Hiking Gear: The 20 Essentials Everyone Should Carry
Heading out into nature this summer? Here are the hiking gear essentials you need to pack to keep you safe, comfortable, and happy.
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What you need to know before hiking
Hiking wasn’t even a hobby, much less a passion, for Jennifer Pharr Davis when she decided to hike the Appalachian Trail. Just 21 years old and fresh out of college, all she knew was that she needed something to help her transition from student to adult life, and tramping 2,190 miles through the wilderness seemed like a good plan.
“I had never really hiked before or spent a night alone in the wilderness,” she says. “It didn’t really hit me what I’d gotten myself into until that first night on the trail and I couldn’t figure out how to set up my tent. I realized I probably should have practiced that at home before I left.”
Hiking for beginners
Determined to stick it out, Pharr Davis learned quickly, both from her own novice mistakes and from seasoned hikers along the way, and she successfully completed her goal. The accomplishment itself was huge but she says the experience gave her an even greater gift. “I absolutely fell in love with hiking and being outdoors,” she says. “It transformed me and the woman who finished the trail was a completely different person than the girl who started it.”
After that first trek in 2005, she threw herself into hiking and in 2008 she set the women’s record for hiking the Appalachian Trail. In 2011 she set the overall record, completing the hike in just 46 days (most people take five to seven months), and was named National Geographic’s 2012 Explorer of the Year.
Benefits of hiking
You don’t have to be a record-breaking athlete to be transformed by hiking. In fact, hiking is one of the most accessible forms of recreation for most people as it’s basically just walking but in prettier surroundings, say Dave and Jessie DiCerbo, licensed outdoor guides and co-founders of Destination Backcountry Adventures in New York.
“Being out in nature has a way of removing barriers,” Jessie says. “You’re away from technology and you’re all in one place, one moment, working towards one goal. Hiking helps me make sense of the world and provides constancy. I’ve never found anything else that gives a greater sense of peace and accomplishment.”
What hiking gear essentials you need
Pharr Davis and the Dicerbos agree that being prepared is the most important thing you can do to stay safe and enjoy your time out in nature. So to help you get prepared, we asked them to share their expert tips for what’s essential hiking gear for the trail (and what isn’t).
A note about phones: Cell phones are something most people consider essential for every activity these days, but technology is much less helpful out in the wilderness where there are no electrical outlets and very limited cell signals, Dave says. “Being disconnected from everything is one of the best perks of hiking but if you really feel like you need your phone you can bring it, just don’t rely on it,” he explains. “I use my phone mainly as a camera or to check in with family, usually it stays in my pack,” Pharr Davis says.
Day pack: Deuter Unisex Speed Lite 24
Your stuff is only as good as the bag you carry it in so pick a day pack that’s lightweight, waterproof, and comfortable to carry, Dave says. Deuter is the go-to brand for the DiCerbos. They’re sleek, durable, and come in many sizes to fit hikers from children to large adults. Plus, they come with a built-in emergency whistle. (Learn to troubleshoot these common everyday emergencies.)
Compass: Boy Scout Sighting Compass
“You don’t want to carry more than you need to so get things that are multi-functional,” Pharr Davis says. One item is this simple easy-to-use Boy Scout compass that also has a mirror, level, and sight guide. “Basic navigation skills are something every hiker should learn,” she adds.
First aid kit: Surviveware Small First Aid Kit
In hiking you need to be prepared for two types of injuries: Lacerations (cuts and scrapes) and soft-tissue injuries (sprains and bruises), Dave says. So a hiking first aid kit should include Band-Aids, Neosporin, medical tape, gauze, Tylenol, Ibuprofen, and ACE bandages, he says. Farr Davis recommends adding Benadryl for allergic reactions to bug bites and plants, along with backups of any personal medications you need. This small kit by Surviveware has all the essentials plus pockets to add your own items.
Blister prevention and care: RockTape Blister Kit
“Nothing ruins a hike like a bad blister,” says Pharr Davis, who admits to getting plenty before she figured out how to prevent and care for them. Pack a small container with moleskin and/or duct tape to cover “hot spots” on your feet before they turn into blisters and ointment for if they do break open. RockTape acts as both a barrier and a cushion, helping to keep your feet comfy.
Rain shell or poncho: Outdoor Research Men’s Helium II Jacket
“You really do not want to be stuck outdoors wet and cold; staying dry is essential for your comfort and safety,” Jessie says. “So even if it doesn’t look like rain, we always carry a rain shell or poncho in our packs.” The DiCerbos both swear by the Outdoor Research brand for durability and comfort. (This is how your body deals with freezing weather.)
Hiking poles: TrailBuddy Trekking Poles
“The difference between hiking with and without poles is like the difference between dial-up and high-speed Internet,” Dave says. “They make a huge difference, helping to prevent injury, improve posture, and they’ve absolutely saved my knees.” This set from TrailBuddy is an affordable option for beginners and get rave reviews for being lightweight and comfortable. (Learn how you can walk more steps each day.)
Printed maps: National Geographic Trails Illustrated Maps
“Getting lost is part of any journey,” Pharr Davis says. “That said, you want to learn how to get back on the trail.” That starts with having paper maps, preferably waterproof, and a compass you know how to use, Dave says. The National Geographic trail maps are highly rated by hikers of all skill levels. (Incorporate the best walking workout for older people to your exercise routine.)
Headlamp: PETZL Tikka
“Hikers should always carry two sources of light and your phone can only count as one of them,” Pharr Davis says. A headlamp is a great way to light up your path while keeping your hands free, she says. The DiCerbos recommend the PETZL Tikka headlamp. (These are the health gadgets that can save your life.)
