The Ultimate Hiking Checklist: From What Clothes to Wear to How Much Water to Bring
Whether you’re an experienced hiker or you only just started exploring national, state and local parks, a hiking checklist can help keep you organized and prepared so you don’t suddenly remember 20 minutes down the trail that you forgot to bring any food or water. Here, we compiled the ultimate packing list for a day of hiking, complete with clothing recommendations, necessary gear and, of course, the “Ten Essentials.”
While we recommend bringing these items with you no matter what, there is a major difference between hiking on wide dirt roads in Caballero Canyon in L.A. within shouting distance of civilization and hiking deep into the Grand Canyon. Use your best judgement when planning what to pack, but just know the more remote the path, the more likely it is you might end up needing those extras.
The Ten Essentials:
This group of the “Ten Essentials” was originally put together more than 90 years ago in the 1930s by a Seattle-based outdoor adventure group called The Mountaineers. Since then, it has evolved into ten groups or categories rather than ten single items (i.e., some way to light a fire as opposed to matches specifically), but still includes all the original things its founders deemed necessary for a safe and successful hiking trek.
1. Map and Compass, or GPS Device
In order to have a successful day hike, you’ve gotta know where you’re going. And also, how to get back to where you started. Otherwise, you run the risk of turning an afternoon exploration into an accidental multi-day trek. Although many trails are often well-marked and well-maintained, that isn’t true everywhere, so you’re going to need a backup plan just in case you get turned around or confused. A map and compass combo are likely your best bet, but you can also use a GPS device—and no, the GPS on your phone won’t suffice. REI offers classes on basic navigation if you’re unsure how to use these tools, or you can swing by any U.S. ranger station for specific tips and to pick up maps.
2. Headlamp or Flashlight (plus extra batteries)
You didn’t plan on staying out past sunset, but that view was just so stunning and you lost track of time (hey, it happens to the best of us). Or maybe a change in the weather has left you stumbling through pouring rain with little to no sunlight to guide your way. Most phones come with a flashlight feature, but your phone battery won’t last as long as the good old-fashioned AAAs in a headlamp (nor is your iPhone equipped to handle inclement weather). A regular flashlight will also work, but headlamps have the added benefit of allowing you to remain hands-free and ready to scramble over rocks or catch yourself if you trip. Be sure to check the batteries that are in and charged before you leave the house and stick a few extras in your pack just in case they run out of juice.
Always wear sunscreen. Always. Sunburns are painful, they cause your skin to age prematurely and can, in the long run, cause cancer. But overexposure to the sun can also cause sunstroke and may leave you feeling confused, tired or dizzy—not ideal if you’re trying to navigate yourself off the side of a mountain. So, slather on the sunscreen (SPF 30 or higher) and throw an extra bottle in your bag. You might also want to bring a sun hat with a wide brim that will offer protection from the rays and help keep you cool, in addition to sunglasses to protect your eyes.
4. First Aid Kit
Similar to the headlamp/flashlight, this is one item you hope you won’t have to use, but boy will you be glad you have it if the occasion arises. You can definitely utilize pre-packed first aid kits you find at the drugstore (Welly makes some particularly cute and handy options), but you can also make your own kit, if you’d rather. REI has a great guide on finding the right pre-packed kit for you and your group, as well as a list of essentials to add to your DIY version.
5. Knife or Multi-Tool
We’re not talking about a butter knife for spreading cheese on crackers at lunch or a hunting knife for combating wild animals. We’re talking about a simple Swiss Army knife or similar multi-tool that can be used to cut a piece of string, gauze or a particularly stubborn bag of trail mix. Again, it’s really just there in case of an emergency, but it takes up barely any room and doesn’t weigh much, so there’s no reason not to toss one into your pack.
6. Lighter or Matches
By now I’m sure you’re sensing a bit of a theme here—most of the Ten Essentials are small items that can be life-saving in the event things go wrong. We definitely don’t encourage you to strike up a campfire whenever or wherever you please (in fact it’s illegal in most national parks), but if you get lost and have to spend the night or the weather takes a sharp turn toward freezing, a campfire can really come in handy. You should 100 percent read up on, and consider practicing, how to build a campfire safely and correctly. And be sure to stow your matches or lighter in a waterproof bag or box so they don’t become useless in the event of rain.
No, you don’t need to a bring a full tent with you for a three-hour walkabout, but at the very least stick an emergency space blanket, bivy sack or small tarp in the bottom of your pack. If you unexpectedly end up spending the night outdoors, you’ll be incredibly grateful to have some form of shelter, especially if you’re in a locale where temps drastically fall after mid-afternoon (especially in desert locales like those found in New Mexico or Utah).
