Let’s face it: Hiking and backpacking are gear-intensive pursuits. So, it’s understandable if you’re not sure what to keep in a hiking backpack during your outdoor adventures.
Thankfully, we’re here to help.
In this article, we’ll walk you through the 25 most important pieces of gear to take with you on a day hike or backpacking trip so you can always be prepared. Plus, we’ll even offer up some top tips for choosing the right gear for your hiking trip as well as some suggestions for making the packing process as simple as can be.
Let’s get started!
Top Tips For Choosing The Right Gear For Any Adventure
With so many different pieces of hiking gear to choose from, picking the right equipment to take hiking isn’t as easy as it might seem. In this section, we’ll offer some brief tips to help you decide what gear is right for you:
How To Choose The Best Hiking Boots
In reality, you’re not going to get far on your next outdoor adventure without a quality pair of hiking boots on your feet. As you search for your next hiking footwear, consider the following:
- Shoe Type. Your first order of business when shopping for hiking footwear is narrowing down what type of shoe you’d like. Whether it’s a lightweight pair of trail runners or burly leather boots, shoe type is a key concern while shopping around.
- Fit. An ill-fitting pair of boots is no fun on the trail, so be sure to consider your personal comfort at all times when buying hiking shoes. If your shoes don’t feel right when you try them on, they won’t feel any better after a long day of hiking.
- Durability. Hiking shoes that fall apart after a single trip are best avoided. So, opt for shoes that are made from durable leather or rugged nylon panels.
Oh, and once you have your new pair of boots, don’t forget to take the time to break in your hiking boots before you take to the trail.
How To Choose The Right Backpack For Hiking
A backpack is one of the most important pieces of gear that you’ll bring into the mountains. Here are some key things to keep in mind as you shop:
- Fit. A backpack that doesn’t fit properly or that feels uncomfortable isn’t going to do you any good as you hike. So, always prioritize fit above all else when shopping for a hiking backpack.
- Capacity. Your next major concern with any pack is its carrying capacity. For a day trip, you can usually opt for a pack with a 15 to 45L capacity. Backpacking trips can require anywhere from 60 to 105L, depending on the length of the trip.
- Features. Additional features, like hydration packs, pockets, and straps can enhance your hiking experience on the trail, so keep an eye out for them while doing your research.
Layering For Hiking & Backpacking: What You Need To Know
If you want to stay warm, dry, and comfortable outside, you’ll need to master the art of the clothing layering system. With this system, you’ll wear and pack the following on every hike:
- Base Layers. Also called long underwear, your base layers are designed to wick moisture as you hike.
- Mid Layers. Crafted with insulation in mind, mid layers are puffy jackets and fleece sweaters that keep you warm in the cold.
- Outer Layers. Your final layer of protection from the elements, your outer layer is usually a waterproof and windproof rain jacket to keep you dry in foul conditions.
For a more detailed understanding of how this layering system works, check out our ultimate guide to layering in the great outdoors.
25 Must-Have Pieces Of Gear To Keep In A Hiking Backpack
If you’re heading outside, it’s imperative that you have the right gear to keep you safe, warm, and happy, regardless of conditions on the trail. While there are dozens of pieces of gear that should be on any camping checklist, here are 25 must-have items for day hikes and backpacking trips, alike!
The 10 Essentials Of Hiking
Regardless of if you’re heading outside for a short jaunt in the woods or an extended expedition in the mountains, there are some pieces of gear you should never leave home without. Here are the 10 hiking essentials that you should take on every trip.
1. First Aid Kit
Although you hope to never have to use it, a first aid kit is a must-have whenever you head into the great outdoors. Even a short day hike can be quite a distance away from the nearest hospital, so having the gear you need to deal with a medical emergency is essential.
A small, lightweight kit, like the Adventure Medical Kits .7, is a solid choice for most day hikes and short backpacking trips.
However, keep in mind that a medical kit is only helpful if you know what to do with it. So, we highly recommend taking a wilderness first aid course if you plan to spend lots of time outside.
2. Navigation Tools
Navigating in the great outdoors can be tricky, even for the most skilled of adventurers. Even if you suspect that you’ll be on a very easy-to-follow trail, it’s always best to pack navigation tools for your journey to help you find your way.
At a minimum, all hikers should come prepared with a paper map and a compass, as well as the skills to use them efficiently. Other key navigation tools to pack include a hiking GPS, like the Garmin eTrex 30x, or a set of maps downloaded onto your phone for offline use.
Always remember, though, that technology can fail in the outdoors, so having paper maps and a compass is critical.
3. Fire Starting Supplies
Staying warm during an emergency is no easy feat, so having a way to start a fire while you’re outside is a must. Sure, you could make a bow drill and start a fire the “old fashioned” way, but this technique is harder than you might think and it takes years of practice to perfect.
