When getting our hike on in three-season conditions, a number of factors combine to confuse matters when it comes to choosing what to bring hiking — weather conditions, wildlife, allergies, terrain type, the number of hours of daylight, and our own personal quirks or requirements are just a few.
So, with so many variables that could easily poop on our party if we’re not in the know and on our game packing and prep-wise, exactly how is the decision-making on our backcountry kit and kaboodle to be done?
This article will attempt to answer this question and provide further insights into the more-nuanced-than-expected task of gear selection for three-season hiking.
We’ll cover all the essential items you need to pack, offer a few tips on how to use them, and also throw in a handy hiking checklist to ensure — hopefully — that your single-day, three-season adventures don’t turn into misadventures.
- Check the weather forecast, but don’t take it as gospel truth
- Do your research in order to anticipate any notable difficulties to you might come across on your hike and then pack and dress accordingly
- Make a personalized day-hiking gear list (or use our handy printable)
- Expect the unexpected: no crystal ball required, just be aware of any shoulder season’s potential for mischief
- Collect your gear, then pick a backpack (to avoid throwing in superfluous add-ons to fill the space in larger packs)
- Don’t pack too much (but bear in mind it’s better to have a pound too many than a pound less than you need!)
Table of Contents
- Key Takeaways
- What to Bring on a Hike: Our Downloadable Hiking Equipment List
- The Hiking Ten Essentials: The Mainstays of Your Hiking Gear List
- Food & Water
- Health & Hygiene
- Backpacks & Organization
- Other Recommended Items
- Comfort & “Luxury” Items
- Hiking Checklist…check!
What to Bring on a Hike: Our Downloadable Hiking Equipment List
But checklists are for nerds and the anally retentive, right? Well, yes and no…
There may well be a nerdish quality to any checklist, but composing one speaks of a far slighter character flaw than getting yourself into the literal middle of nowhere only to discover you’ve forgotten to pack your compass, rain jacket, water, or any other essential that might be handy in getting you back to ‘somewhere’ safely, dry, and in a tolerable mood.
In short, any perceived nerdishness is eminently excusable. Not only will it allow you to ensure nothing essential gets left behind, it will speed up the whole packing process and let you see what you really need…and also what you really don’t.
The printable hiking packing list below offers a comprehensive itemization of gear items you may wish to take on a three-season hike.
Naturally, which you’ll choose to take will depend on a handful of variables: weather, location, trail length, terrain, or whether you are taking your kids hiking. Below, you’ll find our analysis of each item and also an explanation of where and how it fits into the ten must-have day hiking essentials.
The spreadsheet above can also be accessed (and printed/downloaded) by following this LINK HERE.
The Hiking Ten Essentials: The Mainstays of Your Hiking Gear List
The ten essentials are a kind of hiking-specific batch of holy commandments not unlike those handed to Moses on Mount Sinai, the exception being that poor Mo’s list was carved in tablets of stone — this being, of course, in the days prior to the internet and the existence of handy, downloadable, and printable spreadsheets such as the one posted above.
A map and compass, reliable GPS device, gps watch for hikers, and/or smartphone app are second only to your legs as instruments that will allow you to get from A to B safely and in good time.
While the trend these days is gravitating more and more towards electronic navigation systems (GPS devices and cell phone apps), we’d (very) highly recommend carrying a topo map and compass (check out our guide to the best hiking compass) on all outings and honing your skills in their usage.
In some respects, we humans, sadly, kinda lost the physiological lottery when it came to the handing out of digestive systems and bodily composition at the antechamber to existence.
While some creatures are capable of going for days on end without water, the constitution of us homo sapiens tends toward sabotage — fatigue, headaches, dizziness, diarrhea, vomiting — should we deprive it of its Adam’s ale*.
The recommended dose of water for valley and city-dwellers is around 2 liters per day; for active hill-goers et al. this figure rises incrementally in accordance with the extent of our exertions.
This being so, the hiking demographic of sapiens needs some form of purification and storage for our H20 beyond our bellies. The options abound for both carry bottles or bladders and purification methods, but one system which does both — and remarkably well — is the Grayll Ultralight Purifier.
For a cheaper and equally effective option, see the wonderfully simple, lightweight Sawyer Mini Filter.
*Eve’s hubby, not Sam…
The only rumble worse than that of a potentially apocalyptic thunderstorm brewing on the horizon is that of an empty stomach when the most recent trail marker has advised us we still have way-too-many miles left to go.
Like any elaborate apparatus, our bodies need fuel, and making sure they have enough of it is second only to hydration in terms of our responsibilities to them while getting our hike on.
Further Reading: Check out some day hiking food ideas.
