Are you feeling a little overwhelmed with all the different philosophies about what to pack for a day hike? First, one article says carry next to nothing when you backpack because minimalism is the way to go. Then the following article has a hundred items on the list and tells you that you will die if you don’t pack everything.
Sadly, there is no correct answer. Both trains of thought are right, depending upon your day hiking goals. Light packs mean you can move faster and easier. A full pack means you are prepared for everything.
So what’s a hiker to do?
The truth is that the best day hiking packing list is different for each person, for each type of hike, and for various weather conditions. Below, we’ve listed pretty much every item that the pros suggest you carry in your daypack.
And then based on our experience from hundreds of day hikes we added comments for each as to when you would need that item. Some, like water, are non-negotiable. Others, like rain pants, you just might want to skip on a day hike in the desert in July.
You should know that if we are headed out for a full day of hiking, you’ll find almost every item on this list in my pack. If you go for the mini version of items, the most compact hiking gear, you’ll be surprised how little space and weight it all takes. So you’ll also find tips throughout this list on how to minimize your essential hiking gear’s weight and size.
Keep in mind that your day hiking packing goals are:
➥ to keep your load light as possible
➥ to cover your basic comforts
➥ and maximize your safety on the trail
One more note, throughout this article, I’ve linked to some of our more in-depth articles about how to select lightweight and compact gear for hiking. If you are thinking about adding essential day hiking gear to your inventory, those articles explain what you should be looking for to get the best gear for your hiking trip.
In other cases, you’ll find direct affiliate links to make it easier for you to find the products I have mentioned. If you click through you, don’t pay any extra, and in some cases, I could earn a small commission.
Day Hike Essentials Start With The Best Daypack
Before you even start packing, take a look at your hiking backpack. If you are heading out for more than a couple of hours, good quality and well-fitted day pack is the difference between a relaxing evening and your back all tied up in knots.
Believe me. I’ve been there. I hiked with an old-school backpack for a couple of years and was shocked at the difference when I finally changed to a quality daypack. You can read all about how to select the perfect daypack here.
Then Load It With Essential Hiking Gear
When I say “load it” I don’t mean to add a lot of weight! Look for ultralight hiking gear options as much as possible. Your body will thank you. Rather than spending a lot of money, take the attitude that when it’s time to add or replace something in your pack, invest a little time looking for lightweight gear for day hiking.
According to the American Hiking Society, there are ten essentials every hiker must pack. However, that doesn’t really translate to 10 items. We will take a deep dive into the items that should be on your day hike packing list so you know precisely why you need that item and how to pick the best day hiking essentials to pack.
And for your hiking enjoyment, there are a few other things you need to pack that they don’t include on the essential list. But really… can you imagine hiking without a camera? Essential in my book! Here’s their list of the ten essentials. Read on below for our longer detailed list of things you won’t want to be without!
- Appropriate Footwear
- Map and Compass
- Rain Gear and Dri Fast Layers
- Safety Items
- First Aid Kit
- Knife or Multi-tool
- Sun Protection
Hydration and Nutrition are Critical in Your Day Hike Packing List
✔️ Water – How much water should you carry? It depends on factors like the weather, access to fresh water on the trail, the strenuous level of your trail and your personal comfort level.
The general advice is ½ liter per hour of day hiking. So figure that’s for an average person on an average trail on an average day. Are you average? Probably not, so adjust for your plans.
The good thing about water is that as you use it, your pack gets lighter. The important thing about water is that you don’t want to run out. So a good rule is to always add another bottle into your pack just in case you misread the day. It’s not like you’ll have to carry that weight all day.
Should you carry water bottles or use a water bladder? It doesn’t matter. We do both, usually the last-minute decision based on convenience at the moment. We recommend for most day hikes; you should start with a 3-liter water bladder. Then throw in a few extra water bottles if you know you will be out for a full day or it’s super hot.
✔️ Food and Energy Snacks – Our greatest joy is to have lunch with a view when hiking. Usually, a high-protein sandwich, a handful of trail mix and some fruit hit the spot.
And don’t forget to add to your day hiking packing list a variety of high protein and high energy snacks like dried fruit, nuts, and snack bars. We also like to carry protein snacks like FireCreek Snack Sticks, peanut butter and cheeses. Here’s a list of Day Hike Lunch Ideas if you want more suggestions.
✔️ Garbage Bag – Pack out all your garbage. Even apple cores need to be packed out, so they don’t attract animals to the trail. Those cute little critters are safest when they forage for their food. And, of course, the golden rule of don’t be a litterbug always applies on the trail.
