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What to Pack For a Day Hike: The 10 Essentials Guide

Wondering what to pack for your day hike and feeling overwhelmed? Hiking is my absolute favorite way to spend a day, but packing for a hike can be a tricky thing.

Over the years I’ve made lots of mistakes when it comes to packing for a day hike. Thankfully, after tons of trial and error (and loads of research) I’ve zeroed in on the most important items to pack for a day hike, and put together this handy guide.

Whether you’re an experienced hiker or headed out on your very first trail, these are the most important essentials you need to bring when packing for a day hike.

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Picking the Right Day Pack is the First Step to a Successful Hike

Finding the Right Pack for A Day Hike

Before we start on what to pack for a day hike, you’re going to need the right hiking daypack.  

Choose a daypack that can hold all your essentials, including extra food and water, rain gear, and warm layers (more on all of those below).  For the average day hike between 3 and 10 miles, pick a pack that has at least an 18L capacity, pockets for water bottles or a hydration reservoir, and hip and sternum straps for support.

Looking for some suggestions for the perfect daypack? Check out my guide to findingThe Best Hiking Backpacks and Daypacks for Women. 90% of the time, I use my Osprey Tempest 20L daypack.

What Goes in My Pack? The 10 Essentials

With the perfect hiking pack selected, the obvious next question is what do you pack inside? Hikers refer to the essential items that you should absolutely pack on every hike as the “Ten Essentials.”

The “Ten Essentials” were developed by The Mountaineers, a Seattle based organization dedicated to helping climbers and hikers. The list formally debuted in 1974 and included items like a compass and matches. Since then, the list has evolved to a “systems” approach, instead of checklist of individual items.

The purpose of the 10 Essentials list is to 1. Prevent and properly respond to emergencies on the trail and 2. Allow you to safely survive a night (or more) outside if necessary.

Think this is overkill? Unfortunately, a recent study says that about 90% of hikers requiring Search and Rescue assistance are day hikers, most of whom became lost when accidentally wandering off trail.

So, what are the 10 Essentials?

The “10 Essentials” to Bring on Every Hike

  1. Navigation
  2. Illumination
  3. Sun Protection
  4. First Aid Kit
  5. Gear Repair – Knife, Multi tool, repair tape
  6. Fire
  7. Emergency Shelter
  8. Food – and a garbage back to pack it out.
  9. Water
  10. Extra Clothing

Okay, if that list looks like I’m telling you to pack everything but the kitchen sink, don’t panic!

Each of the 10 Essentials serve an important function, so lets dive deep into the 10 Essentials, plus a few more items that I always consider when packing for a day hike.

a hiker explores the Grand Wash in Capitol Reef National Park
Whether you’re hiking in the desert or the mountains – make sure you know what’s in your pack!

Navigation

Never assume that you’ll have cell service on the trail. Know where you’re going by downloading a map ahead of time using a GPS-based app like AllTrails Pro or Gaia GPS subscription.

Of course, relying on your phone for GPS is not always reliable. For longer hikes, or areas where you frequently hike, I always recommend investing in a topographic trail map.

If you plan on heading into the backcountry or a less developed trail system, knowing how to use a compass and map is an invaluable skill. Many outdoor retailers like REI offer basic navigation classes

Illumination: Headlamps & Flashlights

Getting caught on the trail after dark happens all too frequently. Be prepared when packing for a day hike with a light source such as a flashlight, or better yet, a headlamp to find your way after the sun goes down.

Don’t forget to check the batteries on your flashlight or headlamp before you head out.

Sun Protection

Sun protection is a MUST year-round. This is especially true in the mountains where UV radiation is stronger, and snow reflects sunlight exceptionally well. Sunburn is very possible, even on a cloudy day.

To protect your skin, bring a bottle of sunscreen that is at least 30 SPF, and reapply regularly. Make sure to also pack sunglasses, and a brimmed hat.

a hiker explores the trail to Hickman Bridge, a massive sandstone arch in Capitol Reef
Protect your skin! You’ll thank me when you’re older 😘

First Aid

Accidents happen even to the most prepared hiker.

