Ten Essentials for a Summer Day Hike - ITS Tactical
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Ten Essentials for a Summer Day Hike

By Mike Petrucci

Warmer months are just around the corner, and that means the hiking trails will be filling up with explorers looking to enjoy the great outdoors.

There’s no sense in lugging around a backpack full of unnecessary items or three days worth of food though when your hike is only three hours long. You need only cover the basics for a successful day hike.

This post isn’t meant to be one that encompasses all variables of your hike. Your specific location and climate will dictate what gear you need. I’m also not a hiking expert, I simply know what works for me and I try to stick to the basics.

Your budget will come into play as well. It’s easy to think that you need to visit your local outdoors store and start piling items into your basket but you really don’t need much in terms of gear. If you have a well maintained and high traffic trail, you may be able to get by with just a bottle of water and a simple first aid kit. You can go as minimal as you’d like, just be safe about it.

Note – Don’t be these people:

Here’s the Scenario

Just two hours outside of Washington DC is one of the mid-Atlantic areas more popular hikes, Old Rag Mountain. Standing tall at an elevation of just 3,284 ft, it’s not the largest in the area but it is the most popular due to it’s sweeping views of the Shenandoah Valley. This is a great day hike for just about anyone and one of my personal favorites.

Old Rag is still fairly remote in terms of cell phone reception and accessibility but there’s a lot of foot traffic in the summertime so help shouldn’t be far away if needed. This does NOT mean you should rely on help coming when you need it. Being prepared and self-reliant is key.

Old Rag Mountain

Hike Specifics

  • 7-9 miles
  • Elevation Gain: 2,510 ft

Day Hike Map

For most visitors, it usually takes around 5 hours or so to complete the full hike. I’ve done it multiple times and when the trail isn’t busy, I can be up and down in just over 3 hours. When selecting your own hike location, do some research before you go so you have an idea of how long you plan to be out.

When loading up your gear, it’s best to follow the Ten Essentials or at least a slightly modified version of that list. Remember, what you’re bringing doesn’t have to be top of the line, just functional.

The Ten Essentials

  • Navigation
  • Sun Protection
  • Insulation
  • Illumination
  • First Aid
  • Fire
  • Repair
  • Food
  • Water
  • Shelter

Day Hike Gear

Gearing Up

Just about any backpack you have will do the job for a simple day hike such as this. Make sure it can secure all of your items and is comfortable enough for the distance and time you’ll be spending on the hike.

What items do you have or could you get that cover the requirements in the Ten Essentials list?


Unfamiliar with the area? Do your homework and consider bringing a map. A lot of state parks provide maps on-site but printing a copy at home won’t hurt. You should also bring your compass but make sure you know how to use it.

Sun Protection

Sun protection doesn’t just mean you should have sunscreen but it’s a good idea to wear a hat or sunglasses to keep the sun out of your eyes. A lot of hiking/outdoor specific clothing offers SPF valued protection from the sun’s harmful rays. I like to keep a couple of tiny sunscreen packets I keep in my first aid kit.


Are you starting early in the day? While it may be cooler and you think you need a thick jacket, you’ll warm up fast while hiking. Keep it lightweight and pack a windbreaker or maybe a vest to wear if you cool off while resting. If rain is in the forecast, you’ll obviously want to pack a lightweight breathable rain jacket. Stay far away from cotton and look for synthetic or wool as they wick and dry quickly when wet.


It’s ideal to start your hike early so you don’t catch yourself on the trail after dark, especially if it’s your first time hiking in the area. A flashlight isn’t just useful for reading a map when the sun goes down but it could be used for signaling in an emergency situation.

First Aid

I’ll often bring my full size ETA kit because it doesn’t weigh that much and easily attaches to my bag. If I don’t carry the full size kit, I’ll at least have the EDC version. I also pack a small “booboo kit” that contains basic first aid items. Set yourself up for some “trail magic” and pack a few extra band-aids or moleskin in case you come across a hiker in need.


This is more about preparation than actually building a fire. A flint fire starter and tinder quiks should provide enough spark to start a fire if you are caught in a bad situation. Don’t start a fire needlessly and check the laws and conditions in your local area as there may be a burn ban when you go hiking.


A little duct tape and paracord can go a long way. By implementing the paracord deployment lanyard technique, you can neatly organize up to 25 feet of paracord that’s easy to unravel. You can also  wrap your own  micro roll of duct tape to have almost 20 inches worth in the size and form factor of a stick of chap-stick.


You may become sluggish and tired if you don’t have a few treats on those longer hikes. Pack a couple of bars or trail mix but there’s no need for an MRE (unless you want to bring it). I’ll often carry just a couple Honey Stinger waffles or Clif Bars but then treat myself to a pizza in town afterwards. Local pizza is always best, especially when earned after a strenuous hike.


While water is often the heaviest item that you’ll pack, it’s arguably the most necessary. The National Park Service recommends (for this particular hike) carrying two liters of water per person. My hydration bladder holds three liters and is always plenty, except for maybe the hottest days. You could bring a sports drink or a couple of water bottles but I recommend getting a hydration bladder. They’re easier to drink from while moving and easily refillable.


If you feel you run the risk of having to spend the night outside, then you need some sort of shelter. The most basic solution are those inexpensive mylar survival blankets but they tend to tear easily. I like the AMK Emergency Bivvy because you can actually climb inside like a sleeping bag and it’s quite durable.


Carrying a pocket knife is an obvious must. I’ve found that my Benchmade Mini Griptilian can handle most jobs really well while still small and lightweight. Trust me, you don’t need a Rambo-style knife for a day hike.

A pocket-sized notebook and pen or pencil for jotting notes is always a good thing to have on hand. Depending on the weather or how long I’ll be out, I may even bring my hammock for a nap in the woods. Taking a break during my hike to get thoughts down on paper is the perfect way to clear my head.

Since it’s lightweight, I choose to pack an MPIL for signaling purposes. The color contrast is perfect if I need to get someone’s attention through the wooded surroundings.

While I’m very familiar with this particular trail, it’s better to be prepared for anything. This is why I pack my pocket-sized survival kit. It contains a solution for almost all of the Ten Essentials in their most basic form.

It almost goes without mentioning but I always recommend bringing a cell phone. I use my iPhone to take photos during the hike and I’ll often load up a few maps or notes about the trail. Don’t rely on the phone for getting you out of trouble though because reception and battery life are always an issue.

Explore the Outdoors!

Now you know what you need to get out there for a day hike. Use the gear you have and see what fits into the Ten Essentials list.

It’s often good to see what other people pack and bring along for a hike to get ideas for yourself. I’ve put my personal gear list in the forums and I’d love to see what you carry. Check out the forum post and share your own gear list!

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