Day hike essential carry packing list – what to bring and not bring so you don’t die

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Don’t pack all the crap!

If you’ve been looking for a good list of items to pack for a day hike, you’ve probably found multiple articles with a simple checklist or maybe even a few checklists for varying conditions. Well, this article also has a checklist, but not one you’ll find on any other website. See, packing for a day hike should be simple and straightforward, but I believe no singular checklist will suffice for all situations. That’s why I came up with the risk-based packing list (RBPL).

The concept works on the premise that you can evaluate all the potential risks you may encounter on a hike and weigh that against your risk tolerance, then pack accordingly. The concept works for any adventure outing, but I’ll discuss it as it applies to a day hike here.

If you’d like a more in-depth read on the risk-based packing and preparation including a free downloadable tool to help you conduct a risk assessment and make a packing list, hang tight. I’m working on it right now and will post it up sometime soon.

Let’s start out by looking at where other posts go wrong with their packing lists. I scanned the top 10 or so google results on what to pack for a day hike and this is the list I came up with from combining all the items listed:

Don’t pack all this!

  • Backpack
  • Underwear
  • T-shirt
  • Pants
  • Long sleeve shirt
  • Puffy Jacket
  • Hiking shoes
  • Socks
  • Extra Socks
  • Bandana
  • Hat
  • Belt
  • Poncho
  • Gaiters
  • Cooling Towel
  • Hat
  • Gloves
  • Wind breaker
  • Crampons
  • Hand warmers
  • Snacks
  • Lunch
  • Extra Day supply of food
  • Hydration bladder
  • Water bottle
  • Water filter
  • Backup water filter
  • Iodine tablets
  • Map
  • Compass
  • GPS
  • Watch
  • Guidebook
  • Personal Locator Beacon
  • Cell phone
  • Portable USB power bank
  • Charging cable
  • First-aid kit
    • BZK or alcohol antiseptic wipes
    • Antibacterial ointment
    • Benzoin tincture
    • Assorted adhesive bandages
    • Butterfly bandages
    • Assorted gauze pads
    • Nonstick sterile pads
    • Medical tape
    • Blister treatment
    • Ibuprofen
    • Insect sting treatment
    • Antihistamine
    • Splinter tweezers
    • Safety pins
    • First-aid manual
    • Elastic wrap
    • Triangular cravat bandage
    • Finger splint(s)
    • SAM splint(s)
    • Rolled gauze
    • Rolled bandages
    • Hydrogel-based pads
    • Topical anesthetic pads
    • Hemostatic gauze
    • Liquid bandage
    • Prescription medications
    • Sunburn relief gel or spray
    • Throat lozenges
    • Lubricating eye drops
    • Antidiarrheal
    • Antacid tablets
    • Oral rehydration salts
    • Glucose tablets
    • Epinephrine pen
    • Aspirin
    • Paramedic shears
    • Safety razor blade
    • Cotton swabs
    • Thermometer
    • Irrigation syringe
    • Medical gloves
    • CPR mask
    • Notepad 
    • Pencil or pen
    • Medical waste bag
    • Waterproof container 
    • Emergency heat-reflecting blanket
    • Hand sanitizer
    • Biodegradable soap
  • Knife
  • Multitool
  • Firestarters
  • Matches
  • Lighter
  • Permit
  • Whistle
  • Fishing Kit
  • Finger saw
  • Paracord
  • Signal Mirror
  • Hand sanitizer
  • Menstrual products
  • sunglasses
  • SPF lip balm
  • Insect spray
  • Toilet paper
  • Urinary products
  • Wipes
  • Hand towel
  • Duct tape
  • Zip ties
  • Headlamp
  • Spare batteries
  • backup light
  • Camera
  • Journal
  • Pen/Pencil
  • Binoculars
  • Radios
  • Credit card
  • ID
  • Money
  • Map Sack/Ziplock
  • Flint and steel
  • Gorilla tape
  • Salt tablets
  • Emergency shelter
  • Trowel
  • Trash bags
  • Gun
  • Bear spray
  • Pepper Spray
  • Hammock
  • Deodorant
  • Solar charger
  • Slackline
  • Glasses
  • Contact supplies
  • Tripod
  • Water sandals
  • Hair ties

Yeah, I thought the same thing. I’m never going to bring all this! But if you went by what you find on most typical day hike packing lists, this is the method you’d be using to pack. Just following a list someone else made up for you that has no idea of your skills, experience, hiking conditions, season, or environment can be problematic.

