It is helpful for both new and seasoned hikers to have a packing list for what to pack on a day hike. No one wants to be up a creek without a paddle. If you have recently decided that life on the grid is not for you (at least on your weekends) or moved into the woods long ago, you’ll likely use a packing list before setting off. There is a mind-boggling amount of hiking gear on the market, and it is sometimes difficult to evaluate the quality and fundamental necessity of each piece of equipment.
What do you need to bring with you on a day hike?
You might not know what is missing from your hiking pack until you need it. A lack of preparation could even result in a life or death situation. A few of the absolute must-pack items for a day hike are a high-quality day pack with built-in hydration, a windup flashlight, and a durable pair of hiking boots.
Below I will break down each piece that should be packed. I’ll provide trail-tested recommendations for each item that should be on your essential packing list. The list will cover the best types of food, suitable clothing, emergency items, and, if you have room to spare: even some entertainment suggestions!
Having grown up trekking in the Pacific Northwest, most weekends consisted of camping or day hikes. Packing for a big expedition doesn’t have to be stressful.
Most hiking enthusiasts will tell you that it’s not the absolute newest toy on the market that you need to have in your pack, but rather quality staples that can hold up to the elements and won’t fail at the wrong moment.
Best Day Hike Items To Pack
This item may seem obvious, but you’ll need a high-quality day pack unless you want to carry all your essentials in cargo pants pockets. From experience hiking in the Pacific Northwest, I can tell you that nothing will ruin a great day hike faster than a zipper breaking on your pack. Or even worse, a full strap! It’s happened, and it’s not pretty.
Why a specific pack for a day hike? You can take your favorite pack that hauled you 20 miles in and back last summer but rest assured; you’ll regret the extra weight and cumbersome nature of a pack meant to see you through several days instead of just the afternoon.
A daypack is typically smaller at 20-40L in volume, does not have an internal frame, and is not meant to carry more than 20-25 pounds.
Here are a few great options to hold your necessities.
The Classic Backpack
The go-to classic style of backpack is a pack with two shoulder straps, top or front loading, and a waist clip for extra stability if you’re fancy.
REI has a plethora of options for the classic backpack style with niche offerings suited to women, people with longer torsos, and a variety of hydration systems. In addition to these categories, some models also feature built-in cooling systems and increasingly lighter frames.
- Optional built-in hydration systems
- Optional built-in cooling systems
- Can carry up to 25 pounds
- Could be overkill for a shorter day hike
- Depending on style can cause shoulder and back pain
The Waistpack or Sling
The waist pack or sling is my preferred style of a day pack. However, there are two styles that I wear regularly. Both have less room than a classic backpack, but if you are a minimalist packer, this is your style.
I love both of these styles because they don’t pull on my shoulders which can cause back, neck, and shoulder pain.
They are also delightfully easy to spin to the back or front of your body to grab your camera or water bottle without having to unclip every time.
I prefer wearing the waist pack style pack on easy, low-impact day hikes. The Mountainsmith Tour Lumbar Pack is great for moderate activity and lighter packing needs at a total volume of 9L. This is less than what a traditional style of backpack can hold but suits the function of a day hike well.
For the sling-style, I swear by Kavu’s Rope Bag. It is durable and water-resistant and has a total volume of 10L and multiple pockets for organization.
I have personally been through three of these bags, and although they fade with exposure to sunlight, they have remained fully functional after several years of wear and tear.
- Versatile to wear at the front or back of the body
- More compact
- Holds a smaller volume
I got my first multi-use tool issued from the National Park Service fresh on the job. Unfortunately, when I lost my high-quality federal loaner, I bought a cheaper version and quickly regretted it.
Lower-quality versions can rust or seize up at the wrong time or aren’t ergonomically comfortable. A good grip for proper leverage, high-quality materials, and a great case makes all the difference in an emergency or if you’re just trying to open a can of beans.
In addition to being a great can opener, they typically include pliers, wire cutters, a knife, a saw, and a screwdriver, amongst other possibilities.