Therefore, packing fire starting supplies, such as a windproof lighter, a set of waterproof matches, and a fire-starting tool is important. Since these items are pretty darn lightweight and portable, it’s a good idea to pack a few different ways to start a fire, just in case.
Staying hydrated is of the utmost importance for our health, especially if you’re sweating a lot while hiking. Drinking enough water while outside, however, isn’t as easy as when you’re at home because there’s no clean running water available to the turn of a tap.
That being said, it’s not possible to carry all the water you need if you’re heading out for more than a day of adventure. So, in addition to having a few water bottles or a hydration pack, you’ll also want to have some tools for purifying your own water while outside.
Depending on your personal preferences, you can opt for any one of a number of different water treatment systems, such as water filter pumps, chemical treatments, UV lights, and nifty little tools like the Lifestraw Go Water Bottle.
5. Food & Nutrition
Hiking burns a whole lot of energy, so you’ll need to fuel your body if you want to enjoy yourself on the trail.
Fueling your body properly while hiking requires coming prepared with plenty of snacks for your day of adventure. While the types of snacks that you bring will depend on your dietary preferences, it’s best to opt for easy-to-eat no cooking food, like trail mix, hiking bars, sandwiches, and the like.
Alternatively, if you’re going backpacking, it’s usually easiest to create a full meal plan for your trip so you don’t accidentally under- or overestimate the amount of food you need during your expedition.
6. Repair Kit & Tools
Even if you tread lightly on the trail, at some point, your gear will break or malfunction. Therefore, having some multi-purpose tools and supplies on hand to repair broken gear is a must.
If you’re backpacking, we’d also recommend bringing additional backpacking-specific repair items. Good things to bring include a stove repair kit (see if your stove manufacturer sells a specific model), as well as splints for broken tent poles.
7. Spare Clothing
Even if you’re planning a summertime day hike on a day with beautiful, bluebird weather, you never know when the conditions might change. As a result, you’ll always want to pack plenty of spare clothing to keep you warm and dry.
In particular, you should plan to have at least one or two more layers of warm clothing (e.g., a puffy jacket or a fleece) than you think you’ll need to stay cozy on the trail. Additionally, don’t forget to pack a rain jacket and a pair of rain pants to help you stay dry in foul conditions.
8. Sun Protection
Perhaps the most frequently overlooked of the 10 hiking essentials, sun protection is a must, even if the weather isn’t forecasted to be particularly sunny.
Well, the harmful effects of the sun on our skin are well-known, as excessive sun exposure can increase your risk for cancer and other conditions later in life. Plus, if you plan on spending lots of time in high-elevation or snowy environments, your risk of sunburn and other sun-related issues increases drastically.
To combat these harmful effects of the sun, always pack ample sun protection while hiking. This can be as simple as a tube of sunscreen, though other items, like a wide-brimmed hat, sunglasses, sun gloves, and even a sun shirt can all make a difference.
Getting benighted on the trail is something that happens to all of us at some point during our hiking careers. Even if you’ve planned on completing just a short day hike, emergencies and other situations can easily derail your adventure, keeping you out in the mountains until well past sundown.
Therefore, all hikers should come prepared with a reliable headlamp and spare batteries, even for a day trip. If you’re going to be out camping for more than a couple of nights, we recommend bringing a few sets of spare batteries, just in case.
Short day trips can quickly turn into an overnight epic with things don’t quite go according to plan. While we hope this never happens to you, having an emergency shelter with you at all times can make it easier to survive an unexpected night outside relatively unscathed.
If you’re backpacking, your tent, hammock, or tarp counts as your shelter. So, there’s no reason to pack another emergency shelter unless you think you might do short day hikes from a remote basecamp during your trip.
For day hikers, however, bringing an emergency blanket or bivy, like the ultralight and highly packable S.O.L. Emergency Bivy is a great idea.
15 Must-Haves For All Hiking Adventures
In addition to the 10 hiking essentials, there are a whole host of other items that any adventurer should bring when heading outside to make your experience more comfortable and enjoyable. So, here are 15 excellent pieces of gear to pack on your next hiking trip:
1. Bug Head Net
Fact: Bugs are annoying.
Whether they’re biting flies, mosquitos, or swarms of midges, keeping insects away from your face can be a pain in buggy locales. Although you certainly can use insect repellent as another layer of defense, a bug head net is usually your best bet for weight savings on longer hiking trips.
In fact, since they’re compact, lightweight, and fairly inexpensive, a bug head net should be a part of any camping checklist, just in case you find yourself in a mosquito-infested location on your travels.
