My Ultralight Day Hiking Gear List
Day hiking is different from backpacking because you don’t plan to camp out, which means less gear (and less weight). If everything goes well you’ll be home in time for dinner.
But, you should prepare for the worst case scenario too. You could get lost, injured or caught in bad weather and be forced to spend a night (or three) in the wilderness.
That’s why it’s always a good idea when you go day hiking to bring not only the gear you plan to use, but a few extra essentials “just in case”…
This is what I pack when I go for a day hike:
My “3 Pound” Ultralight Day Hiking Pack List
Sea to Summit Ultra-Sil Day Pack (2.4 ounces)
I like this little pack because it is ultralight (less than 3 ounces), comfortable and convenient. It fits inside my regular backpack for peak-bagging and side hikes and goes in my motorcycle saddle bags or Jeep whenever I travel. That way I can always be prepared for impromptu hiking opportunities.
This is the epitomy of a “minimalist” day hiking pack. It is basically a stuff sack with straps and a zipper. If you do a lot of day hiking and need your pack to stand up to more regular use and abuse, you may want to get something slightly heavier duty, like the REI Flash 18.
SOL Emergency Bivvy (3.8 ounces)
Thermal bivvys work by blocking rain and wind, and reflecting your body’s own heat back toward you. If all goes according to plan you will never have to use this (because you’ll be spending the night warm and cozy, snuggled in your own bed).
But, if you have to spend an unexpected night in the wilderness this can keep you relatively warm (combined with all your spare clothing) in temperatures down to around forty degrees. (And alive… though not necessarily comfortable… in even colder temperatures.)
MontBell Ultralight Thermawrap Vest (5.2 ounces)
This is my favorite piece of clothing! It goes with me on all my backpacking trips, day hikes and almost every time I leave the house. A jacket is overkill in three-season weather. Arms are a waste of fabric (and weight). But keeping your vital organs warm is vitally important, and this is where a good vest does the trick.
Montbell’s Thermawrap Vest is ultralight, comfortable and packs down to the size of an apple. But the best thing about this vest is the synthetic insulation (which, unlike goose down, retains loft and warmth even when wet).
Marmot Mica Rain Jacket (7 ounces)
Even if there is no rain in the forecast it’s good to be prepared for the unexpected. In addition to providing protection from precipitation, a lightweight rain jacket blocks wind and adds a surprising amount of warmth when combined with a vest.
Fleece Hat & Gloves (3.5 ounces)
Hat and gloves are typically thought of as winter wear. But these lightweight items provide more warmth (when combined with vest, rain jacket, spare clothing and bivy) than heavier clothing items, because they prevent loss of heat through the extremities (head and hands), which is a common place for heat to escape.
8 L Sea to Summit Dry Sack (1.1 ounces)
My day pack is water resistant silnylon (but not waterproof), so I keep my spare clothing inside this Sea to Summit Dry Sack. If it starts to rain I will move other items inside the dry bag that I don’t want to get wet (like cellphone and maps).
A full pack always rides better than a saggy half-full pack, so I also use this dry bag to take up unused space in my day pack (by adjusting the amount of air trapped inside).
Fire Starting Kit (1.5 ounces)
The ability to make a fire is very important in a survival situation. It can be used to stay warm, cook food, boil water, signal for help and provide emotional comfort (which is more important than it sounds).
My fire-starting kit consists of the following: Wetfire Tinder Cubes, Spark-lite Firestarter, Mini Bic Lighter. Make sure to practice starting a fire with your kit. That way when you need to build a fire in a pinch, you won’t have to struggle with it (it takes a little bit of practice to get good at it).
Swiss Army Knife (1 ounce)
Survivalists will tell you that you need a big Rambo-style knife. Not true on a day hike (or a thru-hike for that matter). You won’t be improvising a shelter, setting traps, hunting game, cutting firewood or any of those activities. (If you are healthy enough to do that, you can just walk out of the woods). But, a small knife is still an important tool to include in your pack.
I have carried my 1-ounce Swiss Army Classic on all of my thru-hikes and day hikes and it does a great job for a small knife. On occasion I have carried a larger knife (old habits die hard), but always end up using my Swiss Army Knife the most.
Platypus 1 L Soft Bottle (0.8 ounces)
Staying hydrated is important. Depending on how far you plan to hike, and whether there is a place to refill with water along the route, you may need more than 1 liter. I usually carry 1 liter for hikes 10 miles or less and 2 liters for day hikes up to 20 miles. In extremely hot weather I may carry up to twice that amount.
I like the Platypus Soft Bottle because it fits comfortably in my day pack. It doesn’t poke my back or put excess pressure on the sil-nylon walls of my pack (like a hard water bottle would).
Water Purification Tablets (0.2 ounces)
I carry a couple of these tablets but I have never used them. On a day hike I typically pack in all the water I expect to drink. When refilling from a natural water source I rarely treat water. I have drank untreated back-country water for years with zero ill effects (which does not imply that your experience will be the same).
But, I do keep these “just in case”. They take 4 hours to work, which is inconvenient. If I planned on actually using them I’d bring chemical drops instead (like Aquamira or MSR Drops), which only take a few minutes to activate.
