Hiking day pack essentials: What I bring on every hike

If you follow me on Instagram, you might think it’s turned into a #hiking account. That wouldn’t be far off the mark! 🥾

Now that I’m a nomad, I’ve reconnected to traveling and being outside in a way that feels really good. That includes exploring new trails every chance I get.

So far, I’ve done hikes from 2 to 9 miles in a day, which seems to my range as of right now. Eventually, I’d like to build back my strength to do longer day hikes.

Every time I hit the trail, there are a few items I always carry with me – nothing more, nothing less.

Hiking day pack essentials

This little hiking day pack has served me extremely well, and it’s nothing fancy

On shorter, well-trafficked trails, you don’t need much. The outdoor stores lead you to think you need tons of gear, but you really don’t.

Here’s what I take on my hikes.

Hiking day pack essentials

First, I try not to hike in inclement weather. I can withstand a drizzle, but I don’t want to be out in driving rain. And second, the temperature on my hikes generally gets warmer as I reach the heat of the day. For that reason, I don’t worry so much about jackets and layers to keep warm so much as things I can easily pull off to cool down. Of course, this would change in winter.

1. Good hiking boots

Shoes are the most important thing. Trails have all manner of sharp rocks, roots, loose gravel, mud, and other obstacles. You want a rugged, durable boot that you can get dirty and that holds up to tough terrain.

Hiking day pack essentials

My Merrell boots have been fantastic so far

I did a lot of research before I landed on this pair of Merrell hiking boots. They are so comfortable and I feel like I can walk miles in them – which is a good thing for hiking boots.

If you don’t like Merrell, there are plenty of other brands available at DSW (which often has coupon codes) and Amazon (which often has discounts for using bank points).

The shoes you wear connect you to the earth. It’s good to have a pair of boots dedicated to being outside.

2. A little hiking day pack

I see people going all out with their day packs. They have big fancy backpacks with tubes for water and lots of straps and ties and cords and hooks. Those things are great for long hikes or if you just like the features, but in reality, a little $30 day pack (or less) is totally fine.

Hiking day pack essentials

This is seriously all you need

Most hikes are from an hour to four or five hours. You likely aren’t stopping and only need to carry a few things. I would definitely recommend something larger than a fanny pack but you don’t need something as large as a backpack. Something small, lightweight, and basic is perfect.

3. AllTrails app

AllTrails is a fantastic website for research, planning, and storing the hikes you’ve done – and want to do. I resisted paying for the Pro version of the website and app because I didn’t want another “thing” to pay for. They recently had a Memorial Day sale for 50% off, so I went ahead and upgraded. So far, I’ve downloaded maps for every trail and have used the real-time map as I hike, and it’s a total game changer – especially for trails that aren’t well-marked.

a map of a mountain

Trails like this are exactly why you want AllTrails Pro

In the photo above, you can see many trails connect and form loops, which is a nice way to extend a hike, or cut it short and get back to the trailhead when you’re ready to go. In this example, I hiked up Rattlesnake Mountain and then decided to hike down Lookout Mountain and pass Lookout Rocks on the way back to the trailhead (this is a trail near Asheville, NC).

The thing is, those connecting loop trails weren’t exactly signed well. Being able to see my exact location and verify the route gave me peace of mind.

Plus, the website/app are just great for exploring trails. The reviews are packed with tips from people who’ve hiked the trails and can tell you about parking, trail conditions, what to watch for, etc. Make sure your phone has a full charge before you head out.

4. A Smartwater bottle

Nothing fancy. One of these guys:

a can of water with a blue and white label

You want the weight and shape

I first heard about these from Mac at Halfway Anywhere (which is a fantastic blog dedicated to hiking). These bottles are perfect because they’re tall, light, and narrow – which makes them perfect for tossing in a bag. Plus, you can refill them over and over.

Sure, they’re not as durable as Hydroflask or Nalgene bottles. Those are great, too! They’re just heavier is all.

I take 1 liter per 5 or 6 miles and that’s been working out well. I usually drink most or all of it, so I’d say that’s a good metric. Be sure to hydrate before and after your hike, and take more if you need to.

But for most day hikes, this little buddy works just fine.

5. A few power bars

Again, nothing fancy. Sometimes I don’t eat anything while I’m hiking. I try to snack before I head out and look forward to getting something once I’m back in town or at home. But every so often, I get a little hungry and want something.

Hiking day pack essentials

These are fine for a day hike

If you want to stop and have a picnic, you’d obviously want more. I personally don’t like taking a lot of food because I don’t want to attract animals and packaged bars are perfect for this. It’s also easy to pack the wrappers out by putting them in your day pack or pocket.

Also, when I’m out and about, I’m more focused on the trail and moving forward. I am, however, ready to chow down once I get off the trail and cool down.

5. An extra layer, preferably waterproof

Rain happens. In summer, you’ll probably be fine if not a little uncomfortable being wet. You can check the weather all day and night, and still encounter a stray drizzle. I throw something light into the bottom of my hiking day pack. I’ve used it once or twice, and have been very glad I had it each time. In colder weather, there’s the threat of hypothermia. Definitely be weather aware.

6. A hat and/or bandana and/or sunglasses

Oh, it gets sunny. A hat is great to keep the sun and sweat out of your eyes. And you can enhance this protection with a bandana and sunglasses if you want. This is especially important on exposed trails or those without a lot of cover. The reviews on AllTrails mention this factor a lot.

7. A small flashlight

I have a little flashlight, one that’s thin and has one battery. Just in case. You probably won’t need it, but it makes me feel better to have it for some reason. Just in case it gets dark fast and I need a light.

8. Personal protection

There are all sorts of animals out there – and that includes people.

On trails known for bear activity, it’s prudent to have bear spray. At the very least, a very loud whistle can frighten a threatening animal into leaving you alone. You may also feel better with a little pocket knife or GPS device.

Most well-traveled trails will be OK as animals tend to leave humans alone. Still, I carry a little pocket knife with me, and have a small whistle in a place I can easily reach (this is the one I have).

9. Trekking poles (if you need them)

I haven’t gotten trekking poles myself just yet, but have been tempted a time or two. Some trails are rugged and absolutely shred your calves on the way up and knees on the way down. If you like the extra support, trekking poles are a great addition to your pack. Go for a pair that are lightweight, collapsible, and adjustable like these.

10. Anything else you need to feel comfortable

I lean toward a light day pack, but take whatever you’ll need for your personal comfort level. That could mean taking extra:

  • Sunscreen
  • Food and water
  • Bug spray
  • Camera gear for photographers
  • Socks
  • Power packs
  • Or anything else you need

Before every hike, I check the weather and think through my entire day. Sometimes I throw in extra power bars, water, a hand towel to dry myself or wipe away sweat, or whatever else I might want to have around to have a successful outing.

Hiking day pack bottom line

With this list, you’ll have everything you need to hit the trails and get out in nature. Hiking is an opportunity to reconnect with yourself and spend time listening to the sounds of the outdoors. The best hikes are when the weather is mild, there’s cloud cover (but not too much), and you get long stretches of the trail all to yourself.

I’ve found the items on this list are things I take every time I head out. Hopefully this helps you plan your own trip into our beautiful state and national parks.

Is there anything you’d add to the list? Have you been enjoying hiking trails this so far this summer? Let me know!

And follow me on Instagram to see photos from my hikes this summer and beyond!

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About Harlan

Just a dude living in Memphis, traveling, and working toward financial independence.

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