Hiking Gear Essentials

Hiking is a very popular outdoor activity pursued by many enthusiasts as well as the weekend warrior, not only because many of us are drawn to the outdoors for it’s beauty but also because hiking is essentially a free activity. As long as you have a decent pair of athletic shoes you can hike. This is ok for many of the short, flat hikes but once you get into longer hikes (six or more miles) there are certain essentials you’ll want to have in order to make your hike more enjoyable as well as safe. Below I have compiled a list of hiking gear essentials that I take with me and recommend you take with you on most day hikes, especially the longer hikes during warmer months.


Food (trail mix, energy bars, fruit are good choices)

When I’m hiking I almost always have trail mix with me. I prefer to make my own with nuts (almonds, walnuts, cashews) and various types of dried fruits (cranberries, banana chips, apricots). This selection is available in virtually all grocery stores but if you like you can just purchase packaged trail mix. There are also myriads of energy bars on the market that make great trail food. I quit buying these because of all the junk they put in them.

Water (one to three liters depending on the hike)

Do not under estimate your body’s need for water during activity, especially when the weather is warm. I carry the max amount of water my pack will handle (~3 liters) on virtually every hike. I personally use CamelBak with a 3 liter capacity but you can choose any pack you like. If it’s really hot out and I’m on an all-day hike I might bring a water filtration device as a back up but this is rare.

Sturdy Hiking Boots

Although hiking in any old pair of sneakers is doable, they just aren’t the same as a stiff pair of hiking boots. Some of the benefits to hiking boots are a much stiffer sole, more rigid construction, which provides ankle support, better traction and in some cases waterproofing. If you’ve ever tried to hike on rocky terrain in a pair of tennis shoes, it won’t be long before the soles of your feet begin to suffer, not to mention the risk of twisting your ankle. I definitely recommend waterproof boots because even in the summer, hiking with wet feet decreases traction, increases the weight of your foot wear and is just plain uncomfortable.

Navigation (map, compass)

These days I use my smart phone with map apps to navigate but I also recommend bringing a compass and paper map as a backup. The app I currently use is called “Backcountry Navigator”. I’m using the free, demo version because it has US Forest Service maps built in and you can cache the area your planning to visit for use without cell signal.

First Aid Kit

I’m no expert here but I would recommend getting a small travel first aid kit and keep it in your pack. I also recommend getting a hard-cased kit as the soft ones don’t provide enough protection for the contents.

Sun Protection (hat, sunscreen)

I always wear a hat when I’m hiking and bring a little container of sun screen in my pack. Most of the time I don’t need the sunscreen but just in case. If the hike is fully exposed for any length of time I will also wear a long-sleeve, breathable, sun-protective shirt.

Small Flashlight

If you are ever caught on the trail after dark without a flashlight you realize it’s not much fun and can quickly turn damgerous. Most smart phones have flashlight apps but I recommend getting a small, waterproof, dedicated flashlight or headlamp and carry extra batteries. Get the smallest light with the most lumens possible. 150 lumens minimum is probably sufficient. I also prefer LED since they are most energy efficient and brighter than your comparable incandescent light.

Fire Starter

I currently carry waterproof matches and a lighter but am considering upgrading to a flint or magnesium fire starter. Matches can deteriorate and lighters don’t always work, especially when they’re wet.

Insulation (jacket, thermal blanket, hand warmers)

If you’re hiking in the mountains temperatures can fluctuate dramatically, especially when a thunderstorm blows in. I’ve seen temperatures drop from 80 F to 50 F in a matter of minutes. Having layers is most beneficially since you can add or shed depending on your body temperature. Since getting caught in a down pour in the Sierras one summer afternoon, I purchased a cheap emergency rain poncho and now keep it in my pack at all times. In addition I also carry an emergency Mylar thermal blanket and hand warmers since they take up very little space, weigh next to nothing and really help in an emergency situation.

Toilet Paper

Undoubtedly there will be times when mother nature calls and you are miles away from any restroom. I carry a role of camper’s toilet paper with me at all times. The National Forest Service requires hikers to deposit solid human waste in cat-holes dug six to eight inches deep and at least 200 feet from any water source, camp or trail. In addition you are required to cover and disguise the cat-hole when finished as well as pack out toilet paper and hygiene products. Certain areas such as Mt Whitney have different requirements so do your research before going.

In addition to the essential gear listed above, I also bring a knife, I wear long pants especially if I know the trail is over-grown, carry bug spray, and I wear a quality pair of hiking socks. I’ve had really good luck with the REI Lightweight Merino Wool Socks. They’re not cheap compared to standard cotton socks but are essential in preventing blisters. In my experience, any hike over four miles requires a pair of good quality hiking socks, under four miles any ol’ sock will do…this is just my experience. Although not mentioned above, you will need a backpack to carry all of this hiking gear. I recommend a hydration pack especially in the warmer months. Last but not least, a camera. You’re definitely going to want to capture the beauty you experience while on your outdoor excursion and with most smart phones having cameras built in these days it’s hard not to have one with you.

These recommendations for hiking gear are based solely on my experience as a day hiker. Your list may vary slightly based on your requirements for things such as medications, etc. Also, lots of hikers swear by trekking poles but I personally have not used them. I do, however, believe they are beneficial on really long hikes or backpacking trips.

If you have any comments or suggestions for hiking gear please feel free to leave a reply in the comments section below.

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