What to Bring on a Day Hike
Those that know me know that I do a lot of hiking. I try to get out twice a week for long day hikes (4-6 hours). I also try to get out at least twice a week for shorter hikes that I can do before work, after work, or during a (long) lunch hour. So I'm out in the woods 3 or 4 times a week, probably around 15 hours a week. I do everything from short, easy hikes near town, to all day excursions into very remote, rugged country that contains all sorts of hazards, including grizly bears. Because of that, I'm often asked what I take when I hike. What do people need when they go out on a day hike? What are the essentials?
There are a few ways to approach this idea of what to take when you hike. One theory is just to show up at the trailhead with maybe a water bottle (maybe not even that) and just head off into the forest, assuming that somehow everything will be okay. These people will inevitably end up lost, hurt, or dehydrated, requiring a whole lot of other people to search for them at considerable time and expense.
Another category of hikers knows that there are Gods of Outdoor Recreation. These gods look down upon outdoor enthusiasts (hikers, bicycists, kayakers, etc.) and determine who is prepared and who is not. They notice wha has the proper gear and who is setting out unprepared. Because of this, If you go out without a first aid kit, you will get injured. If you go without a raincoat, it will rain. the Gods will see to it. On the other hand, if you have a first aid kit (space blanket, toilet paper, or whatever), you probably won't need it. I have worked in the outdoor industry and taken and led dozens of trips. I'd say most of the people I know who spend a lot of time in the outdoors know this rule. If you bring it, you probably won't need it. If you don't have it, you will wish that you did. I load up my pack based on this oft-proven rule. I'm also going to break up the gear I take into three categories: essentials you should have for any hike, optional items that could make your day a lot more comfortable, and survival items, in case you get into trouble.
I always have water and food, more than I think I'll need for the day's hike. Let's say I slip on a wet log and hurt a knee, a few hours from the trailhead. Getting back is going to take a looong time. All of a sudden I need more water and food than I thought I would. I also bring extra in case something extreme happens and I need to spend a night in the woods. I bring a small first aid kit to fix up any physical issues, and some duct tape to fix any gear that fails. I wrap some duct tape around the shaft of my hiking poles, layering it over itself. It's a convenient place to keep it until you need it and you don't have to carry a whole, bulky role. I bring toilet paper and use a knife to dig out a small "cat hole" if necessary. I also have a Swiss Army Knife for its many uses. Lastly, I carry a whistle. If you get lost, you can blow a whistle for a long time, whereas if you're just shouting for help, your voice will eventually give out They're small and cheap; no reason not to toss one in your pack. For route finding, I realize I'm pretty low-tech. Old school. I carry a compass and I bring a map. I know how to read a map and how to interprete a topographic map and I'm pretty good at correlating the map to what I see around me. I use landmarks and topography to find my way, much of the time. With these skills, I've never found a need for a GPS unit, though I realize it has advantages (sometimes people I hike with use GPS or apps on their phones). I also bring a raincoat. It's easy to set off on a bright sunny day and have a rain storm blow in suddenly. In Montana I've seen storms come out of nowhere, fast, and change a dry, sunny day into rain, cold, or hail in a matter of minutes. I climb a lot of mountains and the weather up top is often much colder and windier than down below. Storms like to smack the mountaintops, too. I bring my cell phone if I hike alone, but sometimes leave it behind if I know others in the group have them. A bandana is another essential. It can be used as a handkerchief, sling, head-cover, pot holder, route marker, bandage, rag, or for many other things. I always carry a few.
So, with these things you can stay energized and hydrated, you can find your way, you can stay warm and dry, you can fix stuff that breaks, and you can signal if you get lost.