Leatherman has been a trusted brand for day hikers and daily life in general since 1983. Their tools are durable and beautifully designed. Their Wave + model is their bestseller and worth the investment.
- Reduces the use of multiple tools
- Handy in an emergency
- Handy if you need to open a can of beans
- If you are highly conscious of minimizing packing weight, a multiuse can weigh up to a pound
Of course, there are plenty of high-tech options for longer hikes that include satellite capabilities, solar power charging options, and quality encasings. However, these can get bulky and heavy and aren’t necessarily a high priority for a short day hike.
Instead, consider that you can’t and shouldn’t always depend on technology, and you should always have a backup.
In addition, a quality compass is a must.
All Trails is a great place to spec out a day hike for routes, difficulty, and ability level. You can download the information to a phone, or to be safe, you can print out a backup and pack this into a plastic bag as well.
A compass is a must. Even with a GPS system and trail guide, you should always have a basic compass on hand. This year, the Suunto M-3 D Leader Compass was voted best all-around by Gear Junkie.
For more difficult day hikes, or if you are just a tech junkie, Garmin makes a lightweight (3.5oz) GPS model called the InReach Mini 2 that has a battery life of us to 14 days and might save your life if you find yourself turned on around in the wilderness.
- Peace of mind if you unfamiliar with the hike
- A responsible emergency item
- There are no cons to being prepared with knowledge of the route and your ability to find your way out if lost
While this packing item may seem obvious, your choice for hydration is essential.
The two most common ways to stay hydrated are a water bottle or a built-in hydration system in your day pack.
If you’re packing the classic water bottle, look for one that is made of lightweight material. The Playpus Platy Water Bottle is a pouch that holds 70 ounces and is completely collapsible when empty. It is 80% lighter than a classic hard water bottle and won’t take as much volume in your pack when empty.
To be even more efficient in your use of space, choose a pack with a built-in hydration system like the Osprey Skarab 18 Hydration Pack, which will give you a built-in 85 ounces without the bulk of a water bottle.
- Every day hike should include plenty of hydration
- Space efficient
Day hikes require stamina and a steady flow of energy. Stocking up on energy-dense snacks with high calorie and protein content has a two-fold advantage. For one, they allow for a slow, steady release of energy throughout your hike. In addition to this, the denser the snack, the fewer bars you’ll need to pack. This makes for a lighter day pack and a happier back.
Energy bars are an easy way to snack while on the move if you don’t want to settle down for a picnic.
- Dense in energy-giving nutrients
- Keeps hunger at bay
- Most come with wrappers that need to be packed out
Fruit is an excellent source of energy and hydration. It also gets bonus points because it comes in its own wrapper! Oranges, apples, bananas, throw one of each in your pack!
If you want to mix it up, pack dried fruit or granola mixes which are all packed with fiber, natural sugars, and high in nutrients.
- No packaging
- Great hydration
- Natural energy boost
- Can get smashed in the bottom of your pack
By its very nature, a day hike means that you are on the move, and depending on the region you are hiking in and how much ground you want to cover, this could mean different biospheres, terrain, and temperature conditions.
If you are debating whether to wear shorts or pants, might we recommend both.
Convertible pants are the best of both worlds. Legs that are easy to zip on and off are easy to pack away in your day pack. Columbia Sportswear makes a variety of styles, but their Silver Ridge Convertible Pants come in a range of colors, are waterproof, and are lightweight.
- Great for emergencies
- Easy to zip on
- The zippers have some potential for rubbing on the knee area.
Even a sunny day can quickly turn wet and cold without notice. Especially when attempting day hikes that involve elevation changes, you can easily experience very different weather conditions within the same day.
Don’t get stuck unprepared! It’s uncomfortable and dangerous to be without proper foul weather gear. We have two recommendations for lightweight, compact jackets that can save your day hike or your life in a pinch.
Heck, even if you don’t need to wear it, a lightweight jacket works great for sitting on during a rest break so that you don’t end up with a damp and dirty rear end.