Consider Personal Comfort on your Backpacking Gear List
✔️ Rain Jacket – When you are day hiking in the mountains, it’s pretty much a sure thing that you will experience unexpected rain at some point. A lightweight rain jacket must be on your day hiking essentials list.
Not only is it uncomfortable to hike soaking wet, but a wet body is also much more likely to experience hypothermia. You’ll also appreciate the rain jacket as your top layer if you hit cold winds as you hike up higher.
✔️ Rain Pants – Many hikers make the mistake of skipping rain paints, thinking their quick-drying hiking pants will take care of them. Sure, that’s true if you get a light rain and then it clears up to a sunny day. But just as often, you get stuck in the pouring rain and then dropping temps. A lightweight pair of rain pants over your shorts will save the day.
✔️ Fleece or Warm Middle Layer – The number two rule of trail comfort is to layer your clothing. (Number one being water.) Brad and I like to pack a Columbia fleece jacket for most hiking because they also make an excellent mid-layer under a rain jacket. We are OK with the bulk of fleece because it is so lightweight. I’ve also used it for a pillow when resting on the trail.
During our Alaska hiking trip, I used a waterproof puffer jacket for my middle layer expecting cold days. You’ll love that it’s so easy to scrunch up in a little bag in your daypack.
✔️ Extra Socks – Stream crossings are pretty common, and it sucks to hike all afternoon with wet socks in your hiking boots. Talk about blister city! Unless you are expecting a lot of rain or deep water while day hiking, just tuck a pair of lightweight socks in your bag, and you’ll be covered.
If water is in your forecast, then you might as well toss in your best hiking socks since it sounds like you’ll need them.
✔️ Water Sandals – Let’s put these on the optional packing list for day hiking since they take up significant space. Occasionally you just know in advance that your hike is going to require fording a lot of streams. Sometimes the creek is the trail. Then, by all means, tuck a good pair of water sandals into your pack.
Not flip flops, as those are a waste of time as they will be ripped off your feet in the first current, but good hiking waterproof sandals that strap on tight.
✔️ Bio Gear – That means toilet paper, a baggie or trowel and hand sanitizer. When they say “pack it out,” they mean everything. In some parks it’s acceptable to bury your waste. In most, you need to carry it back out with you. Busier hiking trails might have a rustic toilet at the trailhead, most often without any toilet paper. So, add a few sheets of toilet paper in a zip lock bag to your essential gear, and you’ll be ready for a quick and not too gross clean-up if needed.
Oh, and one of those mini bottles of hand sanitizer will make you feel a lot better about the whole thing. If you are really brave, you might try a women’s urination device that lets ladies do it standing up.
Best Bras for Hiking: No More Funky Feeling
Don’t Forget Sun Protection on your Day Hiking Packing List
✔️ Hat – At higher elevations or in the Southwest, the sun can get pretty intense. You need a hat for sun protection. I like a hat that I can wad up in my bag that also serves as a rain hat. Brad prefers a ball cap type. Go with what makes you most comfortable. Just please, add a sun hat to your day hike packing list and protect yourself.
✔️ Sun Screen – Hiking essentials include an environmentally friendly sunscreen. You never know when you will hop in a lake to cool off. You don’t want to leave chemicals behind in that pristine lake water.
I fell in love with Alba Botanicals when we were rafting because it feels clean when you are sweating, so now I use it for extra sun protection when hiking too.
✔️ Sun Glasses – Throw an extra pair in your pack. Imagine leaning over a cliff edge for a better view with your sunglasses sitting atop your head and then watching your sunglasses go tumbling down. Yeah… it’s happened a time or two.
✔️ Chapstick SPF – You’ll be getting quite a workout hiking which means a lot of water loss. It seems the lips are always the first place to dry out.
Be Ready For Great Views On Your Day Hike
✔️ Camera (or Phone) – This is an area defined by your passion! If photography is your thing, then I know you will carry it ALL no matter what we recommend. And you will get those amazing photos that everyone will envy. So worth it!
My rule of thumb is for the rest of us, if your hike is less than a 2-hour hike, take a real camera. The weight of the camera won’t be noticeable. For long hikes, save weight and use your phone camera. Today’s phones grab awesome photos and are so much lighter. And we all know that lighter is better, right? We’ve researched excellent lightweight solar charges for phones if you plan to be out of touch most of the day. That way, you won’t miss a fantastic shot due to a dead phone battery.
✔️ Binoculars – It’s pretty tempting to leave the binoculars behind to save weight when heading out for a full day. But don’t. I can name a dozen times when we’ve found wildlife on the side of a mountain or in a distant valley that are spectacular when viewed through the binoculars.
