How to Pack for a Day Hike: Essential Items & Checklist

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How to Pack For a Day Hike: Essential Items and Checklist

It’s cold outside, and my campinglust is stirring. This time of year is always hard for me. I miss the open spaces, the big, star-filled sky, the smell of pine sap and dirt.

Even in Texas the weather is unpredictable, and while overnight camping in 30 degree weather is certainly doable, it’s hard to find someone enthusiastic enough to join me in the depths of February.

Instead, I’ve been making do with a number of day hikes. Since my day pack has been getting a little extra use, I thought I would take the time to compose a list of essential items when preparing for a day hike.

Whether you’re in a remote place (like Big Bend National Park) or closer to home it’s important to be prepared – even if you’re only planning on being gone for a few hours.

Check out what I pack, and don’t forget to download our free day hike packing checklist for your own reference! The link is at the end of the post.

I might not know which way to go, but I've got everything I need for this day hike! Image (c) Ardent Camper

I might not know which way to go, but I’ve got everything I need for this day hike!
Image (c) Ardent Camper

Part One: What to Wear

Before we talk about what’s on your back, let’s look at what to put on your body.

Your attire is always going to vary a bit depending on the weather. If you’re hiking in the Texas heat that requires a different outfit than the Colorado winter.

Keeping that in mind, it’s generally a good idea to wear breathable clothing and plan to layer for warmth, if needed.

  1. Wicking shirts and pants: Wicking fabric won’t let sweat soak the fabric (which can become really uncomfortable).
  2. Base Layer and Outer Layer: If you’re hiking somewhere chilly, wear a nice, warm base layer and, no matter where you are, make sure you pack a jacket and/or poncho. You never know when those crystal clear skies could turn into a torrential downpour.
  3. Hat and sunglasses: Make sure you also bring a hat to ward off the sunshine (ditto for sunglasses!).
  4. Boots meant for walking: Good walking shoes are a must. I love my Merrell Hiking Boots,
    and I even wear them when I go to the park. The ankle support makes such a difference. Plus, they’re waterproof!

Tara's trail attire includes zip-off pants, a comfy shirt, hiking boots, and a hat. Her day pack has an extra jacket inside as well.

Tara’s trail attire includes zip-off pants, a comfy shirt, hiking boots, and a hat. Her day pack has an extra jacket inside as well.

Part Two: The Perfect Day Pack

A good day pack is a life saver, especially on longer hikes. I am completely in love with my 24L Osprey pack. It has all of the features I’m looking for, including:

1. Ample space for my supplies: My pack is a 24L which gives me plenty of space to pack my food for the day, a jacket, and my photography gear. Often times I do have room left over, but I like having the extra space just in case. If nothing else, it’s room for an extra jacket.

2. Plenty of pockets: I like to keep everything nice and separated, so I don’t have to go digging when I need something.

3. Waterproof pocket: When Ziploc bags run short, a waterproof pocket is second to none. I use this pocket to stow my cell phone, toilet paper, cash, and anything else that I don’t want to get wet.

4. Hip straps: For a long time, I used a 20L Camelbak. It did the job, but every time I used it I would end up with aching shoulders. Eventually, I realized that the lack of a hip strap was to blame. I was taking the weight of all my supplies — including my heavy DSLR camera — on my shoulders. Ouch. When it was time to upgrade day packs, hip straps were essential.

Upgrading my daypack has saved me loads of shoulder pain.

Part Three: Food and Drink

Let’s start with water.

This should probably be at the top of the list, as it’s easily the most important thing you can bring with you on any hike – whether it’s a day hike or an overnight trip.

Dehydration is a very real danger, and it’s incredibly easy to ignore the signs. I almost always end up developing headache at some point along my hike, and it’s usually because I’m (foolishly) not drinking enough water.

If you’re hiking somewhere with ample water sources (like the Appalachians), you may not need to bring a ton of water with you — but you should have a good water filtration system on hand.

