Most of these aren’t essential for survival; they’re essential to me for having a good time on on a hike. (The official survival essentials are listed at the end)
1. A water supply
It’s not just a matter of carrying enough water — you need access to more if you run out.
That means two things: a) letting your water supply determine your hike length (turning back when it’s half-gone, for example); and b) having a plan for running dry.
There’s a whole industry built around keeping you hydrated. Make use of it, and shop wisely. Hydration bladders are over-rated — prone to leakage and unable to tell you how much you’ve got left. Filters and chemical purifiers and plentiful and good to have if you don’t mind the extra weight.
Availability of water is as integral to a hike plan as distance, elevation gain and altitude. Without it you’re going nowhere. Even if you’re carrying plenty, keep an eye out for more. Make mental notes of spigots at trail heads and log all streams and springs in the backcountry (keeping in mind they do run dry in the summer).
Water should never be far from your mind … but you don’t want to be in a situation where it’s all you think about, though, because that usually means you’re all out.
2. A reliable map
The most basic risk of hiking is getting lost. And just as it’s possible to drown in your kitchen sink, it’s possible to get dangerously lost in just about any outdoor locale beyond your back yard.
It doesn’t really matter what kind of map you have, so long as it tells you where to turn to get back where you came from. There are topographic maps and Google maps and specially created trail maps of the kind crafted by Tom Harrison, one of our sponsors. All are better than nothing.
The map can be in your head, but the only way it gets there is by repeated exposure to the same trails. Never take a strange trail without map. Really, never. And keep in mind: weather can change the trail you think you have memorized: if 600-year-old, 250-foot-long redwood has fallen across the trail in front of you, your memory of how to get to where you need to be might not be of much help because your access will be blocked for a long distance in two directions, and if the tree’s fat enough, you won’t be able to climb over it. So even if you think you know the place by heart, take a map anyway.
Also: Keep your map dry — seal it in a Ziploc — sweat is more likely to ruin it than rain.
3. Comfortable socks
The fabric closest to your feet has the most impact on them.
Don’t imagine the old cotton athletic socks in your drawer will do. They don’t. They aren’t designed for walking long distances, they’re designed for chasing inflatable rolling orbs around a sporting green. For hikers, cotton socks are blisters waiting to happen. Avoid them. Also: cotton loses its insulating power when wet.
Shell out the extra money and invest in hiking socks made of synthetic wicking fibers that move moisture away from your feet (imperfectly, but far better than cotton). Some people wear wool socks with thin synthetic liners. All these liners do is protect your feet from harsh wool and add weight. If you go synthetic, you don’t need the liners.
Also, synthetics do a better job of insulating when they’re wet.
Some hiking socks have extra padding in them — I find it doesn’t add that much comfort and just tends to make your feet hotter. Your mileage will vary.
Whatever you do, don’t scrimp on socks.
4. Comfortable shoes
No two feet are alike, but shoe manufacturers seem to think otherwise. Which means you have to go to the store and try on half-dozen models and sizes to see what feels best on your feet.
Do you need big heavy hiking boots? Not unless you a) have weak ankles; and b) are going backpacking.
Running shoes will do fine for most day hikes. If you’re into longer distances, consider going with running shoes designed for trails — they have more padding around the ankles and better traction.
The main thing is: they have to be a good match with your feet. Everything else is secondary.
Though I never hike in boots anymore, I have to admit there’s a certain appeal to having good ol’ leather clod-hoppers you have to break in over several hikes, tend to with tender loving care and resole every few years. We live in a time of terrible over-consumption so from a green standpoint it’d be better to buy this kind of footwear and use it till it can’t be used anymore.
It’s worth considering.
5. Underwear that doesn’t chafe
There’s nothing worse than getting rubbed raw in your nether regions, which can happen (especially on hot days) on long hikes, especially if you’re wearing the same cotton briefs you wear in your non-hiking life.
Synthetic, boxer-style briefs fit snug against the bod, help wick moisture away from the skin and prevent your inner thighs from rubbing against each other. They work well for me. Others skip undies altogether and go with Spandex tights.
Whatever you go with, mind the chafe, or it’ll bite you. In a place you don’t want to be bitten.
6. Something to keep crud out of your shoes
A constant annoyance is having to stop what you’re doing, find someplace to sit down, take off your shoes and dump whatever bits of dirt, gravel or whatever has insinuated into a place seemingly calculated to cause the most discomfort.
I used to hike with gaiters, which wrap around your shoes and block stuff from falling inside, but they retain heat, add weight and make my feet sweat. I’ve found out that hiking in long pants serves the same purpose most of the time.
I’ve often seen trail runners wearing very tight-fitting, stretch-fabric gaiters — which looks like a good idea, but keep in mind the anti-crud mandate is munch stronger for runners, who are even more loath to stop what they’re doing and much more vulnerable to the blistering consequences of not stopping when there’s a pebble in there. They need those gaiters much more than hikers do.
Still, taking care to reduce your crud encounters will make your hiking much happier.
7. Nylon hiking pants
A couple years back I bought a pair of nylon hiking pants with the zip-off lower legs. They have a bunch of pockets for maps and other stuff, weigh practically nothing and have worn like iron. Also: extremely comfortable.
When they get wet, they dry out quickly. The little burrs that stuck to every other fabric like glue come off with a little brushing. They wash clean, no matter how mucky and stinky I get them.
Lots of folks hike in jeans, which are 1) heavy; 2) extremely slow to dry out; and 3) overkill for most day hikes. You really don’t need that tough canvas fabric for walking on a trail.
Don’t get crazy when buying these pants. Just get the basic model with the extra pockets. The zip-off legs are nice to have, though the only time I’ve ever unzipped mine was when we stopped by the beach on the way home from hiking. I got a half-off deal on some top-of-the-line Ex-Officio pants that I almost never use because they have a sewn-in belt and mesh crotch liner, both of which are worthless to me.
Better to keep it simple and light.
8. Something to block the sun
I never hike without my floppy hat and sunglasses.
Ultraviolet rays from the sun are almost perpendicular to the top of your head, which means if you go around with no hat on you’re essentially asking nature to grant you a nice, convenient case of skin cancer.
Those same rays of the sun do a number on your eyes if unblocked. If you have bad eyesight, consider prescription sunglasses. I started buying them a few years ago and haven’t gone back.
I’m little less finicky about wearing sun screen (though I shouldn’t be), but I try to wear as much fabric barrier between skin and sun as I can stand.
Always take some food along — it keeps your energy level high and means less of your hike will be spent wishing to hell it was over.
You don’t need much: an apple, an energy bar, some dried fruit, homemade chocolate chip cookies. If you’ll be out all day, toss in a PB&J.
Fresh oranges really hit the spot on long hikes. Peel one before you go and you’ve got sliced goodness to propel you along.
Don’t get carried away, but don’t worry if you carry things you don’t end up eating. Extra food means you’ll have something for the next hike.
10. The Real 10 essentials
This story at the Seattle Post-Intelligencer describes the so-called 10 Essentials for Wilderness Survival. On day hikes in good weather in the Bay Area you won’t need most of them, but it’s important to understand them. You can also buy survival kits that cover all 10 and toss them in your day pack.
There is some overlap with my Essentials for Happy Hiking, which are more geared toward day hikes where nothing goes wrong.
The P-I’s list:
- SUN PROTECTION.
- FIRST-AID SUPPLIES.
- REPAIR KIT AND TOOLS.
- EMERGENCY SHELTER.
I have a sealed tin from Tacoma Mountain Rescue that I hope to never use. You should at the very least carry something to treat blisters — moleskin and so forth. It can bring more joy to your non-hiking life.