Everything You Should Pack for a Hiking Trip

A woman carrying a stuffed backpack on a hiking trip

TripSavvy / Linda Strauta

One of the biggest appeals of a good hike is the chance to get away from the city, with all its hustle and bustle. But being temporarily away from society means that you can’t just pop over to a convenience store if you happen to need a snack or a Band-Aid.

“Going on a hike, you are out in the elements, exposed to the beautiful but also ever-changing landscape and weather of nature,” says Cody Meuli, product line coordinator for The North Face. “Nature is wild. It deserves respect. We can respect nature by being prepared.” 

There’s no substitute for good preparation for making your hike the best it can be. “Pack for your day,” says Vince Mazzuca, director of marketing at Osprey. “The more you know about your conditions, your trip plan, and your backup plans, the more you can be prepared for the day and be confident in your outing, which all equals having more fun in the outdoors.”

The 10 Essentials to Bring on Every Hike

The “ten essentials” were originally created by conservation and education nonprofit The Mountaineers during their climbing courses in the 1930s. The list still holds up and is frequently referenced by backpackers and other outdoors experts, including the American Hiking Society (AHS), who compiled a list of their own. The essentials you should bring are:

  • Appropriate footwear: Your feet are your most important hiking tool. As they go, your whole trip goes. Make sure you’ve chosen the correct shoe for your hiking conditions and don’t forget proper socks.
  • Map and compass/GPS: No, your phone doesn’t entirely count. While offline map functionalities and apps like AllTrails can be great, you also need to be prepared for the possibility of a dead battery or lack of reception. That’s where a paper map and compass or satellite GPS can save you. 
  • Water: Hydration is key, especially when hiking. The most common suggestion is that you should drink roughly 1 liter of water for every two hours on the trail, but you should bring more water than you think you’ll need. If you’re going on a multi-day trek, you’ll probably need more water than you’d like to carry. In those cases, a portable water filter or a purifying solution will allow you to treat water from outdoor sources.
  • Food: Don’t let getting hangry ruin your hike. Travel with calorie-dense foods to keep you going, whether that’s some DIY trail mix, energy bars, or apples and jerky. It never hurts to throw in an extra serving or two just in case you’re out longer than expected.
  • Rain gear and dry-fast layers: Weather forecasting is still an uncertain science. Would you rather have slightly more stuff in your bag and stay dry when the wind changes, or have a slightly lighter bag and an accidental case of hypothermia? (The former is the correct answer.) A versatile, lightweight, and breathable rain jacket is the single most important thing you can pack, in Meuli’s opinion. There are plenty of lightweight options that will keep you warm and dry without weighing you down. Look for words like “shell” and “packable” in the clothing description.
  • Safety items: The AHS defines safety items as “light, fire, and a whistle.” A small flashlight will suffice for a day hike, while longer trekkers may want a headlamp or something more substantial. If you’re going to start a fire, be absolutely sure you’re aware of both the legality of doing so and the environmental conditions. Fires are prohibited in many parks for a reason; you’ll have an even bigger problem on your hands if you start a wildfire.
  • First aid kit: Accidents happen and you should be prepared when they do. The Red Cross has a list of easy-to-find items to stock your kit, as does the Washington Trail Association. You can always supplement with things that are specific to your needs, whether that’s prescription medication, Pepto Bismol, or just some extra Band-Aids. “Never underestimate the value of chapstick,” says Meuli.
  • Knife or multi-tool: You don’t need to go full Crocodile Dundee, but having a good multi-tool can help you with a multitude of trail tasks, whether that’s gear repair, first aid, trimming kindling for a fire, or just cutting up your snack apple.
  • Sun protection: Any skier or snowboarder who’s fallen victim to goggle tan lines can tell you that sun protection isn’t just important on warm days. Make sure you’re SPF’ed up and equipped with a hat and sunglasses, even when it’s cloudy. 
  • Shelter: While getting stranded may seem unlikely, you never know what could happen. That doesn’t mean you need to carry an entire tent on a day hike—AHS recommends a space blanket as a good option.
  • Bonus: A trash bag: The “leave no trace” adage is a common one in the outdoor community for a good reason. An old plastic grocery bag or Ziploc can help you keep your trash contained and make sure it gets off the trail with you. Even better, you can help leave the trail cleaner than you found it. “You’d be amazed at how much you can help,” says Meuli, who recommends spending at least one day on your favorite trail solely for the purpose of picking up trash.

What to Wear Hiking

There are plenty of options for great hiking gear out there. Ultimately you want to be warm, comfortable, and protected from the elements. When you're picking out your clothes, Meuli recommends that you start by considering the ecosystem of your trail. Is it dry or humid? In the mountains or at sea level? Then, check the weather forecast; while it isn’t always 100 percent accurate, it’s good to have an estimate. Finally, consider the objective of your trip. Are you moving fast and covering a lot of ground, or out for a casual jaunt? 

“If I’m hiking a fourteener, I want to pack fast and light with lots of water and energy bites,” says Meuli. “If I’m out with my family and my dog on a Sunday afternoon, I might bring extra food, water, and my camera in order to take time to truly experience the joy of the trail.”

Choosing Layers

The layers you need, naturally, depend on the weather. Meuli suggests working in threes, with a base layer of a T-shirt/tank top or lightweight long-sleeve shirt; mid-layer of a long-sleeve shirt, fleece, or lightweight jacket; and a top breathable wind/rain shell. If it’s going to be colder, upgrade the levels of your layers accordingly by, say, swapping a tank top for a thicker long-sleeve shirt and a light hoodie for a fleece.

Choosing Fabrics

Fabric-wise, most outdoor gear is made from synthetics like polyester or nylon to help wick sweat while still allowing movement and breathability. Unfortunately, synthetic fabrics can also shed microplastics when washed that end up in our water supply. If you want to keep it eco-friendly, opt for merino wool instead. Rather than the scratchy sweaters, you may be thinking of, merino is soft against your skin. It also wicks sweat, minimizes odor, and is fully natural—wins all around. Fleece made from recycled materials can also be a greener choice.

Cotton is one textile you should absolutely avoid. Cotton absorbs and retains water, which means you’ll stay sweaty in warm weather and start getting chills in cold.

Whatever fabric you choose, Meuli recommends gear that’s durable, versatile, and well-fitting. “I don’t want to struggle with my gear at the same time I’m struggling against the elements,” he says. 

Tips for Packing Your Gear

So where do you put all of this equipment? Into your handy hiking pack, of course. Just like your clothes and shoes, your pack should comfortably fit your body. “People regularly ignore the importance of fit in a pack and a poorly fitting pack can lead to a pretty uncomfortable experience,” says Mazzuca. “The best pack for you is the pack that fits really well. Then you can spend more time enjoying the day and less time adjusting pack straps.”

There are two things to keep in mind when packing your bag: weight management and access. Heavier items should be centered and close to your back, while the lighter items can fill in space around the heavier ones to keep them in place. “A properly fitting and packed bag will be secure on your back and will not sway under dynamic movement,” says Mazzuca. “This helps you maintain balance over rocky terrain and is just more comfortable.”

Keep the things you’ll want easy access to in places you can reach, rather than buried at the bottom of the bag. Things like water, snacks, sunscreen, extra layers, and your phone should be easy to grab without having to do a full trailside excavation. 

“You want to enjoy yourself,” says  Meuli. “You don’t want to overpack but you also don’t want to be underprepared. You want to strike a balance between comfort, protection, water, and sustenance to last you the right amount of time while on the trail.”

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