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How to Pack for Backpacking Trips (and Day Hikes)

It’s the question that comes to mind before every hiking trip, no matter how small: What do I pack? It makes sense to think things through before leaving the comfort of home and possibly putting yourself in danger. The right preparation minimizes the risks and boosts the enjoyment of your trip.

With this in mind, we offer these packing suggestions for both a multi-day backpacking trip and a day hike. While no advice covers every situation, this list can serve as your starting guide. Follow these tips, think it through, and make the most of your next excursion.

Day Hike

A day hiking trip can provide an amazing escape without the worries of an overnight trip. Loren Kerns

A day hike can mean an hour-long tour of a state park or a 12-hour excursion to Half Dome in Yosemite National Park. What you pack largely depends upon the type of hike. Here are the categories you need to think about no matter how long you’re on the trail.

Navigation : Cell phones are how most of us navigate nowadays, but you can’t rely on them in remote outdoor settings. So at least bring a map of the area, whether it’s a simple handout from the park office or a detailed topographical map. A compass is always a good idea as well. At the start of your hike, get out the map and orientate yourself. Find north on the map and visualize your route. You may be surprised how much better you navigate after that simple exercise.

Sun, wind, and bug protection : It makes sense to apply all this before you leave. But on significant hikes, you’ll need to reapply. Lip balm doesn’t take much space and can provide welcome relief. Bring along small, travel-size containers or single-use pouches to eliminate weight. And never hike without sunglasses and a hat.

Layers : What will you do in the event of cold or rainy weather? Don’t get stranded miles from home shivering. A rain jacket—and even pants—can be very light and compact. Fleece base layers take up space, but you’ll be happy to have them if a cold front moves in or the temperature drops as you gain elevation. Consider garments with removable sleeves, legs, and hoods to save space and quickly adapt to changing weather conditions.

First aid : A first-aid kit is never a bad idea. If you want to pare it down for a day hike, remember a few bandages, ibuprofen, antiseptic wipes, and moleskin or other blister prevention (see more on that below).

Water : The heaviest yet most important thing to have with you on the trail is water. It’s probably the first question you need to ask: Where can I get potable water and how much do I need to bring with me? Research your destination to find guidelines and stick to them. For long hikes, especially in hot conditions, consider bringing some kind of electrolyte replacement as well. Powdered packets of Gatorade or similar beverages work well. At the very least, make sure you have plenty of salty snacks.

Food : It's tough to move very fast when you don’t have fuel. Better to be safe than sorry when it comes to bringing sustenance. Trail mix, granola bars, jerky—there’s a reason why they’ve become staples on the trail.

Light : Even if you think you’ll be back long before sunset, it makes sense to bring a small headlamp. You never know when an injury or getting lost can turn a short hike into a long hike.

Survival : For day hikes in established parks, survival isn’t a concern. But if you’re in the wilderness, be prepared in case you’re stranded overnight. Consider matches or another fire starter and an emergency bivy (or even a small tarp) to sleep under as protection from the elements.

Multi-Day Backpacking Trip

Any hike can become dangerous if you're not prepared.
Jo Simon

Once you add the overnight element to your hiking trip, a new set of concerns comes into play. Now you have to remain safe and comfortable for multiple days without outside assistance. Food and water become a primary concern. For multi-day trips, keep these tips in mind.

Meal Planning : You can find rules of thumb for how much food to bring (2,500 to 4,500 calories a day is one guideline), but as you can see, that’s a wide estimate. And do you really want to count calories? Experience is your biggest guide. Think through how much you realistically expect to eat at each meal and work around those guidelines.

Shoot for complex carbohydrates and protein in your meals. Dry pastas, rice, and dry soup mixes pack a lot of calories without adding much weight. Freeze-dried and dehydrated meals are both convenient and often quite tasty. Vacuum sealed pouches of tuna, chicken, or jerky can be good sources of protein. And don’t forget the spices—small pouches of salt, pepper, oregano, cajun seasoning, or garlic salt can turn a bland meal into a winner. Finally, do bring along some pre-packaged bars or trail mix to have at the ready when you need some calories now.

Water : A liter of water weighs more than two pounds, so there’s no way you’re going to carry all the water you need on a multi-day trip. Your plan will really depend on your location. If ample freshwater is available from natural sources, bring a water filter, ultraviolet purifier, or some kind of additive to eliminate bacteria and other nasty stuff. Check weather and trail conditions before you leave to be sure that your expected sources of water are indeed still there.

Tools : A Swiss Army knife or multi-tool can be very helpful to fix equipment that doesn’t hold up on the trip. A small roll of duct tape also can be invaluable for repairing rips in tents, backpacks, shoes—heck, even skin. To treat the latter, a well-stocked first-aid kit is an even better option.

Foot care : It only takes one blister to turn an enjoyable outing to an excruciating death march. For multi-day hikes, you really have to pay attention to your feet and ensure that they remain in good condition. Worn-in hiking boots are a good start, but you may still develop blisters after a long day on the trail. Avoid them by paying attention to hot spots on your feet and using moleskin or another blister-prevention product before they get too bad. Wear wool or synthetic socks to help keep your feet dry, and bring along an extra pair or two in case they end up wet.

Clothes : Leave the cotton T-shirts at home. You want wool or synthetic fabrics to better wick away moisture, insulate you, and prevent chafing.

Pencil and paper : Seems kind of silly, but you’ll often find the need to write something down on the trail. You may have an idea for the next great American novel, but more likely you will want to leave a note for a hiking partner, write in a trail book, or simply make a checklist.

Whistle : A safety whistle doesn’t take up much space and can literally be a lifesaver if you run into problems.

Fuel : Test out all your cooking equipment before leaving home to be sure it works and you have adequate fuel for your cook stove. Make sure the containers of fuel you just bought match the equipment you purchased four years ago.

Batteries : Bring extra batteries for headlamps, lanterns, and other equipment that becomes essential on multi-day hikes.

Toilet paper, trowel : ’Nuff said.

Animal awareness : Whether it’s bears, mountain lions, scorpions, or snakes, know the dangerous animals living where you’re hiking and bring along anything you need to avoid them (bear bags) or survive them (first-aid kits).

Water-resistant equipment : You’re going to be putting your gear through some tough conditions, so make sure it’s strong enough to stand up to the test. Now is probably not the time to rely on the headlamp you bought at the checkout counter at the gas station. And despite your best intentions, things will get wet. Be ready for when they do. Waterproof matches are always a good thing to have.