What Hiking Gear Do I Need? | Hikers University

Packing for a hiking trip is exhausting. You need all the necessary gear while traveling light. You might be thinking, "What hiking gear do I need?"

Should you get a synthetic sleeping quilt or a down sleeping quilt? Which backpack should you buy? Which footwear would be the best fit: trail shoes or hiking boots? All the endless gear options shadow your decision, making packing an impossible task.

The hiking gear you need depends on your objective (camping or hiking), weather conditions on the trail, your budget, weight limit, and your taste. The gear systems you need to plan accordingly are clothing, footwear, navigation, shelter, sleeping, water, nutrition, fire, first-aid kit, and backpack.

Below, you'll find a list of items according to each gear system that you can take on your hike. This comprehensive guide contains tricks that expert hikers have mastered after trial and error over the years.

I have compiled some of the expert hikers' suggestions and brought you a list of all the gear necessary for a safe and successful hike. Our research goes beyond the typical article research. I also delved deeply into interviews of world-class hikers like Andrew Skurka for a first-hand account of his hike experiences and planning process.

Table of contents


What You Should Pack for Your Hike

Let’s get you started on the gear systems and essentials of a hike.


You should pick clothes for your hike according to your trail's location, weather, and environmental conditions. Hence, we recommend checking the weather forecast for that area before packing clothes.

There are three layers of clothing that hikers generally prefer to wear or carry on hikes.

Active Layer

The active layer is your primary layer of clothing to cover your body for modesty. This layer is designed to act as a barrier between your skin and environmental factors, such as sunlight and bugs. These articles of clothing include your underwear, T-shirts or shirts, pants, etc.

If you're hiking at a pleasant time of the year to a location with no environmental challenges, a light wool or polyester T-shirt or shirt might do the trick. You can wear clothes with long sleeves for sun protection. You can easily wear clothes made from breathable materials since bugs and insects won't give you any problems.

If you're hiking someplace where you might need thick protection from the environment, a nylon shirt and pants would be perfect. Such synthetic materials provide a tough layer of protection from bugs, ensuring your skin remains unaffected. The thick material would also protect you from bushy thorns and the effects of sunlight.


Shells are a protective layer of clothing that protect you against wind and rain. These are the coats worn on your active layer, ensuring extra protection. Two popular types of shells are water-resistant shells and waterproof-breathable shells.

Water-resistant shells are breathable, allowing air to enter and sweat to evaporate from beneath. These shells have a water-repellent layer that makes the water slip away without sticking to the cloth or getting absorbed.

However, due to environmental conditions and abrasions, the thin layer is prone to wear, leaving the shell more appropriate for the windy climate or less rainy locations.

In my experience, waterproof-breathable shells aren't too breathable. They remain waterproof for longer than water-resistant shells by delaying getting wet. If you're hiking at a place that rains for a shorter period, such shells are perfect.

Regardless of which materials are used to manufacture waterproof or water-resistant products, the climate will eventually wear them out. Therefore, I advise you to have realistic expectations about your gear's effectiveness and be prepared for all circumstances.


There's always a debate about down vs. synthetic insulation; which one should you pick? This choice depends on what's your hiking location.

Down Insulation

Down insulated jackets have geese or duck feathers as their undercoating. These lightweight jackets trap the air and body heat inside, not allowing them to dissipate for a long time. The only downside of down insulation is that it absorbs ambient humidity, making it wet, and the insulation then stops working. Therefore, down insulation is effective when hiking in places with dry climates.

Synthetic Insulation

Synthetic insulated jackets consist of polyester fibers trapping the heat inside but not for as long as down-insulated ones. They also weigh heavier than down-insulated jackets. However, these jackets are compatible with the Eastern climate as they are waterproof. You're perfectly equipped for humid weather conditions with these jackets.


Your footwear is the most important system for your hike. It can add comfort to your hike or totally bust it because of the discomfort. Therefore, you must have all the footwear essentials that work for you covered.


Let's end the trail running shoes vs. hiking boots debate: trail running shoes are perfect for your hikes. Allow me to elaborate.

Your trail running shoes are lightweight on your feet, allowing you to walk and run without strain. They are also super comfortable and protect your feet from rocks and other environmental factors. People judge these shoes on their non-waterproof property: yes, they can get wet easily.

In contrast, your hiking boots are heavy on the legs making the hike quite difficult. They might protect your ankle and feet from the rocks that come on the way. Ultimately, your knee absorbs the impact of such abnormalities on the trail. Yes, the boots are waterproof, but for how long?

Waterproof shoes have an additional water-repellent layer that eventually wears off. That same layer also doesn't allow your shoe to dry off quickly. Also, despite the water-repellant layer, the water might enter your boots from the ankle cavity.

In short, regardless of your countless efforts, you will get your feet wet. Therefore, you need shoes that would not get wet easily but dry faster. Trail running shoes get wet and dry easily, making them perfect for your hikes.

You would want to fight off the moisture accumulated to protect your feet from infections. Use a waxing balm to form a protective layer around your feet and save them from getting infected.


