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. At times, I like to carry a book for camp when I do overnight hikes. Other people would say I am nuts for carrying the extra weight for something I don’t need and won’t use. 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 i’m 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. You can for information about that HERE.
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. I don’t typically take my filter on day hikes because of the added weight.
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 a 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.
RAIN GEAR. 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’m 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.