Anyone who follows our blog will have noticed that our travels continue to include more and more hiking all the time. While we’ve always enjoyed getting out onto the trails to properly enjoy the best scenery in the world, as we’ve steadily checked items off our bucket list (i.e. incredible landmarks, exotic cities, inexplicable bus rides) we have leaned more and more into tackling all the best hiking trails we can find. We recently spent a month in Canmore doing spectacular day hikes so we decided it was time to properly outline our day hike packing list.
Of course, we are still obsessively working our way through the list of the world’s most epic long-distance treks, as well. These strenuous adventures provide a completely unique experience different than anything you get returning to the same hotel or apartment rental each night. A sense of separation and accomplishment very different than that achieved on day hikes. However…
However… day hiking offers a lot of advantages as well, things that shouldn’t be overlooked. Comfort, for one thing. Of course, not all long-distance treks involve high altitudes, freezing temperatures and awful cots in plywood rooms. But some do (Nepal, we’re looking in your direction). And they don’t all require you to sleep in dorms with prodigious snorers who probably shouldn’t have gone so hard on the refried beans at dinner. But some do (hey there, Tour du Mont Blanc). Regardless, there is also something simple and enjoyable about visiting a great hiking destination and working through all the best day hikes at your leisure, always returning to the same place every night, sleeping comfortably and privately, eating well and staying warm.
Benefits of Day Hiking
Instead of either mapping out your exact itinerary and booking every night’s hotel in advance or spending a lot of time each day worrying about where you’ll end up for the night, you simply return to the same place every night where you can, presumably, sleep comfortably and privately.
Since you don’t have a specific end destination in mind, and don’t need to reach a certain goal each day, day hiking lets you adjust your plans as much as needed. Bad weather? Put that highlight hike off for a day or two and switch to that short river walk that ends with happy hour at the pub. Legs still feeling it after yesterday’s strenuous climb? Maybe today’s a good day to sit on the couch and watch a Mad Men marathon.
There’s a reason it’s called a “day pack”. It is smaller, lighter, and only designed to the carry the few things you need for the next 2-8 hours rather than all the clothes, snacks, phone chargers and lucky ear plugs you might need for a month-long journey. Most long-distance trekkers spend countless hours obsessing over ways to reduce the weight of their pack. Lessening your load by even a kilogram or two can make a huge difference over the course of the day, let alone weeks or months. When you are day hiking, though, that problem kind of takes care of itself. You don’t need to carry a towel, or your e-reader, or an emergency power bank, or, hopefully, spare underwear. Which makes it that much easier to battle through a 20 km hike with 1,000 metres of elevation gain.
Of course, that doesn’t mean you don’t have to prepare. A general theme is that the better the hike, the more remote it is and the more treacherous the terrain. Mountain hiking, in particular, while generally the most spectacular, can be fraught with peril. Unpredictable weather, hazardous trails, inconveniently deadly grizzlies, etc. all need to be taken into account before you hit the trail. And if you just start throwing in everything that tickles your hiking fancy it won’t be long before your pack is just as heavy as that guy hiking the pilgrimage from London to Rome in a full denim outfit spreading the ashes of all his childhood pets along the way. Prepare for everything, yes, but prepare smart. Meaning no camp chairs for your lunch break and leave that Instagram cape at home.
Day Hike Packing List
Obviously, the specific contents of your pack should be tailored to the location, terrain, weather, length and difficulty of the hike, just how likely you are to end up in a frantic life or death tussle with a wild animal, and your daily horoscope. “Opportunities abound but be on the lookout for falling boulders” practically forces you into some packing adjustments. But this list covers everything you should normally consider and provides our recommendations for all the best stuff.
