Your Guide to Day Hiking Essentials, According to Hardcore Hikers
Knowing what to bring on a hike often comes with experience... and now this handy guide!
At its most basic, hiking is a leisurely walk through the forest. But anyone who's fallen for this fallacy knows that hiking can also be a strenuous and exhausting effort. An innocuous "it's only a couple of miles" typically means "it's a two mile hike up the side of a mountain." Hiking is an ethereal experience that allows you to connect with nature by immersing yourself within it. Just read Emerson, he'll tell you. But anyone who's ever gone on a hike underprepared usually has regrets. The wrong shoes, pants, lack of water, bad socks, etc.
As an avid hiker myself (seriously, here I am atop a mountain), I love when people like to join me for walks in the woods, but I've noticed more times than not, people generally forget even the most basic things (like water… seriously). So, with the help of my friend and PCT (Pacific Coast Trail) veteran Carl O'Connell, as well as numerous hikers across the globe, I've compiled a comprehensive list of everything -- for men and women -- you’ll need for a thoroughly enjoyable day hike (emphasis on day). And even better? Most of the stuff on here can be used for camping, picnics, and basic travel. Let's start from the ground up.
Boots & Shoes
This might be considered blasphemy, but I've hiked in beat up Vans before and it was fine. However, my go-to shoes are the Mountain 600s from Danner for long hikes or my old Brooks running shoes for shorter trips. But enough about me, here's what the experts had to say.
First up are the TX2s from La Sportiva. O'Connell told me "The sole is Vibram rubber, and it's like wearing a climbing shoe while you're walking around. The bottom is almost sticky. It's awesome. Approach shoes are specifically designed for this kind of thing, so it's definitely checking boxes." He also noted they're "light AF… as if you're just wearing socks." Brady Fraser, who writes for the hiking/adventure blog Two Trail Birds recommends a pair of Timps from Altra. "The toebox is wide (most people's feet swell considerably while hiking), they're light and breathable, and they're nice and cushy for when you want to push the miles.
Finally the Astral TR-1 Merge boots were a favorite of Whitney "Allgood" La Ruffa, VP of Sales and Marketing for Six Moon Designs, an avid hiker, AND President Emeritus of the ALDHA-West (American Long Distance Hiking Association-West). He tells me "Astral makes some bombproof shoes. I like the hightops for added ankle support. The Astral line features a wide toe box and a narrower heel to reduce slippage on the trail, but the best features are the super grippy soles and drain holes for getting the water out after a stream crossing."
As for women's shoes, a pair of $140 Keens were the recommendation from Jordan Gover, who grew up in Yosemite and has completed around 25 of Colorado’s 14,000ft peaks (aka 14ers). She remarks "This [the Targhee] style has been around forever. I think I’ve gone through three pairs." She's also a big fan of Chacos "for super light hikes", or ones where she'd be crossing creeks. I also own Chacos and use them all the time for quick hikes and beach trips. I know they look dorky (I don't care). Another rec comes from Michelle "Mishvo" Vogel -- the brains behind Mishvo in Motion -- who swears by the Women's Moab 2 Mid Waterproof boot, "I've had these hiking boots since 2015 and they are incredible. So comfortable even on never-ending downhills and the waterproofing provides some insulation for colder climates."
Damn Fine Socks
Arguably more important than footwear, socks are your defense from blisters, moisture, and ticks & mosquitos. I've tried a few pairs/blends, but always end up going with Merino wool (or a Merino/poly blend). Jarrod Heil, outdoorsperson and founder of RambleAroundTheWorld echoes the sentiment. "The single most underrated piece of hiking gear is a great pair of Merino wool hiking socks. Merino is the ultimate hiking fabric due to its natural properties that include moisture-wicking, temperature regulating, and an antimicrobial finish. They keep my feet cool in Florida and warm in Utah. Plus, the antimicrobial and anti-odor properties allow me to wear them for about five hikes without stinking." For hiking in boots, he goes with a set of Fun Toes, but for day hikes with trail shoes, he likes a pair of Zealwoods.
