How to Prepare for a Day Hike

Day hiking in the mountains and forests has been one of the most enjoyable (and challenging) things in my life for two summers now, and I wouldn’t write about this topic unless I considered myself an expert. Which I do. So, let’s talk about all the physical components you need to tend to in order to day hike comfortably.

DISCLAIMER: This article contains several affiliate links to products that, if clicked, will generate me some income at no charge to you.

How long is a day hike?

First off, let’s answer a question that ails some of you who might be new to day hiking. Typically, a person can walk at the rate of three miles an hour, on flat ground, without weights. Let’s add some incline to that and a backpack, and now it is looking more like a mile every half-hour. That’s the rate at which my boyfriend and I go at, anyway. Many people go slower, and many go much, much faster.

A beautiful valley in the Tetons

If you are relatively newer to hiking, or just like to take your time and watch the scenery around you, I would say your rate of walking is around 30-45 minutes a mile. Now, that’s not enough to answer the question of “how long is a day hike” because there are other factors.

One of them is the difficulty of the hike. If you are doing a lap around a lake on relatively steady ground, you might be able to walk 12-20 miles. Meanwhile, if you are conquering a peak and have a more pronounced incline, you might be looking at 8-12 miles.

A strenuous hike through Cascade Canyon in the Tetons

Now, another thing to mention about day hiking is the elevation. If, say, you live somewhere around sea level and are taking a trip to the mountains that are around 7,000 feet above sea level, that will factor in to how much you can comfortably hike in a day.

Your body will need to adjust to the thinner air before you feel like yourself, so know that if you are trying to go on a day hike right in a new, high elevation place, your hiking limit will decrease drastically.

Early morning lighting the mountains

Another factor is simply knowing your body and your limits. If you are new to hiking and have a sedentary lifestyle, a day hike might be five to ten miles, and that’s okay. If you exercise and do a lot of cardio, you could potentially cover around 20 miles in one day.

To put it into perspective, the longest hike I’ve done to date is just over 16 miles, and it took over nine hours, and a lot of breaks in between. I consider myself to have been in pretty good shape when I did it.

How much water should you bring?

The most important thing you can take with you is water. I’ve experienced the consequences of this mistake personally, and it sucked. I was blotchy, red-faced, sweating profusely, and felt pins and needles throughout my whole body doing a hike after I ran out of water.

If you drink little, bring a lot. If you drink a lot, bring more. Hydration is key to having a good hike that won’t leave you breathless and prone to heat stroke. Even if it’s colder out, you can still become dehydrated because, even if you don’t feel it, your body is sweating and releasing salts and electrolytes.

The general rule of thumb is to bring one liter of water for every two hours of hiking- that means that if you are hiking for eight hours, you should bring the equivalent of about two 64oz bottles. For reference, a regular Dasani or Aquafina water bottle is just under 17 ounces. If you do the math, you should have EIGHT of those suckers. That’s why you want to have a bigger bag handy- we’ll talk about that later.

I have to say, I am a bit of a hypocrite when it comes to packing water. I have gotten away with packing a 32oz bottle of water and a single Gatorade to a day hike many times before. I pretty much would drink the entire supply on the way to the destination or peak, then just book it home from there.

Speaking of Gatorade, bring some of that, too. If has electrolytes and sodium- yes, sodium! It might be counterintuitive, but you need to consume salt when you hike. Believe it or not, salt is an integral part of keeping your blood pressure steady and helps your nerves and muscles work. So if you heard that Gatorade and other sports drinks have salt in them, they do. And it’s not to make you thirsty- it’s to balance out your sodium levels as you sweat.

What kind of food should you take?

The best kind of food to take is the kind that is not affected by prolonged exposure to heat and is packed with protein and a bit of salt. That means granola and protein bars, canned foods, nuts, seeds, and dried fruit, and maybe even some beef jerky.

You can definitely make a sandwich for a heartier meal, but it’s best to keep it as cold as possible, so take an ice pack with you. Same goes for hard-boiled eggs, yogurt, or fresh fruit.

