I just returned from a week of hiking in the Swiss Alps. Never having been to Switzerland before, all I knew was that it’s expensive, that they make delicious chocolate, and that the people speak some form of German (which is unintelligible to normal German speakers). I was pleasantly surprised by many things, about which I might write another blog post soon. This post is about something unrelated to the country, though, but very relevant for hiking fans and travellers in general: what to pack on a hiking trip?
Aim for less weight
While I’ve travelled a lot and made many short one or two day hiking trips, this was the first time I made a long hike without a base camp. That meant I had to carry everything I needed on my back for 6-8 hours a day, sometimes climbing more than 1,500 metres in a single day. Under those conditions weight really matters. Cutting half a kilogram off your pack’s weight is worth the effort if it doesn’t mean giving up something you absolutely need.
Flying into Zürich, my pack weighed in at a cumbersome 12kg. Dry, that is. I had yet to add my water bottles and lunch each day. Over the course of the week I realised that this was way too much, and eventually would pay the price of a seriously hurting knee joint. Therefore I decided to re-evaluate my gear upon my return. The following is a list of all the stuff I packed (and some I didn’t pack), sorted into three categories: things I used heavily and would definitely pack again; things I didn’t use much but would still consider bringing; and things that were absolutely superfluous and only weighed me down.
Things to definitely bring on a hiking trip
These are the things that you absolutely can’t do without. Or maybe you can, but having them around will make life so much easier. Their benefit easily outweighs their weight for most ordinary hiking trips. Note that I’m assuming that your trip will take at most a week. If it’s any longer than that, you might want to make some minor adjustments, like having a pair of shorts to wear while your zip-off trousers are in the laundry. Even then, the list will mostly remain the same. Another caveat is that I assume you will sleep in hostels or other kind of serviced accommodations. If not, you will need to pack some camping equipment, which will significantly add to the weight and bulk of your luggage. It would also change the nature of your expedition, and should be covered in a different article (‘What to bring on a camping trip’, anyone?).
Good shoes are about the most essential piece of gear you can pack. While you could easily walk for a couple of hours on sneakers or flip-flops, this won’t work on a serious multi-day trek. Your hiking boots are there for stability, protection, comfort, and warmth. How much of each of these you need depends heavily on the kind of trip you’re making, the climate, and the terrain. Countless articles have been written on the right hiking shoes for various circumstances, and I won’t add to them here. I personally use the Hanwag Xerro (type a/b) half-high shoes, which I’ve found to be fairly versatile and suitable for many different types of terrain and climates.
I use the Osprey Waypoint 85, which I’ve come to love over the years. In my opinion, it’s the perfect travel bag, as it can transform from a very comfortable backpack into a sleek duffel bag. It also comes with a zip-on day pack. For the purpose of just hiking it is a bit too big and lacks some useful outside pockets and straps.
Swiss army knife
Since I was in Switzerland anyway, I decided to purchase a Swiss army knife to replace various separate tools that I carried. My pick was the Victorinox Forester One Hand, which proved absolutely awesome. I can hardly believe how I used to go around without one of these. The only tools I didn’t use were the wood saw and the punch.
You just can’t eat soup with a knife. If you want to be fancy, get a Spork.
You drink from it. Useful for taking water from a tap or fountain, or for drinks that you don’t just drink out of the bottle. Having your own washable cup is more environmentally friendly than using throw-away plastic cups.
If you don’t want to go to a restaurant each day, and get tired of just having bread and cheese to eat, bringing a bowl with you opens up a range of opportunities. You can easily toss a salad using fresh veggies, or make some cereal breakfast.
Never knowing what a day of hiking will bring, it is better to be safe than sorry when day turns into night. My Petzl Tikka 2 does a great job of illuminating the immediate surroundings, and lasts a long time on 3 AAA batteries. It doesn’t break the bank either. The energy saving mode works well as an indoors flashlight or reading lamp.
Two athletic t-shirts
These are made of a polyester mesh that evaporates sweat rapidly and dries quickly. They are perfect for any intense activity and for warm environments. A friend of mine will argue that merino wool or a wool-polyester blend is even better, but I haven’t put it to the test yet. Bring two t-shirts, so you can wear one while the other is drying from laundry.
