Chapter 15: Hiking Light – When Day Hiking You Can Have Fun, Travel Light, Train, and Test Gear

Day hiking is a great way to get out and enjoy nature without a lot of planning or expense.

In many ways a day hike combines the best of all worlds. You can enjoy the beauty of nature and sleep in a warm bed at night. You can have a restaurant meal or a home-cooked meal after your hike. Day hikes are simple and easy to plan. You can go at the last minute if the weather looks good.

One of the obvious benefits is you can carry very little weight because you won’t be camping overnight. Because you’re traveling light, you can cover a lot of distance if you wish. Day hiking helps you cover a long distance because you don’t have to break camp in the morning or set up camp at the end of the day. Since you’re only out for the day, you don’t need to carry a stove and cook. You can carry a sandwich or other simple food that can be eaten as you hike.

If you hike with friends you can take two cars and drop one at a trailhead, then drive and park at another trailhead and hike back to the first car. That way, you’ll have the freedom to enjoy hikes that aren’t “out and back” or “loop” hikes.

To be well-prepared, you should carry the 10 essentials of hiking, even though it’s a day hike. The 10 essentials are:

1. Map - Carry a small, light map in case you change your route.

2. Compass – Carry at least a very light one. A light GPS is optional.

3. Sunglasses and sunscreen – Weigh sunglasses to find the lightest. Apply sunscreen before you leave.

4. Extra food and water – Have some of each. Plan so your food is very light.

5. Extra clothes – Carry rain gear to be safe. It can be as light as a garbage sack. Take light layers, light gloves, and a light, wide-brimmed hat. Avoid cotton.

6. Flashlight/headlamp – It can be less than an ounce by using a squeeze light.

7. First aid kit – Keep it small and simple. Include moleskin and blister care.

8. Fire starter – Take something very light like a magnesium stick or dryer lint.

9. Matches – Take some that are waterproof/windproof, too. It’s light insurance.

10. Knife – You can find a quality knife that weighs less than an ounce.

You could add an emergency blanket, which is less than 2 ounces. A small, acrylic mirror for signaling is less than an ounce. A tiny, plastic whistle is only 2/10s of an ounce. It’s good to have a watch so you can estimate sundown and know when you should be back at the trailhead. In some areas, you can have coverage if you take your cell phone. Extra socks can be handy if it’s cold and you get your first pair wet. Carrying some toilet paper in a ziplock bag is a good idea for obvious reasons. Apply insect repellent before you leave the trailhead, or take some in a very small container. All these things can be carried in a pack or fanny pack that by itself weighs just a few ounces.

Avoiding bulky clothes will help you carry a light, compact pack. Choose clothes that are light and thin, but have good insulation value.

There are books with suggested day hikes for most areas of the country. These can help you get out more often because they offer a nice variety. A photocopy of the map of your hike can serve as a light map. You can pack lighter by carrying less water if your map shows water sources. A simple plastic water bottle is the lightest way to carry water.

Day hikes are a great way to get in shape for longer hikes. The variety of hikes in a guidebook can help by offering easy to difficult hikes.

Day hikes are a great opportunity for testing or breaking in new gear such as moisture-wicking clothing, running shoes, or other new gear. You can test different lightweight foods. If there’s any difficulty, you’re home that night and the hike is over. That’s one of the great advantages of a day hike. You can fix anything that went wrong before the next hike.

Your day hikes can be more enjoyable when you pack ultralight. Day hikes can be full of variety, spontaneous, and inexpensive. And you can do some valuable training and testing while you’re having fun.