My pal Mr. O'Connell could not overstate the importance of socks: "They are absolutely key. I recommend Injinji toe socks -- $15 a pair, but only the Injinji brand for toe socks, not other ones. They save your feet so much when wearing them on a long hike. I swear by them. I swear to God, two pairs of Injinji (Injinjis?) prevented me from quitting the trail. Take care of your feet while hiking!"
Allgood rocks the Point6 Merino Wool 37.5 Stripe Mini Crew (why a sock has such a long name, I do not know). He tells me they're "Lightweight, super breathable, and thin enough to keep my feet feeling great all day long. Backed by a lifetime guarantee these socks have done me well over the years. And the mini crew height is perfect for the high top shoes I wear without having a ton of extra height sticking up past my shoe collar." So personal style aside, just make sure you buy a damn good pair of Merino wool socks.
Hiking Pants...or Shorts!
I've always struggled to find good hiking pants. I don't like them too baggy, but I also don't need them to fit like tailored chinos. This is why I prefer shorts or Patagonia Baggies. That said, you'll want to look for something lightweight and comfortable, preferably a nylon/spandex mix. Allgood eschews pants AND shorts in favor of a hiking kilt, like this $77 one from Purple Rain. He tells me "I love hiking in skirts. Ever since the JMT (John Muir Trail) in 2011 I've been using a skirt. Why, you ask? Because the added airflow and extra range of motion have cured my chafing issues. These skirts are packed full of comforts: stretch fabric and yoga-style waistband. And the cargo pockets are great for maps or a phone."
If you're a bit apprehensive about donning a kilt in the wild, O'Connell recommends the Zion Pants from Prana for $89. He says they're "quick drying, cool looking, and ridiculously nice. They look a little more like town clothes. Town clothes can be huge when you look and smell like shit. I felt like I needed to be some sort of presentable when I went into town."
For women's pants & leggings, Vogel said "I really like Lululemon's leggings above all others. Specifically the Wunder Train High-Rise. I use these for everything -- yoga, running, hiking, traveling. In cold weather, I like the fleece Cuddl Duds leggings which I wear under hiking pants (the kind with the zip off bottom) or alone.”
Never go out on a day hike in a 100% cotton shirt. It's a terrible decision and you'll regret it. Unless it's a tank top. I day hike in those babies all the time. Anyway, cotton soaks up sweat immediately and takes roughly six hours to dry. Instead, get a nice polyester shirt. Maybe with a little spandex blended in for good measure. A merino wool/poly blend works nicely here too for its quick dry properties and moisture wicking. Here are some options for men. And here are some options for women. Depending on your body shape/size, those who identify as nonbinary or gender fluid should also be able to find something in those links.
Surprisingly, not many of my sources had big recommendations for shirts. It's kind of a "wear what you like" mentality. Jackets are significantly more important (but more on that later). However, Allgood made a point to highlight the Montbell Cool Hoodie. He tells me, "This is a hoodie sun shirt that breathes well. This top is my go-to for just about anything outdoors. It dries super quick, wicks like a champ, and keeps me from getting burnt. I wore the same one for over 4,000 miles of hiking before it got any holes and needed to be replaced with another one." Talk about getting your money's worth.
Fraser, on the other hand, is all about Patagonia's Tropic Comfort II. He says "It's an ultralight, breezy sun hoody with UPF 50+ protection, so you can spend more time hiking and less time worrying about whether or not you put enough sunscreen on. It also has Patagonia's odor protection technology (which I can say from 7+ days in a row hiking in it, works very well) and is still as comfortable now as when I bought it."
Jackets & Outerwear
There are three things to look for here: weight, waterproofing, and warmth. Depending on where you are, you'll have to figure out your needs. I never leave home without the unisex Cotopaxi Teca. It's a windbreaker that's water/wind resistant and packs into itself, going from jacket to 3"x3" square. Vogel suggests the Patagonia Nano Puff jacket for women. "I hiked the Salkantay Trail in Peru with this and it was perfect for the changing climates we experienced. My mom has the jacket and wears it all the time hiking in Atlanta (outside summer of course). My dad has the vest version."
