Welcome to our quick guide on what to pack for a day hike and why, my recommendations, and a hiking essentials checklist.
Day hiking is one the best ways for everyone to enjoy the wilderness. You can plan a route as short or as long as your ability and fitness allows, and even tailor it around kids and dogs. But if you’re new to hiking, knowing what to pack for a day hike can be trickier than you might think, and very easy to get wrong. Many novice hikers take far too much stuff, making their packs unnecessarily heavy and uncomfortable. Others take all the wrong stuff. And some don’t take anything at all!
Knowing what to pack for a day hike can be the difference between life and death. Or less dramatically, it can be the difference between a comfortable and enjoyable day, and a day that makes you never want to go exploring again.
We want everyone to get out there and enjoy our wonderful wild places as much as possible. And we want you to do as safely as possible. So to ensure that you have everything you need to safely enjoy short, medium or long day hikes, we’ve put together a list of hiking essentials for beginners. The list is also a good reminder for more experienced hikers.
For a quick guide on what to pack for a day hike use our checklist. Click the ‘x’ to delete items off the list that you know you don’t need. Then click the box next to all the other items once you’ve packed them.
For more information on each item click on the category headings to skip further down in the article.
Food and water
Health and hygiene
More about your hiking essentials
Before you even start to gather your hiking essentials, you’ll need to have something to carry them in! If you’re planning on a fairly short hike then any small backpack will do, so long as it’s comfortable and strong enough to hold all your gear. However, for longer day hikes you’ll need something that is supportive, lightweight and with good storage options, as well as being highly comfortable.
For more information on how to choose a daypack for hiking, take a read of our gear guide.
There are plenty of short day hikes out there that are well signed and only require basic map reading skills. However, should you wish to venture further afield you’ll need this navigation essentials in your pack.
Map and compass
Never head out on a hike without a map. And if you have a map then you also need a compass. However, both become pretty useless unless you know how to use them so be sure to do your homework first.
Further reading: Map reading skills, How to measure distance on a map
GPS device (non-essential item)
Although a non-essential item, a GPS device is a good addition to your day hiking gear list if you are exploring more technical terrain. It’s essential that you know how to use it. But when applied correctly, its use in conjunction with a map and compass makes for a failsafe navigation system.
Further reading: GPS devices options, Hiking watches buying guide
Food and drink
Ensuring you have adequate fuel for you hike is not only essential for your enjoyment, but also for your survival. Regardless of the conditions you should always take plenty of water with you at the very least. But food to keep your energy levels high is also needed.
Snacks and lunch
Some hikers like to snack throughout the day and skip lunch altogether. Others prefer a good sized lunch with a few backup snacks. I like both! Until you understand how much food you need, it’s better to take a good lunch that will sustain you plus some high calorie snacks to top up your energy levels if you need.
Further reading: Hiking snack recipes, Backpacking food ideas
Packing plenty of drinking water is even more important than food. In hot weather, hikers should drink at least 2 litres of water in a day, and more for big day hikes. Even in cold weather, drinking lots of water is essential as dehydration can accelerate the effects of hypothermia, frostbite and fatigue.
Further reading: Hydration bladder buying guide, Thermos flask buying guide
Water filter (non-essential item)
A water filter is non-essential item for day hiking as there are few reasons why you won’t be able to carry enough water in a daypack. However, if you are hiking with kids or dogs who can’t carry much then you may want to consider taking a water filter, providing you know that there are good sources of water on the trail.
Further reading: A guide to water filters and purifyers
On short hikes or in windy conditions it can be easy to underestimate the effects of the sun on hikers. Even if you start a hike in the cloud or rain, conditions can change very quickly so sun protection should always be packed, regardless of the outlook.
Opt for a high factor sunscreen (SPF 30 or above). To avoid carrying a full sized bottle you can decant the cream into a small travel-sized bottle. This saves weight and space in your pack.
Further reading:Recommended all natural sunscreen
Sure, we don’t all look fabulous in hats. And some hats may even make you feel hotter than if you don’t wear one at all. But a sun hat is an essential for days hikes in sunny conditions. It not only helps keep the sun out of your eyes, but it will protect the top of your head from burning. There are loads of lightweight options that are constructed of UV protective fabric and are breathable for sweaty heads!
Further reading: A guide to sun hats for hiking
The glare of the sun can be highly damaging to your eyes after prolonged exposure. For those hiking in snowy conditions it is even more dangerous as the sun reflects off the snow too. Good sunglasses should have UV protective lenses. They should also be polarised for those hiking in snowy conditions as this helps reduce the glare.
Further reading: Rheos sunglasses
On most day hikes you will ever go on, you will never use your safety gear. However, the odds are that the one time you don’t take it, you’ll need it! So NEVER go hiking without packing these essentials.
First aid kit
For most days hikes a basic, pocket first aid kit will be just fine. Ensure that it is fully stocked and that any medication or pain killers are in date. It’s also a good idea to store a first aid kit in a dry bag to prevent its contents getting saturated.
Further reading:First aid kit options
Aside from being mega useful in emergency situations when on out on the trail, a pocket knife is also a very versatile tool in non-emergency situations. Cutting up food, opening a bottle, whittling, filing your nails etc etc.
