Hiking Gear Checklist: 11 Essentials to Bring on a Hike
This article may contain affiliate links. We collect a share of sales from qualifying purchases.
Hikes are a great way to way to get outside, experience something new, and get some exercise. But depending on the length and location of your hike, there may be more to it than lacing up your shoes and driving to the nearest trail head. Here’s a list of essential hiking gear you should pack — not only for safety, but also to make your trek more enjoyable.
On a light hike — where you’re trekking along a dirt trail without much elevation — a pair of running shoes may work just fine. But if you’re planning a longer, more intense hike, a solid pair of trail running shoes or hiking boots can make a huge difference. There are a few key benefits to choosing a shoe that’s designed for hiking:
- Better traction. Trail running shoes and hiking boots have deeper lugs on the bottom, because losing your footing on a steep incline is not fun.
- Rigid outsoles. The more rigid the shoe, the less your foot bends and moves as you walk. This can reduce the stress on your feet and help cut down on foot pain.
- Roomy toe boxes. Look for hiking shoes with ample room in the toe box. If your toes hit the front of the shoe when you try them on at the store, imagine that happening for hours as you hike downhill.
After shoes, water is the most important hiking gear item on the list. (It would be first — you know, since it’s vital for survival — but unless you’re a hobbit, you probably wouldn’t make it far enough while barefoot to get dehydrated.)
No matter how short your planned hike is, you need to pack water. Hiking time is different than real time — even if a trail is “only” three miles, it could take more than two hours, depending on elevation, terrain, and time spent waiting for the person in your group who takes a million photos. Don’t be that person who’s constantly asking other people for a “sip” because you didn’t bring your own water. Invest in one of these:
- For shorter hikes, stay hydrated and save the planet by investing in a reusable water bottle. (I’ve been using the same one for three years!)
- For longer hikes, a hydration pack — a backpack with a water pouch inside and a long tube to drink from — is a good idea, since they typically hold more water.
- If you want to really impress your friends, pick up a water filter, which filters out the bad stuff so you can drink directly from a water source.
Food should be an obvious choice if you’re going on a long or strenuous hike. Here are a few snack staples for your day hike emergency kit:
- a peanut butter sandwich
- seeds and nuts
- homemade granola or gorp
- fresh and/or dried fruit
- prepackaged bars (protein bars, granola bars, etc)
In nature, things can (and do) go wrong. Instead of packing enough food for your trip, plan to pack more than you need. Bringing a few extra bars can make you the hero if someone gets hurt, you’re stranded by bad weather, or your three-hour tour turns into an unplanned overnight adventure.
Obviously, you need a way to carry all this hiking gear. Stuffing your sunglasses, phone, wallet, camera, and keys in your pockets can get annoying — not to mention they can easily fall out while you’re navigating the terrain.
After a long hike, the last thing you want is to get locked out of your car — so look for a pack with a small, securely-zipped interior compartment for your keys and other vital items. You may also want to opt for a pack that’s designed around a hydration bladder — this keeps your water evenly displaced along your back, which is more comfortable.
I can’t recommend this essential piece of hiking gear enough. Unless you’re in Norway in July, there’s a chance you could end up walking (or stuck) at night. A few months back, friends of mine stayed out later than planned on a hike and had to use the flashlights on their cell phones to find their way back. Then their phones ran out of battery. They made it, but it wasn’t a pleasant experience.
Moral of the story: Pack a light source that isn’t also your communication device. A small flashlight will work, but a headlamp lets you have both hands free. Pick one that’s 70 lumens or above, and you’ll be good to go.
6. Map or Compass
Remember these? Odds are, you’ll never need it — after all, you can rely on your phone’s GPS if you get lost. But many places in nature lack cell service, and a poor signal can zap your battery in no time. These old-school backups are lightweight, inexpensive, and great in a pinch. You can even find a compass that hooks to a zipper, making it a no-brainer to take along.
Don’t worry — you don’t need to lug a glass mirror with you. Many retailers sell camping mirrors or signaling mirrors made from stainless steel or plastic. These can come in handy for everything from shaving on an overnight hiking trip to signaling for help if you get into serious trouble.
8. First Aid Supplies
It’s probably not necessary to pack an entire first aid kit (although, if you’ve got room in your pack, you might consider it). However, make sure your hiking gear at least includes these basic emergency supplies:
- adhesive bandages
- antibiotic cream
- an ACE bandage
9. Sun Protection
Even hiking through the woods on a cold or cloudy day, you can still get a sunburn. Make sure to put on sunscreen before you head out, and reapply every few hours. You may also want to wear UV-protective hats, bandanas, and clothes for extra sun protection.
10. Bug Repellent
One downside of the great outdoors: the bugs. Long-sleeved shirts and full-length pants can help, but you may also want to pack bug spray. In extra-buggy areas, consider investing in hiking pants treated with bug protection.
Without the right layers, an otherwise enjoyable hiking experience could be just plain miserable. Before you set out for the day, check the weather forecast to find out the high and low temperature and whether any rain or snow is expected. Then wear or pack extra layers, so you can peel them off or add them on as needed. And remember, the higher up you go, the windier it’s likely to be — so find a comfortable windbreaker that will insulate you more than a cotton shirt.
12. Utility Tool
Whether it’s a simple knife or a multi-tool, this can be useful for everything from unsticking yourself from branches to cutting up an apple to share with your friends. You never know when you’ll need it — but when you do, you’ll be happy you packed it.