Scratch a dozen dedicated hikers, and you'll find a dozen different opinions about what kind of gear you absolutely have to have on the trail.
Some people routinely overpack -- they're the ones carrying a sleeping bag and tent on a short dayhike, just in case. (Of course, by the end of the season they'll be totally buff from hauling around all that extra weight!) Others eschew basic comforts like insoles and the fingertips on their gloves, all in the interest of shaving a few ounces off their load.
Of course, most of us fall somewhere in between those two extremes. But the one thing we all have in common is that, unless you're ready to plunge into the wilderness in nothing but your underpants with a knife clenched between your teeth, there's a core list of essential gear you just can't do without.
If you're gearing up for your first hike, these are the items you just can't do without:
For short hikes in mild climates, anything from 500 to 1,500 cubic inches (about 8 to 24 liters) of carrying capacity should do the job. About 1,000 cubic inches -- roughly the size of a kindergartner's backpack -- is just large enough to easily carry the ten essentials.
Nowadays, you'll find all kinds of fancy features on backpacks. Go ahead and pick whatever features work best for you, as long as they include:
- An frame of some sort, usually internal and only rarely external (only serious ultralight backpacks have no frame at all)
- A hip belt so your pelvis, not your shoulders, can support the weight of the pack.
- Either a lid or waterproof zippers to help shield your pack's contents from rain.
- Compression straps to help compress and stabilize the load.
- At least one quick-access pocket.
Even barefoot hikers don't really go hiking barefoot -- they wear wacky toe shoes like Vibram Five Fingers. (Actually, I don't think they're all that wacky -- I like them!) And even ultralight hikers know they won't get far if their shoes or boots fall apart on them. As a general rule the farther you're planning on hiking, the sturdier your footwear should be.
You can definitely get away with tennis shoes or cross-trainers on a short hike; just be aware that hiking-specific shoes and boots will offer better stability, more support, better traction, and do a better job of protecting your feet from every root and rock you step on. No matter what you're hiking in, the most important thing of all is that your hiking footwear fits.
Clothing is more than a style statement -- it's a form of mobile shelter. Again, everyone's going to have their personal preference here, but there are a few things you can always count on:
- Cotton is a bad idea almost everywhere.
- You should have a weatherproof jacket and, on longer hikes or in situations where you know you'll be far from easy shelter, weatherproof pants too.
- The colder it gets, the more extra layers you'll want to have along.
Depending on your environment, you might be able to survive as much as a few days without water -- but turn up the heat (or cold), add exertion into the mix, and if you're not drinking enough water you could suffer uncomfortable symptoms of dehydration, or even heat exhaustion and heat stroke.
So, how are you going to carry the water you need? I'm fond of Nalgene bottles because they're the closest thing to indestructible. If space is limited I also enjoy plastic water pouches that roll into a tiny bundle once they're empty (some of the smaller pouches fit nicely into the inner pocket of a jacket).
You can also slip a hydration reservoir (read: a big plastic pouch filled with water, with a long drinking hose attached) into almost any pack. Feed the hose through the small hole most new packs offer for this exact purpose, then clip the drinking hose to one of the pack's straps or the front of your shirt -- you're can sip water through the hose without having to stop to fish a bottle out.