see that beautiful place outside your windows? It’s easier than ever to get out there and spend a few hours or a few days breathing in the fresh air and sleeping under the stars. America has never had more public wilderness set aside for your enjoyment than it does right now, and no matter where you live, there are most likely trails near you.
Yet getting started can be daunting. Fear not. It’s easier than you might think to stay dry, warm, hydrated, and safe. In this guide, we have recommendations for everything you need to take to the outdoors, whether it’s just a peaceful afternoon hike or a roving weekend-long backpacking trip.
Updated June 2022: We’ve added overnight hiking gear such as tents, sleeping bags, bigger backpacks, stoves, cookware, and water purification systems.
Table of Contents
For all but the coldest hikes, you can wear a short-sleeve base layer next to your skin and build your clothing system out from there. Synthetics, like this 100 percent recycled polyester shirt, are affordable and dry sweat quickly. For warm-weather activities, merino wool is suitable, and I recommend SmartWool’s Merino Tee ($75), which is available in women’s and men’s sizing.
Your mid-layer goes between your base layer and shell, even though it’s usually too warm to wear while hiking. More often, you’ll throw it on during breaks and while doing camp chores. I’m a fan of fleece for mid-layers because it’s durable and doesn’t lose loft after being compressed in your pack.
Base layers are thin layers that go next to your skin. They can be made from a variety of materials, but they need to wick sweat away and keep you warm. For bottoms, even in most cold weather, you’ll be fine with short underwear like these briefs from ExOfficio.
Puffy jackets can be worn as mid-layers instead of fleece. More often, though, they comprise the outermost layer of your clothing system. Size up so that it can fit over your base layer, mid-layer, and rain jacket. Puffies are very warm but fragile.
REI’s sub-$100 Rainier jacket uses high-quality laminate waterproofing to protect you from getting soaked. It’s well made and has a weatherproof center zip, along with pit zips for improved ventilation. It’s a great and well-priced option for casual day hikes. Read our Best Rain Jackets guide for more recommendations. I also like Arc’teryx’s Gamma SL Hoodie ($225), a quality soft-shell that trades some water resistance for greater breathability.
Shoes, Socks, and Accessories
You won’t have any fun on a hike—of any length—if you have bloody blisters on your feet. You may need to experiment to find out which shoes and socks you like best. Be sure to check out our Best Trail-Running Shoes, Best Barefoot Shoes, and Best High-Tech Socks guides for more.
For moderate temperatures we prefer low-top, non-Gore-Tex mesh trail shoes, like these from Salomon. We also like the Merrell Moab 2 Ventilator (women’s sizing, men’s sizing) for $110. For areas still snowy and icy this time of year, the Lowa Renegade GTX Mid (men’s sizing, women’s sizing) for $245 is more stable, and the Gore-Tex-lined leather keeps wet snow from soaking through your boots.
If your feet run hot, you want synthetic socks, which dry out faster than wool. This pair by Wrightsock are synthetic and have two layers to avoid blisters. Anyone can wear these, but Wrightsock also makes a version in women’s sizing ($14) that’s more tapered and slim-fitting. Darn Tough also makes merino wool socks in a wide range of thicknesses, and they come with a lifetime guarantee.
Depending on the weather, you may need a sun hat or beanie to protect your noggin. I like a wool beanie to guard my neck against sunburn in cool weather, and this Smartwool is quite comfy. Check out our other guides, like the Best Sun Protection Clothing and Best Sunglasses for more suggestions.
You probably don’t need gaiters, but if you’re walking through dusty environments, you’ll welcome them. They prevent crud from entering the tops of your shoes.
Water Bottles and Purification
One of the biggest beginner mistakes is to not bring water, even on short hikes. Depending on the heat and your level of exertion, you could get thirstier than you think. For a short day hike, a liter bottle should be enough. If you’re heading out all day or if it’s particularly hot or dry, read travelogues and park ranger recommendations and pack accordingly. Check out our Best Water Bottles guide for more suggestions.
Metal water bottles are unnecessarily heavy for longer trips, but they’re fine for day hikes when it’s not freezing out (watch A Christmas Story if you want to know why). You also can’t go wrong with a classic Nalgene bottle ($16) if it’s freezing cold. Of course, if you have plastic bottles lying around at home, you can use those (just remember not to leave them on the trail).