If you follow just one of the packing lists, you won’t look like you’re packing for a through-hike of the Appalachian trail, but you still won’t be packing just what you need for your hike.

Is there a better way to pack for a day hike?

So I realize most of us take packing checklists with a grain of salt and only take what we feel we’ll need or use. The problem is still that you’re not able to consider every eventuality and prepare accordingly with this approach. You’re kind of just guessing as to what you think you’ll need and typically we either over-pack or under-pack.

Here’s an example. A checklist shows a map and compass. While I think having a map and compass with you when in the backcountry is a great idea most of the time. I haven’t carried a map or compass with me on probably 80% of the hikes I’ve done this year. Crazy, you say? Hear me out.

It’s all about preparing and packing based on proper risk assessment. Many of my hikes are on high-traffic, well-marked trails with good signage and easy-to-follow routes that go up a single drainage to a summit or other landmark.

I study the route in advance, bring my phone that has maps downloaded to it as well as my watch set in breadcrumbs mode in case I need to retrace my footsteps. Additionally, many of the hikes are repeats, so I’m familiar with the terrain.

Still not convinced? Doesn’t every good day hike packing list always include a map and compass? Let’s do a quick risk assessment on this scenario to evaluate my choice to take or not take a map and compass.

Pack using a risk assessment

We start out by asking what could possibly go wrong – these are worst-case scenario types of situations.

Example day hike – navigation – what could go wrong?

  • I could start at the completely wrong trailhead
  • I could take the wrong trail leaving the trailhead
  • I could take a wrong fork while on the trail
  • I could miss a turn heading cross-country
  • I could get turned around backwards on the correct trail
  • My phone could die
  • My watch could die
  • My phone and watch could die at the same time
  • My hiking partners could take a wrong turn and get separated from me
  • My eyes could get sunburned and I may not be able to see the trail
  • A storm may arise and block out my view of navigational landmarks like peaks, rivers, or the sun

If I missed anything, let me know in the comments below.

So now that we have a list of everything we think could go wrong in relation to navigation, let’s look at how each of these situations could be resolved using gear or skills I have with me.

How can I solve each situation from above?

  • Wrong trailhead, wrong fork, missed cross-country turn, backwards on the correct trail – all these scenarios are easily solvable with a bit of simple planning and gear that I’ll have with me all the time. By loading my route into an app like Gaia GPS, I can vew it on my phone or my watch and know that I’m on the right course whether on the trail or cross-country, that I’m headed in the right direction, and give me much more data that a map and compass can’t give me.
  • Dead phone – So, if I’m relying on my phone for navigation, what do I do if/when my phone dies or I go out of GPS signal? Well, it’s very possible. Even with a full battery, what if I fall and break my phone, or drop it off a cliff while taking a selfie? My backup plan is my watch. I have a Suunto Alpha Traverse that has many GPS navigation features. I could navigate a complex bushwacking route with many waypoints with just my watch if I followed my normal preparations before a trip.
  • Dead watch – So what if my watch dies? The battery in my watch typically lasts several days before a recharge, but what if? Well, just like if my phone dies, my watch is my backup. My phone is my backup for the watch. Redundancy is always important in risk mitigation.
  • Dead phone and watch – Okay, I know you’re asking it. What do I do if my watch and my phone die at the same time? Well, without a map and compass, some people may be screwed, but on most the hikes I go on, I’ve done plenty of beta beforehand and know the drainanges, the landmarks, and the terrain. If I know I’m headed into difficult terrain that I’m not familair with and expect to be out long enough that my watch or phone might die, I’ll pack a map and compass.
  • Separated from partner – What if I get separated from my partner, will not having a map mean trouble for us? It might, but I like my team to all be familiar with and have access to the map beforehand and have a digital copy (on their phone, watch, or other device) while we’re out. Many people I hike with don’t even know how to properly use a map and compass so it won’t do them any good to have one. It also won’t do me any good in trying to find them.
  • Sunburned eyes – This is why I wear a hat or sunglasses.
  • Storm obscures visibility – A map won’t help in instances where you can’t see landmarks. A compass will, but I have a watch and phone for that and have skills to make a compass if push comes to shove.

