Day Hike Gear

A year ago I purchased a day pack and equipped it to go for hikes with my then three year-old son. A recent post at got me thinking about my hiking gear again. I’ve used quite a bit of the pack’s contents over the last year, and I wanted to review what I’ve found useful and to make sure I still had appropriate gear.

This list is based on the “10 essentials,” a common organizational tool used by hikers and climbers to ensure they have what they need. You can read about the “10 essentials” over at REI.

I think it’s a great gear list for drivers too. Even though it’s 73 degrees in Indianapolis as I write this (and headed to 80!), I know that lows will be below freezing by the end of the week. Winter, and it’s driving hazards, will be here before we know it. Last winter featured gridlock inducing snow and ice as far south as Atlanta, and Indiana is no stranger to snow, ice, and frigid temps. All of the below items fit into my day pack; they’d be even easier to fit into a medium plastic tub in a trunk.

Please take note: this is primarily a list for hikes under 4 hours. We hike almost exclusively in Indiana and surrounding states, and we rarely hike too far off the beaten path, though hikes through Shades State Park or Morgan-Monroe State Forest can feel pretty isolated during the week or during off-seasons. You should always pack for your specific conditions.

Navigation (map and compass)

DSC_0009I carry three of these emergency whistles, one for each family member. Not only are they VERY loud, but they also feature a basic compass, thermometer, and magnifying glass.

Most of our half day hikes are in locations with well marked trails, but I always grab the state park brochure or look up the map on the computer prior to leaving home. If the area is small, like 72 acre Hathaway Preserve near Lagro, I look up the trail map before I leave home. For larger areas (think state/national forest), I print the trail map and bring it with me.

Sun protection (sunglasses and sunscreen)

DSC_0016With the fair skin of both my wife and son, sun protection has become a big priority for us. We start with SPF 50 sunscreen, add an SPF rated lip balm, and top it with a hat. Sunglasses are important too, especially with a family history of macular degeneration. I used to use clip-on shades, but lately, we’ve been moving to over-the-glasses wrap-around style shades. They provide greater protection, but with added weight.

Insulation (extra clothing)

DSC_0017Clothing, first aid, nutrition, and hydration all deserve posts of their own, and I’ll be the first to admit that I’m still figuring out clothing. I have developed a collection of lightweight athletic shirts as a base layer, found a light fleece pullover (probably need another), and purchased a rain shell with my REI “dividend.” For extra warmth I can throw on a wool button shirt or a sweater for very cold days. I love my REI quick-dry hiking shorts, and I have both warm weather and cool weather hats. My Merrill hiking shoes have served me well for a couple of years, but it’s about time to replace them.

DSC_0019The place I’m not so savvy is long pants. I’m generally in jeans in cool weather, even though I know they’re not the best for ventilation and will eventually start to chafe. I should just bite the bullet and spring for a pair of hiking pants to match the shorts, but just haven’t been able to bring myself to drop the cash.

Extra clothing eats space that  is at a premium in a pack. Using light-weight layers for warmth helps, as does wearing products designed to be quick-dry. The only duplicate items I generally carry are base layer: athletic shirt, socks, and underwear just in case I get wet (packing a lightweight towel helps here, too). The other layers should be comprised of materials that are still warm even when wet; wool is generally best, but modern synthetics like nylon fleece have come a long way.

Illumination (headlamp/flashlight)

DSC_0024Because our hikes are short, and generally early in the day, I pack along small LED flashlights as a “just in case.” I’d like to upgrade to a hands-free headlamp in the near future. Extra batteries are also a must. I wrap mine in a sandwich bag with a rubber band.

DSC_0027First-aid supplies

One part of pack gear I took very seriously was first aid. This custom first aid kit fits in a gallon plastic bag. Inside I have subdivided the kit into quart sized bags with different purposes: cuts & scrapes, trauma kit, adult medications, kid medications, and a chemical cold-pack. The kit is rounded out with a space blanket.


More important even than gear, however, is knowledge. As a part of my teacher training, I took a first aid class from the Red Cross. I also have a couple of apps on my phone that are a part of my emergency kit. The Red Cross has several excellent apps, and the SAS Survival Guide is excellent as well.

Fire (waterproof matches/lighter/candles)

Typically, day hikers don’t start many fires, but in an emergency, fire is an extremely useful tool. It can provide light at night, makes heat in cool/cold weather, and can dry out wet clothing.

Water-proof matches are an easy way to make sure that you can always supply fire. This set of water-proof DSC_0026matches came in a screw top container, with cotton tinder under the lid, and a striker strip on the side. If I’m going to be out in a situation where fire might be necessary (cold or wet weather, in the evening or overnight), I’ll pack along some cotton balls slathered in petroleum jelly. A well soaked cotton ball can burn for 15 minutes even in wet conditions. That should be enough time to start a nice fire.

Repair kit and tools

DSC_0029This small Swiss Army-style knife is my constant companion anywhere outdoors. Two blades, bottle and can openers, screwdriver, hole punch, and yes, the ubiquitous corkscrew.

This is an area I’m hoping to upgrade. I’d really love a nice multi-tool. There’s one on my Christmas list.

In preparing this post, I realized I didn’t have any duct-tape in my kit. Duct-tape is an easy on-the-go fix-it kit for packs, shoes, rain gear, tents, and many others. Take it off the big bulky roll and wrap it around a short section of dowel rod to save space.

Nutrition (extra food)

DSC_0030Food really depends on the conditions I’ll be hiking in, but for most of our excursions a couple of apples, pre-cut carrots, and a few granola bars are usually the extent of our trail food. I generally make sure we are all well fed prior to hitting the trail, so on-trail snacks are all I pack.

Hydration (extra water)

 DSC_0033Water is life. Say it again, water is life. You can skip a meal or two if the situation calls for it, but staying hydrated is critical to both health and hike success. We have an assortment of water bottles. I generally carry two 32-ounce water bottle in my pack’s side mesh pockets. When he uses his pack, my son carries a 16-ounce bottle. If the weather is hot, my wife carries two extra 16 ounce bottles on a fanny pack. We almost always come back with at least half the water we started with, but I’m always glad we had it with us.

DSC_0037Equally important to packing along water is being able to purify water found along the way. If caught out for the night, the 64 ounces carried into the woods might not last. This little bottle of water purification tablets prevents stomach and intestinal disease if water from the local stream or lake is needed.

Emergency shelter

I already mentioned the space blanket in our first aid kit. When used as first aid, it treats shock. However, it also makes a dandy shelter in a pinch.

Other useful items

Though not on this list, I also pack along a few items I’ve found just as important. The first is insect repellent. No one wants to take a hike through beautiful woods and come home with West Nile, Lyme DSC_0035disease, or Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever. DEET is the key ingredient to look for. DEET seems to be less effective against ticks than mosquitos, so make sure you check for ticks, DEET or no DEET.

Hand sanitizer is also quite useful. I don’t use the stuff much at home, but when I’m on the trail with no good way to wash, it really does the job. Toilet paper is something else I pack along. You don’t want to be caught wanting when you’ve got to go.



One Comment

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  1. Great article. Very useful information. I lived on the west coast for many years and did light hiking in the Cascades. I quickly learned to be prepared even if you think you’re just going for a quick hike. Spending money on comfortable, quality clothing is well worth the investment. It’s hard to part with the money, but I’ve always been glad I did.


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