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Hiking essentials: what you need for epic days on the trails, for day hikes or multiday adventures

hiking essentials
(Image credit: Getty)

The hiking essentials you take with you can, in extreme cases, mean the difference between life and death. Whether you are heading out for an afternoon stroll in the woods or tackling a gnarly mountain ridge, having the right gear will certainly go a long way to keeping you safe. It will also hopefully enhance the quality of your outdoor experience and give you the confidence to discover more.

There’s no such thing as bad weather, only inappropriate clothing. So the old Scandinavian saying goes. And, up there, they know a thing or two about the outdoors. No matter what the conditions are like outside, once you’ve built up a good stock of hiking essentials, you’ll be nigh on unstoppable on the trails. The best hiking boots and trekking poles will have you comfortably tackling mile after mile, whilst the best waterproof jackets will keep you dry even in a tropical storm.

So you’ve got the clothing and footwear sorted, but there are many other hiking essentials. Next, you’ll need to be able to safely navigate a variety of environments. We’ve got the lowdown on the best navigational aids, from the traditional map and compass to modern GPS devices. We also detail the essential emergency kit, giving you the confidence to stride out, safe in the knowledge that you have the added security of emergency shelters should the weather turn or headtorch should you end up benighted.

And, of course, you’ll also need the best backpack to carry all of this around – we’ve got that covered too.

Clothing

Of all the hiking essentials, having decent outdoor clothing is probably the most vital.

When hiking, particularly in mountainous regions, you're likely to be engaging in some pretty brutal ascents that get your heart pumping and your temperature soaring. However, the higher you go, the lower the mercury drops. As a rule you can expect it to get 44 degrees fahrenheit (6.5 degrees celcius) colder for every 1,000 metres of ascent. Add in factors like rain and wind and you soon realise that your clothing options need to be as dynamic as the conditions in order to keep yourself comfortable and, above all else, safe on a hike.

A layering system is super important for helping you to manage your body temperature and keep you protected; the clothing you choose to wear is key. Many hikers start with a wicking baselayer against their skin, which helps with moisture management. Merino wool is a popular fabric of choice, whilst yak wool is a new emerging trend.

Next, adding an insulation layer or two will help with temperature management. This could take the form of a fleece jacket, or synthetic/down jacket. (It's wise to read up on the ethics of down before making your choice.) Finally, a waterproof layer for both your upper and lower body will help to keep you secure from biting winds and dry from rain or snow.

Don’t forget about your extremities either. Adding a pair of hiking gloves or two into your pack, plus a woolly beanie/hiking hat will help to keep you feeling good and moving.

It’s always worth carrying an extra light long-sleeve top (a spare baselayer), just in case you get wet.

hiking essentials

A down jacket can help keep you warm on those brisk winter days (Image credit: Getty)

Footwear

The boots you choose to wear will depend on the landscape you will be moving through and the type of activity you are doing on the trail. Many folk enjoy wearing men's trail running shoes/women's trail running shoes when walking with a light pack on fast tracks, as they allow the user to move quickly and swiftly. However, they often provide little support and minimal cushioning, which can be essential for foot protection over longer distances or when working with a heavier load.

This is why a sturdy pair of men's hiking boots or women's hiking boots are definitely one of our hiking essentials. When purchasing boots always try before you buy and do consider going at least half a size larger than your usual fit. Our feet naturally swell when we are exercising, so the extra space will help to reduce friction points and hot spots. Also analyse the type of support and flexibility of the boot in the ankle, the design of the sole, which should be grippy and hard wearing, and the type of fabric. Leather is generally more resilient and lasts for longer, but synthetic boots are often more breathable and lighter to wear.

You'll also want comfortable socks that keep your feet warm and stop you from getting blisters. Generally, socks are graded for the different seasons, winter socks being the thickest. The best hiking socks are made from fabric that wicks sweat away from your foot.  

hiking essentials

A study pair of hiking boots ensure excellent support for your feet when tackling long distances (Image credit: Getty)

Backpack

Carrying everything on your back is an immensely rewarding feeling, but choosing a backpack can be a little overwhelming. High quality backpacks are designed with a specific user in mind. The best hydration packs for quick access to your water stores for when you want to go fast and light, while the best women's hiking backpacks will have shoulder straps and a hip belt contoured for a women’s body. 

Meanwhile, the best daypacks do a bit of everything, without being as bulky as a full-on trekking pack. Generally daypacks are around 30 litres, though in truth, if a pack fits well and holds all of your kit, then you’re in business.  If you want to go higher-spec, consider what features you might like: hip pockets, space for a water bladder, a ‘floaty frame’ to avoid a sweaty back and so on. Try not to let any technical jargon bamboozle you and always try before you buy.

