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The Ultimate Day-Hiking Essentials Guide

What should you bring on your hiking trip? Here’s a comprehensive guide for beginner hikers.

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Backpack, boots, and other hiking gear on a log.

What should you bring on your hike? It all depends on the hike! This guide will help you or a beginner hiker bring what you need for a great day-hiking trip. 

I have gone on hundreds of day hikes over the last 30+ years. Much of this guide comes from my extensive experience and mistakes over decades of hiking, backpacking, caving, and camping. I also sought the opinions of several other experienced hikers and outdoor adventurers to help you have a safe, comfortable, and fun day hike. 

#1 Essential is Planning Ahead

Hiking planning with map and gear on table
Photo: ©arinahabich via Canva.com

The safest and most comfortable hike depends on your situational awareness and understanding of what you’re getting into before you enjoy the benefits of the outdoors.

Specific hiking gear is usually dependent on several major but variable factors, including the weather/season, trail conditions, hike duration, and terrain/geography. However, if you take a brief moment to plan ahead, most of these factors can be anticipated and prepared for.

Gather intel about the trail ahead of time.

  • Search for trip reports on both the hike and the trailhead conditions, such as from Alltrails or your local hiking association. (WTA if you are in Washington State). 
  • Look for the roundtrip length and elevation of your hike. As a rule of thumb, plan on hiking approximately 2-3 miles every hour.  
  • Look at the directions and map to the trailhead, including the estimated travel time. Road construction or dirt roads can significantly delay the estimated time to the trail. Many hikes require a high-clearance vehicle. Also, consider your car’s gas situation and plan accordingly. 
  • Look for permit information and parking fee information. 
  • Look for pet-friendly trails if bringing a dog. 
  • It’s optional but helpful to know if the trailhead has a toilet, especially if you’re drinking coffee on the way there. 
  • Have a backup plan if the main hiking trail doesn’t work out due to traffic, road conditions, weather, full parking, or other unforeseen circumstances. No need to get into a risky situation if you can avoid it.

Check the weather forecast and recent weather patterns

  • Look for rain or snow. Remember that weather forecasts in mountain areas are often unpredictable, so looking at recent past weather patterns can be helpful. Consider an alternative plan unless you’re well-prepared for hiking in rain or snow. Getting wet can quickly turn into feeling cold and can potentially lead to an emergency. 
  • Look at high and low temperatures; this helps determine the clothing layers you should wear and bring. 
  • Look for wildfires or smoky weather. Smoke from wildfires isn’t fun to hike in, especially when you’re huffing and puffing up a hill. Also, wildfires impact road closures. Never hike in closed-off areas.  
  • Look for high winds. Usually, wind means a storm is around the corner, but it can also result in tree branches falling on you or dust storms on the trail. 
  • The weather doesn’t have to be perfect, but avoid weather in which you wouldn’t feel comfortable walking around your neighborhood.

Bring appropriate gear and clothing

  • Always think about your footwear, including shoes and socks. Trails are usually dirty and rough, so consider shoes with soles to absorb the bumps and are closed-toed and closed-backed. I have hiked short distances with flip-flops, but I always prefer a pair of shoes or, even better, a hiking boot when day hiking. You don’t need fancy boots for most hiking. You mainly need durable shoes that you don’t mind getting dirty. I recommend getting hiking shoes or boots and hiking socks if possible.
  • Wear athletic underwear, pants, shorts, and shirts. Hiking in jeans isn’t great because of chafing and heat. Cotton garments aren’t preferable because they retain moisture when sweating, but I sometimes hike in a cotton t-shirt. I’ve been told regular bras aren’t comfortable for hiking, so consider athletic undergarments. Basically, you can hike with whatever you might go to the gym in as a base layer (your main/primary clothing). 
  • Bring a lightweight, warm mid-layer, such as a sweatshirt or long-sleeved T-shirt. Pair this with a lightweight raincoat, and you will stay warm for most summer or warm-weather hikes. 
  • Consider rain gear. No matter the weather forecast, I always bring a rain jacket or poncho. It doesn’t have to be special; an emergency poncho or a plastic trash bag works well if you don’t have any rain gear. Getting wet and cold can quickly become deadly. 
  • You might want a hat, beanie, or sweatband. This is a personal preference, but hiking usually involves sweat in the face. I usually wear a hat, providing additional sun and rain protection. 
  • At the end of the day, you don’t need specialized clothing or footwear. You probably have everything you need to start hiking! Just consider that hiking involves sweat, dirt, and potential rain.

