Whether you’re going for a quick trek on your favorite local trail or planning an all-day suffer-fest for your next vacation, putting together a hiking checklist is essential before you ever take your first step.
Below we’ve put together everything you need to know to get started from what to wear, what to pack, and most importantly, what to eat.
- Hiking boots or trail runners
- Backpack or waist pack
- Trekking poles
What To Wear
With thousands of different choices for hiking clothing out there, chances are no two hikers will bring exactly the same ensemble for a hike.
And that’s ok. Some gear is better than others, but you don’t need the latest and greatest from any particular brand to get out there and enjoy the great outdoors.
Regardless of which gear you decide on, here are all the universal necessities you’ll need:
The Footwear Dilemma…
Generally speaking, hiking footwear nowadays falls into one of two categories: Traditional hiking boots, or trail runners. The debate here can get heated.
Hiking boots are tried-and-true, and while they may be a little much for a quick three-mile loop, you’ll never have to worry about having enough support. Hiking boots are also the weapon of choice for many hikers on colder or wetter excursions due to their insulation and superior waterproofing. On hotter days, however, you’ll be wishing you had something a little more breathable, which brings us to…
Trail runners. Trail runners have exploded in popularity over the last few years as an alternative to traditional boots. They’re super light, super comfortable, give great support and traction, and breathe better than just about any boot on the market.
Personally, I reach for trail runners in anything but the nastiest weather for day hikes (and backpacking too, for that matter) because I just can’t justify lacing up a big chunky boot when I’m carrying next to no weight.
Both are viable options, just make sure you wear the right socks (more on that below) and your footwear of choice fits correctly. As the saying goes, happy feet make for happy hiking.
Hot spots and blisters, on the other hand, will turn even the most beautiful stretch of trail into the worst kind of experience.
Adding the right socks to your hiking checklist is super important, but often overlooked.
The first and most important rule when shopping hiking socks is making sure your sock of choice isn’t made from cotton.
Cotton is a serious no-no for a few important reasons.
First, the fibers of cotton both absorb and retain moisture, which means once they’re wet, they’re going to stay that way whether it’s from sweat, water, or both. Wet socks create blisters in short order, which is why wool or synthetic fabrics are the only serious choice here.
Cotton fibers also lose their ability to insulate once they get wet because they hold moisture against your skin rather than wicking it away. Both wool and synthetic fibers will continue to insulate your skin and regulate body temperature even when wet, which is essential for happy feet.
And, just like hiking shoes, having a properly fitting hiking sock is important for avoiding blisters as well.
Your sock should be snug but not overly tight. Overly tight socks won’t cushion the way they’re intended, and overly loose socks generate extra heat and friction inside your footwear. Either extreme makes a perfect breeding ground for blisters.
What goes on your hiking checklist for your upper body will depend on the weather, but there are a few basic considerations to keep in mind here regardless.
Thermal baselayer or shirt: When choosing your shirt (for warm weather) or baselayer (for cooler weather), the first consideration is materials. Just like your hiking socks, you’ll want your shirt to be made from wool, synthetic fibers, or a blend of the two.
Synthetic materials are generally less expensive, lightweight, and do a great job of wicking moisture and regulating body temperature. They tend to hold on to body odor more than wool though, just something to keep in mind.
Merino wool is a great alternative to synthetic fabrics, and I’m not just talking about the winter months either.
Yes, a long-sleeve merino base layer is ideal for regulating body temperature in the colder months, but don’t rule wool out for hotter hikes.
Merino comes in a range of thicknesses, and a 150-weight shirt is a perfect companion for warm weather performance. They’re typically a little more expensive than synthetics, but with proper care they’ll last a long time.
Hiking shorts and pants: Whether you choose pants or shorts largely depends on the weather and conditions, but personally I recommend you don’t choose at all.
That’s right. I’m talking about convertible pants.
Go ahead and laugh. I might look like a dad in Disneyland in the morning, but when the sun reaches its peak and I unzip these bad boys into performance mode we’ll see who has the last laugh.
Honestly either option will work in warm weather, as lightweight hiking pants will both shield you from the sun and wick moisture. Again, just make sure you stay away from cotton so your sweat has somewhere to go other than a soupy pool around your undercarriage.
Thermal base layers come into play on your lower body as well when hiking in colder temperatures. Honestly I wear these all winter and fall whether I’m on the trail or just out on the town. Just tuck them into your socks and kiss heat-loss goodbye.
Whether you actually wear them out of the house or not, you should plan on packing any extra layers you might need for changing weather.
Thermal outer layer: For colder temps, you’ll want an additional warm outer layer to go along with your thermal base layers. The go-to for thermal layers is typically a down jacket because they’re lightweight, pack down super-small, and store easily when you don’t need them.