I’ve suffered plenty of sprains, cuts, scrapes and bruises on every type of trail. That’s why a fully stocked first aid kit is one of the most important things to remember when packing for a hike.

A complete hiker’s first aid kit should include the following:

Adhesive bandages (In multiple sizes)

Gauze pads

Antiseptic Wipes

Antibacterial Ointment

Medical tape

Blister Treatment & Prevention (aka leukotape)

Ibuprofin/Pain Reliever

Aspirin (for a response to a heart attack)

Antihistamine for allergic reactions – Get and carry a prescription EpiPen if you have a known allergy!

Tweezers

Rolled elastic bandage for sprains

Clotting Gauze (optional)

Surgical gloves (optional)

Hand sanitizer

Don’t forget any prescription medications, as well as a waterproof bag to keep it organized in your pack.

Packing on a budget? Most first aid items can already be found in your home. Package them in a gallon plastic or reusable silicone bag.

Make sure to always label any medication, such as ibuprofen or antihistamine such as Benadryl and include the dosage of each pill (usually in mg).

Hiking with your dog? Don’t forget to include first aid for your four-legged best friend too! Adventure Medical Kits’ “Me and My Dog” kit includes everything both you and your dog might need during common hiking emergencies.

All hikers (and everyone, really) should consider a first aid and CPR course, often offered by organizations like the American Red Cross. If you plan on spending time in the backcountry, consider a wilderness focused first aid course offered through NOLS, the National Outdoor Leadership School.

Cotton candy pink clouds visible from Zabriske Point and Golden Canyon at Sunrise
Hiking Zabriske Point and Golden Canyon at Sunrise

Gear Repair and Knife

Even the best gear can rip or break, and usually at the most inconvenient time. Bring some repair items to keep your gear in one piece, at least until you can get back to your car. I use a small roll of duct tape or gear aid repair tape, and a pocket knife.

Fire Source

While it’s unlikely that you’ll need to start a fire (and in some places it may be illegal to do so) – having a source of heat in severe cold conditions or in an extended emergency can be a lifesaving skill.

An inexpensive stormproof match kit or a lighter takes up very little room and weight in your pack. Just make sure that your matches or lighter are stored in a waterproof bag or container.

Make sure to understand fire regulations in your area – especially the western USA – before starting any fire.

Emergency Shelter

Temperatures can drop dramatically overnight or during a winter storm.  Always carry an emergency shelter in the event that you become injured or lost and have to spend a night outside. When packing for a day hike, carry a simple emergency blanket or bivvy (essentially a mylar sleeping bag).

These emergency shelters are cheap, lightweight, and roll up smaller than a can of soda. 

Whatever you bring, make sure it is waterproof and heat reflective so that it radiates your body heat back to you and prevents heat loss.

Food

Avoid getting hangry with your hiking companions and bring plenty of calorie-rich food to sustain your energy for a long day of hiking.

I commonly bring bars, like ClifBar, Kind bars, or RxBars, as well as dried fruit and nuts, or fresh fruit like apples and oranges. Don’t forget to pack out all of your trash, including apple cores and orange peels, as a part of practicing good Leave No Trace principles.

Research trail conditions ahead of time to find water sources on your hike.

Water

Hands down, the most important item to bring on any hike is plenty of water. How much?

You should carry at least ½ liter of water for every half hour of hiking. More if your hike is strenuous or in hot conditions.

For short hikes, a lightweight reusable water bottle can get the job done. For long hikes, invest in a hydration reservoir (also called a water bladder). Reservoirs come in multiple sizes ( I recommend a 2L or 3L size, depending on your needs) and fit inside a sleeve in your day pack. A tube runs from your reservoir to the front of your pack, giving you easy access to water without breaking your stride.

Don’t forget to properly clean and dry your hydration reservoir.

I also recommend carrying a lightweight water filtration device, like the Sawyer Squeeze or Lifestraw, to refill your water supply from natural sources like streams and lakes. Unfiltered backcountry water can contain harmful bacteria that can result in serious illness.  

Rain can happen even when it’s not in the forecast! Learn from my mistakes 😂

Extra Clothing

Weather can change quickly in any season, so I recommend always bringing an extra warm layer of insulation. A down jacket or lightweight fleece will keep you warm when temps drop without adding too much weight to your pack.