Test gear at home if needed

  • Avoid hiking in new shoes or boots because they can cause blisters until broken in properly.
  • Test gadgets and other new gear at home to avoid on-trail surprises. 
  • Gear testing is more important for longer hikes (8+ miles).

Schedule your arrival at the trailhead in the morning if possible

  • Know when it gets dark. The sun may dip behind the mountains, making it dark earlier than expected.  
  • Plan to be back at the car, preferably >2 hours before it gets dark.
  • Plan on hiking approximately 2-3 miles every hour.
  • If you’re likely to be in the dark, bring a spare light, such as a headlamp or flashlight. Don’t depend on your phone if you have a remote chance of being in the dark.

Plan your nutrition

  • Anticipate drinking 0.5L per hour on average. Plan for much more if it’s hot or a strenuous-looking hike such as up a mountain. 
  • Consider energizing snacks and a meal if needed. Use an estimated calories per mile calculator if you want an estimate. Plan on at least a few granola bars or a bag of trail mix.

11 Core Essentials for Most Hikes (Short Hikes)

Vector: Daniel Borkert/Canva Pro

The 11 Core Essentials are what I consider the necessary hiking gear for everyone on a short hike. This differs from “the 10 essentials,” which are frequently recommended by hardcore hikers. The 11 Core Essentials for Short Hikes come from my experience and hiking friends. 

As a beginner hiker, you don’t really need to buy any new gear to get into hiking, and most of the 11 Core Essentials are common everyday items you probably already have.

1) A Plan

Have a plan in your head, on paper, or on your phone. Your safety and comfort depend on your plan and preparation. See above #1 Essential Planning Ahead for creating a plan.

2) Trail guide/Map/Navigation

This will usually be on your phone, either with Google Maps (just remember to download the map for offline use) or a hiking map app such as Gaia or Alltrails. Keep in mind your phone’s battery life. Also, consider printing out a trail guide or report if available, as this can help with landmarks or dangers to look out for. 

3) Water

Bring at least a 1L water bottle. Plan to use at least 0.5L/hour of hiking. Bring a way to purify water to lighten the load if there’s water available on your hike. Consider an electrolyte drink if you sweat a lot and are hiking for more than 1 hour to avoid dehydration

4) Food

Bring a snack or meal to replenish your energy. The type of snack isn’t too important for a shorter hike, but preferably something higher in calories. I like dehydrated food because they are light, calorie-dense, and easy to consume. 

5) Rain Jacket

Bring a large plastic trash bag if you don’t have a rain jacket. This works in a pinch for unexpected rain. Always have a rain plan, even if it’s just to run back to the car. Combine a rain jacket with a long-sleeve sweatshirt or T-shirt for wind protection and warmth. Even if you’re in a desert area, a rain jacket also doubles as a windbreaker or even as an emergency shelter

6) Backpack/bag

You’ll need something to carry your food, water, wallet, keys, and layers in (never leave keys or wallet in the car due to theft). I also have hiked a lot with a camera bag that holds my snack, camera, and water. This doesn’t need to be expensive or special for a short hike. If you buy a hiking pack, I find that a 10-20L daypack with waist and chest straps works best.

7) Durable boots or shoes

Hiking boots or shoes are preferable to protect your feet from rocks, bumps, and dirt. Regular sneakers work fine for shorter distances just keep in mind they will get dirty. Good sole support and shoe grip are important due to the roughness of hiking trails, and boots provide ankle support when navigating uneven terrain. 

8) Weather-appropriate clothes in layers

Bring appropriate layers for the weather, such as sweatshirts, puffy jackets, pants, hats, and gloves. Bring rain gear and a long-sleeved t-shirt or sweatshirt as a combined layer, especially in mountain areas. Also, you’ll probably get really warm hiking, so consider a base layer similar to what you’d use at the gym after you warm up. 

9) Sunscreen

Your favorite sunscreen will work fine. This is especially important for kids. 

10) Toilet paper

Whether you use the woods unexpectedly or blow your nose, a little roll of TP is light and handy when nature calls.

11) Band-aids and Vital Medications

I would consider a first aid kit optional for a shorter hike, but having a few bandaids is helpful if you get a cut or blister. Also, always bring your rescue medications if you have asthma or a bee allergy. 