Now based on my solutions to all the possible risks I can think of, I know what to pack when it comes to navigation. I’ll pack my phone and watch loaded with well-noted GPX files of my intended route along with a brain full of data from poring over maps and beta articles. If my trip will be longer than the expected battery life of my devices or I anticipate complex route-finding in unfamiliar terrain or where I won’t have a GPS signal, I’ll throw in a map and compass.

The risk-based method of packing leads me to a logical list of items I’ll need and none that I won’t need. It includes my own knowledge and skills in the process and makes me think through all eventualities so I’ll be prepared for and know how to respond in any circumstance.

How do you ask the right questions in a risk assessment for a day hike?

The navigation example above was just one part of what you need to prepare for on a day hike. How do you think through every scenario? I like to start my thinking with the 10 essentials. The 10 essentials are what many people use as their actual packing list, but I’ll be using it here to work through our risk assessment. Here’s a list of the 10 essentials that many will argue you should have with you at all times when in the outdoors.

The 10 essentials

  1. Map and compass/gps (navigation)
  2. Water (hydration)
  3. Food (energy)
  4. Rain gear and fast drying layers (protection from the elements)
  5. Lighter or matches (heat, light, cooking, drying)
  6. First-aid kit (first aid)
  7. Knife or multitool (tools, safety)
  8. Sunscreen (protection from the elements)
  9. Emergency shelter (protection from the elements)
  10. Headlamp/flashlight (light)

Item vs function

You can see that I have items listed and then have their function listed in parentheses. The function is what we care about, not the item. If we have what we need to accomplish the function, who cares what the item/skill actually is? Do you really need to bring water if you know there are clean springs every 500 yards on the trail? No, you just need to know that you can stay hydrated.

With the 10 essentials boiled down into essential functions, we need to address while out on a day hike, let’s see if we are missing anything. Some other areas of concern for packing that come to mind are these:

  • Safety
  • Comfort
  • Legal
  • Sanitation
  • Communication
  • Fun

Now you have a pretty good list of all the functions you’ll need to address while out on a day hike. The next step is to go through the process we did above for navigation for each one of these items. Ask yourself what could go wrong. Ask what need will you have on the adventure. Ask what scenarios are possible. Are you hiking in cold weather or will it be hot even at night? This is a great exercise to go through with your whole crew so everyone has a chance to think through the scenarios.

Will you be able to consider all scenarios? Unless you’re incredibly creative, probably not, but you’ll be able to cover enough ground to be prepared for almost anything. Being prepared doesn’t mean packing everything on our list above, but it means knowing what to do and having the right equipment for each scenario.

This risk-based packing method may seem like overkill for a simple day hike, but if you practice on low-risk objectives like this, you’ll be in good practice for riskier adventures when they arise.

donut falls rappel
This “hike” was a bit more demanding than a typical day hike.

An example day hike packing list

So here’s an example packing list for a day hike. I won’t write out all the questions and scenarios I took into account, but here’s the list I put together for a morning hike to a nearby alpine lake that I’ve hiked to many times with a well-marked trail during the middle of summer. The hike is about 8 miles and should take me about 3-4 hours.

