What to Bring on a Day Hike to Make it Home Safe
Across the country, hikers put themselves at risk daily by stepping onto a hiking trail unprepared for potential situations they may face. Even a day hike can prove life threatening. Here are 27 pieces of gear to to answer the question; what to bring on a day hike. So you can make it home safe and avoid becoming a statistic.
Packs do more than just carry your gear, they provide an ergonomic method of doing so. A pack that is too large, not designed for hiking, or not secured, can shift weight causing you to lose balance. This increases risk of injury while climbing or descending. Improper packs can also cause discomfort based on weight distribution or a number of other factors.
Select a pack from a reputable manufacturer designed for hiking. Use a pack with two shoulder straps and a waist strap at minimum to help with weight distribution and stability. A pack in the 20-40L range should be great for day hikes.
Consider an internal frame pack in the following situations:
- if caring a heavier load such as gear for kids or additional water
- when traveling longer distances, or with steep accents or descents
Checkout our bag selection series for more detail on proper pack selection. You can start the series here.
This is the most important set of items to carry with you on any hike. In Grand Canyon National Park, 90% of all heat related illnesses which EMS responded to between 2004 and 2009 were associated with hiking. 44% were directly related to dehydration or hyponatremia which we will discuss in a moment (Journal of Wilderness Environ Med. 2013 Dec; 24(4): 422–428).
Fortunately, a minimalist setup can be one of the lightest things you add to your bag. These items are so small, they can fit even in a packed first aid kit.
Minimum Hydration Items
Every hiker should carry a minimum of a collapsible water bottle and water purification tabs in addition to their standard water bottle(s). Heed warnings on trail markers about limited water availability on trails. If you are unsure if you have enough, fill up your collapsible bottle.
Hydration Isn’t Just Water
When you sweat, your body not only loses water, it also loses electrolytes (salts and minerals). You can drink water all day long, however if you don’t replenish electrolytes in your system you can risk developing hyponatremia (low sodium levels in the blood stream) which is just as dangerous as dehydration. To avoid it, be sure to eat meals at regular intervals and enjoy some snacks such as pretzels, nuts, trail mix, or granola bars.
It is also ideal to mix some electrolyte powder packs into your water regimen. Not only does it give you some flavor, it also helps replenish lost electrolytes. We have included the link to the electrolyte powder packs we like in the link above. They have the ideal isotonic exchange rate, include less sugar than other sports powders, and avoid additives and caffeine.
If You Can Handle a Little More Weight
If you have more room or can stand a little weight a water filter is much more convenient and allows you to generate larger quantities of drinkable water.
Remember, shelter in extreme environments is vital to survival. “Heading out for a day hike with only a light jacket and a headlamp could be fine, provided everything goes well. However, if you twist your ankle and are out overnight, that could be a miserable mistake.” says Lisa Hendy, Yosemite National Park Emergency Services Program Manager (Sierra Club, 2013).
Unplanned exposure to extreme heat or cold can be encountered with just one mistake in the wilderness. A wrong turn during a morning desert hike can put you hours behind schedule and in dangerous heat you didn’t plan for. The opposite goes for a late afternoon hike in the same environment, as cold temperatures are a risk at night.
An emergency blanket is cheap and lightweight and can be used for shade in hot temperatures. The SOL Escape Bivvy is compact, weighs only 8.5oz, and is designed to keep you warm and dry in cold environments.
If looking to save some weight, carry just the bivvy and flip it reflective side out for a narrow but long shade similar to the emergency blanket. Hang it with paracord as needed. While the emergency blanket works great as a shade, it is subpar as a blanket and is extremely delicate. The bivvy works much better to retain warmth and keep you dry.
Most of these items are multi-use but assist greatly to survive an unplanned mishap on the trail.
Never leave your car or camp without a headlamp, even if planning to hike during the day. “Many hikers have become stranded overnight for simple lack of a headlamp” (Yosemite Search and Rescue, 2015). In addition to keeping you from spending an unplanned overnight stay, they can also be used for signaling for emergencies, a makeshift sweatband, and more.