O'Connell, who is very serious about jackets, champions the Dynafit Radical Hooded Jacket. "Spend the money on a jacket like this. They are essential because of the extreme lightweight and malleability (you can stuff it into a tiny ball and it takes up virtually no space). Still, to this day, it's the warmest jacket I've ever had. Wind doesn't get into it at all. In conclusion you aren't bogged down by a heavy jacket, you stay warm, and you also have a waterproof jacket. Check, check, check. Absolutely essential. It saved my life."
Allgood also has a few solid picks (all from Montbell): The Tachyon Parka for "for taking the chill off during a creak, early morning miles, or when up on a ridge in the wind," the Torrent Flier Jacket that's he’s brought on all his around-the-globe adventures for the last six years, and finally, the U.L. Thermawrap Parka. Allgood says "Everyone loves a puffy, but in the PNW a synthetic top is preferable as it keeps you warm even if it's wet. This lightweight top is great as an extra layer for warmth."
After checking these out, the message is clear: pay the money for a good jacket and you'll have it for years (and maybe even develop a beautiful yet strange relationship with it).
Things That Keep the Sun out of Your Face
First up, sunglasses. No big surprise here, right? However it turns out that "any old pair" won't cut it. Are you hiking in winter? Snow blindness is real. Are you scrambling? Be prepared for those shades to fall off… perhaps into a deep crevice. Anyway, let's hear from our experts.
One-half of Two Trailbirds, Fraser, did his best to sell me on Knockaround's Fast Lane Sunglasses. He told me "I can be pretty hard on gear, and sunglasses usually get the worst of it. My go-tos for hiking are Knockarounds because they're designed to be beat up, and so far they've taken everything I've thrown at them. They're also plenty stylish, the lens quality is solid for the price, and at only $20 per pair you don't have to be too nice to them."
Allgood got real with it, "[Sunglasses] are one of the most important pieces of gear. A good set of sunglasses can not only reduce eye strain but also protect your eyes from snow blindness and potential skin cancer of the retina." His favorite set? Native's ELDOs, which are constructed with hiking in mind.
Fraser also opts for a hat, which I also usually sport. My personal favorite is the Transit Cap from Janji. It's made for running/biking, but it's practically waterproof and dries in an instant. I don't hit the road or the trail without it. Fraser likes The North Face Class V Hat. He tells me "This hat is technically designed for whitewater rafting, but I think the qualities that make it good for that make it a good day hiking hat as well. It's lightweight, breathable, and quick-drying (a must for me, as I try to jump in a lake or river on any day hike I can)."
For something with a bit more coverage, Gover recommends Tilley's Airflo Mesh Hat. "I have a super sweat-soaked Tilley. But any of their hats with ventilation and chin straps are awesome," she said. But what do I prefer? Thank you for asking. I'm a big fan of Patagonia's Brimmer. It's super comfortable, keeps the sun off my neck and nose, and has a chin strap I've never needed to use, but you never know.
I've been using Cotopaxi's Luzon 18 for almost five years now. It's my go-to hiking backpack and I've also used it for what I call "running" which looks more like rushed walking. one big reason I like it so much is because of a special pouch that fits a water bladder (or can be used as extra storage if you don't like bladders). It's the perfect size for a day hike and seamlessly doubles as a carry-on companion. Fraser went ahead and one-upped me with Cotopaxi's Luzon Del Dia 24. "This is an awesome daypack. The fabric is all fair-trade, and each pack is a one-of-a-kind color combo chosen by the employees who assemble them,” he said. It also has everything you need: mesh water bottle pockets, separate zippered compartments, 24L capacity, and comfy mesh shoulder straps. Plus, it packs down super small so you can easily bring it with you when your day-hike is part of a bigger trip." We get it man, you hike!
