Hiking is one of those things that changed my life. The strength, determination, and confidence that I've built through hiking has shaped me into who I am today. The places my two feet have brought me are incredible. I've seen the sunrise over the Grand Canyon, star gazed under the Delicate Arch, and hiked to the roof of Africa, Kilimanjaro. I'm writing this post because I want to help you get on the trails and discover your own amazing places.
Why am I qualified to write a hiking gear guide? I’m not an expert hiker, but I think it’s fair to say, I’m more experienced than most. After years of hiking through the dry desert, lush forests, snow-capped high peaks, and even internationally, I have tried and tested what seems like all the different brands and equipment. I am here to save you from the same expensive gear mistakes that I made in the beginning and help you get your own gear dialed in. You can definitely hit the trails without fancy gear and clothing, but once you start hiking longer miles or more challenging terrain, having the right items will make you more comfortable and could even be live-saving.
This is a guide meant for a typical day hike in normal summer conditions. Please note that normal conditions may include rain, wind, and cooler temperatures. It is also meant to be extensive so you know what all your options are. You should make your own judgements and do your own research on what to bring based on the mileage, trail conditions, difficulty, and forecast. This post doesn't cover hiking in winter conditions, but if you’re interested in winter hiking, check out my post: Ultimate Guide to Hiking in the Winter.
Having the right clothes, gear, and carrying the 10 essentials will help you have a safe and enjoyable hike. So let's get started...
Before you start buying gear, I want to share this advice with you: If you think hiking is a hobby you are going to stick with and you want to go after more challenging mountains in the future, don't start out with buying cheap gear. I made that mistake and overtime had to replace broken items, buy warmer jackets, and yearned for lighter gear. Basically all the cheaper gear I originally bought had to be replaced with higher quality items and cost me more in the long run.
After years of trial and error, I feel like all my gear is dialed in. I have tried, tested and put through the wringer the items I recommend in this blog. It doesn't mean you have to go out and buy all this gear at once. Prioritize what you need now and add items to the arsenal once you start taking on more challenging hikes.
The clothes you wear hiking should be made from moisture-wicking and breathable materials such as wool or polyester. Fabrics such as cotton absorb moisture and are slow to dry. This could be life threatening as weather changes in the mountains. On every hike you should also carry layers and rain gear. Temperatures can vary greatly from the trailhead to the summit and weather conditions can change rapidly in the mountains.
Choosing moisture-wicking fabrics starts with your underwear. It will help prevent chafing and keep you dry. For years I just hiked in my regular underwear and I paid the price. Once I finally upgraded to athletic underwear I couldn't believe how much of a game changer it was.
Again, stick with moisture-wicking, breathable fabrics. I prefer a tee-shirt instead of a tank top for sun protection. In the height of summer, I usually wear shorts and once the seasons start to change, switch over to leggings. Below I pinned my favorite items and the male counterparts, or the items my boyfriend uses.
Nike Pro 5" Training Shorts *These ones don't ride up and come in multiple lengths.
This layer adds warmth, but should still be breathable enough for when you're working hard. There are a lot of options you can choose for this layer such as a wool sweater, fleece jacket, or insulated vest or jacket. Depending on the temperatures you might need to wear or bring more than one. I usually carry a long sleeve and a light insulated jacket. It may seem silly packing these at the trailhead when it is 80 degrees out, but the summit could be 40 degrees lower.
Select a rain jacket and rain pants that will be both waterproof and windproof. Here's a few other features I look for in rain gear:
Gore-Tex: There is nothing worse than rain gear that doesn't keep you dry. Gore-Tex is the top standard for waterproof material.
Lightweight: Most of the time you are carrying it in your backpack so you don't want to add a lot of extra weight.
Non-insulated: Non-insulated jackets and pants will be more breathable and you can always add layers underneath for warmth. Insulated items will weigh more too.
Armpit Vents: Look for a jacket with zippered armpits. If you start getting warm while wearing your rain jacket you can unzip the armpits to allow for better ventilation. This is a non-negotiable for me.
Zippered Pants: Look for rain pants that have a zipper that runs along the length of the pant leg. This will enable you to put them on or take them off without having to remove your boots.
Pro-tip: NikWix works wonderfully for re-waterproofing older gear!
Everyone's feet are different so I recommend going to a sporting store and trying on multiple brands and types before making a purchase. The sales associate should be able to help you pick the right shoe for your foot type and make sure you get the correct size. Hiking footwear is usually broken into two categories; hiking shoes (also known as trail runners) and hiking boots. Both have advantages and disadvantages.