If you’re hiking in the desert or during a drought, you’ll need to pack all of the water in with you. Regardless of whether you’re filtering from a stream or sipping from the tap water in your bladder, plan on drinking around four quarts of water a day.

Tara is staying hydrated at Dinosaur Valley State Park

Slurp slurp.

Lunch + Snacks

Don’t forget to give yourself the fuel to keep going! Water alone isn’t enough, and it’s a good idea to bring a snack along even on a short hike. I tend to go a little overboard with food, just in case I’m stuck out on the trail longer than expected.

My go-to hiking lunch is a quick and filling peanut butter and tortilla sandwich (tortillas pack down so much easier than bread), an apple, and some trail mix. I usually throw a few Cliff Bars in as well, and maybe even a packet of Crystal Light if I want to add some flavor to my water.

Lunch break!

Lunch break!
Image (c) Ardent Camper

Part Four: Survival Gear

1. First Aid Kit: Seriously, don’t leave home without it. An unexpected splinter, blister, or scrape can ruin an otherwise relaxing hike. And those are just minor injuries. It’s always a good idea to have at least a basic first aid kit with you, with some tweezers, alcohol wipes and bandages. Odds are you won’t need them, but you’ll miss them when you do.

You never know when you might need a band-aid.

2. Sunscreen: My poor, pale skin is no match for the sun’s rays, and I lather up frequently, reapplying throughout my hike. Make sure to bring a small bottle of the stuff with you. Throw in some SPF lip balm too, and you’ll be set.

3. Bug spray: I’m luck in that most bugs don’t like me much. That doesn’t mean I don’t pile on the bug spray, though. Even if my skin doesn’t react to mosquito bites, they’re still biting.

4. Map and Compass: It’s generally a good idea to know where you’re going (duh). If there’s no paper map available, use your smartphone to snap a picture of the trailhead map, or print one from the internet before you go.

I can’t count the number of times I’ve gotten turned around and needed to use a combination of map and compass to point me back in the right direction.  Don’t count on trails being clearly marked; more often than not they aren’t.

Sometimes this is all you get.

Sometimes this is all you get.

5. Fresh Batteries: There is nothing worse than running out of batteries at a crucial time. Bring an extra set along with you. Remember, if it’s cold out, batteries will drain more quickly. When not in use, pull the batteries out of any equipment and leave them in a baggie. This will help them last a little longer.

6. Itinerary and Identification: Leave your itinerary with someone who isn’t venturing out with you. If something should happen, you want to be sure that someone knows where you are and can get you the help you need. Similarly, carry your ID and a bit of cash, just in case.

7. Other Miscellaneous Emergency Supplies: There are a few emergency gadgets I always keep in my bag. A whistle, a mirror, an emergency blanket, Swiss army knife, paracord. None of these items take up much space or weight, and they’re the sort of thing you’ll wish you had if things go wrong.

Part Five: Camera + Accessories (optional)

For many people their smartphone is more than enough while they’re on the trail, and I’ve resorted to mine more than once.

Usually, though, I’m lugging around an obscene amount of photography equipment. This includes my DSLR, my extra lens, my GoPro and accessories, and occasionally my tripod.

This baby goes with me just about everywhere.

This is one of the reasons I don’t mind a slightly larger day pack. Instead of a separate camera bag, I usually wrap my camera in a shirt and put it in the pack, or I wear it around my neck. My extra lens is the exact size and shape of a water bottle, so I slide it into one of the side compartments.

As far as the GoPro goes, my best advice is to try and determine what you’ll need ahead of time so you aren’t carrying the entire store with you. The GoPro itself is small enough to fit in my pocket, and incredibly light.

So. Many. Accessories.

I almost never regret taking my heavy camera gear, even if it can be a bit much at times.

There are a lot of pictures of me taking pictures.

