Day Hikers’ Ten Essentials Guide

Day Hikers 10 Essentials GuideIf 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.

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
Long Sleeved Synthetic or Wool Shirt
InsulationFleece SweaterFleece Sweater
Rain Jacket and PantsRain Jacket and Pants
Beanie Hat
Insulated Jacket
IlluminationRechargeable HeadlampRechargeable Headlamp
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
Hydration2 Water Bottles or 70 oz Reservoir2 Water Bottles or 100 oz Reservoir
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

The 10 Essentials Explained

  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 easiest 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.

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 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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  1. 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).

  2. Thank you! These tips and list is great!

  3. I’m a beginner to overnight and hikes longer than 6 hours in general so I’m finding alot of this useful information! I’m particularly interested in the fact that your children have such stamina! We are taking our 8 year old grandson for his first hike this weekend to Sun Fish Pond (you’re probably familiar). He’s a Type 1 Diabetic since age 6 and his endurance until recently has been poor while he adjusts to highs and lows of his blood glucose. I’m comfortable with what I need to bring for his care but would appreciate tips on gear. I’m taking him after school for hiking boots. I know it’s not a good idea to wear them on a hike without having ‘broken them in’ and plan on bringing alternate shoes as well. He was upset that we did Grand Canyon and Zion recently without him and my husband promised him a day trip his next weekend off. Mason will carry his ‘super bag’ (what we call his daiabetic supplies bag) so I’m not worried about a pack yet but would appreciate your suggestion. We will probably keep his first time out to 4 hours. Thanks.

  4. thanks for the lists & comments ! very useful & informative for this virgin dayhiker

  5. I suggest Bear Spray for animals. A .357 is not likely to kill a Grizzle bear and even a .44 mag is only effective with well placed shot. Bear spray is extremely effective and will not permanently hurt the animal.

    • No bear spray is not effctive if the bear acutally wants anything to do with you if not then it is a good way to get a angry and get you killed. If you are a hiker you are likely to that food in your pack which will attraceted bears to you but bear spary isnt effctive espcialy with all of that thick fur and even if you spary them in the eyes. I know this since I lived in alsaka and have had many many a encounter with bears and I have been sprayed with bear spray as a joke and even though it hurt very badly I was still able to think. Your best chance is a gun it will hurt them and has a better chance of scaring them away.

  6. I’m glad you included duct tape as it can also be used to close a wound in addition to fixing gear. I would ad a small whistle to signal with unless one’s pack already has one – a separate plastic “ref’s” style is still louder and weighs next to nothing. I would also recommend a spare pair of clean socks for two purposes. The first is in case your worn pair gets wet but the second reason is as a wound cleaner and larger bandage. Just this past weekend one of my hiking buddies fell and had a very large scraped area on his leg (about the size of a hand). The gauze that came with the kit we had was too small. We cleaned his wound with one sock and wrapped the wounded area with the other plus athletic tape (far more durable and wider than what is usually included in cheap kits). An alternate would have been an Ace style bandage with the smaller gauze. BTW, the athletic tape also works better than mole skin for feet hot spots in my experience in that it is low profile (thinner), more durable, more conformal, and cheaper. At a recent troop meeting we also included knowledge as the 11th essential.

  7. Hi, Bob again. I forgot two other things I like to carry. One can now get miniature charcoal style lighters about 3-4″ long that are cheap and fool proof. They warm quickly in a pocket in cool weather. While I would not recommend a $20 paracord bracelet (make your own if you must) I do recommend a small amount of cord and I even carry some industrial strength velcro. In the warmer months we try to bring at least on tick removal key. Lastly, I have a couple cheap carbines on my pack and they do get used from time to time although in reality it might just be hiker bling!

  8. Bob correction: Darn auto spell checker – I don’t bring a couple carbines, just carabiners!

  9. I didn’t know modal. tencel, bamboo is not safe. Is that really true? So the active wear made from these fabrics is not safe?
    Or do you think they are now better than 2 years ago?
    Would love to hear your opinion.

  10. There is at least one essential missing from this list, which is that if you haven’t told a friendly exactly where you are going, leave a route plan with time and date and estimated return under the seat of your vehicle. As a former first responder, narrowing the search area early can be key to successful rescue.

    Second, if you are fit, and the weight isn’t an option, take the stuff on the extended list . Accidents, getting lost, crazy weather shifts and medical emergencies don’t seem to know that you were only going to be out a few hours.

    Last, I carry a full first aid kit but apart from blister, tick removal and bandaids the two things I would always carry (solo hike ALWAYS) are an instant cold pack and 4” ace bandage. I’ve encountered more twisted or sprained ankles on the trails than anything else. Having these can be the difference between walking out on your own and waiting for rescue.

    Also, throw in a tube of crazy glue. Not just for repair but also a few drops can close a wound . With 550 cord, crazy glue and duct tape you can fix almost anything.

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