Optional Short-Hike Gear

First aid kit

Some might consider this essential. If you tend to get hurt, a good customized hiking first aid kit should probably be part of your core essential hiking gear. I’ve never needed a first aid kit after hundreds of short hikes. I usually carry some bandaids for blisters, but I only usually need them on a longer hike. Bring your Epi-pen and allergy medication if you have an allergy to something. 

Hiking socks

Hiking socks that wick moisture are nice but unnecessary on a shorter hike. Regular gym socks work fine. 

Hiking shorts/pants

These are nice, but gym clothes are usually more comfortable for me, even on longer hikes. 

Hat/sunglasses

I always wear a hat for sweat and sun protection, but it’s not a big deal if I forget it. Also, I usually don’t need sunglasses because of the shadows in the forest. This is really dependent on where you are hiking, such as snowy, desert, or open areas. 

Water filter

It’s nice to have a small water filter if you run out of water, but usually, you can carry the water you need for a shorter hike. 

Towel and swimsuit

If you’re hiking to a lake, this is nice and makes the hike much more fun. I usually change out of my swimsuit to avoid chafing problems.   

Change of clothes/shoes in the car

I usually bring my street shoes and a change of socks, but it’s not necessary to enjoy hiking. 

Extra light source or battery pack

If you’re likely to be in the dark, you must bring a headlamp or flashlight. If you use your phone as a flashlight, you need a backup battery pack. 

Trekking Poles

If you have a bad back, knees, or other joints or just tend to roll your ankles, consider using trekking poles. I usually only use them when hiking with a heavy backpack downhill because I otherwise find them annoying. But many hikers swear by their hiking poles, so if they seem helpful, then definitely use them.

Long-Hike or Remote Hike Essentials

10 essentials banner
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Hikes over 8+ miles require more planning and preparation, especially regarding nutrition, water, and footwear. For decades, multiple essential hiking lists have been proposed, which, in my opinion, are more appropriate recommendations for longer hikes, remote short hikes, or backpacking trips rather than the common, shorter day hikes. The most popular list is “The 10 Essentials” by the Mountaineers [1].

Generally, I go on an overnight backpacking trip if I’m hiking more than 8-10 miles. The 10 essentials plus some definitely apply to backpacking. Otherwise, I rarely go on longer day hikes, primarily because they take so much time, cause sore feet, and require more planning. 

I would also consider any snowy hike to be a remote-type hike. Snow hikes are not as popular as summer hiking, and the chance of getting lost or in a bad situation both on the road and trail in the winter is much higher, requiring more essential gear for safety. Many of the 10 essentials are for safety if you get into an emergency needing a wilderness rescue. 

The 10 Essentials for Long Hikes

If you’re using your phone, have offline maps and a battery pack. Consider getting a dedicated GPS device. Also, consider getting an emergency portable locator beacon or satellite messenger device. 

A paper map is always a good backup for longer hikes. Learn how to use a compass and map together for navigation. 

Headlamp and extra batteries

Don’t rely on your phone as the only light source. Headlamps are nice because you can free up your hands. I usually also carry a small flashlight. 

Sun protection

Like a short hike, sunscreen is important for frequent reapplication down the trail. Also, consider bringing a brimmed hat and long sleeves. 

First aid

A basic first aid kit provides bandages and other basic aid items, such as wraps and over-the-counter pain/allergy medication. The further you are from emergency assistance, the more comprehensive your first aid kit will be. 

Knife

A single-blade knife, pocket knife, or small multitool is helpful for longer hikes. 

Fire

Bring a box of waterproof matches in a baggie or a lighter if you need to build a fire for warmth in an emergency. 

Shelter

An emergency blanket can suffice as an emergency shelter for longer hikes while waiting for rescue.

Extra food

Pack extra food beyond what you plan to eat for your hike if you end up in the wilderness longer than expected. Most people can survive at least several days without food, but consider your own situation and comfort level. 

Extra water

Bringing a water filter or purification method as extra water is heavy (“a pint’s a pound the world around”). In an emergency/survival situation, boiling water or even drinking untreated clean water is an option (but not recommended). Never ever drink salt water [2].  

Extra clothes

A rain jacket is essential not only for rain but also for wind protection. Also, consider the weather and bring appropriate layers. I always bring a long-sleeved athletic shirt and my rain jacket. Consider gloves and hats, depending on the weather. Also, consider the heat generated while hiking and dress appropriately to reduce the risk of heat stroke. 

Additional Long Hike Essentials

Toilet paper

TP and a trowel to bury poop is essential both in leaving no trace and for comfort. 

