A day hike can be as simple as walking a well-maintained trail near your home, or as complex as a dawn-to-dusk journey through a remote wilderness. The items you bring may vary slightly depending on the difficulty and length of hike, but no matter how you travel, it’s always nice to be prepared. Below, we list the most important items for day hiking, including clothing items such as a rain jacket and hiking pants, essential equipment like a daypack and trekking poles, and extras and personal items. For more information on each category, many of the headings link to our detailed product articles. And for all our recommendations in one place, see our hiking gear reviews.
1. Hiking Shoes or Trail Runners
Perhaps nothing is more essential to a day hiker than healthy, comfortable feet, and it’s important to take care when selecting the right pair of shoes for the job. The current trend in hiking footwear—especially for day hiking—is toward lightweight models, including both hiking shoes and trail runners. Hiking shoes will provide the ideal amount of protection and support for day hiking, while more lightweight trail runners will shave weight and bulk so you can move more quickly and freely. The durable Salomon X Ultra 3 GTX is our top pick for most day hikers looking for a great combination of durability and support without too heavy of a feel (note: Salomon recently released a new X Ultra 4 for spring 2021, and we will follow up here with our thoughts after a thorough test). For hikers willing to forgo some frills in the name of traveling fast, the Altra Lone Peak is a well-made trail runner that provides great traction and stability on both mellow and technical terrain.
2. Hiking Socks
As we mentioned above, happy feet make for a happy hiker. Once you’ve settled on a pair of shoes or trail runners, it’s important to look for a set of hiking-specific socks to complete your setup. We prefer wool socks to those made with cotton or synthetic materials: wool has an incredible ability to regulate temperature, stays warm when wet, and dries much faster than cotton. Our favorite socks for keeping our feet happy are the Darn Tough Micro Crew Cushion, which also come with a lifetime warranty. In terms of height, most hikers prefer crew-cut socks for protection against low branches and debris, but quarter-height and no-show designs are lower-profile and cross over well for use with sneakers and trail runners.
3. Hiking Pants or Shorts
We typically opt for hiking pants over shorts, as they provide more protection from abrasive trail-side plants or boulders, and can be rolled up or down depending on conditions. In the end though, it all comes down to a matter of preference—if you want to hike in running shorts on a hot and dry day, we don’t blame you. But that said, the features of hiking pants are many: you get ample pockets and great freedom of movement, temperature regulating fabric, and even a protective durable water repellent finish. Prana's Stretch Zion (and women's Halle) are great lightweight and breathable pants that work in a variety of climates, and the Kuhl Renegade Convertible pants offer the bonus of being able to transform into shorts.
4. Hiking Shirt or Baselayer
For a wear-all-day hiking shirt, we recommend a short-sleeve t-shirt or lightweight long-sleeve baselayer made with synthetic fabric or merino wool. Collared button-up hiking shirts offer a great deal of ventilation for hot days, while standard t-shirts are less restrictive and easier to layer over. Be sure to opt for fabrics like polyester and wool over cotton, as they wick away sweat, dry quickly, and stay warm even when wet. The Smartwool Merino 150 Baselayer top is a temperature regulating merino wool shirt that comes in both short-sleeve and long-sleeve varieties.
5. Rain Jacket and/or Windbreaker
For unexpected rain storms or that classic all-day drizzle we’re used to in the Pacific Northwest, a rain shell will keep you warm and dry all day on the trail. For hiking, it’s important that your rain shell is breathable as well as waterproof, as you’ll likely be wearing it while building up a sweat. For all-day rain, 3-layer designs like the Patagonia Torrentshell 3L offer the height of protection and breathability, while lightweight 2.5-layer designs like the Marmot PreCip Eco and REI Co-op Rainier will provide enough airflow and durability for most circumstances. And for those days when the forecast looks more windy than rainy, we're big fans of the lightweight protection that a windbreaker offers—and many, like the Black Diamond Alpine Start, offer impressive water resistance in a pinch.
6. Down Jacket or Synthetic Jacket
Whether you’re walking through a canyon, ascending a mountain ridgeline, or just taking a break in the shade, you’re likely to encounter a range of temperatures throughout your hike. It’s a good idea to have an insulated layer stowed in your backpack so you can stay warm regardless of activity level or weather. Down packs into a tiny package, is feather-light, and provides a surprising amount of warmth, making it our favorite type of insulation for hiking. That said, some will prefer a synthetic jacket instead, which insulates even when wet and surpasses down in terms of breathability. Two of our favorite insulated jackets for hiking are the down-filled Mountain Hardwear Ghost Whisperer/2 and the synthetic Patagonia Nano-Air Hoody.
You won’t want to travel too far down the trail without a few supplies, and a small-capacity pack is your best bet for staying organized and comfortable. Your daypack should be large enough to hold food and water, a couple layers, a first aid kit and headlamp, and a few other items, while still remaining light enough to keep you nimble and unencumbered. A pack in the 20-liter range is perfect for most day hiking scenarios, while smaller and larger capacity options are useful depending on the season and your particular needs. Deuter’s Speed Lite 20 daypack is one of our top picks for its combination of durability, ventilation, and comfort at a competitive price. If you’re looking for a pack with a few more technical features and better support for heavier loads, we recommend Osprey’s Stratos 24.