8. Extra Food
Plan out the lunch you think you’ll need (with plenty of protein and carbs to keep your energy up). Then double the amount. Or, at the very least, toss a few extra protein bars into your pack. Worst case scenario, you’ll just eat that extra ham and cheese sandwich at work tomorrow, but you may find yourself hungrier at midday than you thought and in the case of emergency, you now have sustenance to keep you going.
9. Extra Water
Yes, water is heavy, but dehydration’s negative effects will kick in much faster than hunger will, so it’s better to come prepared than to assume you’ll have access to clean water along your route. Remember, always bring more water than you think you’ll need.
10. Extra Clothes
The weather report says the afternoon will be 65 degrees and sunny but come evening the temperature is going to be closer to 40. Even though you plan to be back to your car before nightfall, it’s best to stuff an extra fleece into your pack just in case. And if it unexpectedly starts to rain, you’ll be mighty glad you brought along that rain jacket and some dry socks for the drive home. (Plus, changing out of wet clothes into warm dry ones is one of the best ways to combat hypothermia.) We suggest sticking fresh socks, pants, a warm top and a waterproof jacket in your daypack at the least, but you can also add a new T-shirt, a warm hat or a pair of undies to the mix, as well.
Where’s a gal to stow this somewhat lengthy list of needments? In a backpack, of course! If you’re headed out for a short, easy loop, pretty much any lightweight backpack will do. But if you’re covering more difficult terrain or plan to be out for five hours or more, you’ll likely want an actual hiking backpack. These are specifically designed to make your trek more comfortable—thanks to ergonomic straps, super-lightweight water-resistant materials and additional waist and chest straps to better distribute weight. They’re often listed by the number of liters they’ll hold, starting at about six and going all the way up into the 80s (or even larger) for multi-day backpacking excursions. But for a one-day excursion, you’ll probably want something between 15 to 30 liters.
There are a handful of rules to live by when deciding what to wear hiking, but generally speaking, wear whatever’s comfortable and allows you to move freely. Other than that, moisture-wicking materials are better than cotton (which absorbs everything and will likely leave you drenched and chafing half a mile into your hike), including your underwear. Wool socks will keep your toes warm and comfortable, even if they get wet, and many hiking-specific pairs are built with compression to give your hard-working feet better support throughout the day. T-shirts tend to combat chafing from backpack straps better than tank tops, and give you more coverage from UV rays, but that doesn’t mean you absolutely have to wear a top with sleeves. Dress in layers so you can adjust throughout the day as the weather or elevation changes and remember, looser silhouettes tend to allow you greater range of motion and they’re better for keeping you cool on warmer days.
As for footwear? We highly recommend proper hiking boots for added ankle support, water resistance and so you’ll be prepared for any type of terrain you encounter. That said, you might be fine with sneakers, so long as they have ample traction. Never wear old kicks or boots or you’ll put yourself at risk of slipping (even on a simple dirt road) and falling.
Much of the gear in this portion of the checklist fits in with the Ten Essentials (navigation tools, a knife, a first aid kid, a headlamp, a lighter, SPF and shelter). But it’s also a good idea to take along some toilet paper or wipes for bathroom breaks, as well as a few plastic sandwich bags for trash or other items you want to keep organized in your pack. Be sure to write out an itinerary of where you plan to hike and stick a copy under the driver’s seat of your car (this is a super common practice so park rangers know to look here in case you don’t get back to your car when expected). And consider giving a copy to a friend, via text or email, so they can alert the authorities with details if you’re lost.
Food and Water
The most important part of any event is the food (right?) and a hiking trip is not the time to go light. We mentioned it above, but we want to put extra emphasis here: You’ll need plenty of protein and carbohydrates to keep your energy levels up, especially if you plan to be out all day. And while everyone knows to bring empty chip bags or soda cans back with them so they can be properly disposed of in trash and recycling bins, you still shouldn’t leave behind apple cores, orange peels or peanut shells. Follow the tenet of “leave no trace” and prepare to carry out everything you carry in (yes, including used TP or sanitary products—this is where those extra sandwich bags come in handy).
As for water, you should come with more than you expect you’ll need (see the Ten Essentials section above), but you might also want to think about bringing along a water filtration system or purifying tablets. These will help clarify water from a stream or lake if need be.
Any other extras you choose to bring along, like a camera or binoculars, are totally up to you. Now all that’s left to do is double check the weather and get a good nights sleep. Mother Nature, here we come.