Consider swapping your old ones out for compact hiking binoculars. You can quickly knock a pound off your pack weight and probably upgrade quality at the same time.
✔️ Mini Tripod – I love this flexible mini tripod. Human arms just aren’t long enough to grab that amazing mountain in the background. Of course, even though it’s only about 6 ounces (figure ½ can of pop), this could fall on the optional list if your pack is getting heavy.
Optional Gear for your Day Hike Checklist
✔️ Trekking Poles – A definite requirement for me. You’ll find lightweight trekking poles that reduce the wear and tear on your knees on uneven terrain or steep hikes. Now Brad only takes them if we are a very strenuous hike. Trekking Poles are inexpensive, so don’t be afraid to try them out to see if they increase your trail comfort level.
✔️ Backpack Rain Cover – A high-quality rain cover for your hiking backpack will keep all your essential gear dry when day hiking in the rain, planned or unplanned 😊. These hiking essentials pack into a small space and are ready to use if the weather surprises you. You’ll be glad to have a cover along.
✔️ Fishing License – Well, really only optional if you aren’t planning to fish. We’ve been stopped twice by rangers to check for a fishing license in National Parks. (Read one of those close encounters in our article about Rafting Lodore Canyon.)
You don’t want to ruin your trip with a huge fine when it’s so easy to go online and get a fishing license before you head out.
✔️ Your Glasses if you Wear Contacts – It’s pretty easy to have dust kick up, and suddenly you are miserable as the grit rolls around in your eyes. Be prepared to take those contacts out at any time.
What to Pack for a Day Hike Emergency Kit
So you are headed out for a half-day hike and think you don’t need any survival gear. Well, that’s what everyone who was ever lost on the trail thought too.
Ask yourself what would be the absolute minimum you would need if you were lost on the trail and had to hunker down until daylight.
Sound like overkill for a simple day hike? Well, take a look at the facts. 90% of Search and Rescue incidents result from a day hiker who accidentally got off the main path and then couldn’t find their way back.
According to a recent study published in National Geographic, even experienced hikers get lost in National Parks by making simple errors. Errors like mistaking a well-used deer path for a hiking trail or going off trail for “just a minute” to see a view and then not finding the original route. Their recommendation:
A Well Planned Safety Kit Belongs on Your Hiking Essentials List
One of my favorite park signs was in Zion, where rangers had posted “Be prepared to rescue yourself”. So many people head down the trail without any safety supplies. Here’s a simple list that won’t add much weight to your pack.
You can fit most of this into a quart ziplock bag that won’t take up much space in your bag. If it is more than that… you’ll pack too much. You can also find mini first aid kits that will contain small amounts of many of the items you need. It’s a great way to start your personal bag.
In Case You Get Hurt on The Trail
✔️ Basic First Aid Kit – Keep it simple when you collect first aid supplies for your day hiking trip packing list. Imagine what’s most likely to happen on the trail. For example, you could easily get cut by a wild tree branch, so hand sanitizer, an alcohol wipe and a couple of band-aids go in your first aid kit. You could get a bee sting, so an antihistamine. Your blood sugar could drop, so a couple of lemon drops. See, you get the idea.
You can easily use a heavy-duty quart zip lock back for your first aid kit or purchase a premade kit and add in the missing pieces..
✔️ Blister Care – Although this is a basic in most first aid kits, it deserves a separate call out. Nothing will ruin a hike more than the heal of your shoe rubbing a new blister to life. For most of your first aid kit, you’ll be able to fill it with stuff already in your medicine cabinet. But you’ll find it well worth it to invest in blister protection bandages.
And if you get caught without, duct tape over a blister works quite well in a pinch.
✔️ Ankle/Knee Wrap – After blisters, the most common injury on the trail is a twisted ankle or knee. So popping in a simple ace wrap bandage into your bag will ensure that you have enough ankle support to hobble back to the trailhead.
In Case you Run Into Critters
✔️ Bear Spray – If you are in Grizzly country, your day hiking essentials must include Bear Repellent Spray. Yes, it’s around $30 that you may never use. But if you do ever need bear spray, you’ll be glad you have it.
✔️ Insect Repellent – Even if you aren’t sensitive to bug bites, you will want a small bottle of bug spray. Those wilderness mosquitoes are often meaner and bigger than their city cousins so you won’t want to be without the bug spray in summer.
Bug spray is also important to keep ticks away, so spray around your ankles when walking through tall grass.
In Case You Have to Spend The Night
Although you might never spend the night on the trail, these day hike essentials are not only great insurance; it’s some of the basics you might need for a dozen other trail mishaps.
