Day hikes are excellent cross-training for running and can double as beta-gathering sessions for future trail runs. For a mellow few miles around a recreation area or an all-day peak-bagging adventure, we’ve listed a variety of gear to get you safely from trailhead to trailhead. Our recommendations of the best hiking gear includes apparel, footwear, packs, and smaller items that you might not think of immediately but you won’t be sorry to carry.
The Expert: I started hiking in New Hampshire with my dad when I was just a kid, eventually ticking off most of the state’s 4,000-footer list. My hiking took me across the country when I moved out west to continue exploring the mountains and trails on the other side of the U.S. My outings range from one-hour trail jaunts on local trails to bagging 14,000-foot peaks in Colorado and full-day traverses across epic ridgelines. I’ve hiked in the swamps of Florida, through Utah canyons, the desert floor in Death Valley, and the high peaks in the Rockies. I’ve been writing about hiking and backpacking and the gear it entails since 2013. My gear reviews and other work has appeared in Backpacker Magazine, Outside, Backpacking Light, The Trek, among other outlets. In 2020, I cofounded Backpacking Routes, a website that connects backpackers with long-distance trails across the country.
How We Evaluated This Hiking Gear
In curating these recommendations, I chose gear that I have tested and loved for many miles of hiking over the years. Some of these time-tested models are in their second decade of iterations, and others are newer models. Not only are these my go-to items, but most are also proven popular among other avid hikers. All this hiking gear is reasonably priced and should last season after season.
- Plush underfoot comfort
- Excellent traction
- Zero-drop design might take some getting used to
At first glance, this wide, flat-looking shoe might look goofy, but trust me when I say it’s one of the most comfortable long-distance shoes you’ll ever wear. Altra’s FootShape toe box, which is wider than standard trail shoes, allows your toes to splay out and provides more grip on inclines and descents. The zero-drop shoe encourages a more natural stride, helps strengthen muscles in the feet, and can reduce calf fatigue for some people. The Lone Peak has out-of-the-box comfort, comes with either standard or waterproof uppers, has excellent wet and dry traction, and will last a solid 500 miles.
- Keeps essential gear within easy reach
- Available in five sizes for men and women
For fair-weather day hikes that don’t require a lot of extra clothing or gear, this pack does it all. Technically a hydration vest for runners, the 12-liter capacity that has eight pockets is ideal for trails where you want to carry an extra layer, snacks, and water, and still be able to run sections of the trail. It’s compatible with a hydration reservoir or soft flasks (not included) and comes in five sizes for both men and women. The moisture-wicking material doesn’t feel sticky against your back, and the vest-style straps sit comfortably around your shoulders and over your chest for maximum freedom of movement.
- Excellent ventilation on the back panel
- Carries heavier loads easily
- Men’s Zulu doesn’t include hydration reservoir
For full days on the trail, bagging peaks, or for parents packing extra gear for kiddos, the women’s Juno or men’s Zulu is the answer. The 30-liter capacity might seem excessive, but the sleek design allows the pack to sit flush and feel less bulky than other 30-liter packs I’ve tested. The side pockets are accessible on the go, the back pocket is handy and stretchy for fast-grab food or layers, and it comes with its own reservoir (not included in the men’s model). The back is suspended mesh for excellent airflow, and it has a sternum strap and hip belt for even weight distribution.
- Ultralight wind and rain protection
- Wide range of sizes
- No hand pockets
The Helium is a time-tested, ultralight rain jacket, available in sizes up to 3XL for men and 3X for women. The men’s medium weighs just 6.3 ounces, only a few ounces more than a non-waterproof wind layer. Outdoor Research installs a 2.5-layer Pertex Shield waterproof, breathable membrane that lets you dump heat through micropore evaporation without letting water in should the skies open up. The high neck and fitted hood provide excellent protection against blowing rain, and a slightly longer hem fits well under a pack without pouring water down the back of your shorts.
- Reasonably priced down jacket
- Packable and very warm
- Only a handful of colors to choose from
The down jacket category is a crowded market these days, with plenty of comparable options as far as fill, weight, and price goes. This hooded jacket sits nicely in the middle of all of these, weighing in at 11.5 ounces for the women’s small and sporting a reasonable price. This jacket packs down to the size of a large grapefruit and is filled with ultra-warm 700-fill power duck down. I appreciated that the zipper doesn’t catch the water-resistant shell fabric. Sleek baffles make this jacket perfectly suitable to wear out in town after your hike, too.
- Comfortable, quick-drying, and durable
- Some people might prefer wool to this nylon-spandex blend
When it comes to hiking tops, you don’t need to buy the most expensive brand-names at specialty stores. Any loose-fitting, sweat-wicking shirt will work just fine. The airy nylon-spandex blend in the Power Flex (also used in the men’s Short Sleeve V-Neck T-Shirt) stayed remarkably odor-resistant, dried quickly, and didn’t cling or stick to my body under a pack. The longer hemline on both the racerback and the short-sleeve also stays put under a pack’s hip-belt, so you won’t be adjusting bunching fabrics. These are affordable, super stretchy, fit true to size, and hold up well for during full seasons of heavy use.