Some examples of food you can take with you

If you are going on a serious day hike, you might want to pack multiple snacks and a sandwich, and a lot of almonds and sunflower seeds. Almonds and sunflower seeds both have around 30g of protein in a cup. This is roughly half, if not more, of the daily protein that you should consume.

Beef jerky has even more protein in it, but it oftentimes is packed with sugars and preservatives, so do your best to get local jerky that has as few ingredients as possible.

Avoid energy drinks and caffeinated beverages, please. Those have a lot of sugar in them, which will make you want to drink a lot of water. Same goes for sugary snacks and chocolate. I’m not an expert or anything, but getting jittery on a hike just sounds like a miserable time.

What kind of toiletries should you bring?

You might be wondering whether or not you should bring toilet paper and soap to your day hike- and that is a very good question. There should be information on what kind of waste can be left behind on the trailhead info board.

The rule of thumb is to leave no trace, which means you should bring a trowel and a Ziploc bag for your used toiled paper. If you just have to pee, you don’t have to worry about digging a hole or anything. But if the need arises to do more than just pee, you should dig a hole about eight inches deep, 200 feet from water, drainage holes, and the trail itself.

Personally, I’ve never worried about this when I went day hiking, but I realize that this is an important factor to consider because it not only affects me, but the environment around me.

Now, soap is another thing that can have an impact on the earth it touches and the animals that come in contact with it. I would recommend bringing disinfecting wipes and disposing of them in a Ziploc bag as well.

I also want to touch base on feminine hygiene products- they are major attractants to animals, for an obvious reason. Please take great care when changing out pads or tampons- the best practice would be to change them right before the hike. If you must bring feminine hygiene products, make sure you have a Ziploc bag to put used products into.

What kind of backpack should you pack?

If you are going on a day hike, you should bring a bigger, sturdier backpack to hold all that food and water- and other stuff. You’ll also want to make sure the backpack has breathable straps and is built so that your body is in balance when you have it on.

If you are serious about doing some research on a backpack, please read this article by Clever Hiker on their top ten hiking backpacks. They have categories such as “best hydration pack”, “best budget ultralight daypack”, and “roomy daypack for travel and long hikes”.

If you are just day hiking, you should shoot around the 18-24 liter bag. That way, you can carry your 128 ounces of water, your bento box of snacks, a spare jacket, and maybe even water shoes.

Now, if you’ve been on this site a while, you might know that I am a bit of an environmental enthusiast. So, please allow me to tell you about the Cotopaxi brand just a little bit:

Their motto is “gear with purpose” and they make their backpacks, activewear, sleeping bags, and jackets entirely from reclaimed materials that other companies have discarded. Not only that, but the company is a Certified B Corp and a Pledge 1% member, which means that at least 1% of profits goes to philanthropic pursuits.

Their products are not only sustainably made, but they are unique and beautiful, too. The employees who hand make the products are given free reign on what colors to use for the products, so there’s a unique creative quality to them.

If you are at all curious about this brand, here’s a link to one of their best-selling packs- $75 for a 24 liter pack, with a 4.7/5 star rating from over sixty people.

Keep in mind that the colors in this listing are an example- like many of Cotopaxi’s products, no two are the same, so the colors will be random. If you want more control and variations of colors to choose from, go to their site and see for yourself what they have to offer.

Now, if the price tag is a bit much to swing, that’s just fine. I actually got one of the cheapest backpacks on the market- a $12 mesh bag that crinkles with every step, but it works. As long as the backpack holds your stuff, that’s all that really matters.

What should you wear?

There’s things you should wear on a day hike, and things you shouldn’t wear on a day hike. Let’s start out by saying that you shouldn’t wear jeans on a day hike. They are restrictive and not very breathable. You’re better off in khakis or sweats.

Now that we’ve gotten that out of the way, let’s make our way down from top to bottom. First, the head gear. If you are hiking anywhere sunny, you will want to have on a visor or sun hat. You will also want to have on a good pair of sunglasses. That one’s a given.

