Essential Items for Day Hiking & Backpacking
Whether you're headed out for the weekend or just a few hours it's important to carry a handful of essentials in your pack when you hit the trail. Depending on the time of year and your experience level the list may change accordingly but these items should be at the core of any outing.
Click here to download a printable version of this checklist. Use it before every outing and you'll enter the wilderness prepared for anything and everything.
We also recommend participating in a wilderness first-aid class so you have the right skills to deal with the unexpected. This is a good idea in general and may help you both on and off the trail. Both NOLS and the American Red Cross offer classes to suit your level of adventure.
Day Hiking Checklist
Ball Cap or Wide-brimmed Hat
Helps reduce glare and will provide added protection against the suns UV rays, or an afternoon rain shower. Adds extra warmth on windy or cooler days and can be soaked in a stream or lake to provide temporary relief from the heat on warmer days.
It's important to protect your skin from harmful UV radiation if you're spending a considerable amount of time outdoors. Choose lotions that offer a sun protection factor (SPF) of 15 or higher. Reapply continuously throughout the the day no matter what the SPF rating because all sunscreens will lose their effectiveness when exposed to water or your own sweat.
A good pair of sunglasses are a must for most outdoor activities. Prolonged exposure to the suns harmful UV rays can lead to cataracts and other eye diseases. During the winter you are at risk of contracting snow-blindness, a temporary condition that can be very debilitating not to mention extremely painful. Some manufacturers offer frames with interchangeable lenses so you can swap out lenses depending on the conditions. Look for sunglasses that offer 100% UV protection.
A pocket knife is one of the most important tools you can carry into the backcountry. Just ask Bear Grylls. This is the essential survival tool. There are a myriad of sizes and shapes but a single edged folding or fixed blade that is 3 to 5 inches in length is ideal. They can be attached easily to hip belts and sternum straps for easy access.
If you've ever fished near Lewis Lake or hiked the Slough Creek Trail during the spring you understand the importance of carrying a bottle of bug juice. Mosquitos and biting flies can be overwhelming in some areas and they will have you sprinting back to the car if you forget to pack it. Although there are some health concerns associated with DEET it's the only ingredient that really works against biting insects.
Always carry a can of pepper spray when hiking in the Yellowstone backcountry. This is one item that should be very accessible and it could save your life. Visit our section on Yellowstone bears for more information about wildlife encounters and the correct use of bear spray.
Basic First-Aid Kit
First-aid kits come in a variety of sizes and configurations and some include basic survival items. Your first-aid kit should be tailored to the length of your trip and the size of your group. It may be necessary to carry more than one when traveling with a large group. You may find it easier to purchase or build a first-aid kit specifically for day hikes and keep a second one handy for your overnight or extended backpacking trips. Don't forget to replace any items that were used during a trip so you're not missing anything on your next outing.
Choose a quality topographic map with plenty of detail and familiarize yourself with your planned route beforehand. Most backcountry trails in Yellowstone are easy to follow but carrying a good map will provide you with relevant information about your location as your traveling through the wilderness. Click here to read more on backcountry navigation.
Another very essential navigational tool. When used in conjunction with your topo map these two items will prevent you from getting lost. A simple baseplate compass is all you need for most outings. An orienteering class can be an enjoyable way to learn new skills or improve upon your existing navigational capabilities.
Water Bottle or Hydration Bladder
Make sure you stay well hydrated and carry enough water to last for the duration of your hike. For longer outings or backpacking trips you should carry a water filter so you can replenish supplies as needed. Check your topo maps and with park rangers to determine if reliable water sources will be available along your route. Visit our section on backcountry water purification for more information on microfiltration systems.
Butane Lighter and/or Matches (Carry both)
A lighter and matches. Easy to carry. Simple to use. In hot and dry conditions be sure to check with rangers regarding backcountry fire restrictions.
High Energy Snacks
Your body needs a continuous supply of energy during periods of heavy exertion. Energy bars and energy drinks are a great way to keep your body fueled when you're on the trail. There are a multitude of flavors and options available and we highly recommend you try them first because they may not be as tasty as they sound.
