What to Pack in Your Hiking Day Pack

hiking day pack
The perfect backpack and gear for your day hikes.

A lot of exploring the Minnesota outdoors involves day hiking. And the best and smartest way to do day hikes is by provisioning a small hiking day pack with whatever you might need to make your hike more comfortable and safe.

I have mine made up and ready to go. I can just pick it up, fill the water bladder, toss in a sandwich or some energy bars if I want, and I’m instantly ready to hit the trail

Of course, when you’re deciding what to bring on your particular day hike, be sure to consider factors like weather, difficulty, duration, and distance from help. You might not need everything on this list every time you go out. But as long as you don’t mind the weight (and nothing in here is particularly heavy, keep in mind the old saying:

“It’s better to have it and not need it, than need it and not have it.”

Day pack hiking essentials

    • Small backpack: A hiking day pack is a matter of personal preference. We like Osprey brand a lot. They’re light, usually have a pocket for a water bladder, and they have extra features like ties, outside pockets, etc. that come in handy. A 20-liter pack is probably minimum to carry all the stuff we list below. Note: you might want to get a rain cover for your pack, just in case there’s something in there that would suffer from being wet.

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  • Water bladder or bottle: I prefer a hydration bladder for two reasons: they carry more water than you can easily carry in a bottle, and the little tube can be easily brought to your mouth to drink. That’s so much easier than reaching behind you to wrestle your water bottle out of your pack pocket. But water bottles have their uses, too, and on a short hike, why not. I like my Klean Kanteen stainless steel bottle. It’s indestructible.
    Buy it at REI
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mobile cooling shirt
My new hiking best friend is my Mobile Cooling shirt by Fieldsheer. Cooling technology and sun protection all in one.
  • Mobile Cooling shirt by Fieldsheer is simply a marvelous solution to two problems on the trail, sun and heat. First, it can cover you from head to waist completely as it has both a gaiter for your face and neck, and, if you like, a light hood you can also pull up to cover your head. With SPF factor of 50, that provides plenty of sun protection. Often, if the sun is particularly strong, I put the hood up and put my hat on over it to shade my face. Also, the shirt wicks away perspiration and then any breeze that you get will add tremendously to the evaporative cooling effect. I’ve worn it both hiking and biking nearly every day since I got it.
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  • Sun screen: There are a million choices of sun screens out there. The newer spray stuff is very convenient, and you’re less likely to miss spots. Be sure to get your nose.
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  • Hat: A good hat that shades your face, ears, and neck is an essential part of your sun protection scheme. I’ve had my Tilley Air Flow hat for about 13 years now and it still looks as good as new. I’ve hiked over 1000 miles in the hat. It’s washable, fairly cool, and has strings that tie on both front and back to make sure it doesn’t blow off in the wind. One feature I particularly like is you can just dip it in water, wring it out, and wear it. Very cool.
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  • Insect repellent: I go for the strong stuff–100 percent DEET. Some don’t like it, but my experience is that it works, especially here in Minnesota where we jokingly call the mosquito the “state bird.” I walked in the north woods of Minnesota for six hours yesterday, and not one bite.
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  • First aid kit: You can make up your own First Aid kit, or buy a light weight one that has the essentials. As for essentials, that’s several Bandaids, a larger bandage or two, adhesive tape, tweezers for splinters, ibuprofen, alcohol wipes, sterile gloves, antibiotic cream, antihistamine ointment for bites.
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  • Extra pair of socks: Lately I’ve been partial to Farm to Feet socks. They are well padded, which is nice when you’re hiking on mixed terrain, like the roots and rocks common to Minnesota trails. There will be a day when you end up wading through some water. That’s the day you’ll be happy to have a change of socks.
    Buy it on Amazon
  • Lightweight rain jacket: You can spend a lot or a little on a rain jacket. My best advice is to go to REI or your local outfitter and try them on and talk to the REI sales consultants (they are always very good, I’ve found.) And just pick one you like. There are plenty of good brands. I currently have a very old Columbia jacket that has served me well, and a newer Adidas Terrex series I like, too.
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  • Compass: A compass, even if you don’t use necessarily use it to orient yourself is kind of fun. If you have a good topo map, and know how to orienteer, it can be a lifesaver. (BTW, REI offers orienteering classes. If you’re going to remote areas, you should take one.
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  • Maps: This is a bit tricky as good terrain maps of where you’ll be hiking are sometimes hard to come by. In Minnesota, the state parks have free hiking maps, but those don’t have much detail as to the terrain you’ll be traversing. And, sometimes, they’re not entirely accurate, as I found out to my detriment in Wild River State Park last week. So, be careful. National Geographic has maps of the Boundary Waters area and Isle Royale National Park, and I wouldn’t venture into either of those places without some very good maps.