Although day-hiking excludes the need for overnight gear such as tents and sleeping bags, the ‘shelter’ box still needs ticking. How? A simple tarp, emergency bivvy bag, or reflective blanket — weighing half a pound tops — will do the trick, and could be a lifesaver in the case of a sudden change in weather, getting lost, or the onset of hypothermia.
We’re frequently reminded that the earth would be a fairly barren place without the blessing of the big yella fella/mama in the sky, but he/she is not without his/her flaws. Sunburn, heatstroke, heat exhaustion, and dehydration are just some of the mischief he/she can get up to when not performing his/her more commendable deeds.
To counter all of the above, make sure you’re stocked up on sunscreen and SPF-rated lip balm, carry a sunhat (or bandana or buff) and sunglasses (they don’t get much cooler than the Julbo Vermont), and considering sticking to light, long-sleeved garments if you’re particularly prone to sun-induced ailments.
Further Reading: Read up on the best hat for hiking.
Having the ability to start a fire in the wild is important for three main reasons: warmth, cooking, and because it makes you feel like a card-carrying badass even if you still sleep with the lights on and have a hidden Justin Bieber playlist on your iPod.
Becoming a small-time, backcountry arsonist is achievable in a number of ways, each with their own benefits and drawbacks:
- Lighter — easy to use, quick, but liable to ‘technical’ failure (i.e., a broken flint)
- Matches — reliable, simple, but useless when wet (waterproof matches are available)
- Striker & Flint — fun, works even when wet, but not so easy to use or time-efficient (can be simplified by soaking cotton balls in vaseline prior to your trip and using these as kindling)
- Stick Rubbing — old-school, badass, and sure to boost your backcountry credo at least ten-fold, but hugely time-consuming and, well, a bit of a chore
While you might not feel like a day-hike warrants any fire-starting capabilities, being able to provide yourself and team a quick hit of warmth could well be vital should your trip for any reason take a turn south. We’d recommend carrying at least two of the above fire-starters in case Plan A should fail for any reason.
Fumbling around in the dark isn’t great fun at the best of times*, let alone when you’ve been out on the trail for ten hours, lost your way, and are about to miss the latest episode of Game of Thrones or SNL.
To make sure you avoid the above misadventures, carrying a reliable hand and/or headlamp at all times is highly recommended — even if you anticipate being back well before nightfall. Throwing in extra batteries is always a good idea, too, especially if you’re a backpacker on a multi-day trip instead of a mere day hiker.
*we are, of course, excluding those times…
As a very wise man or woman once said, s*** happens. For our money, he or she was most likely a hiker or backcountry-goer of one form or another. The ways to do yourself ill in the outdoors are countless, but the means of atoning for or dealing with the damage done are, most often, remarkably simple.
With a little bit of know-how and a lightweight hiking first aid kit, you can easily turn yourself into an impromptu paramedic for yourself and your hiking partners. To start you off rather than building your own, read up on our guide to best first aid kit for hiking and backpacking.
A few simple tools are all-but indispensable to the well-equipped hiker’s kit. The most notable of these are a multi-tool (for first aid, primarily), pair of tweezers (tick or splinter removal), and camping knives. While these may seem superfluous to some, on that one occasion in 10 that you actually need them you’ll be glad they are there.
While nude hiking may be on the rise in certain quirky corners of the globe, most of us prefer to keep things decent and don some degree of clothing while tramping the trails. If you fall into this latter category, a simple rule for successfully insulating on three-season day hikes is to dress for the weather, not the season, and to pack for the season, not the weather.
In a nutshell, dress according to the forecast, but be prepared to encounter conditions significantly better or worse — giving yourself a 10F buffer clothing-wise is never a bad idea.
A more thorough analysis of hiking clothes and how to dress and pack for different conditions can be found in our guides on how to dress for hiking, how to layer clothing for cold weather, how to stay dry in the rain, hiking for beginners, and also our item-specific clothing reviews for a day-hiking or backpacking trip:
Food & Water
Never is the importance of adequate hydration and nutrition more evident that when we’re out, putting our bodies through the rigors of a hearty hike, scorching calories, perspiring heavily, and putting in sustained effort for hours at a time. Even on a day hike, keeping our bodies fueled and hydrated is paramount to increasing our performance, safety, and overall enjoyment.
The backcountry is no place to be counting the calories or sticking to a stingy diet, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that an ‘anything goes’ approach to nourishment is the way to go.
To get the most out of our bodies and give them what they need for fuel and recovery, we need to ensure we’re giving them adequate grammage from the three major food groups: fats, proteins, and carbohydrates.