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Day Hike Essentials
First and foremost, you need to choose a pack. Weather and hike length will usually determine how large your day pack needs to be, but we find that some combination of the following 4 will cover pretty much every eventuality, as well as being extremely sturdy and comfortable. Things to look for in a good main day pack:
Accessible top pocket for commonly-used items (gloves, hat, sunscreen)
Mesh side pockets big enough to hold a water bottle
Sleeve for a water bladder
Hip belt pockets for small, frequently used items (phone, Kleenex, lip balm, Ring of Power)
The Sea to Summit doesn’t meet any of these criteria but it is a collapsible pack that weighs practically nothing and folds up into its own pocket about the size of a racquetball or mature cow eyeball. Which makes it very handy to carry around “just in case”, but since it offers no support it only works for the very smallest of loads. With one person carrying the bulk of the food/water, etc. we often have the second person carry this one just for clothes that go on and off throughout the hike.
Sea to Summit Ultra-Sil 20L (collapsible)
That last one is the backpack I’m currently using for basically everything because it is, honestly, pretty amazing. Super-light, sturdy and specifically designed for hiking, I wore it up and down mountains in the Alps and Nepal last year, but even at that volume it is still small enough to qualify as carry-on for all our international flights over the past year. It is technically bigger than we need on day hikes but is so comfortable that I often use it anyway, usually stuffing my light down jacket into the bottom to take up space and get it to pack properly even on short outings. I can’t recommend it highly enough.
Day Hike Food
As always, personal preference is pretty key here. But you should at least try to carry some mix of protein, carbs and sugar. As enticing as a huge bag of Hershey’s Kisses may sound it won’t provide the kind of lasting energy your legs need for big hikes. We always carry our own version of trail mix (mixed nuts liberally sprinkled with M&Ms) and then, depending on the day and the hike, also buns with salami and cheese, beer sticks, beef jerky, snap peas and fruit. We save the fettuccini alfredo for only very special occasions. Also, always make sure you have a bag of some sort to pack out your trash.
About ½ a litre per hiking hour in average conditions. Double that on hot days, cut it in half on cold ones. Or just pay attention to how much you usually need and use that as your guide. Depending on the hike, we sometimes prefer to use our Camelbak with its handy, accessible hose, and sometimes we go with multiple bottles (better for washing down lunch or periodic guzzling). We also always carry a couple water treatment pills just in case we run out of water unexpectedly. Slip one in a litre of stream water, shake, and half an hour later you are good to go.
Day Hike Clothes
It’s absolutely cliché, but always go with layers. It generally seems like the better the hike the more times we have to stop and change our clothes along the way. Uphill/downhill, windy/calm, sunny/cloudy, raining/not raining, etc. all have drastic and immediate effects on your choice of apparel.
Of course, in the middle of summer you probably won’t need the same amount of layers as you would in the mountains in September, but always keep in mind that when you reach the top of things it is usually a lot colder than you expected.
I’m not going to go in-depth into the whole shoes vs boots debate, as that could (and has) gone on for hours in certain crowds (and internet comment sections). All I’ll say is that we personally prefer shoes and it is the one area we never skimp on quality. Good hiking footwear might be the single most influential choice when it comes to enjoying a tough hike. After 5 great years going through 3 pairs of Patagonias, they stopped making shoes altogether and I had to branch out. I then spent a few years wearing Oboz Bridgers – very solid but take a long time to break in. I’m currently trying out a new pair of Salomon Cross Hikes and so far am very impressed. Comfortable, light and they don’t look like every other hiking shoe out there. Laynni doesn’t really have a favourite but really likes these Merrell’s she’s been wearing lately.
Good socks are almost as important as good shoes, and I have yet to find a better hiking sock than medium weight Smartwool crews. I literally get excited to put them on right after they come out of the dryer. A little trick/habit I picked up somewhere along the way was to always carry a second pair of socks, then change into dry ones halfway through the hike. I swear, it feels roughly 50% as good as having a shower. For some reason, these specific men’s sock only come in three basic colours (the more interesting ones are not the same sock) while women get a whole bunch of colours and patterns to choose from.