A lightweight waterproof jacket will offer protection from the wind, rain and snow. Choose one with a hood to prevent rainwater from entering at the neck and shoulders. This is your best defense against the elements and hypothermia if you get caught in bad weather.
An extra shirt, a lightweight fleece jacket and a warmer hat can be a real life saver if conditions take a turn for the worse. The weather in Yellowstone is often unpredictable so we recommend packing a few extra items just in case. Check the forecast before you head out and be prepared for any kind of weather, including the possibility of snow during the summer. It happens more often than you would expect.
Toilet Paper and/or Tissues
This goes without saying.
A GPS is great all-in-one tool for hiking or backpacking. When setup properly it will provide you with very accurate information pertaining to your speed, elevation, location, direction of travel and much more. You can track and save your progress using a series of waypoints and navigate back to your starting point with relative ease. We consider this an optional item because it is a mechanical device that could malfunction. You should always carry a map and compass in the backcountry.
The all purpose tool that should be in everyone's pack. It's a knife, a pair of scissors, a screwdriver, tweezers, a file, a saw, and a can opener. Eat your heart out MacGyver.
For those day hikes that take longer than anticipated. Throw one in your pack and you'll be thankful you have it. Battery life with LED versions is considerably longer. Always research a few different models before buying. Some offer a variety of settings so you can change the beam width or length depending on the conditions.
Great for adding extra stability when traveling over rough terrain and a real quad saver if you're carrying a heavy pack. When you're route calls for a river or stream crossing they should be added to your equipment list.
Great for making repairs in the field and can be used to fix just about anything. If you carry a water bottle try wrapping a few feet of duct tape around the exterior for easy accessibility. Smaller rolls of duct tape are often included in survival/medical kits.
Thermal Space Blanket or Bivy
These emergency shelters will protect you from the wind and rain and are compact enough to carry even on day hikes. Lightweight and highly versatile they are an item worth considering.
If you're route requires a stream crossing you may opt to carry a pair of lightweight sandals to make navigating the stream or river a little easier. Most streambeds are very rocky and slippery and if you attempt them in bare feet you may end up going for a swim or worse.
This is an extension of the list shown above. You should consider carrying all of the items on this page when headed out for an overnighter or extended backpacking trip.
Backpacking Tent - 3 or 4-Season
For summer trips in Yellowstone a quality 3-season tent should be all you need. Backpacking shelters come in all shapes and sizes so it's important to get a firsthand look before you buy. Visit your local outdoor shop and ask if you can set one up in the showroom. A good tent should be light, sturdy and easy to set up. Make sure you take the time to assemble it on your own before any backcountry trip so you know how everything fits together.
Gone are the days of the thin and flimsy sleeping pads. The newly designed air and open-cell foam mattresses offer greater comfort which translates into a good nights sleep. Look for an R-Value of at least 3 or higher if you're planning a winter trip. Carry the repair kits that come with these pads so you can fix leaks in the field.
Goose down or synthetic? Nothing keeps you warm like down and it's light weight and compressibility make it ideal for cool and cold weather trips. Synthetics perform better when wet and are usually less expensive than down bags. Nighttime temps in Yellowstone can dip into the 20º and 30º so you'll want a sleeping bag that's warm and cozy down to those temperatures.
Cookware and Camp Stove
Butane and white gas stoves are lightweight and are essential for boiling water quickly. Butane canisters are lighter and work well when it's above 30º. White gas is the best option for winter trips because the liquid fuel is not affected by the colder temperatures.
Lever-action, ceramic filters are great for purifying drinking water and should be used regardless of how clear the water may appear. Click here to learn more about backcountry water purification.
A survival kit doesn't weigh much and should be carried at all times in the backcountry. You can buy pre-made survival kits or build your own. Here are some items to add if you're wondering what you should carry; signal mirror, whistle, fishing line and hooks, duct tape, compass, emergency bivy, fire steel, candle, waterproof matches, emergency tinder, paracord, a multi-tool, tweezers, a knife and iodine tablets to purify your drinking water. Be prepared.
Carry between 30 and 50 feet of 3mm to 5mm paracord for hanging food while camping in the backcountry. It's also handy for building emergency shelters, securing tents and gear, and can be useful in first aid situations.
Click here to download a printable version of these backpacking checklists.