Hiking Shoes are lighter and tend to be more comfortable right out of the box, but they offer less support. Personally, I get less blisters when wearing hiking shoes.
Hiking Boots are more sturdy and durable. If you have knee or ankle problems you might need a boot for more structure. Some will say boots offer more traction, but I find my hiking shoes to be just as adequate. Hiking boots may have a longer break in period or feel more stiff.
I've tried both shoes and boots in many different brands and my all time favorite is the Salomon X Ultra 3 Hiking Shoes. If you are looking for more support, Salomon has a boot similar to the shoes I use. Coming in a close second is the Merrell Moab Hiking Boots. All these shoes linked here come in a male version and waterproof versions as well. I prefer non-waterproof shoes for summer hiking since I find them to be less stiff and I mostly wear them in dry conditions. If they do get wet, they dry pretty quickly.
Wool is the most commonly recommended material for socks since it regulates temperature well, is moisture-wicking, and provides extra cushion. Cotton socks are not recommended since they absorb moisture which could lead to blisters and cold feet.
I also like to wear a silk sock liner under my wool sock to help prevent blisters.
With your socks on, there should still be enough room in your boots to wiggle your toes. Carry an extra pair of socks in your pack in case you need a dry pair to change into.
There are a lot of options for day hiking packs and it can be overwhelming to pick one. To start, think about the features you want it to have such as size, weight, water bottle holders, hip belts and waterproof material. For day hiking, a backpack between 15-30 liters should be sufficient. Whatever pack you choose, it should be large enough to carry a few extra layers of clothing, food, water and some safety gear.
I've used many brands over my years of hiking, but Hyperlite Mountain Gear's Daybreak Ultralight Daypack is the cream of the crop. HMG's packs come in multiple sizes to fit all body types. They are incredibly lightweight and waterproof. On the Daybreak, the material is waterproof and the zippers are water resistant, but I've tested it in many rainstorms and the inside stays completely dry. HMG intentionally designs their packs to not have a lot of bells and whistles so you can't overpack. The pack I use for backpacking, 3400 Southwest, is also from HMG!
If your day pack isn't waterproof make sure you have a rain cover or line your pack with a trash bag. Some backpacks will come with a rain cover, but if it doesn't you can purchase one separately. Like I mentioned above, my backpack is waterproof so I don't carry a separate rain cover. My waterproof backpack has held up way better than any rain cover I've tried in the past.
When I'm going on a short hike in ideal weather conditions, I leave my backpack behind and opt for a hydration vest. The vest is incredibly lightweight which allows me to move at a much quicker pace. There is still enough storage to stash a few snacks, phone, and car keys. I have the Osprey Dyna 1.5 L Vest and I've been very happy with it.
If you've never hiked with trekking poles, you don't know what you're missing. When going downhill, poles take so much of the impact off your legs and help minimize knee pain. I also find them helpful on the uphill by putting my arms to work, taking some of the load off my legs. The poles also help with balance when walking on uneven surfaces.
I use the Black Diamond Distance Z Trekking Poles and they are the only poles I recommend. They are lightweight and fold up nicely so they can easily be carried in my pack when I'm not using them. They only take a second to extend to full length so you don't have to waste time adjusting.
You never know when a hike will take longer than expected and you could end up finishing in the dark which is why you should carry a headlamp. It's always a good idea to have extra batteries for it too.
I use the Black Diamond Spot Headlamp and have been very happy with it, but I do have to change the batteries frequently for optimal lighting. If you're looking for something with a stronger light, the Petzl Actik Core ranks at the top of the line.
I don't recommend relying on your cell phone as a flashlight. It will only drain the battery faster and it can be hard to walk while holding it up, especially if you're using poles.
Toilet Paper, Trash Bag, & Hand Sanitizer
Most trails don't have toilets en route, so carry tissues or toilet paper on hikes so you're not caught stranded. Please do not leave your TP (or any other trash) on the trail! Pack a small bag so you can throw your used TP in it and carry it out. Also carry hand sanitizer.
Wearing gaiters will help keep dirt, rocks, mud, and debris out of your socks and boots. In the summer months, opt for a lower gaiter like the Outdoor Research Ferrosi Hybrid or Overdrive Wrap, whereas in the winter, wear a full length one. Personally, I don't find wearing gaiters in the summer necessary and forego this, but I know plenty of hikers who love them.
An important part of any hike is the food! Hiking burns an enormous amount of energy and you need the right calories and nutrients to keep going. Carry snacks with a variety of nutritional value. I always carry something high in protein, carbs, something sweet, and something salty. Check out this post to find out what my favorite hiking snacks are and get some new ideas!
