Wherever you are, there’s a good chance a day hike is somewhere nearby. It could be as simple as a trail around a pond or as intense as a 4000-foot climb, but whatever the conditions, a day hike can make for a great time outdoors, as long as you’re prepared.
When planning for your day hike, make sure to have an idea of how long you intend to be out as well as the conditions in which you’ll be hiking. This includes the time of year as well as terrain. You’ll need quite different gear for a trip into the Grand Canyon in the summer than you would for a fall hike in the White Mountains, so know your destination and plan accordingly.
The kind of footwear you choose should depend on the type of terrain you’re hiking. If the ground is mountainous and extremely rocky, you should consider sturdy, supportive hiking boots with higher ankle coverage. For smoother, flatter, less rocky surfaces, lighter low-top trail shoes should suffice.
If you’ll be hiking in wet conditions—springtime in New England, for example—consider boots or shoes that include Gore-Tex or some other waterproof, breathable membrane. Also consider outside temperature. Shoes made of nylon mesh will be cooler on a hot summer day than a heavy leather boot.
For warm or hot-weather hiking, socks should be lightweight and not too thick, yet still provide enough cushioning for rocky terrain. Socks made specifically for hiking include extra padding where you need it and are made of quick-drying fabrics.
Pants or Shorts?
Pants are great when it’s a little chilly out or when you want to veer off trail, scrambling through the bushes. Shorts work well in warmer temperatures, but when you get above tree line, you’ll want more coverage. A good compromise is a pair of zip-off pants, which let you convert from pants to shorts and back again as needed. Light weight synthetics like nylon or polyester are the best fabrics hot or weather. Cotton is okay if temperatures are a little cooler, but you won’t want to get caught in a downpour.
A regular cotton T-shirt will suffice for a short, low-effort hike in dry conditions. However, for anything more strenuous or if there’s a chance of rain, choose a shirt made of polyester or nylon. Synthetic materials wick moisture away from your skin and dry much faster. Also consider throwing a lightweight fleece top in your pack if you’re hiking at higher altitudes or in cooler weather, just in case you need it.
If you’re hiking more than a couple miles away from your car, house, or base camp, take along a jacket, even if it’s a very lightweight windbreaker. If there’s a chance of rain or afternoon thundershower, make sure the jacket will keep you dry, too. Ideally it should use a waterproof, breathable technology like System Three, HyVent, Gore-Tex, or NeoShell.
You should wear sunscreen, especially if you’ll be hiking above tree line or out in the open where you’ll be exposed to the sun. Throw in a hat and sunglasses, too, to protect yourself from intense sunlight.
The size of your pack depends on how much you intend to take with you. For most short hikes, a daypack with a capacity between 1200 and 2000 cubic inches will suffice. This will be enough to hold extra articles of clothing as well as a lunch. If you’re taking extra gear for some reason, then of course you’ll have to go larger. Before a big hike, load your pack with what you intend to take, just to make sure it all fits.
At about two pounds per liter, water will likely be the heaviest part of your backpack, but it’s crucial to make sure you take enough. A safe rule is to take at least two liters with you on any day hike, and to sip regularly to avoid dehydration. Nalgene bottles are known for their durability and are great on hikes. Another option is to choose a backpack that includes a hydration bladder and tube. That way you can sip as you hike without removing the pack.
Take food packed with energy, such as nuts, chocolate, avocados, peanut butter, and nutrition bars, to keep you going throughout the hike.
These aren’t necessarily mandatory, but they certainly reduce the pounding on your knees as you plod downhill. If the going is a little muddy or even icy, they can also give you a little more stability and traction.
It’s always a good idea to take a topo map, either on paper or downloaded into a GPS or electronic device. Make sure nearby trails, topography, and other geographical features are outlined cleanly. A trail book, such as the Appalachian Mountain Club White Mountain Guide, can also be extremely helpful on any trip. A compass, along with a basic understanding of how to use it, should also be found in your backpack.
One twisted ankle, sharp rock, or bug bite can quickly ruin your day on the trail. But if you pack a good first-aid kit—several are highly compact but offer everything you’d need for one day—you can alleviate these problems and make it easier to get back to professional help. Make sure your kit includes allergy cream, pain relief medicine, moleskin for blisters, bandages, gauze, and tape.
i) Insect repellent
ii) Pocket knife or multitool
iii) Flashlight or headlamp
v) Water treatment tablets
Winter Day Hikes
There are a few special considerations to think about before going on a winter day hike, as these treks typically take place in the harshest conditions. In addition to extra layers, you may need to take along crampons or snowshoes to attach to your hiking boots if you need to cross an icy rock ridge or deep powder. Ankle gaiters are also great for keeping snow and debris from getting into your boots. Extra gloves and socks are always a good idea, and hand/toe warmers will ward off any numb extremities.
A day hike is a great way to experience nature without the commitment of sleeping on the ground every night. But make sure to take along the right gear to ensure that you have the best, and safest, adventure possible.
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