How to go ultralight backpacking—the right way
Bring these basics.
Summer is a great time to get outside for a day hike. Since it’s warm, and you’re not planning on camping overnight, you only need to carry a minimal amount of gear.
If you’re going on a jaunt through some flat conservation land, you’ll require little if any equipment. But for anything more intense than that terrain, you should prepare better. Climbing a 4,000-foot mountain in New Hampshire, for example, will usually take you above the treeline, where the rocky summit will provide expansive views—and more exposure to the elements.
Here’s how to pack for an ultralight day hike the right way: The trick is to stay streamlined while also preparing for that surprise rainstorm or blister.
Be nice to your feet
Start from the ground up and consider your shoes. You don’t need a heavy-duty hiking boot—although if you have a broken-in pair you love, that’s great. But you also don’t want to wear sneakers, the soles of which could be slippery on a wet rock or log.
Instead, don a hiking shoe, something with Vibram soles and good support that will make you feel confident on your feet. Companies like the North Face and Vasque make hiking shoes, and some people even wear hiking sandals from a company called Chaco.
The more intense the hike—will you be scampering over rocks?—the more burly your shoe should be. When in doubt, a boot that goes up to your ankles will equip your feet best. But you may have more fun if you keep your shoe burden light. And if you buy new shoes just to go hiking, wear them around for a couple days before the hike to break them in.
While shoe-shopping, don’t neglect your socks. When it gets wet, cotton becomes clingy and gross. Instead, opt for a lightweight wool hiking sock like those made by SmartWool.
Dress the part
With all your clothing decisions, ask yourself: Will this still be nice to wear if I get rained on? Remember, a deluge will leave any cotton apparel cold, clammy, and heavy—which could make you hypothermic, even in the summer. So as a general rule, avoid this material. “Cotton kills,” is a common saying in the outdoors.
If it’s a hot summer day, you’ll probably want to wear loose-fitting, comfortable shorts, like synthetic ones by Under Armour. Try to get a pair with pockets so you can stash a trail map within easy reach. Athletic shorts like these will treat you better than, say, cotton dress shorts.
Speaking of cotton, many people hike in a cotton t-shirt. (But we just told you not to wear that! Although you should avoid the fabric as a general rule, summer hiking is more forgiving of your clothing choices.) If you’re climbing a mountain, however, you need to prepare: Once you get to the summit, the strong breeze and a sweaty shirt can quickly chill you. Pack an extra shirt to change into, ideally one made with a synthetic blend that will dry quickly and wick away your sweat. Or ditch that cotton and wear the synthetic shirt for the entire hike.
If you anticipate that it’s going to be rainy or chilly, you could also pack breathable rain pants. Ideally, bring a pair that you can wear over your shorts and zip off, without removing your shoes, if you get too hot. Don’t bring jeans—they’re the worst kind of heavy cotton garment.
Even on the nicest summer days, you could be hit by an afternoon thunderstorm. If you don’t pack an extra layer or two, Murphy’s Law dictates that you’ll probably get rained on. Grab a lightweight, breathable rain jacket (REI makes good ones), but don’t break the bank—simple day hikes won’t require anything too heavy-duty. Skip the poncho though: They catch the wind above the treeline and also look dumb.
Even if it’s not raining, that waterproof jacket will be nice to throw on if you get cold on a windy summit. While you’re thinking of warmth, pack at least one toasty layer made out of a synthetic blend (no cotton sweatshirts). A fleece pullover is good to keep in your bag so you can break it out if you get the chills when hiking back down a mountain. At this point, if you’re still wearing a wet cotton t-shirt, it’s a great time to take it off and replace it with synthetic layers.
Stay hydrated and energized
Of course, you’re going to get thirsty as you hike. Bring one to two water bottles, like Nalgenes, and fill them up with tap water before you leave your home. In case you guzzle your initial supply, you should also bring a method to make streamwater safe to consume.
Always fill up your bottle from clear, flowing stream or river water, and not from a stagnant pool. To kill any parasites, bacteria, or viruses in your refill, the cheapest option is to add purification tablets. Light iodine tablets can make water potable after 30 minutes, as can pricier Katadyn Micropur MP1 tablets. Those Micropur tablets have the advantage of killing a parasite called cryptosporidium, which iodine can’t do. However, they can take as much as four hours to do so.
Unfortunately, iodine gives water a…distinctive taste. If you can’t stomach it, then don’t forget taste-neutralizing tablets, which you can add to the iodine-cleansed water—but only after letting the iodine do its job for at least 30 minutes.
For a faster treatment, invest in a more expensive portable filtering system, which will produce clean drinking water instantly. (If you’re in a foreign country, bear in mind that filters won’t get rid of viruses. That said, when you’re hiking in the U.S., parasites and bacteria are a bigger concern.) One choice is the Katadyn BeFree bottle, which incorporates a filter.
You’ll get hungry on the trail, so of course you should bring some grub. Energy snacks like Clif Bars are fine, but so is trail mix, or even a couple of Snickers bars. For long jaunts, pack yourself a filling lunch. A sandwich is good, but there are other options too: Bring a block of cheese, a bag of pepperoni, and crackers or pita bread for an on-the-go, and tasty, solution. If you have a little extra food left when you get back, you’ve brought the right amount.
Expect the unexpected
A general rule when going for a day hike is: Would you be prepared for something unforeseeable (like getting lost) that could force you to continue hiking after dark? To that end, pack a lightweight headlamp so you can see your way to the road.
If the situation gets dire, you might even need an added way to stave off hypothermia. So it’s a good idea to pack the kind of warm hat you’d wear skiing. It won’t take up too much room in your pack, and you could be grateful to have it there.
To be extra prepared, pack a small first-aid kit. You don’t need something comprehensive, but find one like this product, which has supplies for blisters and any cuts you might suffer from a tumble on the trail. Don’t forget the medications that you personally might need, like an EpiPen.
Include the finishing touches
There are a few other miscellaneous items you should consider taking with you. A blade, jack knife, or multitool comes in handy for a variety of tasks—for example, the knife would be good for cutting pieces off that block of cheese. And a printed-out topographical trail map of where you’ll be can keep you on the right path.
Then there are the wearables: In sunny weather, sunglasses, a baseball cap, or both will reduce glare, while sunscreen will protect your skin. You probably don’t need to bring bug spray on a day hike, as insects tend to be worse at dusk or nighttime.
Tackling mountainous terrain? Some people like to use trekking poles, which can take some of the shock off your knees on the downhill.
Don’t forget a backpack
Finally, you’ve assembled your gear. Now you need to throw all this stuff into a lightweight backpack. A wide-range of carriers could work, but outdoor equipment companies like Osprey Packs make packs exactly for this kind of trip. Another elegant solution is to buy a CamelBak backpack, which includes a water bladder and a sipping hose.
This list sounds like a lot. But if you’re prepared for a day hike, you’ll enjoy it more. Having everything you need on your back for a day outside gives you an independent feeling. And that feeling is even better when you’re enjoying it while eating cheese and pepperoni on a breathtaking summit.