The Outdoor Research Helium Rain Jacket comes in at an astonishingly light 6.3 ounces and can easily be stored compactly in any day pack. It comes in a variety of colors, is waterproof, and has a built-in carabiner for hanging your compass or water bottle.
- Can keep you dry with unexpected changes in weather
- Will take up additional space in your pack
A good hiking boot offers you protection against errant branches, a great cushion, and support. In addition, you’ll need solid traction, a waterproof outer, and stability. So basically, what we’re saying is you need a boot that won’t leave you calling SOS in the middle of the trail.
Also of note; whatever you do, don’t buy a new pair and hit the trails the next day! You’ll regret this so much. An unbroken in pair can result in blisters and ankle pain. No one wants that kind of rubbing while they’re trying to be one with nature. Those bad boys need to be broken in first.
It typically takes 1-4 weeks to break in a new pair of hiking boots. Take them on a few walks around the block or just around the house for 1-2 weeks before hitting the trails. Wear them with hiking socks to stretch them out to their most comfortable.
There are typically three types of hiking footwear: ultralight, trail hikers, and off-trail hikers.
The best of the ultralight is the Hoka One One Speedgoat 4, ranked number one in this category across many lists. If you want to stay light on your feet or you take the trails at a light jog, these are the shoes for you.
The best model for trail hikers for a leisurely day on the trails is the Merril Moab 2, which is waterproof and ankle height. These ranked high in support and comfort and were rated the best budget day hiking shoe by Clever Hiker.
If you plan on taking it into more rough and tumble territory on your day hike, you’ll need a shoe that can keep up. The best shoe for off-trail scrambling is the La Sportiva TX4 Approach, voted number one in this category by Switchback Travel. These shoes are grippy and great for rugged terrain. They are also heralded for their flexibility in the sole, which makes them great for scrambling on rocks and mixed trail types.
- Comfort for different terrain
- Additional stability prevents injury
- If they aren’t broken in properly, rub and blisters can occur
In Case Of Emergency
Why a windup flashlight? I am personally recommending this style for several reasons. The first is that even a brand new pair of batteries can get wet in worst-case scenarios or have a finite life. If you aren’t a frequent hiker, you might have set aside your day hike essentials, like a battery-powered flashlight, without thoroughly checking for integrity. A failure to properly check and restock your kit beforehand can be catastrophic in an emergency where a day hike turns into a night hike without light.
When doing endangered species work on beaches, I worked exclusively at night and always had a windup flashlight like the Thorfire Hand Crank and Solar Combo. Cranking this compact and lightweight unit for one minute will give up to one hour of the LED light. It is waterproof and even submersible up to 45ft. Setting it in the sun will also solar charge this unit as a bonus.
Many models also come with emergency flashing lights.
- A great primary or backup light source
- A must-have for emergencies
- More environmentally friendly as they don’t use batteries
- The light strength can sometimes be dimmer
- Not as convenient as flicking a switch
As much as day hiking should be about disconnecting, modern-day convenience and a wealth of fun technology geared towards navigation and communication mean that power is at a premium.
If you are a person who likes to pack digital navigation or other chargeable technology, no doubt you’ll need to bring along an auxiliary power source to be safe.
Power banks are a convenient way to plug in all of your technology. Even a short hike can turn longer if you unexpectedly lose track of time or the trail. You might also have headphones, headlamps, or fitness watches that need a charge mid-way through.
The outdoors call for a power bank unit that can handle various weather conditions and wear and tear. You should also evaluate a potential power bank’s recharge time, the capacity of charges, and total weight.
Voted the best all-around option for being affordable, having a quick recharge rate, and its ability to charge multiple devices at once is the INIU 20000 PD. This unit was also voted best all-around by Clever Hiker.
- Peace of mind if a navigation device loses power
- Can recharge all devices
- These units can be bulky and heavy
Fire Making Materials
While most people are not planning on making a fire during a day hike, and in actuality, not in unauthorized spaces where this can turn dangerous, you should always be prepared if an emergency arises.
