You’re planning a Saturday afternoon hike on the trails and you’re researching what to bring on a day hike. First off, kudos to you because you’ve already passed the first step. Planning and prepping for your hike is more than half the battle for having a successful day on the trail. So, what all should you bring on your day hike?
According to the American Hiking Society there are ten essentials that you should bring on every hike. I’m going to go through each one, as well as one bonus item at the end, and give you a couple recommendations on specific products that I personally like.
For those that are new to hiking, I want to briefly explain exactly what we mean when we refer to a day hike. If you’ve been hiking for a while feel free to scroll past this section and go straight in the essentials.
Some of these recommendations include affiliate links where you can purchase those products. If you do purchase make a purchase we may, at no extra cost to you, make a small commission.
What Counts as a Day Hike?
A day hike for the purposes of this article is a hike that plans to take multiple hours, anywhere from 3 or 4 all the way up to around 10, and will cover multiple miles, anywhere from 4 or 5 to 20 plus. This is regardless of whether it’s a trail you’re doing for the first time or for the dozenth time.
Having said that, I do believe that some of the list essentials are even more important when it’s a trail you’re unfamiliar with, but it’s always better to be safe than sorry because anything can happen on the trail.
But, what if you’re going for a hike on your local trail for an hour? Do you need all this stuff?
We live about a mile from the Kennessaw Mountain Battlefield Park. We hike and trail run at the park a couple times a week on average. The park has one long trail that covers the entire park that is then broken down into small bite-size pieces.
When we go over for one of these shorter hikes (an hour or less) we will not pack everything on this list. In fact, we generally just take the dogs and some water.
This is the exception, not the rule, but if you’re hiking a well-maintained, heavily populated, short (a couple miles or less) trail that you are familiar with then you can get by without everything on this list. However, outside of this, it’s always better to have it and not need it rather than need it and not have it.
It’s also important to mention that you CHECK each of your items each time before you go out for a hike. It’s pretty easy to leave a piece of equipment in your bag for months on end and then find out, when you finally need it, that something is wrong with it. A quick check of your gear can take five minutes or less and is absolutely worth it.
What To Bring On A Day Hike
Proper footwear on the trail is critical. The type of footwear you want to wear will depend heavily on the weather and the terrain you’re going to encounter on the trail. For easier, well-maintained trails a low-cut hiking boot or a trail running shoe should do just fine.
If you’re going to encounter rough terrain, doing off-trail hiking and/or plan to encounter inclement weather a more proper hiking boot may be more appropriate. The added grip and foot protection will go a long way toward keeping your feet secure on the terrain and protected from the trail and elements.
Can you wear tennis shoes?
This is a question we get asked a lot. In fact we did an entire article on are trail running shoes worth it? The truth is, for many popular well-maintained trails a tennis shoe that has some good tread may suffice.
A trail running shoe or a hiking boot are designed not just to give you better grip, but are more durable to help protect your feet from sticks, rocks and other sharp objects you’re feet may come across. Many are also water-proof and/or water-resistant which is handy when coming across small streams or mud. Lastly, most also come with a gusseted tongue which is designed to keep dirt and debris out of your shoe.
So while you may be able to get by with a good pair of tennis shoes, if you can spring for a good pair trail shoes, I’d recommend it.
Also, for more on how to choose the right hiking boot, check out our article on How To Choose What Hiking Boots You Should Get.
Getting lost can happen. Even if you’re hiking on a well marked trail, because of the fact people tend to “blaze their own trails”, you can find yourself having veered off course. If this should happen having a map and compass (and being able to read one!) can be not just valuable, but life saving.
Be sure to not just depend on your phone to act as your map and GPS. Too many things can go wrong with your phone – the battery runs out, it gets smashed or wet or you can easily find yourself out of service. Don’t get me wrong, when it’s working your phone can act as an amazing map, compass and GPS. Just be sure to have a back up plan should something happen to it.
Having a regular compass and learning how to read a topographical map are great “low-tech” ways to help ensure you never get completely lost.
A little bit of research on the trail you’re visiting can go along way too, in the case of you finding yourself off the main trail and lost. What are the landmarks around your trail? Essentially, which way to civilization? If you know ahead of time that if you get lost, the nearest town is East, you can pull your compass out and get yourself to people way faster than having to figure out a plan on the fly.
This should go without saying, but you need to take plenty of water. You need to take about a liter of water for every two hours of planned hiking. I would even suggest adjusting that a touch higher in hot and/or humid environments. You can also do yourself a favor for a day hike and do something I preach to my athletes consistently – Don’t wait until gameday when you’re thirsty to start hydrating.
Also, make sure you’re starting your hike well-hydrated. Drinking a little extra water the day before and the morning of can do wonders for your hydration status once you start on the trail.
It’s also a great idea to take a means to be able to purify your own water in case of an emergency. We always carry a LifeStraw with us. If you’re unfamiliar with LifeStraw, it’s a straw that purifies water and allows you to drink water straight from an outdoor source. Thankfully, we’ve never had to to use it, but it’s nice knowing it’s there in case of an emergency.
I’m 6’4 and 250 pounds. I do not ever plan on going hungry on the trail! Keep in mind though, that food equals weight you’re going to be carrying. On a longer multi-day hike planning what food you’re going to bring becomes much more strategic.
