Packing for a day hike is exhilarating because it signals that you’ll soon be trotting through beautiful landscapes carved by wind, water and erosion over the past few million years. Whether you’re going on a solo hike or you have a hiking buddy on hand, knowing what to bring on a day hike is crucial to both your comfort and safety.
In this day hike checklist, I’ve broken down the 25 day hiking essentials you should consider bringing along. So after you’ve read all the tips and tricks about hiking for beginners, figured out that hiking has some serious health benefits and are up to speed on the 7 Leave No Trace Principles so you can leave the wild the way you found it, you’re ready to start packing and hit the trails!
What to Bring on a Day Hike
In addition to the 10 hiking essentials you should keep in your hiking backpack at all times, I’ve added 25 more day hiking essentials and broken down the categories by wearable gear, food and water, navigation, emergency and extras.
Having a backpack on the trail is crucial because it allows you to carry all your gear easily so you’re not hiking with stuffed pockets (or look like me walking through the grocery store refusing to get a cart because I think I’m grabbing just a few items and wind up piling 15 items in both arms).
If you’re a beginner hiker who isn’t tackling super tough trails, your average backpack will suffice. But once you start hiking more often or set out for longer treks, you’ll want to upgrade to a daypack or hiking backpack that’s around 15 liters to 35 liters in size.
When choosing a hiking backpack, you should try it on in the store and look for the following features to make your hikes a bit easier:
- Sternum strap so your backpack stays tight to your chest and doesn’t move around when you’re hiking or scrambling up cliffs.
- Hip strap that distributes the backpack’s weight and takes the bulk force off your shoulders (super important for long hikes).
- Deep-pocket water bottle holder so your bottle doesn’t fall out when traversing difficult terrain.
- Plenty of pockets so you don’t have to dig through all your stuff to find one little thing that slipped to the bottom of the main pocket.
- (Optional) interior water bladder with a spout that makes drinking easier (I don’t have one of these because I often hike difficult terrain and a water bladder has a higher chance of catching on something and spewing all your necessary water on the ground).
2. Hiking Boots
Finding the right hiking boots before setting off on a day hike is pivotal to your comfort and safety. The right hiking boots can keep your feet dry when traversing wet terrain, stabilize your ankles through uneven trails and keep your feet from getting blisters midway through the day hike.
The wrong hiking boots could leave your feet blistered and battered for weeks, while the right hiking boots will be your best friends on the trails for weeks. Check out my in-depth article about how to choose the right hiking boots. (Sneak preview: try on hiking boots at the store after a long day on your feet. Everyone’s feet swell throughout the day, so trying them on at the end of the day helps size your new boots properly.)
3. Clothes for the Weather (Jacket, Layers, Moisture-Wicking)
Always, always, always check the weather before your hike to see what you’re up against. And remember that perfect weather at the trailhead is not always a great indication of what the weather is like a few thousand feet above at the peak.
If you’re hiking anywhere the weather dips below 65 degrees, always bring a light jacket. Better to be too warm and take off the jacket than to be clamoring for one you don’t have when you’re cold.
The same principles apply to layers. It’s easier to take off layers when you get too hot than to put on layers you don’t have when you’re too cold. Think of layers like thermal underwear or socks, a beanie to keep your head warm, gloves and a Merino wool base layer top.
After years of hiking in cotton, polyester and other synthetic materials, I’ve learned they aren’t the way to go. Instead, I’ve upgraded my entire hiking clothes arsenal to Merino wool. It’s a bit more expensive, but the gear is well worth every penny.
Merino wool is moisture-wicking (keeps sweat from piling up on your clothes and making them wet), temperature-regulating (keeps you warm in cold weather and cool in hot weather), anti-microbial (prevents bacteria from growing and keeps you smelling fresh through multiple wears) and it lasts five to 10 times longer than cotton or synthetic clothing.
Seriously, merino wool is where it’s at. All my gear is merino wool, including T-shirts, base layer tops, base layer bottoms, hiking socks, everyday socks, beanie and even boxer briefs. The only thing I’m missing is merino wool shirts and pants (those are hard to find), but my merino wool base layers do the trick.
- T-Shirt: Ridge Merino | Amazon
- Top Base Layer: Ridge Merino | Amazon
- Bottom Base Layer: Ridge Merino | Amazon
- Boxer Briefs: Ridge Merino | Amazon
- Hiking Socks: Amazon
- Everyday Socks: Amazon
Food and Water
4. 1 Liter of Water Per Two Hours of Hiking
Carrying enough water is imperative to safe hiking. A general rule of thumb is to carry about one liter per two hours of hiking, but that number differs from person to person. I drink a ton of water no matter if I’m hiking or sitting in front of a computer screen for 12 hours, so I tend to bring about 1 liter of water per 1.5 hours of hiking.
5. Water Purifier/Lifestraw
If you’re going on a 12-hour hike and don’t feel like lugging around six to eight liters of water, you may have options. If you’re in the desert and far from clean water sources, you’re going to have to lug the water with you.
