I love hiking.
There, I said it.
Hiking is what I think about when school lets out and I’ve wrapped up another year with my little turkeys. It’s what I crave when I wake up on sunny summer mornings. My hiking guidebooks start assuming their regular position on my night stand around May or so. There’s nothing better than slipping into my bed, after having taken a hot (or cold) shower, with memories of mountain vistas and the thumping of my feet on solid earth. For me, a successful hike equals an absolutely fantastic day.
But you don’t have to be a hiking nut to feel like this; short and simple day hikes are the perfect way to start your love affair with the outdoors.
Going on a day hike shouldn't mean that you have to load up with plenty of gear. No sir-ee! In fact, you can even bring along a few extras, without fussing that the weight might tire you out over the long run.
That being said, if you’re hiking in mountainous terrain, you should be prepared for the unforeseen, such as an extended hike or even overnighting in the wilderness after an injury or navigational error.
Here are 10 fundamentals that I always consider when planning a day hike. Other opinions may vary from mine but in general, these elements can either prevent, or get you out of, most sticky situations.
# 1 - Clothing and Footwear
This is as big as # 1 can get. Clothing and footwear can determine whether you have a great or terrible hike, notwithstanding any bad luck you might have on the trail. I cannot overstate the importance of appropriate clothing and footwear.
Footwear I like wearing either light hiking boots or aggressive trail runners, depending on the terrain. For paths that are well-trodden and earthy (not technical hikes), I swear by Salomon trail runners; I think I’m on my 8th pair now. (I may have a Solomon problem). They are great for gripping muddy ground thanks to their huge cleats, and are available in waterproof models. For rockier, scrambly hikes, I wear very light hiking boots (I like Salewa) for the added ankle support. Keep in mind that waterproof shoes/boots will make your feet sweat, which increases your chances of getting blisters. Break them in before hitting the trail by wearing them around the house with your hiking socks.
Socks and unmentionables Speaking of which, stay away from cotton socks; invest in one or two good hiking socks from Icebreaker or Smartwool. I know, I know; they’re crazy expensive (and no, I don’t get a kickback from either company). But NEVER underestimate how debilitating a blister can be. Merino wool will keep your feet from stinking to high hell, will keep them cool by wicking sweat away from your skin and crucially, will help prevent blisters. As for undies, I have made the hilariously embarrassing mistake of wearing cotton underwear under my hiking shorts. After a few hours of hiking under the hot sun, I had sweated to the point that a very clear underwear-shaped sweat imprint of my panties had soaked right through my light green hiking shorts. Front and back. Enough said. (Stop laughing.)
Base layers Do not wear cotton; it kills when it's wet. Hikers come down with hypothermia on a regular basis due to improper clothing, and usually when it's only between 0 and 10° C. Synthetic shirts will absorb sweat/moisture and dry quickly. In warm weather, I’ll wear a short-sleeved t-shirt and bring an extra long-sleeved shirt in my bag. Wear bottoms that are water- or wind-resistant, as well as fast-drying; leave your cute jeans or cotton jogging pants at home. In hot weather, wear athletic shorts (your skin will dry much quicker than any other material).
Outer layers Always bring a waterproof rain jacket; you never know when the weather can turn and get windy, rainy or cold. Keep in mind that waterproof jackets and pants can get sweaty, which is why I prefer to take fast-drying bottoms. Waterproof coats that unzip in the armpit area (for breathability) are an absolute godsend. Believe it or not, what worked best on a very windy and rainy hike in Ireland was a good ol’ sturdy poncho with a hood. During shoulder seasons and sometimes in summer (in the Canadian Rockies), I bring a puffy jacket and an extra tuque/Buff and mitts; when you hit the summit of a mountain, your sweaty body starts to lose heat quickly, especially in high winds. I even bring an extra pair of socks in case my feet get wet. Remember that you want to stay warm, not try to warm up once you get cold. Layers are the key - you can continually adjust to a comfortable body temperature.
# 2 - Backpack
A hiking backpack is very different from a regular, everyday-use bag. If your bag has a laptop compartment, it’s not a hiking bag!
Backpacks have surprisingly sophisticated technology built into them; they provide adequate support for the weight you’ll be carrying and frame your back according to your torso height (get sized at a sporting goods store). Make sure the weight of your bag sits on your hips, and not on your lower back or shoulders. A 20- to 30-litre backpack is adequate for a day hike, although in tricky mountainous terrain, I would go for the larger one. That way, you can bring a few extras for unpredictable elements, and just strap down the extra space to make it more compact. Personally, I have a tendency to go for either Osprey (I love my Ariel 65 for overnight treks and my Aura AG 50 for day hikes) or Gregory (Gregory Juno 30L).
When shopping for a backpack, look for two or more access points (zippers) to the main compartment. Having only one top zipper forces you to take everything out in order to get to what’s on the bottom - a major pain in the ass, especially in an emergency. Multiple inside compartments or pockets provide space to stash small, useful items (like your ID, keys and sunscreen) and loops allow you to clip items outside your bag, like your bear spray, ball cap or water bottle. Hip belt pouches are useful for lip gloss, tissues and hair elastics.
# 3 - Energy (Food and Water!)
The amount of food and water that you should take depends on the length and difficulty of the hike. As a general rule, I always carry more than I think I’ll need (although my mother jokes that I pack as though I’ll never see food again).
My 2L or 3L water bladders are usually full and I'll add ice cubes to keep the water colder. I carry water purification tablets in my First Aid kit and on longer hikes, I like bringing a small and light LifeStraw.
I do find it easier to drink water from a bladder than from a bottle; you don't have to stop and take your bottle out - just sip your water from the bladder straw (which usually hooks along your shoulder strap) as you go along.