Emergency blanket or sleeping bag: Go Time Gear Life Bivy Emergency Sleeping Bag
“Even if you’ve only planned a day hike you should come prepared to spend a night in the wilderness in case you get lost or injured and can’t hike out,” Pharr Davis says. This is why she always carries an emergency blanket or lightweight sleeping bag. This Go Time Gear sleeping bag weighs just four ounces and is four by three inches but expands to seven feet long and three feet wide. (Also, make sure your home emergency kit is up to date.)
Waterproof fire starter: Swiss Safe 5-in-1 Fire Starter
Having a way to light a fire is important but skip the regular matches as one good soak and they’re worthless, Dave says. The DiCerbos use a set of magnesium ferro rods that can start fires in any type of weather, last for years, and, with a little practice, are easy to use. This Swiss Safe model is a true multi-tasker, including a compass, detachable paracord, whistle, and scraper. It also glows in the dark. Another option is to purchase or make your own waterproof matches. (This is how to save your own life in scary emergencies.)
Water bottle: Nalgene Tritan BPA-Free 32 ounce
The DiCerbos recommend always starting with two liters of water. How you carry it is up to you; seasoned hikers often become attached to a certain way to carry their water. They prefer two regular Nalgene bottles while Pharr Davis swears by reusing Smartwater bottles you buy at the grocery store. Still others like the convenience of a bladder-type pack, like a Camelbak. The point is to find one you like and make sure you drink enough water throughout the day. (Also, check out the best stainless steel water bottles.)
Filtration device: Sawyer Micro Squeeze Water Filtration System
Water is one of the most essential things to bring on a hike but it’s also really heavy to carry and takes up a lot of room in your pack; if you’re planning a longer hike, or want back up in case you get lost, it’s smart to bring a filtration device so you can refill your water from streams, lakes or rivers, Pharr Davis says. All three of our experts love the Sawyer filtration systems for durability, quality, and ease of use.
Healthy snacks: Silicone Snack Bags
$8 for a pack of 10
Food is fuel on the trail so it’s important to keep your body running in top gear, Pharr Davis says. All three of our experts recommend sticking to natural, healthy snacks that blend carbs, fats, and protein. Trail mix, jerky, nut butters, fresh or dried fruit, hard cheese, and veggies are staples. But they also make room for some treats—Pharr Davis loves snacking on Kettle Chips on the trail while Dave confesses to bringing candy for quick energy. These reusable silicone snack bags will keep all your food trail ready without creating more garbage.
Sun protection: Blue Lizard Sensitive Mineral Sunscreen
Protection from UV rays is a must for hiking, regardless of the season. The DiCerbos recommend wearing a hat with a brim, sunscreen, and sunglasses. Jessie advises opting for a mineral sunscreen as it’s healthier for your skin and safer for the environment. This zinc-based sunscreen from Blue Lizard gets high marks for being easy to apply and gentle on sensitive skin. Plus the bottle turns purple in the presence of harmful UV rays, alerting you when it’s time to reapply.
Bug spray: Sawyer 20% Picaridin Insect Repellent
With the prevalence of insect-borne diseases, bug spray is a must for safety (not to mention comfort), particularly if you’re hiking in wooded or damp areas known for mosquitoes and ticks, Pharr Davis says. However, many people are wary of the chemical-based sprays that use DEET. One option she likes is this Sawyer bug spray that uses picaridin, an extract of the black pepper plant. It’s odorless and colorless and is effective up to 12 hours against mosquitoes and ticks and up to 8 hours against biting flies, gnats, chiggers, and sand flies. (Also, be sure to try these chemical-free bug repellants.)
Good hiking shoes: Astral TR1 Mesh W’s
Your feet are your biggest asset in hiking so it’s important to make sure they’re protected, dry, and comfortable, Pharr Davis says. She loves the Astral brand as she says they have the comfort of a running shoe but were designed for hikers. “Lots of people just hike in running shoes but the mechanics of running and hiking are actually quite different so it’s important to get a hiking shoe or boot,” she says. (Here are the best walking shoes for your feet.)
Wool socks: Smartwool Unisex Hiking Socks
Smartwool socks are the DiCerbo’s go-to for hiking because they dry easily, are comfortable, wick sweat, and come in a wide variety of styles and sizes. They also have a “flex zone at the ankle and a virtually seamless toe for enhanced comfort.” (Learn why you should never wear shoes without socks.)
Personal locator beacon: ACR ResQLink 400 – Buoyant GPS Personal Locator Beacon
Hikers who like to go beyond well-traveled trails would do well to invest in a personal locator beacon (PLB), a device that tracks your location by satellite and allows you to call for help, Dave says. “Before you leave on any hike, always tell someone at home where you’re going and what time to expect you back,” he says. “If you’re going into the backcountry, you can also carry a PLB, which can help rescuers find you if you run into trouble.” ACR offers a highly rated option. (Find yourself in a medical emergency? Here are some first aid tips.)
Bear spray/bells: SABRE Frontiersman Bear Spray
For most hikes, this isn’t necessary but if you know you’re going into bear country, it’s wise to bring bear spray, Dave says. “Critters generally want your food, not you as food, so the best bear deterrent is to not smell like food and to keep your food in a bear bag, box or barrel,” he says. If you’re going into Grizzly bear territory, adding bear bells to your pack will help you ensure you accidentally startle a bear, he adds. This option from SABRE can give you some peace of mind. (Next, learn what your walking style says about your health.)