The Essentials

Brian James, Licensed Hiking Guide

Setting out ‘into the wilderness’ might seem daunting at first – but there’s no need to get overwhelmed when it comes to acquiring the basic gear needed for a day hiking in the great outdoors. While there are many types of tools and equipment that can help improve your hiking experience down the line, there’s no need to go crazy with building yourself out from the get-go. If you’re just starting out on the trails and looking to take on some day hikes, the list below will make sure you are prepared and ready for some basic adventures. As you become more comfortable with longer trails and different weather types, you’ll likely add to this basic list (browse around My Gear Bag to see what all I pack after years on the trails):


Hiking Guide and owner, Brian James, with the Ozark Trail 40L Hiking Backpack. Currently, it retails for $38.99 – and is an excellent value.

Likely your first purchase when thinking about hiking, a solid backpack is essential for enjoying days on the trails. I definitely recommend purchasing one with an internal frame (which helps to alleviate back pain and stress on your shoulders) in the 30-40 Liter size. Luckily, you can get a great pack with these features for as little as $50. But, a regular old school backpack will work fine too for shorter days when you’re just starting out. My first pack – the Ozark Trail 40L from Walmart (of all places) has been on many hikes and to multiple countries. I also have other more expensive and durable packs from Gregory and RHIP – but when you’re just starting out, the Ozark is a great way to cover the basics without breaking the bank. For more information about the backpacks I use and recommend, visit my dedicated page for hiking backpacks.

Proper Footwear


Wearing the proper shoes can make all the difference in your comfort and confidence out on the trail. You don’t need to go and buy an expensive pair of boots before your first hike – I usually recommend going with the ‘sturdiest shoes you have’ for your first time out there. For example, a high top sneaker with a decent tread, or a cross-trainer will work just fine – avoid shoes like boat shoes, flats, sandals or skating shoes. After you’ve gone out a few times and start to consider more than just a few miles at a time, it will make sense to invest in a good set of boots made for hiking. Here’s a more in depth page about choosing the right pair and some of my recommendations.


A three-liter pack, hanging at a campsite for handwashing/cooking water

This ones a no brainer! The easiest way to carry water with you is in a hydration pack inside your backpack. These are pretty inexpensive, and can carry anywhere from 1L to 3L of water for your hike. A large water bottle (at least 1 liter) will work too Always bring a little more water than you think you’ll need – especially on hot days. Click here for more information about the hydration pack I use on the trails. Adding a portable filter to your pack can also give you the ability to safely drink from streams, waterfalls or lakes you come across.


A spanish ham and cheese sandwich packs carbs, fat and protein for a great hiking snack

It always makes sense to have some snacks with you out on the trail, as you’ll be continuously burning calories throughout the day. Always eat a good breakfast before heading out, and pack a mix of protein (ie beef jerky, protein bar, mixed nuts, etc), fats (cheese, snack items) and sugar (dried fruit, fruit snacks, grain bar, etc.). Overall, snack choice will come down to personal preference – just make sure to have a substantial amount of calories, and eat continually throughout the day.

First Aid Kit

You don’t need to go and buy a hospital in a suitcase – just pick up a basic outdoors first aid kit with an assortment of bandages, antibiotic cream, tweezers, medicine (ibProfen, antihistamine), and you’ll be covered for a basic day outdoors. There are a lot of kits available online that come pretty well stocked with what you need – I recommend buying one of those to start with and then adding some extra items to beef it up a bit. If you have any severe allergies, make sure to have an Epi-Pen with you as well as any other needed medications.

Now that I’ve been out on the trails for a while and hike alone, I’ve built out a much more complete kit that I call my ‘Oh S*** Kit’ – with everything from Quik Clot and ankle wraps, shoulder slings, fire starters and more. I’ve created an entirely separate post for that kit specifically, which you can read here.

Knife or Compact Multi-Tool

A knife can be used for all sorts of things when out on the trail – everything from first aid, gear repair, cooking and more. If you’ve seen the movie 127 Hours – where a stranded climber saves his own life with a knife – you know just how useful one can be. A small pocket-knife will do the trick – but you can also invest in a small multi-tool that has additional features like a small saw, screwdrivers, nailfile and more.

Maps/GPS (printed copies or on phone)

An example of a trail map, with GPS indicator (gray circle)

Knowing where you’re going and where you are in the outdoors is essential for a great (and safe) day on the trails. Trails are always changing, and sometimes are not well marked – having a map to cross reference can be the difference between a short delay and getting lost in the wilderness. Luckily, phone apps like AllTrails combine both maps and GPS location so that you don’t need an additional device – but make sure you know how long your phone battery will last (and consider a power bank). For longer trips, you may want to consider having printed maps as well. The New York New Jersey Trail Conference has highly detailed maps available for most of the trails in New York.


A good headlamp will provide ample lighting to navigate home if your hikes runs into the night

Even if you plan to be back home long before the sun goes down, you should always have a headlamp in your backpack. Weather, delays or other factors might result in you having to finish in the dark – which is nothing to worry about so long as you have your headlamp! Its also wise to have an extra set of batteries as well. Don’t just rely on your phone flashlight!

Element Protection (Sunscreen, Sunblock, Bug Repellent, Hat, Sunglasses)

Whether its the sun, the bugs, the wind or the rain – you want to be prepared for whatever the great outdoors might throw at you. Make sure to always have sunscreen, a hat and sunglasses, regardless of the season (even in winter, you can be sunburned or ‘snowblind’). Bugs will likely be present anytime the weather starts to get warm, and particularly so after rainy weather. If you plan on spending a lot of time outdoors, you can also by spray (yellow box pictured above) Permethrin to treat your clothes and gear to keep away ticks and mosquitoes. For more information about keeping away the bugs and ticks – click here.

Waterproof Shell or Raincoat

Guide Brian James, in waterproof shell, with backpack raincover in place

When you’re hiking – especially in the mountains – there’s always the chance of getting rained on. Getting soaked through to the core is not only uncomfortable, but can also carry the risk of hypothermia when the weather is cooler. While a poncho might suffice, I always recommend having a waterproof shell or raincoat with you just in case the weather makes a turn for the worse. As the saying goes – hope for the best weather, but prepare for the worst forecast. You should also consider adding a raincover for your backpack as well (shown above).

And there you have it! With the Hiking Essentials listed above, you’ll be ready to start hitting the trails. Remember – start small, and work your way up to bigger hikes – the mountains aren’t going anywhere! If acquiring all of the above feels a little daunting, or you’d like more of an introduction to hiking – consider joining on one of our Guided Hiking Adventures! For more guides, trail reviews and gear breakdowns, be sure to join our mailing list and subscribe below!

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