Building and being able to maintain a fire is a valuable and potentially life-saving skill.
You don’t need any fancy equipment should this emergency arise. All it takes is a few vaseline-covered cotton balls and a lighter packed into a secure plastic baggie to potentially save your life. Believe it or not, oily chips can also make a great fire starter in a pinch, throw a few into the safety of your next bonfire and see for yourself how fast they flame up. Check out further instructions on this technique here.
If you don’t want to depend on the cotton ball trick, you can also purchase a lightweight kit like the UCO StormProof Match Kit, which carries less liability than a faulty or wet lighter.
- Great for emergencies
- Lightweight insurance
Although we all want to think we are nimble in mind and body, accidents happen, blisters spring up, and bugs will find you. Therefore, a basic emergency kit should be with you on any hike length.
If we packed for every medical emergency with full-volume creams, salves, and antiseptics, this would take up an incredible amount of precious space and weight. The key is to pack the most versatile components in the most space-conserving packaging.
I have often rendered a self-made kit with various plasters and remedies should an emergency pop up. A self-made first aid kit requires vigilance in checking each time you head out to ensure nothing is expired or missing from past hikes. A good kit should always contain tweezers, moleskin, tape, alcohol swabs, and ointments, all in a waterproof bag or case.
A more straightforward solution is to purchase a lightweight and all-around first aid kit specially formulated for emergencies that may occur on a day hike. The Adventure Medical Kit Ultralight Watertight 7 is an excellent option for 1-4 people and up to a 3-5 day adventure. It is also bright yellow, allowing it to double as a location aid in an emergency.
- A necessity for emergencies
- Bright in color and helpful as a location aid in emergencies
- You won’t need all the supplies
Solar exposure can be unestimated in even the most overcast of weather. Protection from UV rays is not just about sunburn but also decreases cancer risk and decelerates the aging process for people who are habitually exposed during repetitive day hikes.
It is recommended by the American Hiking Society to wear at least an SPF 15 sunscreen and ideally SPF 30 on any hike regardless of perceived sun exposure or lack thereof. Rays can bounce off of water and snow, making for the risk of unintended overexposure. The American Hiking Society also recommends limiting hiking times to 10 AM-4 PM when the rays are strongest.
Blue Lizard Sensitive Mineral Sunscreen is an excellent choice for day hike protection. It is zinc oxide-based with no chemicals, making it a healthy choice and long-term use. What is really unique about this brand is that its cap turns blue to indicate UV exposure acting as a great protection companion on the trail. If you decide to take a dip, it also contains no oxybenzone or octinoxate, known toxins for water sources.
- Protection against environmental exposure
- Reduction of continued exposure over time
Why bother backing a guide that can take up precious space and weight allowance in your pack? Because sooner or later, you or a buddy will ask: “what is that anyway?”
Although this is not necessarily a “must-have,” it certainly can stop the nagging feeling of recalling the name of a bird you’ve seen before or needing to know if a berry is poison or edible in a pinch.
Besides, it only elevates your day hike experience if you can connect with the nature around you and become familiar with all the varieties of plants, insects, and animals you might encounter.
These guides are worth the weight. Depending on your interests and geographical area, look for small, concise field guides or even laminated charts that feature local birds, plants, insects, mammals, or geological features.
- A great way to connect and appreciate the wildlife and foliage of your region
- Possibly life-saving if you need to know if wildlife or plants are hazardous
- Can be bulky
A portable hammock is a personal favorite for my husband. He can literally find two stationary objects anywhere to hang his lightweight hammock. This packing item falls under the “not necessary at all, but a fun luxury” category. However, for many hikers, the pinnacle of true bliss is a hammock, a field guide for reading material, and nature’s soundtrack to make you feel like all is right in the world.
This backpacking hammock is built to be compact, waterproof, and a fun way to elevate your lounge game. The Warbonnet Blackbird XLC is ultralight and is comfortable for users up to 6’6”.
- Great for taking a break
- Not necessarily “essential.”