  • Navigation
    • Watch loaded with route and offline maps*
    • Phone loaded with route and offline maps*
  • Hydration
    • 2L hydration bladder
    • Water filter
  • Energy
    • 600 calories of sandwich for lunch
    • 400 calories of trail mix for snacks
    • 400 calories of emergency energy chews
    • Fishing kit
    • Foraging skills and knowledge
  • Protection from elements
    • Clothing*
      • Shirt*
      • Shorts*
      • Belt*
      • Underwear*
      • Wool socks*
      • Hat*
      • Shoes*
    • Sunglasses*
    • Puffy jacket
    • Sunscreen
    • Emergency blanket
    • Shelter building skills
  • Heat
    • Sun
    • Lighter
  • Light
    • Light from my phone*
    • Light from my watch*
    • Moonlight (it will be nearly a full moon)
    • Mini LED light
    • Lighter
  • Cooking
    • Lighter
    • Fero rod
  • First aid
    • Basic first aid kit^
  • Tools
    • Small multi tool
    • Duct tape
    • Paracord belt*
  • Safety
    • Whistle*
    • Emergency blanket
  • Legal
    • Fishing license on my phone*
  • Sanitation
    • Wag bag
  • Communication
    • Phone*
  • Carrying/Storage
    • Backpack

*Items I wear on my body while I hike.

^See list below for specific items.

what to pack hiking
All packed out and ready to hike.

This list doesn’t match any of the lists I found online, but perfectly matches my needs for a day hike in my local mountain range during the summertime. This list will look different depending on the time of day, the season, and even who I have with me, but it will always match the situations I’ll likely run into and meet my tolerance for risk.

Get the right gear

Now you know what to pack, now see what my favorite gear for each item on the list is to fully equip your own day hiking needs.

Navigation is paramount on your packing list because losing your way on a hike can lead to all manner of risk and exposure. Be well prepared to navigate the entire planned hiking route and become familiar with the surrounding areas and features making particular note of places where you might go astray as you hike. My navigation essentials consist of my phone loaded with the app Gaia GPS with downloaded maps of the area as well as a preloaded GPX or KML file if I feel I need it. You can learn all about how to get that set up here.

I’m a big fan of redundancy so I also bring a watch with GPS capabilities also loaded with the route maps. I’ve been rockin’ the Suunto Alpha Traverse for the past two or three years and have nothing but great things to say about it. I think the model is a bit out of date now, but it’s rock-solid and has helped me navigate some very tricky routes. Perhaps my favorite part of this watch is that I don’t have to worry about its durability, water resistance, or battery life. It’s just solid. It’s there for me all day in all conditions. You can buy the Alpha Traverse or look into the newer models.

If I need to bring a paper map and compass, I always print my maps on 8.5″x11″ waterproof paper. I draw out my route and customize the map using Gaia GPS and print the map on one side and any route notes or beta on the other side. For longer routes, I sometimes need more than one sheet of paper. The waterproof paper prevents sweat, Gatorade, rain, or a jump in a stream from ruining my map. You can also store your map in a waterproof bag or a zipper bag, but I still find the waterproof paper superior and foolproof.

To properly use a map, you also need a good compass. I use this one because it has all the features I need to navigate in the backcountry, it’s simple, reliable, and well-built and it’s not too heavy.

To learn more about navigation in the backcountry check out this series of articles:

Hydration gear –

After getting lost, perhaps the next biggest risk on a day hike is dehydration. The average person between 110-175 lbs needs nearly 5 liters of water a day on a typical summertime hike in the mountains. Most hikers don’t pack that amount of water and end up a bit dehydrated by the end of the hike. This isn’t a big deal if you’re headed home right after, but if you get lost or stuck, dehydration can escalate quickly into much more serious issues.

Learn more about heat-related illnesses here.

Packing for dehydration doesn’t need to be too complicated, but it does take some skill and knowledge if you don’t want to bring a pack full of water (5 liters of water weighs 11 lbs). My first choice for water is a hydration bladder. I have many different sizes and shapes ranging from 3.5 to 1 liter, but I typically bring a 2-liter bladder if I’ll have access to water on the hike.

In addition to a bladder, it’s wise to always have a way to procure fresh water while you’re hiking anywhere of any distance away from civilization. My first choice is spring water. If you know how to find springs on a map and also locate them in the wild, you can plan your route around the springs. Snowmelt is next and is similar to spring water, but you have to be cautious relying on snowmelt because it can dry up later in the season and leave you high and dry.

