Whoever called indoors the Great Indoors? Nobody. Look, it might be a fine place to spend on a rainy day or an evening after a tough day of work, but that wide, gorgeous world on the other side of your window glass is too breathtaking to keep as background scenery all the time. We're in the thick of summer right now, and that means much of the countryside is wide open for exploring.
No matter where you live, there are most likely trails near you. Yet getting started can be daunting. Fear not. It's easier than you might think to stay dry, warm, hydrated, and safe. In this guide, we have recommendations for everything you need to take to the outdoors, whether it's just a peaceful afternoon hike or a roving weekend-long backpacking trip.
Updated August 2023: We've added picks for gear maintenance and self-care, such as picaridin insect repellent, permethrin insecticide, face sunscreen, and more. We've also updated pricing and availability.
For all but the coldest hikes, you can wear a short-sleeve base layer next to your skin and build your clothing system out from there. Synthetics, like this 100-percent recycled polyester shirt, are affordable and dry sweat quickly. For warm-weather activities, merino wool is suitable, and I recommend SmartWool's Merino Tee ($75), which is available in women's and men's sizing.
Your mid-layer goes between your base layer and shell, even though it's usually too warm to wear while hiking. More often, you'll throw it on during breaks and while doing camp chores. I'm a fan of fleece for mid-layers because it's durable and doesn't lose loft after being compressed in your pack.
Made up of 87-percent buttery soft merino wool (with 13-percent nylon mixed in), the Merino 150 is warm but not too warm. It's important not to go for the thickest, warmest base layer, even in very cold weather, because you'll work up a sweat that'll chill you as soon as you stop moving. The seams lie flat and off the shoulders, which keeps pack straps from rubbing them raw.
Base layers are thin layers that go next to your skin. They can be made from a variety of materials, but they need to wick sweat away and keep you warm. For bottoms, even in the coldest weather, you'll be fine with short underwear, like these briefs from ExOfficio.
Puffy jackets can be worn as mid-layers instead of fleece. More often, though, they comprise the outermost layer of your clothing system. Size up so your down jacket can fit over a base layer, mid-layer, and rain jacket. Puffies are very warm but fragile.
REI's sub-$100 Rainier jacket uses high-quality laminate waterproofing to keep you from getting soaked. It's well made and has a weatherproof center zip, along with pit zips for improved ventilation. It's a great and well-priced option for casual day hikes. Read our Best Rain Jackets guide for more recommendations.
Shoes and Socks
You won't have any fun on a hike—of any length—if you have bloody blisters on your feet. You may need to experiment to find out which shoes and socks you like best. Be sure to check out our Best Trail-Running Shoes, Best Barefoot Shoes, and Best High-Tech Socks guides for more.
For moderate temperatures we prefer low-top, non-Gore-Tex mesh trail shoes, like these from Salomon. They'll dry out much more quickly when wet than Gore-Tex-lined shoes, and speaking from experience they're warm enough when moving, even in 45-degree temperatures. We also like the comparable Merrell Moab 2 Ventilator (women's sizing, men's sizing) for $67.
Where I will recommend Gore-Tex-lined boots is on snowy and icy trails. Constant contact with snow will soak through shoes that lack water resistance. Renegades have been around forever, and they're durable and comfortable, although a bit heavy at roughly 3 pounds per pair. The mid-height helps keep snow from spilling in over the top of the boot too.
For those looking to speed over the hills and bound down trails, these were our favorite trail running shoes. Thanks to their wide toe box, low 5-mm heel drop, and sturdy rubber toe protection, they beat out lighter competitors. For running 3-5 miles a day, they're our top pick.
We don't recommend everyone choose thick leather hiking boots for most adventures, but if it's really cold, you want your feet to stay warm, and you don't mind trekking with a bit of extra weight, these are a great option. They work best as lifestyle shoes that you can take directly from the trail to the bar with just a quick rinse. They're also great for wandering around town between trips to the trail, since they're so classic and stylish.
If your feet run hot, you'll want synthetic socks, which dry out faster than wool. These by Wrightsock are synthetic and have two layers to avoid blisters. Anyone can wear them, but Wrightsock also makes a version in women's sizing ($14) that's more tapered and slim-fitting.
