Travel Tips

Hiking 101: Packing a Day Pack

by Julie Horton - Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Hiking 101: Packing a Day Pack

Hiking seems uncomplicated, and being unencumbered gives us a feeling of freedom we associate with wide open spaces. So, we grab the car keys and head out with nary a thought of changing weather, stream crossings, porcupines, etc. We like to imagine that we are hiking in a sunny world where the animals all sing songs, no one’s ever wet or hungry, and nothing unpredictable ever happens. If you venture out prepared — with just a few cunning items — you can scoff at most anything mother nature throws at you.

Learning what to take with you on a day-hike is a lesson that most of us have had to learn through trial and error. Some of us are slower learners than others! Thankfully, the mistakes are rarely life threatening, though sometimes it feels as though it may have been. There’s been more than one time when I’ve gone out on a two or three-hour hike under a beautifully blue Colorado, Canadian, Icelandic sky without a rain jacket. You can imagine the rest of the story: an hour from the trailhead, the wind starts to blow a little, the clouds begin rolling in, the temperature plummets, and I begin cursing my own foolishness as the raindrops begin to fall.

Take the items I’ve listed below and who knows you may start enjoying those times when your hike takes quite a bit longer than you thought, the weather is constantly changing, and the streams are much deeper than expected. After all, you will have taken the Boy Scout motto to heart: “you are prepared!”

Here are my top items to include on any day-hike over three hours:

  • A friend. Not only are they great company, if someone gets injured, there’s someone to go for help. If you prefer to hike alone, be sure to let someone know where you are going and when you will be back.
  • Sunscreen. I put on the first layer before I leave home and another at lunch.
  • Water. If it’s a short hike of less than three hours take one quart on the trail and have another in the car for the drive to and from the trailhead. If it’s longer than three hours, or a hot day take two quarts of water. I often “flavor” my water by putting my sliced veggies in one of my water bottles. The water taste great and the veggies are crisp and cool at lunch.
  • Toilet paper and a small zip lock bag for disposing. Drinking plenty of water is a healthy habit and drinking plenty of water on the trail will help keep your body happy. People often wonder about using the “green door” and are embarrassed to ask any questions. It’s easy, you need to stay a few hundred yards away from water sources and the trail. So take your bearings and head for cover, a nice view is always a bonus. Keep in mind that distance doesn’t necessarily lead to invisibility. I’ve had people walk 250 yards from a group and felt crouching behind a rock or other barrier was unnecessary, that they had somehow become invisible.
  • Food — a personal favorite of mine. Part of the fun of hiking for me is finding a beautiful spot to sit down and enjoy all that’s around me, while I eat a tasty lunch or have a snack. One of my favorite trail lunches is a simple and delicious lentil salad with red and green bell peppers. (Click here for the recipe!) In case of emergencies, or when I have one of those – I just can’t seem to eat enough days, I also have two energy bars in the bottom of my pack.
  • Map and compass, if you know how to use them. If you don’t, stay on trails that you or your hiking companion are familiar with.
  • Lightweight, breathable rain gear. If you are going on a longer hike at a higher elevation, I recommend that you bring both the jacket and pants. If you don’t mind spending a little more, GoreTex™ or a similar fabric is worth the extra money. Look for a jacket with a hood and armpit zippers; pants that fit over your boots are fantastic because they are so easy to pull on and off you’ll actually use them. Be sure that your rain pants are long enough so the rain water doesn’t simply drain down your pants directly into your boot. No, it’s never happened to me!
  • A warm layer for when the temperature does change. Use polar fleece, wool or some synthetic blend that stays warm even when wet. I do not recommend cotton; besides offering no insulation, when it gets wet it stays that way! Brrrrr.
  • Leatherman™ or similar tool. I have used the pliers on so many occasions that I now prefer it over my Swiss army knife. It’s been invaluable for removing porcupine quills from a friend’s dog and unscrewing things like the protective covers that go on my trekking poles.
  • Small first aid kit. This should include a few band aids (including the finger tip and knuckle variety), antiseptic cream, antiseptic towellettes, mole skin, second skin, aspirin or other pain-reliever, a bit of duct tape (wrap some on a pencil), a safety pin and tweezers. Bring mole skin and second skin and as soon as you feel ANY discomfort with your feet, STOP! Stop and adjust that sock, stop and put a piece of mole skin over the irritated area. If you’ve already developed a small blister, then cover it with second skin. I have used duct tape on top of mole skin to help keep it in place and because it has a very slick surface, it will prevent additional rubbing. The best idea if you are prone to foot irritations is to cover the area with BlisterBlock™ before you leave the house.
  • Extra Socks. Almost nothing feels as good as putting on warm, dry socks after your feet have gotten wet. How did your feet get wet? The rock wasn’t quite as stable, your balance wasn’t quite as good, and your boots weren’t quiet as waterproof as you imagined.
  • Matches and a lighter. Because they are small and light and you never know what might happen.
  • Trekking poles. I think they are invaluable and you can read the many reasons why in a Trekking with Trekking Poles.

Put these items in a comfortable day pack and you’re off!

Julie Horton - Julie Horton is the Purveyor of Cycling Adventures at ExperiencePlus! Bicycle Tours. She bicycled in more than 20 countries on a year long, self-supported bicycle tour around the world, which covered more than 14,000 miles. Her career in the adventure travel industry began back in 1994 when she started leading hiking tours in the USA, Europe, and far flung locations like Nepal and Thailand. After 10 years on the trail her desire to get back on the road led her to ExperiencePlus! in 2004. Her passion for traveling by bicycle and sharing the possibilities and plans with our travelers makes her "work" at ExperiencePlus! fun and gratifying. She looks forward to sharing her enthusiasm for traveling by bike with each of you and hearing of your adventures. Email Julie(at)