If you don’t have a clean source of water on your route, you’ll have to prepare to filter water. I usually bring a small water filter with me in my ARK (always ready kit). This is the one I like because it’s small, simple, and effective. I also wrapped it with duct tape so I have that with me in my kit in case of a first aid issue or a repair.

In case my water filter malfunctions or gets lost, I like to have some measure of redundancy. For many, this may be iodine tablets, but for me, I feel confident finding clean drinking water in the arid Mountain West where I spend most of my time. This isn’t a skill you can just pretend to have though so think carefully before leaving out the backup water filtration.

Depending on the route, I’ll also throw in some purification tablets since they’re pretty lightweight and simple to use. If you have a water bladder, you can just use that to fill with the cleanest water you can find.

Gear for energy –

Getting enough calories to fuel your adventure usually isn’t too hard for just a day hike. The basic rule I like to follow is to bring food I like. I try to bring about 200 calories for each hour I’ll be hiking. That’s on the conservative side, so bring more if you get hungry while out and about. I usually bring calorie-dense foods like trail mix, breads and pastries, and cheeses or meats. A classic PB & J sandwich is perfect or sometimes a couple of burritos are in order. Don’t overthink it, just pack some good food. I also keep a few granola bars and energy chews in my ARK in case I get stuck out on the trail longer than I anticipate and need an energy boost.

Along with the food I pack, I also continually look for edibles I can forage while I hike. Raspberries, strawberries, currants, Oregon grape, thimbleberries, elderberries, bugs, miner’s lettuce, and wild mushrooms are among the more common edibles I find on my local trails. I don’t count on these calorie sources for normal scenarios, but being used to identifying and using them can make a big difference in your confidence if you ever need to rely on them in an emergency.

Gear for protection from the elements –

Being prepared for bad weather or to bivouac for the night is important and one of the most overlooked aspects of packing for a day hike. The first consideration is what you wear on your body. Always pick quick-drying, durable, and comfortable clothing. Here’s what I typically wear on a day hike in the summertime.

Under layers – I like to wear a breathable underlayer of polyester/elastane blend like this Under Armour shirt and briefs.

Shirt – In reality, any shirt will do just fine, but I like to wear technical fabrics. Avoid cotton if you can and if it’s a sunny, hot day, don’t wear black or dark colors or you’ll be hotter than if you wear light colors. A long sleeve UPF shirt can be great if you’ll be in the sun all day and don’t want to burn.

Shorts/Pants – Some people like to hike in long pants. I like to wear shorts in hot weather. I wear lightweight, quick-dry shorts with zip-up pockets so I don’t lose my gear.

Socks – Two words, merino wool. Yes, even in hot weather. Wool is the best. Pick a lightweight version and your feet will be cool and dry all day.

Shoes – I never wear big heavy boots unless I’m mountaineering. I wear my lightweight trail runners all year long and just adjust the socks underneath or throw on some gaiters if needed.

*** Pro-tip: gaiters can be great for keeping sand and gravel out if you know you’ll be hiking in loose terrain. ***

Hat – I almost always hike with a hat and not just because it protects my balding head from the sun. Hats keep the sun out of your eyes and face and can serve as an instrument to strain wigglers or debris out of dirty water if needed.

Belt – I don’t usually need a belt when hiking, but I often do wear one because belts are excellent tools to have around. You can use them in so many ways like hauling a log, tying a sling or tourniquet, or holding a splint in place. I like these paracord belts because if you ever get stuck in a pinch, you’ve always got plenty of cordage right on you.

Sunglasses – I have prescription sunglasses, so I almost always have them on when I’m outside. If you need glasses to see, be sure to pack prescription glasses too.

***Pro-tip: many normal glasses can be used to start a fire on a clear, sunny day. ***

Puffy Jacket – This one goes in the pack in case it gets cold. Even if the forecast shows nothing but hot weather, having a good, down puffy that packs down small is smart in case someone falls in cold water or goes into shock. I always pack a black one because it absorbs heat better. The puffy also makes a good pillow or seat cushion if needed.