2. Emergency Communication Device
Another addition to the list of items that you hope to never have to use but you certainly want to have during a serious situation, anyone heading outside should have an emergency communication device on hand at all times.
Although cell phone service is usually quite unreliable in the mountains, bringing a fully charged phone is a great move on any hiking trip, just in case. Furthermore, if you’re heading out on a longer expedition, non-cell phone communication devices, like Personal Locator Beacons (PLBs) or a Garmin InReach is a wise choice.
Or, when all else fails, going old school and packing a classic signaling mirror is a great decision on any hiking adventure.
3. Bear Canister or Bear Hang Kit
If you’re planning on backpacking in any recreation area with a known bear population, local regulations will almost certainly require that you come prepared with a bear-proof way to store your food. Depending on your local land manager’s regulations, you may need to bring a bear canister or a bear hang kit on your travels.
For bear canisters, you’ll want to check in about the specifics of what canister models are acceptable in your local forest or park. The Backpacker’s Cache Bear Canister is a popular choice, but be sure to check regulations to ensure it’s allowed in your hiking area.
If you’re allowed to use the bear hang method to store your food, however, you’ll want to come prepared with a dry bag for your food, 100ft (30m) or more of durable 7mm rope, and a tiny 0.5L stuff sack to get the job done properly.
For more information on different outdoor bear-proof food storage options, check out this video from REI:
4. Toilet Paper & Trowel
At some point during your hike, you’ll likely need to answer nature’s call. Since there (usually) are no flushing toilets in the wilderness, it’s important that you have the supplies you need to use the loo with minimal hassle and while following Leave No Trace guidelines for human waste disposal.
For the most part, hikers are normally expected to bury their solid human waste in a hole that’s at least 6” (15cm) deep, known as a “cat hole.” Doing so helps the waste decompose and prevents it from contaminating nearby water sources.
Digging a cat hole, however, usually requires something to dig with, so don’t forget to pack a small trowel on all day hikes and backpacking trips, just in case. Additionally, if you’d rather use toilet paper instead of natural wiping materials, bring a small roll on your adventures.
5. Hand Sanitizer & Soap
Spending time outside doesn’t mean you have to skimp on your personal hygiene. Whenever you hike or backpack, you should come prepared with a small bottle of hand sanitizer and a small container of soap to help you stay fresh and clean on the go.
If possible, opt for biodegradable soap, like Dr. Bronner’s to help lessen your impact on the environment.
6. Trekking Poles
Okay, while trekking poles don’t technically go inside your hiking backpack, they do make adventuring much more enjoyable in rough terrain, so they’re worth adding to your gear list. So why use trekking poles?
Even if you’ve never used trekking poles before, most hikers find that they help quite a bit with balance and stability on the trail. Plus, many folks find that using trekking poles lessens the stress on your knees, hips, and ankles as you hike downhill. What’s not to love?
7. Portable Battery Pack
Although many of us head into the backcountry to unplug from technology, we generally bring small devices, like headlamps, phones, GPS units, and emergency communication tools on our hikes.
8. Pack Cover or Pack Liner
On a particularly rainy day or a snowy winter camping trip the naturally water-resistant fabric on your hiking backpack might not be enough to keep your gear dry in the mountains. For a more reliable waterproofing solution, we’d highly recommend using a backpack rain cover or pack liner while hiking.
Backpack rain covers are designed to fit over the front of your backpack to shield it from moisture and foul weather. You can normally buy a pack cover from your pack’s manufacturer to ensure that it fits properly.
Meanwhile, pack liners, like the Osprey Ultralight Pack Liner are sort of like giant dry sacks for the inside of your backpack. They keep your gear dry on the inside and are more reliable in very windy and stormy conditions.
If you find that you spend a lot of time hiking in hot and humid locales, you probably notice that you get quite sweaty on the trail. In these conditions, frequently replenishing your electrolytes is essential if you want to protect yourself from dehydration.
For day hikes and backpacking trips, alike, portable electrolyte tablets, like those from Nuun are a simple solution for all your on-the-go hydration needs.
10. Bandana or Buff
Bandanas and buffs are among the most versatile pieces of gear you can bring into the mountains.
Whether you’re partial to buffs or bandanas, both offer plenty of great benefits on the trail, especially when it comes to protecting you from the sun. Plus, they’re super lightweight and they’re highly portable, so there’s no reason not to have one in your pack.
No one likes getting rocks, twigs, dirt, snow and other debris in their hiking shoes while outside, so a quality pair of gaiters is critical for ensuring a seamless hiking experience.
Since there are dozens of different gaiters on the market, it’s important that you find a set that’s best suited for your needs. For example, folks who wear low-top trail runners while hiking might find that ankle-height gaiters are more than sufficient. Alternatively, for hiking in deep snow, consider knee-height gaiters, like the Outdoor Research Crocodile.