The finest backpacks are water resistant but none can guarantee to keep your belongings totally dry when an absolute deluge sweeps in or when your kayak capsizes. That's why taking fully waterproof dry bags on your adventures is such a good idea and totally relieves the stress of worrying if your phone is going to resemble a submarine at the end of your hike.

hiking essentials

A good backpack will carry your gear so comfortably you’ll almost forget the weight on your back (Image credit: Getty)

Navigating on the trail has traditionally been done using a map and compass, and I am a big advocate of these. Having a basic navigational competency – knowing how to use a compass or how to read a map – will significantly enhance the quality of your time on the trail, and will likely keep you safe. You can easily pick up some skills by taking a National Navigation Award Scheme or Mountain Training course.

Many folk choose to bring GPS units along with them, or use mobile apps such as Viewranger or OS Maps. These are fantastic tools to help keep you on track, but do always consider the length of battery life and signal access. Having a paper map with you might just cover you in the event of a technological emergency.

hiking essentials

A vast range of navigational aids are now used by hikers, from the traditional map and compass to high-tech GPS systems (Image credit: Getty)

Emergency kit

Why take a first aid kit? It is easy to overlook their importance. They can be bulky and heavy and often remain untouched, but I always carry a decent first aid kit with me because I like to be prepared – both in the event of injuring myself, or coming across someone who needs help.

Even if you choose to take a very simple homemade first aid kit, containing some basic medication, sun protection and plasters – it’s better than nothing.  A space blanket is a very good and extremely light addition (invaluable if you need to keep someone warm while you seek help), and disposable gloves are essential for keeping you safe from infection when treating someone else. Always make sure you know how to use everything in your kit.

Even if you don’t plan to be out after dark, a flashlight or headlamp is another essential emergency piece of kit, just in case things don’t go to plan. They can also be used for signalling for help and attracting attention if things go seriously wrong.

Sometimes bringing an emergency shelter can also be appropriate, especially in remote and challenging terrain, or if you intend on spending all day in the mountains.

If you're going for a long wilderness trek and planning to wild camp, it is important to have a good supply of food. There are dozens of varieties of featherweight and dehydrated freeze-dried meals available. They come to life with just a small amount of boiling water, meaning you can have a nutritious meal on the mountainside.

hiking essentials

A first aid kit is an absolutely essential piece of hiking kit (Image credit: Getty)

Trekking poles

Not everyone would consider them a hiking essential, but the best trekking poles really help with stability when you’re walking with a pack, and they help spread the stress and weight-bearing duties away from your knees and ankles. All this helps you to hike more efficiently, so you can walk further and feel better.  

hiking essentials

(Image credit: Getty)

Staying hydrated

Staying hydrated is key to having an enjoyable trekking experience. There's nothing worse than running out of water on a scorching summers' day and realising there is a mountain between you and the next drink. Worse than the thirst you are feeling is the effect dehydration can have on your concentration and muscle function. Many an accident has occurred on the world's trails due to muddled minds that were starved of water. This is especially true if hiking at altitude, where hydration can be the difference between mild discomfort and altitude sickness. The best hiking water bottles store your much needed reservoir safely and conveniently.

However, as anyone who has hiked Scotland's Munros in winter will know, sometimes it is so cold that your precious water freezes in your pack. That's why you should never venture out into the snow without a hot drink. The best hiking flasks keep a lovely reservoir of tea, coffee, hot chocolate — or whatever else you fancy brewing up — piping hot. When the time comes to pause and rehydrate, you've got a reinvogorating hot drink or three to enjoy. In fact, become a legend with your hiking buddies and pass the mug around.

Other essentials

"Is that an eagle over there? Is that definitely base camp? Is that a mountain hare, or is it just my imagination?" These are the questions that a hiker might ask because they haven't brought a pair of binoculars with them. Had they, they may have instead been saying: "That's an eagle over there! Don't worry, that's definitely base camp. It's not just my imagination, there's a mountain hare over there. In fact, there's four of them." The best binoculars let you take in the full natural wonder you've invested your time to come and be in the middle of. Once you've taken them once, you won't leave the house without them again.

However, an aspect of the natural world that you might wish you would see, or feel, less of are the insects. From mosquitos to midges and clegs to ticks, these unwelcome companions on the trails are not just a nuissance. In some nations, mosquitos still carry the deadly malaria and, in Britain, a tick can give you Lyme disease if you don't remove it properly. (See our guide to how to avoid tick bites and what to do if you get one.) That's why having the best insect repellent is such a essential when setting out on a hike.