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Day Hikers’ Ten Essentials Guide

Bonticou Crag, The Gunks
Bonticou Crag, The Gunks

If you’re just getting into hiking, everyone is going to recommend that you pack the 10 Essentials when you go for a hike. Then they list about 30 pieces of gear that you should bring with you, but they never actually tell you WHAT to buy. If you find this frustrating or confusing, or worse, you’re going for hikes without the 10 Essentials, I’ve pulled together a few sample gear lists for different hike durations  (up to 4 hours and more than 4 hours) that I hope you find helpful. These are suggestions based on my own brand/product experience, with an eye for low price and good cost/value performance.

My goal here is to help you understand EXACTLY what you need to buy, beg, borrow or steal, so we can get you outdoors and on the trail.

The 10 Essentials

  1. Map and Compass – You need to carry a map of the area where you’re hiking and learn how to find your  location on it based on the landmarks and trail junctions marked on it. It’s good to practice this, even if you’re just hiking in an urban park. Learning how to use a compass at a basic level soon follows. The first thing you’ll learn is how to find north which is quite easy and helps to orient your map so you can figure out where you are if you become turned around. That’s often all you need to know to find your way, but it’s nearly foolproof and doesn’t rely on batteries. GPS Receivers and Cell Phones are not part of the 10 essentials. You can bring them if you want, but nothing is more reliable than a map or compass.
  2. Sun Protection – It’s always a good idea to carry a hat, lip balm, and some sunscreen to prevent sun burn when you’re out in the open. Sunglasses can also be very helpful, particularly in winter, to prevent snow blindness (which is temporary). If you’re very sensitive to sun, you should also consider wearing special sun-proof clothing.
  3. Insulation – The amount of extra clothing and insulation you bring on a hike really depends on whether you’re hiking near a city or in the backcountry, the average day and night temperature, and whether there’s a chance you might get stuck outdoors at night. For example, if you’re doing an all-day spring hike in the mountains, it probably makes sense to bring an insulated sit pad, an insulated jacket, sweater, hat and gloves along just in case you’re out after sunset.
  4. Illumination – You should always carry a headlamp or a flashlight and some extra batteries. You want enough light that you can walk with after dark if you’ve been delayed, or that you can camp with if you decide to stop and wait until daylight.
  5. First-Aid Supplies – When you go hiking, it’s important to bring a few first aid supplies along for yourself or for the other people you’re hiking with. The eastiest thing to do is to buy a small personal first aid kit from Adventure Medical for about $17. You can also assemble your own for much less.
  6. Fire – If you unexpectedly have to spend a night out because you misjudged the distance you needed to hike, you got lost, hurt, or someone in your group is hurt, you want to have the option to make a fire. This means you should practice making a fire and have the means to reliably light one if necessary. The most reliable way I’ve found to make a fire is to use a fire steel, which is a flint-like device that throws lots of sparks, and a fire-starter like cotton balls that have been covered with vaseline. You can also carry matches for convenience, but these can get damp. Don’t waste your money on emergency matches that will burn 10 minutes under water; it’s just not necessary.
  7. Multi-tool and Repair Kit – You don’t need a big knife when you go hiking. In fact, scissors are more of a necessity than a knife, so it’s best to bring along some kind of swiss army knife or leatherman-style multi-tool. That, a small roll of duct tape, and a few safety pins are all you really need to patch up broken or torn gear.
  8. Nutrition – Hiking is exercise and you need to eat to keep your body going if you’re hiking for more than a few hours. It’s good to bring along healthy snacks with a good balance of carbohydrate, protein and fat or a sandwich if you plan on hiking all day.
  9. Hydration – When you go hiking it’s important to bring water with you and to drink it liberally. I usually drink a quart of water before I go hiking and then drink 1 quart after every two hours. You’ll feel better if you stay hydrated, particularly if it’s very hot or very cold, the water will help you digest snacks or meals, and eliminate waste. If you go for an all day hike, it’s often good to carry a water filter or Chlorine Dioxide tablets so you can purify water from a lake or stream when you run out. I rarely carry more than 3 quarts on a hike (6 pounds of water,) and just resupply from natural sources as needed.
  10. Emergency Shelter – It’s useful to carry an emergency shelter like an emergency blanket, emergency bivy, or regular bivy/sleeping bag cover if you get cold and wet or need to camp out unexpectedly. If this happens, it’s important that you avoid lying directly on cold ground all night because it will suck the heat out of your body. It’s best to bring a foam torso length sleeping pad or sit pad that you can lie on top of to remain warm. The pad doesn’t have to be full length, just long enough to fit from your hips to your collarbone.

