Whether you are hiking for an hour or hiking all day, you need to have these day hiking essentials with you for a safe, and enjoyable journey. What are those essentials and why do you need them? Well, I’m here to answer those questions for you.
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I like to boil down my day hiking essentials list to these common themes: hydration, nutrition, protection from the elements, navigation and safety. Once you have those five things covered, any hike you go on, you’ll be prepared.
But before we talk about what to bring with you on a day hike, let talk about HOW to bring your day hike essentials with you.
Best Day Hiking Backpacks
There are a couple of ways to lug your gear. You can use a packable day backpack, a fanny pack (aka hip pack), a sling backpack. But the best way to pack your day hiking essentials is with a comfortable backpack that does what you need it to do.
To figure out what you need ask yourself: What activity will I need this backpack for? How much gear will I have to carry? Do I need any special features, like a hydration sleeve or camera access?
Backpacks for trail running or rock climbing or day hiking will all be different. This is the one thing you won’t want to buy on a whim.
Depending on the length of your hike, look for backpacks around 15 to 30L. These are generally the best to fit your day hiking essentials, as well as any extra items you might want to bring, like a journal or a camera.
Look for a backpack that doesn’t have a frame, since these tend to be lighter, but has a support system for your back, such as ventilation and padded hip areas.
Next, look for extras like organization pockets, a hip belt, straps to attach extras, chest straps and more. My preference is a backpack with a hydration reservoir, since I’m a big fan of water bladders over water bottles. But I also love backpacks specific for camera gear, so I have a hard time find the right one for both uses.
My favourite backpack is a hand-me-down from my dad, an Arc’teryx Arro 16that he purchased 20 years ago when he was training for an adventure race. It’s small, so it’s great for short day hikes. Here are my top three favourite backpacks so far:
Small Day Hike: Arc’teryx Arro 16 is a small, lightweight backpack perfect for short hikes. It has two side pockets, a hydration reservoir and a front pack with lots of storage. It’s also got padded back support with a hip and chest strap. The fact that my backpack is 20+ years old and it’s still in great shape, means this backpack is built to last.
Medium Day Hike: Cotopaxi Tarak 20L or Osprey Tempest 24L or MEC Foton 28L – All three of these packs feature a supportive back, waist and chest straps, multiple straps for holding items, a hydration reservoir, and several pockets for storage.
Camera gear hiking backpack: I have gone through several camera backpacks and have yet to find the perfect one for both camera gear and hiking. My current camera backpack is the Brevite Jumper backpack and I love it! However, it’s not great for getting sweaty or going on long hikes. The one I’m eyeing is the Shomoda ActionX30, which looks like the most versatile adventure camera backpack on the market.
Best Hiking Boots for day hikes
Before we get into day hiking essentials, we have to talk about hiking boots. There are so many choices and variations of hiking boots out there, it can be overwhelming. But it really boils down to three things: Are the boots supportive enough for your activity? Are they lightweight enough for your activity? And are they comfortable to wear for long periods of time?
I get blisters every time I LOOK at a pair of new shoes, let alone wear them. Thankfully, I’ve only had one of my three pairs of hiking boots give me massive blisters and lucked out on the other pairs.
Hiking boots aren’t something you want to skimp on, however, there are inexpensive but comfortable hiking boot options.
Look for boots that will give you proper support along your ankles and your soles. The longer day hike and heavier your backpack is, the more supportive your boots should be.
If you’re only going out for a couple of hours on a moderate trail, then lightweight trail shoes should work great. Although lightweight boots are great, they may not be what you need for your activity.
Finally, break in your boots well before you head out on a hike. (Trust me from experience, new hiking boots are not your friend on a first hike).
Here are some of my favourite hiking boot options:
Hiking shoes: Lightweight and comfortable, Salomon OUTbound Prism Light Trail Shoes are great for short hikes, plus they are not as expensive as some of the other brands out there. For a waterproof option, Salomon Vaya Gore-Tex Light Trail Shoes are lightweight and grippy.
Hiking boots: I bought my first pair of hiking boots in 2015, they lasted five years before I needed to replace them because the soles had worn down and they had lost their grip. Unfortunately, they don’t make them anymore. The closest pair is the Salomon OUTline Mid Gore-Tex Light Trail Shoes, which are waterproof where my original boots were not.
I replaced my boots with the comfortable, and stylish Columbia Newton Ridge Plus Waterproof Amped Hiking Boots and I could not be happier with them. They are super supportive, waterproof and lightweight. I did spray them since they have suede and used them a lot for winter hiking.
Boots will only do so much to support your feet, but if they are wet, clammy or rubbing, then no boot will be comfortable to wear on long hikes.
Do yourself a favour and buy a pair of merino wool socks, that will wick away sweat and keep your feet happy. I like the MEC brand along with DarnTough and Smartwool since they all have support rings and extra cushion on your soles.
Top of your day hiking essentials list should be HYDRATION! You’ve got to stay hydrated while on a trail, since water is life.
The general rule of thumb is that you should bring half a litre of water for every hour you’re on a moderate trail with moderate temperatures. The best way to stay hydrated while hiking is to have it readily available at all times, which is why water bladders, or hydration packs, are the best way to bring water with you.
