How To Prepare For A Day Hike & Packing List

Last Updated: January 2021

This article will focus on the “Day Hike,” where you fully expect to return to your vehicle, campsite, or shelter by dark.

We will focus on how to prepare for your hike regardless if it's a short 2-hour hike in a populated trail or less populated bigger national parks or the backcountry.

What you need to consider in how to prepare falls under three categories - 

  • Pre-Planning
  • Situational Awareness
  • Being Prepared
a map of the united states and a map of mount rainier

Pre-Planning for a Day Hike

What you leave behind is as important and lifesaving as what you take with you. Before you go,  “document your hike.” Tell someone your hiking location and when you expect to return.

Leave them your itinerary, a map if possible, and your cell number. If you haven’t returned by a specific time and they can’t get a hold of you, they’ll know to alert the authorities.

Staying at a hotel or resort? Leave this information with the front desk. Emailing your information to a friend or family member is another option. Instruct them that if they don’t hear from you again by a certain time – send help.

If you’re hiking in a state or federal park, know the number of local park authorities and sign in the registration, if available.  

Based on a true story, the movie 127 Hours was about a hiker who did not document his trip into Blue John Canyon and became trapped with no one to help for five days. 

The fact that you must provide someone Hiking Documentation forces you to do your homework. Looking at maps and literature about your hike can yield valuable information such as elevation, terrain, distance, and water sources.

two guys looking at the sky while hiking determining what is up ahead

Situational Awareness on a Day Hike

The second consideration on how to prepare for your day hike is having Situational Awareness. This means being aware of the situation you are in.

Such things as weather, temperature, sounds, smells, and a visual of the trail ahead are all clues to your present and future well-being.

For instance, you’re hiking a canyon. Because you checked the weather for your location and the surrounding area, you know that earlier in the day, there was a heavy thunderstorm several miles away.

Suddenly, you hear the sound of rushing water. From the maps, you know there are no waterfalls in your area. You conclude that sound could be water rushing down the canyon as run-off from that thunderstorm.

Your reaction to immediately find higher ground and get out of the canyon is prudent as opposed to someone who hasn’t done their homework and gets caught up in a flood.

Situational awareness can be anything from noticing rain clouds forming, allowing you to don your rain gear before it starts raining — to seeing an obstacle on the trail and avoiding it before you trip over it.

It also means being mindful of three preventable medical issues that can take place on the trail:

  • Hypothermia
  • Heat Exhaustion
  • Hyponatremia

The following is not intended, nor should  itbe construed to be medical advice. We strongly encourage you to consult your physician or other medical professional regarding these issues.

Hypothermia is a mostly preventable condition when your body loses heat faster than it can produce heat, causing dangerously low body temperature. Hypothermia occurs as your body temperature falls below 95°F (35°C).

Here’s a plausible scenario. You’re hiking in blue jeans and a cotton t-shirt, and it starts to rain. You don’t have any rain gear and become soaked. The air temperature drops, and there’s a breeze.

Due to cotton has no warming ability when wet, you begin to lose heat at a rapid rate. You’re two hours from your vehicle. You’re in trouble.

Pre-Planning would have equipped you with rain gear and a dry set of clothes. Situational Awareness would have alerted you to the forming rain clouds, and you could have donned your rain gear.

Heat Exhaustion is a result of your body overheating.

Symptoms may include heavy sweating, rapid pulse, and cramps. If not treated, it can lead to heatstroke and can be life-threatening.

To avoid heat exhaustion: stay hydrated, know your limits, and take breaks, especially during the hottest parts of the day. Wear light-colored, loose-fitting clothing, and cover your head.

If you begin to suffer from heat exhaustion, get out of the sun. Sit down and hydrate. This is one example of why you pack a tarp and paracord so you can fashion an awning if shade is not available.  

Hyponatremia is usually caused by an imbalance of your water to sodium ratio.

When we sweat, we lose sodium and potassium. Plain water does not replenish either one. That is why people don’t understand why they feel terrible, even though their urine is clear, and they’ve been drinking plenty of water.

Symptoms include headache, nausea, and vomiting, confusion, loss of energy, drowsiness, and fatigue, restlessness,and irritability, muscle weakness, spasms, or cramps. Severe cases can result in seizures and coma.

We avoid this by consuming salty snacks along the trail and during breaks. Depending on your dietary restrictions, nuts, chips, pretzels, trail mix, and celery sprinkled with salt are all good choices. You can also carry sports drink tablets like  Nuun Sport: Electrolyte that contains sodium, potassium, and B vitamins.

When situational awareness is part of your operating method, it’s not a burden. It gives you a lot less to worry about, allowing you to focus on the fun.

hiking gears pf backpack, camera, hiing boots, hiking jacket, compass, and a map

What To Wear on a Day Hike

Closed-Toed Footwear

Among the most avoidable outdoor injuries are those that involve cuts, scrapes, and jams to the toes. Closed-toed footwear prevents this.

Varying terrains requires a different style of boots. However, on average, we recommend 8” hiking boots that offer ankle support, protect your toes, and provide a degree of protection from stick punctures.  

A well-tested pair of boots known by many hikers is the Merrell Moab 2 Mid. If you are short in time, these boots don't require break-in time, unlike other boots. See our Best Hiking Boots Buying Guide.

If you prefer more technical boot or  into rock climbing and rougher terrains, check out our in-depth review of the La Sportiva TX4 Mid GTX.

We pair them with medium-weight Merino wool socks since the wool keeps it's warmth even when wet. See our article about the benefits of Merino wool.

An excellent alternative is to carry closed-toed water shoes. You can wear them across the stream then switch back to your socks and boots. Resist the temptation to remove your boots and cross the stream barefoot. This undermines the very reason for wearing closed toed footwear in the first place.