Hiking socks and boots

Hiking boots or shoes are more important for longer hikes because they have better soles and grip and usually better foot support. Hiking socks are also more important because they reduce blisters. 

Hiking clothes

Hiking-specific clothes generally provide moisture-wicking and sun protection in addition to comfort. I still usually wear gym or athletic clothes even for longer hikes, as they are more comfortable for me while providing moisture wicking. 

Backpack

You will want a backpack with a hip and chest strap for comfort, especially since you’ll carry more gear on a longer hike. 

Planning ahead for your hike is the #1 essential for any hike.

The 11 Core Essentials for Short Hikes and the 10 Essentials for Long Hikes provide a guide, but these don’t replace situational awareness and good planning. It’s best to avoid a risky situation altogether if possible. Depending on your hike location, you may also need to add additional gear, such as bear spray or bug repellent (planning ahead helps answer this). Also, don’t forget the leave no trace guidelines for every outdoor adventure.

FAQs

What are the ‘Ten Essentials’ for hiking?

The ‘Ten Essentials’ are items recommended for safe travel outdoors, including navigation tools, sun protection, insulation, illumination, first-aid supplies, fire-starting gear, repair tools, nutrition, hydration, and emergency shelter.

I would argue that there are Eleven Core Essentials for most day hikes.

Why is appropriate footwear important for hiking?

Proper footwear provides traction, support, and protection. It’s crucial for maintaining comfort and preventing injuries on varied terrains. I would say you can get away with wearing athletic shoes on most day hikes. See my article about hiking shoes vs. boots for more info on hiking-specific footwear.

How much water should I carry for a day hike?

I recommend planning for half a liter of water per hour in moderate temperatures and terrain. Always carry enough for your trip, know where to find it, and purify more if needed.

What food should I bring on a hike?

Pack calorie-dense, non-perishable, and easy-to-prepare foods. Include an extra portion in case your hike takes longer than expected. Consider learning to dehydrate your own hiking food.

How do I choose a hiking pack?

For short hikes, a small daypack or bottle sling may suffice. For longer treks, a 10- to 20-liter backpack is recommended to carry extra layers, food, water, and other essentials.

What type of clothing is best for hiking?

I recommend general athletic/gym clothing. Wear moisture-wicking layers to manage sweat and adjust to changing temperatures. Include a hat and gloves for warmth, and always carry rain gear for unexpected weather.

What are some safety items I should have with me?

This is location-dependent, depending on the terrain, weather, and situation. Generally, carry a way to navigate, a rain jacket, a light source, means to start a fire, a first aid kit, and means to communicate during emergencies. These can help you signal for help and navigate if you get lost or injured

How do I protect myself from the sun while hiking?

Use sunscreen, wear sunglasses, and dress in sun-protective clothing. Even on cloudy days, UV radiation can be strong, especially at higher altitudes.

Should I bring a shelter even on a day hike?

Always carry a lightweight emergency shelter, like a space blanket, in case you get stranded or injured. A rain jacket can actually work as your emergency shelter. It can provide critical protection from the elements.

What should I bring when hiking with my dog?

You will want to bring several items when hiking with your dog, including a leash, harness, water bowl, poop bags, and doggy snacks.

Why do you recommend ’11 Core Essentials’ rather than the popular ’10 Essentials’?

The primary purpose of the 11 Core Essentials is to lower the barrier to entry into hiking, especially for beginner hikers.

Most day-hikes are up to 8 miles in length round trip. “Short” and “long hikes” are somewhat subjective depending on a hiker’s experience, preparation, and physical fitness. In my experience, the most popular, common hikes are <6 miles long. Most average people walking a block can complete a hike like this in around 3-5 hours at the even slowest of paces. Kids sometimes can’t walk as far but can usually get a few miles in.

Most beginning hikers start out on this type of hike. A beginner hiker doesn’t need a lot of extra gear beyond what they use for visiting the gym. If they had planned ahead as described above, they would have been unlikely to have gotten into a survival situation due to the popularity of the trail and their relative closeness to civilization. 

For longer hikes, the 10 Essentials are more appropriate, in my opinion.

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AUTHOR
Daniel Borkert is the founder and editor-in-chief of Outdoor Footprints, a website that tells you everything you need to know about camping and hiking. He is an avid outdoorsman with almost four decades of experience in hiking, camping, caving, and fishing. Daniel loves to involve his wife and kids in his outdoor pursuits and inspire other families to do the same. He lives in Seattle, Washington with his family and an energetic Boston Terrier named Zion.

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