Day Hike Essentials

So. You’re ready to try hiking.

You’re excited. Nervous. You know you need stuff, but you have no idea what stuff you need.

You don’t want to buy all the things and then find out you hate it.

Conversely, you don’t want to buy nothing and be unprepared. 

Fortunately, I’ve put together this guide to get you off on the right foot (fair warning - there may be several more hiking puns in our future.)

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I’ve been hiking for a few years now, but I’ve only had the opportunity for single-day hikes so far. In that time, I’ve learned what the day hike essentials are and what I can live without. 

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This list is honed based on my experience hiking in Central Texas, where it gets hot as blazes in the summer. Your climate may mean some of these items aren’t necessary or that you need other things instead. This list is a good jumping-off point for pretty much anywhere, though. I’ve used the REI Day Hiking Checklist as a base but added my own product recommendations and experiences. 

Day Hike Essentials Equipment List

A lot of these items might seem like overkill for a day hike. But always remember you're packing for survival, not for what you hope might happen. Always make sure someone knows where you're going, what trail you're on, and when you expect to be back. I always text my sister when I'm about to head out so she has the information handy and knows to call the park if I don't turn up when I say I will. Safety first, always.

Let's get into the equipment, shall we?

Your Pack

A lot of day hiking guides will recommend a backpack as one of your day hike essentials. While I agree that some sort of pack is important, I find a full-on backpack to be way too much for me for the day. 

I use a fanny pack.

Yes. I’m admitting to using a fanny pack in public.

And you know what? It’s perfect for my day hikes. I’m not usually out for more than a few hours at a time, due to the heat here, so it holds just what I need while I’m out. 

Don’t let their compact size fool you. These newfangled fanny packs, officially called “waistpacks” on the REI website (does fanny pack have too much baggage?) have a lot of space. All the little pockets and zippers make it easy to carry just what you need.

The one I use isn’t available anymore, but I like the Osprey Tempest 6 Hydration Waistpack. It has two pockets for water (always good in hot Texas), smaller side pockets along the strap, and a big pocket in the middle for larger items. The one I use has a similar setup, though without the water pockets. I use the side pockets for my car key, doggie bags (and to put the full doggie bag in), and any other smaller items I might be carrying.

I use the larger pockets for hiking snacks like granola bars, nuts, or peanut butter cookies. They also hold any larger items I need for the day.

The downside of using a fanny pack - excuse me, waistpack - instead of backpack is, obviously, less space. I can’t carry any extra clothes if the weather changes. Definitely can’t carry a full lunch or dinner. I could probably fit a trowel if it folded down small enough. 

But for a hike that only lasts a few hours, I find this to be a perfect size. And it because it prevents me from carrying things I don’t need, it keeps the weight manageable as well. 

Do I Need This Equipment to Get Started?

If you’re just starting out and aren’t sure if this hiking thing is for you, try a small backpack or drawstring bag you already own. If you find, after a few hikes, that you really enjoy hiking and want to start upgrading your gear, then switch to the waistpack. Invest in a high quality one, like the Osprey Tempest 6 Hydration Waistpack, and it will last you a lifetime.

Trekking Poles

I know your first thought when seeing people with trekking poles is probably something along the lines of “Look at those nerds with the poles!”. At least, that was my first thought.

Then I did a hilly hike with a wonderful friend who convinced me to borrow one of her poles.

And I swear, I will never make fun of those trekking nerds again. (Trekkie nerds, however, are still on the table, even if I am one of them…)

Trekking poles make a huge difference in your hiking. They’ll help you establish a good cadence of your stride, which in turn helps you conserve energy and not tire as quickly. They’ll also save your knees from the brunt of the force, going downhill especially. 

You may think you’re young and your knees are fine now, but trust me, in 20 years they will thank you for using trekking poles.

And if you already have knee problems (raises hand), then the trekking poles will help you hike further and for longer periods of time.

