Hikes in Forsyth canyon above Boulder Colorado

The 10 Essentials for Your Best Day Hikes

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When you have amazing places for day hikes such as Rocky Mountain National Park, Garden of the Gods, Maroon Bells, Durango, Mesa Verde, Pagosa Springs, and Grand Lake right in your state’s backyard, it just makes sense to explore them all year round. 

When our girls were younger and we went on hikes in Rocky Mountain National Park, we used to tell them how “lucky” they were that we lived only an hour away.

“Some people,” we said, “travel from all over the world just to visit Rocky Mountain National Park.” I’m not quite sure our girls were convinced.

Chris and I have spent a lot of time exploring and hiking and photographing Colorado this past year. We have finally visited places that we have always wanted to see in our 20 years living here.

Colorado is a beautiful state to explore and a “state”-cation was a perfect way to enjoy our little corner of the world and stay healthy during a pandemic.

Hikes

We bought an Annual National Park Pass last August when our previous pass expired and have definitely got our money’s worth from the pass this year.

Currently, an Annual Pass is $80. If you were to visit four parks within a year without a pass, you would pay $35 per visit. That is $140 in a year. The Annual Pass is a great investment.

Plus it gives you more incentive to plan excursions to National Parks throughout the United States.

Chris, Kristen, and I visited Great Smoky Mountain National Park during the peak of Fall foliage last Fall and thoroughly loved the hikes we took to explore and photograph so much beauty. My Camera was busy non-stop.

When the pandemic hit and options for date nights and entertainment opportunities were limited, Chris and I chose to add more hikes and adventures to our weekends. In fact, over the past year, we have gone on over 30 hikes (in and outside of Colorado).

Our kids? Not so much. They think we are crazy. So now, we just leave them home. 

Most of the time, the trails are not too busy. Although there are some trails that are popular and completely packed with people. It is easy enough to wear a neck gaiter and pull it up to mask our mouth and nose as we pass by people and then pull it back down again when the trail is clear.

We have gone on hikes in the rain (bring an Umbrella), crunched through the snow (Crampons will be one of your best investments), enjoyed beautiful Fall foliage (you’ll probably need a Light Jacket), and basked in sunny summer days (don’t forget the Sunscreen!). 

PCA Skin Active Sunscreen

While I don’t mind the hikes in the snow so much, I do find myself longing for days of hiking with fewer layers. In any kind of weather, it is essential to be prepared for a variety of situations.

In the 1930’s, a group called the Mountaineers worked toward that same end and assembled a list of the Ten Essentials—required equipment for hikes and adventures to help people be prepared for emergency situations in the outdoors. 

These Ten Essential points outlined a safety and packing system to prevent emergencies and to have tools on hand in the event an emergency did occur. If you had to spend the night in the wilderness, could you? 

Today, these Ten Essentials are just as applicable. 

So, let me get this out in the open from the get go. I am not big on spending the night “camping” (emergency or not).

I am NOT a camper!

While these tips apply whether you are going on simple day hikes or 3-day backpacking trip in the mountains, my focus will be on days hikes NOT overnight treks.

Packing the “Ten Essentials” whenever you step into the backcountry, even on day hikes, is a good habit. True, on a routine trip you may use only a few of them or none at all. It’s when something goes awry that you’ll truly appreciate the value of carrying these items that could be essential to your survival… Back then, the list included a map, compass, sunglasses and sunscreen, extra clothing, headlamp/flashlight, first-aid supplies, fire starter, matches, knife and extra food.

https://www.rei.com/learn/expert-advice/ten-essentials.html

And can I just say, the gear we have available to use is truly remarkable—lightweight, practical, and functional.

What are the Mountaineers’ “Ten Essentials”?

  1. Navigation
  2. Illumination
  3. Sun Protection
  4. First Aid
  5. Tools
  6. Fire
  7. Shelter
  8. Nutrition
  9. Hydration
  10. Clothing

Let’s get into the nitty gritty of the items you really need to carry as you go on day hikes. 

I would suggest that as you transition from your hikes in the summer months to the chillier weather conditions in the Fall, Winter, and Spring, you will add different supplies and items to your list, but always the “Ten Essentials” will be covered.

Essentials for day hiking

1. Navigation

The benefit with many, if not all, of the trails within the US National Parks and State Parks is that there is a map at the trailhead showing the trails within the area and the distance of the hikes on those trails. 

