Are you new to hiking and trying to figure out what to pack for a day hike? Or an experienced hiker looking to upgrade your gear? In this article, we’ll tell the 9 items that are always on our packing list for day hikes, along with our favorite pieces of gear for each.

Hi there! We’re Sarah and Matt, two nomads road tripping across the United States with our cat, Fitzgerald, making a new place our home month to month while working full time and adventuring as much as possible. We spend any free time we can get hiking, camping, backpacking, and exploring new places! We hope that our experiences will help you plan for your next adventure and inspire you to be an outlier!

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The classic 10 essentials for day hiking

Whether you’re an experienced hiker or just getting started, you’ve probably heard of the 10 essentials, supposedly must-carry items for any hike. The first time I read this list, I was frankly quite surprised, mainly by the following items: shelter and fire starting tools. Does anyone actually carry a shelter with them on every day hike? I certainly never have. 

In fact, a recent study reported by Backpacker showed that carrying the 10 essentials did not actually result in better outcomes for hikers. As a data scientist by day (the inspiration behind the name Two Outliers), I’m highly motivated by the numbers, and yet every article I’ve read about what to pack for a day hike swears by the 10 essentials.  To me, it feels like something you’re just “supposed” to say…

Note: The classic 10 essentials include fire-starting supplies, a first aid kit, water, a light source, insulation, a map and compass, food, a shelter, sun protection, and a knife or multitool.

What do you really need to pack for a hike?

Now I don’t want to minimize the importance of being prepared for a hike. We always carry extra layers, a headlamp, and more food and water than we think we need just in case of an emergency.

But I also want to be practical about what’s reasonable to expect to pack for any average day hike. A compass will do you no good if you don’t know how to use it, and odds are you aren’t going to learn before setting off on a 5-mile day hike. 

If you’re heading on a 20-mile trek deep in the backcountry, the day hiking packing list we’ve compiled here isn’t the list for you (check out this backpacking gear list instead). But if you’re just looking for a practical and realistic day hike packing list, we’ve got you covered!

Our day hike packing list

Below are our 9 essentials for day hikes that are always on our packing list – nothing more and nothing less. We truly never hit the trails without these items!

Non-essentials always on our day hike packing list:

Day hiking backpack

Perhaps the most important piece of gear to bring on a day hike is a good hiking backpack. For years I (Sarah) hiked with one of Matt’s “one-size-fits-all” backpacks, and as a 5’4” women, one-size-fits-all does NOT fit me…

I didn’t realize that it was possible to finish a hike without having horrible back and shoulder pain until I purchased my own day pack that actually fit! I love my Cameback Helena 20L because it’s just the right size to pack my day hike essentials and fits either a 2L or 3L bladder. Plus, all the straps are adjustable so it actually fits my body. Goodbye back pain!

Camelback Helena is the perfect pack for day hiking
Camelback Helena is the perfect pack for day hiking

Trekking Poles

While not necessarily essential for day hiking, I never hit the trails without my Black Diamond trekking poles. In fact, an article by Outdoor Magazine discusses that studies have shown using hiking poles helps you move faster, makes it feel easier, helps with balance, and reduces the impact on your joints and muscles. 

Interestingly, using hiking poles also allows you to burn more calories (about 20% more!), a fact that could be viewed as either good or bad news. On one hand, it could help you melt off those pesky 5 pounds or allow you to indulge in that double-cheeseburger and cold beer(s) post hike. On the other, it could mean you need to pack more food to keep you fueled throughout the hike. 

I never hit the trail for a day hike without packing my hiking poles!
I never hit the trail without my hiking poles!

Hiking boots

A good pair of hiking boots can make a world of difference to your overall hiking experience. I love my Danner Mountain 600’s! They’re the complete package – comfortable, durable, and not too heavy. Plus the fact that they’re actually a bit stylish (as far as hiking boots go…) is an added bonus!

Matt wears a pair of Salomon Ultra 4 Mid GTX, which are more like trail running shoes with additional ankle support, than the clunky, heavy hiking boots of days past. These are super light, uber functional, water resistant, and breathable.

Danner Mountain 600s are my all-time favorite hiking boots.
Danner Mountain 600s are my all-time favorite hiking boots.

Layers

Wearing or packing layers for your day hike is important, even if it feels warm when you set out. Usually, you can expect the summit to be significantly cooler and windier, and those extra layers will come in handy.

I love my Arc’teryx Cerium Down Hoodie for hiking on cooler days. It’s lightweight and incredibly warm with 850 fill down. If you hate being cold (like me), this is the jacket for you! I also usually wear a Smartwool base layer and quarter zip for extra warmth.

Unless it’s a short hike or I’m very confident there’s no chance of rain, I pretty much always pack a Patagonia Torrentshell rain jacket just in case. Especially if you’re hiking in the mountains, it’s all too common for an afternoon rain shower or thunderstorm to roll in without warning.

My Arc'tyrx Cerium keeps me nice and warm at the summit of Mt. Cammerer in the Smokies
My Arc’tyrx Cerium keeps me nice and warm at the summit of Mt. Cammerer in the Smokies

Headlamp or flashlight

Unless you are doing a sunrise or sunset hike, you shouldn’t need a headlamp or flashlight. That being said, this is one of those extra safety items that I think is worth adding to your day hike packing list, especially on longer hikes. If there’s even a slight chance that the hike will take you longer than expected, you want to be able to make it back to the trailhead in the dark. 

I usually carry my Black Diamond Storm 400, as it’s compact, hands-free, and easy to throw in my bag!

A reliable means of navigation is essential to pack for any day hike. In general, it’s a good idea not to rely on means of navigation that requires cell service, as there’s a good chance you won’t have it out in the wilderness! 