Sample 10 Essential Gear Lists

Here are two sample gear lists that I’ve pulled together based on the 10 essentials. The first is for hikes under 4 hours, or a half-day in length. The second is for longer all day hikes that are more than 4 hours long, and where there’s a greater chance that you’ll be out after dark or run into inclement weather.

EssentialsUp to 4 HoursMore than 4 Hours
Map and CompassLocal MapLocal Map
Suunto A-10 Compass
Sun ProtectionBilled CapBilled Cap
Dermatone TinDermatone Tin
SunglassesSunglasses
Long Sleeved Synthetic Shirt
InsulationFleece SweaterFleece Sweater
Rain Jacket and PantsRain Jacket and Pants
Beanie Hat
Insulated Jacket
IlluminationSpot headlampSpot headlamp
Extra Lithium BatteriesExtra Lithium Batteries
First Aid KitAdventure Medical KitAdventure Medical Kit
FireSmall box of Wooden MatchesSmall box of Wooden Matches
Light My Fire Fire SteelLight My Fire Fire Steel
Vaseline Coated Cotton BallsVaseline Coated Cotton Balls
Tools and Repair KitSwiss Army Classic KnifeSwiss Army Classic Knife
Duct Tape, Safety PinsDuct Tape, Safety Pins
NutritionNuts, Dried Fruit, BarsNuts, Dried Fruit, Bars
Sandwich
Hydration2 Water Bottles or 70 oz Reservoir2 Water Bottles or 100 oz Reservoir
Water pruification tablets or a Sawyer water filter
Emergency ShelterEmergency BivyEmergency Bivy
Foam Sit Pad
Tarp and paracord
OtherEmergency Contact InfoEmergency Contact Info
Loud WhistleLoud Whistle
Toilet Paper and Trowel

Other Suggested Essentials

Here are a few other items that are very useful to have when you go hiking.

  • Toilet paper and a trowel to dig a cat hole so you can bury your waste
  • Gloves or glove liners to keep your hands warm
  • Rain jacket and pants. Great if it gets windy and they provide additional insulation.
  • A piece of paper with that has your emergency contact info and a list of daily medications that you need to take
  • Doggie bags, so you can pack out dog poop if hiking with your dog

Clothing Advice

Don’t wear any cotton clothing or clothing that is partially made out of cotton, bamboo, rayon, tencel, or modal because it is very slow to dry if it becomes wet and insulates poorly. Always wear synthetic or wool clothing because it’s far safer (see Why Cotton Kills.)

Choosing the Right Day Pack

You need to carry the 10 essentials in something, so you’re going to want some kind of day pack. I recommend something between 25 and 40 liters in size, depending on the length of your hiking trips. If they’re in an urban area like a park or under 4 hours in duration, you can probably get by with a smaller pack. If your hikes are longer than 4 hours in length, or you’re hiking in more rugged terrain, you’ll probably want a larger day pack so you can carry more food, water, and insulation.

Personally, I like daypacks that have a lot of external stretchy pockets and a minimally organized internal storage compartment. I put everything I will need during the day on the outside of the pack – water bottles, a wind breaker or rain coat, hat, snacks, and my map in the outer pockets, and store everything else I might need inside the pack.

Packing like this makes it very easy to quickly find things if you’re hiking with a group, especially if they have short rest stops and you’re always falling behind because it takes you so long to pack when the rest stop is over.

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7 comments

  1. I avoid all toxic chemicals.
    I wear loose-fitting bicycle pants for the close fitting ankles and smooth fabric, and a fly-fishing shirt, for full-coverage.
    There are selections comfortable in hot or hot and humid weather.
    I add stretch gaiters, if biting blackflies are present.
    I have O’Tom for safest tick removal: the method causes the imbedded parts to withdraw.

  2. Great List, and I like how everyone contributes in the comments section with their own personal favorites. Good idea to share what works for each person. I agree with several people who have commented before me that no matter how long they are out or plan on being out hiking, always take your gear with you. You never know who’s going to get hurt, what weather is going to hit you, and if you’re going to be forced to stay the night in the wilderness.

    I’ll chime in. My Wife and I live in Texas, and we have a 12 & 4 year old Sons, and 22 month old Daughter. My Wife carries our Daughter in an Osprey carrier, which has a rain fly, and suncover. My 4 year old son can handle hikes up to 8 miles, but 6 miles is the limit before he gets cranky. My 12 year old is like us, he can handle whatever is thrown at him. We just relocated about 18 months ago from the NJ, and hiking has been a big part of our lives for many years, prior to having kids.

    Remember these rules always, and you’ll be fine:

    1. BETTER TO HAVE IT AND NOT NEED IT, than to NEED IT AND NOT HAVE IT.
    2. WHERE THERE IS TWO, THERE IS ONE….WHERE THERE IS ONE, THERE IS NONE.

