May 22, 2023 6 min read

The sun is out, the sky is blue - it’s time to get out for a hike.  

You dig up an old backpack and pack a water bottle and some bug spray. All set - right? 

Not so fast. There’s more to a well-prepared day hiking backpack than meets the eye. Even on a short hike, the unexpected can happen, and we can all benefit from having a few extra supplies - just in case. Here’s what you should always keep handy in your pack. 

Hiking Essentials: Water & Extra Water

Tempted to go without water, because you think you're headed for a very short, easy hike, or it's not a particularly hot day?  Remember: anything can happen out on the trail, so regardless of the type of hike you plan, get into the habit of bringing water - every time. This sounds silly, but since you brought water - be sure to drink it too! Water is your best ally to keep your muscles lubricated, so try to drink your water as you cover ground. Saving it all for the end doesn't really help you - you want it inside you sooner rather than later. You won't be sorry.

What's more, always pack more water than you think you’ll need. Hiking can be strenuous, and in high heat or a strenuous hike, it’s not a bad idea to be drinking aliter of water for every hour you’re out.

Water Pack & Map for Day Hiking/ Trail Running

If you’re hiking with a partner (whether they’re human or four-legged), make sure they have plenty of water, too. You can carry it in a water bladder to keep it accessible, or you can simply fill a few bottles. 

On a longer hike? It also doesn’t hurt to have a way to purify water from backcountry sources in case you run out or find yourself out for more time than expected. Iodine tablets are a cheap option that won’t take up much space in your pack. 

Hiking Essentials: Food

When you’re in Purple Lizard country, you can bet you may find yourself burning some serious calories, whether you are deep in a long valley or hoofing it up a mountain. 

While hiking is fantastic exercise, keeping your blood sugar  and electrolyte levels up will ensure that you make it home safely and have an enjoyable adventure. Staying fed in the backcountry is important, so choose nutritionally and calorically dense foods to put in your pack.

A hiker staple is trail mix - aptly named and readily available in many different mixes at the grocery store. Choose carefully - some are loaded with chocolate of various forms, which sounds good, but it doesn't take much heat to turn that into a melted, gooey mess, sometimes well before you even get to the trailhead.

Dried fruit and nuts is often the better choice, and repackaging in your own ziplock bag makes transport and self-feeding easier.

You can split it into two bags - a smaller one, more readily accessible while in motion, and a larger reserve to restock from when you are stopped and your pack is off.Buying individually wrapped bars is also an option, but it costs way more and you then have the individually wrapped packaging to pack out. It's more cost effective and easier to buy in bulk and put what you need in a smaller bag. 

Day Hiking Snack Pack - Nuts and Fruit

If trail mix doesn’t strike your fancy, then try hard cheeses, nut butters or fruit. More shelf-stable foods are a good choice for warm hikes. Eat in frequent, small amounts to keep fueled - and always bring extra food in case you have to stay out longer than you expected.

Hiking Essentials: Navigation

Today’s hiking-oriented GPS apps are wonderful for knowing your exact location, but phones can easily die or become damaged. In the case of navigation, low-tech can often be better. 

A Purple Lizard Map is waterproof and requires no batteries or cell signal. Carrying one wherever you go will help you find water sources and alternate routes, as well as provide a more detailed picture of a larger surrounding area. 

Learning how to read a topographic map doesn’t have to be difficult or daunting, and it’s a useful skill to have no matter where you decide to hike. It's easy to get turned around, so a compass is a also a useful item - if you haven't used a compass it is a tool you should be familiar with. There are instructional resources on-line, and a basic compass is small, light and inexpensive. 

Hiking Essentials: Light

It may sound counterintuitive: you’re out for aday hike, not a night hike. There’s no reason you should need a light. Until you do...

If you accidentally take a wrong turn and that three-mile hike turns into 13, you’ll be glad you brought one. A basic headlamp works well because it allows you to keep your hands free, but a reliable flashlight is just fine, too. Extra batteries are always a good idea - sometimes lights get turned on by mistake inside your pack, and other times the light starts to dim and you realize, oops, these batteries are on their last legs (and you may be too). 

Hiking Essentials: Extra Layers and Rain Gear

No matter what time of year, it’s wise to have an extra layer or two folded up in your pack. Sudden storms or morning and evening at higher altitudes can cause temperatures to be colder than you might expect. A simple, lightweight fleece is often just right. 

Rain gear is also always helpful to have on hand, no matter the season or the weather report. These days the weather is often unpredictable, and rain gear keeps body heat in and precipitation out. It also acts as a wind layer and protection. If you don’t have a rain jacket, a basic poncho will work. Bonus if it fits over your backpack. 


The other very important consideration is being aware of the various hunting seasons. You should wear some orange if you're out in the woods, and you should also make sure your furry friends wear orange. 


Hiking Essentials: First Aid and Emergency

No matter the length of the outing, you should always have a first aid kit, and you don’t have to spend a fortune to create your own. Some Band-Aids of various sizes, Ibuprofen, Benadryl, and gauze in a waterproof plastic bag are a good start. If you have new footgear, some moleskin will go a long way to alleviate any blisters you may have during break-in periods. 

In the same vein, having some emergency supplies and a knowledge of how to use them can be a life-saver. A simple space blanket (those shiny thin blankets that look like they are from space but pack up very small and hold in heat) or a small tarp can function as an emergency shelter should you need to spend an unplanned night out. A few fire starters and a lighter are good to have, too. 

Chances are, you won’t need to use these supplies, but you’ll be glad to have them if you do. 

Hiking Fun: A Treat For The Summit

You climbed a mountain -- or two, or three! Or maybe you just went for a casual stroll. Wherever you hiked, it’s nice to pack something special to celebrate. 

Some fancy cheese and crackers, a sandwich with all the good stuff on it or a favorite snack works great. In the colder weather, a thermos full of hot chocolate or cider never disappoints. 

Ready, Set, Hike

Going for a walk doesn’t have to be complicated, but it pays to be well prepared. Keep all the above essentials in your pack, and you’ll be ready for anything. 

Impromptu sunset hike? Check. A walk in the rain? Check. Exploring new trails? No problem! Got a later start that planned? You'll enjoy the feeling of extra confidence a well packed day pack can provide. 

See you out there!

Renée Koma is a writer in mental health and personal development. When she’s not tapping away on her laptop, she loves to play her cello, go backpacking, and write for her own outdoors-themed blog, The Dirt.