Essential Gear for a Day Hike
Most hikers will tell you to hike your own hike. That applies to what you carry in your pack. People often judge each other for what they have or do not have in their pack. Essentially, everyone’s needs and desires for creature comforts will determine what you bring. That being said, even on day hikes, there are some things that I would consider basic necessities.
A BACKPACK. Unless you are doing a hike of a mile or less, you really will need a place to store your gear, and a purse or fanny pack just doesn’t cut it. Backpacks come in all shapes, sizes, and configurations, but you will want to have a pack. What you need to get depends on your own needs.
WATER. I have never set out for any hike without water. The length of the hike and how long you think it will take to complete are a good starting point to decide how much to bring, but you definitely want to make sure you have water. For a day hike, I usually take two 20 ounce water bottles. I take more if doing a longer hike Spence Field or LeConte. Also consider taking something to filter water from streams if you need more like a filter or iodine tablets.
FIRST AID KIT. Regardless of what length hike you are doing, you should have a first aid kit. Things happen on trails, whether it is a fall, blisters snake bite, etc. Have a first aid kit. For me, my first aid kit is typically close to the same for day hikes and overnight hikes. I keep vitamin I (better known as ibuprofen), band-aids, moleskin (for blisters), an ace bandage for any twisted appendages, gauze and tape, an emergency blanket (foil and very light), a lighter, any medications I might need, and a few iodine tablets for water.
SOME KIND OF MAP. I often take a guidebook or map of the area. Though I know the Smokies really well, you never know when you could get lost. During snow, you can lose your bearings more easily. A map can literally save your life, even on a day hike. I don’t recommend bringing a compass. I know that many others do. If you are not used to reading a compass, it could actually make you more lost. If you have an electronic GPS device, that would suffice as well. I don’t use them because they are far heavier than a map, and again…batteries die.
RAINGEAR. The Smokies are wet. And they are wet often. Think Seattle and you will be in the ballpark. It is unlikely that you will hike over the years without getting caught in rain. I keep a lightweight rain jacket and baseball cap in my pack and ready to go at any time. The ball cap simply keeps the rain off of my face. One word about “waterproof” jackets. Labels in this area are often deeply deceiving. Something that says it is waterproof and breathable simply is not. It is either waterproof and will keep in the heat of your body so much that you sweat like a track star, or it is breathable and will let some water in. I’ve not seen rain gear yet that does both well. Still, you need to keep the rain off of you. Temperatures vary greatly and quickly in the Smokies. Rain + cold can quickly lead to hypothermia, and that will ruin your weekend. One thing you might consider is a rain cover for your backpack. Packs will let moisture in, and this could ruin your food, electronics, and more that you might have in the your pack. There are covers tailored for individual packs and some that are universal. When I day hike, I simply use a garbage can bag for my pack. Ugly? Yes. Effective. Yes. Cheap…heck yes!
ZIPLOCK BAGS. These bags are versatile and can be used for many things. You can put electronics in them during rain, pack out food and trash in them, and much more. Always take a few of these with you on your trip . They are super light and take up almost no room in your pack.
FOOD. You may only be going out for a couple of miles, but remember, things happen. More likely though, you are burning a lot of calories when you hike…and I mean a lot. Your body needs those calories to propel your body forward. I always pack a couple granola bars, trail mix, or candy bars for the trip.
WHISTLE. It may seem like a stupid thing to pack, but a whistle could literally save your life. If you are injured and cannot move, a whistle can be used to signal people to your location. If you get separated from others in your group, it can help people find you. It can also be used to scare away wildlife like bears. I’ve said before that bears scare easily. If a bear has been eying you for a while, a whistle will often frighten him away.