However, for a day hike, some lightweight high calorie snacks are great to have available for a long hike. The entire concept of trail mix (different combinations and types of nuts, dried fruit and chocolate) was literally created to have in your bag to snack on in your bag. Energy bars and gummies are also great choices.
If you’d like even more hiking snack ideas, here are our favorite vegan hiking snacks.
The other luxury of a day hike, is that if all goes well you’re going to begin and end your day at either a house, cabin or maybe your car. Start your day off with a good breakfast (Oatmeal with some fruit is a great choice) and have something ready for you when you get back.
If “base camp” is your car, then keep in mind your post-hike meal may end up sitting in a hot car all day while you’re gone. Peanut butter sandwiches in one of those coolers you can throw in your freezer are our go-to post-hike meal. Those things hit the spot every time.
Should everything not go well, I always like to have a little extra stash as a “just in case”. If watching shows like Alone, Naked and Afraid and my personal favorite Survivorman have taught me anything is that we can make it a few days without food. Outside of the most extreme situations, that should give you enough time to make your way out.
If it’s going to be cold, dress warm. If it’s going to be hot, dress cool. That cover it? Alrighty then.
In all seriousness, when it comes to proper clothing on the trail, layers are your friend. Most long day hikes start in the morning and finish in the afternoon. Temperature can change quite a bit over the course of the day, depending on location and time of season.
While a sweatshirt may seem like a good choice at 7AM when it’s nice and cool out, by two in the afternoon after a few hours of hiking you may find yourself despising that same sweatshirt. Layers make it easier to adjust to the weather and an extra long sleeve shirt is going to fit in your pack much easier than a sweatshirt when the time comes.
Changes in elevation and being in the sun versus being in the shade can also play a factor in temperature. Again, do your research before you hit the trail and keep in mind that weather can always be unpredictable.
Speaking of weather being unpredictable, we never leave for a long hike without a lightweight rain jacket in our pack. Beside that fact that being wet can make a long hike miserable, being cold and wet can lead to serious problems like hypothermia.
You should never go into the woods without bringing a few safety items. First, a way to easily (at least relatively easily) start a fire. Getting a fire started in an emergency situation is crucial for staying warm overnight and can be a great way to signal for help and be spotted.
A flint stick, in my opinion, is the easiest and most reliable way to start a fire from scratch. Like many of the things we’re recommending, it’s also small, light and will fit easily into your pack.
Bringing a whistle is also a simple and easy way to signal for help. Whistles can often be heard for miles and is not a sound you’re going to hear in the woods unless there is an emergency. This is a great way catch the attention and alert anyone within earshot that you need help.
Lastly, a small flashlight or head lamp so you can read your map or find things in the dark is a good item to bring in your pack. Just like I mentioned with the compass and GPS earlier, don’t rely on your phone as a flashlight. If fact, in an emergency situation, having to use your phone as a light is a terrible use of the whatever battery you have remaining on your phone.
First Aid Kit
Fact: No one thinks they are going to get hurt until they get hurt. Having a few medical supplies to address minor issues that may come up on a hike is a must bring for a day hike.
We could go through all of the things you should have in your first aid kit (bandages, anti-septic, ibuprofen, etc) and you could go around and individually or you could just grab a ready made first-aid kit. We recommend the Surviveware First Aid Kit.
Knife or Multi Tool
A knife is similar to a compass or a LifeStraw. You probably won’t use them very often, but when you need them, you really want to have one.
Don’t be confused either, we’re not talking about a 5 inch knife to fend off predators. All you really need is a small knife with a sharp blade for cutting.
A knife will most often be used to cut string or cord, handle hangnails or to cut up tinder for a fire.
As someone with aggressively pale Irish skin, sun protection is not something I can’t not think about. Anything more than an hour in sunlight is asking for a burn. If you’re not someone that worries as much I do about sun protection it may be easy to overlook sun protection. After all, hiking means being in the woods in the shade of trees all day, right?
Not exactly. Most trails have lots of clearings where you’ll get plenty of sunshine. Extend that over the course of an entire day outside and a hat and some sunscreen doesn’t sound like such a bad idea. Like most of the things on this list, it’s better to have it and end up not needing it rather than need it and not have it.
Shelter is probably a strong term. I’m not telling you to pack a tent for a day hike. That seems pretty ridiculous. But, having something that can provide a bit of protection from the elements should things go wrong and a day hike turns into an impromptu overnight hike. We recommend Don’t Die in the Woods World’s Toughest Emergency Blanket. It’s compact, lightweight and can come in handy in a bind.
You’re going to need a good pack to put all this stuff in. The key to a good day pack is one that is just big enough to fit all of the things you need and still being comfortable and as light as possible.
A good pack should also have enough pockets, compartments, nooks and crannies to organize everything and make it convenient for you to grab when you need it. There is nothing more frustrating than sifting through everything in your bag just to find that Cliff Bar you brought.
When it comes to what you should bring on a day hike, it comes down to being prepared for what could happen not always what will happen. Hopefully you can hike all your life without needing a first aid kit or an emergency shelter. But, if the situation ever arises that you need it, you’ll be happy you have it.
I hope this list helps you get prepared for your next (or first!) big day hike. See you out there on the trail!