Bring simple snacks that don't require cooking: Babybel cheeses, cashews, walnuts, fruit bars, pepperettes, rice cakes, granola bars, and fresh fruit that travel well in a container, like cherries or grapes. On longer hikes, add a sandwich or canned tuna with crackers. Remember to carry out all packaging with you and to leave absolutely no trash behind. Bring small silicone bags to pack out any garbage or composting.
# 4 - First Aid Kit
The most prevalent injuries sustained on hikes are either blisters or twisted ankles; your First Aid kit should reflect that. Believe it or not, the First Aid kit is a bit of a contentious issue among hikers; some prefer bringing very little to reduce weight, and others bring the whole kit and kaboodle to the party. I have a small First Aid pouch for day hikes and a larger one for multi-day backcountry hikes.
Either way, make sure you bring tons of blister prevention bandages, like Moleskin and gel plasters. Pain relievers, antihistamines and ibuprofen for inflammation are of high importance. I bought tiny plastic bags (in the crafts section of Dollarama) to carry 5-6 tablets of each medication; leave the bulky plastic bottles at home. A tensor bandage is a good idea, as is self-adhesive wrap (such as Coban tape). Carry a small multi-use tool kit (Swiss Army or Leatherman-style), tweezers, a small roll of duct tape, safety pins, cleansing/alcohol wipes (individually wrapped), water purification tablets and toilet paper/tissues in a waterproof bag. For more ideas, here’s a detailed article that may interest you: First Aid Kits For Hikers.
# 5 - Navigation
If you've ever tried navigating by moonlight, or attempted to follow a trail without illumination, then you already realise the importance of a headlamp. Always have a fully-charged headlamp in your bag (bring extra batteries in a waterproof bag). I’ve even brought along two headlamps on one occasion, and I got laughed at - but then we actually needed both! You just never know! A small and light flashlight is okay as well, but I like going hands-free.
It’s tempting to rely on the latest GPS technology (and I do), but I always bring along a topographical map. Know how to read it and compare it to the posted maps at the trailhead or along the hike. The thing is, you can always lose your watch, phone or GPS device and batteries eventually drain, especially in the cold.
That being said, the GaiaGPS app seems to be making waves in the Downloadable Maps Department (here’s a video on how to use GaiaGPS). Personal locator beacons are also a great (but optional) addition to your collection - look up Garmin in Reach or SPOT. As I’ve mentioned in another article, Personal Locator Beacons make perfect Xmas gifts from mom and dad, but only if you’ve been REALLY good this year, as they’re quite pricey.
# 6 - Insulated Shelter
Your waterproof or wind- resistant clothing will go a long way towards providing insulation or shelter. Bringing a puffy jacket that compresses into a small bundle is a good idea if temperatures dip close to or below zero at night, although keep in mind that it won’t deter rain. If you run into trouble and have to camp overnight, hypothermia is a very real risk.
Regardless of the length of hike, I always bring a 1-2 person emergency space blanket. It’s light and waterproof, and the aluminium lining will trap your body heat, keeping you warm and alive in cold or rainy weather. It can act as a body wrap for a chilled or injured person, or as a tarp to sit on or hang above you to keep you dry.
# 7 - Fire Starters
You never know when a misadventure might occur, and you may have to make a small camp overnight. I love using dryer lint because of its weightlessness and willingness to burn (plus, it smells heavenly when you start that fire). I carry it in a waterproof bag. Don't forget a lighter or waterproof matches; a tealight could also be useful for a slow and steady burn. Don't underestimate the power of fire: it provides light, warmth, and food preparation (for cooking or sterilizing water).
# 8 -Bear Spray
I live in bear country, so this is imperative; teachers must even bring bear spray when supervising recess at school. Know how to use it in case of an encounter; do not use it like bug spray, which is sprayed all over skin and clothing! Make sure it hasn’t expired.
Keep it in an accessible spot outside your backpack. Every once in a while, I’ll grab my canister and whip it out like Clint Eastwood, just to practice manipulating it. It sounds ridiculous, but if Angry Mama Bear pops out of nowhere, you won’t have much time to react and you’ll have to rely on muscle memory to get that canister ready. Minimize encounters by chatting with your fellow hikers, making noise, laughing, and singing.
# 9 - Sun and Bug Protection
Bring a hat for sun (and rain) protection. I have a ton of hair and wearing a hat usually makes me feel worse, but I’ll usually clip a ball cap to the outside of my backpack. Don't forget your sunglasses, especially if you're travelling on snow or glaciers. Carry sun lotion in a small silicone bottle to lessen weight. Bug spray is also a good idea if insects are a problem in your area.
# 10 - Trekking Poles
Not essential, but great to have. They can keep you from slipping or falling, and are very useful for stability when crossing a stream. They ease the tension in your knees, especially on the downhills, and can help you probe the depth of a mud or water puddle. They can even help protect you from wildlife.
Carrying these basic items could help to bring on that massively satisfied smile you want on your face at the end of your adventure. Keep in mind that this list comprises most essentials for on-trail day hikes; here's a link to read How To Prepare For An Overnight Backcountry Hike.
Don’t forget to account for any specific needs you may have for your area (snake bite kit, climbing gear for technical hikes, etc.). Bringing your phone is always practical (for photos, trail apps, downloaded maps, GPS, etc.). Binoculars can be fun if you enjoy watching birds or wildlife. Lastly, I leave a pair of flip flops in the car that I can change into before driving home -- so nice to let my feet air out!
There you go, you’ve done it - you’re ready for your day hike! Please leave a comment below and let me know if I’ve forgotten anything important. Better yet, tell me your favourite spot to day hike and maybe we’ll cross paths on our next escapade.
See you out there!