What I carry in my pack (or pockets) on day hikes, and why.

Jim Lux (805) 495-5830

Revised November 12, 1993 and again on June 5, 1995

HTML'ized May 1997

When you set out into the wilderness on a day hike, there are some things that you probably should carry (other than yourself). Over the years, what I carry has evolved into what is necessary to deal with the mundane expected requirements of the hike, along with some additions to handle some unexpected emergencies: typically an unplanned overnight stay, an accident requiring first aid, or most common, some sort of gear failure. Interestingly, this is the same sort of gear you would need to survive a disaster like an earthquake, so it is handy to have around in general.

You have probably seen "Ten Essentials" lists, which invariably have different sets of what the author considered essential. It depends on the author's preferences, the environment, and the activity. What is essential in the north woods of Canada is different than the Mojave desert. You have to start with some collection of gear, and then evolve to what YOU find important. This note describes what I carry around, and more important, why I carry it, so you can decide if you need to carry it too, or if you should make changes.

The biggest mistake is to carry too much. A few extra pounds on your back can make for a miserable trip. On the other hand, not having that essential item when you need it also makes it miserable. It is all a tradeoff, based on your skills and what might happen. Decide how likely the circumstance is that will need a particular piece of gear, and how miserable you will be if you don't have it. The most important things are those that will keep you alive, if a bit miserable. Sure, you may be uncomfortable and hungry, but you'll be alive to tell the story.

Many "10 essentials" lists have food on the list. This is nonsense. Anyone can survive a day or two without eating. You do need water, though. This is not to say that I don't carry lunch or snacks on a long hike, it's just not an "essential" for all hikes. Hey, on some hikes, a cold beer is an essential.

In addition to the essentials, you can (and should) carry stuff that corresponds to your particular interests (i.e. altimeters, hand lenses, cameras, etc.). For instance, I carry a Brunton Pocket Transit as a compass, even though it is massive overkill for navigation; However, I can use it to measure and calculate how high a tree is, for mapping trails and points of interest, etc.

I generally leave the day pack packed all the time, so I can just grab it and go. Obviously, with this strategy, you want to replace things that you have used as soon as possible. Some of the items I carry in my pockets (i.e. knife), others I throw in the pack. Some of the items are actually combined into one package (i.e. matches, water purification, etc. goes into first aid kit).

Some of the things on the list have changed since I last wrote it up. Some of the additions are because I foolishly omitted them from the first list (i.e. toilet paper). In other cases, I have found something nifty or useful to add, like the Leatherman tool.

Here is the quick and dirty list, but you should really read the explanations also. It is divided into the "gotta have it" and "nice to have it" categories. Within those categories, there isn't any particular order.


Gotta Have It Nice to have it
  • Thermometer
  • Altimeter
  • Hand lens
  • Sunscreen
  • Bug Repellent
  • Leatherman Tool
  • Throw Away Camera
  • Radio
  • Walking Stick
  • Surveyors Flagging Tape
  • GPS


The details

Water - 1 or 2 liters (quarts) per person per day. Why you should carry this needs no explanation - Without water, you die; without food you just get skinny. I have been using the 1 liter widemouth polyethylene bottles for years, but I don't see any reason why you shouldn't just use the thinner, lighter "Evian" type bottle. For a long hot hike, freeze one of the bottles the night before, and wrap it in a jacket before putting in the pack. Don't freeze all of your water!! The large mouth bottles are easier for mixing in drink powders like Gatorade. Don't drink your water too fast (1/4-1/2 cup/hr)

Knife - I carry a basic Swiss Army type with blades, scissors, and can openers/screwdrivers. The scissors come in handy for repairs and cutting tape. The can opener requires a bit of practice to become facile. And, I have actually used the corkscrew as intended several times.

50 feet of 1/4" Nylon rope - This is amazingly useful for a variety of things: Emergency repairs (tying up broken parts, tree branches, etc.), support for shelter, replacement dog leash, etc. It's also handy for tying things on the outside of the pack. Sometimes, when I get ambitious or bored, I mark the rope every other foot, so I can use it as a tape measure. Melt the ends of the rope so it doesn't unravel.

Permanent marker - I use a Sharpie Laundry Marker type. It's waterproof and writes on just about anything, so you can make notes on things like pieces of tape, your skin, the victim's forehead, and plastic bags.

Pad of paper & pencil - Very handy for obvious reasons. If an emergency occurs, you can write down facts at the time, as opposed to depending on memory. This is very important for first aid and evacuations, since you can write down vital signs, etc. Pencils are better (if you avoid sitting or stepping on them and crushing them), because pens freeze or dry up. I also wrap a rubber band around the pad to keep the pages from flapping in the breeze. A plastic sandwich bag keeps it dry.

Map - So you know where you are supposed to be going and to identify that peak over there on the horizon. A less obvious, but actually more common reason to carry a map is that I have found a good map handy when you have to explain to someone else where something is or where to go. Rather than say, it's over on that hill there, you can actually point to it on the map.