Some people might opt for nylon or polyester material for socks. However, I would recommend wool for the same purpose as the trail running shoes. They absorb heat but dry easily. Change your pair of socks twice a day. While you're wearing one, you can wash and dry the other by attaching it to your backpack.


Your ankles' biomechanic design works to absorb the impact of uneven surfaces. However, if your ankles aren't robust enough, you can always use some extra protection, such as gaiters. Gaiters might add more weight to your foot. However, they make walking easy while blocking stuff from getting into shoes.

Navigation Tools

Navigation tools are imperative for hiking in the wilderness where the trail isn't defined. Even if the trail you're hiking on is popular, it is always wise to keep some tools with you that can guide you on the way.

You'll want a map and compass to help guide you along the trail. Also, look for landmarks like streams and rock formations. Be sure to practice using your map and compass before heading out on your hike. You should be comfortable reading them while hiking uphill with a full pack on your back!


A GPS device is another useful tool for keeping track of where you're going and how far away from your destination point you still have left to go before reaching camp for the night.

Should you prefer a compass over a GPS device? Definitely!

A GPS device relies on batteries that can easily run out of their juice or not function at all at some altitudes. Besides that, a map gives you a higher resolution on a wide paper and shows any landmarks you should be aware of. A GPS would only show you the fastest direction even though there might be a broad stream between your current location and destination.

Shelter System

The role of a shelter during a hike isn't to provide you with a place to sleep; sleeping bags can do that for you. It would be best to ultimately have shelter to protect yourself from wind conditions, rainfall, and bugs. Therefore, the shelter you take with you on your hike depends on your location and season.


Your shelter can be as simple or complex as you like. Some people carry only a tarp or poncho that they can use to create a makeshift shelter when needed — this is called "bivouacking." You will find many options that combine a tent body with one or two integrated rainfly that make set-up fast and easy. These are often called "tarp tents." It would help if you also considered combining an ultralight tarp with a bivy sack to get a water-resistant shelter.

The tarps only provide a shelter above like a roof. Cover your tent with net protection to ensure mosquitoes do not bite you while you sleep.

Sleeping System

Yes, the weight you carry during the hike matters and should be minimized but not at the cost of essentials. A sleeping system is imperative for a hike because only a good sleep can ensure an active you in the morning. Besides your creativity, decision-making and awareness are all affected by low-quality sleep.

A sleeping bag or pad will keep you warm and comfortable at night.

Two things matter the most for good comfortable sleep: your location and your sleeping bag.

The location where you choose to set up your shelter and sleeping bag should be on a soft moss surface where the water quantity is low. It would keep bugs away from you, providing quality sleep. The low water concentration also ensures a dry surface that your sleeping bag doesn't absorb. As a result, you remain warm in your sleeping bag.


A good sleeping bag should be warm enough for the conditions but not too warm to make you sweat during the night. Therefore, avoid taking mummy bags that pack you up entirely and don't give you room to breathe.

If you're hiking in cold weather, buy a sleeping bag made of synthetic or down insulation; these are lighter and warmer than down-filled bags. If you're hiking in warmer weather, choose a lighter-weight synthetic or down bag. You'll also need a pillowcase or stuff sack for storing your sleeping bag in your backpack during the day.


There are several ways to carry water on a hike. Some hikers use heavy plastic containers; others use bottles that can be purchased at any sporting goods store. Still, others carry water in their backpacks using specially designed bladders that hold up to three liters of water.

Regardless of which method you choose, always carry at least one liter of water per person per day. More than this is unnecessary unless you expect to be out all day or in temperatures over 80 degrees Fahrenheit (27 Celsius).

Filling up your bottles each morning at home before leaving for the trailhead will help ensure you have enough water for the day's hike. If you anticipate needing more than two liters per day, consider carrying more than one bottle, but don't overdo it! Two liters per person per day is enough.

Water sources along trails can vary greatly depending on where you are hiking and what time of year it is. However, in most cases, there will be someplace where you can refill your bottles with clean drinking water from a natural source such as a stream or lake (although these may be seasonal).

A few backpack models also support hydration systems. There are two main types of backpack hydration systems: bladder and hose systems.

The bladder system is usually just a plastic bag that holds the water; they're usually sold separately from the pack itself (though some packs come with them built-in). The hose system requires you to have a separate hose attached to your mouthpiece, which allows you to drink while hiking without stopping walking each time.

The next step is treating your water to be safe to drink. There are several ways to do this:

Boiling water for 10 minutes will kill most bacteria and make it safe to drink. Boiled water tastes terrible, so unless you're thirsty, don't bother boiling your water unless there's no other choice.

A good filter will remove particles from your water and bacteria and viruses. However, a filter cannot remove parasites. Filters come in many shapes and sizes; some are portable, while others require pumping before use.

Iodine tablets or drops can also purify water in no time. Add them into the water and let sit for 15 to 20 minutes. Once that's done, the water is drinkable.


When you're hiking, the last thing you need is to run out of energy. Here are some tips for staying fueled on the trail.


The average male needs about 2,000 calories per day, and the average female needs about 1,600 calories. However, this number varies depending on your activity level. If you're doing a strenuous activity like hiking, it's best to increase your calorie intake by 25 percent. For example, if you're planning on hiking for four hours at a time with a heavy pack, consider eating 2,500 to 3000 calories per day.

