Gear you can trust from your backyard hill to the Appalachian Trail.
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Hiking doesn’t have to mean scaling the side of mountains. It doesn’t even mean traveling great distances. Hiking can be as simple as a short jaunt through your local state park on mostly paved and well-trodden paths. And year after year, more people are participating in hikes and exploring the great outdoors. The most recent data from The Outdoor Industry Association, shows that 44.9 million Americans hiked in 2017, compared to 34.38 million in 2013. If you’re thinking of joining those numbers, the proper gear will let you focus on the scenery around you instead of achy feet or irritated skin.
We’re big fans of REI because of its satisfaction-guaranteed policy that allows you to return any gear, excluding outdoor electronics, within a year of purchase either for a replacement or a refund. If you’re a new or casual hiker, there’s a chance you may change your mind about products after your first hike or two—this keeps you from fretting about purchases you’re not totally sure about. Plus, the retailer is offering up to 40 percent off select brands through Labor Day, so you’ll score deals on your new favorite gear.
Regardless of the trail’s difficulty level, a pair of boots that support your feet are a necessity. The Vasque Breeze III Mid GTX Hiking Boots are over-the-ankle, waterproof boots that offer cushioned midsoles for extra comfort. The exterior is designed to grip the ground for sturdy support despite weather conditions or uneven terrain, and they can stay with you if you advance to more intense trails.
Before you throw on just any pair of socks, take dermatologists’ advice and consider a sweat-wicking pair instead. The friction between our shoes and sweat on our feet can cause gnarly blisters and a whole lot of discomfort. To avoid this, we recommend the Smartwool Expedition Trekking Socks, which are comprised of wool to keep your feet warm and to wick away sweat, nylon for durability, and spandex for flexibility.
If you’re going on a shorter trail or your hiking companion is in charge of carrying the backpack (always remember the buddy system), you may opt for a lighter bag for your personal must-haves. The Nathan Peak Hydration Waist Pack comes with an 18-ounce water bottle that sits in an insulated holder, and a pocket to store your phone, keys, snack, or any other needs.
You can carry your regular purse, tote bag, or lunch box on a hike, but it’s best for your back to have your bag’s weight evenly distributed. We recommend a backpack like the REI Co-op Flash 22 Pack, which has a breathable mesh back and straps to keep you comfortable. The bag also has side pockets, so your water bottle is within easy reach.
Hydration is key for any physical activity, so don’t leave your water bottle behind. The Hydro Flask Standard-Mouth Water Bottle with Flex Cap came out on top during our testing because it’s portable and durable. Ice remained intact for over 24 hours, so your drink will stay chilly even if you’re hiking in hot weather.
Anyone who has ever sweat while wearing a cotton T-shirt knows they never want to do it again. A shirt that keeps your core cool and dry is essential to avoid becoming a swampy, soggy mess—and to prevent chafing. We recommend the Columbia Thistletown Park Crew Shirt, sized for men, which is made of a quick-drying polyester and cotton blend that draws moisture away from the skin. If you’re looking for a women’s cut top, the Columbia Willow Beach T-Shirt is also fast-drying and uses moisture management technology to wick away sweat.
Wearing stiff jeans on a hike is less than ideal, and while activewear will let you move freely, it may not be durable enough for protecting your skin against brushes with branches or thorns along the trail. The Columbia Silver Ridge Convertible Pants come highly recommended among men’s options: They feature zip-off legs to easily turn into shorts, a durable and sweat-wicking ripstop nylon fabric, and an adjustable waistband for comfort. For women’s options, we recommend the REI Co-op Sahara Convertible Pants, which also transform into shorts on a moment’s notice, and are made of nylon fabric that’s both sweat-wicking and water-resistant.
We suggest slathering sunscreen anywhere that your hiking gear isn’t covering, so your skin stays protected from harmful UVA and UVB rays. Apply (and reapply) a sunscreen like the SunBum SPF 50 Lotion Sunscreen, which is water-resistant for up to 80 minutes and moisturizes your skin with vitamin E.
While wearing sunscreen is still your best bet, adding a hat to the equation is a great way to keep the sun out of your eyes and from beating down on your face, hair, and scalp (yes you can get a sunburn on your scalp). The Columbia Bora Bora Booney II Hat wicks sweat away from your head with a sweatband and mesh interior, is size-adjustable for your comfort, and has a chin strap to keep it in place. Its brim will also help shade your eyes from having to squint as the tree cover changes.
In case the weather takes a turn for the worse, you’ll want a rain shell that’s lightweight enough to keep in your backpack without taking up much room and protects you from a downpour or adds a little warmth if the temps dip before you’re back to your car. The REI Co-op Rainier Rain Jacket comes in men’s and women’s sizes and offers protection from winds up to 60 MPH and, of course, rain. The jacket also folds into its own pocket, so it’s easy to store.
If you’re walking in nature, it’s inevitable that you’ll encounter bugs, but you want to prevent bites, especially in areas where tick-borne Lyme Disease or mosquito-borne West Nile Virus or EEE are prevalent. Before you head out, apply an insect repellent like the Repel Sportsmen Formula Pump Spray Insect Repellent onto your skin to keep mosquitoes, ticks, and several other creepy crawlers away. You can also treat your clothing with Sawyer Permethrin Pump Spray, which lasts up to six washes or six weeks before reapplication is needed.
No one wants to think about worst-case scenarios, but having a first aid kit is never a bad idea. Even if you get a small cut or scrape on the trail, it’s important to disinfect and cover with a bandage to prevent an infection. The Mountain Series Hiker Medical Kit is organized into injury-specific pockets, so you have easy access to anything you need in case of an emergency.
Prices are accurate at the time this article was published, but may change over time.