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What to Pack for a Day Hike: 6 Essentials to Bring on a Short Hike

Heading out for a day hike, but wondering what to pack for a a short hike? You’re in luck! Below, you’ll find a collection of some of the must-have things to bring on a day hike so that you’re prepared for the conditions and ready to make the most of your hiking adventure. 

Day hiking is one of our favorite things to do both at home, in beautiful Marin County, California, and on the road in places like Canada, New Zealand, and Colombia.

We’ve done everything from short walks along a boardwalk to steep 10 mile climbs with 4,000 feet of elevation gain, and nearly everything in between.

We even did an accidental 20 mile day hike one time in Yosemite (we thought it was 10 miles round trip, not each way!) that we were woefully under-prepared for, which is a story for a different day, but it taught us to always be prepared when you’re heading out for day of exploring nature.

Keep in mind, this is not a guide to hiking essentials for a backpacking trip – it’s a guide to what to pack for a day hike. You won’t find tents, sleeping bags, or camp kitchen equipment in this guide. 

What you will find is what to pack for a day hike, with some specific product recommendations based on our experience and tons of research. 

Read More on Hiking and Adventure Travel:

what to pack for a day hike

Disclaimer: Some of the links in this post are affiliate links, meaning at no additional cost to you, I make a little bit of money if you click through and buy. That being said, I would never recommend something to you that I don’t stand behind 100%.

The first thing you should pack for your day hike is a first aid kit, which should have things like band aids, hand sanitizer, neosporin, and blister pads. You can buy a pre-packaged first aid kit, or assemble one yourself – it’s up to you. But it’s something you should always bring, no matter how short the hike is. 

Ready to learn about the rest? Read on to learn about 6 things you should always pack for your day hikes. 

Day Hiking Gear: Must-have Things to Bring on a Day Hike

If you’re wondering what you need to bring on a day hike, the answer is “it depends.” If you’re going on a longer hike, you’re probably going to need to pack more food, water, and layers, which means you’ll need a bigger pack and more supportive footwear.

Just doing a couple of miles on the local trails? You probably just need a water bottle and a snack. 

Here’s a list of the things to pack for a day hike, whether it’s a local stroll or a bigger hiking adventure. 

what to bring on a day hike
Hiking in Torres Del Paine National Park in Chile

A Comfortable Daypack

This is the first thing you should worry about. A good comfortable day pack is a day hiking essential. You’ll need it to carry water, snacks, and layers. You don’t want to start an early day hike in the mountains layered up because of the cold mountain air, only to find that you don’t have a place to put your layers when you need to peel them off. 

Plus, let’s be honest, carrying your water bottle by hand is kind of annoying. 

As someone whose motto is now “the more snacks and water the better” after an accidental 20 mile day hike in Yosemite where we didn’t have enough of either, you’re going to want a backpack to carry your provisions.

How many liters? Depending on how light you like to travel, you’ll want one that’s around 20L for a short simple day hike. For a longer day hike where you’ll need to bring more provisions, including lunch, aim for 28-30L. 

If you have an interchangeable lens camera like me, you’re going to want to aim for 30L. And DEFINITELY consider picking up a Peak Design Capture Clip, which is my #1 recommendation for photographers who love to hike. Instead of having to either take your backpack off everytime you want to take a picture or have the camera bouncing off your hip all day, clip it to the chest strap of your backpack! It’s genius. 

What to look for: A pack with two mesh water bottle pockets on the sides, a padded waist strap to take the weight off your shoulders, and a chest strap. 

Recommended day hiking backpacks

Best Overall Men’s 20L: Osprey Stratos 24. My favorite smaller daypack that I hike with on short hikes around home. Click here to check prices and read reviews.

Best Overall Women’s 20L: Osprey Tempest 20. Alysha’s daypack of choice. Fits everything she needs with room to spare, and after a recent trip where she brought a lightweight packable day pack instead, she complained that she missed her Osprey pack on nearly every hike we did. Click here to check prices and read reviews.

Best Overall Men’s 30L: Osprey Talon 33. Click here to check prices and read reviews.

Best Overall Women’s ~30L: Deuter Trail 28 SL. Click to check price on Amazon / Click to check price at REI. 

Budget Option: REI Co-op Flash 22 Pack. No padded waist strap, but for the price, it has everything you’ll need in a lightweight day pack. Click to check price at REI.