If you favor hydration bladders instead of water bottles, this is a good one. Before I switched back to bottles, I preferred my Platypus to my CamelBak because it was easier to clean out between hikes.
Water filters remove not only viruses and bacteria, but sediment too. Collapsible filter systems like the Sawyer Squeeze are extremely effective, lightweight, and quick. You could use water purification tablets or droplets instead, like Micropur ($16), but know that they can take up to half an hour to work on most viruses and bacteria, and four hours (!) on Cryptosporidium. If the water is below 60 degrees Fahrenheit, it takes even longer to work.
If you’re going out for a day trip, you can get by with a sandwich and a handful of salty snacks, which will help you retain the water you drink. If you’re going to be outdoors overnight though, you’ll be happier if you bring a stove and cookware. The way to a happy heart is through a hiker’s stomach. Take a look at our Best Camp Stoves and Best Camping Gear guides while you’re at it.
Canister stoves, which use commonly available isobutane/propane fuel canisters, are easy to use, very compact, and lightweight. I also like the Jetboil Flash ($115), which is an integrated cooking system that includes a cooking pot.
Each person should have a cooking pot of 0.75- to 1-liter capacity. This stainless steel Snow Peak model weighs only 9 ounces, but if you want to trim even more weight off your pack, the titanium MSR Titan Kettle ($70) weighs a mere 4.2 ounces.
If you plan on eating out of dehydrated and freeze-dried meal packets, you’ll need a long spoon to reach the food at the bottom. This one will do the job.
You don’t have to gobble energy gels, but most of these snacks are portable and even tasty (once in a while). Check out your grocery store for real food. Pretzel nuggets and Pop-Tarts make for popular hiking snacks. Fruit and nuts are a nice break from heavily processed foods too.
You’re probably not in active danger on a popular, well-traveled beginner trail. But it’s still a good idea to pack a few of these items just in case.
Your hike might take longer than you think. If you run the risk of getting back after dark, a headlamp that shines at least 300 lumens will keep you on the path and leave your hands free. Get one that accepts AAA batteries rather than a nonremovable rechargeable battery, so you can bring spares on long trips.
A mirror, which you aim at overhead aircraft to draw their attention, and an Acme Tornado Whistle ($5) can signal for help if you need rescue.
If you aren’t bringing a tent, then bring an emergency bivvy. It weighs less than 4 ounces and will keep you dry and warm (ish) if you spend an unplanned night outdoors.
A First-Aid Kit
Prepackaged first aid kits are heavy, expensive, and usually incomplete. Pack your own in a little bag. Add some Band-Aid Hydro Seal ($4). They’re the most amazing blister bandages I’ve ever used. And pick up a Tick Key ($10) or a Coghlans Tick Remover ($7) to get those pesky bugs off your skin. Peruse our Home Emergency Kit Gear guide for other ideas.
Sleeping under the stars is fun—until it rains. Or until the mosquitoes launch an attack on you. Generally, you should bring a shelter where you can unfurl a sleeping bag for bedtime. It’s easy to splash a lot of cash on your shelter, but here we’ve highlighted the best-value gear for keeping your head dry, warm, and comfortable at night. Our Best Tents guide has more recommendations.
This is our favorite tent for most people. It’s cheap, easy to set up, and spacious. There’s good rain protection, and the bug screen keeps those critters out. For winter conditions, use a four-season tent, such as the Marmot Thor 2P ($524). I also recommend looking into a tent footprint, also known as a groundsheet or ground cloth. This is a rectangular piece of water-resistant fabric—typically made from the same material as your tent—that extends the life of your tent floor by protecting it from abrasion. It’s usually sold by the maker of your tent and is sized specifically to fit that model.
Skip the plastic pegs and buy stainless steel tent pegs. For more holding strength in loose soil, you can upgrade to Y-beams, such as MSR Groundhogs ($4 per stake). Aluminum tends to get stuck if the ground frosts overnight, but a splash of warm water will get them unstuck. Titanium pegs, such as Vargo Titanium Nail Pegs ($27 for a six-pack), are good for hard, rocky ground full of stones, where aluminum stakes may bend.
