Here’s the ultimate guide to what you need for a day hike.
A daypack and some dry sacks
The first thing you need is a proper daypack. They come in various shapes and sizes. There’s no way to tell you the exact right size for you because it depends.
If you go on day hikes in winter or more varied weather conditions (for instance in the mountains, where the weather might suddenly change) – you need a bigger pack.
If you only go for shorter hikes, then a smaller pack will be more comfortable.
If you need to bring food and cook it outdoors, you need a bigger pack.
I personally have three day packs – a lighter and smaller one for the summer, one for the city and a bigger and more rugged waterproof bag for 4-season use. I use the first two when I bike to work.
It makes sense to put your things in dry sacks.
It keeps everything organized and even waterproof backpacks can sometimes fail if the rain is very heavy or a water bottle might leak into your bag. Things like spare clothes, mobile phone etc need to be in a waterproof stuff sack.
As you see from below, you need to bring a bunch of stuff even for a day hike. So buy everything you need and then choose a pack that will fit all your stuff. Leave some extra space.
What you wear, depends on the weather but the essential parts of your wardrobe stay the same.
Always make sure to bring an extra layer of clothing just in case – you can get lost, it might get colder than you think. On a warm day it can just be a fleece top or a lightweight down jacket.
I have never regretted that I brought something extra. There have been many times when I have been grateful that I did.
Do you really need separate hiking clothes? Yes you do and here’s a blog post that explains why hiking clothes are much more comfortable than city or sportswear.
Hiking boots or trail runners + two pairs of socks
If you have good hiking boots, you can wear them in all year round – even in the summer.
However, you might prefer trail runners when the weather is warm and dry and on easier trails.
For uneven trails and/or rainy or cold conditions boots are definitely a better option. I always wear boots, especially with a heavy pack – to avoid injury.
You need lighter socks when the weather is warm and thicker socks when it’s colder.
When your socks are too thin and the weather is cold, your feet will get cold during breaks. When your socks are too thick your feet will sweat too much, you will overheat and tire more easily. Wet feet might develop blisters.
Socks don’t weigh a lot, so if you’re not sure about the weather, bring an alternative pair that is either lighter or thicker than the ones you have on.
Then you can switch them if necessary.
You need an extra pair of socks because your feet can get wet either from rain or stepping in water or because of perspiration.
When you switch socks and the weather is dry, you can hang your wet socks to dry on your pack. One trick how you can dry your socks faster is using your metal water bottle.
When you pour hot water in your bottle, it becomes very hot (be careful!). So if you pull your socks over the water bottle first, the hot bottle will dry them faster.
Just hang the hot water bottle on a branch or on your pack for a while. By the way, the same method can be used to create a warm water bottle to stick in your sleeping bag to warm up.
Base layer – warm or regular underwear
If the weather is warm, normal underwear is fine, but choose a material that is comfortable to wear when you move around a lot. Women might prefer a sports bra.
If the weather if cooler, then a warm base layer, or warm underwear will keep you warm. Natural merino wool is the best material because it keeps you warm but also breathes well. Cotton materials are not comfortable.
When you move around – cotton shirts get moist with perspiration. When you stop to rest or for lunch, it will cause you to lose body heat. A good quality base layer is a good investment.
I usually wear a warm base layer top instead of my shirt in cooler weather.
It works well with a wind- and waterproof outer shell and I don’t need to wear a mid-layer.
Hiking pants are much more comfortable than jeans or sportswear. Jeans are especially problematic – the material gets heavy when wet and takes forever to dry. Leave it to the cowboys.
Sportwear tends to be too fragile for hiking and can tear easily.
Hiking pants are especially designed for hiking so they are much more comfortable. They usually dry fast and are durable.
I suggest wearing long pants and not shorts because it protects you from insects – not only mosquitos but also disease bearing ticks.
Ticks will try to cling to your body from grass and can be so small that you will not feel them on your body until it’s too late. They might not be deterred by insect repellent.
Ticks are very dangerous, they can cause debilitating health issues.
So only wear shorts when you can be 100% sure there are no ticks – for instance on a beach or on rocky terrain in the mountains.
Likewise, for women skirts and dresses don’t make great clothes for hiking.
A good hiking shirt is also a good investment.
Clothes that are designed for sports are a good alternative but they are not perfect. Sportswear is usually designed for training – not for wearing all day long.
Shirts that are great for workout can end up being a bit stinky when worn during hiking.
Again, I suggest you wear long sleeves unless you are in an area that will not have ticks. Otherwise, longer sleeves will protect your health.
Wind- and waterproof layer
Wind- and waterproof layer consists of two parts – rain pants and a wind- and waterproof breathable jacket.
Again, for hiking, you need clothes which are rainproof AND breathable. Rubbery ponchos for sishing are not good for moving around.
Unless your hiking pants are completely waterproof you need rain pants to stay dry during heavier rain. Also, rain pants help keep your feet dry when you are moving through wet grass.
A wind- and rainproof jacket is something that I always bring on a hike – even in the summer.
Even in warm weather strong winds can cause significant heat loss. This is one of the reasons why the weather app on your phone has a “feels like” temperature. If the wind is strong even hot summer days can still feel cold.