Rain jacket: For milder weather, this really depends on what’s in the forecast. If there’s any real chance of rain, a lightweight, packable rain jacket is always a smart move. You’ll be glad you’ve got it if you happen to need it. If you’ve already got full backpacking rain gear, consider bringing it along and protecting your bottom half while you’re at it.
We know real down can range anywhere from pricey to extravagantly expensive though, so synthetic fill jackets or fleece will both do the trick just as well for a day hike. But… Ya know… No cotton.
What To Pack
Ok, now that you’ve got that whole clothing thing squared away and there isn’t a shred of cotton on your body, let’s talk about your pack and what goes in it.
For day hiking, most folks opt for a smaller backpack (typically something under 25 liters), but depending on the weather and the length of your hike, you can typically get away with even less than that.
Really no need to get fancy here, although I do appreciate a day pack with light hip and sternum straps to help keep everything in place.
If you’re anything like me, there’s a good chance you’ll often find yourself out with about a half-full pack that likes to slosh and bounce around a bit, so I’d also like to mention there’s an often-overlooked alternative here.
I’m talking about the humble waist pack (or “lumbar pack” depending on which brand you’re shopping), and if you haven’t tried one out, do please consider it. Just don’t call it a fanny pack.
Lumbar packs are great because they move all the weight from your shoulders down around your hips, and give you quick access to water, snacks, and extra layers without having to stop and take off your pack.
You’ll sacrifice a little space for extra comfort and mobility, but folks who like to travel light should seriously consider adding a lumbar pack to their hiking checklist.
If you don’t take anything else away from this article, PLEASE remember to bring plenty of water along with you on any outing outdoors.
Running out of water on the trail (especially longer hikes) can be a scary experience.
You’ve got miles to go in either direction, your mouth is like a desert, and you start feeling weaker with every step. Yep, that’s dehydration setting in, and it’ll only get worse from there.
Headaches, nausea, and cramps come next, so don’t let it happen to you.
The good news is, it’s easy to come prepared.
A basic rule of thumb is to bring 500ml of water for every hour you’ll hike. That means most day hikes will require at least 1500ml (a full 50oz Nalgene bottle), but often you’ll need a lot more than that.
If you’re hiking in hot weather, on more strenuous trails, or both, you need to bring roughly twice as much per hour.
Whether you choose to bring a water bottle (or two) or a hydration bladder is up to you, but it’s always better to pack more than you think you’ll need rather than the bare minimum in case of emergencies.
Everyone’s favorite part of a hiking checklist, myself included.
You really don’t need to put too much thought into this other than making sure that whatever you pack is calorie-rich.
If you’re the Clif Bar type, I forgive you, but personally I like to indulge a little here so I’ve got something motivating me to push through the miles.
So go ahead. Get crazy. Snickers bars are a hiker favorite, but I like to bring candy of just about any description along a decent amount of GORP (Good Ol’ Raisins and Peanuts) myself.
You’re burning several hundred calories every hour. Live a little.
For shorter hikes, this doesn’t need to be anything beyond a simple store-bought first aid kit.
Even the most simple kit will have all the basics like band-aids and bandages, sanitizing wipes, antibiotic ointment, and a few over-the-counter essentials like ibuprofen and antihistamines.
Pick one up and customize it from there depending on your personal needs. I recommend starting with proper “foot first aid” items like moleskin and athletic tape to take care of any hot spots or blisters.
For those shorter hikes on your local trails that you could do blindfolded, this can be as simple as your smartphone. As long as you’ve got plenty of battery, the right app, and a GPS signal, you’re golden.
For longer hikes or routes you’re unfamiliar with, you’ll want to bring along the good ol’ fashioned topo map and compass, a dedicated GPS unit, or both.
Other Hiking Checklist Essentials
Take a look at what you’ve already got on your checklist and compare it to the 10 hiking essentials.
If you’re not familiar with the 10 essentials, you can check out our write-up on it here.
You might already hike with a few of these items, but consider the following:
- A headlamp or flashlight
- Sunscreen, sunglasses, and a hat
- A reliable pocket knife
- A bivy or similar emergency shelter
- Lighter or waterproof matches
- Extra clothes
- Extra food and water/water purification system
Basically anything you might need for an emergency or unplanned extended stay in the wilderness.
Our Favorite Creature Comforts To Consider
If you’ve crossed every item above off your hiking checklist, congrats, you’re good to go.
Before you do though, here are a few extras we’ll recommend that might make hiking that much more enjoyable…
Trekking poles: Trekking poles add stability and take some of the load off your joints when hiking up and down hills. They also come in handy for staying out of the water during creek crossings…
Shoe gaiters: Simple but effective, gaiters cover the space between your footwear and your leg to keep little rocks and debris from finding their way into your shoes. No more stopping to dig out sticks or pebbles.
Hammock: If you’ve got space in your bag for a hiking hammock, bring it. A hiking hammock takes your mid-day snack break to a whole new level.