Two athletic briefs
Same thing as the t-shirts. I use $10 hiking boxers from Decathlon, but you could shell out on some Icebreakers.
Three pairs of hiking socks
For socks wool is absolutely awesome, as it’s breathable, evaporates sweat and doesn’t smell quite as bad. For warmer environments you can go with bamboo or polyester. Never ever ever buy cotton socks! Your feet will thank you. Bringing 2 pairs might suffice, but since your feet take the most heat on a hiking trip, I like to pack a spare pair.
Polyester zip-off trousers
These look absolutely dumb, but they are incredibly handy. The material is similar to that of athletic t-shirts, they can be worn both as long trousers or shorts, and they have cargo pockets on the sides to keep various tools around. Even if you use them every day all day, they don’t smell up all that badly, so one pair is enough.
My friends like to make fun of me for wearing a bandana, saying I look like anything from the karate kid to a slapstick comedian. They are probably right. But I can use my bandana as a sweat band, a sun hat, a neck cover, a breathing mask, and in the worst case a small towel. If you’re out in the open under the blazing sun, you will love your bandana!
The only toiletries I find absolutely indispensable are a toothbrush, toothpaste, deodorant and some soap or shampoo. For trips of more than 10 days, or if you need to look presentable, a razor and some shaving gel would also be useful.
Almost anywhere you go, there will be times when it gets cold, be it in the evening, at high altitudes, or simply in colder regions. You need at least one garment to keep you warm (and in my opinion only one). A hoodie is perfect: it is warm, comfy, can protect your entire upper body, and zips open when it’s not that cold. I never travel without my trusted hoodie. Mine’s a simple cotton zip hoodie made by Timberland, but pick whatever you find comfy. There are some more breathable sweaters out there especially designed for hiking, but I’ve never felt the need for one: if I’m cold, I’m generally not sweaty. Fleece is also a good option, as it’s warm and weighs less than cotton.
Where the hoodie keeps you warm, a jacket protects you against rain and wind. Many articles have been written about what kind of rain jacket you need, but my advice is to go with something that’s thin, breathable, and rain and wind proof. If you need protection from both the rain and the cold, you can layer up with your hoodie and one or two t-shirts. If you have a rain jacket that is too thick, you can’t ‘layer down’, and consequently will sweat your pants off.
Most backpacks aren’t water tight, so to keep your precious gear dry, you’ll want a rain cover to protect your bag against inclement weather. My rain cover doubles as a flight bag, which is excellent. Look for a cover that fits snugly around your pack.
A man who knows where his towel is, is a man to be reckoned with. The annoying thing about towels is that they are big, cumbersome, and get heavy when wet. I once left my towel behind at a hostel, simply because it hadn’t dried well overnight and was too much of a burden to carry on. For this reason I now carry a small microfiber towel that can be folded into a microfiber washcloth. Not the greatest solution when you want to spend a day at the beach, but it works well enough after my evening shower, and it dries overnight.
This is a very personal thing, and obviously it depends on your medical condition. I always carry at least a few tablets of paracetamol against headaches and ibuprofen as an anti-inflammatory agent.
First aid kit
Aside from a bandaid everry now and then and some multi-purpose tape, I’ve never had to use my first aid kit. I always carry one anyway. Accidents can happen. Make sure that your kit contains at least some bandages, sterilizer fluid, bandaids, tape, and pincers.
It holds my money and my credit cards. Pretty self-explanatory.
A smartphone is the Swiss army knife of connectivity. It hardly takes up any space, weighs less than 150g, and you can use it to call, view websites, send texts and emails, take notes, navigate, make calculations, read, listen to music, watch movies, and play games. The only drawback is that most modern smartphones run out of juice in less than a day, so you’ll often need to hunt for a power source. In the future I might consider bringing an extra battery pack.
For a multitude of cleaning uses. Doubles as toilet paper in case of need.
Reusable lightweight bottles with a ring in the cap, that allows you to open them with one hand, and to hang them or clip them to your pack. They generally come in a 1 litre size, although 0.5 litres would be slightly more useful.
Notepad and pen
Sometimes you have to take some notes when your smartphone is out of power. Or you want to pass a note to someone else. For these occasions, nothing beats a good old-fashioned notepad.