Sturdy Footwear

This is the #2 priority in terms of gear for hiking. Get yourself a comfortable day pack and some durable shoes or boots, and you’re 90% of the way there.

If you’re going on a short hike without too much elevation gain, your regular running shoes will probably do just fine. But once you start getting into the longer day hikes that have more elevation gain, you’re going to want something more sturdy, comfortable, and ideally, waterproof. 

Hiking shoes vs. hiking boots. I own a pair of hiking shoes, and a pair of hiking boots, and use them interchangeably. I prefer the boots, which have better ankle support, on longer hikes and hikes that involve a lot of uphill climbing and descents. They’re a little more heavy and clunky though, which is the downside. In terms of lightweight comfort, you can’t beat hiking shoes. It’s like wearing tennis shoes, but they’re more durable and waterproof (if you get the gore-tex version that most come in). 

Do they need to be waterproof? When your hike involves stream crossings, or if you’re hiking in the Pacific Northwest and it’s a little damp, you’re going to want waterproof hiking shoes or boots. However, it’s worth noting that they will be less breathable. I still hike in my waterproof shoes and boots in the summer, and it’s totally doable. Just something to be aware of. I’d get the waterproof version because they’re more versatile. 

Recommended hiking boots: Keen Targhee. These are my go-to hiking boots. They’re a great product from a good company that does all sorts of things to protect the outdoor spaces we love to explore. See below for a picture of my boots and I in New Zealand after a 5 mile climb.Click here to check prices for men’s version / Click here to check prices for women’s version

Recommended waterproof hiking shoes: Salomon Ultra X 3Click here to check prices for men’s version / Click here to check prices for women’s version

Recommended lightweight hiking shoes: Brooks Cascadia. They’re technically trail running shoes, but they’ll get the job done, and done well. I have them, and would recommend them. Click here to check prices for men’s version / Click here to check prices for women’s version

(worth noting, they also have a gore-tex version for both men and women that is waterproof, but heavier and less breathable). 

Me and my Keen Targhees at the top of Isthmus Peak in New Zealand

Trekking Poles

Trekking poles are kind of like a ski pole, except for hiking. They are great for steep climbs and descents, especially if you’ve got a heavy backpack on. 

I used to be VERY skeptical of the people who always hike with trekking poles. Usually they were older, and I thought that I was young enough not to worry about them. 

Then my knees started creaking a little bit as I got older, especially when hiking downhill, and I thought to myself “maybe I’ll give them a shot”. 

Now, I do my best not to hike without them. I even got a collapsible pair to take with me to hike in New Zealand. Not necessarily because they save my knees, although I do think they probably help, but also because it is undoubtedly easier to hike up and downhill with them than without them. Or at least it feels easier, which is all that really matters.

What to look for: Look for aluminum, which are going to be sturdier and heavier, or carbon fiber, which are going to be lighter, but both a little more fragile and expensive. Also make sure the grip is either foam or cork, and that they feel good in your hands. Most of them are adjustable, so you don’t need to worry too much about size. 

Recommended Trekking Poles: Black Diamond makes some great trekking poles. For a great lightweight pole, look at their Distance FLZ Trekking Poles

Click here to check prices on the men’s version / Click here to check prices on the women’s version.

Sun Protection

On any hiking trip, you’re probably going to be spending a significant amount of time in the sun, even when it’s cloudy. And that’s why proper sun protection is DEFINITELY one of the top things to bring on a day hike. Period. End of story. 

For me, that means a good pair of polarized sunglasses, sunscreen, and a hat. Alysha can’t hike without SPF lip balm, which helps her avoid the cracked lips that sometimes plague me after a long hike. You’re going to want to make sure you’re prepared for the brutal sun, especially if you’re doing a day hike at higher altitude. 

A good water bottle (or two)

After our accidental 20 mile day hike in Yosemite, which we thought was 10 miles round trip but was actually 10 miles one way, we always bring more water than we probably need, just in case. So when we’re packing for a day hike, one of the things we make sure to have is several water bottles. 

Obviously, water bottles seem like they are a dime-a-dozen, but I actually think there’s some value to thinking through what you want out of your water bottle. 

If you’re someone, like Alysha, who loves to be able to open your water bottle and enjoy some ice cold water in the middle of a long, hot hike, an insulated water bottle is perfect for you. I like Miir, both because their products are fantastic (I own an insulated 23oz bottle, an insulated 42oz wide-mouth bottle, and a camp cup, and they’re all amazing), and also because on the bottom of every product there’s a “Give Code”, where you can plug it in on their website and see exactly what impact your purchase is making in the world. 

