Hiking is awesome! Whether you’re an avid hiker hitting the Appalachian Trail or a weekend warrior that gets out for a few hours here and there, the benefits can be the same. You’ll be happier, healthier, and if you’re like me, even a little time in the woods can improve your outlook for a week or so. Besides, it’s fun, easy, and cheap. However, that doesn’t mean you should just snag your shoes and hit the trail. There are a few more things to consider. This list of 10 day hiking essentials should help you gear up and keep you safe and prepared on your next day out.
1. Good Backpack
This one is easy. If you’re going to bring stuff, you should be able to carry it comfortably all day. A good backpack, or sling pack if that’s more comfortable for you, is a must. For more on how to select the right back, check out our Backpack Buying Guide over in our Knowledge Base.
You should carry enough water to last your entire outing. It’s tough to say how much water that is because it depends on a lot of different factors such as climate, terrain, speed, and fitness level. I know that for me, I typically carry 2-3 liters for myself for a day hike, usually in a hydration bladder and/or a Nalgene bottle. If I know there are going to be a lot of opportunities to fill up, such as a nearby stream, I’ll skip the hydration bladder and opt for a water filter instead. This lets me travel lighter, and allows me to safely drink as much water as I choose.
For food, we’re probably talking about snacks, not meals. Any food that packs a lot of energy is good. Any food that packs a lot of energy and is easily packable is awesome! Nuts, granola bars, jerky for the carnivores–it all makes great trail food. I typically overpack when it comes to food for several reasons. First, I love to eat, and always find that I eat more on the trail then I think. Second, if for any reason my day hike were to turn into an impromptu overnight trip, that extra food is going to come in very handy.
A knife is an invaluable tool in pretty much every survival situation. You can use a knife to create shelter, get food, split firewood, make cordage, and any number of other things. You’ve got a ton of options here, too, with folding knives, fixed blades, multi-tools, etc. One thing that is not an option for a knife you’re going to carry into the woods is quality. It you get put into a situation where you need it, it needs to be able to take the abuse. Quality materials are a must, but that doesn’t mean it has to break the bank. Think of this knife as a beater, and buy accordingly.
5. Fire Starter
You should always have a way to start a fire in your pack. If your day hike goes south and you end up spending the night outdoors, fire will be your best friend. Not only will it keep you warm and alive in colder temperatures, it will also boost morale, deter pests and animals, and may get you rescued. There are a ton of fire starters to choose from, from the simple to the complicated. I tend to go for the simple lighter approach, but carrying a firesteel or matches as back up is never a bad plan.
Some good fire starters: Numyth Watertight Fluid Lighter, UCO Waterproof Matches, Numyth Fire Piston, Light My Fire Swedish Firesteel, or kill two birds with one stone and carry the Light My Fire Swedish Fire Knife.
No, I’m not suggesting you should carry a tent with you every time you go on a day hike. What I am suggesting is you should have something with you that you can use as, or to make, a shelter. If you’re good at building shelters with the things in your environment, then this could be accomplished just by carrying a knife. For those of us that don’t have that skill set, an emergency blanket or something similar would fit the bill.
7. First Aid
This is an absolute must for any hike. Even a basic first aid kit is better than nothing, and in the case of a serious injury, it could keep you alive long enough for help to arrive. Most of the pre-assembled kits are fine, but the best kit is the one that tailors to your activities and your needs. I like to start with a good kit like one of the AMK kits, and add to it to fit my needs. For me this generally means adding more bandages, a tube of antibiotic ointment, some Quick Clot, more gauze, and some athletic tape. Those items along with the items already in the kit cover most of my basic first aid needs, and could handle some serious injuries if necessary.
Adventure Medical Kits (AMK) pretty much has the market cornered on great outdoor-oriented consumer first aid kits, but don’t think that these are perfect. They are a great starting point that can be added to to meet your needs.
You don’t need to pack a change of clothes, new outfit, or an extra pair of shoes, but you do need to be prepared for the weather. If it’s going to rain, pack a raincoat. If it’s going to be cool, dress in layers so you can add and subtract as need be. This also includes all the weather conditions that you could possibly encounter. For example, if you’re going on a hike in the mountains here in North Georgia in January, what clothes should you bring? Temperatures in the daytime can be as high as 50 or even 60 degrees, so all you need is pants and a long sleeve T-shirt, right? After all, you’ll be moving, so that will keep you plenty warm. Wrong! Night time temperatures in the mountains regularly drop into the teens and twenties. If you get stuck outside with just pants a long sleeve cotton shirt, hypothermia will be a real danger, even at much higher temperatures. At the very least, you’ll want to throw a good jacket into your bag. A down or synthetic fill jacket would be perfect in this case. They are highly compressible, light, and extremely warm. While a night outside in the mountains with temperatures in the teens probably won’t be a whole lot of fun, a good jacket should at least keep you alive.
9. Map & Compass
If you get lost, nothing is more helpful for self rescue than a detailed topographic map of the are that you’ll be hiking in and a good compass. Get a map, a decent compass, familiarize yourself with orienteering, and you’ll never truly be lost.
You knew it was coming! We’ve always got a flashlight on us anyway because they are just that handy, but on the trail, a good flashlight or headlamp is an essential part of your kit. Even if you’re planning to hike in the morning and be back at the trailhead in the early afternoon, throw a headlamp in your bag. It doesn’t take up much space at all, but could come in seriously handy if things go south. Whether you’re trying to rescue someone else who may be lost or injured or you’re the one in need of rescue, you will appreciate the light once the sun goes down.
A note on the flashlight though: While they are an essential part of your kit, if you’re lost, they’re meant as a comfort. They are not meant to aid you in navigating at night. The best thing you can possibly do in a survival situation during the night is find shelter, make a plan, and get some rest. When the sun comes up you can regroup, and act on that plan, even if it’s staying put. Also, batteries don’t last forever, so use it sparingly.
Bonus: Tell Someone Where You’re Going
While this isn’t an essential you can carry with you, it is absolutely an essential. Whenever you’re headed out to the woods, even if it’s not too far off the beaten path, make sure you’ve told at least one person where your headed and when you should be back. That way, if they don’t hear from you, they’ll be able to alert people that you may be in need of help, and they will have a pretty good idea of where to find you.