Depending on the terrain, I usually only carry one pole at a time. This leaves my other hand free for using my cooling towel, taking pictures with my phone, or checking my map. I only use two poles if the path is really challenging or has steep elevation changes. For my hikes, I find one pole is generally enough. You can purchase poles singular or in pairs, but I intentionally purchased a pair so I have the option of using two at once if I want. 

How do I choose?

When looking for trekking poles, there are a few things to keep in mind:

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REI has an excellent Guide for Choosing Trekking Poles. I highly recommend reviewing that and talking with an REI staff member about your specific needs. 

After borrowing my friend’s pole, I bought a pair of REI Co-op Flash Carbon Trekking Poles. These poles are adjustable, have a super-soft EVA foam hand grip, are made of carbon composite so they’re extra durable for my sturdy frame, and they are extremely light, so they don’t add a whole lot of effort to my stride. 

I love these poles and am extremely happy that I chose them from the beginning. They’re versatile enough to take me from the easy day hikes I currently do to any sort of long backpacking trip I decide to do later. 

I went for a bit of a more expensive pair because I knew the features I wanted and I was willing to pay more upfront, rather than buying a cheaper option and upgrading later.

Since I don’t do intensive trails, I also bought a pair of REI Co-op Trekking Pole Rubber Walking Tips. These make the poles less sharp, so they’ll last longer and have a better grip on flat surfaces like those I usually hike on. 

First Aid Kit

So, knock on wood, but I have yet to need my first aid kit. I still carry it with me on every single hike because I would much rather carry it and not need it than not carry it and have an emergency.

Due to the size of my waistpack and the short length of my hikes, I carry a very small, simple first aid kit. It came from the travel section in Wal-Mart and, since I have yet to need it, has so far worked perfectly.

If you want something a little more comprehensive than mine, REI has a great little Adventure First-Aid 0.5 Survival Tin. It’s inexpensive and has a great assortment of basics. It’s also only 4” by 3” and weighs just 3.5 ounces, so it will easily fit into a waistpack. 

Water

This will vary depending on your climate, but at minimum, you need about half a liter of water per hour of activity. Here in Central Texas, I carry more than that because it’s so hot and I sweat a lot. I find this to be an essential part of my day hike essentials list!

Cold Towel

Again, this will depend on your climate, but I find I can’t hike in hot weather without my cold towel. These cold towels are amazing. I bring mine hiking, kayaking, horseback riding - any outdoor activity where the temperature is above 70 degrees (I told you I sweat a lot).

They work by getting them wet and then wrapping it where you want to keep cool. I wrap mine around the back of my neck and keep the ends under the neckline to my shirt and can easily take them out to wipe my face. 

The manufacturer claims they stay cold for up to 3 hours. I don’t know if they just didn’t test it in the heat of Central Texas, but I find mine lasts closer to an hour or two. However, it takes just a little bit of water to re-wet it and make it cold again. 

REI doesn’t carry them, but I found mine on Amazon, the Alfamo Cooling Towel for Sports. They have several sizes and colors, but I recommend the small or the medium. 

If you decide to use a cold towel, remember to bring extra water if there’s no access on the trail to it. You’ll need to re-wet it every once in a while. 

Blister Kit

Once again, fortunately, I haven’t needed to use my blister kit yet, but you will be extremely happy you have it if you need it. A blister kit is just like it sounds - basically a first aid kit especially for treating blisters. They can be murder when you’re out on a trail, miles from anywhere, and every step you take is complete agony. The blister kit will have what you need to allow you to get yourself home. 

You can also use it to prevent blisters. I have a particular spot on my toe that gets a hot spot after a long hike (a good first indicator a blister is imminent) so I’ve started using a pressure pad on it before starting my hike to prevent a blister from forming. 

I recommend buying a kit and taking out just a few pieces to add to your first aid kit, rather than carrying the whole thing with you. Especially on a short day hike, you should only need a couple of pads at most at a time. The one I have is the Spenco 2nd Skin Blister Kit from REI. I’ve had it for years and have barely used it, but the pieces I have used have been excellent. 

