Essentials Of Every Day Hiker

If you’re just getting into hiking, everyone is going to recommend that you pack the 10 Essentials when you go for a hike. Then they list about 30 pieces of gear that you should bring with you, but they never actually tell you WHAT to buy. If you find this frustrating or confusing, or worse, you’re going for hikes without the 10 Essentials, I’ve pulled together a few sample gear lists for different hike durations  (up to 4 hours and more than 4 hours) that I hope you find helpful. These are suggestions based on my own brand/product experience, with an eye for low price and good cost/value performance.

My goal here is to help you understand EXACTLY what you need to buy, beg, borrow or steal, so we can get you outdoors and on the trail.

The 10 Essentials

  1. Map and Compass – You need to carry a map of the area where you’re hiking and learn how to find your location on it based on the landmarks and trail junctions marked on it. It’s good to practice this, even if you’re just hiking in an urban park. Learning how to use a compass at a basic level soon follows. The first thing you’ll learn is how to find north which is quite easy and helps to orient your map so you can figure out where you are if you become turned around. That’s often all you need to know to find your way, but it’s nearly foolproof and doesn’t rely on batteries. GPS Receivers and Cell Phones are not part of the 10 essentials. You can bring them if you want, but nothing is more reliable than a map or compass.
  2. Sun Protection – It’s always a good idea to carry a hat, lip balm, and some sunscreen to prevent sun burn when you’re out in the open. Sunglasses can also be very helpful, particularly in winter, to prevent snow blindness (which is temporary). If you’re very sensitive to sun, you should also consider wearing special sun-proof clothing.
  3. Insulation – The amount of extra clothing and insulation you bring on a hike really depends on whether you’re hiking near a city or in the backcountry, the average day and night temperature, and whether there’s a chance you might get stuck outdoors at night. For example, if you’re doing an all-day spring hike in the mountains, it probably makes sense to bring an insulated sit pad, an insulated jacket, sweater, hat and gloves along just in case you’re out after sunset.
  4. Illumination – You should always carry a headlamp or a flashlight and some extra batteries. You want enough light that you can walk with after dark if you’ve been delayed, or that you can camp with if you decide to stop and wait until daylight.
  5. First-Aid Supplies – When you go hiking, it’s important to bring a few first aid supplies along for yourself or for the other people you’re hiking with. The eastiest thing to do is to buy a small personal first aid kit from Adventure Medical for about $17. You can also assemble your own for much less.
  6. Fire – If you unexpectedly have to spend a night out because you misjudged the distance you needed to hike, you got lost, hurt, or someone in your group is hurt, you want to have the option to make a fire. This means you should practice making a fire and have the means to reliably light one if necessary. The most reliable way I’ve found to make a fire is to use a fire steel, which is a flint-like device that throws lots of sparks, and a fire-starter like cotton balls that have been covered with vaseline. You can also carry matches for convenience, but these can get damp. Don’t waste your money on emergency matches that will burn 10 minutes under water; it’s just not necessary.
  7. Multi-tool and Repair Kit – You don’t need a big knife when you go hiking. In fact, scissors are more of a necessity than a knife, so it’s best to bring along some kind of swiss army knife or leatherman-style multi-tool. That, a small roll of duct tape, and a few safety pins are all you really need to patch up broken or torn gear.
  8. Nutrition – Hiking is exercise and you need to eat to keep your body going if you’re hiking for more than a few hours. It’s good to bring along healthy snacks with a good balance of carbohydrate, protein and fat or a sandwich if you plan on hiking all day.
  9. Hydration – When you go hiking it’s important to bring water with you and to drink it liberally. I usually drink a quart of water before I go hiking and then drink 1 quart after every two hours. You’ll feel better if you stay hydrated, particularly if it’s very hot or very cold, the water will help you digest snacks or meals, and eliminate waste. If you go for an all day hike, it’s often good to carry a water filter or Chlorine Dioxide tablets so you can purify water from a lake or stream when you run out. I rarely carry more than 3 quarts on a hike (6 pounds of water,) and just resupply from natural sources as needed.
  10. Emergency Shelter – It’s useful to carry an emergency shelter like an emergency blanket, emergency bivy, or regular bivy/sleeping bag cover if you get cold and wet or need to camp out unexpectedly. If this happens, it’s important that you avoid lying directly on cold ground all night because it will suck the heat out of your body. It’s best to bring a foam torso length sleeping pad or sit pad that you can lie on top of to remain warm. The pad doesn’t have to be full length, just long enough to fit from your hips to your collarbone.