6. Trail Snacks
Pack trail snacks that are high in protein (for energy), easy to eat on the go and don’t have a ton of cleanup or preparation involved. Some great trail snacks are energy bars, nearly any kind of nuts (peanuts, cashews, almonds), jerky or a premade sandwich.
7. Two Meals
Since we’re on the topic of trail snacks, you should always bring enough food to last you for two meals’ worth of caloric intake. Bringing two meals provides a buffer if your hike takes longer than expected or you get lost on the trail. This rule is pivotal to the 10 hiking essentials checklist.
A paper topographic map of the area is your best bet for longer day hikes, but pre-downloaded maps on your phone (like the AllTrails Pro subscriber trail maps, which provides a map and GPS location without cell service) may suffice for well-marked trails.
Unless you can sufficiently read the patterns of the skies like the Incas who built Machu Picchu, taking a compass on your hike is just good business. If you wander off the trail and need to get back to it or the trailhead, a compass will provide a general idea of which direction you need to go.
Nowadays, there are GPS apps you can download on your phone for pennies on the dollar of a traditional handheld GPS device. Some of those options work quite well, so I’ll leave it up to you to decide whether a traditional GPS or phone app GPS is better for you.
11. Personal Beacon Locator
A personal beacon locator is used in emergencies and should only be activated when you are either lost or injured on the trail and need immediate help. It sends a signal to emergency personnel using government and commercial satellites so someone can locate you and save your life.
12. First-Aid Kit
First-aid kits can help you bandage cuts, wrap a sprained ankle and so many other things that are useful when figuring out what to pack for a day hike. You can either make your own with materials you find better or buy a premade first-aid kit to keep in your backpack at all times.
13. Prescription Medications
If you’re prescribed any sort of medication you take daily or weekly, you should bring those with you. You never know when you’ll need it.
14. Over-The-Counter Medications
Ibuprofen, Tylenol and other over-the-counter medications are essentials on your day hiking gear list.
If you’re lost or injured on the trail and you know there are people within earshot, using a whistle can help attract their attention better and more easily than yelling for help.
- Three loud, short whistle blows in a row is an international distress call (coming from the injured or lost party)
- Two loud, short whistle blows in a row is a call-back signal (a rescuer or fellow hiker signaling they’re coming)
- One loud, short whistle blow is a call-back signal from both the rescuer and party in need to signal you’re getting closer
16. Fire-Starting Materials
Every hiker should always, always, always bring fire-starting materials with them. They’ll come in handy if you’re lost or injured on the trail and need to hunker down for the night.
I bring my trusty magnesium fire starters with me on every hike because they’re waterproof, windproof and generate 16,000 strikes at an astonishing 5,500 degrees Fahrenheit (and they’re less than $20!). You can also bring a lighter or matches in a waterproof container.
- Product Link: Amazon
17. Emergency Shelter/Sleeping Bag
Again, knowing what to bring on a day hike is essential if something goes wrong — and an emergency shelter or sleeping bag could save your life in the rain or cold weather. I bring two emergency sleeping bags with me on every hike (one to utilize as a sleeping bag and one as a makeshift shelter if it’s raining).
These handy, dandy bags weigh about a half-pound, absorb 90% of your body heat to keep you warm and are windproof, waterproof and tear-resistant. Plus, each emergency sleeping bag is less than $11 — you can’t beat that price.
- Product Link: Amazon
18. Gear Repair Kit
You can make your own makeshift gear repair kit with duct-tape, rope, a knife, superglue and any other materials you may need to fix broken backpack straps, torn hiking boots or anything else that may break on the trail.
19. Hiking Plan
Whether you’re hiking by yourself or with a hiking buddy, it’s always a smart idea to let someone know your day hiking itinerary. Check in with them when you leave and when you return safely. If you don’t check in upon your return, they can reach out to you or inform someone where you are and when you left if you’re in dire trouble.
A Swiss army knife or something similar will help you remove splinters, cut rope or anything else you need to do that you can’t quite do with your own bare hands.
- Product Link: Amazon
Headlamps are always in my arsenal for every hike, especially since I work a 9-to-5 and most of my hiking is done with daylight waning in the sky after work. I prefer a tilting headlamp with multiple brightness settings so I don’t have to point my head in all these awkward positions to get the light to shine on the trail.
- Product Link: Amazon
While your phone will likely always be with you, investing in a nice DSLR camera will help you capture amazing photos you can look back on years from now. I always bring my camera to shoot photos for this blog, but I even brought it on hikes before I started this blog!
Binoculars allow you to see birds and animals vividly from a safe distance. Picking out a pair of lightweight binoculars is a great addition to every hiker’s day hiking essentials checklist.
24. Writing Materials
I’m a writer, so this pertains more to me than most hikers. But I always bring along a notepad and a pencil so I can jot down sights, smells, sounds and so much more about every hike I go on!
25. Trekking Poles
If your day hike consists of a long trek up and down mountains, investing in some stellar hiking poles is a must. Hiking poles help take the bulk of your body weight off your knees during declines and it can make inclines a bit easier!