It’s a beautiful day and you are headed out for a hike, but, what to pack for a day hike? Be prepared, that’s Baden-Powell’s Scout’s Motto. When asked – prepared for what? Mr. B.P. replied, “why, for any old thing.” That kind of thinking makes Boy Scouts feel a little ‘In Tents”. Seriously though, if you want to know what to pack for a day hike, keep reading. However, be prepared for a few dad jokes along the way.
This guide is for day hiking winter, spring, summer, or fall, whether you’re going sunup to sundown or only out for a stroll. I’ll give a mix of general ideas with specific examples so you can adjust according to your particular needs because, as great as it is to be prepared for any old thing, it’s kind of heavy to lug all that stuff around.
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Day Hike Pack
As simple as this sounds, many people mess this one up. They either go too big and suffer with pack weight, or too crappy, and the straps aren’t comfortable. Your pack should be big enough to carry what you need including that extra layer of clothes you can take off (or put on) during the hike.
For day hiking, you probably will not need any internal frame to distribute the load. However, if you are going on long hikes, you will want to look for a day pack with an adjustable torso length.
Another key feature in a pack is how you want to carry your water. If you love water bladders (looking at you Camelbak), you will want to make sure that your pack comes ready for the bladder and hose. It’s silly and annoying to zip your hose into the pack or leave your zipper half-zipped to jerry-rig something. Be warned; most Camelbak’s have little carrying capacity beyond the bladder itself.
You can live for weeks without food but can’t live a day without water. That makes water the most important thing to bring on a day hike. The catch is that it’s heavy and makes a mess when it spills. In general, you want to pack 1 pint (1/2 liter) for every hour you’re hiking. A pint of water weighs roughly a pound (1/2 kg). Of course, you can either use reusable bottles or water bladders. If you want to check out the options for single-use plastic bottles, they are under the ‘X’ in the upper corner of your browser.
The 1 pint/hour rule means you’ll have to carry a 1/2 gallon of water for a half-day hike, but there are ways around this. If you take a big drink of water leaving the car, you should be good for an hour. Having water at the car when you get back means you are good for the last hour. That means you can probably get by with a quart of water for a half-day hike, but you will not have any margin.
Have no fear, for just a couple of ounces, you can carry along a water purification kit. Modern purification tablets are super light and easy and don’t leave that nasty iodine aftertaste. Steripens are convenient, especially for generally clean water. I would leave those purification pumps for backpacking trips because they are just too much for day hikes. Word to the wise here, water purification only adds margin to trails with water. If you are going on a dry hike through the desert, you’ll have to bring extra water with you.
Trail food generally comes in two forms, lunch and snacks. Don’t get these confused and make sure you and your hiking partners know if there is a trail lunch planned. The only thing that sucks worse than eating a sandwich as you’re hiking is munching on GORP as your buddy downs a footlong sub on the lunch stop. I’m a huge fan of stopping off at a deli on the way to the trail and having them prepare and wrap my trail lunch, but that’s a personal preference. I also take my mayo on the side in shelf-stable packaging, so it’s fresher come lunchtime.
Look for a mix of sweet and salty snacks to balance electrolytes with quick energy. If you’re on particularly challenging trails, try downing an energy gel before a big uphill. If you’re in bear country, look into getting odor-proof bags so they can’t smell your food. This is also a great trick for hiking on busy trails where critters have learned to chew into packs to find food.
Pro-Tip: Be sure to take your mayo on the side prepackaged in its shelf-stable packaging, so it’s fresher come lunchtime.
There are four types of lotion that I routinely pack on a hike: sunscreen, bug spray, hand sanitizer, and chaffing cream. The key for all of these is to use them before you need them and try to find trail-friendly packaging, so you aren’t carrying a massive bottle along for the ride. While it’s always a good idea to apply lotions at the car before the hike, this might be all you need. Especially if you have an emergency stash of sunscreen and bug wipes in your day pack.
For their weight, pills are the most useful item to bring on a day hike. You can take individual bottles, but if you remember what things look like, you might consider combining multiple pills into the same bottle. Here’s what my pill stash looks like:
Ibuprofen – A little vitamin I applied at the right time has gotten me out of many jams.
Caffeine – Sometimes, you need a little pick me up.
Benadryl – A quick fix to many an itch. Also, good to have just in case of an allergic reaction. Of course, you should know if you need to carry an actual EpiPen.
