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Why hike? Let us count the ways. Hiking is an incredible way to experience nature, get some exercise, and connect with friends and family. Plus, studies indicate that spending time outside has immense benefits for your stress levels, mental clarity, and overall health. And of all the ways to enjoy the great outdoors, hiking has to be the easiest—after all, it’s just walking, but on dirt.
Embarking on your first hike can feel intimidating. Before hitting the trail, you may have questions about where to go, how to stay safe, and what to bring with you. We’ll cover how to pack for your first hike so you can be comfortable and prepared for unforeseen circumstances.
When it comes to packing for a hike, you want to prepare to keep yourself comfortable and safe in the backcountry, without weighing yourself down with unnecessary gear. It’s important to consider what you might want to have with you if things go wrong, but keep in mind that an overly heavy pack can hinder your enjoyment on the trail.
First, consider how long of a hike you’re going on. For short hikes—think a mile or two—you can get away with packing light. On these quick excursions, you’re far less likely to spend an unplanned night outside or need to use a restroom than you might be on a full-day adventure. Your destination will affect your packing list, too: You’ll want different gear on a hot, shadeless desert hike than a rainy forest trek. Use this list as a general guide that you can tailor to your needs on a specific hike.
How to Choose a Daypack
For your first hike, any backpack will do; grab your commuter bag, a school backpack, or whatever you have handy. As you progress into longer hikes, consider a pack with padded straps and a hipbelt to comfortably distribute the load. Features like water bottle holders and various pockets for organization can come in handy, too. Going on an overnight hike? Try on packs in the store and enlist the help of a sales associate to choose the right one for you.
The Ten Essentials
This list of gear encompasses everything you need to stay safe in the backcountry, especially if you find yourself lost or in a survival situation. While some of the ten essentials may seem like overkill for a short dayhike, it’s a good idea to always keep them in your pack.
Full bottles or a hydration bladder are the most important item in your pack to fend off dehydration and keep you moving comfortably on the trail. As a rule of thumb, pack one liter of water for every hour you plan to be hiking. Beginner hikers can expect to travel about two miles per hour on a moderate trail (factor in more time for steeps), so carry at least two liters of water for a four mile hike. On especially hot days, pack more.
Yes, water is heavy. On long hikes, consider carrying a water filter or purification drops, and locate water sources like streams on a map ahead of time. That way, you can refill partway through the day instead of carrying an uncomfortably full pack.
Don’t have a reusable bottle? Any screw-top bottle—from an old disposable water bottle to a soda bottle—will do.
It’s easier to get lost outside than you might think, especially in areas you’re not familiar with. For your first hike, it’s a good idea to become familiar with your route beforehand. If you have little experience navigating on hiking trails, pick a popular hike where you’re likely to encounter other people. Mapping apps like Gaia GPS are good places to find route suggestions. Download maps of the area ahead of time so you can view them even if you lose cell service, and make sure your phone is fully charged before hitting the trail. A paper map and compass are essential for longer hiker or off-trail travel, but make sure you know how to use them.
The best part of hiking? The snacks, obviously. Hikers should aim to consume around 200 calories per hour to maintain energy. The best hiker food is non-perishable, packable (won’t crush or smush in your pack), and nutrient-dense. Consider foods like nuts, dried fruit, granola bars, peanut butter sandwiches, and trail mix for a dayhike. For your first hike, nutrition is secondary: Pack whatever food you’ll want to eat even if exercise lessens your appetite.
Put on sunscreen before hitting the trail and pack extra to reapply throughout the day. Also pack a hat and sunglasses or SPF-rated clothing. Bug repellent is also a good idea, especially in woodsy areas and in summertime.
You should avoid wearing cotton on a hike—it sops up sweat and water and doesn’t dry—but that doesn’t mean you need to drop money on high-end hiking clothes. Wear comfortable, moisture-wicking clothing for your first hike. In summer, running shorts, track pants, or yoga pants and an athletic t-shirt will do. In winter, start with warm, non-cotton baselayers, fleece or wool midlayers, and waterproof outer layers. Always pack extra clothing, even if you don’t think you’ll need them. Something to keep warm if you stop moving and rain gear should always be in your pack. For cooler days or summits, consider a hat and gloves.
A headlamp might seem like overkill for a morning hike, but it’s never a bad idea to keep one in your pack in case you find yourself out after dark. Make sure it has fresh batteries or is fully charged before setting out. Don’t have a headlamp? A small flashlight works fine too.
First Aid Kit
Basic first aid supplies are crucial so you can treat yourself or your hiking partners in case of an injury. At the very least, carry bandages, an elastic wrap to use in case of a sprained ankle, and pain medication like ibuprofen. Also carry hand sanitizer and something to clean wounds, like alcohol prep pads.
A Knife or Multitool
It’s likely to stay in your pack on your first dayhike, but a multitool or pocketknife can come in handy for everything from making simple gear repairs in the field to slicing salami.
Again, carrying a full-blown camping shelter is rarely necessary on dayhikes, but protection from the elements can offer peace of mind, especially on longer, challenging hikes. Consider packing a compact space blanket (find them for a couple bucks at any big box store), emergency bivy, or even a small tarp for longer excursions.
This tenth essential is most important for winter and overnight hikes. A lighter, matches, or a camp stove can be used for purifying water, staying warm, or even signaling for help in an emergency.
In addition to the 10 Essentials, you might want to consider packing the following, depending on where you’re going.
Your phone serves as everything from a map to a camera, as well as a way to call for help if something goes wrong. Make sure it’s fully charged and protected with a rugged case. For rainy hikes or those that require stream crossings, store your phone in a plastic bag or waterproof case.
While certainly not necessary, some hikers may prefer using poles for balance and to relieve pressure on the knees while hiking. Consider collapsible poles you can store in or on your pack when not in use. Don’t want to drop the money? A pair of cheap ski poles (check secondhand stores) works too.
It’s a good idea to use the bathroom before heading out for a hike, but sometimes, nature calls. Wag bags, pee cloths, or a trowel and toilet paper come in handy in a pinch. Always carry out your trash and dispose of waste according to Leave No Trace guidelines.
Always pack out your own garbage. If you see trash left by other hikers on the trail, pick that up and carry it out, too.
What Shoes to Wear on Your First Hike
For your first few hikes, wear any sturdy, closed-toe athletic shoes you have. (Just pick a pair you don’t mind getting dirty.) Sneakers are fine for most beginner trails, but you may want shoes with some traction for steep hikes. Ready to buy a pair of hiking-specific shoes? Consult an expert at your local gear shop, where their expertise can help you pick the perfect pair.