I usually snap a picture with my iPhone of the board for my journaling efforts, but taking a picture of the map can also help in a pinch as you are hiking if you need help navigating.

Trailhead at East Inlet in RMNP

Along the trail you will find markers showing the direction you should go and the distance of nearby hikes.

Trail marker at East Inlet in RMNP

Still, it is recommended that you carry a map with you on your hikes. The Mountaineers would recommend a hard copy map, but if that isn’t possible, make sure that you bring a FULLY CHARGED Portable Charger to ensure that your phone has enough power to get you back to your vehicle. It just so happens that the INIU Portable Charger is one of our 14 Genius Gadgets for Travel as well.

Over the past year, Chris and I have used the AllTrails App. It has options for a free and a paid subscription offering the largest selection of detailed trail maps with reviews and suggestions. 

Be sure to download the maps of your chosen hikes to your cell phone while you have cell service so you can stay on track. If you are hiking in the mountains it is quite likely that you will not have a cell signal.

GPS has revolutionized navigational abilities for hikes, accurately tracking a hiker’s location.

The AllTrails App is $29.99 for 1 year or $60.00 for 3 years.

Find your new favorite trail: Wherever you might be, quickly find the perfect hike, bike ride, or trail run by length, rating, and difficulty level. Filter by dog or kid friendly trails, or find trails with great views.

Follow along on the trail: Turn your phone into a GPS tracker and follow your trail so you don’t get lost. Record your pace, distance, elevation, and max speed, and share your adventures with friends and family.

AllTrails App

When our family traveled to the Grand Lake area of Rocky Mountain National Park in December of 2020, Chris found a hike at East Inlet. It was just after Christmas and the ground was covered in snow. We came prepared for the snow hiking and were bundled up in our Snow Pants, Winter Jackets, Hats, Gloves, etc.

Snow pants

We began our hiking adventure with the sound of scuffing snow pants and crunching snow as we started off walking toward Lone Pine Lake (though we never intended to go the full 5.5 miles there).

Seeing that the river had frozen over and noting the many footprints on the river, we were intrigued and went off trail and began walking on the frozen river. There were occasional breaks in the ice where we could hear the trickling of water. Even some sections where the river wasn’t fully frozen over. 

We walked further and further away from the trail as we hiked and had no choice but to keep walking on the frozen river. We hiked over and under fallen trees. It was an hour or so in that first Kristen and then Misha got a little more wet than they planned on or appreciated. 

Kristen broke through the ice into 5 to 6 inches of freezing cold water. She was not happy. There might have been some tears and frustration. Misha went to rescue her and ended up filling her boots as well.

We climbed over more trees and rocks (I even snagged my new Puffy Jacket) until we finally found the trail again. Quite an adventure. Probably not in Kristen’s top ten though.

As we got back on to the trail, Kristen sat on a rock and pulled off her boots and Chris wrung the water out of her socks. We hiked a mile or so back to the car where the girls peeled off wet boots and socks and tried to warm up. 

My advice? Stay on the trail on your hikes. If you are using the AllTrails Pro App, it will alert you as you begin to go off course. We thought it was fun to walk on the water, but as you can see from the map below, the river took us further and further away from the actual trail.

The thicker line is the marked trail; the narrow line is the path we took along the river.

AllTrails map of East Inlet hike

2. Illumination 

Many of us start our “day hikes” in the light of day and never have the intention of needing any type of light source. As a general rule, that is true.

BUT, it is better to be safe than sorry. Carrying a lightweight LED Headlamp (and spare batteries) or even a small Flashlight is a great idea. A headlamp would give the advantage of allowing you to go “hands free” on your hikes.

With the shorter daylight hours in the winter months, the possibility of needing a headlamp or flashlight is greater.

3. Sun Protection

Over the years, I have encouraged my family to wear sunscreen everyday, but especially when they are in the sun for extended periods of time on our hikes. I even buy them their own tube of the more expensive PCA Skin Active Broad Spectrum SPF 45 sunscreen that I use. You only have one chance to take care of your skin.

Along with sunscreen, I recommend wearing a hat and my optometrist brothers always recommend wearing sunglasses—I like my Ray Bans—to protect your eyes from the sun. Even in the winter.

Hiking in the summertime with a hat and sunglasses

You might also consider sun-protective clothing as well if your skin is especially susceptible to sunburns.