Obviously, when it is hot outside shorts can be more comfortable, and if you happen to be from New Zealand, you’ll never consider wearing anything but. However, if conditions allow, pants provide better protection from sun, bugs and all the scratchy bushes and undergrowth you might encounter while hiking. My choice of pale blue may have been a mistake from aesthetics and “wearing a grey jacket” standpoints, but for comfort and function I haven’t found better hiking pants than this pair from Outdoor Research. When it comes to shorts, though, I find almost anything solid with pockets will do.
Laynni hikes in compression leggings that she swears by for the extra knee, hip and muscle support. Apparently, compression leggings also help with recovery time after the hike. She researched compression leggings fairly comprehensively and is very happy with her latest pair, which also just happen to be one of the cheaper options (always high on her priority list).
Should you carry rain pants? Well, that depends on a few things. One, are you expecting it to rain really hard while you’re hiking? If so, then, yeah, consider pants. However, if that is the case we usually choose to just stay inside that day, but each to their own. Overall, I find pants much more important on long-distance treks where you can’t afford to get one of your only 2 pairs of pants soaking wet. On day hikes, presumably, you are just heading back to a warm, comfortable room or apartment at the end of the day where you will have at least one super-comfy pair of sweatpants to wear while waiting for the others to dry.
My latest hiking pants don’t require a belt (handy) but I have used one in the past and if you happen to need one, I’d recommend this one from Arcade because it is stretchy, fashionable (in my middle-aged opinion) and, best of all, doesn’t have any metal so can be worn through the metal detectors in the airport.
As far as we’re concerned, nothing compares to merino wool. Light, warm and quick-drying, it is also practically mystical in its ability to soak up sweat for days without starting to smell like rancid pork. Of course, that is just an example, maybe your sweaty cotton shirts actually smell more like free range eggs, softly boiled, or perhaps moist lettuce, I can’t say for sure. I just know that your merino wool shirt won’t. They don’t come cheap but good ones last for years and are worth every penny. We both carry at least one long-sleeve and one short-sleeve on every trip, no matter where we go. And Laynni is also a recent convert to merino wool bras, meaning that in cool weather there is now a longer sweet spot between her complaining about being hot and sweaty to complaining about being cold and damp. It still happens, it just happens more slowly now.
What kind of jacket you need, and how many of them, will obviously depend on the weather. In colder climes the first should usually be a high-performance fleece, a comfortable sweater or hoodie, or even a trendy flannel plaid number. That’s up to you. As long as it’s warm without being bulky.
The second should be a windbreaker of some sort. Or a rain jacket can work, a little hotter but also providing another level of protection. Personally, I almost always carry a super-light wind jacket that packs up tiny and weighs next to nothing, and my rain jacket usually stays at home.
Not that I’m willing to take my chances with the rain, I actually just prefer even more protection than that provided by the typical rain jacket. Enter: “El Poncho”. Do they look cool? Hell no. Do they provide the maximum level of protection possible for both you and your backpack in a heavy downpour? You better believe it, Jack. Just make sure you get the kind with arms. The cape-types tend to blow all over the place in a strong wind. Laynni, however, prefers to take her chances with just a rain jacket on day hikes, leaving her poncho for multi-day treks. Hey, not everyone can be right.
Day Hike Essentials
These have always been handy for protecting against sudden cold winds, filtering out dust on dry trails and providing an added layer for warmth. But now they can also serve as an impromptu face covering if you suddenly stumble across a masks-required pub and Golden Tee emporium at the top of the mountain.
Protect yourself from sun, rain, unfortunate bird shit and awkward hair days. Yes, it is true that some people look ridiculous in hats. To them, I suggest, pick the one that looks the least ridiculous and don’t linger around mirrors.
I am irrationally and irreparably addicted to wearing sunglasses, to the point that my eyes revolt if I so much as think about going outside without comfortable shading. If Corey Hart hadn’t made wearing sunglasses at night so 80’s cliché I’d probably be all over that shit, too. Regardless, it can be very bright when hiking outdoors so even normal people should usually carry sunglasses.
