Back to basics – What to take on a hike

What do you put in your bag when you go for a day hike? Are you a minimalist, or would you bring the kitchen sink if you could? The art of packing the perfect bag requires a fine balance between “going light” and being prepared for every eventuality. In this article I’m going to talk about my personal experience as a hiker and a leader, and about what I’ve learnt throughout the years.

Step one – Choose your rucksack

The bigger your bag is the more you will carry. This is always true, no matter how hard you try to just bring the minimum amount of gear required. If you have a 40l rucksack it’ll always be full. And I know this from experience: my bag is always the biggest and heaviest. I’m always on the safe side, and this might be the leader voice inside me speaking. Anyway, for whatever reason, I always end up bringing lots of spares and carrying a heavy weight on my back. So, when I’m not leading a group, I started taking a smaller rucksack, and it works! I still bring all the essentials with me, but no more extra spares that I never use.

35-40l bag on the left and a smaller 20l on the right.

Another thing to bear in mind is that the rucksack itself is part of the weight. There are more structured but heavier bags, normally better for longer treks or for when you’re carrying lots of stuff. Or there are more basic and lighter bags, ideal for day hikes where you don’t need to carry too much so you can get away with less support. It all depends on what you like or what you’re used to. Price clearly plays an important role here, but remember: the essential thing is that the bag fits you well.

[If you want to learn more about how to choose your rucksack then watch this space, I’ll talk about it on my next “Back to basics” series article.]

The essentials

No matter how light you want your bag to be, there’s a few things that ALWAYS need to be in there, and these are all things that have to do with safety in the mountains. Here’s a list:

First aid kit. This is the typical thing that you carry with you for 20 years and never use, but the one day you don’t have it something happens. It doesn’t need to be big and bulky. In mine I have:

    • crepe bandages
    • a triangular bandage
    • zinc tape
    • wound dressing
    • cleaning wipes
    • vinyl gloves
    • scissors
    • blister plasters
    • basic drugs such as ibuprofen and aspirin
    • resuscitation mask
    • survival foil blanket

          I keep all of this in a dry bag at the bottom of my bag, and it just goes from one bag to another.

From left to right: first aid kit (in an orange drybag so it can be quickly identified in my bag), spare buff, hat and gloves.

Map + compass + GPS. Everybody going to the mountains should have some basic map reading knowledge and bring these items with them. If the weather comes in (it can be very unpredictable in the mountains) it’s really easy to get disorientated and lost, and what was supposed to be a very easy day out could turn into a nightmare. GPS technology is brilliant nowadays, and you can download all sort of apps that give you your exact location on a map, and they’re free! Otherwise, if you’re not too sure, sign up for a navigation course or hire a Mountain Leader or a Guide.

Food and water. Never go for a hike without them. You’re burning a lot of energy and loosing a lot of fluids, so it’s fundamental that you replace them as you go. Make sure you take something that you like eating, and remember to take the time to stop and refuel every now and then.

Map, compass and headtorch never leave my bag.

Headtorch. Even though your plan is to get back before dark, you never know what might happen. It’s a small item that could make all the difference.

Gloves, hat, buff. As I said, the weather in the mountains can be very unpredictable, and it gets colder the higher you go. I have seen snow in the middle of August, so better be prepared.

Lightweight waterproof jacket and trousers.

Things you can leave behind

So what are the things you can leave behind to save some weight? Well, it all depends on who you are really. I get cold very quickly, so I always have a couple of spare jackets or fleeces with me, even on a sunny day. If you know you’re not like that then maybe you can leave one behind. Some people eat more than others, or drink more than others, or like to take gadgets such as cameras and binoculars with them, so all these things add weight.

The quality of the kit you choose also makes a very big difference. Nowadays you can find all sort of kit on the market, and to suit all pockets. When you’re buying something, though, it’s important to remember that you get what you pay for. Some of the cheaper stuff you find in outdoor shops can be pretty good and ideal for beginners, but to be able to sell it at a lower price they have to save on something (quality of the materials but also weight). Whereas the more expensive kit, as well as being more durable and lasting longer, will also be made with more advanced technology that will allow the producer to save weight without sacrificing quality.

The best two jackets I’ve ever had: lightweight, warm and durable.

To sum it up though, it’s really hard to tell other people what they will and won’t need in the mountains. I’ve tried to give you some basic guidance here, but nothing can replace personal experience. After a few hikes you’ll quickly realise what equipment you really need, and after a few times you’ll be able to pack your bag with your eyes closed.

So there is nothing else to do but to go hiking as much as you can, so you can find that balance and be prepared for every situation, but still carrying the lightest possible rucksack!

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