The recommended ratio for the three biggies when thru-hiking is 50:35:15 (carbs:fats:proteins). While maintaining this ratio might not be as imperative for day hiking, following it as closely as possible will certainly help to optimize your performance.
Another worthy, starvation-inspired tip is to keep an ‘emergency’ energy bar or self-heating Omeal in the bottom of your pack just in case you get stuck out on the trail for longer than anticipated, run out of steam, or just get hit with a serious dose of the nibbles.
The humble H2O is almost as indispensable to the hiker as are mountains, backcountry terrain, and, well, feet. While some form of hiking is no doubt doable without it, that hiking’s certain to be less enjoyable and it’s unlikely we’ll be going terribly far.
So, how much water should we take? A recommended ballpark figure is one liter per two hours of hiking. If your hike happens to be an eight-hour one, therefore, you’re probably going to benefit from carrying some form of water purification system in order to keep things light, unless you happen to squat small vehicles in your free time.
First, always check there is a reliable wild water source on your route, then get your hands on a reliable purification system to ensure you can make that water less wild, more potable: pills, sterilizer pens, and pump filters are the most common and effective.
- Pills are usually effective in treating most bacteria and protozoa, but take up to 30 minutes to work and often leave a foul taste
- Sterilizer pens are a pricey option that work for some but one that we wouldn’t recommend on account of their liability to technical/battery failure and need for monotonous stirring while gazing into water bottles instead of at the surrounding scenery
- Filters come in various forms, shapes, and sizes, but can usually safely wipe out most water-borne nasties with the exception of certain viruses. If you’re backpacking in a group and need to process lots of H2O, this piece of gear is a must.
Water Bottle or Bladder?
The answer, in short, is whichever you prefer. If you’re a sup-while-you-step kinda guy/gal, then a hiking water bladder is a handy way to avoid stops and also leaving your hands free to use poles, take photos, pick noses, give high-fives, etc. If you’re more concerned with durability and tend to drink only in rest breaks, a bottle will do the trick.
Three-season day hiking means a weather spectrum ranging from cool to warm. As these terms are largely subjective and depend on where you are in the world, this could encompass anything from a toasty day in Tahoe to a wet and wild outing in Wales.
For convenience’s sake, we’re going to aim for a middle-of-the-road definition of ‘three-season’ that assumes you a) don’t live in either of the world’s geographical poles, b) nor its hottest deserts, c) aren’t Wim Hof, c) are not that nutter we saw waltzing about Banff in February in nothing but shorts and t-shirt.
For most of us, three-season hiking excludes the need for crampon-compatible boots or more cumbersome models with heavyweight liners and stiff soles. It also, however, opens up the selection-time can of worms that is the hiking boot vs. hiking shoe question. So, just how is that prickly poser answered?
As a general rule, hiking boots are better bets in rugged terrain because they provide a lot more ankle support and protection against sprains, nicks, and abrasions.
Before heading on your hike, do a bit of research to ascertain what you can expect to find along the route. If boggy, very uneven, tick-ridden, or snake-prone terrain happen to be on the cards, boots are likely to be your best bet. To help you pick the best ones for you we’ve reviewed the best lightweight hiking boots, and if you are on a budget, the most affordable hiking boots.
If your route is on dry, smooth, well-maintained terrain and temps are high enough, a hiking shoe or even trail runners become an option. For many, this alternative offers far greater comfort, as well as being much lighter and more breathable.
For the scrambler, shoes also usually offer greater dexterity and nimbleness on rock sections, particularly with hiking-climbing hybrid models such as the Scarpa Crux or La Sportiva Boulder X. For a more in-depth analysis of hiking shoes, check out:
For three-season hiking, the layering system remains as applicable as ever, with the exception that the heavy down or fleece midlayer and baselayer pants can most probably be left at home.
One point worth noting is that even with vests/undershirts and t-shirts, breathability is all-important. Sweating heavily into a cotton t-shirt may feel fine while the engine’s running, but as soon as you stop all that perspiration’s going to cool down in a hurry, leaving you a prime candidate for copping a chill or, worse, hypothermia.
This being so, you should always aim to start with a moisture-wicking and breathable base layer or hiking shirt (short or long sleeve) and build from there. Ensure each subsequent layer has enough breathability to let the moisture and head shed by the other layers escape.
If you live in a colder climate, even on sunny days be sure to throw in a lightweight midlayer in case the wind gets up or you have to remain stationary for any length of time.
Shorts or pants? Softshell or regular? While the weather forecast will ultimately make your decision for you, a pair of convertible pants with zip-offs at the knee are just about the ideal garment for a three-season day hike.