If you live in an area that is prone to sudden rainstorms (hellooo, living in the South!) make sure to always pack a rain jacket, even if the forecast only calls for a slight chance of rain. Is rain in the forecast? Consider wearing rain pants, waterproof boots, and bring an extra pair of socks.

In summer I carry my lightweight Outdoor Research Helium Rain Jacket as my extra layer. In colder seasons, I always bring an insulated jacket, like my Patagonia Nano Puff, or a fleece.

Hiking in Winter? Check out my complete guide to winter hiking, including what to wear when hiking in cold weather.

Beyond The Essentials: More Important Items to Pack for a Day Hike

After packing your ten essentials, there are a few more important items that I always like to include when packing for a day hike. S

ome of these extras depend on when and where you hike. Consider how long you plan on hiking, the trail conditions, and how heavy you want your pack to be.

Packing for a Hike to Bear Country

If you’re hiking in an area where bear encounters are common, especially in grizzly country (Montana, Wyoming, Idaho), I strongly recommend carrying bear-spray.

Bear-Spray works like pepper spray and is a non-lethal defense formulated for use against an aggressive bear. Remember to keep your bear spray easily accessible in a holster (bear encounters happen FAST) and not in your pack.

Planning a trip to Yellowstone, Grand Teton or any other bear country hikes? Check out this video from the National Park service on bear spray.

a bear forages for blueberries on a hillside in Mount Rainier National Park
Enjoy wildlife from a distance! And carry (and know how to use) you bear spray.

Bug Protection

Depending on your location, bugs including mosquitos, ticks, and black flies can have a huge impact on your hike!

In the Northeast US, black flies swarm from late spring to early summer, and many hikers wear head nets or just avoid the trails all together. In the Southeast, mosquitos are vicious from spring until fall. And in Alaska, the mosquitos are so fierce, they are un-affectionately called the “Alaska State Bird.”

It helps to research what bugs are present in your particular area, or even particular trail and be prepared.

As someone who has some kind of invisible “All You Can Eat Buffet” sign above my head that only mosquitos can see, I use repellant sprays with DEET or Picaridin. Some hikers prefer a DEET-free spray made with essential oils such as lemon and eucalyptus.

If you expect bugs to be particularly bad, consider adding a head net over a wide-brimmed hat when packing for your hike. It may not be the coolest look – but it’s better than wiping bugs out of your eyes for hours! 😳

When Nature Calls – Going to the Bathroom Outdoors

At some point, nature is going to call when you’re out on a hike. While some trails have toilets at the trailhead, you won’t always find toilet paper or a sink. Practice good hygiene and Leave No Trace by bringing a few necessary essentials to do your business.

If you were assigned male at birth, well then going #1 while outdoors is pretty straightforward. For women, a small pack of tissues makes good toilet paper (just make sure to pack it out!), or better yet try a reusable antimicrobial pee cloth, like Kula Cloth.

Deposit solid waste – you know what I’m talking about 💩 – into a cathole at least 6″ deep.

A lightweight trowel will help you dig in most conditions. Make sure your cathole is at least 200 feet from water, camp sites, or the trail.

I hate to be the one to tell you, but do not bury toilet paper. It does not break down and many popular trails are literally lined with toilet paper. Pack it out using a trash bag!

Finally, make sure to use plenty of hand sanitizer before and after.

Trekking Poles

While not every hiker likes to bring trekking poles, I bring them on most strenuous hikes! Trekking poles help relieve pressure on your knees during steep ascents and descents and provide extra stabilization.

There are tons of options for trekking poles at different price points. Learn more about how the choose the perfect trekking pole here.

Trekking Poles have saved my poor knees on rocky New England hikes!

Summit Beer

Ok, this one is definitely optional. But is there anything more satisfying than enjoying a well earned beer at the top of the mountain you just climbed?

Drink responsibly, of course, and pack out your can when you leave.

More Hiking Tips

15 Backpacking Tips for Your First Backpacking Trip

Winter Hiking for Beginners: 17 Essential Tips for Cold Weather Hiking

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