How To Prepare For A Day Hike

On a recent hike, I came across a father and his young son struggling along a one-mile trail. The pair had failed to bring enough water, thinking they’d be fine on such a short hike. Fortunately, I had water to spare, but it got me thinking how I would prepare for a day hike if I were new to hiking.

The 6 steps to prepare for a day hike are:

  1. Get familiar with the terrain you’ll be hiking
  2. Take a map or download the trail to your phone
  3. Bring enough food
  4. Pack enough water
  5. Carry a sufficient first aid kit
  6. Wear proper attire for the hike

Setting out into the wilderness for a day, or even an afternoon, can seem daunting if you’re not an experienced outdoors person. As we dive deeper into these tips below, you’ll be hitting the trail like a pro in no time!

6 Steps To Prepare For A Day Hike

1. Get Familiar With The Terrain You’ll Be Hiking

Before you set off, it’s important to know not only where you’re going, but the type of terrain you’ll be traveling on and what you may encounter on your way. This will ensure you pack the right gear, wear the appropriate attire, and keep yourself safe and happy on the trail.

Find out what kind of elevation change you’ll be undergoing so you know how much water you’ll need. It may also be worthwhile to read some trail reviews and learn which areas may be inundated with poison oak, or where rattlesnakes or bears have been spotted recently. The more you find out, the more you can adjust your gear list for your hike.

Most recreational areas and parks don’t require a permit for day hiking, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t make yourself aware of the rules and regulations being enforced.

For example, Leave No Trace principles apply to everyone in order to keep wilderness areas clean, wild and enjoyable for anyone that comes along after you. These rules include being respectful to other visitors and wildlife, leaving what you find, packing up your waste, and staying on well-marked trails.

2. Take A Map Or Download The Trail To Your Phone

Buying physical maps can be expensive, especially when you like to visit different wilderness areas regularly, rather than hitting the same trails each month. But it is worth having a means of navigation in case you lose the trail.

Luckily, there are many free GPS apps out there. With this kind of tool, you can download the map of the area you’re visiting so all trails are visible. Then, using your phone’s GPS, you can track your position along the trail map. The Gaia app is surprisingly accurate in showing whether or not you’re still on the trail. I have been using this app for almost a year and it hasn’t failed me yet!

When in doubt, many national parks and wilderness areas have PDF maps available online that you can download to your phone or print out before you leave home. You can also take a picture of the map at the trailhead if there is one. The downside of these options is if you step off the trail by accident, you may not know it for quite some time.

3. Bring Enough Food

When packing food for your day hike, take into consideration how long you’ll be on the trail. If you’re setting off on a longer hike and plan to be gone most of the day, be sure to pack a full sack lunch.

Remember that, while you’re hiking, you’ll be burning more calories than you normally would during your day-to-day activities. You should take this into account by packing high-calorie, high-protein snacks and meal items. High-energy foods are key.

Foods like trail mix, fruit (dried or fresh), protein or granola bars, and classic PB&J are easy to pack, have little waste to pack up afterwards, require almost no prep-work, and contain a lot of essential nutrients to keep you fueled through your hike. Specifically, foods with coconut or peanuts are known to provide high nutritional value. Just make sure to take into account any food allergies.

4. Pack Enough Water

So, how much water should you bring on a day hike? You should bring enough water on a day hike to drink 0.5 liters per mile. If you’re hiking at a higher elevation than you’re used to or in the heat, the amount of water you need increases. However, always bring more water than you think you’ll need.

With that in mind, I always bring at least half a liter more than I think I’ll need. This extra 16 ounces can save your life, or someone else’s, especially when hiking at high altitudes and with kids, pets, or inexperienced hikers.

Many hikers, including me, swear by using a hydration pack. This option carries between 1.5-3 liters of water conveniently in your pack with quick access to it through a long straw-like tube. I’ve found that if the water is readily available to me, I’ll drink more of it and keep myself hydrated throughout the hike.

There are several highly recommended name brand hydration packs, such as CamelBak or Osprey, starting around $50 and up. If you’re looking for a more cost-effective option, many cheaper brands also exist and can be found on Amazon or other online stores for as little as $20.

