The Essential Day Hiking Gear List

Since thru-hiking has been temporarily canceled, we’re pivoting toward appreciating the things we can do, like shorter outings close to home, and hopefully more extended trips later this summer. Last week I listed the gear I take day hiking, which will be getting lots of use this year. Now we’re going to throw our day-hiking essentials at you, with a few options for versatility / budget, plus the basics of what to carry for hikes of different distances.

Looking for day hikes in your region? Our 2020 NOGO hikers have day hike recommendations for Tahoe, California; Winter Park, Colorado; and Memphis, Tennessee.

Essential Day Hiking Gear

First, what type of hike are you doing? Peakbagging above treeline at high elevations? Or sticking close to town for a relaxed jaunt? You don’t want to overpack, but you also don’t want to be unprepared. Here are the basics to consider when packing your day-hiking bag.

Full-Day Hike – Gnarly Terrain

  • 15-25L pack
  • 2-4 liters of water
  • Packable puffy
  • Rain jacket or windproof shell
  • Mid-layer (fleece or merino is fine)
  • Water treatment option
  • Navigation
  • Headlamp (just in case you’ll be pushing into dusk)
  • Snacks on snacks on snacks
  • Sunscreen or sun protection
  • Trowel / toilet paper / wipes
  • Simple First Aid Kit

Full-Day Hike – Mellow Terrain

  • 15-25L pack
  • 2-4 liters of water
  • Wind or rain jacket
  • Long-sleeve layer
  • Navigation
  • Snacks on snacks
  • Sunscreen or sun protection
  • Trowel / toilet paper / wipes
  • Simple First Aid Kit

Half-Day Hike – Local

  • 6-15L pack
  • 1-2 liters of water
  • Light wind or rain layer
  • Navigation
  • Snacks
  • Sunscreen or sun protection
  • Trowel / toilet paper / wipes

Day Hiking Pack

You can get away without a technical pack for most day hikes. This was a full-day peakbagging outing in the White Mountains. I was visiting my family and didn’t have a hiking pack, so I used my laptop / commuter bag.

If you’re going to have one pack for day hiking, let it be a versatile model, but you also often don’t need something super technical. Just doing a short out-and-back? Grab the old JanSport that’s been collecting dust in your closet, or throw a fanny pack around your waist. Looking for a one-pack-that-does-it-all? Choose a model with a 15- to 20-liter capacity, that fits snug against your back and has options for organizing your items. You’ll want to be able to carry up to two liters of water (either in a reservoir or in bottles), and pack snacks and a few layers.

The length of your hike will determine what type of pack to bring. Mellow afternoon walk? A commuter bag or generic fanny pack will do the trick. Peakbagging, or heading out for a full day? You’ll be more comfortable with a fully featured day pack between 16-25L with a waist belt and adjustable straps. This will take strain off your shoulders and can provide easier access to hydration, whether you carry a bladder or water bottles in your side pockets.

Our Picks

Six Moon Designs Daybreaker
MSRP: $120
Capacity: 25 liters

We’ve seen a few new day pack models from cottage-industry brands recently, and our reviewer was stoked on this model from Six Moon Designs. This is simple, utilitarian, and can easily transition from a day hike to a hut-to-hut excursion to a carry-on travel bag. See our review here.

Gossamer Gear Minimalist
MSRP: $59+
Capacity: 24 liters

A simplified day pack from the makers of one of the most popular packs for thru-hikers, the Minimalist weighs just 11.6 ounces and has a 24-liter capacity. A drawstring top, side pockets for water bottles, and Gossamer Gear’s custom Robic Nylon complete this simple yet effective pack. And at $59, you really can’t beat the price. See our review here.

Gregory Citro 25 
MSRP: $130
Capacity: 25 liters

This pack is ideal for hikers heading out for a full-day outing, and who want the organization of a fully featured pack. It comes in two models, one with a hydration bladder and one without.

Osprey Dyna 6
MSRP: $110
Capacity: 6 liters

Combining trail running with a peak hike? I like this Osprey model for when I’m not strictly trail running (where I’d use a pared-down hydration vest) but I don’t need all the bulk of a 20L pack. There are a lot of options for 6-12L packs like this. I’ve listed this one because I have the most experience with it. Here’s a 12L alternative, fitted for men.

Wind Layer

 

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One of the benefits of day hiking is a better chance of an accurate forecast. If you’re hiking on a day with low-to-no chance of rain, and you won’t be spending much time above treeline, a wind layer is a go-to option. These typically weigh between 3-5 ounces and pack into their own pockets. Patagonia helmed this trend with their line of Houdini zip-ups and pullovers, but there are a ton of options out there. I reviewed this one here. Most of these wind layers are not waterproof though, so keep that in mind if the weather looks unpredictable.

Our Picks

Patagonia Houdini
MSRP: $99 (some models and colors on sale)
Weight: 3.7 ounces

As far as I know, the Houdini is one of the original models for this type of wind layer. I have the Airshed Pullover, but if I chose again, I’d opt for a full-zip with a hood. Personal preference.

Arc’teryx Squamish Hoodie
MSRP: $159 (currently on sale for significantly less)
Weight: 4.9 ounces

I often opt for this model over my Houdini pullover. I like the hood, the Velcro cuffs, and the fit (on the women’s model) is great for running as well as hiking. These layers are all pretty similar though, so you can’t go wrong with whichever one is on sale. I’m wearing the women’s model (in a discontinued color) in the above pic.

Rain Jacket

If the forecast is less favorable, but you’re not going to let rain rain on your parade, a rain jacket (or comparable rain gear) will be necessary, especially in colder temps. Remember that packability is the name of the game here. We all love lightweight, packable layers for long-distance hiking, and since you have less carrying capacity on a day hike, being weight-conscious is still important.