✔️ Space Blanket – Those little shiny mylar blankets in most first aid kits do work to hold in heat. They don’t add any weight and are smaller than a deck of cards, so easy to tuck into your bag.
✔️ Knife – As every scout knows, you must have a good multi-function pocket knife. Or even better, pack a multitool designed for hiking that has a bit of everything you need. It seems that there’s always a tool you need, and it’s right there.
✔️ Lighter/Matches – The biggest challenge is to keep them dry, so keep matches in a waterproof bag. Your multi tool may also have a fire starter tool which makes fires starting a snap!
✔️ Backup Water Purifier – If you are only planning a day hike, keep your backup water purification system very simple. Tablets or something like a Life Straw water filter is perfect.
Brad’s had situations a couple of times where he’s run out of water on a strenuous hike. It’s not a good place to be. These simple solutions work great for emergency situations. For longer hikes where filtering is your primary water source, you should look to more serious solutions.
✔️ Duct Tape – What is there to say about the ultimate lightweight repair kit? Wrap a couple of loops around your trekking poles, and it will always be handy. Great for quick repair of a torn bag, a broken shoe or even blister relief.
Not that I hope to ever be stranded overnight, but I’m pretty sure we could build a cozy overnight emergency shelter with some duct tape, a garbage bag and some hiking poles.
✔️ Whistle – Perfect for getting attention if you are injured. Or if a bear is wandering around. Hook your whistle to one of your zippers for easy access.
Make Sure Your Day Hiking Gear List Includes Navigation Tools
Most day hikes are on well-marked trails, so it’s easy to think you don’t need navigation tools. Right? That is until you misread the footprints in a fork on the trail and end up somewhere else. So toss in a few essential navigation tools. Better safe than lost!
✔️ Map – Even for a simple 2 hour day hike, make sure you grab a paper map. Countless times we’ve come to an unmarked fork and had to review a map to make sure we stayed on the correct course.
✔️ GPS – Non-phone based GPS units are often the best if you do some serious backcountry. But for typical day hikes, there are plenty of good apps that will work with your phone. In most cases, you will need to pre-download maps before heading out, so take a minute to learn to use your app and pull down the maps you might need.
✔️ Compass – A compass only does you good if you know how to use it in conjunction with a map. Take time to learn this simple skill. Most of us feel pretty intimidated by this little machine, but it’s not that hard.
✔️ Flashlight or Headlamp – We are so guilty of lingering on a trail a little too long and getting back as the sun sets. We usually pack an extra between our bags because having a working headlamp or quality waterproof flashlight is so important on the trail. We took a deep look at some of the Best Ultralight Headlamps for Hiking in this article.
✔️ Cash/Card/ID – Seems a little silly, doesn’t it, to carry money into the wild. Worse case scenario, you or a friend needs a rescue, and you will be happy to have that with you. In the best case scenario, your trail passes through a small town, and you can take a break and grab an ice-cold beverage. I kind of like that best case!
What to Pack for a Day Hike in Cold Weather
✔️ Crampons or Microspikes- If you aren’t familiar with Crampons, they are cleats or chains with a rubber edge that stretches over your boots. These lightweight tools are fantastic for walking on icy roads in your neighborhood and indispensable for winter hiking.
Winter hiking is a pretty broad term as you can find snow and ice on the hiking trails in Glacier and Rocky Mountain National Park into mid-June many years. The best thing about crampons and microspikes is that they can be tucked out of the way in your pack and only pulled out when you hit that icy spot. It just takes a few seconds to stretch them over your hiking boots.
✔️ Extra Gloves – Warm hands, feet and head are the keys to staying warm in cold weather. So you’ll want an extra pair in case your gloves get wet. I like to carry lightweight glove liners year around. We’ve hit some cold days at high altitudes in mid-summer. Then in winter, they make a nice liner under heavier mittens.
✔️ Knit Hat and/or Earband – A knit hat is a great way to regulate your body temperature. Getting hot? Pop off that hat and let some heat escape. Too cold? Put it back on and hold in that heat. The head is the body’s chimney. Now earbands, also called headbands, are more about keeping the wind and cold off your ears. I find that unless it is bitter cold, I stay warm with just my ears covered and letting that heat from my workout escape.
✔️ Neck Warmer or Gaiter – This is a simple wrap around your neck that you can pull up over your mouth and nose if the wind kicks up. Since it is one loop, think 10-inch wide headband. Around your neck, it is less hassle than a scarf with long tails.
✔️ Leg Gaiter – Leg Gaiters are perfect for keeping your pant legs dry and snow out of your hiking shoes.
