Beyond the 10 Essentials
The Prepared Hikers Checklist comes from personal experience.
The most unpleasant hiking experience I’ve ever had was a trip where one of our group got heat exhaustion.
We were dealing with some pretty rough dehydration issues and got lost as it grew dark. We didn’t have the electrolytes we needed or enough flashlights for the people in our group. And then we got separated without any means of contacting each other, no cell service, no walkie-talkies, not even a whistle.
This experience taught me a valuable lesson.
Pack prepared, even if it’s only supposed to be a simple day hike.
Everyone survived; we eventually made it back to the cars. But it was twenty-two hours of hiking, a search-and-rescue team to hook one of us up to an IV, and some severe sunburns that left a lasting impression on everyone concerned.
Since that infamous hike, my husband and I have started keeping our day packs stocked between hikes, ready to grab for any last-minute trips.
Here are some of the things we discovered are valuable to pack, even if you’re “sure” you won’t need them. This list is based on the 10 Essentials, plus some things we like to add.
Before you start packing, you need a pack
What to look for in a hiking day pack
Sure, you can use your commuter pack for very short hikes. But a comfortable, quality day pack is essential to the success of any moderate to challenging hike.
Hiking packs are measured in liters. A typical day hike pack is 20-35 liters.
- Sturdy zippers and fasteners. A quality pack will last for decades.
- Hip belt that fits properly. The hip belt distributes the packs weight evenly, taking the load off your shoulders.
- Sternum strap to keep the pack from shifting. A sliding pack will chafe and possibly knock you off balance.
- Hydration pack sleeve if you use a water bladder.
Our top hiking day pack pick for men
Our top hiking day pack pick for women
10 Essentials for day hiking
Map and compass
Bring a paper map of the area you are hiking, preferably a topographical trail map. These are usually available online. Print one and put it in a large Ziploc to keep it dry.
Here is a resource list of hikes by state for those hiking in the United States.
Also, load the map onto your phone or GPS device, but don’t count on technology – connections and battery life are unreliable.
Unless your “hike” is a jaunt on a nature trail with civilization in view, bring a compass and learn to use it before you go out.
Here’s a great tutorial:
First aid kit
Pack the first-aid kit – see our post How to Build Your Own First Aid Kit .
You can also buy ready-made kits.
Consider sunglasses, sunscreen, lip balm with SPF, and possibly a hat.
Sun protection is just as important, if not more, for hiking in the snow. Snow sunburns are nasty.
If it’s t-shirt weather, pack an extra long sleeve shirt and a fleece layer.
If you’re hiking in the shoulder season, bring a rain shell.
When nighttime temperatures fall below freezing in the winter, bring a second base layer – like a silk or wool undershirt – a fleece, and a coat.
I have recently fallen in love with SmartWool. Wool naturally regulates temperature, either insulating and keeping you warm or cooling you down in warmer weather. The fabric is soft, not itchy like most wools.
Flashlight or headlamp
It happens more often than we think. We stay out a little too long, and the sun starts to set on the hike back. Or, in the case of our infamous hike, physical complications kept us on the trail way too late for comfort.
A good headlamp can be the difference between safely navigating a trail and literally stumbling around in the dark.
We like our Black Diamond headlamps.
Most headlamps have a strobe feature that can serve as a signaling light in a rescue situation.
PS. Bring extra batteries for the flashlight/headlamp (make sure they’re the right size).
Test out your firestarter of choice before staking your life on it.
Waterproof matches or matches in a waterproof container (we live in the Northwest, things get wet all the time).
Ideally, have 2 or 3 options for starting a fire.
Bring a pocket knife or multi-tool.
Choose your size, remember, you have to carry it, some multi-tools weight as much as a hammer!
You may need to repair your pack or another piece of gear.
For an authentic MacGuyver experience, bring a wad of duct tape – not the whole roll – just a length you’ve wound around an item in your pack.
Snacks and an extra emergency snack.
We keep a trail bar of some sort (see Day Hiking Food for the Trail) in our pack as an additional energy source if we find ourselves in a pickle.
Speaking of pickles, pack some nutrient-dense, salty food – nuts, jerky, or trail mix – if you find your energy taking a nosedive, you might be low on electrolytes.
And, as we mention in our ‘How to Become a Hiker’ video, bring some fun food. On a day hike, you can afford a bit extra pack weight, and it’s motivating to have treats to look forward to.
Bring twice as much water as you think you’ll need- camelback, water bottle, water bag….there are lots of water carrying options, be sure you have plenty.
I’ve been on a hike with friends that were trekking along with gallon milk jugs of water stashed on their back.
Water purification system
We use Life Straws, again, in case you run out of water or get stuck….
Also, leave a stash of water in the car. You might return on empty and will be thankful to have more – even if it’s sun-warmed. Blech!
A good thing to have if you need some extra help getting warm or need to build a shelter.
