For many beginners, gear can be a barrier to participating in outdoor activities. Even for an activity as simple as hiking, some recommended gear lists can cost upwards of $200-$300. While it’s true that the gear you have can make or break your day hike, that doesn’t mean you have to spend a fortune on gear to have a safe, enjoyable hike.
Instead of thinking about the specific gear pieces you do or do not have, I think it’s more helpful to think of functions and purposes you need gear to fill. For example, instead of realizing I don’t have a hiking specific backpack that has a hydration reservoir, a key pocket, and camera compartments I just need something that can comfortably carry water, food, clothes, and other gear.
For an enjoyable hike, your gear needs to serve three purposes: make walking comfortable, protect you from the elements, and carry your equipment and essentials.
There’s a good chance you already have gear that can fill these purposes. If you don’t, you can often pick something up for a very reasonable price. Hiking is a fun, simple activity. There’s no need to exclude yourself from participating because you don’t have fancy gear. This article will help you prioritize gear acquisition based on our experience and the lessons we’ve learned from hiking hundreds of miles in many different locations and conditions.
Listed below are the most important pieces of hiking gear and the order you can prioritize gear acquisition to give you the most comfort while spending the least amount of money.
For the purposes of this article, I’m assuming that you already have some basic items. Namely a backpack (any backpack, doesn’t need to be hiking specific), basic clothing (pants, shirt, jacket, etc.), water bottles (of some kind, and sun protection (hat and sunglasses).
Footwear is the most important piece of hiking gear for being comfortable and staying safe. On a hike, your feet are your transportation. If your feet are uncomfortable you will be too. In the event you get into trouble (run out of water, hit bad weather, get hurt, etc.) your feet are what can carry you to safety.
Hiking Shoes and/or Boots
Good hiking shoes need to be comfortable, durable, and supportive. They don’t need to be expensive and you may not need to buy a new pair. You can hike in anything from running shoes to steel-toe boots (I’ve used both). Some even prefer to hike in supportive sandals, like Chacos (not me).
If you’re not sure which hiking shoes will work best for you I recommend trying a pair you already have. It’s probably not worth spending extra money when the shoes may not work out. It’s also just fine to double-dip. Some of my favorite hiking shoes are also some of my favorite running shoes.
Take your shoes on a test hike if you’re unsure of how they’ll perform. A short hike of less than a mile can tell you how your shoes will perform in hiking situations and may save you a day of blisters and discomfort. If the shoes work great, you can also save yourself some money by using the gear you already have.
Good socks can be as important as good shoes. Don’t wear cotton socks (you’re going to see a pattern with cotton throughout this article). Cotton absorbs water. If your feet sweat (mine do) or get wet, all that moisture is going to collect until your sock becomes soggy. If you keep sweating it’s not going to dry out.
I’d recommend a sock with a wool-blend. For summer hiking get a thin sock. For shoulder seasons and winter, a thicker sock. The wool blend will wick moisture away from your feet. It won’t be 100% efficient but it’s enormously better than soggy cotton.
You’ll be surprised at the difference a good pair of socks can have on your hiking experience.
Once you have a good pair of hiking shoes and socks, pants should be next on your list. It’s no fun to hike with pants that chafe, make you sweat, snag easily, are fragile, and/or dry slowly.
There are a lot of great pants for hiking. Jeans are not one of them. Any athletic pants (not cotton sweat pants) or tights will do. My rule of thumb: if it’s comfortable to run in it’s usually comfortable to hike in.
If you’re looking to purchase hiking specific pants you’ll want a synthetic material that is durable and wicks moisture. Polyester, nylon, and elastic materials fit this description. Softshell pants are popular and are made from polyester. With softshell pants, it can be easy to get a pair that is heavier than you were expecting, so I always recommend trying them on first.
Upper Body Layer(s)
Selecting a hiking shirt and other layers for your upper body is similar to selecting pants. You want something durable that will wick moisture. Even for cold weather clothing, it’s important to get moisture-wicking layers. On a cold day when you want a puffy, you’re going to start sweating pretty quickly once you start hiking and you want that puffy to move moisture away from your body as quickly as possible so you don’t get chilled.
There most common materials for hiking tops are polyester blends and merino wool. Go with either of those materials and you should stay comfortable. Sometimes hiking-specific shirts can be pricy, but running shirts work just as well.
I spent a lot of years wearing cotton t-shirts on hikes. I would get sweaty, they would get wet. It wasn’t a big deal. I lived through it and had fun hiking. When I switched to synthetic shirts (I usually wear a polyester blend) it didn’t stop me from sweating but my shirt no longer absorbed all the water. Some of it was wicked to the surface of the shirt and evaporated. I was able to stay more comfortable and dried out much faster.
In many hiking environments, you’ll want to have some form of rain protection. I almost always carry some form of rain gear, even when there’s no rain in the forecast. Many alpine areas receive rain every day, even when it’s not forecasted. If you get stuck on a hike and can’t get out that extra layer may help you stay warm at night.
I started out carrying a cheap, plastic poncho. You can pick them up at any box-store for just a couple of dollars. They actually work pretty well. Ponchos do a good job of covering your entire body while still remaining breathable. They’re not super durable (at least the cheap ones) or breathable. But they do work.
Later I upgraded to a traditional rain jacket. They can be expensive so try a few on and get one that will work for you. If you’re going to hike in your jacket I recommend getting one with pit-zips so you can shed head and curb soaking yourself from the inside out while hiking.
The reason I’ve ranked a rain jacket above a backpack is simply for safety. It’s a piece of clothing that is very important in situations where you could get wet, but not as important in other situations. Bottom line is that the clothing you take hiking with does more to protect you than what you carry it in.
You need a backpack to carry your rain jacket because you won’t be using it 99% of the time. To start, any backpack will do. It doesn’t have to be hiking specific. I’ve hiked many miles wearing the same backpack I wore to class in high school and college. It worked fine. I’ve also hiked a lot of miles in a cheap, hiking specific backpack which probably performed worse than the one I used for school.
The bottom line is that you just need something to hold your stuff. You don’t need to get a nice new backpack to go on a hike. Start by using what you have. Once you have a feel for the features you want, then go look for a new one to use for hiking.
There are a lot of different options for hiking packs out there. I’m not going to get into it here. You can figure what will work best for you. My recommendation is to spend some time hiking before you spend money on a pack that isn’t going to meet your needs.
Upgrading to a hiking-specific backpack will improve the organization of your gear. Getting pack with a hydration reservoir will make carrying your water much more comfortable. The reservoir will distribute the water evenly and keep it close to your back. A good backpack can make quite a difference in your hiking comfort.
You don’t want to get skin cancer so make sure you have sun protection. Sunblock is great but I’d recommend wearing a hat and sunglasses also. Any hat and shades will do to start.
As with a backpack, you’ll find things you don’t like about whatever shades and hat you buy. Thus, it’s a good idea to start with what you have and then upgrade once you know what features you like and don’t like.
My advice here is simply to use these items. No one wants skin cancer.
Most of the gear you need to go hiking you already have. The moral of this article is to spend your time and money on experiences and adventures before you spend it on gear. When you’re looking to get new gear to improve your comfort or burn some extra cash, this guide will help you get the most bang-for-your-buck for your hiking safety and comfort. I stick by my first two suggestions of footwear and pant as the most important pieces of gear to buy/upgrade. After that, I think there’s a little more leeway to adjust to your specific circumstances.
However you go about it have fun out there!