I also have a couple of Platypus packable water bottles that are great – fill them up, drink them, then roll them up and stuff them back in your pack. No excess weight!

Layers

Layers are another great thing to bring on a hike, especially if you’re starting early, when it’s cold, and ending near the middle of the day, when it’s blazing hot. We love hitting the trail super early for the best light and to avoid crowds, so it’s usually cold when we leave, and around noon when we return. 

That means our clothing needs are going to vary wildly between leaving the car and coming back. 

Here are three essential layering pieces that you should bring on every hike where the weather is going to change throughout the day. 

A Rain Jacket: You never know when it’s going to rain, especially in the mountains, and you definitely want to be prepared if it does. Make sure to pack a rain jacket at the bottom of your backpack, just in case. 

Recommended Rain Jacket: Black Diamond Stormline Stretch Rainshell. Fully featured, and surprisingly affordable, this is the rain jacket I’d recommend. Click here to check prices on the men’s version / Click here to check prices on the women’s version.

A Packable Down Jacket: I swear by my Patagonia down jacket, because it adds a ton of warmth, and packs down into a little ball that I can stuff into my daypack. It’s been with me everywhere from Vancouver Island, to New Zealand, and to Colombia, and it still holds up great years later. Click here to check prices on the men’s version / Click here to check prices on the women’s version.

A Fleece Pull-Over: This is a basic layering piece, and I have a couple of old fleece half zips that I rotate through. It’s the first thing I peel off when it starts to warm up, and it gets stuffed into my daypack.

what to pack for hiking

Your needs are totally going to depend on where you’re hiking and when you’re doing it, so mix and match as needed. In California, you’re probably only going to need a fleece pull over. In the Pacific Northwest, you’ll need a fleece pull over and rain jacket, and maybe a down jacket in the late fall and early spring. 

Snacks

Ah, the food. My favorite part!

I have a whole post on the best snacks for hiking, so if you’re serious about your hiking snacks (like me), go give that a read. 

Snacks are one of the essentials for a day hike. Whatever you choose, it needs to be nutritious, calorie-dense, and portable, meaning it holds up in the heat and can be packed into your backpack. 

Here are 5 snacks to bring on a short hike to keep you going. 

  • Energy Bars: I have Celiac Disease, which means I need to eat gluten free, so I can’t eat things like CLIF Bars, which are a top choice for energy bars for hiking (fun fact: I used to work there working on new flavors, and couldn’t eat any of them – I had to bring surrogate tasters!). If you have to eat gluten free, like me, then the Gluten Free Bar is my go-to gluten free protein bar for hiking. They taste great and have 10-12g of protein. Read more on the Gluten Free Bar here. 
  • Nut Butter: Yumbutter packets are always in my bag for a day hike – they’re more convenient than the other packets out there because they have a twist off cap, which means it’s not going to get all over you / your bag when you open it or put it back, and it’s resealable. I really like the protein almond butter
  • Jerky: A great high protein snack to give you a boost when you’re hiking and it’ll keep you fuller for longer. Plus, the chewing gives your mouth something to do and stops it from getting too dry. The downside? It’s expensive. I used to work for a beef jerky company, and it turns out when you take meat, which is already expensive, and dry it out so it weighs 50% less, it gets even more expensive. Worth it, if you ask me, at least every once in a while. Country Archer is my go-to brand these days – their Mango Habanero is the best jerky I’ve ever had. 
  • Plantain Chips: I re-discovered plantain chips as a hiking snack in Colombia, where you can find them all over, and I fell back in love. Salty and crunchy is the perfect combination for a hiking snack. Inka Chips and Barnana are the best plantain chips in the US. 
  • Half Pops: Speaking of crunchy and salty… Half Pops are amazing. They’re half-popped kernels of popcorn, so they’re a little more crunchy than regular popcorn, and they have all sorts of great flavors ranging from savory to sweet. I love the Aged White Cheddar and Kettle Corn. They come in great little 1.5oz packets that are the perfect size for a hiking snack. 

Final Thoughts on What to Bring on a Short Hike

There you have it – six things to pack for a day hike. Obviously this is not a comprehensive list of everything you need to bring, but if you take care of these 6 things (plus the first aid kit), you’ll be 99% of the way to having everything you need to make the most of any day hiking adventure.

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