Further reading:How to whittle plus a guide to knives
It may seem a little unnecessary to pack a headlamp for a day hike. However, should things go wrong and you end up out on the trail after dark having a headlamp with you can prevent even more mishaps and help get you out of a sticky situation.
Further reading: Headlamp buying guide
The ability to light a fire out in the wilderness can be a lifesaver if things a awry. Not only does fire provide warmth and the ability to cook food and boil water, it is also a highly effective for emergency signalling. Ensure your lighter is full of fuel, and also consider bringing a backup fire stick.
Further reading: Fire starter kits
Another excellent signalling tool for drawing attention to yourself in an emergency situation is a whistle. It’s useful to know a few key signals and essential that you never use it unless you need to.
Further reading:Emergency whistle options
Designed to keep people warm in emergency situations, foil blankets are especially useful for winter hikers or those hiking in wilderness areas. You’ll hopefully never need to use one, but they’re so small and lightweight that it’s silly not to pack one anyway. Many first aid kits contain them, or you can buy them separately.
Further reading: Foil blanket
Health and hygiene
Though some of the most important things to pack for a day hike, items for health and hygiene are often a second thought. You may want to bring more than what we have on our list (hand sanitiser, tissues etc), but these are the essentials.
Toilet paper etc
Packing toilet paper is, of course, entirely optional for number one’s. Some people hike with a pee cloth hanging on the back of their pack. I like to take some loo roll in a zip lock bag with another zip lock bag inside it to store used paper in.
For number two’s it’s a good idea to take a trowel as well as paper, being sure to bury everything (paper and all) in an appropriate place away from the trail and water sources.
Further reading: Leave no trace quiz
If you need to take medication then it should be the very first thing you pack. Then make sure it’s the very last thing you check you’ve packed before you set off.
Further reading:Health benefits of camping
Insect repellent (non-essential item)
This is a non-essential item in many locations and climates. However, in certain areas or at specific times of the year, hiking without bug spray can be downright miserable! A little research before your hiking will help you decide whether it’s needed or not. But if in doubt then it’s worth packing a small bottle.
Further reading: Insect repellent options
What you wear to hike in is highly dependent on the weather, location and time of year. For more information on the specifics of hiking clothing, read our article on what to wear hiking.
There are, however, a few items that you probably won’t need to wear, but will need to pack in your daypack in case the conditions change.
During the summer you may need a long sleeved layer for sun protection. At other times of the year you may need multiple layers for warmth if the conditions change or to prevent you from cooling when you stop to rest.
Further reading: Base layers buying guide
There’s nothing worse than hiking in soggy socks because you accidentally stepped in a bog or slipped in a stream. A change of socks can make everything better and can often help if you feel like you are getting blisters.
Further reading: Hiking socks buying guide
In cooler, less predictable climates it’s a good idea to pack a pair of waterproof pants. These should be worn over the top of your existing pants or leggings and should be easy to get on and off on the trail.
Further reading: Waterproof pants buying guide
A waterproof jacket is a must for day hikes in changeable conditions. Many hikers also wear them if it is windy to help block out the breeze and keep the warmth in.
Further reading: Waterproof jackets for men, Waterproof jackets for women
Gloves (non-essential item)
Gloves are a non-essential for many day hikers. However, in cooler conditions or when winter hiking a good pair of wind and waterproof gloves should be packed or worn to prevent frostbite at worst or miserable hiking at best!
Further reading: Gloves buying guide
Hat or buff (non-essential item)
A wooly hat is another non-essential for summer hikers, but a game-changer for hiking in cooler weather. If you’re not sure whether you’ll need one or not then an excellent and versatile alternative is to pack a lightweight buff which can also double as sun protection for your head and neck.
Further reading: Ways to wear a buff
Everyone will have a different set of things on their extras list. However, these few items are things we think are pretty important to take on a day hike.
Though it certainly shouldn’t be relied upon, taking a cell phone hiking is a good idea as a backup. It’s likely that there won’t be signal available to use it, but you never know. Be sure that it’s fully charged at the start of the hike and that you store it in a waterproof bag.
Further reading: Waterproof phone case
Make sure you pack some cash. If you get lost and find yourself coming off the trail in an unexpected location then some cash to get a bus, buy some food or take a taxi back to base will be essential.
A camera is an absolute non-essential item on our list of what to pack for a day hike. However, it’s here as a reminder that you may want to pack one as there’s nothing more annoying that leaving it behind when you intended bringing it.
Further reading: Recommended hiking cameras
Hiking poles are another non-essential item for day hiking. However, for those battling joint issues using hiking poles can be a huge help and may mean you can hike further and in comfort.
Further reading: How to use hiking poles, The benefits of hiking poles
As you can tell, there are a fair few items on the above list of what to pack for a day hike. Some items are weather dependent and others may come down to personal preference. And although it’s not ideal to carry more than you need, it’s better to be prepared for anything. The more you hike, the more you will realise what you do and don’t need. So long as you’ve got the essentials, you’ll be good to go.
Happy packing, happy hikers!