The 10 essentials for day hiking are 10 essential systems. These are the “must-have” systems to pack for a day hike. You won’t need to use every item on the list, as they are planned essentials for unplanned situations. When technical systems fail, or when the day takes a little longer than anticipated, these 10 essentials guarantee you will be prepared to deal with the unexpected.
Whether hitting the trail for a couple of hours or a couple of days, there are 10 fundamental essentials for every time you head into any wild place. Here’s the 10 essentials for day hiking:
- Sun Protection
- First Aid
- Knife and Repair Kit
The most important tool you have is your brain. If you find yourself in need of using any of your essentials, remember to stay calm and strategize. Your essential systems support your decision-making process and will help you to deal with any emergency or situation at hand.
Proper navigation tools help to travel in unfamiliar places. A waterproof topographic map and a compass are the essential navigation tools in this system. Knowing how to read a map and pinpoint your location is even more important than having the tools. Additionally, a GPS, altimeter watch, and personal locator beacon are very useful and recommended.
Smart phone apps have very useful mapping features and are great during backcountry hikes as supplements to a paper map and compass. They are very accurate and work well in remote places. Remember to pack extra batteries and power sources for electronic devices.
Also read: CalTopo – Introduction To Backcountry Mapping and Navigation
Sometimes day hikes can take longer than expected. Multiple factors can change the pace of the day including weather conditions, wildlife encounters, snack and water breaks, a detour on a path less traveled or to a secret waterfall, unanticipated challenging hiking terrain, or injuries.
Headlamps and flashlights make hiking at or after sunset more comfortable. Headlamps have a hands-free advantage over flashlights, but they both work perfectly well in dark situations. Fully charge your illumination device before your hike and pack an extra set of batteries. A phone flashlight is also a good option as a backup but could drain your phone battery faster.
3. Sun Protection
Sunburns, sun poisoning, and snow blindness can turn a beautiful bluebird day hike sour. Sunburns can cause physical pain, dehydration, and exhaustion. It is hard to provide retroactive care to burns or exhaustion, so be sure to be proactive and protect yourself. Even on cloudy days the sun’s rays can be harmful, don’t let your guard down.
Always wear sunscreen (at least 15 SPF), sunglasses, SPF lip protection, and a brimmed hat to protect from the sun’s power. Outdoor gear companies make SPF clothing, which blocks skin from UV rays. They are lightweight and are effective. Wearing a bandana around your neck is a good way to protect it from the sun if you don’t have a full brimmed hat or hood.
Pack extra sunscreen (travel-sized bottles are light and conserve space). Keep reapplying every two hours throughout the day.
4. First Aid
Gear stores sell ready-to-use first aid kits with all the necessary items. Some people prefer to make their own customized kits. Either way, it is important to know what is in the kit and how to use each item. Some first aid kits come with instructions for their contents. If you are not sure how to use the contents of the first aid kit, keep the instructions with the kit so you can refer to them while on the trail.
A standard first aid kit usually contains band-aids, water purifying tablets, ibuprofen, diphenhydramine, medical gloves, gauze pads, disinfecting ointment, athletic tape, mole skin, tweezers, a lighter, CPR face shield, and waterproof pen and paper for medical notes. Extra items include an emergency energy bar or candy bar, foot care items, insect repellent, sunscreen, hand sanitizer and a whistle for signaling for help (standard emergency call is blowing 3 short bursts).
Some backpacks have whistles conveniently built into their chest straps.
When hiking with partners, ask for their general information, an emergency contact, and any medical information, like allergies and previous and reoccurring injuries. Keep this information in the first aid kit along with your own personal medical information. This information will assist rescue medical providers in emergency situations.
If you get caught overnight or in a storm, fires can provide warmth, a mechanism to cook food and boil water, and used as a signal for help. Uncontrolled campfires start forest fires, so only make signal fires in the direst of emergency situations.
Know how to build a fire before you get on the trail. Pack waterproof matches or a lighter in a waterproof bag. Fire starters assist in easy fire building and are reliable during wet conditions because they ignite quickly and sustain heat. Common fire building techniques use nature’s resources (sticks, dead branches, and dried leaves) or pocket lint.
If you are hiking in an area without kindling or timber (above tree-line or in snow), consider packing a small backcountry stove to provide emergency heat and potable water.
6. Knife and Repair Kit
Repair kits include a knife, multi-tool, duct tape, tenacious tape, zip ties, cordage, extra parts for a water filter, safety pins, and any other gear replacement parts or gear specific tools. Use knifes to repair gear, make food, cut kindling for fire, for first aid needs, and other basic needs.
Basic repair items are universal and can fix pretty much anything you come across on a day hike. Use them to repair punctured water bladders, jacket and backpack tears, broken trekking poles, and footwear malfunctions.
This may sound excessive for a day hike, but you will be thankful you have it the one time you use it. Store bought shelters and bivy sacks are portable, packable, and lightweight. Large durable garbage bags, emergency space blankets, tarps, or tent footprints will also work well. Use these to wrap yourself, burrito style, for warmth and for protection from wind and rain.
Our mind and body need calorie-dense foods to function. Eating regularly and being properly fueled help to better rationalize situations and make sound decisions. Snacking throughout the hike, even if you don’t feel hungry, will have long term benefits.
Packing a mix of salty and sweet snacks in addition to a more sustainable sandwich is a satisfying combination for a day trip. Bring more than you expect to eat (about an extra day’s worth) to have as a precautionary measure. Packing foods that don’t require a stove and have a longer shelf life are best.
Humans can survive 3 weeks without any food. But it may be more comfortable to have enough food to last an overnight in an emergency.
Hydration is very important for both physical and mental health on the trail. Dehydration can cloud judgment and cause physical cramping. Humans can go 4 days without water under moderate weather conditions.
The general rule is to sip 1 liter of water over the course of two hours. As water is the heaviest item on the packing list, packing enough water for a long day hike can be unreasonable. Scout out reliable water sources along the trail ahead of time that you can use to refill water bottles. Make sure to treat water with a purifying system or tablets before drinking.
Layering is a technique to master. Carrying multiple layers is great for regulating your temperature when weather changes. For example, summit temperatures are usually cooler and windier than their approach trails; having a wind breaker and a warm layer allows you to enjoy the summit view longer and more comfortably.
Clothes are light and compact down. Even if the weather station doesn’t call for it, pack waterproof/windproof layers (jacket and pants), a warmer layer (like a fleece jacket or a puffy down jacket), and an extra pair of socks. Conditions can turn wet, windy, or cold unexpectedly. In colder days, add a winter hat, gloves, and an extra pair of wool socks.
Try to avoid cotton as it doesn’t wick, will pull heat from your body, and doesn’t dry quickly.
Remember to restock any essentials you use during your hike (batteries, band aids, tapes, sunscreen, food, etc.). Store essential system kits in small waterproof bags to keep them dry and contained. This makes it easy to transfer them into different backpacks for various hiking trips. Wear closed-toed footwear that is comfortable and won’t give you blisters.
These systems are really important for staying alert and healthy while day hiking. Although the essentials won’t keep you super comfortable when a day trip turns into an overnight, they will certainly keep you safe and alive.
Related content: Top 20 Best Day Hikes in the World
Nadine enjoys writing about her love for wild places. As an environmental attorney and adventure writer, she is passionate about combining her legal and political expertise with her personal experiences to protect our constantly changing environment. Find her in the backcountry with her life partner and their dog running, mountain biking, skiing, and climbing.
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