Map/Guidebook Pages (0.2 ounces)
Day hiking is usually pretty straightforward. You hike in, you hike out, you go home. One of the things that can complicate the process is if you get lost. You need a good map showing the trail and surrounding area to help you stay on course.
You can download and print maps for many trails online or create your own using software like National Geographic Topo. If using a guidebook you can save weight by photocopying and packing just the pages you need for your day hike.
Compass (0.3 ounces)
A compass will keep you pointed in the right direction so you won’t get lost. If you intend to do a lot of cross-country navigation on your day hike you may want a bigger compass with sighting mirror and declination adjustments, etc.
But for day hiking on established trails this little compass from REI does the trick. It includes a thermometer too.
Emergency Whistle (0.2 ounces)
An emergency whistle is used to signal to others if you need help (this is more effective and easier than yelling for hours).
In the U.S. and Canada the universal distress signal is three whistle blows followed by a one minute pause, repeated until help arrives. The reply signal is one whistle blow followed by a one minute pause. In other parts the world (I have been told) the distress signal is six blows, and the reply is three blows.
Cell Phone, Camera, GPS (4.6 ounces)
My HTC Droid Incredible serves three functions on a day hike: 1) Taking pictures 2) Occasional GPS navigation and 3) Calling for help in an emergency. I do not make or accept personal calls while hiking because it is rude to other hikers and ruins the peace and quiet and sense of isolation that I love about nature.
If you bring your cellphone please keep it in Airplane Mode or Powered Off. Most cellphone batteries only last about 12 hours in Standby Mode. If you leave your phone on all day the battery will be nearly dead right when you could need it the most.
Adventure Medical .3 First-Aid Kit (2.3 ounces)
My First Aid Kit is compact, lightweight and includes stuff for fixing minor boo-boos on the trail (cuts, scrapes, bruises, etc.)
I figure major injuries will require professional medical attention and knowledge about first aid that I don’t have, so a larger medical kit isn’t going to be of much benefit to me. But these little kits include quite a lot of stuff for how small they are.
Petzl Zipka LED Headlamp (2.4 ounces)
An LED Headlamp is better than a flashlight because it weighs less and provides hands-free lighting. I like my PETZL Zipka because the strap retracts back into the body of the headlight making it more compact and less “tangly”.
If you use lithium batteries they last forever. I can’t even remember the last time I replaced my headlight batteries (probably 1,000 miles ago).
Parachute Cord (1.2 ounces)
Parachute cord is one of those things you probably won’t use often, but will be happy to have if you need it. It can replace a shoelace, repair gear, tie things to your pack, etc.
This cord is strong (rated to 550 pounds), inexpensive and lightweight. I keep about 15 feet of paracord in my day pack.
Wet Wipes & Hand Sanitizer (2.6 ounces)
When you gotta “Do your business” in the woods you’ll need something to wipe with. I’ve used toilet paper and paper towels before, but eventually settled on wet wipes.
Purrell hand sanitizer is good for washing your hands afterward until you can find some water to do a more thorough job.
Make sure to always dig a “cathole” and bury your deposit. A stick or trekking pole works good for digging holes.
Insect Repellent (1 ounce)
DEET is the king of bug repellents. But, it is a nasty chemical that eats plastic (don’t spill it on your rain jacket or backpack), smells terrible and does god-knows-what to your body when absorbed through your pores.
I don’t use DEET anymore, opting instead for the less effective (but more pleasant) natural bug sprays. The one I’ve found works the best is Lemon Eucalyptus.
Sunblock (1.5 ounces)
I usually get a dark tan in the summer and don’t use sunblock often, but it’s nice to have just in case. If you have fair skin you might really need this. Sometimes cloudy overcast weather causes a worse sunburn than direct sunlight.
I buy one of these small travel tubes and refill it from a larger bottle of sunscreen as needed. (Make sure you don’t hike out with an empty tube of sunblock left over from the last hike.)
Duct Tape (0.5 ounces)
Duct tape has many uses on the trail (from taping toes to repairing gear). I keep about 15 feet in my day pack. (To save weight wrap it around a pencil or lightweight drinking straw)
Duct tape works better than moleskin for blisters because it’s thin, sticks better and does not cause excess pressure on the blister. Just apply duct tape to a hotspot (before it becomes a blister) to protect it from whatever it was rubbing against.
Medicine (0.5 ounces)
There are a few common ailments that can be treated with over-the-counter drugs that could become a lot more serious if not treated. Things like pain and swelling, allergic reactions and stomach problems like diarrhea.
My “backcountry medicine cabinet” includes a few doses of Advil (Ibuprofin), Benadryl (Antihistamine) and Immodium AD. (If you take prescription medications don’t forget those too.)
Lip Balm (0.5 ounces)
Another small item that’s easy to forget is chap stick, but if you get cracked lips you’ll be happy to have it.
I like Carmex lip balm because it comes in a little tube that doesn’t melt and get messy like chap stick can. I try to find the super tiny travel size ones that weigh almost nothing.
Total Pack Weight
Base Weight: 2 pounds, 12 ounces (gear minus food and water)
Total Weight: ~ 6 pounds (with lunch, snacks and a liter of water)
Note: This pack list does not include clothing worn (just what goes into my pack). You’ll want to dress appropriately for the weather and don’t forget a sun hat and sunglasses. For more information about ultralight backpacking clothing read this post.