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My hiking must-haves

  • June 21, 2021

You’re always asking, “What’s in your backpack?” Let’s dive in.

Are you ready for more summer hiking guides?! (Rhetorical 🎉) A few months ago, I shared all of my favorite summer hiking clothes in XO, MU. Today, I’m sharing what’s in my pack every time I head out on the trail, keeping safety, comfort, and “leave no trace” in mind.

Note, I’ve invested in some of my hiking gear because I’m in the mountains a lot, but you don’t need to break the bank to explore your local trails in summer and fall. Scour the online sales, buy used packs from your local gear swap, and add to your collection gradually, as your budget allows.

Pack: I’ve used the same day pack for four years—the Ultimate Direction Fastpack 15L. For day hikes in summer, 15L is plenty big—that holds my base layer and rain jacket (if needed), snacks, water, a book, and even a small towel for swimming. If you have a family and are packing gear for more than one, consider sizing up to their 20L pack. All of their bags have convenient wide pockets on the front straps (easy to get to without removing the pack) for your phone, sunglasses, and snacks. They don’t have a waist belt, however, so if you’re really loading them up, they may not be as comfortable. Note, they also make a 20L specifically cut for smaller/narrower bodies, but I haven’t tried that one yet.

Water reservoir: You’re definitely going to want to invest in a reservoir (sometimes called a “water bladder”) so you aren’t stopping every five minutes to fumble with a bottle. These 2L or 3L reservoirs go right in a little pouch in your pack with a tube that goes straight to your mouth. I’ve been using this Hydrapack Shape Shift reservoir that turns inside-out to clean—no more mucky, moldy corners where you can’t quite reach your sponge. Invest in this—the $35 is worth it. (And go for the 3L; too much water is always better than not enough.)

I also have several Life Straws, and throw one in on longer hikes. They’re small, light, and let you suck the most disgusting water out of a puddle or lake without fear. They’re a hiking/backpacking must-have, but take the time before you hit the trail to learn how to use one. (Hint: they only work once they’re “primed” with water. Practice at home.)

LMNT electrolytes: This is perhaps the most valuable item in my pack, besides water. It’s always a good idea to replenish electrolytes, especially in summer. I throw a stick of LMNT in my 3L water reservoir before I hit the trail, and leave an extra packet with 2L of fresh water in my car. Dehydration can happen fast on the trail, especially in summer. Sipping on electrolytes throughout my hike is a delicious way to make sure I stay energized. fresh, and leg-cramp-free.

Snacks:  The specifics here are highly variable, but here are some general guidelines. First, protein, in an easily digestible form. For me, that’s meat sticks/bars or jerky. Next, pack some carbs + fat in whatever form works best for your body. I do well with Serenity Kids veggie pouches, ProBar energy gummies (they’re just sugar, perfect for steep/long climbs), and RXBARs or Bobo’s oatmeal bars. You could bring a Larabar, dried fruit, real fruit (be careful not to squish it in your pack), coconut flakes, grain-free granola, or any other food that you know works in your system. Bring more than you think you need in case the hike runs long or you want to chill at the lake for a while. My #1 rule—never eat anything new on the trail. Always test it out at home first.

Rain jacket: There can be a 20+ degree temperature difference from base to summit, and in certain areas (like Colorado), summer thunderstorms are common.  Find a light shell, either waterproof or water resistant, to give you some protection against the elements, sun, or bugs.

Bug spray: I always have a small canister of DEET with me, in case the mosquitos are out. This can make the difference between a pleasant hike and a miserable trek.

Kula cloth:  The Kula Cloth s a technical pee cloth designed for people without penises. Instead of drip-drying, you wipe with their anti-microbial cloth, which absorbs the moisture and dries (clipped to the outside of your pack) super-fast. It’s a much more elegant way to pee on the trail than packing in your own TP,  which you then have to pack out (wet). I have an entire IG post about this beauty; I’ve been using them for a few years now and own many designs.

T.P. and a Ziploc: That having been said, I do always make sure I have a few tissues or squares of TP in case I have to poop. (Rare, but it can happen.) Pack everything out—hence the Ziploc.

Headlamp:I just keep one in the bottom of my pack at all times. Sure, you’ll likely never need it, but if you get lost, decide to stay late, or something goes wrong, you’ll be glad you have it. It’s tiny,  light, and no trouble to keep in your pack.

Bandana: During peak COVID,  I wore this around my neck in case I needed a quick face covering, but bandanas are super versatile. They function as a hair tie or headband, sun protection, or in a pinch, to help set an injury or stop bleeding. Tie one to the outside of your pack and leave it there.

Multi-tool: I don’t always take this with me, but on long hikes, it’s small and easy to toss in. It’s helpful for gear repair, first aid, and opening a tenacious Chomps wrapper.

Matches or a lighter: This is something my Army Ranger friend scolded me for NOT having on a recent hike. God forbid you get lost or injured and have to spend the night on the mountain; having a way to make fire can save your butt.

Camp towel: I bring this on almost every weekend hike, so I have a comfy spot to sit by the lake or on the rocks, and can dry off if I decide to swim.

Garmin InReach (optional): This is an optional tool for staying safe on the trail. I rarely have cell phone signal when I hike (whether in Utah or other states), and the InReach is a 2-way satellite communicator that lets you send two-way messages, share your location, and call for help. If you do have cell service on the trail, there are also paid apps like AllTrails Pro that will connect your location with people at home throughout your hike, and send them updates on your progress.

Bear Spray (if you’re in bear country): It’s always wise to research the typical wildlife you’ll find in a hiking region, especially if you’re traveling to hike. If you’re in bear country, ALWAYS have bear spray, and make sure you’ve watched videos on how to use it. Note, you can’t fly with this stuff, not even in checked baggage, so plan on buying some on-site in Banff, Jackson, or Glacier.

Seasonally at altitude, spikes:I know it seems bananas to bring spikes (like my Kahtoola micro-spikes) on the trail in June,  but if you’re heading up to 10K feet or higher, snow can stick around until June or even July! It depends on the trail and how much snowfall we’ve had in winter, but I’ve seen folks risk a nasty fall because they weren’t prepared to encounter deep slush on a steep face. Check trail conditions, but if it’s early summer, you’re at altitude, and you’re unsure, just throw them in.

Also recommended by hiking experts: A first aid kit, a lightweight space blanket, and sunscreen. You also might want to consider trekking poles for rocky trails,  steep terrain, and water hikes. Here’s the thing—some people feel more prepared with alllll the gear, while I tend to pack light on shorter local trails that I know are popular. Use this write-up as a general guideline to find the gear that works best for your hikes and budget.

XO MU

P.S. You can also brush up by listening to my podcast! My guide to summer hiking with special guest Kristen Bor is a great primer on how to start (or deepen) your hiking practice.

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