An extra pair of socks. I carry an extra pair (wool) in case the trail goes through a marshy area, or you have to cross a few streams, or if hiking in snow and rain. My boots are "waterproof' but that only goes so far, and having an extra pair of dry socks can make the difference between comfort and hypothermia. If you hike in wet conditions, you might want to move these into the essential category. I bring sunscreen, but not bug spray. I'm concerned with skin cancer, but I mostly ignore the insects. Some crawl on me. Some bite. Other than ticks, I don't do too much about them. I also have a little point and shoot camera that I carry in a pocket. I use hiking poles, which help when you're in tricky terrain: loose rock, scree fields, steep descents, and stream crossings.They also help to take some of the weight off of your knees. I bring them on longer, tougher day hikes but sometimes leave them behind if I'm going on a flatter/easier/gentler hike. The last optional item is Bear Spray. in Montana, black bears are pretty prevalent and some places have grizzly bears. Running into either unexpectedly could be real trouble. Bear spray is a good, non-lethal way of dealing with aggressive bears. I don't bring it if I'm going to hike in certain areas I know well, where the sight lines are long and there are lots of people on the trail.
It's not that hard to get lost in the woods. People have gotten lost in small parks, within a few miles of trailheads, and in areas they knew pretty well. Maps are sometimes wrong, trail signs missing. Sometimes trails on the map no longer exist on the ground. Getting lost can be a life-and-death situation. Similarly, you could fall and break an ankle, wreck a knee, or hit your head. Suddenly the few miles back to the trailhead might as well be a thousand miles. You need to survive until help arrives, maybe overnight.
In case something like this happens to me, I carry several items that, hopefully, I will never use. Portable water tablets are good for purifying water, if your supply runs out. I carry waterproof matches and a ferro rod striker, two different ways to start a fire, just in case. I have a few dozen feet of nylon paracord that I can use if I need a rope or to make a shelter. I have a polypro winter hat and wool gloves stashed in my pack in case I'm stuck out overnight and a space blanket to keep me warm and for sleeping. I carry a good, sturdy fixed-blade knife for survival situations. I recommend one of high-carbon steel, full tang, single edged, with a good thick spine (1/4"). Since you'll need to do some small tasks with it, as well as chopping wood, batoning, etc. you want one about 9-12inches in overall length. With a knife like that you can cut branches to make a shelter, cut firewood, or do any sort of camp chores. If you really want to be prepared, you can put a headlamp in your pack. It would come in handy if you get caught out after dark or if you had to spend an overnight in the wild. Sometimes I carry one, but if I'm trying to save space and weight I'll leave it. Two more things you want to toss into your pack. One is a tough, full-sized garbage bag. It could be used to carry or contain water, as a poncho to keep you warm or dry, as a tarp to huddle under, as a bag to hang food away from bears, or as a groundcover to sleep on. Lots of uses for this if you think about it. Anothet thing I always have in my pack is a big, folded piece of aluminum foil. You could make a little cooking pot or baking sheet out of it, use it as a signal mirror, make a fishing lure from it, or tear strips and hang them in trees to mark your route.
All of these survival items take up minimal space in your pack and don't weigh much, but if you need them, you'll be glad to have them. They could be the difference between comfort and misery, safety and danger, or life and death.
So this is what I typically carry in my pack (bear spray and my fixed blade knife are carried on my belt, camera and bandanna in a pants pocket). Water accounts for the majority of the weight I carry. These days (July and 90 to 98 degrees) I carry close to 90 ounces of water. Most outdoor experts recommend that you drink 32 ounces (1 liter) of water every two hours when hiking. My 90 ounces lasts me about six hours and I carry more water in my vehicle. Most of the survival stuff is stuffed into the bottom of my pack. These items serve me pretty well even on a long hike over tough terrain whether i'm going to climb a mountain peak or hike up a creek or whatever.
I also do shorter hikes very near where I live on trails I know well. These trails have a steady stream of hikers, runners, dogwalkers, etc. so it's hard to get lost there and if i were hurt there would be plenty of people around to help. I still grab the same pack when I head out, so i take almost the same stuff. The exception is that I might not take my hiking poles, bear spray, or big knife, and i bring less water if i'm just going for a few miles.