hiking essentials – part 1, the gears

May your trails be crooked, winding, lonesome, dangerous, leading to the most amazing view. May your mountains rise into and above the clouds.

edward abbey

I had never been interested in sports or anything that required physical strength. It was a surprise for me when I found joy in hiking and the outdoors a few years ago. Now it has become second nature, and I feel unease if I do not go out to the forest or hike up a mountain. The fresh scent of the mountain air invigorates and boosts up my energy until the next hike. My daughter recently asked me if I enjoy hiking. My answer was that I do enjoy hiking. I might not show it sometimes because I was busy catching my breaths and thinking about my steps. “To experience something at least once” is my motto. I want to be able to explore and experience new things within my capabilities and keeping safety as the priority. When I started hiking, I did not know anything about hiking boots, the ten essentials, or any of the safety precautions. I want to share some of what I learned with you so you can begin your journey into the woods too.

What should I wear to hike, sneakers, or hiking boots? The most important thing is to be comfortable with what you are wearing. I highly recommend at least a good pair of hiking boots, preferably waterproof boots. They are sturdier than sneakers and provide protection from roots and rocks on the trails, good traction during the wet and dry condition, and prevent blisters when properly fitted. I own a pair of lighter waterproof hiking boots for summer hikes and a pair for winter when it is cold or snowy. Your feet will thank you when you wear a good pair of hiking socks with your hiking boots. Most hiking socks use combinations of wool, nylon, and elastane (spandex), which are suitable to be worn year-round. Wool, a material that insulates, wicks moisture, and naturally microbial, is a necessity for outdoor adventures. Brands that I like are Smartwool and Darn Tough socks. Another item to add to your hiking ensemble is a pair of gaiters. Gaiters are useful to prevent debris, water, or snow from getting into your shoes.

What type of clothing should I wear? The takeaway for hiking clothes is ‘NO COTTON”. Cotton is a heavier material, and it does not wick away moisture, thus loses its insulation value when wet. Next, learn how to layer your clothing. There are typically three layers of clothing, the base layer, mid layer, and outer shell. The material for the base layer is generally polyester, merino wool, or nylon. They are quick-dry and wicks moisture away from your skin. They may be short or long sleeves shirts and to be worn next to your skin. The mid layer consists of polyester fleece, merino wool, goose down, or synthetic fill. That is the thermal insulation layer during cold weather, and to be worn over the base layer if necessary. Be aware that the material used in this layer is not waterproof. The outer shell is made of waterproof, windproof, or water-resistant materials, such as a rain jacket or a windbreaker. They protect against wind and rain. Keep in mind that the more waterproof the material, the less breathable it is. This layer can be worn over the base layer or the mid layer. I do not like to be cold, so I sometimes wear four layers, especially in higher altitudes during winter. I would wear a long sleeve polyester or wool base layer, a fleece jacket, and/or a goose down, then an outer waterproof rain jacket if it is raining or snowing. In warmer weather, I would wear a polyester short sleeve shirt and bring a mid layer and outer shell in my backpack.

Hiking pants must let you be flexible and comfortable, as you may need to climb and stretch on the trails. My hiking pants repel water, so I mostly stay dry during rainy hikes. I do not hike in shorts unless in hot weather to prevent bug attacks and cuts from shrubs and branches. Some pants are convertible, meaning there is a zipper where you can unzip to convert a pair of long pants into shorts. The same layering concept applies to pants. The base layer is needed only in cold weather, and outer shell or rain pants made of waterproof material may be worn during heavy rain. Other items include hiking poles, a brimmed hat for protection from the sun, a wool or fleece hat in cold weather, gloves, hand warmer, sunglasses, and a face mask during the pandemic. In general, I would look for items that are lightweight and packable in a backpack. Unfortunately, the lighter they are, the more expensive they get.

There is no such thing as bad weather, only inappropriate clothing

Sir Rannulph Fiennes

Do I need a backpack? What do you carry in your backpack? Yes, you will need a backpack or something similar to carry your ten essentials for hiking and make sure to have a rain cover for your pack. I have backpacks of different sizes, and the two that I used the most are my 20-Liter for warm weather hikes and 28-Liter for cold-weather hikes. Listed below are the items that I always carry in my backpack when I day hike. I would add other necessary items depending on the complexity of the hike, overnight hike, backpacking or camping.