Water Bladder and/or Water Bottle
I usually carry both. I prefer using a water bladder so I can easily take a sip while moving, but I also carry a Nalgene that has electrolytes added to it. Replenishing electrolytes will help you stay hydrated. My water bladder is the Platypus Big Zip which holds three liters of water. I've never had any problems with it leaking and it's easy to fill and clean.
Pro tip: Make sure to empty and dry your water bladder after your hike so mold doesn't start to grow! I bashfully admit I have experience with this.
I like to be prepared in case I run out of water, or sometimes I know I can't carry enough water for the hike I have planned. For these scenarios I use a Steripen to purify water from rivers, lakes or streams. I can't stress enough how many times the Steripen saved me from dehydration on hot days. It is probably my most frequently used piece of safety gear.
The Steripen uses a UV light to kill microorganisms. It only kills microorganisms, it doesn't filter debris out of the water, but you can add on this filter to your kit if you want too. You cannot use this filter alone, but you can use the Steripen without the filter. You will need a wide mouth water bottle, such as a Nalgene, to use the Steripen. You can purify one liter of water at a time by holding the UV light in the water. There is a light on the pen that tells you when it's done. The water is safe to drink immediately after completing the UV light cycle.
My boyfriend uses an entirely different water purification system and we have debates over who's is better. Of course we each think our own is. If you'd prefer to go the filtration route instead of the UV light, he uses and swears by the Sawyer Squeeze Water Filtration System. You fill one of the pouches with water and squeeze it through the filter into your water bottle or bladder and then it's good to drink.
If you don't want buy a filter or Steripen, at the very least, you should carry Water Purification Tablets. All you have to do is add two tablets to one liter of water and wait 30 minutes.
It is recommended to carry bear spray when hiking in bear country, where grizzly and brown bears are present. If you are carrying bear spray, make sure it's in an easy to grab location and you know how to use it.
Fist Aid Kit
You can buy a first aid kit or put together a homemade one like I did. Your kit, at a minimum, should have a variety of band-aids, antibiotic ointment, burn cream, blister treatment, insect repellent, alcohol pads, ibuprofen, medical tape, gauze pad, sterile gloves, small scissors, tweezers, and matches,
Satellite GPS Messenger
A lot of times when hiking you can't rely on cell phone reception. I carry a beacon for peace of mind, especially when I'm hiking solo. The beacon uses a GPS satellite system for communication and identifying your location. Most beacons allow you to send messages to a pre-determined contact to check in, say you're ok, or ask for help. During an emergency, you can contact first responders directly. I have the SPOT Gen3, which is a model they no longer make, so I'll recommend the newer version, SPOT Gen4.
Hat and Gloves
On cooler days or hiking in the high peaks, pack a warm hat and gloves. Gloves can also be helpful when you're scrambling up rough rocks. On sunny days make sure to pack a hat with a visor for sun protection.
In the spring, mosquitos and black flies can be brutal. Bug nets aren't very fashionable but they do make bug season less miserable.
The 10 Hiking Essentials
In the 1930's, The Mountaineers created a safety and packing system to aid hikers in preparing for and responding to emergencies and to prepare a hiker to safely spend a night outdoors if the situation arises. This packing system is known as the "10 Essentials." Over the years, the list has evolved, but the core elements remain the same. It is a good habit to bring these ten items on every hike.
Navigation: map, compass, GPS device, or personal locator beacon (PLB)
Headlamp: plus extra batteries
Sun protection: hat with visor, sunglasses, sunscreen, and SPF chapstick
First aid: including blister treatment and insect repellent (as needed)
Knife: plus a gear repair kit
Fire: matches, lighter, or stove
Shelter: light emergency bivy or space blanket
Extra food: Beyond the minimum expectation
Extra water: Beyond the minimum expectation
Extra clothes: Beyond the minimum expectation
As I mentioned in the beginning, I don't carry everything I have listed here on every hike. Before I begin a hike, I do a lot of research on the trails/mountain I want to hike and take into consideration the forecast, trail conditions, mileage, and difficulty of the hike. From this information I can plan my clothes, layers, and gear I need to have a safe and successful hike. Just remember, no matter how experienced of a hiker you are, you still need to carry the essentials and be prepared for emergencies. For hiking in the winter, please see my post: The Ultimate Guide to Hiking in the Winter for gear specific for those conditions.
I love talking about gear, so if you have any questions, feel free to message me!
Before you go, did you know that there is a certain trail etiquette in the mountains? Check out my blog post, Hiking Preparation, Safety Advice, & Trail Etiquette, for more information to get you ready to hit the trails.
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