There are a lot of pictures of me taking pictures.
Image (c) Ardent Camper

Part Six: Miscellaneous Supplies

1. Ziploc Bags: These will serve so many purposes. Bring extra. Lots extra. The primary purpose of these little baggies is to keep food in when you start and bring trash out when you finish. It’s also a good way to separate things out and pseudo-waterproof your electronics. I usually have one baggie for my lunch, one for trash, one for my electronics, one for fresh toilet paper, and one for used toilet paper. Then I throw a few extra in, just in case.

2. TP/Trowel: I remember when I first started camping and hiking regularly I was really uncomfortable with the idea of peeing outside. Unfortunately, I have an unfairly small bladder, so it wasn’t long before I was forced to come to terms with squatting behind a bush (or, far too often in Texas, a cactus).

To make the process a little less awkward, bring a wad of toilet paper with you. Just remember to pack it out! Have a Ziploc baggie on standby to put your used tissue in. You can throw it out when you get back to the trailhead.

A trowel is another necessity. It’s generally frowned upon to just poo in the open (gross). Beyond the ick factor, it’s really not great for the environment. So keep your trowel on standby, dig a hole, do your business, and cover it up.

3. Headlamp: This is a bit of an odd one for a day hike, but I never leave home without it. These days I’m rocking a 110 Lumens Petzl Headlamp.

On one of my first lengthy day hikes with Marie from Ardent Camper we stumbled across a cave that we had no idea about. Luckily, with our headlamps on hand, we were able to do a little impromptu exploring.

More recently, when Tara and I were in Arizona, our hike that started at 2pm turned into an unexpected night hike. It took much longer for us to conquer the trail than we originally thought, and if we hadn’t taken headlamps with us we would have been trying to feel our way back in the dark. Terrifying much?

A little unexpected cave exploration, possible only because I had my headlamp on hand!

A little unexpected cave exploration, possible only because I had my headlamp on hand!
Image (c) Ardent Camper


Phew, that’s it! I know, it seems a lot for a measly day hike, doesn’t it? But trust me — it is so much better to be over-prepared than under-prepared.

If all of that seems like a lot to remember, don’t worry, you can download our free day hike packing checklist and keep it handy for your next trip! Just click the image below!

day-hike-packing-list-1024x289

Did I forget anything? What do you bring when you go hiking?

How to Afford Part-Time Travel: Blogger Tips & Tricks
Breaking Free: (Finally) Making Travel a Priority
  • Thank you fro the great tips guys !!!

  • You know what, the photos of the two of you are actually even better than the stock photos from Ardent Camper 🙂 Great list! I’ll have to refer to it when I finally get myself to go hiking with my daughter. Let me know when you’re in Massachusetts again and could give us a little guided tour on hiking! Deal?

    • Hah, thanks. Ardent’s photos aren’t stock, though, they’re from the same trip! Marie, the writer over there, is a close friend of mine and we’ve gone on a number of hiking trips before. Most of the pictures she provided are from day hikes the two of us took together. 🙂

      I’d love to go hiking in Mass with you! I’ll let you know the next time we’re in town. I really need to explore more of New England!

  • That’s a great list! I’d add good hiking socks. Have fun on your next hike!

  • I really need to get some good hiking boots. I just rely on my running shoes which isn’t a great idea! And I love the headlamp idea…there have been a couple of times that would have come in handy for me.

  • Great list, especially about the map and compass. I think people are getting so used to being able to use their Maps app on smartphones that they forget that they can’t get a signal everywhere on (or off) the trail.

  • Katie McGrain

    SUNGLASSES! Even if you are shaded by trees for most of the hike, when you get to the summit, most likely the sun will be present. A recent case of sunburnt eyes on my part from hanging out at the top of the mountain (lots of snow and lots of sun plus not wearing sunglasses = bad)!

    • Oh, man. Yeah, sunglasses are definitely a necessity. I had no idea you could actually sunburn your eyes, though! That sounds so painful!