  1. NAVIGATION – compass, hardcopy map, GPS watch, etc. A reliable hard copy topographic map such as the Green Trail map is the golden standard for navigation. I do have a Garmin watch that utilizes GPS tracking equipped with a compass, barometer, and altimeter. Most cell phones also come with a compass and altimeter. I always research the trail before a hike and download the topo map onto my phone in case I need it. I like Alltrails because I can search for hiking trails globally and download maps, and WTA for hiking trails in Washington state but no map downloads. If you are using smartphones and watches for navigation, remember to bring an extra power source to recharge if needed.  Learn how to use your navigation system before your hike.
  2. HEADLAMP and extra batteries – You never know when you will need this on your hikes or even before you hike since a lot of the trailhead restrooms are in complete darkness once you close the doors.
  3. SUN PROTECTION – These include sunglasses, sunscreen, and UV protective clothing, and even in the winter. Extremely important to wear sunglasses when you adventure in the snow, as the white snow can be blinding.
  4. INSULATION – I always bring extra clothing or layers according to the layering system depending on the time of year and weather. It is a good idea to put some extra clothing in a dry bag or waterproof bag to keep everything dry even if your pack gets wet.
  5. FIRST-AID kits and supplies – You can find first-aid kits for hikers online or create your own kits. My kit includes electrolytes tablets, more pain medication, antihistamines for allergies, scent-free hand sanitizer, and mosquito repellent or net during spring and summer months.
  6. FIRE STARTER – I carry waterproof matches in a plastic bag, and after researching more for this blog post, I will add lint trapping from a home dryer as a fire starter.
  7. REPAIR KIT and tools – A basic kit includes knife or multitool, scissor and duct tape. You can modify this list depending on your trip.
  8. EXTRA FOOD – Always pack at least an extra day of food in case of emergency. Salty and high calorie food such as peanut butter, granola or energy bars, trail mix, jerky, dry fruits, and nuts, are good to pack. Our typical hiking food are granola bars, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, fresh fruits, dry apricots, almonds, gummy fruit snacks and crackers. Please bring extra bags to carry out trash.
  9. EXTRA WATER and/or water filtration system – Hydration is crucial during a hike. The rule of thumb is to drink 1 liter of water every 2 hours of hiking. I typically bring at least 2 liters for most of my hikes and more when the weather is warm. I also carry a small water filtration system (Sawyer Mini water filter) in my pack in addition to my usual 2-3-liter hydration pack with drinking hose or Nalgene water bottles. Insulation for the hydration tubing and valve might be needed for winter activities in freezing temperature. When you research the trail, it is relevant to know how exposed the terrain is and if there is any water source. I tend to avoid hiking in hot weather so that I do not have to carry those extra water weight.
  10. EMERGENCY SHELTER – There are many options for emergency shelter such as tent, lightweight tarp, bivy sack or emergency blanket. I opted to get an emergency blanket since it is very light and easy to carry.
  11. NEW to the list – face mask and hand sanitizer during the pandemic
  12. MISCELLANOUS ITEMS – A traction system for your hiking shoes or boots is an added essential for winter activities since some trails might be icy. I use Microspikes because they are easy to pack and reliable. Bear spray to be added in some trails and time of year. Afterall, we do live in bear country.
my winter pack with a rain cover on, I wore gaiters since there were lots of snow
my smaller summer pack

Other than the essentials, I also carry a DSLR camera with me which added more weight. It will be your choice for other luxury items if you are comfortable carrying those weights with you. A gentle reminder that a heavy pack will seem heavier after that first mile up the trail. It might seem like a lot to carry for a day hike, but I believe that one should be well prepared than not. It is the great outdoors; anything can happen in the forest or mountain. I cannot stress enough the importance of carrying your essentials even on short hikes. We had a bad experience that one time that we were overconfident and did not bring all our essentials. We ended up with a hungry and dehydrated group because a short hike became longer than intended in the sweltering heat. A well-prepared hiker will also reduce the chance of needing the support from the already short-handed emergency search and rescue crews. Although this might not be a complete list, I hope you find this information helpful to get you started and prepare you for future adventures. Stay tune for more future posts on this subject and follow our adventures on Instagram.

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