A whistle can easily save your life and help conserve energy in the wilderness. They gain more attention than yelling, the sound carries further, and they are fun for kids. For emergencies, go with 3 long whistle blows (about 3 seconds each) for the international distress call. In our experiences, this is easier with kids. Otherwise, use the SOS signal in Morse code.
A signal mirror can be seen easily for up to 15 miles when used properly and takes up very little space. Flash an object, pan horizontally to gain attention, or send Morse code. They can also be used to check your hair while on the trail.
Paracord and a carabiner have endless uses from tying up a shade, holding gear to your pack, transporting injured persons, or even using as a rescue rope for a water rescue. Carry at least 20 feet of paracord. With the right wrap it can pack up small.
We recommend carry at least one carabiner designed for climbing. They are engineered to support human weight and shock force associated with a fall. For very little additional weight when compared to a gear-only carabiner, you can use them for standard gear clip points day to day, in addition human support if the need ever arises.
Duck tape. Enough said. It has hundreds of uses for first aid, gear repair, patching rain gear, and more. Wrap a few feet on an item you carry such as a water bottle or trekking pole. Or, wrap an old ID or credit card to keep it slim and packable. We prefer the credit card wrap method to keep tape residue off our gear.
Contractor trash bags (2-3mil) are tough and non-porous. They are great as a poncho, for additional insulation for your bivvy in cold conditions, or as a pack liner to keep gear dry in the rain.
A compass and paper trail map should be carried at all times. If you aren’t familiar with compass navigation, you should be. A course can be found locally in most areas through REI or other outdoor retailers. Even experienced hikers on familiar trails can become disoriented due to weather or other factors. A compass and map can be the difference between a safe return or a wilderness rescue.
A GPS Doesn’t Replace a Compass
A Global Positioning System is a great option to include in your pack for routing and recording coordinates. However, a GPS should never replace a compass! GPS’s are electronic and can fail. Always have a reputable compass in your backpack, even if you carry a GPS.
Having a way to communicate is key. Do not plan to have cellular coverage. An amateur radio is hands down the most cost-effective communication method to carry, but a license is required. There are no service costs, just the cost of your radio.
I have never been on a hike in an area where a quick search on RepeaterBook (which is available offline) didn’t find me a repeater that I can use on a handheld. Thus, giving me communications coverage of around 20-60 miles. You can get a decent radio for $30-50 or a better one for $100-200. Typically, someone is monitoring an amateur repeater if a “Mayday” is required, but there is no guarantee.
If you want to ensure you can make an SOS call, a Garmin InReach or SPOT Messenger is the way to go. They use the satellite communications network to ensure the ability to make an SOS call 24 hours a day anywhere across the USA (and most of the globe) if you have a clear view of the sky.
These are a little more pricey with the hardware cost and an annual service plan, but are worth it if you are an avid outdoorsman. We prefer the Garmin InReach, it allows two way text messaging in addition to SOS. Allowing communication with family and friends while on your adventure regardless of cell coverage.
FRS and GMRS Radios
If you don’t have an amateur radio license, a GMRS or FRS radio will provide local communications for a few miles. However, this is only useful if hiking in groups in close proximity. As you can’t be sure others are monitoring the same channel if they aren’t in your group.
Practice, Practice, Practice
As with all communications gear, practice how to use it before you need it. Know how to program your radio, or send an SOS with your InReach. It is a brick in your pack if you don’t know who to use it. Test the battery often and keep it charged!
- Fire Starter
- Fire Tinder
Always have at least two ways to start a fire. A lighter or fire steel is always a great lightweight option. Lighters work well unless in windy conditions. Carry a little dry tinder with you to help start a fire, especially when using a fire steel, as nature doesn’t always give you dry kindling. Some examples include cotton balls covered in Vaseline, cotton lint, or dry wood shavings. There are some great pre-made options as well such as the SOL Fire Lite Kit if you don’t want to make your own.
The clothing is completely dependent on the environment and climate you choose to hike in. Here are a few items to consider.
Minimum Clothing Items
Usually the minimum of a rain jacket, hat, and handkerchief should be a good start. A rain jacket can also be used for rain or limited protection against wind and cold. Be sure to select a full brim hat to limit your exposure to the sun.