Another smart option is to invest in a small water filtration system for access to unlimited clean water on the trail (as long as there is water flowing where you are hiking). There’s an increasing number of these on the market, including water bottles with built-in filters.

The Sawyer Squeeze is my go-to for day hikes, but LifeStraw is another good option. Both these brands can be found at REI or other outdoor recreation stores fairly inexpensively, usually for between $20-40.

5. Carry A Sufficient First Aid Kit

The first aid kit recommended for a day hike can vary widely depending on your terrain, but it’s always recommended to carry at least some basic first aid supplies. When you’re miles out on the trail, anything can happen, including sprained ankles, small scrapes and cuts, blisters, and sunburn, just to name a few.

A basic first aid kit should include:

  • Different sizes of band-aids
  • Pain reliever
  • Alcohol wipes
  • Sunscreen
  • Bug spray or bug net
  • Elastic wrap or KT Tape
  • Hand sanitizer

It’s also a good idea to refer to your research and the input of other hikers when prepping this kit because recent trail conditions may change what you need to pack. For example, if you hear that a certain trail is particularly overgrown with poison oak this year, you may want to take some itching ointment with you just in case.

6. Wear Proper Attire For The Hike

So, what should you wear on a day hike? You should wear comfortable clothing on a day hike above all else. If you’re constantly worrying about things being too tight or your shoes giving you blisters, you’re not going to have a great time. Also wear a hat and appropriate shoes for the terrain.

Despite what the outdoor recreation company ads may depict, you don’t need the perfect outfit to hit the trail; it just needs to be functional. This functionality will again depend on the terrain you’re hiking on, the weather conditions, and the length of your hike.

Wear A Hat

Regardless of these factors, you should always wear a hat. A wide-brimmed hat such as a sun hat works well to protect your face and neck. It also comes in handy when using a bug net in areas where mosquitoes or flies are a nuisance.

Dress in quick-dry materials like polyester or nylon fabrics. Fast drying clothing will help wick the sweat away from your body and prevent chafing. There are an increasing number of options on the market for quick-dry shirts and pants, but just remember to pick something you’ll be comfortable in.

Don’t Wear Shorts

Even if it’s hot out, you should still hike in pants rather than shorts. Pants will keep the high weeds and brambles from scratching up your legs and protect you from poison oak or ivy. Long pants also keep ticks and other disease-carrying insects from clinging to you.

Rather than wearing a heavy jacket or hoodie over your t-shirt, try to dress in light layers to stay at a comfortable temperature during your hike.

When you wear a single heavy layer for warmth, you’ll likely end up taking it off soon after embarking down the trail and carrying it for most of the hike. When you pause for a break, you might notice the wind chill making you uncomfortable, but not enough to dawn your heavy jacket again.

Wear Multiple Light Layers

You’ll find it is a lot more comfortable to wear a loose-fitting long sleeve over your t-shirt and a light jacket tied around your waist or in your daypack. This way you can remove or replace layers as needed and the long sleeve will keep your arms from getting sunburnt.

Other accessories such as trekking poles can be beneficial for some hikers, like those that suffer from knee pain, for example. But be careful not to overload yourself with unnecessary gear.

Wear The Right Shoes

Hiking sandals are ideal for trails that cut through bodies of water frequently. If you enjoy boulder-hopping up a creek bed, sandals with strong straps like Chacos, Tevas or KEENs will stay on your feet better than regular sandals and are more practical than water shoes for extended hiking.

A sturdy set of hiking boots is recommended for just about any trail. There are many styles and brands out there to try, but I prefer a high ankle hiking boot for extra support while I’m traversing rocky and uneven surfaces.

Hiking boots also give you peace of mind versus sandals while hiking through rattlesnake country, as most bites occur on people’s feet and hands. Regardless of whether you’re hiking in sandals or boots, however, always pack an extra pair of socks. Having an extra pair of clean, dry socks can help prevent blisters, whether you layer them over your first pair, or rock the “socks with sandals” look.

Final Thoughts

Ultimately, try not to worry too much about things that might happen while you’re on the trail. You will have a lot more fun in the great outdoors if you come prepared, carry only the necessities, and wear comfortable hiking attire. Once you’re out there, you’ll find that the real thrill of hiking is being curious and excited about what’s just around the next bend!