As a melasma sufferer, most of my travel and hiking pictures are accented with a hat or Visor. As a curly-headed person, wearing a hat is a commitment. Once it is on, it is on to stay. That’s why I often like to wear visors. Whatever you choose, buy something cute (or masculine) and be proactive about protecting your skin on your hikes.

4. First Aid

As Chris and I have hiked, we have had a few mishaps of twisted ankles, scrapes, bruises, and blisters. There are a variety of lightweight First Aid Kits available to purchase, or you can assemble your own kit. 

first aid kit

Your first aid kit is only as good as your ability to use it so familiarize yourself with some basic first aid skills.

At a minimum, you first aid kit should include:

5. Fire 

In case of an emergency, being able to start a fire is important. The simple options here include a lighter or small pack of Waterproof Matches. Store these in a small Ziploc and check that the lighter works throughout your hiking season.

6. Tools

It is recommended that you always carry a Leatherman, Swiss Army Knife, or Multi-tool that include a knife and a variety of small tools. You may even want to include some duct tape in your gear.

leatherman multi tool

You don’t need to pack the whole roll, just cut off a section and wrap it around your lighter. It could come in handy for repairing a broken walking pole or mending a hole in your puffy jacket. 

Do you need to consider some kind of animal repellant? I swear, every time Chris and I go on hikes in the summer, I think, “What would I do if I saw a bear or mountain lion?” We haven’t yet, but consider the possibility and be prepared. Adding some Bear Spray in the outer pockets of your backpack might just be a great idea. That and insect and tick repellant.

7. Shelter

How many of us set off on day hikes thinking we may need some shelter along the way? Probably none of us. An easy solution would be packing an Emergency Blanket. It is not meant to provide comfort, but should be lightweight and offer some protection from the elements. A large black garbage bag could also work in a pinch.

8. Hydration

One of the must-haves on a Kline family hiking excursion, and even on our vacations, is a Camelbak 3.0 Liter Hydration Pack Reservoir (or bladder) with a high flow, self-sealing, bite valve. That may sound weird and strange, I know. Chris’ The North Face Recon Backpack, with its padded laptop section, is perfect for a day trip pack which we fill with our lunch, snacks, the Camelbak bladder, and extra water bottles. The laptop section is padded enough to keep the water in the reservoir cool and minimizes any leaks to other sections of the backpack.

camelbak hydration reservoir

You can also buy the 3.0 Liter CamelBak Pack which includes the hydration pack if you prefer. This pack offers enough room to still add your nine other hiking essentials.

camelbak pack

I will say, you really have to like the people you travel with to use this method. We all drink from the same bite valve!

If you are traveling solo, or with people you’d rather not share with, consider investing in a smaller sized 2.0 L CamelBak Hydration Reservoir to add to your backpack or the complete 2.0 Liter CamelBak BackPack with the included Hydration Reservoir.

Fill the CamelBak reservoir with water the night before your hikes and put it in the fridge or freezer overnight (if you put it in the freezer, only fill the reservoir half way and fill the rest of the way with water in the morning). If no fridge or freezer is available, you can add ice to the pack and fill it with water before your hiking adventure. The chilled water keeps the lunch items cool as you hike, and fortunately, the pack gets lighter as the water is consumed. 

It is also common for us to bring a couple of cold bottles of water to tuck into the external side pockets of our backpacks. When you are hiking for hours, water is essential.

We add Electrolytes, Zipfizz, or Crystal Lite single serve packs to the water for a little extra energy or flavor boost.

It is also great suggestion to take Water Purifying Tablets on your hikes just in case. That’s what we are planning for right? Those “just in case” moments.

9. Nutrition

Here’s a common sense guideline for packing food: Bring food that you like to eat!

The food you bring may depend on the time of day when you start your hike. On a typical hiking day for Chris and I, we grab some sandwiches on our way to the trailhead. Add some carrot sticks, apple slices, a salty snack, and something sweet and we are good to go.

If we are setting out after breakfast, we pack our lunch into the backpack next to the CamelBak Reservoir (it keeps everything cool).

Make sure to carry out all of your garbage. 

If we leave later in the day, sometimes we have our lunch at the trailhead before setting out and simply need to pack snacks and drinks for our hike.

Pack more food and snacks than you think you will need.

Let’s talk about snacks—especially if your kids go on hikes with you. There are some members of our family (me included) who need to eat regularly otherwise we crash with low blood sugar, no energy, and crabbiness. If this is you, you might be affectionately called “hangry”—a combination of hungry and angry! We hike with snacks. 