    These are military and scout codes you must live by. Number one is self explanatory, number two makes you think. If you have 2 of something, 1 will break and leave you with 1. If you have 1 of something, it will still break and you’ll have none.

    Hydration: Camelback 100 ounce bladder carried in a Camelback small hydration backpack for me. My Wife has a 75 ouncer in her child carrier, and my boys carry their own 75 ouncers in their Camelback packs as well.

    Food: I carry 6-8 CLIF nutrition bars carried in my Camelback backpack with us at all times. Usually a variety of flavors, as they’re all about 240-260 calories, are extremely filling, and act as a high-calorie high-protein organic meal replacement. Also beef jerky (Jack Links) and a few tiny bags of trail mix.

    Everything else I’m going to list is carried in a Maxpedition Versipack, which is a hip pack that goes on either your left or right side, comes with it’s own belt, and has a thigh strap to prevent it from flapping. It is fully adjustable, waterproof, and you don’t notice its there, even when loaded out as follows:

    * Suunto Lensatic Compass with sighting mirror and declination tool

    * Topographic Map of wherever we are hiking

    * Bushnell 350 lumens tactical flashlight with high/low/strobe and spare batteries.

    * Victorinox (Swiss Army) multi-tool (has small knife blades, scissors, saw, etc.)

    * SOL Emergency Blanket

    * SOL Bivvy Shelter

    * Small First-Aid Kit w butterfly closures, aspirin, ibuprofen, band-aids, gauze, nitrile
    gloves, tweezers, etcetera.

    * Exotac waterproof match container with 20 UCO stormproof matches & striker

    * Coghlans Fire Steel rod (backup to matches).

    * UST (Ultimate Survival Tech) Fire cubes (4). They’re individually wrapped,
    inexpensive, and will start a fire no matter what condition it is outside.

    * 50 feet of Nylon Paracord (300 lb break strength), great for mending gear or making a
    shelter if needs be.

    * Princeton-Tec headlight with spare batteries. (backup to Busnell flashlight).

    * Small roll of electrical tape and duct tape. (Good for anything).

    The items above all fit in the hip pack, and you simply don’t go out hiking in anything larger than an urban park without them if you’re smart.

    Lastly, since we do Backcountry trails frequently where we’re out the whole day (12-14) hours hiking 14-16 miles in different elevations, with rock, etcetera, I recommend the following if you’re going to be pretty far out with no one but yourself to rely on, and large animals (threats) may be present:

    1. I carry an ESEE 6 fixed blade knife. Hands down, its the toughest, highest quality indestructible knife you can have. Great as a spear, chopping trees, processing wood, defending against animals or humans, and just great to have. I carry it in a kydex sheath with an pouch attached that has a third flashlight (stream light 150 lumens) a Bic lighter, a UST fire cube (1), and 10 UCO matches in a waterproof tin.

    2. I carry a Smith & Wesson .357 magnum revolver in a chest holster. Let me be clear, I do not hunt, never have, never will. But the fact is when you’re in a park like Yosemite, Smoky Mountains, Shenandoah, or Big Bend, and you’re in the middle of hundreds of thousands of acres.. you’re going to be in Bear country (Black/Brown/Grizzly) and Mountain Lion territory. I’ve never had to kill an animal, but I’ve had to fire a warning shot into the ground in front of an aggressive Black Bear more than once to get it to retreat and stop acting aggressively (bluff charging and popping it’s teeth to show its dominance).

    Before you judge me, it’s just my preference. I prefer to have a fighting chance of getting my Wife and kids out safely, rather than be mauled or consumed. If you’re carrying a firearm (make sure it’s legal in the state/ park you’re in), and make sure it’s at least a 45 caliber or higher, but a super-powerful .357 magnum or 44 magnum is going to be needed if you actually have to kill a Brown or Grizzly bear as they can be 600-1200 pounds and a smaller round just won’t do it.

    Don’t forget rain gear, good hiking boots (We use Salomans), and a trekking pole.

    Enjoy and Good Health !!!

  3. of all the items listed, I would suggest using baby or flushable wipes instead of toilet paper

  4. Jonathon Julian Rambo

    This is an excellent guide. I read these things to spot the mistakes – none here!

    However, what works for me is a macho jumbo knife (tools) and an old sock that I wrap around my head (insulation). In it’s handle, my knife has a compass, sewing kit, a small capsule of L’Oréal Fibrology shampoo (makes my hair silky smooth and very photogenic) and a fold-out photo of Eddie “Bear” Grylls (which doubles as emergency toilet paper).

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