Sunscreen – No brainer here, especially at high altitudes or in the snow, the sun is more intense and will burn you very quickly if you’re not slathering on the SPF every so often.

Emergency blanket – You likely have one of these mylar blankets. They come in handy in a pinch and take up very little room so I always have one in my ARK.

Gear for heat –

Sun – Producing heat can be critical even in the summertime. The sun is the primary source of heat. If someone is in shock or going hypothermic, whip out that black puffy and emergency blanket, and the sun can heat someone up in a hurry even in cool weather.

Lighter – If the sun has gone down or is obscured by clouds, you need another method of creating heat. Fire is the obvious answer here. I typically just pack a little keychain lighter. These are small, reliable, and easy to use. Just be sure it has enough fuel in it before each trip.

Fire from the lighter can also be a source of light, provide protection from predators and bugs, dry wet clothes or gear, and provide clean water and cooked food if needed. It’s a good idea to always have a way to build fire for when you really need it.

Light – if you get stuck in the dark, a bit of light can mean the difference between suffering until sunrise in the cold and getting back to the car.

Mini LED light – I pack this mini clip light in my ARK for emergencies, but again, redundancy is critical. This one has a clip that lets me clip it onto the bill of my hat so I can use it hands-free like a headlamp but without the bulk of a headlamp.

Phone light – Everyone always says to not rely on your phone for light in an emergency. While a phone light isn’t incredibly bright, I tested how long it would last and on my year-old iPhone 8, the battery lasted about 6 hours starting from 95% charge. That’s probably plenty of time to get back to the trailhead in most situations.

Watch light – My watch has a built-in flashlight feature that’s great for a bit of ambient light like if I have to start a fire, rummage through my pack, or check my bearings on a map in the dark.

First aid gear-

I consider a first aid kit an essential item and I always pack one with me in my ARK. I’ve never had to use my first aid kit on myself, but there have been many times when people I’m with or have met on the trail have benefited from my small kit. I pack a custom kit that I made from parts from the other kits I have around my house using all the small and lightweight items that I think I’d use on the trail.

Here’s what’s in my first aid kit:

first aid kit
See the numbered list below for details of my first-aid kit
  1. SAM splint – Useful for splinting just about any kind of injury. These are lightweight, flexible, cuttable, and reusable.
  2. Zippered bag – This is what I use to store my first aid gear.
  3. Ziplock bag – I keep everything in this inside the zippered bag to keep it from getting too wet.
  4. Wilderness first aid guide – I carry this to help myself or anyone else in my party who may not remember what to do in every situation or when the urgency of the moment mounts.
  5. Emergency blanket – Useful for many situations including, hypothermia, emergency bivouac, sling, signalling, or just staying a bit warmer.
  6. Surgical scissors – These are great for cutting off clothes, tape, or gauze.
  7. Razor – I don’t use this for anything but surgical cuts like cutting the roof off a blister or cutting open an infected cyst or the like. This thing is sharp and clean.
  8. Tweezers – These are high-quality tweezers to remove splinters, thorns, or ticks.
  9. Coban – This is a great taping product for securing gauze or bandages in place.
  10. Medical tape – Useful for wrapping sprained fingers or securing small splints in place.
  11. Safety pins – Can be used to pin a sling or wrap in place.
  12. Non-adhesive gauze – This is a gauze coated in vaseline for use on burns or other sensitive abrasions where normal gauze can be painful to remove.
  13. Assorted adhesive bandages – I bring a mix of bandaids including butterfly closures, fingertip closures, and zipstitch bandages in case of the need for stitches.
  14. Rescue breather – This is a protective cover to use for contactless rescue breathing during CPR.
  15. Alcohol prep pads – Used for disinfecting.
  16. Moleskin – Used for blister prevention or to prevent other rubbing hotspots from packs, belts, or shoes.
  17. Nitrile gloves – Used as personal protective equipment when treating someone else.
  18. Benzalkonium chloride wipes – Used for disinfecting skin.
  19. Assorted gauze pads – Used to cover cuts or abrasions to stop bleeding and keep things clean.
  20. Tourniquet – This is a simple rubber strap, but better alternatives exist.
  21. Chapstick – This is for chapped lips or other parts. Get some with sun protection.
  22. Bacitracin ointment – This is a small sachet of antibacterial ointment to keep wounds sterile before bandaging someone up.
  23. Aspirin – Aspirin is a blood thinner and can make a huge difference in cases of stroke, pulmonary embolism, or heart attack, but the main use is as a pain reducer.
  24. Sting wipes – These help in cases of insect or poisonous plant stings.
  25. Sunscreen – Sun screen can be a lifesaver if you run out or forget to bring any.
  26. Antidiarrheal -Used to stave off dehydration from diarrhea.
  27. Excedrin – This works wonders for me when I get a bad headache.
  28. Ibuprofen – Anti-inflammatory and antipyretic.
  29. Acetamenophin – Antipyretic and pain relief.
  30. Thermometer – Single-use thermometers can help diagnose serious conditions associated with fevers.

