Basic Hiking Gear
Updated: Apr 18, 2021
I don’t consider myself an expert hiker by any means, but choosing the right basic hiking gear is easy. Hiking is a fairly straight-forward sport to get into and you don’t need any special gear at all when you’re starting out — just a pair of good shoes, sun and bug protection and plenty of water and you’re good to go.
Of course, as you get more miles under your belt, you can specialize and choose gear that’s optimal for your body, your abilities, the weather, and the terrain. But this basic hiking gear list will work for almost any day hike in temperate climates. Feel free to share your favorite gear and packing tips below!
Hiking the Ruta De Los Fuentes Medicinales in Noceda del Bierzo, Spain
Water is absolutely vital when you hike, so even if you don’t normally get thirsty or you don’t think you’re going that far, you still need to bring at least one bottle of water. I got this Contigo water bottle as a gift on a hike in Montana and it’s held up really well since. I use it at home too.
I break out from chemical sunscreens, so I prefer a mineral-based sunscreen with no phthalates, parabens or chemicals, especially for my face. And the stick form is nice because you can throw it in your carry-on and bypass the TSA liquid restriction entirely. And because it’s solid, it won’t accidentally open and leave greasy, impossible to completely remove sunscreen residue all over your daypack.
The zinc does make your skin a bit chalky looking at first and that effect can linger. That’s fine for me since I’m super white and I like to see where I’ve applied sunscreen so I don’t miss a spot, but this could be a drawback for folks with darker skin tones.
I use a plant-based, DEET-free bug spray on my skin and that’s enough protection for most of my hikes. But if I’m going camping, going deep into the woods, or anywhere there’s a risk of Zika (which is still an issue for pregnant women and potential parents), I bring in the big guns and spray my clothing with a bug spray with DEET, because West Nile, Zika, Lyme Disease, and other diseases carried by bugs and ticks are no joke.
This option is formulated to the Center for Disease Control specifications but doesn’t absorb as readily into your skin. For me, this strikes a nice balance between disease protection and fewer chemicals.
Save the heavy-duty packs for the through-hikers and grab a simple daypack. It can roll up inside a suitcase or purse if you’re traveling and double as a reusable shopping bag or picnic basket. As long as the straps don’t cut into your shoulders and can hold a decent amount of weight, you’re set. (Personally, I’m not fancy. I just use a freebie I got from running a Fargo Marathon race with my kiddo.)
You’ll need thicker straps or back support if you’ve had an injury or chronic pain. I recommend that you check with your doctor, chiropractor or physical therapist before purchasing anything.
A basic hiking gear list should include a decent daypack.
The foundation of every hiking outfit should be a breathable dri-fit layer. The layer closest to your body should whisk sweat away from your skin so you don’t get clammy and cold — the first step in the un-fun journey toward hypothermia. As a teenager, I got hypothermia on a 45-degree day when my cotton undershirt soaked through and I still shiver just thinking about it.
In chillier weather you can opt for a warmer long-sleeved baselayer designed to retain heat as well as dispel moisture. But a lighter short-sleeve works well for most hikes.
My hair is the longest it’s ever been, but that doesn’t mean I like to hike with it in my face. Throw a couple of these on your wrist and you’ll have an extra when you need it — and a spare for a friend, because somebody always forgets.
These particular hair ties look cool in your hair and on your wrist. And they don’t have any metal that’ll heat up in the sun during summer hikes. If you like these, you can score up to 25% off on these and other full-price items with code SPRING now through March 9 at 5:00 a.m., Central Time.
It can get chilly in the early morning or close to sunset. And an icy wind or dense patch of the forest can make the temperature plummet. A knit beanie is easy to pop on your head if you need it and small enough to tuck into your pocket if you don’t. This option is on sale as part of the Shopbop promotion as well. (The North Face is a classic option too.) And just so you know, I’m an affiliate for Shopbop, so if you purchase through my site, I may receive a small commission.
If your core is warm, you’ll be warm, so prioritize a warm layer on your upper body. A fleece jacket is super cozy, but easy to shed when it gets warmer. I have friends that hike in hoodies, but those are usually heavier in your pack and never feel as warm to me. Plus they don’t have nifty zip pockets to put my phone in, so I’m a fleece girl for life.
When I travel, I just use a basic fleece as my jacket/sweatshirt layer for the trip. It also works well as an impromptu plane or train pillow and blanket.
A rain jacket was a must when hiking the Beartooth Mountains in Montana. Photo by Kevin Flint
You can deal with being chilly, but being cold and wet gets dangerous really fast, so invest in good rain gear. Once you’ve hiked and liked it, you can invest in rain pants and gaiters. But for a casual or first-time day-hiker, a basic rain jacket will work just fine. Look for something lightweight, fast-drying, and easily tucked back inside a daypack. A hood is smart — you don’t want water running down your back.
I scored a Columbia rain jacket at a consignment shop (My Best Friend’s Closet for the win!) and it was such a good purchase. It absolutely saved me during that Montana hike where it drizzled most of the way. It’s soaked in the photo that my buddy Kevin Flint took along the trail, but everything underneath is perfectly dry.
Honestly, I’ve hiked in tennis shoes up until this point. I can get away with it because I mostly hike the prairie and small hills and I don’t need a lot of foot or ankle support. But after feeling every single rock through the thin soles of my shoes in on a rocky mountain in Spain, I’ve decided it’s time to upgrade to real hiking boots.
I gravitate towards brands like Merrell, because I used to wear them when I walked 14 miles a day on poured concrete as a waitress. I figure if they worked for me then, I’m guessing they’ll work for me now.
Yes, you can buy fancy hiking pants or those nifty pants that convert into shorts so you can have two pieces in one. But most of the time, I hike in yoga pants. They dry quickly, move when I do, are thick enough to ward off branches and bug bites, but thin enough to breathe.
Always have a little more to eat than you think you need. You might expend more energy than you’re used to, your hike might take longer than expected or someone in your group might have forgotten their own snacks and become ravenous halfway through the hike. (This happens much more often than you’d expect.)
I like snacks that are lightweight, relatively crush-proof and heavy on the protein for long-lasting energy. So I go for basics like turkey jerky, granola bars, dried cranberries and these addictive smokehouse almonds that I’m pretty much obsessed with.
A walking stick works for prairie hikes in Buffalo River State Park.
I’m a prairie hiker, so I never really understood the point of these until I descended the aforementioned Spanish mountain. I have a huge amount of natural turnout in my knees and hips, so I naturally stand like a ballet dancer. That’s usually fine — but not when you’re climbing down steep hills and need your knees and hips to be aligned.
My friend Sara’s parents are practiced hikers who have logged hundreds of miles along the Camino de Santiago in Spain, various National Parks, and through the country of Georgia. So when her dad handed me trekking poles and told me they’d help, I took them. As usual, he was right.
I don’t care what color your socks are or which style you favor — just make sure your feet can breathe and that your socks are high enough to prevent your shoes rubbing against the back of your foot. I’ve met an alarming amount of people who invested in decent shoes or hiking boots, but thew on skimpy, cheap ankle socks and paid dearly for that mistake.
You don’t want anything rubbing anywhere — not the toe, not the heel, not any weird bunching at the top or bottom of the foot. Make sure socks fit well and are in good condition, or you’ll feel it with every step.
What about you? What basic hiking gear to you recommend? Where do you want to hike next? What’s your favorite hike? What’s on your hiking gear wishlist? Which seasons do you prefer to hike in? What’s on your hiking bucket list?
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