Sample 10 Essential Gear Lists

Here are two sample gear lists that I’ve pulled together based on the 10 essentials. The first is for hikes under 4 hours, or a half-day in length. The second is for longer all day hikes that are more than 4 hours long, and where there’s a greater chance that you’ll be out after dark or run into inclement weather.

Essentials Up to 4 Hours More than 4 Hours
Map and Compass Local Map Local Map
Suunto A-10 Compass
Sun Protection Billed Cap Billed Cap
Dermatone Tin Dermatone Tin
Sunglasses Sunglasses
Long Sleeved Synthetic Shirt
Insulation Fleece Sweater Fleece Sweater
Rain Jacket and Pants Rain Jacket and Pants
Beanie Hat
Insulated Jacket
Illumination Spot headlamp Spot headlamp
Extra Lithium Batteries Extra Lithium Batteries
First Aid Kit Adventure Medical Kit Adventure Medical Kit
Fire Small box of Wooden Matches Small box of Wooden Matches
Light My Fire Fire Steel Light My Fire Fire Steel
Vaseline Coated Cotton Balls Vaseline Coated Cotton Balls
Tools and Repair Kit Swiss Army Classic Knife Swiss Army Classic Knife
Duct Tape, Safety Pins Duct Tape, Safety Pins
Nutrition Nuts, Dried Fruit, Bars Nuts, Dried Fruit, Bars
Hydration 2 Water Bottles or 70 oz Reservoir 2 Water Bottles or 100 oz Reservoir
Water pruification tablets or a Sawyer water filter
Emergency Shelter Emergency Bivy Emergency Bivy
Foam Sit Pad
Tarp and paracord
Other Emergency Contact Info Emergency Contact Info
Loud Whistle Loud Whistle
Toilet Paper and Trowel

Other Suggested Essentials

Here are a few other items that are very useful to have when you go hiking.

  • Toilet paper and a trowel to dig a cat hole so you can bury your waste
  • Gloves or glove liners to keep your hands warm
  • Rain jacket and pants. Great if it gets windy and they provide additional insulation.
  • A piece of paper with that has your emergency contact info and a list of daily medications that you need to take
  • Doggie bags, so you can pack out dog poop if hiking with your dog

Clothing Advice

Don’t wear any cotton clothing or clothing that is partially made out of cotton, bamboo, rayon, tencel, or modal because it is very slow to dry if it becomes wet and insulates poorly. Always wear synthetic or wool clothing because it’s far safer (see Why Cotton Kills.)

Choosing the Right Day Pack

You need to carry the 10 essentials in something, so you’re going to want some kind of day pack. I recommend something between 25 and 40 liters in size, depending on the length of your hiking trips. If they’re in an urban area like a park or under 4 hours in duration, you can probably get by with a smaller pack. If your hikes are longer than 4 hours in length, or you’re hiking in more rugged terrain, you’ll probably want a larger day pack so you can carry more food, water, and insulation.

Personally, I like daypacks that have a lot of external stretchy pockets and a minimally organized internal storage compartment. I put everything I will need during the day on the outside of the pack – water bottles, a wind breaker or rain coat, hat, snacks, and my map in the outer pockets, and store everything else I might need inside the pack.

Packing like this makes it very easy to quickly find things if you’re hiking with a group, especially if they have short rest stops and you’re always falling behind because it takes you so long to pack when the rest stop is over.

Checkout my guide on sleeping bags.