Compass - Not really necessary if you are familiar with area, but it's handy when you want to know what that peak on the horizon is, or if you are doing some mapping work. Also, it's just one of the "tools of the trade" of the outdoorsman. The $10 Silva type 7 is sufficient, and weighs but a few ounces.

Flashlight with extra bulbs and batteries - I have a flashlight which has an external headlamp you plug in. If the flashlight bulb dies, I still have the headlamp, and vice versa. I have found the headlamp really useful because you don't have to hold the flashlight in your teeth to free your hands. A nice inexpensive small flashlight is the 2 AA cell ones made by Mallory You can use the flashlight batteries to start a fire in a pinch by shorting out the batteries with a piece of wire.

Matches & Candles - Not that I think you actually would need this on a day hike, but you'd really want it if you got caught out or if it starts to snow (not likely in some places, but "be prepared"). If you have to build a fire in the rain, a candle works a lot better than just matches. I have a couple of pieces of utility candles (the ones about 3/4" in diameter) about 2 or 3" long that I carry in the first aid kit. Votive light type candles don't work as well. You can also shave slivers of wax onto your kindling for firestarting. In the right area, a smoky signal fire would attract a lot of attention (of course, this requires care and discretion: you don't want to have a 10,000 acre signal fire). Flames are also good for sealing the end of nylon rope and sterilizing instruments like tweezers and knife blades.

Emergency Space Blanket - This is one of the $3 thin aluminized mylar ones, not the heavier woven variety. It weighs less than 3 ozs, and is actually quite useful. I have used it many times: When it got colder than expected, I used it as a sleeping bag liner; I've used it as emergency foul weather gear in a thunderstorm on Lake Powell; etc. A small strip of it will work as emergency sunglasses as well. They are also good for wrapping victims of shock. They never fold up as small again, so just throw it away and get another if you have to use it.

Whistle - Whistles are louder than yelling, and they don't take as much energy. You can whistle all day long if need be. Groups of three blasts (or SOS, in Morse code) is supposedly the distress signal, but I've never actually talked to anyone who used it that way and had it work, but then, the people I talk about wilderness experiences with aren't the type who tend to get lost.

Trash can bags - Carry one or two of the big ones (get the cheapest, flimsiest (i.e. light weight) ones you can). Use them for trash you pick up on the trail, or, you can cut holes in it to make an emergency rain coat. I also usually carry some small plastic bags for specimens or samples I find on the trail.

Bandanna or triangular bandage - For triangular bandages use the cheap muslin ones you get from Red Cross first aid class.

Toilet Paper - Wait til the roll at home gets down to 3/4 gone, then put it in a plastic bag in your pack. The plastic bag is important as wet toilet paper is useless. The "purse pack" size of Kleenex also works, but regular old TP seems to work better.

First aid/Repair kit - Not only first aid, but a general purpose repair kit too. Some of the stuff in my list of first aid kit contents isn't really needed for day hikes, but I carry the same kit on longer trips and it is easier to have one box I throw in the pack, than trying to carry different versions for different types of trip.

I store all of the first aid stuff in a waterproof 1 qt rectangular plastic box (Tupperware or Rubbermaid type) about 5x8x1.5 inches. If I ever find a lightweight waterproof aluminum box of appropriate size, I will start using that, since you could cook in it, if need be.

Unbreakable Mirror - I have started carrying one of these recently after talking to someone who does search and rescue. What a searcher is looking for is something that isn't natural (like those regularly spaced whistles, in groups of 3). The brilliant reflection of sun off of a small 3x5 mirror is really unnatural, and can be seen for dozens of miles. The guy I was talking to said they saw someone signalling for help from several miles away in an airplane.

Sunscreen - Waterproof SPF 15. Get a small "trial size" if you can.

Bug repellent - Something with a relatively high DEET percentage makes life a little easier, if there are bugs. I have heard that 100% DEET is bad to put on your skin. A clever idea is to put the repellent on a mesh shirt which you wear over your clothes. I haven't tried it yet, but it should work, except you still need bug dope on your hands and face.

Leatherman tool - This is a really handy folding tool kit that weighs about 4 oz, and costs $40 at most stores. It has real screwdrivers and, most useful, a pair of needle nose pliers, as well as a file, knife, etc. I started carrying one for work, and have found it so useful, it goes with me everywhere. There is a competitor made by Gerber, but, I cannot recommend it and here is why. There are also other Leatherman imitators selling for around $10, but they aren't even worth the time to describe why they are so bad.

If you get a Leatherman, be aware that there are two cases available: the original leather one, and a nylon Cordura one. It's personal preference, but I like the nylon case (my wife, on the other hand, prefers the leather one). Also, because the blades are made from a steel that works for screwdrivers as well as knife blades, etc, they don't hold as good an edge as a purpose built knife (like your Swiss Army type) which uses a good knife steel.