KNIFE. No, I am not expecting trouble on the trails of the smokies. Truly, being on a trail is much safer than being anywhere else in society. A knife can be used to cut gauze and moleskin, cut wood for a fire in an emergency, and make repairs to your gear, and much more. Contrary to myth, it is really not going to protect you against a bear. The best protection against a bear is to simply keep your distance. And no, I do no recommend carrying a gun. Again, the parks are pretty safe, and the added weight of a firearm is simply not worth it. I think you would be hard-pressed to find a single serious hiker that carries a gun. Quick aside, knives are not for carving your names into trees, shelters, rocks, and other things found in the backcountry. This illegal activity annoys me more than just about anything else in the national park.
MISCELLANEOUS. Anything else you bring with you depends greatly on your own preferences. I take sunglasses because the sun can be harsh at these altitudes and it helps keep the bugs out of your eyes. Sunscreen can also be beneficial. It is easy to burn at these altitudes, even in the deep of winter. I take knee braces and trekking poles simply because I have the worst knees known to man.
I don’t usually take a flashlight or headlamp on a day hike unless I am starting very early in the morning or hiking late in to the evening. If you plan on hiking during those times, be sure to bring that along. If it is going to be cold, or might get cold, I will throw in a hat and gloves just in case I need them. I also don’t usually take my stove with me on a day hike (again because of the weight), but sometimes it is nice to have a hot meal at your destination.
I’m sure that you can think of many others to take or leave at the house when you go. Again, hike your own hike. Just make sure that you are safe about it. Be prepared for any possibility and you will have a great time.
Essential Gear for an Overnight Hike
Packing for an overnight hike is very similar to packing for a day hike, except you will need a little more gear and more of some of the stuff you already packed. So bring all of the things mentioned above, plus what is listed below.
SLEEPING BAG. The overwhelming choice for bedding is a sleeping bag. What you will need will depend on the temperature when you go, your size, and your budget. Sleeping bags are rated to a temperature. I have a zero degree bag and a 40 degree bag. I would not want to take the 40 degree bag if I am sleeping outside in the winter. That bag would not keep me warm. You also can choose between synthetics and down, traditional and mummy bags, and more. There are a lot of choices, but you will want a sleeping bag.
MATTRESS PAD. Sleeping bags will help keep you warm, but the ground is hard. A mattress pad will help that. You can get them in closed cell foam or in a blow up or self inflating pad like a Therm-a-rest. Whatever you choose, you will want a mattress pad.
STOVE. If you want to have a hot meal, you will need to bring a stove, fuel, food, and a pot or pots. Backpacking stoves tend to be pretty light and easy to operate. Even if you can’t cook a single thing a home (like me), you will still be able to make some macaroni and cheese here. You can buy canister stoves that take isobutane or another fuel or use a homemade alcohol stove. There are a million “how to’s” about these online. Use what works best for you.
MORE FOOD. Obviously you will need more food if you are staying overnight than if you are doing a day hike. Be sure to bring a little more than you might think you need, just in case something happens when you are out. Its better to carry a little extra weight than to be starving on a mountain.
PLENTY OF WATER. When staying overnight, I do not like to simply add or double the amount of water I carry. Water is very heavy to lug up and down a mountain. Instead, I make sure the place I am going will have a water source along the way and filter and fill up my bottles as I need them. You will need to carry the extra weight of a water filter or iodine tablets, but it beats the weight of a ton of water.
TENT. If you are staying in a shelter, the roof over your head will be waiting for you. Otherwise, you will need to bring a shelter. This means a tent, or in some cases, a hammock. Tents come in all shapes, sizes, and prices. The better and lighter the materials, the more expensive the tent. If you are simply going a couple times a year, just about any tent will do (even the Walmart tents). The difference is that over time the tent seams may not hold up, the zippers can fail, and the poles could weaken. But if you are only going once in a great while, a basic tent will work. You just need to decide if you need a one, two, three, four man tent.
After this, if you bring other things, it is simply about your preference. Perhaps you want to be able to brush your teeth when you wake up. People you talk to will thank you. Pack it. Do you want to change clothes, or bring extra clothes for when the temperature drops during the evening? Pack it. A book to read or a journal to write in? Up to you. Again, hike your own hike. There is no wrong way to do it unless you are unprepared.