I bought my bladder about five years ago, and have taken care of it by washing it and drying it before storing it for the season. Water bladders aren’t that expensive and, in my opinion, are the easiest to carry a large amount of water.
If you’d rather not take a water bladder, opt for a stainless steel bottle that will keep your water cold for a long period of time. I love the Lifestraw stainless steel bottle, since I can refill it anywhere and not worry about any waterborne diseases.
For hikes longer than an hour or two, I always bring snacks. For long day hikes, you’ll want to stash things in your backpack that will refuel your body and your mind.
Snacks like Clif Bars are great and tasty for short hikes. For longer hikes, I like to pack a sandwich or wrap, a fruit that won’t bruise easily, like an orange, some tasty treats to get me going like granola bars or peanut butter balls.
For quick energy kicks and electrolyte boosters, I like the fruit flavours of Gu Energy Gels. I mean, they’re not great, but they work to get your body pumped for more hiking.
Protection from the elements
Heat, sun, wind, snow, rain. The elements will be the biggest challenge when you’re out hiking, so make sure that you include things to protect you from the elements on your day hiking essentials list.
First off, grab a pair of sunglasses and a hat to protect your poor eyeballs. I like to use cheap sunglasses while hiking because I find they always get dropped at least once. I recently discovered WindRiver’s Women’s Tick and Mosquito Repellent Ball Cap and Shirt that will always be in my day hiking essentials. I found that there were definitely fewer mosquitos near me (I also bought the shirt as well). I’ve also bought a bug net hat that’s super easy to pack in my bag because if you’ve ever hiked in deer fly season, you know how HORRIBLE they are.
I always load up on sunscreen before a hike, but I usually bring a small tube to reapply if I’m going on a long hike. Look for sunscreen made for activities so it doesn’t come off when you sweat. I also bring along a sunscreen lip balm to protect my precious lips.
Buff. I usually carry a buff as well. They are great for keeping your neck warm or protected from the sun. I also use them as headbands or keeping my forehead from being burnt to a crisp in that sun! Super versatile.
Rule one of hiking: stay hydrated. Rule two: don’t get lost. I mean, what hiking trip wants to end with you lost in the woods and (hopefully) found by search and rescue? No one wants that. You’re going to want to plan to bring some navigation items with you in your day hiking essentials list. Also, make sure at least one other person knows where you are going for the day and plan to check in with them at a certain time.
Map and rain sleeve: Take a map of where you are going. While I like AllTrails, I think physical maps are better. Or you can take a photo of the map at the beginning of the trailhead if there is one. For physical maps, a rain sleeve is a perfect companion. Not only does it keep the map dry, but it also clips on the front of my bag, meaning the map is always within reach and I’ll never lose it.
Compass: This thing comes with me everywhere. If you don’t know how to use a compass, I highly suggest learning. It’s a great tool to have in case you get turned around. I also think that knowing your directions, even loosely is important! If you’re more comfortable with a GPS device, bring that along too, just make sure it is all charged up and you know how to use it.
Here’s a great video to get you started:
Safety is paramount to an enjoyable hike. No one wants to come home with a twisted ankle or get lost. It’s better to be prepared with these day hiking essentials for safety.
Medical kit: You don’t need to carry around a giant first aid kit, there are several ultralight backpacking first aid kits that are perfect for hiking and have all the essentials like bandages, disinfectant, gauze and more. You can also shove some over-the-counter pain meds in there too.
Headlamp: When a day hike goes longer than you expect, you’ll want to be able to see to find your way back. Headlamps are great because they are hand-free, bright and the light is always pointing where you are looking. When choosing a headlamp, look for the lumen number, the larger the number, the brighter it will be. Also look for the run time, which will tell you how long the headlamp will give you its full brightness.
Knife or multi-tool: Bringing along a knife or multitool isn’t for protection, but more for repairs, first aid, cutting up food and more. You can find great folding knives or multitools that are great for hiking.
Bear spray: Bear spray and a bear bell are important accessories for when you’re hiking in bear country. Hopefully, you never have to use it, but it’ll likely be lifesaving if you ever do use it. I mean, you kind of want to avoid seeing a bear while hiking, which is where the bear bells come in handy as they make noise but yelling “NO BEARS TODAY!” every once and a while helps too. The noise lets the bear know you’re there because a surprised bear is not a nice bear. PS: in Canada, you can only buy Bear Spray in person and you have to sign a waiver.
Hiking Log: Keep track of your hikes with a hiking log. Hiking logs are great for several reasons, like being able to log your favourite memories of your hikes, or if you’re hiking the Bruce Trail and need to keep track of your kilometres for your badges, hiking logs come in handy too. You can grab a copy of my hiking log here.
Camera: I always bring my camera when hiking, because I like to hike to viewpoints or in beautiful places. My camera is the Canon EOS RP. I generally take my 18-200mm lens, since it’s pretty versatile. Depending on your camera skills, you might just want to bring your phone as a camera. And because I like to shoot video too, I always bring my GoPro Hero 9.
Trekking poles: Not everyone loves trekking poles, but they do help on longer hikes since they can relieve pressure in your knees, keep you stable on uneven footing and help with ascending and descending hills. Look for collapsible ones, since they store easier, and ones that are sturdy and lightweight. Trekking poles can get ridiculously expensive, but you can always find an inexpensive pair at a hardware/outdoors store like Canadian Tire.