Utility Tool

For a short day hike, you don’t need anything too crazy. I just have a basic, small Swiss Army Classic SD Pocket Knife. If you want to start going on longer, extended hikes, I would upgrade to something bigger and higher quality, like Leatherman Rebar Multi-Tool. These multitools could save your life if you were ever lost or caught outside longer than anticipated, so it’s important to get one that’s high-quality.

Emergency Flashlight

This, again, doesn’t need to be too fancy. Just something you can use to see in the dark if you get caught out longer than you intended or to single rescuers if you get lost. I recommend something small but durable, like the Maglite 2-Cell AA Flashlight

I’ve used Maglites for years (back when I used to do theater for a living and I had to have one all the time) and they’re extremely durable and long-lasting. Just make sure you change the batteries regularly, even if you don’t use it. It would be awful to be in a situation where you needed a flashlight and the batteries were dead!

Toilet Paper and Trowel

If you think you’ll be out on the trail long enough to need to use the restroom, bring some toilet paper and a folding trowel. Because of the size of the waistpack and the fact that my hikes are not usually long enough to need it, I leave these items out most of the time. But if there’s even a chance you might need it, be sure you know your Leave No Trace guidelines for going to the bathroom in nature! Some sort of bathroom plan should definitely be on your day hike essentials list. 

Food

For food, it’s important to choose calorie-dense, high protein snacks, like granola bars or nuts. They should be easy to carry (don’t forget to pack out your trash!) and supply you with enough energy to keep going. Bring more food than you think you’ll need!

Emergency Matches

Honestly, for my hikes, I don’t see a time when I would need these. It’s usually hot so I’m not likely to freeze and there’s almost always a burn ban in place. But I bring them anyway because you just never know. They're small and lightweight and I'll be really, really happy to have them if I ever need them!

Sun Protection

For me, this means sunscreen and a big hat. You could also choose to wear UV clothing, but I can’t stand long sleeves, so I just slather on sunscreen. I reapply every 2 hours because I sweat so much. Whatever you choose, sun protection is extremely important, not just to prevent skin cancer but also to prevent you from getting heatstroke and passing out. Pay attention to your body.

Bug Spray

I always carry a tiny travel-size can in my waistpack, usually the strongest stuff I can get. Once I went hiking on the trails in Vermont and was besieged by black flies. I, fortunately, had bug spray with me, but it only helped a bit. Remember that not only are bug bites annoying, but several species can also carry dangerous diseases, depending on the area you’re hiking in. Get a travel size can to keep in your waistpack. 

Navigation

I use a combination of paper maps and my phone for my navigation. I’m usually in a state park, so they provide paper trail maps. I combine that with my AllTrails App. The AllTrails app allows me to pre-load my route and then track my location. The app notifies me if I’ve gone off-trail and will track my distance and elevation. It’s great if you’re a numbers nerd like me and like to see how far you’ve gone and how you’re improving over time.

However, the constant use of GPS in your phone can kill your battery pretty fast. Because my hikes are fairly short (a few hours), this isn’t an issue for me, but if you’ll be on a longer hike, you’ll want to keep an eye on it. I also carry a small, physical compass as a backup just in case. You never want to 100% rely on electronic technology. In case of an emergency, it’s always good to have an analog backup! 

 

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Key Takeaways for Building Your Day Hike Essentials List

The key to building a list for your Day Hike Essentials is to have the right supplies without going overboard. You want to really be selective about the items you carry to ensure you’re only carrying what you actually need. On the other hand, you want to make sure you’re still carrying items you might need for an emergency. Just because you didn’t use the first aid kit on your last 100 hikes doesn’t mean that it might not be necessary to save your life this time. 

I put a handy-dandy printable list together for you so you can have it at the ready when preparing your day hike essentials! And it's FREE! Head over to get it here!

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