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The Basics: 5 things to take with you on a day hike

Rescue Just AheadI have been reading lots of stories of day hikes gone wrong lately.  I covered the topic of rescues in Yosemite in a post a few weeks ago. And this week another story of rescue hit the press. He went off trail and found himself stuck with no cell phone and without supplies.  He suffered from frostbite but apparently escaped without more serious injuries.  I am grateful for that.

But it begs the question.  How do so many day hikers find themselves in this type of predicament?

In almost all of these stories there is an underlying mistake.  They all fail to prepare for the elements that they are trying to conquer.  So I thought it might be helpful to share a list of the 5 things to take with you on a day hike.

Here’s my list:

  1. A cell phone – you may not always have a signal but the added weight is negligible even for the UL crowd. Plus it can be used for the light!  Mine even has a calculator for backcountry arithmetic.
  2. A knife – I’ve only used my a few times on day hikes but you never know when a knife will be useful.
  3. More layers than you need – My hikes here in the desert usually start with short sleeve temperatures but the deep canyons cool off earlier than sundown.  It gets cold fast and extra layers are always helpful.
  4. Knowledge that someone knows your route – Ok, I had to twist that to make it fit, but I always write in on the board in my kitchen, on a tablet that I drop on the kitchen island, and tweet my wife from the trailhead to confirm.
  5. More food and water than you need – I can hear the UL backpackers grumbling already, but for day hikes I always take more than I need.  Who knows, a night in a desert canyon with a torn ACL could feel a bit less challenging if you had water and a sandwich or bar.  The knee would still hurt like crazy.

What’s on your list?  Certainly the terrain and weather will dictate what you put in your pack.  But what are your must-haves for a day hike?  You might also want to read this guide: How to hike: 8 steps to become a badass day hiker.

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I'm the founder of Vestor Logic, the digital strategy and web design firm that created Trail Sherpa, ParksFolio, and Modern Steader. I'm a day hiker, top chef in camp, doting husband, and father to two headlamp wearing boys. My work in digital media brings those experiences to life.

  • Tim

    Ours is enough water for the hike and then some, Extra Layers depending on the season and location otherwise a rain jacket, we always have a cell phone and for real communication needs, I always carry my 2 meter handie talkie ham radio, I can get someone if the phone is not working, food for the night if necessary, supplies to make fire (lighter, fire starter stick, candle, matches, and now a new firesteel), finally a small first aid kit for handling mainly cuts, scrapes, etc. along with Vit. I, tylenol, benedryl, and a couple other medications for the run of the mill stuff. Oh also hand warmers, emergency blanket, flashlight of some sort, and a knife. That usually covers it and a GPS.

    • I would add a headlamp to my list above too.  I always seem to have that with me along with a fire starter.  Good list Tim.

      • Tim

        Yes, definitely a headlamp. I don’t know why I put flashlight. I prefer a headlamp to a flashlight. Leaves me with both hands free.

  • Hiking Andorra

    Great advice given here, always better to have more than you need than to go without. Knife (Letherman Wave multi tool), head torch, layers, shelter (simple nylon fly/tarp), food and water are my basic essentials. I also seem to always have a small pouch in the bottom of my pack which has some ropes, a med kit and a small survival kit….this pouch gets moved from pack to pack depending on what kind of hike I am doing but always gets carried. 
    Just a small tip, for med kits and survival kits, you must know how to use all items in them and be competent in them, it is no good carrying a suture kit if you aren’t properly trained in it. Same as with survival kits, try out all the stuff in them first so you aren’t trying to read instructions on how to use a fire starter at night in the rain….because the only time you usually need these two items is when something has gone wrong.

    • Great points on learning to use the things you carry.

  • Jess Mink

    Cell phones are useful, but only if there’s signal.  As such I usually don’t end up carrying one.

    The list I almost always carry on a day hike is:
    – Enough food for the day
    – At least 1 L of water
    – Water treatment (Polar Pure generally)
    – Fire starter
    – Emergency bivy
    – An overshirt
    – A headlamp
    – ibuprofen

    Things I generally have, but should really always have:
    – A knife
    – Duct tape

    • Great additions to the list.  I agree on the cell phone but I still carry it anyway.  I also like the idea of water treatment.  Much better than carrying a filter.

  • Jess Mink

    Also I really like to have some idea of the lay of the land.  A map + compass is the best way to do that, but let’s be honest that doesn’t always happen on a day hike.  It’s nice to at least know “If I go down hill in a vaguely northern direction I’ll hit this highway” or something along those lines.  I haven’t had to fall back on something like that since I was a kid, but it helps keep stress levels lower.

    • You’re right.  It also doesn’t matter as much if you are very familiar with a place.  I hike Red Rock a ton and feel pretty well situated, especially for day hikes.  Overnights and thru-hikes present a separate challenge.  Thanks Jess.

  • Okay, so you are all guys. but what about a woman. I recently went out hiking in the snow alone. My family thought I should have brought pepper spray. Not because of what I thought – mountain lions – but against ‘mankind’. 

    But do you think for a women – they would need to bring some other type of protection element against animal or man?

    Might sound like an odd question, but there were a few of my friends and family members that thought I was 1) wrong for hiking alone and 2) I should have brought protection.

    • I have to say, there are many times when I don’t go off on my own for those very reasons. I have a dog now so that offers me some comfort level, but it is annoying to feel like I have to go with someone else.

      • Jessica, I am with you that it is annoying. And its one of the many reasons I have let a good-day-to-hike not happen. This time, I just got out and made it happen but then my family jumped on me. (btw, I had an awesome time).

    • Anonymous

      It is a sad state of affairs when this occurs I think. I have come across several women hiking solo when out hiking, several have had dogs with them or walking sticks/poles which could be easily wielded in self defence. I have always stopped and had a chat with them, any excuse for a break, but I have never really considered if they saw me as a threat. I certainly hope not.
      Maybe there is a whole line of equipment here…pepper spray in the handle of a walking pole…tazers etc.
      I hope this doesn’t deter women from hiking but as with all hiking, if you plan for this possibility, then there will be no surprises and at the very least you will be prepared.

      • HikingAndorra, I was fortunate to meet some people on the hike and I didn’t view them as a threat. In fact, they were all very down to earth and friendly. And there was a group I met at the start – they hiked first – so I did feel a bit more secure having them around…just in case. 

        And I fear the animals more than I fear hikers. Its such a bummer to have to consider carrying pepper spray on a beautiful hike. 

    • Thank you for your answers! 

      Yes, I thought about a dog, but am not really a dog person. maybe I could borrow a friend’s dog. It is sad to need to think about such a thing, but it seems to be a valid consideration.

      • Paula

        I am a black belt in karate and that goes a long way to make me feel safe on the trail when I’m not able to take my dog.

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  • Shon Fredrickson

    My dog, water for my dog and cocoa butter.