    If you are hiking in Minnesota State Parks, as we do a lot, the map provided you at the park entrance is pretty good. But if you really want to know where you are at any time, be sure to download the Avenza Maps app. All the Minnesota state park maps can be downloaded free, and as you hike, a little blue dot will tell you exactly where you are at all times. That’s a huge help when you don’t know exactly which way to turn at a trail intersection.

  • Knife: This Swiss Army knife is more utilitarian for the outdoors, in my opinion. First, it’s the knife the Swiss Army actually carries. And it has a very strong serrated blade. And a saw. No corkscrew though. If you’re lugging wine with you on your hike, I recommend the stuff with screw off tops. If you’re into camping, you might want a little more robust tool, like the Leatherman Signal, which is specifically designed more for camping (it has a hammer for your tent stakes.) The Signal also has a few other things such as a whistle, knife sharpener, and fire starting kit. Still no corkscrew, though.
    Buy the Swiss Army knife on Amazon
    Buy the Leatherman Signal on Amazon
    Buy the Leatherman Signal at REI
  • Headlamp: Technology has advanced a lot since I bought my last headlamp, so I haven’t personally tried the Black Diamond one linked here. But REI gives it its highest rating, so that’s good for me. Kris has a Black Diamond headlamp–although not this exact model–and likes it a lot.
    Buy it at REI
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  • Wipes and trowel: We always carry wipes and a trowel and practice the “Leave no trace” philosophy. This trowel is a good one as it will cut through small roots and get through hard packed soil.
    Buy it at REI
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  • Whistle: I have one of these left over from my days as a soccer referee. The Fox whistle is loud. And, if you’re lost or separated from your companions, you want loud.
    Buy it at REI
    Buy it on Amazon
  • Duct tape, pen, and writing pad.: I wrap a couple yards of duct tape around a pen I picked up in a hotel somewhere. You don’t have to carry an entire roll. This has come in handy more than once–like when you catch your pack on some barbed wire and rip it. And, you can use the pen and pad to take notes on interesting things you see on the trail.
  • Hiking Poles: I don’t skimp on these. When you are going for distance, weight matters. And these Black Diamond sticks are ultra light and strong. They are expensive perhaps, and there are certainly cheaper alternatives. But, when you hike as much as we do, why not?
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Optional gear

If you’re going to be hiking in any areas where there is a chance you might be lost, have to stay after dark, or otherwise might be in peril, consider carrying these two items. Just in case.

  • Personal locator beacon: A personal locator beacon is an expensive tool, but, obviously, if you’re lost in some wilderness, it could be a life saver. The deluxe models are a combination satellite phone and beacon that can tell rescuers exactly where you are. If you are hiking in deep wilderness, give one of these every consideration. Also be aware that these devices usually require a service subscription.
    Buy it at REI
    Buy it on Amazon
  • Emergency Bivy: Luckily, I’ve never had to use this. It’s basically a very light bag made of insulating material that will retain your body heat if you have to stay out over night. It only weighs a few ounces, so I carry mine all the time.
    Buy it at REI
    Buy it on Amazon

In case you’re wondering, my pack, with all this gear (not counting water,) weighs seven pounds (3.2 kilograms.)

You can see all our day pack gear in one place on our Amazon day pack store page.

hiking day pack contents
All this fits easily in my 22 liter pack. With room for more warm clothes, food, or whatever else is needed for that day.

More info from MNTrips

See the list of all Minnesota State Parks, including basic permit information. We also have a list of all Minnesota Historical Society sites. We’re adding our commentary for the park and historical sites as we visit them.

When you plan on hiking or biking the Minnesota State Parks, be sure to download the Avenza Maps app to your phone. The app allows you to download the trail maps for almost every state park, and they are invaluable for navigation, especially because many of the parks don’t have as many directional signs as they should.

Also, if you’re planning on camping at Minnesota State Parks, you’ll need a reservation. Here’s the online reservation form.

Some of the links on this page are affiliate links, which means we may receive a small commission if purchases are made through those links. This adds no cost to MNTrips readers and helps us keep our site up and running. Our reputation is our most important asset, which is why we only provide completely honest and unbiased recommendations. Full disclosure here.

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