We typically use pre-downloaded trail maps on AllTrails for day hiking. You need the AllTrails “Pro” version to be able to download the trail maps for offline use. Although the maps aren’t always perfect, we’ve found them to generally be reliable and get you where you need to go. Looking back on the years that we hiked without AllTrails, it’s hard to imagine how we didn’t get lost more often!

In more remote areas where you know you won’t have cell service and/or on hikes that require route finding, it’s also a good idea to carry a GPS device. We have a Garmin InReach Mini and we pack it on every day hike we do now. You can use it to drop pins to track your route, send updates to a friend/loved one without cell service, and provides great peace of mind to have in case of a serious emergency.

I keep my Garmin InReach clipped to my backpack for every hike

First Aid Kit

For a day hike, you don’t need to pack anything too complex in terms of First Aid – a compact set of painkillers, bandages, and antiseptic treatment will do the trick. We always carry this small First aid kit from REI, and over several years have used a few bandaids and Ibuprofens. 

Sun protection

A bottle of sunscreen, chapstick and a pair of sunglasses are must-have items for day hiking. We are both obsessed with our Goodr sunglasses – they’re simple, cheap ($25) and non-slip, which means they don’t slide around when you start to sweat. If you are prone to getting a burnt scalp, you may also want to bring or wear a hat. 

Sporting my Smartwool base layer and Goodr sunglasses at the South Rim in Big Bend
Sporting my Smartwool base layer and Goodr sunglasses at the South Rim in Big Bend

Water, snacks and lunch

Food and water is an area where it’s better to overpack just in case! Throw in an extra protein bar and bag of peanuts just in case you find yourself low in energy or your hike takes longer than intended. For snacks and lunch, you want to look for compact, high calorie foods that will take up less space in your bag and keep you energized longer, like trail mix, a Clif bars, Stroopwafels, peanut butter, etc.

We love using plastic bladders instead of water bottles, because they are lighter weight, fit more water and allow you to drink hands free (I find I stay better hydrated this way!). We both have a 2-liter Camelbak and 3-liter Osprey that we use depending on the length of the hike.

For longer hikes with water available along the trail, we also like to pack a water filtration device so we can refill along the way and carry less water to start. The Katadyn BeFree is amazing! Packs down small and seriously couldn’t be easier to use – simply fill the pouch and squeeze!

Matt filters water from a spring in Paria Canyon with our Katadyn BeFree
Matt filters water from a spring in Paria Canyon with our Katadyn BeFree

Non-essentials: Camera Gear

Although admittedly not essential, we never hit the trails for a day hike without packing our camera gear, so we felt it deserved a spot on this list. Here’s what’s in our camera bag:

  • Camera | Nikon Z6 with Nikkor Z 24-70mm f/2.8 lens
    My camera gear is where all attempts to limit weight get thrown out the window. I always hike with my Nikon Z6 and 24-70mm lens, which totals just over 3lbs. If you’re looking for something smaller and less pricey, the Canon M100 was my first “real” camera and its compact size makes it great for hiking, while still taking great quality photos.
  • Tripod | Sirui
    This is the lightest weight tripod I could find that is sturdy enough to support my camera and doesn’t cost an arm and a leg. It clocks in at about 2lbs. 
  • Peak Design Camera Clip | The Peak Design camera clip is a game-changer for hiking with a camera! It hooks onto your backpack strap and allows you to click your camera into place, making it much easier to lug around a heavy camera on the trail.
  • Matador Camera Bag | The Matador camera bag provides lightweight protection for your camera that’s easy to take on and off, and includes a water resistant layer. It isn’t 100% waterproof, but it protects against splashes and rain showers.
I always pack my Nikon Z6 on day hikes, and to me it's worth carrying the extra weight
My Nikon Z6 isn’t light but for me, it’s worth carrying the extra weight

When should all 10 essentials be on your day hike packing list?

If you’re embarking on a short hike in a place you know you’ll have service, you’re likely safe packing the items we’ve included on this day hike packing list. Here are a few reasons you might want to pack all 10 essentials, namely a shelter, means of starting a fire, and knife or multitool, which we have left off our list:

  • You are taking on a very long hike, which increases the chances of an accident and/or running out of daylight to complete the hike. 
  • You are hiking in a more remote area where you know you won’t have cell service. 
  • You are hiking alone, especially on a trail that is not very crowded. 
  • You are taking on a hike that has some extra element of danger or risk, like route-finding, high altitude, particularly steep or narrow trails, etc. 

Other tips for a safe day hike

While packing the right gear for a day hike is important, preparation and planning are key! Here are a few extra tips to help you have a safe and fun hike.

  • Let someone know your plans – where you’re hiking and when you expect to be back – before you set out. In case of an emergency, it’s important that someone knows where you are.
  • Always check the weather conditions in advance and be aware of potential dangers that changes in the weather could bring (ex: are flash floods a risk? do you need to finish summiting before afternoon thunderstorms roll in? Could rain make the trail slippery?)
  • Research your chosen trail in advance so you know what to expect and can prepare accordingly. Checking recent AllTrails reviews, reading blog posts, asking a park ranger, and talking to other friends/hikers are all great ways to find more information about the trail.
  • Determine if any special gear is necessary for the trail you plan to hike (ex: microspikes for trails that may be icy, bear spray if hiking in bear country, water shoes if there are river crossings, etc).
  • If you know you won’t have cell service, download the trail map in advance (for example using AllTrails Pro) and/or carry a GPS device. 
day hiking packing list essentials include warm layers, a rain jacket, a good day pack and a bladder for storing all the water you need

Other useful resources

For inspiration for your next hike and more useful gear recommendations, check out the following resources:

Questions about our day hike packing list? Let us know what questions you have about what to pack for a day hike below!

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