If the forecast looks at all ‘iffy’, be sure to throw in a pair of waterproof pants. If you’re super-keen on cutting down on weight and hiking in a shoulder season where temps are cooler and shorts not on the agenda, you could get away with a pair of softshell pants with a durable water-repellent (DWR) finish, such as the prAna Stretch Zion.
Even if the weather’s clear and the temperatures are mild, carrying a hat, a pair of gloves, and spare socks is never a bad idea. For the addition of maybe 200g of weight, you could save yourself a lot of pains. Bearing in mind the (fairly accurate) old adage that temps drop 5F per every 1000 feet of ascent should help you avoid selling yourself short on necessary gear.
For sun protection, a sunhat, bandana, or buff can be a handy inclusion to ward off the ills of heatstroke, heat exhaustion, and sunburn.
Health & Hygiene
While a good many of us would like to imagine ourselves feral wildlings while out in the backcountry (the author included), taking care of our health and hygiene is as important as ever (as much for the sake of others as for ourselves!).
Granted, we may be flying solo, but even then there’s a chance that the little first aid kit we have tucked away in our pack might turn out to be a lifesaver for a fellow would-be wildling who hasn’t been quite so conscientious in their packing.
And, more importantly perhaps, no matter how wild we may consider ourselves to be, no degree of wildness will ever endear us to seeing or smelling the evidence of other people’s wildness while out enjoying a bit of time in nature. Here are some items we’d recommend adding to your kit.
- Toilet paper or biodegradable wipes
- Cathole trowel
- Bear spray*
- Sanitary pads
- Zip-lock bag for removal of hygiene products
- First Aid Kit
- Insect repellent
- Lip balm
* Fun even in bear-free territory to scare the crap out of those not carrying it (“Sure there are bears here!”)
Backpacks & Organization
Why save the big boy for last? Well, there’s a method to our madness. When prepping and planning for your next hiking adventure, it’s always best to get all your kit together before choosing the size of your hiking backpack — otherwise, there’s a temptation to fill up a larger pack with more (probably unnecessary) stuff.
For day-hikes, the ideal liter count for your pack should be between around the 20-25 mark, give or take a few liters for weather variations and a few personal preferences (comfort items, teddy bear, lucky mascot etc.).
Our favorite day-hiking pack is the Osprey Talon 22, which is big enough to accommodate all of the items in our list and is a provider on all fronts, offering comfort, convenience, a solid construction, hydration compatibility, breathability, and, quite frankly, a degree of overall sexiness that is hard come by in standard hiking hardware.
If you want to get a feel for the market, then check out our guide to the best daypacks for hiking.
For internal organization, stuff sacks and dry bags can help keep things tidy, dry, and easily accessible, particularly if you take the highly recommended step of color-coding.
There are a ton of worthy stuff sacks and drybags out there, but the most reliable, durable, and high-quality models we’ve used over the years have to be the Sea to Summit Lightweight Dry Bags and Sea to Summit Ultra-Mesh Stuff Sack.
Other Recommended Items
A few other bits and bobs can add convenience to your three-season hiking kit without increasing pack weight unreasonably. A few items we’d recommend include:
- Trekking poles (see our guide on using trekking poles correctly)
- Travel towel
- Emergency fire starter
- Map holder
- Water filter (or other water treatment system)
- Repair kit (a few fabric patches, glue, thread, and needle)
- Duct tape (for repairs, not impromptu kidnappings)
- A dog hiking vest if you’re taking your four-legged friend.
Comfort & “Luxury” Items
For every gram-counting minimalist out on the trails there’s a happy, don’t-give-a-damn libertarian who knows that when it comes time to take a breather, he or she will be lording it over their trail-mates on account of some prized goodie they stashed in their sack like some sugar-laden contraband at a dieters’ convention.
Some items of hiking bling, swagger, or non-essential extravagances we’ve used or eyed enviously over the years that you may want to add to your day-hike checklist include the following:
- Tree Hammock (lightweight backpacking gear par excellence)
- Camping Chair (worth weight in gold after a long day on the trails)
- A Gandalf-esque alpenstock
- Waterproof MP3 player
- Lightweight cushion
- Reading material (this month’s recommended read)
- Pocket stove (for dedicated tea or coffee drinkers)
- Cup and/or coffee press (see above — and yes, even for day-hikers!)
Now that you know exactly what to bring on a day hike or backpacking trip in three-season conditions, your future hiking adventures are sure to be much happier, healthier, safer, and stress free.
Let us know how they go by leaving a comment in the box below and holla if you think we forgot to add anything to our hiking pack list or tips for hiking preparation. Want to share this checklist for hiking with your friends? Go ahead!