Also, it often rains even on those days that have a completely dry forecast. A good, water- and rainproof jacket doesn’t weigh much and it’s always good to have it in the backpack.
It’s also beneficial for a the wind- and waterproof jacket to have options for ventilation – openings which you can close or open under your arms and the possibility to regulate the openings in the sleeves, for the neck and around your waist.
When it’s warm, you can hleave them open, to assure that air flows around your body and excess body heat escapes the jacket. When it’s cold, you can prevent heat from escaping and the jacket will keep you warmer.
Hat and gloves
It’s usually smart to have a hat with you always to protect you from the sun, keep bugs out of your hair and protect you from light rain or wind.
You lose a lot of hear through your head, so it’s important to keep your head warm. In the winter you might need a wool hat or even a wool hat with extra insulation.
In areas where sun is a major problem (on water, in the mountains), you might need a hat with a large brim to protect you.
Some hiking hats have mosquito nets built in them or you can get that separately.
Scarf or buff
In colder temperatures your neck and throat might need extra insulation. Depending on the weather a scarf or a poof is a good option.
That’s it for clothes. Now let’s get down to gear.
I personally don’t carry trekking poles for day hikes with a light pack but many people do, especially if the trail is difficult and you need the extra support.
First aid kit
You need to bring a first aid kit to a day trip. Always. Even if it’s a short trip, you can still have an accident and it might take a while for the emergency workers to reach you.
You can buy a pre-assembled first aid kit or buy things you might need separately. If you buy a kit, make sure you know what’s inside and how to use it.
A simple first aid kit would have essentials: painkillers in case you have a headache or a toothache; something to clean a small cut or wound; different sizes of band-aids, some medical tape and elastic bandage; band-aids for blisters in different sizes.
You might consider bringing something to help you in case you have an upset stomach – such as activated charcoal tablets.
You should always bring a device that will allow you to call the emergency services in case you have a medical emergency or are lost.
In addition to a smart-phone, I have a separate “dumb phone” with buttons, which I keep fully charged and turned off – so that it doesn’t use up any battery.
I usually also have my smartphone with me for navigation and photos. If you are like me and you are more serious about photography you might need want to bring a camera with you. Make sure both your smartphone and camera are protected from rain or a water bottle accident in your bag.
Food and water
For a day hike I usually just bring water with me instead of getting it from natural sources.
Of course, if you know you will be close to water sources like a lake or a river or a stream, you can bring less drinking water. Then you need to know how to purify water.
How much water you need, depends on how long you will hike and also conditions – if it’s a hot day or a difficult trail, you need more water.
As a rule of thumb, if I head out in the morning, then I bring one liter to drink before lunch, a liter for cooking my lunch and tea and one more for drinking after lunch until I get back to my car. That’s more than I need but it’s good to have some extra water just in case.
You should leave a water bottle in the car as well, for the ride back.
When it comes to food then as a rule, if it’s colder or the trail is challenging, you need more calories. Bring a meal you can cook for lunch and at some protein bars for snacks. For a day hike you might want to bring 1-2 apples or bananas or some other fresh fruit as well.
Protein bars, by the way, can be very deceptive. Those marked “eco” and “healthy” are often anything but natural and healthy. Check out their ingredients.
It’s also important to bring a little bit more food than you might need. So, for instance, just throw in an extra meal or some extra protein bars. If you get lost or are late coming back, you might really need the extra calories.
If you want to have tea or coffee, make sure you have that with you and sugar if you take sugar with your tea or coffee.
Stove and dishes
I have a separate post about how to cook food when you hike. It’s better to eat hot food than sandwiches, so bring your hiking stove and fuel with you.
Make sure you have matches, or a lighter or a fire starter to light your stove. If you are unsure about how much fuel you have left, bring an extra canister.
Also, you might need a bowl or a plate, a camping mug for tea or coffee, a hiking spoon, fork or a spork (which is a spoon and a fork combo).
Navigation: map, compass, GPS
Even short trails can sometimes be badly marked and people do get lost and end up walking a long way before finding where they need to go. So always have some way to navigate and better to have both a map and a compass and GPS (or GPS on your smartphone).
There are places where the GPS just won’t work, or your battery might run out – in these situations a paper map and a compass will save you from getting lost. Of course, it’s also important to know how to use them.
If you don’t have a paper map and compass, be careful about draining your smartphone battery. Most smartphones last a lot longer when you put them on airplane mode when you are not using them.
Toilet paper, trowel, hand sanitation
You should have some toilet paper a small trowel and hand sanitation with you. It doesn’t matter if you are on a long hike or a day hike – leave no trace still applies.
Various items: headlamp, pocket knife etc
Then there are small things which you need to bring like some spare matches or a lighter, a headlamp or small flashlight, mosquito net you can wear over your head, some insect repellent, paper tissues and pocket knife.
If it’s raining or there’s a chance of rain, you might want to bring a small tarp for your lunch break, to make sure you are comfortable and dry. I have a small rain tarp just for that and when it’s not raining I can sit on it when I stop for lunch.
That’s it for today. I hope you enjoyed this blog. I would love to hear from you.