Hiking Basics: How to Outfit your Backpack

One hiking item that I find essential is a hiking backpack. Whether you're a day-hiker or a multi-day trekker, having a pack is important. Hiking is a strenuous activity, and you should always take basic gear even on the simplest of treks. I learned this the hard way, trust me.

When hiking was but a twinkle in my eye and my kids were still quite little, I decided to start being more active. This led us to take what we thought would be a few-mile walk around a local man-made lake. It had paved trails and a couple of playground/picnic areas around it.

The idea was that we would spend the hour or so that we thought it would take to walk around the lake, then have a picnic when we returned to the car. Turns out, the path around the lake is 7 miles long and we didn't realize it until we were too far in to do anything other than to continue. We made it to one of the picnic areas and stopped to rest while we let the kids play on the playground equipment. My daughter fell off the jungle gym and got a nice bump on her forehead while my son cut his hand on a rock.

Here we were, without water, snacks, first aid supplies, or anything else that would've made this trek so much easier, bearable, and practical. I definitely learned my lesson on this trip, and when I got home, I found one of my son's old school backpacks and roughly outfitted it with some basic first aid supplies I had in my closet. Whenever we would go hiking after that, I'd fill it with some water bottles and whatever snacks I had around before we left, and we were somewhat prepared.

Over time, as my hiking prowess advanced and progressed, so too has my hiking pack. I am on my second actual hiking pack (school backpacks suck for real hiking) and I have it outfitted to my liking and for the level of hiking I do. Here's what I have and why:

This is my second actual hiking backpack. This one is different than my old one in that this one has a 3.5 L water bladder. My old pack didn't have one so I had a large water bottle instead. After taking longer and more challenging hikes, a water bottle isn't enough water and on top of that, water bottles take up a lot of room in your pack. 3.5 L of water is close to a gallon, and it has a tube that you can just unclip from your straps to take a drink from when you need it. I take it out of the pack for my regular hiking as just one water bottle is typically enough for those treks. Not having to take your pack off every time you want a drink is a lot nicer. This pack also has as much room to store stuff as my old one, but now that I don't have to carry a water bottle, I have room to store the layers I dress in for hikes.

Let's take a look at what's inside of my pack.

From upper left going clockwise: 

  • flashlight: for when you need more light or are on the trails after the sun goes down
  • rain poncho: sometimes it rains without warning and this will keep you and your pack dry
  • emergency tent: for dire emergencies when you need shelter and there is none around
  • bug spray: no one likes to get bit on the trail
  • pocket knife: useful for cutting but also for protection if needed 
  • utility tool: small and useful
  • emergency whistle/compass combo: if you get injured on the trail and aren't where you can easily be found, blowing the whistle constantly will alert someone to your position while the compass can help you right yourself if you get disoriented
  • waterproof matches: there are several inside this waterproof container and can light a fire under awful conditions. Fires are good for heat and cooking food in the case of an emergency.

While the chances of me needing the emergency tent, waterproof matches, and the emergency whistle are slim, they don't take much room in the pack (as you can see) and would be a lifesaver in the event of a true trail emergency. The utility tool was a clearance item I picked up at Walmart for $1.50 and has a knife-edge, a saw edge, a screwdriver corner, and a few other things on it that made it quite useful. Again, it doesn't take up much space and it has its own plastic sleeve. 

From upper left going clockwise: 

  • a few paper towels in a baggie: paper towels are so handy and can be used as napkins, to wipe off sweat, or a host of other things
  • a travel pack of tissues: sometimes you need to blow your nose!
  • a few feminine supplies in a baggie: as a woman, sometimes our periods aren't regular or we might forget to pack some on flow days, so I always carry two or three in my pack
  • two carabiners: helpful for hanging your pack or items off your pack
  • a travel-size hand sanitizer: after going to the bathroom, getting your hands covered in some unknown gunk, or if your hands get sticky after a trail snack, hand sanitizer is handy. I also use it for times when you get a small cut or scrape. Getting some sanitizer on and into the wound, while painful, will disinfect it right away.
  • chapstick: lips get chapped, especially on hikes higher up or when it's dry or hot
  • a few hair ties and bobby pins: I have long hair and sometimes I won't think I want my hair up...until I'm sweating on the trail. I often use these for my daughter who likes her hair down.
  • a few q-tips in a baggie: an item I threw in my bag because sometimes you just need one and can also be good for cleaning up small wounds

While I'm not a climber, I like to have at least one carabiner in my pack, but I have two. They're great for the regular hiker to hang your pack from a tree branch or the like when you don't want it to sit on the ground - which is great for muddy or snowy days - and they're also great for hanging cumbersome items off your pack as you hike. This last part is particularly true of hiking poles (sometimes you really don't need them and carrying them is a pain) as well as items of clothing that won't all fit in your pack (this is particularly true in the winter when you wear more layers but ultimately strip more off than will fit in your pack). 

I keep certain items in baggies for two reasons: to keep them protected, and to serve as small trash bags as there's no place to throw away items on the trail so you have to bring them back out with you.

From upper left going clockwise:

  • first aid kit with an emergency blanket: one of the most important items in a hiker's pack. This one has an emergency blanket and goes hand-in-hand with the emergency tent.
  • a large baggie with trail maps of trails I hike often, a pencil, and a small pad of paper: trail maps are always useful as are pencil and paper for taking notes
  • wipes: great for the bathroom breaks you hope you don't have to take
  • a Clif bar: trail snacks help keep your energy up when you're burning calories

Having a compact yet comprehensive first aid kit is essential. I firmly believe everyone in your hiking party should carry their own. The ones we carry are soft but hold a lot of items. I also picked this particular kit because it has an emergency blanket inside. If it didn't, I definitely would have picked some up for each of our packs because, again, while the chances are slim that I'll never need one, it would be a lifesaver in a true trail emergency. I also pack each one with information about the person who's carrying it should you be found unconscious. This way, the emergency responders will know your name, address, phone number, doctor, and who to contact in an emergency. The emergency contact is always someone who doesn't hike with me in case that person is on the trail with me.

Wipes are great for those trail bathroom trips you hope you don't need to take but happen. These particular wipes were on clearance so I purchased them. If you use them on the trail, put them in a baggie and cart them back out with you!

Trail snacks are also essential, especially for harder hikes, so how many I carry on a hike depends on the hike. I never like to eat much on the trail, but Clif Bars are great to nibble on here and there for a bit of energy. Nuts and fruit are other items I'll pack the day of for longer hikes as well.

Now you know what items I carry in my pack. They don't take up a lot of room and I've learned to pack them compactly. The picture of my pack up top shows it fully packed and, even with the water bladder full, isn't terribly heavy. As you can see, I carry the bug spray in one of the outer side pockets. For regular, short hikes, I usually stick my water bottle on the one on the other side instead of using the big water bladder. 

Going from my personal experience over years of hiking, these are the items I believe are essential, practical, and useful. You, of course, might find other items that fit these criteria that I do not use. How you pack your pack is strictly up to you, but if you have the items I've detailed, you'll be in good shape for nearly every hike. 

As a note, I don't consider hikes that you have to use climbing gear as equal. I'm a hiker, not a climber. Climbers will have different kinds of items and gear that are essential. Also, multi-day hikes where overnight stops are required, or grueling hikes will require more and different kinds of gear. For practical purposes, what I carry in a pack and recommend for you, are day hikes - hikes you can do in the space of a day.

Happy hiking!


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