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Day Hiking Essentials: What to Wear and Bring on a Short Hike

Are you including day hikes in your next road trip, national park adventure, or cruise excursion? If so, you’re going to need my tips for day hiking essentials.

I’m a boomer traveler who still enjoys hiking. Alan, too. We’re convinced that getting out on the trail is one of the best ways to experience a destination. Although Alan and I aren’t hardcore backpackers, show us a day hike or scenic short trail to include on a road trip or national park visit and we’re happy travelers.

I’ve experienced some spectacular USA hikes, as well as international ones, over the years. There’s something about putting my feet on the ground that connects me to a place, not to mention that it’s good exercise for my boomer body. 

As you begin packing for a trip that includes day hikes, do you find yourself wondering, “how much hiking equipment is too much?” or “which hiking clothes should I pack?” If those questions are running around in your mind, my day hiking essentials tips will help you decide what to bring and what to leave at home.

My favorite day hiking essentials

Woman in a red fleece jacket wearing a red backpack standing in front of Swiftcurrent Lake in Glacier National Park.

I’m geared up for an early morning fall hike in Glacier National Park. My day hike essentials include a long sleeve fleece vest layered over a safari shirt and thermal layer. My lightweight backpack has enough room to carry the jacket if the day warms up.

Knowing what to bring on a day hike makes a huge difference in your hiking experience. Should you pack a heavy backpack filled with every hiking essential or choose a minimalist approach? Knowing the best hiking clothes to wear and equipment to pack is crucial to a good hiking experience.

How do I travel light, yet include the essentials for a day hike? Check out my hiking checklist for day hikers:

1. What to wear on a day hike: tops and pants

Woman standing in the corner of an orange slot canyon.

Alan and I took a short trail through a slot canyon on a drive on the Burr Trail in southern Utah. As you can see, I was dressed for hiking. The lightweight hiking shoes were a perfect choice for the day.

I’m a big believer in layering for a comfortable day on the trail. It’s my best tip for what to wear hiking. Yes, you could wear a pair of jeans, but you’ll be sorry if it rains. Jeans take forever to dry out! Ask Alan—he doesn’t always follow my “what to wear for hiking” advice.  

Pants for hiking:

Zip-off pants are indispensable on any hiking trip. That’s why I pack several pair of Columbia Saturday Trail II Stretch convertible pants. These aren’t your baggy convertible pants from a couple of years ago. I like that Saturday Trail stretch pants are stylish enough to wear around town. Yes, they come in plus sizes. If the word “stretch” concerns you, REI offers more relaxed styles. Looking for men’s convertible hiking pants? Here you go.

Tops for hiking:

For up top, Alan and I wear sunshield safari shirts with roll-up sleeves. If we can find them with insect shield, even better.

In cooler weather, I’ll layer on a sleeveless quilted vest or a long-sleeve fleece jacket. For a slightly heavier jacket that also provides protection from the elements, I recommend Kirkland Signature Ladies’ Water-repellent Wind Resistant Softshell Jacket. I own the red and blue versions of this coat—remember my tip to wear bright colors for better looking photos.

I look for tops and jackets with pockets that zip and are easy to access. This is where I keep my iPhone just in case an animal sighting occurs and I don’t have time to pull out the good camera from the backpack. And there are times, these days, when I don’t even bring a camera, relying on the iPhone instead.

2. Staying dry on short hikes

What if it rains? A raincoat and pants help you stay comfortable, warm and—most importantly—dry. I look for a brand that’s highly breathable so that I don’t suffocate if the weather’s warm, humid, or my body heats up from exertion.

Alan and I bought our rain gear from REI (they have petite and plus sizes in the pants, ladies) before a trip to Glacier National Park where we hiked 30 miles of day hikes in a week. Here’s a packing light tip: I wear the rain pants over thermals and convertible pants on our trips to Antarctica and the Arctic.

3. Taking care of your head, hands and feet

Beige lightweight hiking shoes with turquoise laces.

The Kuru Chicane is my favorite lightweight hiking shoe.

For me, keeping head, hands and feet comfortable is the key to a happy hike. As long as I’m shielded from the sun, my hands aren’t cold and my feet are comfortable, I’m good to go.

