the synthetic insulation will keep you toasty even when wet. And, yes, the pullover scrunches up into its own pocket, too, making for easy storage.
- Get the Men's Watertight II Rain Jacket from Columbia starting at $40
- Get the Women's Arcadia II Rain Jacket from Columbia starting at $35
- Get the Men's Nano Puff Pullover from Patagonia for $169
- Get the Women's Nano Puff Pullover from Patagonia for $169
10. A hat for a little extra shade
I hesitate to recommend a specific hat because headgear preferences are so varied and personal. Should you choose a sun hat, trucker hat, running hat, trail fedora, desert cap, floppy beach hat, straw hat, boonie hat, beanie, or just your favorite baseball cap? Yes. Wear what you like that shades your face and ideally neck, too, and what's comfortable based on the conditions.
11. Emergency shelter for unexpected campouts
Some might say, "Oh, come on. A shelter? Now you're being overcautious." Perhaps. But if you get lost or hurt or too exhausted to make it back to the trailhead before dark, you will need to hunker down until daylight or help can find you. A bivvy—short for bivouac, a French word for a temporary encampment—is lighter than a tent, but still provides a barrier between you and the elements. The SOL emergency bivvy comes in a compact, tightly wrapped package that weighs less than 4 ounces. Should things go awry, you open the package, unfold the bivvy, and crawl inside for warmth. The bright orange material is waterproof, windproof, reflects your body heat to keep you warm, and makes you visible against the woods. It also comes with a small emergency whistle to alert people of your presence.
12. A trail map to guide your path
For your first few day hikes I strongly recommend you choose a well-marked, easy-to-moderate trail that doesn't require bushwhacking or complex orienteering. Nevertheless, using a trail map is even safer—after all, your phone may not have service on the trail, and if it does, it may not show the best route for returning to the trailhead.
You can of course buy trail maps online or at outdoors retailers, but many parks and recreation lands have welcome centers and ranger stations where you can pick up a map either free or for a small charge.
Alternatively, you can download thousands of maps via apps like Alltrails. If you do this, I recommend printing the map you need (if PDF versions are available), in case an app-based map doesn't work without cell service or something goes wrong with your phone.
Leave this gear on the store shelves—for now
An important disclaimer: I'm not suggesting that you won't get something out of having the items on this second list. But if you're just starting out with this hiking thing and you're wisely going to focus on shorter day hikes, you don't have to spend the money or packing space.
A camp stove. Cooking out is great fun, but such a specific tool is unnecessary for a day hike. Bring a pre-made lunch lke a good ole PB and J and packaged snacks that don't need refrigeration. You can add a camp stove if and when you graduate to multi-day backpacking.
Waterproof matches. These can be also useful but, again, save waterproof matches for camping or backpacking. If you really want to bring a way to start a fire in case of an emergency, just carry regular matches in a zip-close plastic bag or plastic container. Keep in mind the wildfire risk of doing so—and make sure to check your area’s rules on that particular day.
Orienteering compass. Yes, a map, which I already recommended, and a compass seem to go together. But a compass is only useful if you know how to use it. Navigating by map and compass isn't simple—and if you've already decided to stick to a short, well-marked trail, the trail markers should be enough to guide you through.
Trekking poles. They look a lot like ski poles but are intended to help hikers and runners keep steady on uneven or steep terrain. I like my trekking poles but don't use them very often. Save yourself the cash and the bulk for now. If you worry you may need the extra balance tool, look for a suitable stick on the ground near the trailhead.
A water filter. If after a few day hikes you decide to make excursions on the trails a regular part of your active lifestyle, you can purchase a portable water filter, such as the well-reviewed LifeStraw Personal Water Filter. But until then, just do your research and carry enough potable water based on the climate, weather, and expected time on trail, plus a cushion in case of emergency.
Walkie-Talkies. A pair of two-way radios for use in the outdoors can be helpful if your group splits up and you want to stay in contact where cellphone service is spotty or nonexistent. But even the most affordable versions, which use the Family Radio Service frequencies, aren't foolproof if you and the person holding the other radio are separated by a hill or mountain, or simply too many miles. And keep in mind, these radios and the FRS band are meant only for you to contact the other people in your party who have the corresponding device. You can't radio the park ranger, for example, in an emergency.
Prices were accurate at the time this article was published but may change over time.