A while ago I did a post about how to ensure you have all the essential hiking gear to be safe on your trips. That list is about planning your loadout assuming you already have a well-stocked kit locker, or enough money to go shopping and not worry too much about the cost.
What if you’re going on one of your first day hikes, though, or venturing somewhere a little bit more adventurous than normal, and you don’t already have all the kit you need. I’m a big believer that it’s much better to build a kit-locker slowly, over multiple trips, working from experience and occasionally using less-than-perfect kit when it’s not absolutely safety-critical. Working on that basis, and assuming that going out and spending thousands of pounds isn’t an option, here are the first five essential items I reckon you should pay attention to for day hiking:
Good hiking boots or shoes
It’s a truism of hiking, and the military and outdoors activities in general – take care of your feet and they will take care of you. Nothing will ruin your hike faster than sore feet and blisters, not to mention the risk of slipping if you wear completely inappropriate footwear. So take the time to buy some decent hiking boots or shoes. Personally I’d probably recommend shoes for the majority of day hikes but that’s another post for another day. Go with what you’re comfortable with, but take the time to research what you need, try on several pairs, and make an informed decision.
And if this seems like stating the obvious, I was pretty surprised/dismayed by the number of people climbing Snowdon in trainers, deck shoes, plimsolls, tennis shoes, and other assorted inappropriate footwear. Like I’ve said, there are certain types of kit where you can get away with a “this is all I’ve got so it’ll do” kind of attitude, but your footwear is not one of them. They don’t have to be expensive, they just have to be right.
A really good waterproof jacket
I’d go for investing in waterproofness before warmth, for a few reasons. Firstly, you almost certainly have some decent warm kit around already. It might not be this season, it might not be made from modern technical materials, it might not even really be designed for hiking, but I bet almost everyone reading this has a few old fleeces tucked away in a drawer, a puffer jacket in a cupboard, an old ski jacket somewhere. They might not be ideal but they will do for emergency warmth. After all, the first people to climb Everest did it in jumpers and tweed jackets. The point is, I’m less sure that you have a really good waterproof anywhere. Sure, you might have an old mac or something, but how waterproof is it really? Does it have the kind of hydrostatic head rating needed to keep of driving rain in a strong wind? When was the DWR treatment last updated, if ever? If you rely on your ‘back of the cupboard mac’ for a day hike in Wales there’s a decent chance you’re going to end up a lot wetter than you expected, and being wet on a hike is really miserable, maybe even worse than being cold.
In brief – you can still stay pretty warm with ‘bad’ layers. A ‘bad’ raincoat might not keep you dry.
The other thing, though, is that once you buy a really waterproof jacket, you’ll probably find you get loads of use out of it for day-to-day wear, more so than you would with a technical down jacket or midlayer, I’d guess. So from that point of view it’s also a better investment.
An active layer
Following on from the above, your ’emergency’ warmth doesn’t necessarily need to be technical. A ski jacket or old fleece or even a woolly jumper can be chucked in your pack as backup if the temperature drops or you get stranded and, since you probably won’t ever wear it, the worst you can say is that it’ll be quite a lot bulkier and heavier than taking a modern down jacket.
The same can’t be said of your main layer, the one you actually expect to wear most of the day. Wearing a woollen jumper or non-breathable jacket while actually hiking will quickly start to cause you problems as you sweat and overheat.
That’s why the next thing worth buying is almost certainly your most lightweight layer, as that is the one you will be wearing the most often, and closest to the skin. Investing in a decent, active, breathable and wicking jacket will be money well spent and make your hike considerably more comfortable.
A decent daysack/backpack
You can probably do quite a lot of hiking without a particularly good backpack, and it might not seem like something that’s really worth investing in until you have everything else sorted. Here are a few reasons, though, why I think it’s more important than you might assume.
Firstly, with the possible exception of your shoes, your backpack will make more difference to your comfort than any other piece of kit. You might think that for a day hike where all you are carrying is a bit of water and some layers, you can chuck them into any old backpack and you’ll be fine, and that is true to an extent. However, for a hike of any length, or with even a few kilos of kit, you’re going to start wishing you had a pack with ventilated back panels, decent padded shoulder straps, load lifter straps, compatibility with a CamelBak or other hydration system and, above all, proper hip support. Features like that make an enormous difference over the course of a day if you are carrying any weight at all.
The other thing is that having a proper day sack of the correct size will help you to pack correctly, giving you enough space that you don’t end up leaving out potentially critical kit just because there isn’t space, but also not giving you so much space that you end up filling it with unnecessary crap. A full-size camping rucksack isn’t ideal for day hiking, but nor is a tiny little tourist backpack. I use a 35L pack for day hiking, which gives me plenty of space for food, a stove and spare kit. I’d say that is about right to give you flexibility, and it could also be used for shorter multi-day trips. For very bare-bones day hiking, or shorter hikes in mild conditions, 25L would probably be sufficient but I would suggest that if you are going much lower than that, you might be missing out one or more of the ten essentials.