What to Wear and What to Pack for a Day Hike in the Mountains
After another news piece on tourists who went hiking without proper clothes nor gear, I thought it would be beneficial to write an easy guide of the things you should wear and pack for a fantastic - and safe! - day in the mountains.
Every other week we can hear about cases where the mountain rescue was called to save irresponsible hikers, who didn't prepare well and were ignorant of what they should pack or wear.
Disclaimer: This post, in addition to some awesome tips and advice, contains affiliate links to respected retailers for your convenience. It means that if you buy anything through those links, I receive a tiny commission at no extra cost to you. Thank you for your support!
Preparation - get informed
First of all, you have to know well the place you are planning on visiting. As we are talking about a day-hike it's probably not very far from where you live or stay on vacation. But sometimes a short ride by train or car can take us in a completely different climate zone or weather situation. It can be a nice and warm day down in the valley, but positively chilly and foggy up in the mountains.
I remember when I was in Oslo in May, it was surprisingly warm in the city - around 26*C but when I took a tram up to the ski jump, there was snow in many places and the temperature dropped significantly.
There are destinations that are famous for being unstable and where the weather can change pretty fast (*coughScotlandcough*) - it can be all dry and sunny at 9am but chilly and pouring by lunch.
When checking weather don't rely only on a forecast for valleys or coasts - try to find mountains-specific one, as the differences can be surprising.
The choice of clothes I recommend is for moderate climates, like Europe or northern America - I don't hike much in deserts or tropical destinations so can't advise on the specific needs of those areas.
Clothes you need for a day hike
Obviously, there are differences between a July hike or a November one. There is also room for personal preferences and individual needs. But generally speaking, those are the things you have to wear:
First of all, you need good underwear. Comfortable and made of synthetic or merino fibers. Although on a very warm days the risk of hypothermia is rather small, you still want to wear something that dries fast and provides insulation even when wet. As a rule, don't wear anything made of cotton.
If you need a bra, you can just pick a generic sports bra just pay attention to the straps - if they don't chaff when you have your pack on. This shouldn't be a problem on a day hikes as the pack you carry is pretty light. Still, comfort is important.
You don't need a very thick bra, as you don't do much jumping while you walk - unless you do want to run a bit. Pick a thinner one, which will dry faster.
Shirt - if it's warm, wear a short-sleeved tee made of synthetics or merino. If it's really hot, you may consider wearing a long-sleeved shirt made of thin synthetic fabric with UV protection. Same thing if you hike in areas with a lot of insect activity - but that's a personal choice.
We always dress to feel a bit chilly, as we will warm up when walking. So even if it's not exactly warm, it might not be the best idea to wear a base layer made for winter. The moment you start walking, you will start overheating. It's better to wear something lighter and put a fleece on when stopping for a break.
Pants - depending on weather and personal preferences, you can have regular athletic shorts, trekking pants or even a light skirt or dress if that's your thing. I prefer to hike in long pants for the sun and insect protection - I just choose really light and thin fabrics.
Don't even think about going in jeans - even if it's cool out and there is no danger of overheating. Jeans are made of thick cotton and if they get wet - they dry for days. If it rains or you fall into a stream, it can get unpleasant. If it's also cold - dangerous.
If you go hiking in cool weather (spring/fall) you may want to wear soft shell pants for extra wind and temperature protection but it is not a must.
Socks - I will repeat the mantra: never wear cotton socks. If you don't have trekking specific socks, go with whatever synthetic ones you have. If you have socks with CoolMax fiber - it would be a good idea, as they wick the moisture away from the skin. I advise wearing two pairs of socks: a liner made of thin, synthetic fabric and then a woolen pair on top for warmth, comfort and unique, hygienic system they create.
Hiking in wet socks is a nightmare and is sure to cause your feet to blister in no time. It might be a good idea to pack extra pair of dry socks to change when the weather (or stream crossing) are against us.
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During cooler days you might want to start with an insulating layer right away. It can be a fleece or a synthetic-filled light jacket. Whatever you have at home that can add the extra warmth and that isn't - you guessed it - made of cotton. Fleece is very popular and as we talk about day hikes, it doesn't matter that it can be bulky - we don't worry about the weight of the backpack all that much. It can be wool sweater or a light down jacket.
Even when the day seems nice and warm - stuff some insulating clothes into your bag. When you are sweaty and tired, being exposed to cool mountain wind can chill you to the bone. Have something to put on you during breaks or when the temperature suddenly drops on higher elevation.
If you go hiking in winter, you might want to have a base layer of merino or synthetic leggings first and then a pair of soft shell pants over them.
As I wrote above, mountains can be unpredictable and the higher you go, the bigger the difference in weather to the valleys. It's a must to take some kind of rain protection. If you have a rain jacket - great. If not, grab a plastic poncho from any store. But if you can be in a place with serious rains and drop in temperatures - it's better to have a proper rain jacket.
If go hiking in cool and rainy conditions - rain pants might be a good idea. They are overkill on warm days as it's generally better to get your pants wet and let them dry fast than to walk in your personal sauna.
Buff - they can protect your neck from sun or mosquitoes, cover your head, soak up the sweat or create a nice barrier from cold winds. I have a few of them, as you never have too many buffs!
Hat - I always have a baseball cap on me. It protects from sun first of all but I when it rains it provides extra protection for my face and glasses. If it's chilly - I put a buff over it to cover my ears.