People have written books about how to poop in the woods, but it really isn’t that hard. I wouldn’t bring a trowel to dig a cat hole, disposable toilet, or poop-tube unless it’s required. However, I would always bring toilet paper and/or booty wipes and an extra zip-lock bag to pack everything out with you. After all, using toilet paper is what separates you from the animals. Packing it out afterward is what separates you from the jerks. It’s really not that hard people. Also, of note, it’s ok to pee in streams, but keep solid waste out of the water.
I hike with a really simple first aid kit and some duct tape. You should already have some hand sanitizer with you for an antiseptic from the lotion section up above. In addition to that, my first aid kit is:
Moleskin – great for blisters. Apply before the blister forms as soon as you feel the ‘hot spot.’
Bandaids – I prefer large size, flexible fabric bandages because they hold up to the sweat and grime of hiking.
And that’s it. Anything you can’t fix with Moleskin or bandaids, you’re putting duct tape on it and taking some combination of ibuprofen, caffeine, and Benadryl to get back to the car. In my opinion, it’s better to have a simple kit of items you use (and replace) than a prepackaged smorgasbord of extra weight and whatever.
Pro-tip – Carry your duct tape wrapped around your water bottle or a lighter
You already have sunscreen in the lotions, but sometimes, you want more. It’s a great idea to take sunglasses with you. Also, if you’re going around water, splurge and get polarizing glasses. You’ll be able to see into the water past the glare, and it will bring out the rainbows at waterfalls. I also usually keep a stick of SPF chapstick in my bag and apply it throughout the hike.
If you like hats, bring a hat that works for you. The wider the brim, the more sun protection it will provide. Also, for good or bad, hats will regulate heat. On cold days, a hat will keep in an extraordinary amount of heat that would escape from your head. On warm days, you can dip your hat into the water to cool you off. Just be careful about overheating on hot trails with a dry hat trapping in all that energy.
First and foremost, I would bring an extra shirt layer over what you felt comfortable with in the morning. If there’s a chance of rain, this could be a rain jacket.
With your core warm and dry, think about packing a small super-absorbent trail towel. You could buy an expensive beauty that will hold ungodly amounts of water, but I usually pick up a cheap shammy cloth, so I don’t feel bad using it for something other than drying off such extra strap padding, gauze pad for a duct tape bandage, cooling pad, handkerchief, or even toilet paper. Plus, since it’s replaceable, you don’t mind washing it (often!) or cutting it to size for a specific application.
Those two items, along with a hat, get you a long way, but there are a couple more clothing items I take on occasion. If I am going on a longer hike or on a wet or dusty trail, I think about taking an extra pair of socks. With a pair and a spare, you can wear one and wash one to get you through most any situation. Also, I love gloves for cold weather hiking. The colder the weather, the thicker the gloves.
Pro-Tip: Buy the same brand (i.e. matched) socks and liners so the wick at the same rate
You should always take your cell phone with you hiking. You might have to pack it into a waterproof case, but it should come with. It can be your compass, flashlight, GPS, map, camera, reference guide, and so much more than a phone. In fact, I would seriously consider putting your phone in airplane mode before heading out to preserve your battery for when you need it.
For redundancy’s sake, I usually pack a headlight too. The flashlight feature on your phone eats batteries. A light and simple LED headlight will last for 40 hours, and you would want one if you’re planning a night hike. If you’re caught out unexpectedly, you’re going to need your phone to find the trail, checking in, or something else besides lighting the way.
Various and Sundry Items to Pack for a Day Hike
Trail hammock – They’re super light and comfy. Great for lounging or emergency shelter.
Emergency blanket – Some people say pack a plastic bag, but these guys are only $5 and work better. This is an emergency item that doesn’t really fit back into its original packaging.
Hiking sticks -People who have them, love them. You know they help your knees on the downhills, but they work well to keep from startling bears as long as you clink them together coming around blind corners to let them know you are there.
Bear spray – Make sure you apply bear spray early for optimal flavor. JK. Seriously though, this is not needed for most hikes, but mandatory in grizzly country.
Small knife – You don’t need a Rambo survival knife, but having a little knife like will go a long way, especially if you’re cutting down Moleskin or your shammy cloth.
Lighter – They don’t weigh much, and starting fires by rubbing sticks together is a punishment for naughty Boy Scouts who weren’t prepared.
Packing List for Day Hike
That’s my two cents on what to pack for a day hike. It’s a lot to remember sometimes, so I am including a handy packing list for a day hike below. Please modify this to your tastes and what is appropriate for your trails.
If you need to purchase anything, I’m including affiliate links to Amazon and REI to our favorite items to include in your pack. You can use these for no additional cost to you, and your purchases will keep this website going. Most importantly, I hope that you have enjoyed this guide, and it will help make day hiking safer and more fun.
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