Handkerchiefs are multi-use items. They can be used for first aid, straining dirty water, or for keeping you cool. Buy a few and keep one in every pack you own.
Dress in layers, and choose quality synthetics when possible. This will save you weight and allow you to prepare for multiple temperatures.
Know Your Climate and Pack Clothing Accordingly
If hiking in mountainous regions, rapid and unexpected changes in weather should be planned for. A calm day can end in 40 mph gusts and rain. Desert areas see wide temperature ranges, extremely hot during the day, and cold at night. Know the climate and weather risk for where you are hiking and pack accordingly.
Always carry a first aid kit. In most cases a single person kit can cover 1-2 people for day hikes. We recommend a Personal First Aid Kit (PFAK) as a minimum. Our PFAK setup has the capability to manage minor aches and pains but more importantly major bleeding control. Something most compact kits on the market overlook.
We found the right balance to provide a wide range of capabilities while minimizing kit size and weight. At just under 8 ounces, it won’t weigh you down. You can download our checklist to build the Personal First Aid Kit (PFAK) here.
Remember to include any emergency medications that may apply to your personal family situation. This may include:
- Children’s Chewable Benadryl
- Asthma Inhalers
- Diabetes Medications
- Blood Pressure Medications
- Heart Condition Medications
If Children are Tagging Along
- Children’s Chewable Tylenol
Major Bleeding Control Capability is Paramount
You can bleed out in just a few minutes with a major arterial laceration. This can put you into irreversible shock or prove fatal well before medical care will reach you in the back country. A tourniquet allows you to control the “leak” and give you a fighting chance.
They are recommended by the Committee on Tactical Combat Casualty Care (CoTCCC) and the gold standard in tourniquets for public safety and military use. Bottom line is, they are much easier to use on yourself and provide faster one-handed deployment compared to other options.
Always carry a small tube of bug repellant and sunscreen when on the trail. It is priceless when needed, and can save a lot of pain from unplanned over exposure.
- Extra Snacks
- Extra Freeze-Dried Meal if Possible
- Small Stove (Trangia)
- Small Cook Cup (GSI Stainless)
Always pack some extra snacks for each person as a minimum. If possible, a freeze-dried meal or two provide a great calorie to weight ratio (granted they need to be rehydrated). These can be shared by multiple parties if stranded for an unplanned overnight, etc. You may not be completely full, but the caloric intake will definitely boost morale for all ages.
A small stove system with a camp cup is a great addition. It adds the capability to boil water for purification, melt snow, or make a hot beverage in the cold. It is a must if planning to rehydrate freeze-dried meals. A system such as those listed below are lightweight and take up little room.
Trangia Stove Kit (12.1 oz)
MSR Pocket Rocket Kit (15.9 oz)
Don’t Forget to Pack for Your Children
Taking the family on an outing up the mountainside? Great job! It is an amazing way to bond with each other and get youngsters out into nature and away from technology. However, be sure to include them in your contingency plans. You may have to carry their gear as children are limited on the weight they can carry. In many cases, some items can be shared:
Suggested Shared Items
- Hydration Kit
- First Aid Kit
- Fire Kit
- Stove System
On the other hand, some items are better customized for the child. Clothing layers and rain gear are a major consideration. Be sure to bring food and snacks they enjoy. Their own compass and whistle is a great way to start training navigation and emergency signaling skills in a wilderness setting.
Prepare your Day Hike Emergency List
Do you have a list of emergency items ready to carry for your next hike? If not, assembling you list is your homework.
Think through your hike. Who is going with you? What environment will you enter? Spend a little time doing research on the location ahead of time. Don’t overlook the location because you have been there before. Use this knowledge to develop your personal list of emergency items. Once your list is developed, it usually becomes standard across many outings with a tweak of just a few items.
Be sure to test and train on the equipment you carry. Take a break at the next stream, put your water filtration to use and refill those water bottles. Sleep in the bivvy on your next camping trip to test the thermal capabilities. Know the capabilities of your equipment before you need it, even if that means your testing takes place at home.
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