Our girls like Goldfish Crackers and some types of gummy treats that come in single-serve or small packs. Chris also includes individual packs of Peanut M&Ms, Built Bars, Trail Mix, Nuts, and Applesauce Pouches (ingenious).

built bars protein bars

We have tried a variety of power bars, and no doubt, whichever kind we pack, we are pretty sick of them after awhile. But when you need food, and that is what is available, the whining is minimal…never mind, the whining still happens.

We haven’t reached that point with Built Bars. Seriously, the double chocolate mousse bar is fantastic.

We also pack Clif BLOKS Energy Chews and Jelly Belly Sport Beans for our hikes.

10. Clothing

What you wear on your hikes changes with the season. Typically in the summer, Chris and I hike in short sleeve shirts and shorts or leggings (leggings for me, not him). Whoever came up with the idea of side pockets for leggings, thank you. That was a brilliant idea!

Hiking in Rocky Mountain National Park

In the winter, this is the fantastic look we sport for our hikes.

Winter hiking to Loch Lake

Be sure to check the weather before you leave for your hikes, but even so, it is a good idea to be prepared. Pack a Lightweight Rain Jacket in the summer and maybe a Puffy Jacket in the cooler months.

Two great pieces of advice:

  1. Layer your clothing
  2. Invest in quality clothing and shoes

Dressing for Winter Hikes

Top Base Layer – Start with a moisture wicking shirt. You may be surprised how much you will sweat in 10° weather. Drawing that sweat away from your skin and staying warm is essential. Also, consider your underwear layer as these are closest to your skin.

Women: Hanes Sport Women’s Cool DRI Performance Long Sleeve Tee

Men: Hanes Sport Cool DRI Performance T-shirt

Hanes Sport Cool DRI Performance T-shirt

Top Mid Layer – This should be an insulating layer that helps you to retain body heat and to protect you from the cold on your hikes. A long sleeve fleece will meet your needs quite well.

Women: Full Zip Fleece Jacket

Men: Full Zip Fleece Jacket

Full Zip Fleece Jacket

Top Outer Layer – Invest in an outer layer that will protect you from the cold, wind, and snow (or rain). Many winter jackets are designed to be less bulky with a reflective thermal lining that traps your body heat for warmth. Having the hood makes such a difference on a cold and windy day.

Women: Columbia White Out II Omni Heat Hooded Jacket

Men: Columbia White Out II Omni Heat Hooded Jacket

Columbia Omni Heat Hooded Jacket

Bottom Base Layer – Start with a moisture wicking legging or bottom. Again, consider your underwear layer as these are closest to your skin. Take note: Cotton is NOT a moisture wicking material and NOT a good option to wear. This includes jeans.

Women: Heathyoga Leggings

Men: Hanes Men’s Thermowool Pant

Heathyoga Leggings

Bottom Outer Layer – Have you checked the options for fleece-lined leggings or pants? They are an option for men and women. I made the mistake of wearing only thin leggings under my non-fleece lined snow pants on our last hike, and I was so cold. It took me over an hour to warm up.

Women: Fleece-lined Thermal Tights

Men: Fleece-lined Insulated Pants

Fleece-lined Insulated Pants

Snow Pants – It is kind of funny when you look at Chris and I because he needs tall sizes in his pants and I need short or petite sizes. I don’t know how many hikes I have gone on wearing rolled-up snow pants. This year Chris bought me my first pair of petite snow pants. I am sure he was secretly embarrassed to be seen with me scruffing around in too-long pants! They make a difference, so invest in snow pants that are available in short, regular, and tall lengths.

Women: Arctix Insulated Snow Pants

Men: Columbia Bugaboo II Snow Pants

Arctix Insulated Snow Pants

Footwear – Chris and I both got new boots this season. I have had some foot surgeries and procedures over the past two years to correct some issues and having shoes made for hike with a cushioned yet supportive heel is mandatory. For years I resisted getting high-tops thinking they would be restrictive on my hikes, but quite the opposite, they provide support and keep you from inadvertently twisting your ankle.

Women: Oboz Juniper Hiking Shoe

Men: Merrell Moab 2 Hiking Boot

Merrell Moab 2 Hiking Boot

Crampons – Crazy word right? But Crampon Snow Grips make such a difference in being able to walk effectively in snow and to avoid slipping and sliding on the trail. Crampons are unisex but do come in varying sizes, so be sure to check for your size when ordering.