Hiking gear for your head:

Since I’ve experienced skin cancer, a hat is a must for me—Alan, too. That’s why we both wear a Tilley Endurables Hat, which protects our faces from the sun. The hat also has a mesh feature for keeping our heads from getting too hot. And here’s a tip for ladies who have curly hair—like me: wearing a hat, even if it’s a ball cap keeps hair under control and less frizzy.

Hiking gear for your hands:

If your hands get cold easily, like mine do, glove liners are a good choice for those cool mornings on the trail. Of course you want to bring a heavier pair of gloves if hiking in colder weather.

And, since you never know about the weather, tuck several packages of adhesive body warmers into your pack. They come in varieties for hands, toes, feet and more. It’s your insurance against cold hands and feet on early spring or late fall hikes.

Hiking gear for your feet:

It goest without saying that comfortable hiking shoes are a must for day hikes. Alan and I wear Keene hiking boots—I like this one—for tough, rocky trails. But if we’re hiking a short trail while taking a break on road trips, we both wear lighter weight hiking shoes that can double as active wear shoes for the trip.

I’m a big fan of the Kuru Chicane. It’s a comfortable shoe with tread that grips the trail, without being a heavy hiking shoe. I pack the Kuru Chicane for cruises where shore excursions include hiking. And they look good enough to wear around town and double as my active wear shoe for on the ship.

Will you be hiking in cold weather? Check out my tips for the best cold weather gear for women that packs light.

This lightweight addition to my hiking gear is one of my favorites: gaiters. Depending on your hiking route’s terrain and weather conditions, a good pair of gaiters help protect your legs from getting wet. Wear them over waterproof hiking boots on a snow trip and you have snow boots without the bulkiness.

Of course great hiking socks are the key to comfortable fitting hiking shoes. Alan and I both wear Merino Wool Hiker Socks or Darn Tough Socks to keep our feet dry. Good hiking socks also provide cushioning on a long day of exploring. Shh, don’t tell anyone, but I sometimes wear these around the house as bedroom shoes. 

4. Hiking equipment for day hikers: what to bring on a short hike

Woman standing in a burned out forest surrounded by bear grass.

On a hike to Glenn Lake in Montana’s Bitterroot Valley, I’m using two of my favorite hiking essentials: poles and a hiking belt.

An enjoyable hiking experience is more than the beauty of the trail or the comfort of the hiking clothes that you’re wearing. Day hikes and short hikes don’t require a lot of gear, but bringing along the right gear makes a big difference in the quality of your hiking experience.

Anti-shock hiking sticks are my best friend on the trail. They take the pressure off knees and hips, especially on downhill treks. And I also find that the poles help when my fear of heights kicks in. They keep me feeling steady and secure. Yes, according to TSA, you can bring them on a flight as long as the hiking poles are packed in checked luggage.

How do we carry gear on a day hike? Alan and I avoid backpacks whenever possible because they’re hard on our boomer backs. For short hikes, our choice is to wear a waterproof fanny pack that holds a water bottle on each side of the pack.

Need tips for getting out on the trail? I’ve written a hiking planner to help boomer travelers prepare for the best day hikes. Check it out!

If you’re really picky about water quality, LifeStraw bottles have a two-step filtration system. Don’t just use them on a hike, these are great for air travel or running around town.

However when we’re hiking in destinations where the weather changes quickly, a day hiking backpack like the Osprey Tempest for women or the Osprey Talon for men, is essential for holding rain gear or an extra layer of clothing. For me, the best hiking day pack conforms to my body, includes cushioning on shoulder straps and comfortable hip belts that distribute the pack’s weight. 

You’ll also need a backpack to carry larger cameras. Hiking with a camera around your neck is cumbersome and no fun—I know.

And, just in case, pack this lightweight outdoor first aid kit. You’ll be happy that you did if a shoe causes a blister or another minor emergency occurs.

Day hiking shopping list

Would you rather purchase day hiking essentials all in one place? This Amazon shopping list makes it easy for you to buy what you need to be out on the trail in no time. Happy shopping!

If you follow my day hiking gear list, you’ll be set with the best hiking gear for short hikes. These items also make the great gifts for hikers on your gift giving list.

Need more what to wear on a trip tips?

Bookmark this page as I update the essential hiking gear that we use. Better yet, subscribe to the My Itchy Travel Feet weekly broadcast so that you don’t miss a thing. You’ll also enjoy our latest articles, timely trip inspiration and travel deals. Subscribe by clicking here.

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Day hiking essentials: The best hiking clothes and hiking gear for day hikes.

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