I brought 10m of 3mm rope, not having time to buy the stronger 4mm paracord. All I wound up using it for was as a wash line, but in emergency situations this could have been very useful (think securing yourself on a rope bridge, or hanging your backpack in a tree if you need to stay out in the open overnight).
Wound up being unused. I still would bring them for emergency situations or just to attach additional items to my pack.
After a long day of hiking I really liked taking off my sweaty stuff and putting on some soft clean clothes. I brought a pair of jeans, a pair of shorts, cotton boxers and a cotton polo shirt. Though comfortable, these items simply weighed me down too much, and on a subsequent hiking trip I would bring something different. Find some light comfy t-shirt and trousers. Merino wool is perfect, but jogging pants and a t-shirt will do.
I love walking on flip-flops. They let your feet breathe, are comfortable for short amounts of walking, and can be decent protection against dirty soil or bathroom floors. Since they’re flat and not all that heavy, you might consider packing a pair.
In case you decide to go swimming and don’t want to do in your boxers or in the nude.
Self explanatory, I’d say. If you’re hiking not too far from civilization, just having a few tissues is enough in case of emergency.
Depending on your taste, you can bring a comb, a razor, shaving gel, shower gel, dental floss and whatever else you need to stay clean. Clean, that is, not groomed for a fancy dinner date. Just get used to looking great without all kinds of cosmetics.
If you’re prone to getting sunburnt, worried about skin cancer, or venturing into the tropics (where the sun is strong), wear sunscreen. Trust me on this one.
Highly recommended in the tropics or in areas with a lot of still standing water. In malaria-infected regions it becomes a bare necessity.
You never know whom you’ll encounter along the road…
Soluble vitamin tablets
A useful backup when circumstances don’t allow you to maintain a healthy diet (though no real substitute). Also, they give some flavour to your drink, which you’ll be craving if you’ve been drinking nothing but water for days.
I realize this is a controversial one. Bringing a laptop adds at least 1.5kg to your packing weight, which is a LOT! So you’re probably better of leaving it at home, especially on shorter trips. But if you’re like me, and you depend on a computer for your income and connection to the outside world, carrying it might be worth the effort. I use a Samsung Series 7 Ultra Touch, which offers a nice balance between power and portability.
Sleeping bag liner
You don’t always have a lot of choice when selecting accommodations for your trip, especially if you’re on a budget. Hence sometimes the quality and cleanliness leave much to be desired. I made a habit of bringing a sleeping bag liner wherever I travel, including on hiking trips. In warm climates it is much more comfortable to sleep in than under the thicker blankets that a hostel may provide you; in cold climates it adds a welcome extra layer of insulation; if the bedding you get is not as clean as you’d like, the sleeping bag liner is a perfect barrier between your body and the bed linen. The reason to have a sleeping bag liner rather than a sleeping bag, is that it’s much lighter and less bulky. If you’re not camping or sleeping out in the open, you rarely if ever need the added warmth of a full sleeping bag. I had my liner custom made out of high-quality silk by a tailor, and it is awesome. But this kind of item is also available ready made from some outdoor stores.
Stuff I will never pack again
Nothing teaches you like experience does, and my hiking trip made me realize that some items just aren’t all that useful. They are more of a burden to carry than a boon on the rare occasions that you use them, so you’re better off leaving them at home.
They are heavy, cumbersome, and not particularly comfortable. Weighing about half a kilo each, you’d do well to ditch the suckers.
Anything made out of cotton
Cotton is probably the worst possible material for any kind of active wear. It’s heavy, has poor breathability, retains water, dries slowly, wrinkles easily, smells bad quickly and doesn’t offer much protection against the wind or cold. (I’ve been wondering why it’s so popular for almost any kind of garment available at everyday clothing stores…) Avoid it like the plague! (Except for the trusted-and-super-comfy hoodie. 🙂 )
Redundant due to the more versatile head lamp.
I love a good glass of red, and used to carry one of these wherever I went. Now it has been replaced by the corkscrew on my Swiss army knife.
Even more toiletries
Hair gel, after shave, a hair brush, and anything else that isn’t needed to stay healthy or clean.
In most circumstances an umbrella is just too inconvenient to carry, even if it comes pouring down from the sky. You’ll often want to keep your hands free and your vision open. For protection against the rain, just rely on your rain jacket. Get rid of the umbrella.
Do you have anything to add to the list? Let me know in the comments!