But what if you aren’t expecting any calls? Well, I guess you’ll just have to settle for using it as a map, camera, notepad, compass and stereo. Just to start. Plus, you never know where you might run across your next Pokéstop. We are still stubbornly attached to the iPhone SE because even the new version (in a case, no less) is still small enough to fit in our hip belt pockets. And you’ll definitely want to take some photos of all the great scenery, fascinating wildlife and, if you’re lucky, bright yellow larches.
Serious photographers may also opt for a serious camera. Phone cameras are incredibly high quality these days but they still can’t compete with a high-quality camera with a zoom lens to capture the nuance of shade and elevation of those distant hills, or an HD close-up of that orangutan penis you are hoping might get you onto the cover of National Geographic. Then you need the very best wildlife camera out there.
Don’t get me wrong, selfies are obviously still the bomb. But, just on the off-chance you may want a photo of yourself that doesn’t look like you are really happily reaching up to grab a security camera, having a good octopus tripod can come in handy. It is small and lightweight enough to be worth carrying even if you don’t end up using it.
First Aid kit
We would suggest alcohol wipes, Polysporin, bandages (“plasters” for you Brits), Ibuprofen, and maybe a little Imodium for good luck. You might also want to consider to tensor bandage if you are prone to ankle injuries.
Don’t know if you’ve heard, but the ozone sucks these days. Sunscreen can help with that. Although covering up with clothes as much as you can physically withstand is an even better plan. Either way, you’ll want to just put a little bit in a smaller container rather than carrying it all.
Day Hike Packing List – Optional Items
Clearly, this only really applies for colder day hikes. And, sure, you can call it a beanie or ski cap or wool cap or winter hat or even a crochet helmet, it really doesn’t matter to me. But I’m Canadian born in the 70’s and I’m calling it a toque. I know people hate learning new things but if you are okay with wasting valuable memory space on new words like “hellacious” and “freegan”, surely you can set aside some room to memorize this cute little French word.
Weather dependent again, of course. And, while mitts are, overall, warmer and certainly have their place, I find I often need the use of my fingers while hiking, so gloves it is. These days you can get ones that are screen-sensitive so you don’t need to take them off to take photos. Depending how often you expect to get rained on you may also want to invest in some good waterproof gloves or carry some thin rain-proof shells to go over top.
Bathing Suit & Towel
These items are only useful on a very select day hike that just happens to take place on a very warm, sunny day and ends at a beautiful lake that is somehow not cold enough to literally stop your heart. But in that specific circumstance, a mid-hike dip could be a fun, refreshing break.
Personally, I basically never feel the need to take off perfectly good, relatively dry clothes just to voluntarily submerge myself in frigid mountain water. Then again, I also have a much lower tolerance for cold water than most. Most toddlers, I mean.
They definitely aren’t necessary on every hike but really come in handy on certain types of terrain. We only started using poles a few years ago but, like anything, now that we’re used to them we usually prefer to have them with us. They don’t magically make every hike easy – you are still exerting the same amount of energy, you are just getting some of it from your arms instead of letting your legs do all the work. Which is particularly important if you have legs like mine which have, on occasion, been compared to weirdly hairy driftwood. Not to brag or anything.
More importantly, however, is how poles help steady the ship on slippery slopes, take pressure off your back when hiking uphill with a heavy backpack, and off your knees when hiking downhill. Even if you don’t have knee problems yet, this could probably be filed under the “prudent prevention” category. Also, if the mood strikes, you can swing them around jauntily as though you are a leotard-clad fencer in a Shakespeare play, or even just poke things now and then.
We have gone through several different sets of poles in just a couple years because we often end up leaving them behind because we are flying carry-on and they won’t let us take them on the plane. But sometimes they do let us, so there’s that. Look for ones that are light, have comfortable grips and quick-release adjustment.
