My Hiking Essentials Checklist

My Hiking Essentials Checklist Featured Image

So you want to know what’s on my hiking essentials checklist? I recently met a few folks that told me a near-miss story. They went snowshoeing in the Sierras without backpacks. That meant no water, no food, no first aid supplies, no nothing.

In the late afternoon, they realized they didn’t know where they were. As they began to worry, a stroke of luck came their way. A couple came down the trail and, after a quick conversation, wound up guiding them back to the trailhead. But what might’ve happened if that couple hadn’t come down the trail?

I always carry my hiking essentials, whether for a quick day hike or a multi-day backpacking trip. A mentor of mine used to say, “It’s not matter of if, but a question of when something goes wrong.”

That’s why I want to share my hiking essentials checklist with you!

My Hiking Essentials Checklist

Hiking Essential #1: Water + Snacks

Larq Self Cleaning Water Bottle Featured Image

More water than you think you need and a few emergency snacks. I can’t state how important it is to have these two items if anything should go wrong. Having extra water and food will go a long way towards your survival and comfort if you have to spend a bit more time outdoors than anticipated.

It’s so easy to underestimate the amount of water you’ll need and so easy to forget a few extra snacks. But keeping a few extra vacuum-sealed packs of trail mix is always a great idea. They don’t add too much extra weight and they don’t go bad, at least for a long time! For what it’s worth, I typically carry water in a Hydro-Flask or Nalgene and I go with the generic Costco brand of trail mix when I can get it.

Hiking Essential #2: Multiple Water Purification Methods

LifeStraw - hiking essentials checklist

On any multi-day trip, I typically carry three different methods of water purification. My primary method is the Steri-Pen but I also carry a LifeStraw and iodine tablets as an absolute backup. Why do I carry three different methods of water purification?

Because I’ve had things break and malfunction before. And water is the most important resource on any backpacking trip. Dehydration is no joke and you’re most likely using water to cook meals as well. So clean water you can trust is at a premium and you can never really be too prepared for malfunctions when it comes to water purification.

Hiking Essential #3: Basic First Aid Kit

First Aid Kit - hiking essentials checklist

This is a no-brainer for me now but I didn’t always carry a first aid kit. It’s only when I started guiding that I think the importance of a first aid kit really hit home for me. To put it as nicely as I can, “stuff happens.” Be sure to check out my other article for more detailed survival tips!

A basic first aid kit should have gauze, wound dressings, triple antibiotic ointment, some form of pain reliever (i.e. ibuprofen or acetaminophen), and a method for treating allergic reactions, such as diphenhydramine (the active ingredient in Benadryl).

There are many additional items, however, that could be included. And there are lots of first aid kits out there, but I love my Adventure Medical Kits Day Tripper!

Item #4: Headlamp

black diamond headlamps - storm

I’ve got a quick story. I went backpacking after I finished grad school in Colorado and spent the afternoon frolicking around the meadow where I decided to camp. But when I went to find my headlamp, I realized it was the one item I had forgotten. I pumped water and made food, but didn’t have time to collect wood and start a fire before I was out of light.

I climbed into my tent and started reading by the light of my phone. About ten minutes later, I heard an unfamiliar ‘crunch, crunch’ outside my tent. I flipped my phone light up and stared into the face of a full-grown female mountain lion five feet outside my tent.

Long story short, it was a sleepless night after that. If I had light, I would’ve built a fire and any animal within a mile would’ve been aware of my presence. In conclusion, carry a headlamp! It can be a cheap headlamp but if it uses AAA batteries, be sure to also carry a few extras for backup.

Hiking Essential #5: Multi-Tool

Multitool - hiking essentials checklist

I can’t tell you how many times this hiking essential has come in handy. From opening a celebratory beer once camp is set up to repairing a broken tent pole or handling hot items in the fire, a good multi-tool should be in your pack at all times!

The multi-tool I carry is actually manufactured by Gerber. I kept it pretty basic with their MP400 Compact Model. It doesn’t have to be the most expensive and technical tool on the market to be useful though. Pliers, a couple of different knives, a bottle opener, scissors, and both Phillips and flathead screwdrivers are some standard features of a solid multi-tool.

Hiking Essential #6: Layers

the best hikes around lake tahoe - get off the beaten path
Note ‘Giant Pack On My Back’!!

I grew up in the mountains. On a daily basis it’ll go from cold to hot and back to cold again, sometimes several times over. There’s nothing worse than popping out for an afternoon hike and realizing you forgot a rain jacket as the clouds grow and it starts to drizzle.

