Photo: Heather Ellison

What Gear Do I Need to Start: Hiking

by Kyle Ellison May 10, 2012
Hiking ill-prepared can be miserable. Kyle Ellison lines out the basic gear you need.

The proper footwear for hiking should keep you comfortable and safe, and depends on the length and type of trek. For an hour-long jaunt across town, some people may feel comfortable simply walking in sandals. Others may want to strap on a set of trainers for some greater arch support.

For riverbed hiking, many walkers wear Tevas or open toed river shoes to gain maximum grip on wet rocks. Some, myself included, feel more comfortable simply walking barefoot.

Photo by Heather Ellison

But for any hike longer than a walk across town and which doesn’t involve any water components you’re going to need a sturdy pair of hiking boots with high ankle support to protect against rolling an ankle in places where only helicopters can save you. They can be a bit clunky in your bag, but they fit and are appropriate for the journey.


Common wisdom is to drink at least two liters of water per day while hiking, although that varies by length of hike. For any overnight treks a water purifier, a Life-Straw, or iodine pills are essential for refilling water from local sources.

But don’t think just because you have a filter or purifier means you can skimp on how much water you need to pack — there’s no guarantee a water source will always be available.

When I found myself filtering muddy water out of a swamp on New Zealand’s Coromandel Peninsula, it was pretty apparent that the one liter I had packed for a multi-day, backcountry trek was arrogant and foolish.

Regardless of how you obtain the water, you’re going to need a proper water bottle (preferably two) for carrying it. If at all possible, avoid single-use, petroleum based plastic bottles and instead use either a CamelBak or a refillable metal water bottle which will insulate your water and not pollute the environment.


Your choice in a backpack is contingent upon the length of your journey. You want a backpack that can fit everything you need comfortably without resorting to overstuffing.

If heading out on a multi-day epic, thick hip-support straps and an upper chest strap are going to be your shoulders’ best friends.


Even in a world of GPS, Google Maps, and SPOT locator devices, there are still places in the world that technology doesn’t touch. Having a map and the ability to read it is becoming an overlooked skill.

Sure, many trails in National Parks and National Forests are well-marked and contain ample signs to point you in the right direction, but when a heavy fog rolls in or high winds have knocked down the sign at a crucial junction, it can be easy to get turned around.

While hiking in the backcountry wilderness of California’s Mt. Tahquitz, my plan was to retrace the tracks I had left in the snow. Once it started snowing and the tracks disappeared, a topographical map of the mountainside helped get me safely back to the trailhead.


Photo by Heather Ellison

“Cash? I thought hiking was free!” Though it often is, carrying some spare cash can get you everything from a taxi ride back to where you parked your car to an unexpected meal or bottle of water when you realize you under-packed.

With cash you can do things like make a donation for trail maintenance or buy a sandwich off of a fellow hiker. Strange, perhaps, but you’ll eventually encounter a moment where you wish you’d packed a few bills.

High-energy snacks

Hiking burns calories and you’ll need to replenish your body. Some personal favorites after miles of trail behind me will always be Clif Bars, One Square Meal, Trail Mix, dried mango, and Snickers chocolate bars.

Proper clothing

When it comes to clothing for hiking, “cotton is rotten.” Slow-drying fabric which fails to wick moisture from your skin, polyester clothing, or anything that isn’t made of cotton is going to be the best bet for dealing with sweat and keeping your body temperature regulated.

Though many hikers hype lightweight trekking pants, you will nearly always find me trekking in boardshorts. Lightweight and fast-drying, they also become useful if you happen to find a waterfall to cool off in.

Sun protection

Not only are sunburns annoying, they’re dangerous. Melanoma aside, the fish taco at the end of your trek through Baja isn’t nearly as satisfying when your lips are too sunburned to handle the freshly made salsa.

Zinc oxide or Vertra is a great protector for the lips and face, while long-sleeve clothing, high SPF sunscreen, and a hat with proper head and neck protection are going to be your best bets for covering the rest of your body. If you take a dip in a watering hole or are hiking across an area which is particularly exposed to the sun, be sure to reapply early and often to avoid a dermatological failure.


Photo by author

While from a gear perspective there is a large distinction between casual day-hiking and lengthy overnight trekking, the following should also be considered for even the shortest of day treks:

  • duct tape
  • carabiner
  • lighter
  • bandana
  • head lamp
  • bug spray
  • moleskin
  • toilet paper
  • first-aid kit
  • pocketknife

Will you use any of these while out on a day hike? Probably not. But they don’t amount to that much weight and you’ll sure be glad you brought them if you need them.


Having absolutely nothing to do with gear, there are a few important intangibles which will make or break your hiking experience that deserve mentioning:

Time: Allow yourself the proper amount of time to complete a given hike. Rushing a hike often leads to stupid injuries, bad decisions, and an abbreviated sense of enjoyment.

Knowing when to turn back: You’ve been hiking for three hours and are only 20 minutes from the top. The weather is turning ominous and you’re nearly out of water. But so what? You’re so close. Turning back short of your intended destination is always a tough decision, but it’s a decision which could ultimately save your life.

Check the weather forecast: Embarking on a trail with a solid idea of what the weather is going to be like for the day is one of the smartest things you can do before heading out on the trail.

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