Pronounced KRAM-ponz, not krum-PONS, the infuriating way Laynni says it. No matter how you say it, though, these are absolutely essential if you are hiking up and down steep hills on trails covered in snow and ice. If you aren’t doing exactly that, though, well, I guess you don’t need them.
This one is highly dependent on bears living in the places you hike. If they don’t, congratulations, you can scratch another one off the list. If they do, well, you should probably first understand that bear spray is meant to repel, not attract, bears, which, personally, we find preferable. Also, make sure you carry it somewhere very accessible. A belt holster may look stupid (no, don’t argue, it definitely does) but it could potentially save your life if you happen to run across the wrong Grizzly suffering through a bad “case of the Mondays”. At the very least, make sure you keep your bear spray in an outside pocket on your pack, not stuffed down in the bottom next to your emergency blanket and the remains of last week’s brioche panini.
Many people will tell you – in a strangely thrilled and excited manner – that bear bells are “completely useless” and that locals in the know actually refer to them as, ha ha, “bear dinner bells”. But, while that is unquestionably an excellent joke, especially the 30th time you hear it, the fact remains that using a bell simply can’t hurt. The point is to make noise so you don’t surprise the bear. And, to that end, surely every added tinkle helps. Maybe not as much as having a hiking partner whose voice carries for miles and respects no boundaries of nature, propriety or even good manners, but we can’t all be so lucky. So, yeah, why not hook a bell on there? Also, if you get one with a magnet you can silence it when you know you’re in the clear (like if you’ve already left your partner far behind to deal with the bear).
Sabre bear bell (with silencer)
You like how I threw in that little Chekhov’s Gun device there? I bet you’ve been dying to find out if I’d circle back to that emergency blanket I so casually mentioned earlier, weren’t you? Well, I did circle back, and I will also add that on almost all day hikes an emergency blanket is probably overkill. But can you imagine how great a story it would be if it actually saved your life one day? Is the possibility worth an extra 3 ounces? I don’t know, it’s still debateable. But maybe if you throw some matches in there, too. Imagine that plot twist.
Large Knife, Handgun and a Bobcat on a Leash
Yes, I agree, this seems awfully specific and fairly insane. But the guy I saw in Montana sporting all three looked hella confident.
Day Hike Tips
- Download offline maps
Many great day hikes quickly take you out of phone service range so it is always a good idea to download maps ahead of time.
- Go early
Even if sunrise isn’t really your thing, an early start means the trail will be quieter, the weather cooler and you shouldn’t have to worry about running out of daylight while taking selfies at the top.
- Take breaks
It can be tempting to push on through until you are completely exhausted but we find that when we force ourselves to take periodic breaks the hike is more enjoyable and gives our legs a little recharge.
- Avoid weekends
Of course, if weekends are the only time you can hike then, well, have at it. But if you have a choice, most trails are far less crowded on weekdays.
- Shower after, not before
To some this probably seems obvious, while others would never consider leaving the house without having a shower, and still others are now confused, thinking, “why would I shower, I just had one last Thursday?” Anyway, this isn’t just me inexplicably meddling in your personal hygiene. Showers, especially hot ones, soften up your feet and make them much more susceptible to soreness and blisters. So, if this can be a problem for you, then skip the morning shower and head into battle with your tougher, hopefully not overly pungent, day-old feet.
So, there you have it, everything we know about day hiking and our unsolicited opinions for your day hike packing list. Now, if you’re tired of the practical stuff and want to read about the fun stuff, you can check out these links to just a few of our favourite day hikes from around the world. Also, feel free to reach out if you have any specific questions or want clarification on any of the particularly strange things we’ve recommended here…
Olympic National Park (USA)
Lake Atitlan (Guatemala)
Volcan Acatenango (Guatemala)
El Chalten (Argentina)
Armacao de Pera (Portugal)
La Gomera (Spain)
Lake Bled (Slovenia)
Altai Tavan Bogd National Park (Mongolia)
The Great Wall of China (China)
Tongariro Crossing (New Zealand)
Other useful articles you may want to check out: