Hiking only requires a few key pieces of gear for a day on the trails. But with a small hiking checklist, each piece is important. Bring these items along for comfort and safety on the trail.
If you’re ready to head out to a local trail or even a nontechnical summit, there are some things you should always have with you on the trail. Consider this list of 10 hiking essentials the foundation of your hiking gear, not a complete pack list that applies to every situation. Customization is key.
When thinking about your pack list as a whole, it’s important to keep in mind the type of hike you plan to go on. Some of the most important factors that may impact your gear list are:
- Elevation gain
- Trail conditions
- Hiking duration
- Exposure to the sun and wind
Knowing these factors will help you modify the hiking essentials included on this list. For example, what you bring on an early spring hike in the mountains will be different than a summer day hike through the desert parks of Utah.
What to Bring Hiking: 10 Essentials for Day Hikes
1. Daypack (11-30L)
One of the most important items on our hiking essentials list is the very thing you need to carry it all in: a backpack. Well, a daypack, probably in the 11L-30L range, to be precise.
You’ll only have space for the essential items with 11-13 liters. This is a good size if you’re going on a shorter hike or have other people with you that you can split supplies with, such as an emergency kit and navigation items.
Meanwhile, a daypack around 20-30L allows you to bring plenty of water in very dry or hot environments, extra food, and heavier layers if it’s spring or summer. Just remember, the extra space makes it easier to overpack, which adds weight.
2. Boots or Shoes
Not all hikes require boots. But they do require footwear that will offer you comfort, support, traction, and protection against the elements.
The demands of a hike are a bit different than what your gym shoes may be used to encountering. You may want a lugged sole on slick trails or a waterproof membrane for cool hikes through wet grasses or mud puddles.
As a hiker, you’ll probably experience a variety of different trails, and your hiking shoes might be one of your bigger investments. So, when deciding which pair is best for you, it’s important to consider the weather and terrain you’ll be in the majority of the time.
A lighter hiking shoe (or trail running shoe) with a highly breathable upper would be suitable for a well-marked local trail in the summer. Still, you’ll need to pay attention to your footwear’s tread and waterproofing if you live in a rainy place or find yourself going up against the weather during spring and fall.
A good place to start is with the amazing selection of our tested hiking shoes. The men’s and women’s options run the gamut from low-profile trail running shoes and summer-friendly hiking sandals to waterproof hiking boots with full ankle support.
Always plan for drinking water on the trail. Choose from a plain jane water bottle or an integrated daypack water reservoir or even a running vest. Either way, hydration is high on our 10 hiking essentials list for a reason.
If you have no idea how much water you drink in a day, don’t worry. A starting point to pack for the average adult is to carry 2-4 cups (½-1 liter) of water for every hour you plan to spend hiking.
Water bottles work fine. But if you’re going on a little longer hike, you may like the convenience of a water reservoir or water bladder. It distributes the weight of the water more evenly in your pack and lets you get water hands-free via a straw-like tube.
The CamelBak Antidote 50 oz Reservoir is on the smaller side, but it works well on short hikes and in conjunction with a water bottle that you slip into a side pocket of your backpack. If you want to carry all your water in your pack, though, the Platypus Big Zip 3L Reservoir is trusted by everyone from the occasional weekend enthusiast to the multiday hiker.
4. Trail Snacks
Depending on the length of your hike, you may not need to bring food. But for hikes longer than an hour, stick a few snacks in your pack.
What should you bring? We love granola bars, single-serving nut butters, jerky, fruit, or a bag of homemade GORP (good old raisins and peanuts). Also, it’s tough to beat pistachios, which you can buy shelled, as they are high in good fats and provide complete proteins. For higher aerobic outings like trail runs, consider grabbing some energy gels or chews designed specifically for athletes.
Plan to eat something small about once every hour. Stopping less frequently for larger snacks may make you feel uncomfortable once you start hiking again.
5. Backup Navigation
Having multiple navigation systems will help make sure you don’t get lost on the trail.
A good idea is to have two options. If Google Maps or a hiking map on your phone is your primary navigation system, you should also carry (and know how to use) a map and compass or a GPS that uses satellite — not cell service.
6. Lightweight Rain/Wind Jacket
Speaking of weather, a lightweight jacket or outer shell should also be included in your 10 hiking essentials.