I’m a classic over-packer, but I also don’t pride myself on being an ultralight hiker. I’d rather carry a little more weight and be assured that I have what I need if the weather takes a turn. I’ve also been in the fortunate position to assist a fellow hiker with an extra layer from time to time, which is always a bonus!

Hiking Essential #7: Quik-Dry Towel

PackTowl - hiking essentials checklist

This item can serve a two purposes. The most obvious use is to dry off after a quick dip in the lake or river you’re camping near. But if you’re not keen on swimming it can also help you wash your face or pits at the end of a long, sweaty day of hiking. Going with a Quik-Dry Towel also ensures that you’re not carrying a wet, heavy item out the next day.

But a good Quik-Dry Towel can also be a lifesaver in an unfortunate situation. It can be employed to stop bleeding or splint a broken arm if you have the right training and experience to do so!

Hiking Essential #8: Lighter (Or Other Fire Starting Tool)

Survival Spark - hiking essentials checklist

Sure you can spend a few hours striking rocks or rubbing sticks together and this is a great skill to have if you don’t have a lighter or you forgot one at home. However, I try to keep a lighter (or two!) in my pack at all times because, well, if we have the technology why not make use of it?

A great backup item to have in addition to a lighter is a pack of waterproof matches. UCO makes a great storage case to keep matches dry and, ultimately, usable when you need them most. If you want to go with something that has no possibility of getting wet and, thus, losing its effectiveness, check out this Survival Spark from SharpSurvival!

Hiking Essential #9: Maps

hiking trails in the grand canyon - map

A solid GPS unit is excellent and technological advancements are seemingly making phones useful in a wider range of environments every day. But maybe I’m a little old-school in feeling like there’s nothing quite like having a printed map to help you navigate.

Fortunately, most local Forest Service ranger stations offer an excellent variety of maps detailing the surrounding areas. Best of all, most of these maps are waterproof and fold down to be easily tucked away into the outside pocket of your pack!

Hiking Essential #10: Shelter

Kammok - hiking essentials checklist

It’s a no-brainer, right? Especially if you’re heading out for a multi-day backpacking trip you’re going to pack shelter. But it’s not always a given. I’ve forgotten a tent and had to lay a sleeping bag and pad out under the stars. If the weather’s nice this is actually preferable sometimes, but it’s not a lot of fun if it starts raining in the middle of the night.

Even when I’m out for a day hike, I typically carry my Kammok Hammock with me. Kammok’s Python Straps are so easily secured to any tree and the hammock itself is light enough that I rarely notice the extra weight in my pack even if I don’t wind up using it.

Pro Tip*: I think a backpacking hammock is a great item to carry along for more than just the possibility of having to camp out unexpectedly. If one of your party is seriously injured and unable to walk out, a hammock can be very useful in beaming that person back to an area where they can receive more advanced medical care.

Bonus Hiking Essential: A Hiking Buddy!

Hiking Buddy - hiking essentials checklist

We learned the buddy system from a young age. As we get older and more experienced, though, we feel more and more comfortable venturing out on our own. Personally, Nature can be very rejuvenating for me and I certainly spend my fair share of time in Nature by myself.

But the best experiences in life are those that we are able to share with our most trusted and loved companions. If I have the option of hiking with a buddy or striking out on my own, I’m choosing a buddy 9.5 times out of 10!!

Did I Forget Something on My Hiking Essentials Checklist?

the backpack guide - rei adventures 2020
The Backpack Guide on the John Muir Trail

At The Backpack Guide, I’m always looking for new trails and wildernesses to explore. And I’m always searching for new knowledge! If you think there’s an item that should’ve been included in my list, I’d love to hear from you! Also, let me know if you’d like to write your own review of backpacks, survival kits, or trails in your area!

Drop me a line here or find me on social media @thebackpackguide on Instagram and Facebook. Tag me in your photos with your newest pack or from your most recent adventure!

I hope you’ve enjoyed these tips and I’d love to hear your feedback in the comments section below. I’ll be quick to reply to any questions, comments, or concerns you feel like sharing!

Safe Travels Friends!

The Backpack Guide


  1. Tony Spagnolia

    Hi Tucker,

    Great list on the essentials for any extended venture out into nature. I really like multi tools. I always carry one since you never know when you will need a common tool. I am definitely with you regarding the buddy system. I am definitely not comfortable enough yet to go out on my own. I always want to be with someone in case of an emergency!


    1. Post
      Tucker Ballister

      Thanks Tony! 

      I am fortunate to have many amazing buddies to choose from, so it’s always great to get out with a pal!

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