✔️ Disposable Hand Warmers – You probably dislike the idea of anything disposable on the trail that could later add to landfills. If you dress appropriately, you will probably never need these. But…BIG BUT… if something happens on the trail in the bitter cold, your first goal is to avoid hypothermia.
So my personal belief is it is worth carrying a few of these in your pack for an actual emergency. Disposable hand warmers are only activated when exposed to air, so a set of these could live in your hiking backpack for a long time, ready for that cold weather emergency.
From personal experience, disposable hand warmers don’t go through TRS very well, so if you are taking your pack on a flight, pull out any hand warmers and set them out in the tray for TRS review.
Check out our complete guide to What to Wear When Hiking in Cold Weather for more details on how to plan your winter wardrobe.
Hot Weather Backpacking Gear You Will Need
✔️ Cooling Towel – You can find cooling towels in so many fun colors that you might want to get one for yourself. Any towel, or for that matter, a scarf, will work. It’s all about the science of evaporation. When you wrap a wet cloth around your neck or head, evaporation causes you to cool faster. When it’s extremely hot, a cooling towel is a perfect tool to bring down your body temperature.
✔️ Electrolyte Drink Mix – When it’s hot, your body might lose water faster than you can replenish. At that time, adding a packet of electrolyte drink mix to your water will help reduce the symptoms of dehydration. Just put one or two of those single-serving packets in that emergency kit zip lock bag you carry in your backpack.
Your Packing List for a Day Hike with Special Hikers
What to Pack for Hiking with Dogs
Wondering what day hiking essentials to pack for a day hike for your dog? Because your 4 legged best friends can’t tell you when they are exhausted or overheated, proper packing for their needs is critical. You’ll also find our tips for hiking with a puppy here.
✔️ Leash and Collar – Even on trails that allow dogs off-leash, you should carry one. You never know when you will encounter a frightened child or skittish fellow trail dog.
We recommend that you pick up one that lights up in the dark just in case you are late getting back. Or heaven forbid, your best friend bolts off after a rabbit, and you are trying to find him in the dark. We dug into the best LED reflective gear for hiking dogs – check out our finds.
✔️ Water Bowl – And of course extra water. Consider a collapsible dog water bowl to save space in your bag.
✔️ Food and Treats – Your baby is going to be burning a lot of energy on the trail. Make sure you have food so he can replenish.
✔️ Poop Bags – Just like everywhere else, you need to be prepared to pack it out.
✔️ Doggie Backpack – Seriously consider letting your dog carry some of their own gear. Cesar Millan suggests a dog can carry 10-12% of its weight if you start light and work your way up. He also recommends checking with your vet first before starting with a doggie backpack.
Keep in mind that just like with you, carrying weight will make the hike more of a workout for your dog, so plan appropriate rest.
Must Have Hiking Gear for Kids
Kids exploring nature are so much fun. They are inspired by the wonder of discovering the world’s largest slug or trying to figure out what critter made those prints in the mud. You’ll find more tips for hiking with kids here.
At the same time, teaching your child a bit of responsibility on the trail is also important. They should carry a light pack with their sweatshirt and water and maybe a few snacks. Here are a couple of special things you might want to take along.
✔️ Water Shoes and Extra Socks – Water is like a magnet to children. So just assume it will happen and plan for wet feet. These Crocs River Sandals are perfect. I know it adds some bulk to your pack, but nothing is worse on the trail than an unhappy child. And wet socks in wet hiking boots are the key to painful blisters. In fact, an extra pair of hiking pants and a shirt is usually a good idea. While we are talking about water, don’t forget a rain jacket for the kids!
✔️ Binocular of their own – Kids love binoculars. So rather than having them change your settings, which can be very annoying, just give them compact binoculars of their own.
✔️ Flashlight – Go for a super lightweight flashlight. Check out our guide on how to select the perfect flashlight for kids.
✔️ Clip-on Stuffed animals or toys – Kids often love a photo with their favorite toy in unique places, or if exhaustion kicks in, a toy can be comforting.
✔️ Whistle – This might be the most critical item to have on your day hiking gear list when traveling with kids. Teach your child how to use the emergency whistle if they suddenly find themselves separated from you.
Whew… that’s a long hiking essentials list. Right? I can’t emphasize enough how important it is in planning what to pack for a day hike that you personalize this list for your style and the type of hike. There are many items you will want to carry beyond the ten essentials. Hopefully, you have found enough information in this detailed day hiking packing list to help you make an informed decision.
This article was originally published on October 22, 2019. It was updated on June 20, 2021 so you would have the most recent information.