If you know you are going to hike in a very sunny area, you can take a hat with neck protection. On the other hand if it's rather chilly - don't forget your warm hat. Cold winds up there on open slopes can be wicked!
Gloves or mittens - again, cold winds can feel like it is much colder than in reality. When we use trekking poles, our hands are exposed all the time - it's worth grabbing a pair of gloves with you. If you know you are going to hike in cold and wet conditions, get a pair of waterproof gloves or mittens.
The kind of footwear you need depends on the kind of terrain you expect. On a lighter trails with not much difficult, you can go away with regular sneakers. Just be extra careful on slippery surfaces, as those kind of shoes do not have proper grabbing soles.
If you can - buy hiking-specific footwear. For lighter trails - take shoes, as you are not going to hike with heavy weights and you go only for a day.
If the trail is harsh - filled with rocks, boulders, muddy spots, and tree roots - it might be better to grab boots with stronger ankle protection.
Take only footwear which you already know - give your new boots some time to break them in, or you may have a nasty blistery surprise up on the trail.
Before you buy any kind of random boots, take your time to try them on, walk around the store a bit and check if all seems good. The times of heavy full-leather boots slowly goes away as it's simply easier to walk in lighter shoes. Make sure your feet have plenty of room - especially in the toe box. Can you wiggle your toes? Can you wear thick woolen socks in them? Do you have at least 1 cm space in front of your toes? Is your heel nicely cradled?
Gear for a day hike in the mountains
You obviously don't need to take a lot of stuff - you plan on sleeping back at home (or a hotel). Still, there are some things that you have to take with you. Some of them you might never use - and you should be glad for it!
A backpack or a trekking hip bag.
For a day hike you can take whatever small backpack you have - it can be a regular school bag if you have nothing else. It needs to be big enough to hold all the food and water you need, extra clothes and rain jacket, gloves and other accessories plus the gear I'm writing about now.
If you think of doing a late fall/winter hike - be very careful. The sun sets pretty early and you can be surprised with darkness only half way down. The temperature can drop significantly the moment sun sets. If you are not prepared for the possibility of camping - be extremely careful when choosing hikes in that season.
If you want to buy one - get a max 30L pack, there is no need for anything else, and it can even serve you for weekend trips with camping.
Water bottles and food
So water and food are obviously not gear but it's something you need to pack. You can take ordinary water bottle or a hydration system. Take 2 - 3L of water and more if you plan on hiking during a very hot day on exposed trail. It's better to go back home with unused water than to run short. If you know there is a way to refill your bottles (mountain shelters for example) you might take less water. Just remember to not fill your bottles from streams or lakes without a way to filter it - it's too risky.
If you go on a chilly day you may want to take a vacuum hot bottle to have a hot tea or coffee during a break. There is nothing like hot drink on a chilly hike!
Take a look below at some helpful hydration gear:
Food. For a day hike there is no need to grab anything to cook. Sandwiches and snacks should be enough. Just remember - we are more hungry out there and after a good hike our bodies want to be refueled. We need all: protein, fat, and sugar. For snacks you can take trail mix, nuts, cheese, dry sausage, jerky, candy bar (snickers or such), bananas, protein bar, etc. For more substantial meal - sandwiches, cold rice salad in a water-proof container, more cheese or jerky, etc.
Light and fire
Unless you go hiking in Iceland during summer, you should take a source of light with you. It can be a regular flashlight or a headlight - just have something more than just the app on your phone. This is absolutely crucial when you hike in the shoulder seasons when sun can set surprisingly early and you might need to end your trek in the darkness.
Lighter - again, just in case. If anything happens and you are in danger of hypothermia - you should have a way to keep warm.
We all hope we never use it and we all should carry it nevertheless. It should have the basic, most probable stuff. Different sizes of band-aids and blisters or scratches, elastic/compression and regular bandage, some sterile wound dressing, something anti-bacterial or alcohol swaps. All that can fit in a pretty small bag but can get really useful. And don't forget any meds you might need specifically! You don't have to buy a ready-made kit, you can make your own one - just remember to pack it a dry bag.
Toilet paper in a rain-proof bag plus anti-bacterial gel to use after. If you have no way to use restrooms at mountain shelters or restaurants on your way, remember to always dig cat hole for your feces and bury them. Go away from the trail and don't do it anywhere close to water source. For more tips on how to relieve yourself in the woods check this article.
Take a sunscreen and an insect repellent with you. Even on a cloudy day you might get a sunburn. Protect yourself from ticks - they are probably the most dangerous wildlife out there to us (unless you live in deep bear country but then you probably wouldn't read this guide). A head net might be necessary in some regions - like Scotland (midges!).
Take a bag for all your garbage: wrappers, banana or orange peels, bottles, etc. Nothing stays on the trail, everything goes back with you.
Phone and a power bank
Nowadays there is no reason we shouldn't take and use our smartphones out in the Great Outdoors. But we need to use them smartly. There are great apps that can help us navigate but they are not always reliable. Also, we've heard stories of hikers lost because their phones died. Navigation apps and cameras drink a lot of juice from our phones. Take a good power bank with you but don't rely solely on the phone. Learn about the trail you plan to take - is it well marked and highly popular? Or maybe with no signage and in deep wilderness? Do you know how to read a map and a compass? If not - choose only well marked trails, but still take your map with you.
Don't let the phone die on you - if anything happens you must have a way to contact authorities or mountain rescue.