The best way to ensure that you get enough calories is to eat three meals per day before starting your hike and one or two more snacks. You can also supplement with energy bars or gels if needed.


When you exercise, your body uses up its glycogen stores. Glycogen is the body's primary energy source. It's stored in muscles, and not enough exists to fuel exercise for more than 90 minutes. After that point, you need to replenish those stores by eating carbohydrates.

The most efficient way to do this is by eating carbohydrate-rich foods during the hike, such as chocolate, and then some more chocolate. No kidding! Chocolate protein bars or chocolate-covered raisins can keep you awake and active for hours.


When hiking, you don't need much protein because the body uses carbohydrates as its primary fuel source during exercise. However, having protein-rich foods can help preserve muscle mass while burning fat during exercise. Having a protein-rich diet is especially important if you're carrying a heavy pack or doing other strenuous activities over a long period. A good ratio is 2 parts carbs to 1 part protein; for every 100 calories from carbohydrates consumed, take in 20 grams.

At night, always set up a stove and have a hot meal to satisfy your appetite for a comfortable, good night's sleep. It would also supply more energy to your body for the next day.


For setting up a stove to prepare meals, take the items listed below with you on your hike:

  • A tin can
  • Alcohol
  • Matches
  • Some reflective wrap

Roll the reflective wrap and line the inner side of the tin can with it. Pour in some alcohol. Then light up the match and throw it in.

You'll hear a pop when the fire starts but won't see a bright flame. Therefore whenever you prepare this stove, be very cautious around it.

First-Aid Kit

The first aid kit is a must-have on any hiking trip. It's essential to be prepared for anything wrong, so make sure you have the right equipment.

Here are some essentials to include in your first aid kit:

Water purification tablets: If your water supply isn’t safe, these will help you make it safe to drink.

Antibiotic ointment: For cuts and abrasions, antibiotic ointment can help prevent infection while they heal.

Bandages: Bandages come in handy for all kinds of things, from wrapping up blisters to covering a wound temporarily until you can clean it properly. Make sure you have enough bandages for everyone on the hike!

Adhesive tape: You don’t want bandages falling off during the hike! Wrap an adhesive strip around each bandage for extra protection against water and dirt getting inside the wound.

Antiseptic wipes or soap: These hygiene products are great for cleaning wounds before bandaging them up or keeping clean hands from infection when treating a cut or scrape. Don't use alcohol wipes because they can dry out wounds and further irritate the skin. Clean water would work here better.

A rule of thumb you should follow is not to carry any items you don't know how to use; this will make your first-aid kit lighter. A CPR Kit won't be of any help if you don't know how to operate it; it would only eat up space and increase weight.


Although I wrote backpack as the first heading, I decided to put it as the last item on the list. Why? Because it's important to decide what stuff you're going to carry before jumping into getting a backpack.

Load-carrying capacity and volume are equally important when you decide on a backpack. Your backpack must fit all your hiking gear while being portable. You have two options in this regard:

  • Framed backpack
  • Frameless backpack

A framed backpack has a cushion back with either aluminum rods or robust metal rods attached on the outside. A framed backpack shifts the backpack's weight from your shoulders to your hips. So when you tighten the belt around your waist and drop your shoulder handles, the backpack would still sit rigidly on your hips without falling off.

Your shoulders carry 3/4 of the total weight of a backpack. It gets easier if that weight is shifted to your hips because your glutes and abdominal muscles support your hips. In contrast, there are no such supporting organs or body parts for your shoulders.

A frame-less backpack is certainly lighter in weight, but its weight relies on your shoulders only. So, if you're going on a short hiking trip, you can easily use this backpack. It also depends on how much weight your shoulders can carry to take such a backpack on long trips.

You can make your backpack waterproof by using a plastic trash compactor bag that you can easily grab at Walmart. Put your sleeping pad and then your backpack to structure your frame-less bag.

Additional Items

Trekking Pole

It is essential to know the importance of a trekking pole when hiking. It is also essential to know how to use them properly to get the most out of your hiking experience.

The first thing you should know about trekking poles is that they are not for everyone. Some people think that it won't make any difference if they use them or not. However, this is not true at all. If you are going on a long hike or even just an overnight hike with no other gear except for your backpack, make sure you have at least one trekking pole.

There are many different poles out there, and some of them are better than others. The best pole type for hiking would be one with shock absorbers built into it so that it doesn't wear out as fast as other poles do over time.

It would help if you always tried to get a pair of poles with shock absorbers. They can help reduce fatigue in your legs while on the trail if you're carrying a lot of weight in your backpack or walking on rugged terrain. It can make walking up hills more effortless and comfortable than walking without them!


Peter Brooks

Peter Brooks

I’m a hiker, backpacker, and general outdoor enthusiast. I started hiking out of college while working for the National Forest Service, and have been hiking ever since. I’ve been solo hiking and leading hiking groups for two decades and have completed hundreds of small hikes and some majorones such as the Appalachian Train and the Pacific Crest Trail, and hiked on four continents. I’d love to share some of my insight with you.

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