Essential Gear for Day Hikers

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Being prepared doesn’t require you to carry a heavy pack or buy a bunch of expensive gear. Here’s what I consider to be essential gear for day hikers- gear that could help save your life.

When I was new to hiking I’d often hit the trail with nothing but a water bottle. I soon upgraded to carrying a backpack, but for many years, my backpack was just a convenient way to transport my water, snacks, and sweatshirt. It took being locked in a state park after hours to make me realize that I was woefully unprepared.

In the end, everything turned out okay. The volunteer park ranger had left a note on my car windshield with the code to unlock the padlock on the main gate, and I wasn’t hurt, only embarrassed that I was the “irresponsible hiker” who didn’t leave the park before closing time. But, that experience made me realize that I needed to be self-sufficient, especially when hiking alone.

There are no guarantees that if I got hurt someone would come looking for me. Even though I was relatively close to civilization, I was still far enough away that I didn’t have cell service. And, since the main gates to the park were locked, the chances of encountering another hiker on the trail was pretty slim. To make things worse, I had told my boyfriend that I was going hiking, but I never bothered to mention exactly where I was going. Suddenly, it hit me, if I had twisted my ankle, fell down an embankment, or got lost I would have had no other option but to try to survive overnight in the wilderness. And it would have been a pretty miserable night with only a granola bar, half a bottle of water, and an old sweatshirt!

That experience made me completely re-think what I carry in my backpack. I realized that I was severely lacking some essential gear that could help save my life if I ever got stranded in the wilderness again. I didn’t need to buy a bunch of expensive, fancy gear. All of the items in my bag are lightweight and relatively cheap. And aside from the snacks and water, everything lives in my backpack 24/7, and gives me great peace of mind.

The items on this list are what I consider to be essential gear for day hikers, and I would never leave home without each of these items in my pack. Here’s what’s in my bag (full disclosure: some of these are affiliate links, but I’ve only listed items that I personally use and trust):

1. Mylar Blanket or Emergency Bivvy

I personally carry the SOL Emergency Bivvy. It is basically a foil blanket, but better because it’s like a sleeping bag that you crawl into. If you need to spend the night outside you can wrap it around you, or you can crawl inside it and use it as a sleeping bag. The shiny material inside will reflect your body heat and keep you warm while the waterproof outside will keep you dry. If you get lost in the woods you can use the reflective material to signal for help. The best part is that this packs up super small, weighs less than 4 ounces, and costs around $10.

2. Fleece jacket or other warm layers

Weather in the Bay Area changes constantly so I always have a cheap fleece hoodie and a knit beanie in my bag. You can choose to pack whatever warm layers you like, but whatever you do, avoid bringing a sweatshirt or other cotton clothing. Aside from weighing more than a fleece, a cotton sweatshirt takes a long time to dry and isn’t a very heat efficient, so that sweatshirt can end up making you cold when you really need to stay warm. If it is especially chilly I’ll also bring a light, packable down jacket and a rain layer. But, if I’m chilly I try to avoid hiking in my down jacket because when the down gets wet (from sweat or water) it loses some of its insulating power.

Woman wearing a hoodie and a jacket.

3. Water and snacks

I’ve been on many hiking trips where I end up giving water to people who haven’t brought enough. I always carry more water than I think I need, and if I’m attempting a strenuous hike on a hot day I fill my 3-liter Camelback water bladder to the brim before hitting the trail. I’ve never had to use it, but I also always carry a Life Straw in my emergency kit. The Life Straw is small, personal water filter that safely purifies questionable freshwater sources. It’s like a straw that lets you drink directly from the lake or stream. Since it costs only $15 and weighs only 2 ounces the Life Straw is a no brainer! If you decide not to pack a life straw I’d recommend carrying Aqua Mira drops, a small eyedropper filled with bleach, or iodine tablets so you always have a way to purify water in an emergency.