When looking for the perfect hiking jacket, you want to find something that will protect you from the wind and rain, while still being breathable and comfortable. If you primarily hike in the summer or only go on short day hikes, a water-resistant option will probably suit you just fine.
For all-season hiking, spending the extra time and money to find a completely waterproof rain/wind jacket will be worthwhile. Look for one made from Gore-Tex or other waterproof/breathable fabric. While they can get damp inside during hot or humid conditions, a waterproof-breathable shell will keep you dry during a thunderstorm and allow your sweat to slowly evaporate.
One of the major benefits of a rain/wind jacket is that it can easily be packed into your daypack when you don’t want it. Some of the best ones are unlined and can be folded into their pocket for easy storage.
7. Sun Protection
Overexposure to the sun can lead to dehydration, fatigue, and more serious issues like sunburns and heatstroke.
Sunscreen is the first place to start. Screen up your face and other places that will get significant sun exposure.
Next, consider your clothing. All clothes have some level of sun protection, but many brands now create clothing designed with a known SPF/UPF rating.
Add a hat and sunglasses, and consider head coverings like Buff Headwear to protect your neck. As a bonus, you can dunk the Buff (and your shirt and hat) in streams for quick cooling.
Having a headlamp in your pack ensures that you don’t have to race against daylight to get back to the trailhead. It also helps you identify and keep to the trail once the sun has set.
A simple, small headlamp doesn’t have to be an expensive addition to your gear list. Something like the PETZL Tikka headlamp is excellent for on-trail hiking and running, giving you a wide beam to see what’s ahead. Plus, it’s small enough to stow in a side pouch.
9. First-Aid Kit
No matter how many precautions you take, accidents can happen. That’s why, regardless of the terrain, weather, difficulty of the trail, and distance you are from home, a basic first-aid kit is smart.
Most trail injuries are relatively minor and can be handled on the spot. Having the basics will help make sure something like this doesn’t end your hike. If there’s a more significant injury, your first-aid kit can serve as a temporary fix until you can get additional help.
You can DIY your first-aid kit with some Band-Aids, medical gauze, antiseptic wipes, tweezers, ibuprofen, Benadryl, duct tape, a multitool, a lighter, and safety pins. Or, you buy a pre-assembled kit that you can throw in your daypack as is.
Just keep in mind, if you’re going off-trail or decide to turn your hike into a multiday adventure, you’ll want to modify your first-aid kit and may want to pack some additional survival gear.
10. Non-Cotton Hiking Clothes
No hiking essentials list would be complete without a mention of the best clothes. Many different factors may go into picking your trail wardrobe, but two of the most important things to consider are the fabric and layering options.
You want to select something with wicking properties. Ultrafine wool, polyester, and other synthetic fibers help transfer sweat away from your body, while also insulating you during a chilly morning or afternoon hike. Meanwhile, cotton retains moisture and becomes heavy.
When it comes to layering, you want to choose thin clothing that can all be worn at the same time — without feeling like a marshmallow. Think about having a very thin, tighter-fitting base layer, a thicker layer for warmth, and a top layer to protect from wind and rain.
Many people like to choose clothes with full coverage and a looser fit, such as hiking pants and a lightweight button-up. This will protect your arms and legs from scratches and sun exposure, but will still be light enough to keep you cool in the summertime.
Make Our Hiking Essentials List Your Own
By the time you hit the trail, these 10 hiking essentials probably won’t be everything in your gear list, but they will give you a solid foundation to build upon. For example, this particular packing list was inspired by what someone would need to enjoy a day hike in the summer and shoulder seasons. Adding a few items to what you see above would help you prep for a cold-weather hike.
And lastly, keep in mind that most of the gear here is very affordable. The focus isn’t to give you the most brag-worthy gear around the campfire, but rather to equip you with the essentials when it comes to your safety, health, and comfort.
So, get out there and have a great hike — and let us know if you have anything you’d add to this list.
Averi is a freelance SEO writer and adventure travel blogger. She has over 10 years of experience, beginning her career as a ghostwriter for marketing executives before working at some of San Diego’s top marketing agencies as a content manager for lifestyle brands. In 2019, Averi left the agency world to begin working for herself. She is now a full-time digital nomad and focuses on the health, wellness, and outdoor industries. In her free time, she blogs about both her travels and how to run a successful blog for your business.