An important note on first aid kits: only pack what you know how to use. If you don’t know CPR, a rescue breather mask won’t do much good and a tourniquet in the wrong hands can do more damage than without it.

Tools –

Multi-tool – I pack a small tool in my ARK just in case I need a knife blade, scissors, and a pair of pliers.

Duct tape – As I mentioned earlier, I like to wrap a long strip of duct tape around my water filter because I always have that with me. Duct tape and a bit of creativity can solve many problems in the woods and is very handy in first-aid scenarios.

Safety gear-

Whistle – Having a whistle can be very useful if you get lost or need assistance and nobody is around. Whistle blasts carry much further than the human voice and it takes less energy than yelling. I usually carry my whistle strapped to my pack where I could use it quickly and without having to get into my pack. You never know when you may get stuck under a rock like Aaron Ralston or come face to face with a mountain lion and a whistle could be useful to have at the ready.

Learn how to avoid mountain lion attacks in this article.

Emergency blanket – If I’m going deep into the backcountry, I’ll sometimes take a signaling mirror, but a mylar blanket laid out with the shiny side up can also act as a signal to pilots. you can wrap it around a stick frame and aim it just like a huge signaling mirror.

Be sure to pack any licenses or permits you may need for hunting, fishing, or traveling on restricted trails or property. These are things you can shove in a Ziplock and tuck in a pocket on your backpack and forget, but it’s never good to be caught without the proof you need to stay legal.

Sanitation gear –

Wag bag – A wag bag is just a sealable bag with some powdered chemicals in it that’s used for pooping. I consider this to be an essential item, but many people don’t.

Leave no trace principles teach us to pack everything out including our waste. It’s not hard or gross if you use a wag bag. Just do it!

Urinary device – If you ladies don’t like having to squat to pee in the woods, you may want to check out one of these devices. I’ve never heard of anyone using one in person, but many of the reviews are promising.

Menstrual devices – Ladies, don’t let your cycle stop the adventure. You can always go with the traditional tools, but you may also want to try one of the cups out if you don’t want to pack out the waste. You’ll need water to use these so plan accordingly.

Communication gear-

Phone – I don’t use a personal locator beacon or satellite phone like some people recommend. I just pack my cell phone. I don’t get service in many of the areas I hike in, but I’m usually not far enough away from the car on a day hike that I couldn’t get back to phone coverage relatively quickly.


So that’s it. Not as simple as a one-page checklist, right? Well, this method works great for me and is adaptable to any length or complexity of adventure. I think practicing the risk-based approach on easy day hikes will help you be ready to pack for much bigger objectives with ease as you learn to think through all the possible scenarios and assess your skills and plan accordingly. Try it out and let me know how it works for you and let me know if you have any additions or improvements to my day hike packing list.

2 thoughts on “Day hike essential carry packing list – what to bring and not bring so you don’t die”

  1. If you get lost and end up spending the night in the mountains, you can die from hypothermia. I also offer hiking tours and advise clients on what to pack for their hikes. My day hike essentials have evolved over time and continue to do so as new products and technology come out.

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