There is now a $70 SUPER leatherman, which has more blades, weighs more, and is somewhat bigger. Aside from the extra blades, which I don't really need, the neat feature of the new tool is that all the blades (particularly the screwdrivers) lock open, so when you bear down on that recalcitrant screw, it doesn't fold up on your hand.

Thermometer - For idle amusement. I suppose you could calculate wind chill if it were important to know the exact number. One of those little thermometers you hang on a parka or a watch that includes a thermometer is just the ticket. The Casio watch with a thermometer is kind of interesting because it remembers how cold it got last night on an overnight trip so that you can brag effectively.

Altimeter - For navigation. When climbing a significant mountain, or navigating in rugged terrain, an altimeter is very useful. Cross country travel up a mountain is usually at a constant vertical feet per hour rate, as opposed to miles per hour. Also, if you are climbing a 10,000 foot mountain, it's nice to know you are at 9900 feet, and don't have much farther to go.

Hand lens - For idle amusement. I suppose you could start a fire with it in a pinch, but I think matches and candles (which you should be carrying anyway) work a whole lot better.

Surveyors flagging tape - This is that brightly colored plastic tape about an inch wide. It isn't sticky, but you can tear it off and tie it around branches, rocks, signs, and trees. It is handy for marking trails, particularly if you are with a group that gets strung out, or if you have to go off trail and want to find your way back. Also, remember you can write on it with your Sharpie.

Disposable camera in a box - This is really handy for taking that quick photo of something interesting, and it is cheap enough that if it gets destroyed, you won't cry. Just don't expect good accurate color rendition after the camera (and the film) have been sitting in your pack for 6 months in the sun. More comments on cameras.

Walking Stick(s) - As I get older (and as I carry a squirming child on my back), I find that a walking stick is really nice. I got lucky and got a set of the really trick adjustable trekking poles for a gift. They are like a ski pole, except spring loaded and collapsible with a carbide tip. However, I think almost anything would do. They are just the thing when crossing a creek with slippery rocks, going down steep hills, pushing rattlesnakes out of the way, etc. I have marked mine off with 10 cm colored bands to use as a ruler and to put in photographs to give some scale.

Radio - A cell phone would work in many areas, although coverage is spotty in rugged terrain, and non-existent in the wilderness (although I have made cell calls from the top of Mt. San Antonio (Old Baldy) and Mt. San Jacinto). Be aware that 911 gets you to the CHP. If you get into trouble you really want to call the regular 7 digit number instead.

Another option is Amateur Radio. You can get a license now without having to know Morse Code, just taking a test on the rules and some simple theory. You can get a radio for about $200 new and substantially less used. If you carry a radio, it obviously helps if someone is on the other end listening. I haven't had opportunity to test this extensively yet, however, in our area, there are several repeaters that are monitored pretty much continuously.

In general, radio doesn't work too well from the bottom of a canyon, except to a satellite or airplane overhead.

Don't let the ability to yell for help make you careless. They have a real problem in the French Alps now with people who don't take bivouac gear on long climbs, and if the weather turns bad, or the climb just gets too hard, they call for help on the radio and wait for the gendarmes to winch them off the mountain.

Other Toys and Ideas

Plastic cups for group hikes. For those hikers who didn't bring water (most of them, it seems) and who need some, cups are more sanitary than letting them all drink from my bottle.

If I am going to be sitting around a lot, particularly on snow or rocks, I have a piece of ensolite padding about a foot square that I carry. It's also handy for padding the junk in the day pack so that it doesn't stick into my back.

I also almost always carry a windbreaker or parka, although for a short day hike in very familiar terrain (like behind my house) in decent weather, I wouldn't bother. At night, I always carry one, even if not planning to stay out. You might run across someone or something that requires you to spend a lot longer than you planned, and hypothermia is no fun. The jacket is a lot easier to put on and off than the emergency blanket, which would of course also work. In a pinch, don't forget that even the trash can bags will add a significant degree of warmth, especially if you are wet.

I usually have a few pieces of 1" tubular nylon webbing about 5' long tied to the pack and a few carabiners, mostly for convenience in hanging the pack up. However, I once used the runners as a splint (Figure 8 bandage over boot) when I sprained my ankle several miles from the trailhead. A runner can also be used as a shoulder strap if you need to carry something else. The nylon webbing is easy to tie things with, but still unties easily. It is also incredibly strong.

Liquids in bottles go in a plastic bag. Once you have had sunscreen, Betadine, or bug dope all over your pack (and food), you'll always do the same.

Scientific supply stores are a good source for small, strong squeeze bottles. TriEss Sciences in Burbank is the closest one to Thousand Oaks. Places like REI, A-16, and Sport Chalet also carry some small bottles.

GPS receiver - Isn't modern technology wonderful? While I don't actually carry a GPS with me all the time, they are a handy device, and should eliminate a lot of the "which way back to camp?" and "where exactly are we?" kind of questions. There are a lot of tradeoffs in selecting a GPS receiver depending on which features, what sort of battery life, and the level of performance you need.