From experience climbing on glaciers and hiking in deep snow, I strongly believe a thin sock like the Wrightsocks above is the best bet to keep your feet from overheating. However, for slow-paced day hikes and low-intensity camping, you may be better off with a thicker sock to retain warmth, since you won't be burning as many calories. Darn Toughs have a lifetime warranty(!) and are ultra-comfortable. No itchy wool here.
You probably don't need gaiters, but if you're walking through dusty environments, you'll welcome them. They prevent crud from entering the tops of your shoes.
For icy terrain, these traction devices slip over your hiking shoes so the stainless-steel spikes on the bottom can dig in. The elastomer material is flexible enough to fit a variety of shoes. Just squeeze them on when needed and toss them in your pack when you're past the icy part of the trail. They shouldn't be a substitute for common sense; if the terrain is too icy to cross, come back when it's warmer.
Don't forget about your head and hands. Once you've swaddled yourself in warm top layers, bottom layers, and shoes, make sure to keep your vulnerable noggin and paws warm with these gloves and hats.
Forget tying a bandana around your neck. The Buff is easier to use. It's a tubular piece of thin polyester that you slip over your head, and you can wear it in several ways. Leave it loose to keep the sun from scorching your neck, yank it up over your nose and mouth on chilly days for warmth, or pull it up over your head completely, like a balaclava. It's versatile enough that I bring one everywhere I go, from off-road motorcycle rides to winter mountain climbs to sweltering summer hikes.
Merino wool is the good stuff, silky smooth and not at all itchy. These 100-percent merino gloves are good for chilly-but-not-sub-freezing days, and they're also touchscreen-compatible so you don't have to wrestle off a glove to use your phone.
Depending on the weather, you may need a sun hat or beanie to protect your head. I like a wool beanie to guard my neck against sunburn in cool weather, and this Smartwool is quite comfy. Check out our other guides, like the Best Sun Protection Clothing and Best Sunglasses for more suggestions.
Warmth doesn't come cheap. These are serious winter gloves that'll keep your hands warm and dry, even when there's snow spread all over the ground at higher altitudes. Synthetic puffy PrimaLoft insulation traps heat, and Gore-Tex keeps it in, so feel free to spend a whole afternoon tossing snowballs without water leaking through.
Now that you have all your gear, you need something to carry it in. The most important aspect of a backpack is that it fits you properly. Outdoor retailers like REI offer in-person fittings. Features like water bottle pockets, loops for hitching gear, and chest or waist straps will probably vary depending on the level of activity you're facing.
The sweet spot for a daypack is between 15 and 25 liters—enough to hold rain layers, a fleece, maps, water, sunscreen, lunch, and snacks, plus room for a book or camera gear. If this one's out of stock, I also like the Mountain Hardwear UL 20 ($80).
If you get caught in the rain, a pack cover is a quick and convenient solution. However, it's worth noting that water will still soak your pack's uncovered back pad. If you're hiking overgrown and under-maintained trails, a pack cover could also act as a sacrificial protective barrier that keeps your expensive pack from getting cut up.
A Cheap Pack Liner
Use a small trash compactor bag as a water-resistant pack liner inside your pack to keep everything dry in case it rains. They're more durable than trash bags and almost as cheap. For a second layer of defense against moisture, pack your clothing and shelter in water-resistant stuff sacks or dry sacks.
Water Bottles and Purification
One of the biggest beginner mistakes is to not bring enough water, even on short hikes. Depending on the heat and your level of exertion, you could get thirstier than you think. For a short day hike, a liter bottle should be enough. If you're heading out all day or it's particularly hot or dry, read travelogues and park ranger recommendations and pack accordingly. Check out our Best Water Bottles guide for more suggestions.
Metal water bottles are unnecessarily heavy for longer trips, but they're fine for day hikes when it's not freezing (watch A Christmas Story if you want to know why). Of course, if you have plastic bottles lying around at home, you can use those. Just remember not to leave them on the trail.
I gave this one an honorary mention in my guide to the Best Reusable Water Bottles because it's dead simple and cheap. Nalgenes tend to get brittle in ultra-cold environments, but unlike a metal bottle, you're not liable to get your lips frozen to it. Plus, this bottle is BPA-free.
If you favor hydration bladders instead of water bottles, this is a good one. Before I switched back to bottles, I preferred my Platypus to my CamelBak because it was easier to clean between hikes.