Hiking gives you a chance to see and experience some of the world’s most beautiful landscapes first hand. Even if you don’t imagine yourself as the next Ansel Adams, having a small camera on hand can help you capture the experience without draining your phone’s battery.
Or, if you’re not interested in photos, consider packing a sketchbook or some portable watercolors, instead for a relaxing activity while in camp.
13. Bear Spray
If you’re hiking in bear country, it’s important that you come prepared with important safety gear, like bear spray to help you stay safe in the mountains.
A bear spray canister, like one from Counter Assault, which comes with a convenient holster, is a must for travels in known bear terrain. However, be sure that you always keep your bear spray accessible as you hike so you have it on hand in the event of an emergency.
Whether you’re a bird lover or simply keen to check out the trail ahead, a pair of compact binoculars can truly enhance your hiking experience.
Of course, binoculars can get quite heavy, so it’s best to look for a pocket-sized pair unless you’re a particularly enthusiastic ornithologist. Oh, and if you’re interested in learning more about the local wildlife, consider packing along a pocket guidebook with identification information for species in your area.
15. Quick Dry Towel
Last but not least, a quick dry towel, like the PackTowl Personal, is a great option for drying off after a rainy day or after a brief swim in an alpine lake.
Since traditional cotton towels are bulky and slow to dry, a lightweight microfiber model is a sure bet for any outdoor escapade.
The Ultimate Hiking Packing List: A Cheat Sheet
We want you to have the easiest possible time packing for your adventures. So, here’s a printable checklist with all 25 must-have items to keep in your backpack for you to use as you pack for your next hiking trip!
How To Pack For A Day Hike?
Packing for a day hike starts with knowing what you actually need and what’s just nice to have. Since no one wants to carry more weight in their pack than is absolutely necessary, we recommend the following:
- Never Skimp On The Essentials. The 10 essentials of hiking are called essentials for a reason. As such, you should aim to take them on every hiking trip, no matter how short it may be.
- Prioritize Your Other Gear. After you pack all the essentials, it’s time to start thinking about what else you might bring. If space in your pack is limited, make a list of all the potential items you might pack in order of most to least important. Then, cut items from your list as packing constraints dictate.
- Revise Your Packing List Frequently. Although there are some pieces of gear that you shouldn’t leave at home, even if they don’t get used often (e.g., emergency communications devices and first aid kits), we all fall victim to packing more than we actually need in the mountains. So, after each hiking trip, take the time to review all of your gear and consider leaving any items that you didn’t use at home on your next adventure.
Tips For Packing Gear And Packing Efficiently: The ABCs of Packing
As we’ve mentioned, hiking trips require a whole lot of gear. With limited space in your pack, it’s imperative that you pack efficiently. So, as you pack, follow these ABCs of packing principles to get the job done properly:
- Accessibility. Gear that you’ll definitely need during your hiking day, like your map, compass, snacks, and rain jacket should be at the top of your pack in an accessible spot.
- Balance. Strive to pack your gear so that it’s equally balanced on both sides and that the heaviest items are at the bottom. Otherwise, you might find that one side of your body gets more of a workout than the other.
- Compression. If you have a lot of gear to fit in a small pack, you’ll need to compress everything down as much as possible. Stuff gear into every nook and cranny of your pack to use all the available space.
- Dry. No one wants wet gear while hiking. So, use dry backs, a pack liner, or a pack cover to keep your gear dry on a rainy day in the mountains.
Can You Use A Regular Backpack For Hiking?
You certainly can use a regular backpack for hiking, though it’s not ideal. In particular, regular backpacks (like the ones you might use for school or walking around town) aren’t designed for carrying heavy loads.
So, while they’ll get the job done, regular backpacks are not as comfortable for outdoor adventure as a dedicated hiking backpack because they don’t have padded hip belts and shoulder straps, nor other useful features.
What Should You Not Take On A Hike?
Although it’s impossible to list everything, a few of the most important things that you shouldn’t take on a hike include cotton clothing, really heavy objects, and valuables, such as jewelry and non-waterproof electronics.
Why’s that, you might ask? Well, cotton clothing is a no-go for hiking because it offers no insulating value when wet. Meanwhile, heavy objects will just hold you back as you hike and valuables are likely to get lost or damaged, so they’re best left behind.
How Much Water Should You Bring On A Hike?
On average, you should bring about 4L of water per person per day on a long day hike, though you may need more if you’re in a very hot environment. However, you don’t necessarily need to carry all of this water during your trip.
Instead, if you know that there will be water sources located along your hike, you can start your trip with just 2 to 3 liters of water. Then, you can use a filter or another water treatment system to purify water while you’re on the trail.