Our Picks

Enlightened Equipment Visp
MSRP: $190
Weight: 4.56 ounces

Rare is the instance where I don’t recommend this rain jacket. The price tag might look steep, but the slim fit, packability, generous pit zips, and ridiculously low weight make it a staple in my arsenal. While it’s durable for the weight, try to avoid abrasive terrain / brush, as the low weight does mean the face fabric isn’t as durable as some beefier jackets. See our review here.

Outdoor Research Helium 
MSRP: $160 (older models can be found on sale)
Weight: 5.6 ounces

This is a classic slimmed-down rain jacket that has seen multiple iterations. It comes high on the recommendation list thanks to the no-frills design, deep hood, and breathability. See our review here.

Gossamer Gear Liteflex Umbrella
MSRP: $39
Weight: 8 ounces

Carrying an umbrella is ideal for regions that see a lot of rain but not too much wind. This model is less expensive and can stash in the side pocket of your pack. If you’d rather carry your rain gear than wear another layer, an umbrella is a great option. Good protection without the clammy sweat.

Mid-Layer

Unless you’re heading way up in elevation or still battling shoulder-season conditions, you probably don’t need a puffy, a base layer, a wind layer, and a mid-layer. A good mid-layer can be a heavier merino or a packable fleece. It should fit so you can layer it over a next-to-skin shirt, but under a wind or rain jacket. This is a good layer to pair with your shell for shoulder-season hikes, or if you’ll be above tree line and expect the temperature to drop.

Columbia Women’s Basin Trail Fleece Full Zip
MSRP: $20+

Really, any wicking layer will be perfectly suitable for day hiking. You can get all technical if you want, but some of my favorite layers have come from the Generic Athletic Brand Clearance Rack at my local TJ Maxx.

Mammut Aconcagua
MSRP: $180 (on sale for significantly less)

This is a nice, simple fleece layer with an athletic cut and not too many frills. It has an abrasion-resistant weave on the outside and moisture-wicking micro-grid fleece for a better warmth-to-weight ratio on the inside.

Smartwool Merino 250 Quarter-Zip
MSRP: $105

A merino layer can be more packable, and can also be more stink-resistant. Many are listed as base layers, but work just swell as a mid-layer over a T-shirt or tank top.

Trowel / Toilet Paper / Wipes

Even your routine hasn’t been routine on prior long day hikes, you never know when that exception may strike.  You don’t want to be caught in a hairy situation when nature strikes. For that reason, we encourage you to bring a trowel and toilet paper and/or wipes (and a bag to pack out your trash) for any day hike.

TheTentLab The Deuce #2 UL Backcountry Trowel
MSRP: $19.95

Sea to Summit Wilderness Wipes
MSRP: $4.50

Items You Won’t Always Need

Down / Synthetic Insulated Jacket

For when the conditions are going to be really cold and you won’t be moving the whole time

Enlightened Equipment Torrid Apex
MSRP: $170

Patagonia Nano Puff
MSRP: $199 (some colors on sale)

Patagonia Down Sweater
MSRP: $229

Outdoor Research Down Baja Pullover
MSRP: $249 (currently 50% off)

Water Treatment

For when you don’t want to carry 4+ liters of water and know there will be water along the trail. Filtering takes more effort, but treatment has a ~30 minute delay. Yes, we promote treating water in the backcountry. 

Sawyer Squeeze
MSRP: $37

Katadyn BeFree
MSRP: $45

AquaMira
MSRP: $15

Navigation / Communication*

This is for off-trail peakbagging or otherwise uncertain terrain / locations. It should go without saying, but make sure you know how to use whatever tools you take into the backcountry. The inReach is for off-grid communication, the eTrex is for navigating.  If you’re exploring a new trail or location, we do recommend you always have some form of navigation and way of communicating, especially if it’s a longer or more remote outings. 

NatGeo Maps
MSRP: $15+

Compass
MSRP: $15+

Garmin eTrex 22
MSRP: $200

Garmin inReach Mini (Review here)
MSRP: $350

Gaia GPS
Free, in-app purchases

Headlamp

A hike can go long, conditions can make for slower going than you thought, or you just spent an extra long time at the alpine lake. For whatever the reason, it’s not unusual for a day hike to go past dark, and throwing a lightweight headlamp into your pack isn’t a bad idea. Aim for at least 200 lumens, and always check the batteries before you go.

BioLite HeadLamp 330
MSRP: $60

Vont ‘Spark’ LED Headlamp
MSRP: $9.99

Sun Protection / First Aid

Your first-aid kit for day hiking doesn’t have to be excessive, but consider bringing sunscreen (or at least applying before you leave), antiseptic wipes, blister care, ibuprofen, and benadryl. 

Benadryl
MSRP: $12+

Ibuprofen
MSRP: $9+

Leukotape
MSRP:$7.60

Works for covering blisters and most emergency patchwork gear repairs.

Antiseptic Wipes
MSRP: $5+

Environmentally Friendly Sunscreen
MSRP: $15

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Comments 1

  • Adam Herdman : May 8th

    A head lamp only makes the cut on one of your lists. I admire your optimism but it’s an item I would have on every “essential day hiking gear list” . I’m a climber as well as a hiker and there have been a lot more times that having a headlamp has saved my ass, than having a toilet trowel. It’s an item that can mean the difference stumbling around in the dark for hours and getting back to your wheels without hassle. Trying to locate a trail with a torch on a smartphone just doesn’t cut it.

    Reply

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