Next up: shirts and jackets. Depending on where you are, and what time of day you start hiking, the temperature might change drastically during your hike, so plan accordingly. Generally, if you are going on a day hike, you want to start very early in the morning, that way you get to your destination before the sun is really beating down on you.

This means you should definitely bring a hoodie or light jacket. If rain is a possibility, look into those compact rain jackets that can fit into a small pouch for easy travel.

Layering is easy to do for the top part of your body, but not so much for the bottom. So for pants– if you are starting out in the early morning, you should be in long sweats or yoga pants or khakis, and change into shorts later in the day.

If you don’t want to layer or have to change during the hike, there are zip-off pants out there. REI has a really good listing for zip-off khakis- really quality ones- but they are around $90.

Finally, shoes. Let me tell you something… wearing full-fledged hiking BOOTS in eighty degree sweltering heat is not a good idea. It will turn your feet to a disgusting mush by the end of the day and the boots will smell for weeks. Please do me and yourself a favor and get breathable shoes. Unless you are hiking in the winter- in which case, of course, by all means, wear hiking boots.

The shoes both my boyfriend and I wear are Merell. They are lightweight, breathable, and have just the right amount of cushioning for your feet while you hike. They might look kind of ugly, but honey, these shoes are born to be hiked in. Here’s the listing for them if you are interested.

My boyfriend’s and my hiking shoes

Earlier on in the article, I might have mentioned packing water shoes with you. I love to pack my crocs when I know there’s going to be a lake or river on the hike because there’s few things more refreshing than sticking your feet in cool water during a long hike.

If you decide to bring crocs or water shoes, bring a towel, too. It’s very cumbersome to try to get sand off your feet before sticking them in socks. If space is an issue, consider getting a compact quick-drying towel like this one here- lots of size and color options to choose from, and it comes in a case, too.

Winter edition: if you are hiking any time in the winter, consider wearing a pair of trailsmith gloves like these ones I got from REI. they are made of leather and will keep your hands dry, if anything. Regular knitted mittens are cute and all, but they will not keep your hands dry if it snows or if you decide to make a snowman.

Also important- if you are hiking in the winter, consider wearing base layers underneath your regular clothes. This means thermal long sleeve shirts, base layer leggings, and wool socks like Darn Tough.

What else to bring?

If you are out in bear country, please bring bear spray. Other “bear deterrents” like bells are good in theory, but they don’t really work. The best thing you can do to warn a bear of your presence is by talking loudly or clapping your hands every couple minutes.

Bug spray is also a good idea, especially if you are hiking outside. So, you get the point. Tick repellant is also a must-have for those of you in humid and foliage-full places. Now, because I am a bit crazy about the environment, I will just leave this listing for an eco-friendly, all-natural tick repellant right here.

This might be a bit frivolous, but if you have space in your pack, bring a pair of binoculars! If you or someone you’re hiking with is an avid fan of birds or wildlife, this will add to the enjoyment of the hike.

If your hike takes you to a destination, consider bringing a large picnic blanket or hammock to rest on while you’re there. It can be a little anticlimactic to sit on a rock or stump after hours of hiking, so this might make the trip more worthwhile.

Last but not least, you will also want to bring your cell phone and, if you can afford it, a satellite messenger. Now, these are expensive, ranging from around $200 to $400, but they are sometimes necessary. If you are going to be hiking in backcountry or climbing even, it is always a good idea to take one of these. However, if you are going on a trail hike that is decently populated, you won’t need one.

Final thoughts

Day hikes are unequivocally a great way to exercise and spend the day with friends and family. If you are new to the world of hiking or are in bear country, I strongly advise you to travel with at least one other person.

During the hike, take frequent short breaks and communicate to your buddies if you need to slow down. I try way too hard to keep up with my more able-bodied friends and it’s not worth it.

This concludes my take on what to bring with you on a day hike. If you have any ideas or suggestions, feel free to comment below. Thank you for reading, and until next time, hobble on!

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