How to Pack a Hiking Backpack for a Day Hike [+Checklist]
For hiking beginners, day hikes are the safest and easiest way to start. Moreover, they are easier to plan (at least they don’t require meticulous planning) and prepare than multi-day hikes and as a result you’ll spend much less time during the planning stage. Furthermore, your mistakes when packing for a day hike will rarely prove costly unless you repeat them again and again. Once you learn from them, they can actually be helpful to avoid problematic situations in your future hiking trips. Packing for a day hike is easy - just pick up a comfortable hiking backpack which fits, follow our guide, and start packing. A huge advantage is that you don’t need some fancy travel backpack for a simple walk in the woods because an ordinary day pack will do the job as well.
What do you need to pack for a day hike?
Hiking boots and shoes
Depending on the surface, weather conditions, the distance of the trail, and your own preferences, you will need appropriate footwear. The most widely used options include comfortable hiking boots, shoes or trail-running shoes. The last two are your best options for three-season hiking. Hiking sandals and trail runners are perfect for summer hiking trips. Especially efficient in wet and hot weather, they’re (relatively) lightweight, breathable, and fast to dry. Stiff soled boots are highly recommended for winter hiking, especially for areas covered with snow. The reason is that they provide more stability and ankle support than other types of footwear. However, if you decide to put on hiking boots, make sure they are broken in. Start by wearing them inside the house. Then you can gradually increase the distance by walking to the local shop or around town followed by short and easy off-road trips. After this whole process (your boots should feel good at the end of it), you can think of wearing them on longer hiking trips. The duration of the break-in process varies and depends on factors such as the boots’ model, weight, and materials. Keep in mind that the choice of hiking footwear can make or break the entire experience. If you want to learn more about hiking boots, shoes, and other types of footwear, see our guide to hiking footwear where you will find a ton of information, including detailed features, advantages, and disadvantages as well as proper shoe care.
Wear layers of clothes to match the forecast and season. Layering is essential, especially when hiking in the mountains, in changing weather as well as in cold conditions. It is best to rely on a clothing system composed of specialized items that can be easily adjusted and mixed and matched with changes in environmental conditions and your level of exertion. For your hikes, consider synthetic-fabric clothing as well as merino wool; avoid cotton as it absorbs a lot of moisture and is slow to dry. Keep in mind that cotton is good for hiking only in hot summer as well as desert. It should be avoided at any cost in cool-to-cold and changing weather. Get a windproof jacket (in wet environments you may wish to get a waterproof breathable garment as well) if it’s cold or you expect it to become cold. Don’t forget that if you have more clothes, you can always take off some of them in case it becomes too hot, however, you can’t put on layers that you didn't bring along. It's also important to have the ability to remove or add items easily. For more detailed info about hiking apparel essentials, materials, features, and layering, see our post on hiking clothing.
How to pack a hiking backpack?
Carrying a heavy backpack should be the last thing you’d like to do when spending your precious spare time out in nature. OK, how to pack a hiking backpack for a day hike? In general, how you pack gear depends on the sort of hiking you‘re doing (the environmental and weather conditions are especially important), which items you‘re likely to need during the day, and the type of hiking backpack you have. As a rule, low-bulk items should be packed high and near to your back to keep the load close to your center of gravity and enable you to maintain an upright stance. It‘s important that the load is balanced so the pack doesn‘t pull to one side. The items you‘ll need the most during the day (such as snacks, water bottles, camera, maps) should be accessible without taking off your pack. For this purpose, you can keep them in the side pockets. In addition, keep spare clothes near the top of your hiking pack for easy access. Finally, it helps to know where everything is, so try to create and employ a system that allows you to remember where exactly you pack your stuff.
We’ll start first with some recommendations so that you pack as efficiently as you can:
- Find a balance between what you really need and what you don't need.
- Avoid excess weight to travel as light as possible.
- Buy good and appropriate footwear that fits you well. Don’t forget properly sized synthetic or wool socks.
- Get a good day pack or a multi-day hiking backpack. Choose the option that is best for you not for someone else.
- A reliable backpack for a day hike should be durable, light, water-repellent, with multiple compartments, has a padded back with air mesh for better ventilation and more comfort. A backpack designed to distribute weight to your hips, maybe hydration compatible too.
- Keep items you’ll use often during the day where you can grab them without taking off your pack, like in hipbelt pockets or side pockets.
- Keep spare clothes where you can have easy access to them (near the top of your pack) so that you won't have to unpack other gear.
