Day Hiker's Equipment List

Aside from the shoes on your feet, it doesn't take much equipment to go day-hiking. While backpackers must concern themselves with tents, sleeping pads, pots and pans, and the like, day-hikers have an easier time of it. Still, too many day-hikers set out carrying too little and get into trouble as a result. Here's my list of essentials:

1) Food and water, first and foremost. Water is even more important than food, although it's unwise to get caught without a picnic, or at least some edible supplies for emergencies. If you don't want to carry the weight of a couple water bottles, at least carry a purifier or filtering device so you can get water from streams, rivers, or lakes. It goes without saying, but never, ever drink water from a natural source without purifying it. The microscopic organism Giardia lamblia is found in backcountry water sources and can cause a litany of terrible gastrointestinal problems. Only purifying, chemically treating, or boiling water from natural sources will eliminate Giardia.

The new water bottle-style purifiers, such as those made by Exstream, are as light as an empty plastic bottle and eliminate the need to carry both a filter and a bottle. You simply dip the bottle in the stream, screw on the top (which has a filter inside it), and squeeze the bottle to drink. The water is filtered on its way out of the squeeze top.

Of course, in many areas you won't find a natural water source to filter from, so carrying water is still necessary. Remember that trails that cross running streams in the winter and spring months may cross dry streams in the summer and autumn months.

What you carry for food is up to you. Some people go gourmet and carry the complete inventory of a fancy grocery store. If you don't want to bother with much weight, stick with high-energy snacks like nutrition bars, nuts, dried fruit, turkey or beef jerky, and crackers. The best rule is always to bring more than you think you can eat. You can always carry it back out with you, or give it to somebody else on the trail who needs it.

If you're hiking in a group, each of you should carry your own food and water just in case someone gets too far ahead or behind.

2) A map of the park or public land you're visiting. Never count on trail signs to get you where you want to go. Signs get knocked down or disappear with alarming frequency, due to rain, wind, or park visitors looking for souvenirs. Always obtain a map from the managing agency of the place you're visiting.

3) Extra clothing. On the trail, conditions can change at any time. Not only can the weather suddenly turn windy, foggy, or rainy, but your own body conditions also change: You'll perspire as you hike up a sunny hill and then get chilled at the top of a windy ridge or when you head into shade. Because of this, cotton fabrics don't function well in the outdoors. Once cotton gets wet, it stays wet. Generally, polyester blend fabrics dry faster. Some high-tech fabrics will actually wick moisture away from your skin. Invest in a few items of clothing made from these fabrics and you'll be more comfortable when you hike.

Always carry a lightweight jacket with you, preferably one that is waterproof and also wind-resistant. If your jacket isn't waterproof, pack along one of the $2, single-use rain ponchos that come in a package the size of a deck of cards (available at outdoors stores or drug stores). If you can't part with two bucks, carry an extra-large garbage bag. In cooler temperatures, or when heading to a mountain summit even on a hot day, carry gloves and a hat as well.

4) Flashlight. Just in case your hike takes a little longer than you planned, bring at least one flashlight. Mini-flashlights are available everywhere, weigh almost nothing, and can save the day. I especially like the tiny squeeze LED flashlights, about the size and shape of a quarter, that you can clip on to any key ring. Some turn on and off with a small switch, so you don't have to squeeze them for extended periods. (The Photon Micro-Light is a popular brand.) Whatever kind of flashlight you carry, make sure the batteries work before you set out on the trail. I always take along an extra set of batteries and an extra bulb, or simply an extra flashlight or two. You never know when the darn things will run out of juice.

Top photo: Mule's ears in bloom above Barker Pass, Lake Tahoe

5) Sunglasses and sunscreen. You know the dangers of the sun. Wear sunglasses to protect your eyes and sunscreen with a high SPF on any exposed skin. Put on your sunscreen 30 minutes before you go outdoors so it has time to take effect. If you spend a lot of time outdoors, invest in a good wide-brimmed hat. Wearing lip balm with a high SPF is also a smart idea.

6) Insect repellent. Several kinds of insect repellent now come with sunscreen, so you can combine items 5 and 6 and put on one lotion instead of two. Many types of insect repellent have an ingredient called DEET, which is extremely effective but also quite toxic. Children should not use repellent with high levels of DEET, although it seems to be safe for adults. Many other types of repellent are made of natural substances, such as lemon oil. What works best? Everybody has their opinion. If you visit the High Sierra in the middle of a major mosquito hatch, it often seems like nothing works except covering your entire body in mosquito netting. For typical summer days outside of a hatch period, find a repellent you like and carry it with you. My current favorite is a Skin-So-Soft product made by Avon. It works pretty well, and it doesn't contain DEET.

7) First aid kit. Nothing major is required here unless you're fully trained in first aid, but a few supplies for blister repairs, an ace bandage, an antibiotic ointment, and an anti-inflammatory medicine such as ibuprofen can be valuable tools in minor and major emergencies. If anyone in your party is allergic to bee stings or anything else in the outdoors, carry their medication.

8) Swiss army-style pocket knife. Carry one with several blades, a can opener, a scissors, and a tweezers. The latter is useful for removing ticks.

9) Compass. Know how to use it. If you don't know how, take a class or get someone to show you.

10) Emergency supplies. Ask yourself this question, "What would I need to have if I had to spend the night out here?" Aside from food, water, and other items previously listed, here are some basic emergency supplies that will get you through an unplanned night in the wilderness.

  • Lightweight space blanket or sleeping bag made of foil-like mylar film designed to reflect radiating body heat. These make a great emergency shelter and weigh and cost almost nothing.
  • A couple packs of matches in a waterproof container (or Ziploc bag) and a candle, just in case you ever need to build a fire in a serious emergency.
  • Whistle. If you ever need help, you can blow a whistle for a lot longer than you can shout.
  • Small signal mirror. It could be just what you need to get found if you ever get lost.

11) Fun stuff. These items aren't necessary, but they can make your trip a lot more fun:

  • wildflower and/or bird identification book
  • small pair of binoculars
  • fishing license and lightweight fishing equipment
  • extra pair of socks (these can feel like heaven halfway through a long hike)