I’d rather save my headlamp batteries, so at the end of a long day of hiking, I clip this tiny LED lantern to a gear loop inside my tent. It takes up practically no room in your pack and weighs little more than half an ounce.
Mummy-style bags are lighter than rectangular bags and close snugly around your head. If you want to stay as warm as possible, you may want to buy a bag rated for colder temperatures than you plan to experience, such as the Marmot Ultra Elite 30 ($198).
A closed-cell foam pad under your sleeping bag is a cheap and durable way to add comfort and retain more warmth. Inflatable pads like the Therm-a-Rest NeoAir XLite ($180) pack smaller and are even warmer, but can be delicate on rocky ground. If it’s really cold, sleep on both types of pad stacked on each other.
All right! Now that you have all your gear, you need something to carry it in. The most important aspect of a backpack is that it fits you properly. Outdoor retailers like REI offer in-person fittings. Features like water bottle pockets, loops for hitching gear, and chest or waist straps will probably vary depending on the level of activity that you’re expecting.
The sweet spot for a daypack is between 15 and 25 liters—enough to hold rain layers, a fleece, maps, water, sunscreen, lunch, and snacks, plus room for a book or camera gear. If this one’s out of stock, I also like the Mountain Hardwear UL 20 ($80).
If you plan longer overnight trips, you’ll need an internal-frame pack. You can carry 30 to 35 pounds comfortably and hold enough for a week to 10 days in a 60- to 70-liter pack. The Osprey Renn 65 ($165) is designed for women and is most similar to the Rook 65. The ULA Circuit ($280) is the archetypical ultralight option, if you’re willing to spend a bit more.
If you get caught in the rain, a pack cover is a quick and convenient solution. However, it’s worth noting that water will still soak your pack’s uncovered back pad. If you’re hiking overgrown and under-maintained trails, a pack cover could also act as a sacrificial protective barrier that keeps your expensive pack from getting cut up.
A Pack Liner
Use a small trash compactor bag as a water-resistant pack liner inside your pack to keep everything dry in case it rains. They’re more durable than trash bags and almost as cheap. For a second layer of defense against moisture, pack your clothing and shelter in water-resistant stuff sacks or dry sacks.
Trip preparation begins long before you pull your pack out of your closet and begin cramming it full of stuff. You can’t learn everything before you actually take your first outdoors trip, but you can set yourself up for success by learning a few key skills so that when you do run into a problem, you’ll remember just how to handle it.
Outdoor manuals can be fun and useful tools for preparation, as well as an accumulation of helpful tips. Rick Curtis’ The Backpacker’s Field Manual is the best comprehensive guidebook on hiking I’ve read. You can also practice reading topographic maps with your compass while reading Wilderness Navigation ($15) by Bob and Mike Burns.
Satellite messengers can be useful, but they’re expensive, and you might not have to use them that often. You probably have a great hiking companion already in your pocket. Alltrails is my favorite free pre-trip planner and trail discovery tool, but we have more in our Best Hiking Apps guide.
If you’re alone in the woods, it’s helpful to know what to do in emergency situations. A first aid course focused on outdoors situations is a good place to start. If you want more comprehensive (and expensive) training, the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS) has a very well-done Wilderness First Responder course.
There are always a few odds and ends to make your trips a little more enjoyable, whether that’s by taking pressure off your battered knees or keeping your phone juiced up so you have plenty of evidence when your friends back home say, “Pics or it didn’t happen.”
I always bring a small battery bank to keep my phone topped off. There are no power outlets in the wilderness (I’ve checked). Check out our Best Portable Chargers guide for more recommendations.
Suunto makes my favorite compasses. The park ranger’s office will usually have topographic trail maps if you stop off before the trailhead, but America’s parks are more popular and crowded than ever. Buy some ahead of time if you can, so you’re not without a map if the ranger’s office runs out. Once you become more advanced in navigation and travel more remote trails, you may want a Suunto MC-2G Mirror Compass ($105), but that’s overkill for most hikes.
Save your knees on downhill hikes and provide stability on sketchy trails with a pair of trekking poles. These have strong adjustment levers that never come loose or slip, no matter how hard you lean on them. Rubber tip covers ($7) keep them from scraping up trails, and snow baskets ($11) prevent them from punching through snow.