8. Water Bottle or Hydration Reservoir
We can’t stress enough the importance of bringing a sufficient amount of water with you on the trail. Two liters is about the minimum we’d recommend for a full day’s hike, and it’s not uncommon to bring up to four liters in hot and dry climates. BPA-free Nalgene bottles are our favorite way to carry water into the backcountry, and they’re much more affordable and lightweight than popular insulated designs. On the other hand, if you prefer to hydrate on-the-go, a water bladder with drinking hose is an essential piece of gear. We especially love MSR’s 2-liter DromLite with hydration kit for its versatility and durability. And if water is available along the trail and you’d prefer to filter throughout the day, it’s a good idea to bring along a water filter or purification tablets as well (see below).
You might not be planning on a particularly long or involved hike, but life doesn’t always go according to plan. If you do get lost, injured, or perhaps just distracted by watching the sunset, the ability to see at night is imperative. Headlamps are small, lightweight, and inexpensive, and there’s little excuse not to bring one along. One of our favorite models, the Black Diamond Spot 350, is a reliable option that provides a powerful and long-lasting light for only $40. For another $30, you can get rechargeable convenience with the Petzl Actik Core (the Spot only runs on AAA batteries), which is a great choice for those that get out a lot or are sick of throwing away batteries.
10. Trekking Poles
Many folks would rank trekking poles up among the essential gear for day hiking, while others find no need to bring them along. In the end, they are truly a matter of personal preference. That said, we especially recommend trekking poles for hikers with chronic knee pain or those who lack confidence on tricky terrain. It’s also common for hikers to use just one trekking pole so they can maintain one hand free. The Black Diamond Distance Carbon Z poles are extremely lightweight and fold away so small you won’t notice them on your pack, and if fast-and-light is less of a priority, REI Co-op's Trailbreak poles are a great budget option for only $60 a pair.
11. First Aid Kit
Your day hiking first aid kit should be thought of as your “quick fix” kit—for a single day on the trail, it does not need to break the bank, or your back. Throw in some medical tape, gauze, and antibiotic ointment for stopping bleeds, moleskin for blisters and hot spots, Ibuprofen for pain management, and Benadryl in the case of an allergic reaction. A safety pin and pair of tweezers can also be helpful tools. You can easily put your own supplies together in a ziploc, or opt for a convenient pre-built first aid kit such as the Adventure Medical Kit, which comes in a water resistant, zippered bag.
12. Water Treatment
If you are planning an ambitious day on the trail, it’s never a bad idea to bring along some kind of water filtration or purification. There are a number of ultra-lightweight solutions available, ranging from a classic pump-style filter to a straw filter or convenient chemical tablets. The 3-ounce Sawyer Squeeze Water Filter is an excellent option for day hikes—just collect water in a plastic bottle or one of the included pouches, and squeeze it into your mouth. Further, we prefer to always store a few backup tabs of Aquamira in our pack just in case the need arises.
Even if you’re familiar with the area where you’ll be hiking, it’s a good idea to bring along some sort of navigational tool. A high-tech GPS device will cover all your bases, but it’s a bit overkill for a day hiking application. In fact, a paper topographical map—especially when laminated or printed on waterproof paper—is the most sure form of navigational help, as it does not rely on battery power. That said, our favorite means of tracking location are GPS-powered navigational apps on our phone. Apps such as TopoMaps, Gaia, and Hiking Project can pinpoint your location at any given moment—even when cell phone service is non-existent—and even give details like hiking pace, elevation, and mileage.
Along with water, it’s essential to pack enough food for your hike (and even a little more). In general, we recommend eating between 300 and 400 calories per hour of hiking, depending on your body type and level of exertion. High-energy foods like nuts, bars, cheese, and dried fruit provide great nutrition and calories while keeping weight low. Some of our favorite energy bars are Kate’s Real Food Bars, delicious high-calorie snacks made with quality ingredients in the small town of Victor, Idaho. Additionally, Snickers bars and sandwiches provide easy trail food solutions at a lower cost.
- Insect repellant
- Lip balm
- Toilet paper and trowel
- Bear spray (depending on the area and season)
- Emergency communication device (for example, the Garmin inReach Mini)
- Simple repair kit (a bit of duct tape and paracord should be plenty)
- Multitool or Swiss Army knife
- Emergency blanket or bivy
- Lighter or waterproof matches
- Whistle for emergencies
- Winter traction devices and gaiters (depending on conditions)
Where to Buy Hiking Gear
Although much of this gear can be found online, we first recommend visiting your local gear shop or consignment store. There’s simply no substitute for looking at items up close, trying on clothing, backpacks, and footwear, and receiving personal advice from the experts. If you do choose to shop online, REI Co-op and Backcountry are two of the most reliable retailers when it comes to hiking gear. Both have impressive selections, provide free shipping on orders over $50, and offer generous return and exchange policies. And as a bonus, REI has over 150 brick-and-mortar stores across the country, so you can try on before you buy or pick up your order in store. Finally, for cheaper items and those who need gear quickly, it’s hard to beat Amazon and the sheer volume of their inventory.
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