Using crampons to hike in the snow

Socks – Invest in some Wool Socks and keep your feet toasty warm as you hike.

wool socks for hiking

Some extras to think about:

Umbrella – I tuck a small Travel-size Umbrella into my pack in the Summer months. I use it mostly for downpours and those moments when I want to keep my camera dry without having to put it away.

Backpack cover – If you have ever had a rain-soaked backpack, you will understand why Chris and I add a waterproof lightweight Backpack Cover to our pack to keep our stuff dry if it happens to rain. Since I often hike with my Canon 6d Mark II, I don’t want to take any chance of getting it wet.

Canon 6d Mark II

Camera – Are you inclined to take pictures along the way? Cell phone cameras these days are pretty sophisticated and lightweight. In the summer months, I usually go hiking with my Canon 6d Mark II to take advantage of the beautiful scenery. It gets a little heavy around my neck, but the pictures are worth it.

Prepare to capture your best hiking season with 15 Popular Photography Gadgets.

Check out my Hiking and Cold Weather Gear section on My Favorite Travel Things page. You’ll find Gloves, Gaiters, Balaclavas, Hiking Poles and Fleece Ear Warmers. I’ve got you covered from head to toe!

fleece ear warmers

Final Thoughts on The 10 Essentials for the Best Day Hikes

My husband and I love to hike. Spring, Summer, Winter, Fall…if you are prepared for the conditions, hiking can be an enjoyable adventure. Take the time to assemble and pack your ten essentials and be safe!

Day hiking in Colorado

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31 Comments
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Sacha
6 months ago

Thank you for sharing this list of things you need when you go hiking. The photos look incredible!

Nayomi
6 months ago

You live in amazing beautiful location. I wish there was somewhere nearby as interesting to hike, we only have a smal woods nearby

M
M
6 months ago

I LOVE hiking but I never thought of bringing a first aid kit with me. But it’s a great idea! Especially since I saw a snake during one of my hikes last august 😣

Livia Augusta
6 months ago

Very helpful list! And I love, love, love the photos. My family went on a 3-week trip out west 8 years ago and I have so many lovely memories of hiking in the Tetons and in the Grand Canyon.

Beth
6 months ago

This is a great list of things to bring on a hike! I’d love to do some hiking this summer.

Linda
6 months ago

First, your photos are gorgeous! We haven’t planned anything for spring break this year, but this post has me thinking that a couple of day hikes would be fun + safe activities for us! My kiddo happened to peek over my should while I was reading and saw the waterfall pic. He’s never been to a waterfall, so I sold him on the idea of taking a hike to one…we have a couple gorgeous ones here in Virginia! Pinning this so I can pack thoroughly for our upcoming outings!

Kait
6 months ago

I love day hiking (definitely also not a camper at all!) and these are such amazing tips. I love the idea of snapping a photo of the trailhead map. We usually carry a hard copy map, but those can be large and overwhelming depending on the park.

Kiersten
6 months ago

Love this!

Irene
6 months ago

I normally go hiking with nothing more than my stick, some food and my mobile. I will note your checklist.

Jennifer Record
4 months ago

I ordered the socks after your recommendation and they just arrived! Can’t wait to test them out!

Irene
4 months ago

How many thing do you need to go for a walk? I always go with my mobile and nothing else.

Linda (LD Holland)
25 days ago

Having the right gear make so much of a difference on having a great hike. It took me ages to find the right hiking boots. And I resisted hiking poles for far longer than I should have. We should remember a first aid kit more of the time when we hike.

Jan
Jan
24 days ago

Stunning images! Yes, having all the essentials for a hike such as proper clothing, shoes, and sunscreen will make the hike more pleasurable. Hydration and energy bars are two ‘musts’ whether you are going hiking in summer or winter. Great tips! 🙂

Kez
24 days ago

I hike regularly, but it doesn’t show where I live, so no need for layers and crampons. I hiked in snow once and really don’t want to do it again, haha.

I always carry a first aid kit, like the one you have pictured. For snacks, I make my own! My favourite snacks to make are energy balls and nut butters. For multi day treks, I dehydrate food as well.

Kate
24 days ago

I always seem to forget something important when I go hiking, so this list is very helpful! I think the first aid kit is especially important.

Meghan
Meghan
23 days ago

This is such a great list. Definitely agree with the park pass. Thanks for sharing!