Beyond the 10 essentials
Ziplock bags always come in handy for something.
Leave no trace and pack out all your trash in a Ziploc.
Gloves and extra socks
This item could be included in extra clothing, but I mention it again for those who get cold extremities. Dry, warm gear will make a trip a lot more enjoyable.
Again, SmartWool is amazing.
You might want to pack a few hand/foot warmer packs, too, if it’s frigid.
Pen and a small notepad
If you need to leave someone a note, make a sketch, or have a moment of creative inspiration, you don’t want to forget.
Form of identification
Keep some form of identification in one of your pockets and your pack.
We have a printable identification card here that you can print, fill out, and laminate.
Or stick it in a ziplock bag.
Toilet paper in a Ziploc bag; self-explanatory.
Facial tissues are also a good idea for runny noses.
Consider bringing a folding trowel if you know you’ll be using the great outdoors to do your business.
Because…toilet paper, Ziploc bags, and folding trowels.
Electrolyte drink mix.
If you are drinking copious amounts of water, you will be depleting your electrolytes. Too much water without replacing electrolytes can cause a dangerous imbalance in our blood chemistry called hyper hydration.
Throw an electrolyte drink mix into your water along the way to balance you out.
Electrolytes help to prevent cramping and generally make you feel better on strenuous hikes.
Even though most places we hike, there isn’t reliable cell service, I use my phone as my camera, so packing it and a protective casing is important to me.
I either keep it handy in my pocket or slide it in a ziplock to keep it dry on rainy days. There are lots of options for waterproof cases if you want something permanent.
Rope or cordage
Just a good thing to have.
One possible use for a rope is to create a sun shelter or emergency shelter in combination with your emergency blanket.
You may need to hang your food items in a tree to keep your pack safe from critters.
You never know how a rope will come in handy until you need it.
A whistle is an essential item for rescue situations. It lets searchers know where you are, particularly if you are immobile.
3 luxury items for day hikes
Maybe not the most high-tech item nowadays, but these are great when hiking with a large group.
Admittedly, we have only used these when hiking with people that already owned them. Still, I thought I’d mention them because they’re great when you are hiking out of cell service, with lots of people, and plan to split up or think there is the potential of getting separated.
Not an essential, but a pair of poles or a walking stick can add a lot of comfort for beginner hikers, people of a certain age, or anyone with creaky knees.
If your hike involves abrupt elevation change, consider adding poles to your gear list.
Portable phone charger
Reliable cell service or not, most people bring their cell phones when hiking.
The camera, note-taking ability, and downloaded maps make them useful.
Readers will want their phone, so they have a lightweight book or bible on hand. And the flashlight and a mirror app can be a nice luxury.
Sometimes, even if you can’t make a call, you can get a text out – for safety purposes or to make your family feel better.
All of this usefulness comes at the cost of battery life.
Bring a fully loaded portable battery charger, and you’ll have enough juice to get through the longest hike.
4 Things you might need
Feminine hygiene products
Ladies, bring what you need if you even remotely think you may need it.
There are no Walgreens on the trail. Better safe than supremely uncomfortable.
As a mosquito beacon, I always like to have bug spray.
If you’re hiking in the spring or fall, it’s also a good idea.
One way to decide if you’ll need it? Check the review comments on major hiking sites like All-Trails and see what other hikers have to say. If there’s a bug problem, someone will have mentioned it.
My personal favorite is a homemade version from Wellness Mama. It’s been very successful for me and far less toxic than commercial options.
If you are gonna hang with the bears, bring some bear spray.
And know how to use it!
Here’s a video explaining bear spray.
Be prepared to manage any chronic medical condition for 2-3 days.
What would happen if you found yourself spending a night in the woods – would a lack of medication put you at serious risk? Then figure out a way to bring extra.
Share the load
If you aren’t a fan of carrying all of this stuff, split some things up between yourself and a hiking buddy.
You probably don’t need two first aid kits or two bottles of sunscreen. Be creative and divvy up the load.
One last thing you need to do before a hike:
Leave your itinerary and whereabouts with someone responsible. If you don’t check-in, they can alert the closest ranger station.
And, leave a copy of the itinerary in your car.
Personalize your packing list using Our Checklist Template
We sincerely hope you don’t need any of this stuff! OK, we do want you to eat your fun snacks.
And, it can seem a little silly to pack survival gear for a 10-mile day hike. But, like we discovered the day we had to get an IV bag administered on the trail, you never know.
You may discover that there are specific things that suit your area. In the southwest, you probably need to add a snake bite kit; I’m not sure. I live in a part of the world without a single venomous snake.
Use common sense. If you’re hiking in Hawaii, you probably don’t need gloves and SmartWool, but sunscreen would be at the top of the list, right below water.
Use the blank spaces in our Day Hike Packing Checklist to start adding in things you think of while hiking. To get the checklist, sign up for our free Jaunty Library of Printables.
We call it the “wish we had it” list!