Related: The Best Workout Shirts for Women
- Stay-put fit
- Durable construction
- On the pricey side (but worth the investment)
Smartwool consistently puts out some of the best hiking socks on the market, and this recently updated sock is no exception. The Hike Light Cushion blends wicking, temperature-regulating Merino wool with sturdy nylon, and the result is a sock that won’t stretch out, shift, or soak through so your feet stays dry and blister-free. Articulated arches lend support, and reinforced toes and heels ensure long-lasting durability.
- Durable and comfortable
- Antimicrobial liner
The Session are my go-to shorts for day hiking as well as backpacking, and they survived a 500-mile trip this past summer in excellent shape. They are made of a barely-there four-way stretch fabric that is durable, stretchy, lightweight, and dries quickly. They also have an antimicrobial liner that doesn’t chafe, and a light, not-too-compressing waistband. The women’s version has a 2.5-inch inseam, and the men’s version comes with a choice of 5- or 7-inch inseam.
- Excellent at wicking sweat and moisture
- We wished there were more pockets
This is one of the best sweat-wicking mid layers I’ve worn and works well providing insulation while not getting soggy during ascents. Credit to the microgrid construction that saves weight without losing warmth and the ActiveTemp fabric, Outdoor Research’s thermoregulating fabric treatment. I’d love to see a zipper chest pocket or side pocket on this, but the kangaroo pocket does fine for keeping my hands warm or stashing items I want to keep accessible. It features a high neck for added draft protection, and the moderate cut easily fits over a base layer as well as underneath an insulating or outer layer.
- Design could be sleeker
- Some people might want more lumens
Unless you’re hitting the trail before sunrise, a headlamp is more of a safety backup than anything else, but we still highly recommend it. There are plenty of fancier headlamps than the Nitecore NU20, but few—if any—compare to the impressive combination of battery life, brightness, and low weight of this industrial-looking model. The rechargeable Nitecore NU20 has a maximum brightness of 360 lumens, but you can easily hike with its 220-lumen Bright setting for up to five hours. It weighs less than 2 ounces and is less than half the price of similar headlamps on the market.
- Requires regular backwashing to keep the filter in good working order
Trusted by day hikers as well as long-distance backpackers, this water filter weighs just 3 ounces, threads onto standard water bottles, and has a fast flow rate as you squeeze untreated water through the hollow-fiber membrane. This reliable filter removes 99.99999% of all bacteria and protozoa (but not viruses), meaning even the sketchiest water source can provide safe water on the trail. Even if you think you’ll have enough water for the day, bring this filter along as a backup for peace of mind.
Related: The Best Filtered Water Bottles
RW: What’s one must-have gear that you always hike with?
M.S.: My grab-and-go piece of gear for day hiking is definitely the Nathan Pinnacle Hydration Vest. I love the way it fits like an extra layer while still having enough capacity for snacks, water, and rain gear. I can run sections of trail without worrying about it bouncing, and it comes in bright, fun colors. I keep this pack filled with the necessities during my main hiking season, including a light wind layer, a handful of energy gels, and my soft-flask bottles. When I’m ready to go, I just grab it and head out the door.
RW: Which do you prefer: a hydration reservoir or a water bottle? Why?
M.S.: I am definitely a water bottle hiker. When I first started hiking, I only used hydration reservoirs, then quickly discovered I didn’t like digging around in the pack for the reservoir to refill it. Water bottles stashed in side pockets are easier for me to access, I can easily tell how much water I have left, and they’re simpler to clean than reservoirs, especially if I’m using electrolyte powder. For longer hikes, I use tall, narrow bottles like Smartwater or LifeWater in the side pockets of a larger pack, and for shorter outings, I use soft flasks in the front pockets of a running-style pack.
RW: How do you find new trails to hike?
M.S.: The internet might have its downsides, but the right site can be a gold mine for hiking routes and trails. As with anything online, I recommend carefully vetting all sources, and finding at least one backup for each trail to make sure the map, GPS data, and description are accurate. My own site has been a true resource for me (thanks writers!), as well as Hiking Project and AllTrails. I also use apps like Gaia, Hiiker, and FarOut for GPS tracks, maps, and trail beta. For hiking locally, guidebooks and local publications are my best resource.
RW: What safety tips do you have for new hikers?
M.S.: Bring the right wicking layers, and prepare to be out longer than you think you’ll be. Always carry enough water to get you through the whole hike, or carry a water filter for longer outings that you know have water sources. Pack a variety of calorie-dense, easy-to-digest snacks, and be sure to check trail conditions, weather forecast, and let someone know where you’re going. It’s also worth downloading a GPS map in case you get turned around or lose service, especially on longer hikes.