Allgood literally recommended a pack he designed in what I can only describe as a very respectable flex: The Six Moon Designs Daybreaker Daypack. "At 25L, this pack was specifically designed for day hiking, hut to hut trips, or commutes around town. With generous pockets for water bottles, gear, and sundries this is a frameless daypack that can do it all. It also features a top lid and internal pocket for wallet and keys, a removable hydration sleeve, and a removable sit pad. The front of the pack features 2 ice axe loops and daisy chains for lashing those "extra items" to the pack when needed."
O'Connell, who told me people made fun of him for his big pack on the PCT, advocates for the Osprey Stratos 50L, namely for weekend trips. "I love this pack for 2-3 day hikes. Although Ospreys run a tad heavy, this is on the lighter side. I love the integrated rain cover and the pack covers all the bases -- trekking pole holders, zippered pockets, waterproof, mesh water bottle holders, comfortable shoulder straps, CamelBak reservoir... just has a lot of needed bells and whistles. Oh, and you can beat the shit out of this thing. Doesn't tear, doesn't falter."
That said, it is only a day trip after all, so pretty much any backpack you take should be fine (unless it's a cheap knapsack -- just make sure it's made for outdoors). Backcountry has a ton of great options if you're looking for something we didn't mention.
The Hydration Station
I avoided getting a CamelBak for a long time. I'm not sure why. It just seemed a bit much. However, follow what I say, not what I've done and get a CamelBak. Some models are absolutely perfect for day trips as the backpack will sufficiently hold your water reserve and have enough room for your other necessities (map, snacks, camera, keys, phone, etc).
Allgood's with me on this one: "I like water, and I find if I use a hydration bladder with a hose I'll drink more. I have been using the Hydrapacks for over 6 years now and I find them to be the most durable ones on the market. Bonus: they are super easy to clean and feature a lockout on the bite valve so there are no accidental leaks on the ride to the trailhead." They're all around the same price point, but Backcountry has a couple for a few dollars off, like this reserve from Platypus.
Three different experts pointed me towards the Sawyer Squeeze Filter System for it's portability, weight, and ability to filter creek water as you walk (thus keeping your pack lighter). It made me start to wonder what the hell kind of day hikes these people are taking. Another good option is to bring a plastic water bottle that you can crumple down and reuse. And if you find a good water source while you're out, fill it up, drop in some purifying tablets, and keep on hustlin'.
Most Everything Else You'll Need
Still with me? Awesome. Before we say goodbye, I'd just like to quickly list out a few other things both my expert pals and I have deemed essential on your next day hike adventure.
A headlamp: Maybe the sun goes down sooner than you expected or you end up on a detour trail and lose track of time. Whatever the case, bring a headlamp. They weigh practically nothing and can save your life if you end up lost (the light should reflect off trail markers). My three go-to lamps have been from Petzel, Fuel, and BioLite.
A first aid kit: Here are a bunch of great options.
Bug spray: No one wants to end up home in the shower and find a tick on their inner thigh. Prevent that with a bottle of Ben's. It has DEET, but DEET works amazingly well at keeping bugs at bay.
Sunscreen: Get something with water protection as you'll be sweating. Like this spray from Neutrogena.
A map (or app like AllTrails): AllTrails is by far my favorite app to use on hikes. You can download maps beforehand, and even if you lose service, can still be tracked via GPS.
Food (duh): Since you're doing a day hike, there are two things I'd highly recommend: trail mix and a delicious deli meat (or veggie) sandwich. Few things on a day hike are more fulfilling than biting into a deli sandwich at the summit of the mountain. Trail mix (or even a small bag of chips) is a great thing to snack on when you're burning calories walking up. I'm a big fan of Patagonia Provisions, Slim Jims, and a nice simple trail mix.
Optional: Hiking poles. Now, since we're talking about day hikes, you might not need trekking poles. But if you were to want trekking poles, Gover has this to say about a set from Black Diamond, "Get these amaing carbon ones. Until recently thought trekking poles were for nerds. I finally got a pair and will never go back. I also use these for ski poles in the winter."
Happy trails, friends. Stay safe, stay prepared, and stay curious.