- Make up a small first aid kit to be better prepared to respond to emergencies (in case something goes wrong).
- Don’t forget common life stuff you use.
- Don’t buy gear just because it's popular or pricey - high prices and famous brands do not make products more valuable - your purchasing decision should depend on whether you need something or not.
- Don’t forget to let someone know where you are going and your route.
Having said that, we can start with the day hike essentials (download Packing for a Day Hike: Cheat Sheet, a complete list of the essential and extra stuff in PDF format).
Day hike essentials:
- Food (lunch plus snacks) – since it is a one day hike, choose whatever lunch you'd like to eat. Additionally, get some snacks high in carbohydrates, fat, and sugar like snickers, granola bars, chocolate, almonds or other types of nuts. A healthy breakfast and regular eating throughout your hike will defend you against exhaustion. When packing food, make sure it isn’t going to leak or spill.
- Good amount of water (proper hydration) - 2 to 3 liters, in summer even more - preferably in a water bladder because it’s light and can be easily accommodated in a pack with a water bladder sleeve inside. Additionally, you might also carry some water in a plastic or stainless steel water bottle.
- Backpack rain cover and/or dry bag - you need to keep your gear dry and functioning. Both of these are lightweight and do not take a lot of space, however, they can be very useful if the weather turns wet.
- Raincoat (an umbrella or a loose-fitting poncho can be good options too) depending on the weather forecast and the hiking location.
- First aid kit - an outer container made of durable nylon is optimal and protects contents. Among the essentials in your first aid kit, you should include some analgesics/antibiotics/anaphylaxis (Ibuprofen, Acetaminophen or Aspirin, Sting relief pad etc.), bandages, antiseptic towelettes, blister care pads, 2"x2" and 3"x3" gauze sponges, safety whistle, water-purifying tablets, extra shoelaces, fire starter, duct tape, multi-purpose tool.
- Map and compass to orient yourself especially when hiking in an unfamiliar area.
- Mobile phone in a shock and waterproof case so that it stays safe and secure even when crossing a river or walking up steep terrain.
- Toilet paper (and a zip lock bag for safe disposal of used toilet paper), hand sanitizer, and handkerchiefs for good personal hygiene.
- Sunglasses, sun hat, sunscreen with UPF are very important because you may get scorched if you underestimate the sun. Sunburn is a problem typical for both summer hiking and high altitude hiking. Remember that you can burn even on a cloudy day in the mountains because clouds do not filter UV radiation effectively.
- Warm hat and gloves if it’s cold - it is important on cold days to conserve body heat, otherwise, you lose heat through exposed skin such as head, hands etc. Bear in mind that you lose more body heat than normal in a cold environment. Moreover, factors such as wind speed and relative humidity can exacerbate the situation further.
- Flashlight or headlamp in case it becomes dark outside and you're still on the trail.
- Bear spray for self-defense if you encounter a bear or some other wild animal and it charges you (it is of prime importance to have a can of bear spray when hiking in bear country).
In addition to the basic stuff above, you may wish to carry with you some extra items.
- Trekking poles - for those who need added stability on steeper trails and when crossing streams. Use trekking poles to take the stress off your muscles, joints, and ligaments.
- Gaiters can be of good use depending on the terrain and weather conditions. They are very useful for desert hiking as well as when walking down scree slopes. A combo of gaiters and rain pants is highly effective against snow and mud.
- Personal Locator Beacon (PLB) provides a powerful safety net for wilderness travelers. Having a PLB is very important in areas of poor phone coverage.
- Signal mirror
- Insect repellent is essential for areas with too many buzzy insects.
- Camera to capture great images of breathtaking views. Best photos are rarely anticipated in advance so keep the camera easily accessible.
Be conservative in planning and packing for your hiking expedition, especially if you are new to hiking. Make detailed lists before packing your backpack and note what you use and what you don’t use so that on future trips you can fine-tune the packing. Choose appropriate hiking shoes and clothes; pick up a comfortable backpack or day pack and pack whatever you'll need for your day hike. Avoid excess weight to travel as light as possible. Eliminate unnecessary things, however, when deciding what to cut, think twice about eliminating insulation and food.
Remember that you enter into a world in which planning and preparation, self-reliance, and good choices are crucial. How you plan and pack for your day hikes will inevitably reflect on preparation for future multi-day trips. And finally, one good advice from the U.S. National Park Service: “Get the weather forecast. Don't overestimate your capabilities. Hike intelligently.”
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