We prefer mid-weight wool-like Darn Tough Micro Crew Socks or, for a longer length, try Darn Tough Boot Cushion Socks.

Wool socks wick moisture and have antimicrobial properties. As an added benefit, wool maintains about 30% of its warming ability even when wet. See why we love the Darn Tough brand.


Cotton is wonderful – until it gets damp or wet. Then it’s just an incubator for diaper rash. Developing a rash and chafe on the trail can make for a miserable hike.

Nylon underwear that is lightweight, moisture-wicking, breathable, quick-drying, and odor-resistant is desirable. We prefer Exofficio Give-N-Go briefs.  A thin layer of Desitin will help keep the area dry, rash, and chafe-free.

While we do advocate and use a couple of pairs of wool underwear, they’re harder to find and a bit pricey.


We prefer pants like North Face Paramount Active Convertible Pants. Pants help prevent scratches, cuts, sunburn, and insect bites. They also cover the tops of the boots preventing the great outdoors from getting inside. 

Whether you choose shorts or pants, we recommend moisture-wicking nylon. They wick moisture away from your legs and private areas, and if you do get them wet, they dry quickly.

Caution: If you are cooking over a campfire, change to cotton or wool pants like Columbia Rapid Rivers Pants. Flame, embers, and sparks will melt nylon. And if you happen to fall into the fire, your pants will melt to you. Cotton or wool won’t burn as fast nor will either melt to your body. 

As a general rule when hiking, backpacking or canoeing, wear nylon for the main activity and cotton or wool in camp.


Our attitude regarding shirts is pretty much the same as pants-- moisture-wicking nylon or Merino wool on the trail, cotton or wool around fire. Long or short sleeves are a personal preference. A long sleeve that we like is Arc'teryx Motus Crew LS, and if you prefer short sleeves, try Smartwool Merino Sport 150.

If you’re worried about Melanoma, shirts with built-in sunblock are available like ExOfficio Men's Air Strip Long Sleeve with UPF 40 rated fabric.


A wide-brimmed hat such as a Columbia Unisex Bora Bora II Booney Hat will protect your head and keep the sun at bay.

When applying sunblock, be sure and cover the back of your neck. You can also tuck a bandana up under your hat to hang down over your neck.  

A baseball cap with a brim is also useful as you can turn the brim in the direction of the sun.

Day Hike Packing List

Day Hike Gear Tips

Day Pack

We recommend the Osprey Talon 22 or Osprey Stratos 34 for your day hike. The number signifies the volume of your pack. Both will accept a hydration bladder. For more in-depth info on backpacks, check out our Hiking Backpack Buying Guide.


A hydration bladder like Platypus Hydration Reservoir is an easy way to hydrate. Also, carrying a separate bottle such as  Camelbak Chute Mag Bottle  with sports drink tablets Nuun Sport: Electrolyte to replenish what you lost in sweat.

Multi-tool & Sheath Knife

Gerber Suspension provides everything you’ll need. Also, the Gerber LMF II Survival Knife will help if you ever get stranded and need to chop some firewood.


Black Diamond Spot Headlamp. Requires 3 AAA batteries. 3AAA batteries weigh ¾ oz. Two AA weigh ~2 oz.

Handheld Handheld flashlight

Dorcey Z DRIVE PWM 300 Lumen. It uses the same batteries as the Black Diamond Spot.

Rain Jacket & Pants

Separate rain jacket and pants are preferable to a poncho, especially if you canoe. We recommend North Face Venture 2 Jacket and Marmot Minimalist Lightweight Rain Pants.

If you are looking for a hard shell, check out our in-depth review of the Arcteryx Beta AR. Check out our how-to guide on How to choose the best hiking jacket.

Ponchos are not recommended as they don't fully cover your feet and they will be bulkier while navigating on wet ground.  

Salty Snacks + Emergency Rations

In addition to some salty snacks, pack beef jerky, protein bars, or similar, to last you a minimum of 24 hours if you get stranded.

We find that Justin's Maple Almond Butter squeeze packs are convenient and light to carry.

Also, Larabar Peanut Butter Chocolate Chips are among the favorite on our team because they are gluten-free, vegan, and with five ingredients or less! 

Whistle + Signal Mirror

It takes less energy to blow a whistle or manipulate a signal mirror than it does to yell. One that we like is the Noopel Survival Whistle.

Fire Kit

Ignition Source

Tinder Source

Cotton balls with petroleum jelly

Any commercial tinder

Magnesium from the Fire Starter


Filtering and purifying are two different things. Filter water then sterilize. Filter with Sawyer Mini Filter. Purify with SteriPen or Camelback All Clear. See our Best Water Purifiers of 2020 article for more info!

Paracord 50 ft

Genuine military grade Paracord has seven strands made of up three yarns to a strand for strength and durability with a breaking weight of 550 pounds. Commercial-grade only has two yarns per strand.  

Tarp – at least 4’ x 6’

Outry Waterproof Tarp is great for when you hike national parks or the backcountry. It creates an awning to shelter from sun & rain and acts as a wind blocker should you find yourself in unpredictable weather.


Pack enough to last two days longer than you expect to be away in case you become stranded. Carry insulin in a vacuum bottle with at least a 24-hour cold rating.

First Aid Kit

Small to handle most small to medium cuts and scrapes. Bandages, triple antibiotic ointment, moleskin, tape, gauze pads, pain reliever, antiseptic wipes.

In Summary

What you know is more important than what you have. With the knowledge of your equipment coupled the knowledge of hiking documentation and having situational awareness, it will increase your chances of having a successful and fun adventure.

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