You can’t survive on water alone! That’s why I always pack some extra snacks just in case I need an extra boost or my hike takes longer than planned. Trail mix, dried fruit, beef jerky, and Banana Chocolate Chip Larabars (seriously yummy!) are some of my favorite hiking snacks.

4. Basic first aid kit

I bought this basic first aid kit for $2.50 and then beefed it up with a few additional items. My first aid kit includes an assortment of bandages, blister care pads, tweezers, Advil, antiseptic wipes, and some hand sanitizer wipes. If you’re hiking with dogs you can check out this article for tips on how to build a dog-friendly first aid kit. In addition to the first aid supplies that I carry in my pack I also always have some duct tape and leukotape wrapped around my hiking poles. Both are perfect solutions when you need an quick fix for gear malfunctions or to treat hot spots and potential blisters.

5. Whistle

The sound of a whistle is louder and carries further than the human voice. If you fall down an embankment or get stuck in a place where you aren’t easily seen by other hikers the sound of a whistle will alert any hikers in the area. (You should blow the whistle three times and then listen for a response. If there is no response try again.) I personally carry this lightweight emergency whistle that costs less than $4. But, before you go out and buy a whistle take a look at your pack, some backpacks have a whistle built into the chest strap.

6. Light

I prefer a headlamp, but a flashlight works just as well. These Coast headlamps have three levels of bright light and a mellow red light setting. What’s better is that you can get two headlamps for only $25. I keep one headlamp in my earthquake emergency kit at home and I keep the other in my hiking day pack. I store the batteries separately in a little ziplock bag to make sure that they don’t get wet, and to make sure that the headlight doesn’t accidentally turn on and drain the batteries while in my pack.

7. Pocket Knife

I can’t believe how much use I’ve gotten out of this small Gerber pocket knife. Okay, so most of its use has come from cutting a loose string from my clothing, or using it to cut up the salami that I brought for lunch. But, I’ve also used this knife to cut guyline and to shave down wood to make kindling. This knife costs less than $10, weighs practically nothing, and has a million uses.

Woman standing on a sunny peak wearing a hat and backpack.

8. Sunblock

Never estimate the power of the sun! I always wear a hat and bring sunblock to protect my sensitive skin. I always carry extra sunblock because being burnt to a crisp is no fun!

9. Fire starters

Whether it is a lighter or waterproof matches, I always carry something to help make a fire in case of emergency. A fire will help keep you warm and the smoke from a fire can also help emergency personnel find your location (just be sure that you don’t burn down the forest!). In addition to matches, I bring a Ziplock baggie with some cotton balls that have been smeared in Vaseline, as an easy, lightweight fire starter. This tutorial will teach you how to make your own fire starter from Vaseline and cotton balls.

10. Navigation

I always pick up a trail map from the park headquarters before setting off on a hike. I like having a paper map because it is easier to see all of the connecting trails on a map rather than on an app. If I’m on a longer hike and need to head back early or alter my route for any reason coming up with a “Plan B” it is easier to do with a paper map of the park. If there isn’t a trail map for purchase I take photos of any maps I find along the way- whether they are on an info kiosk or a trail marker. In addition to a paper map I also download a map of the area onto my phone before leaving the house. I also have a Garmin InReach that I use with the Earthmate app in case I need to access a GPS navigation and I don’t have cell service.


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Don't forget to pack for your furry friends

If you're hiking with your dog don't forget about their needs too. When I'm hiking with my small dog I always bring a larger backpack so she can hitch a ride when she gets tired. Whether your pooch is big or small, always pack extra water and some food. Check out my hiking with dogs blog post for how to pack a dog-friendly first aid kit and more tips for hiking with your dog.

What essential items do you carry in your pack?

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Jessica Haines
Jessica Haines
3 years ago

I always have a big black garbage bag or 2 stuffed in the bottom of my pack. It can be an emergency poncho, shelter, ground cover, muddy shoe container for the drive home, and lastly for actual trash collection on the return leg of the hike.