Water filters remove not only viruses and bacteria, but sediment too. Collapsible filter systems like the Sawyer Squeeze are extremely effective, lightweight, and quick. You could use water purification tablets or droplets instead, like Micropur for $16, but know that they can take up to half an hour to work on most viruses and bacteria, and four hours (!) on Cryptosporidium. If the water is below 60 degrees Fahrenheit, it takes even longer to work. Better to use a filter.
You're probably not in active danger on a popular, well-traveled beginner trail. But it's still a good idea to pack a few of these items just in case.
Your hike might take longer than you think, or you just might want to start extra early. If you need to get around in the dark, a headlamp that shines at least 300 lumens will keep you on the path and leave your hands free. Get one that accepts AAA batteries so you can bring spares on long trips.
Always let a reliable friend or family member back home know your plans before you head out. Cairn is a novel smartphone app that reports your location in real time to an authorized “safety circle” of people you select to follow your progress. Cairn uses crowdsourced information to tell you where you can expect to find cell coverage on trails, and it'll alert your safety circle if you're overdue to return.
A mirror, which you aim at overhead aircraft to draw their attention, and an Acme Tornado Whistle for $7 can signal for help if you need rescue.
If you aren't bringing a tent, bring an emergency bivvy. It weighs less than 4 ounces and will keep you dry and warm (ish) if you spend an unplanned night outdoors.
Save your knees on downhill hikes and gain stability on sketchy trails with a pair of trekking poles. These have strong adjustment levers that never come loose or slip, no matter how hard you lean on them. Rubber tip covers for $10 keep them from scraping up trails, and snow baskets for $11 prevent them from punching through snow.
A First-Aid Kit
Prepackaged first aid kits are heavy, expensive, and usually incomplete. Pack your own in a little bag. Add some Band-Aid Hydro Seal for $6. They're the most amazing blister bandages I've ever used. And pick up a Tick Key for $10 or a Coghlans Tick Remover for $6 to get those pesky bugs off your skin. Peruse our Home Emergency Kit Gear guide for other ideas.
Trip preparation begins long before you pull your pack out of your closet and begin cramming it full of stuff. You can't learn everything before you actually take your first outdoor trip, but you can set yourself up for success by learning a few key skills so that when you do run into a problem, you'll know just how to handle it.
Outdoor manuals can be fun and useful for preparation, and a source of helpful tips. Rick Curtis' The Backpacker's Field Manual is the best comprehensive guidebook on hiking I've read. You can also practice reading topographic maps with your compass if you pick up Wilderness Navigation ($15) by Bob and Mike Burns.
Satellite messengers can be useful, but they're expensive, and you might not have to use them that often. You probably have a great hiking companion already in your pocket. Alltrails is my favorite free trip planner and trail discovery tool, but we have more in our Best Hiking Apps guide.
Even if you download Alltrails (and you should), it's a good idea to download a second navigation app. Often, one will have details for a specific trail but not the other. While Alltrails is geared more toward pre-trip planning (although it's still great for on-trail navigation), Gaia GPS gives you a variety of up-to-date topographic maps that you can download for offline use. Before your trip, download maps on both apps to lessen your chances of losing your way once you're out on the trail.
If you're alone in the woods, it's helpful to know what to do in emergency situations. A first aid course focused on outdoor situations is a good place to start. If you want more comprehensive (and expensive) training, the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS) has an excellent Wilderness First Responder course.
Heading into the wild can be a bit intimidating at first. Some folks find comfort in having a navigational aid strapped to their wrists. Others simply want to track their hikes to analyze their fitness goals. Check out our guides to the Best Fitness Trackers and Best Smartwatches for more of our favorite picks.
We call the Charge 5 (8/10, WIRED Recommends) the best all-around fitness tracker for its relatively low price and bevy of biometric sensors. There's a smart alarm that determines the best point during your sleep cycle to set an alarm for, ECGs for monitoring your heart rate, sleep analysis tools that measure your blood oxygen levels at night, and more. You do have to pay $10 per month, or $80 per year, for a Fitbit Premium subscription to get the most from the Charge 5, though.
The 7S Sapphire Solar (8/10, WIRED Recommends) impressed us with its quick and accurate GPS connection that worked even under surprisingly thick tree cover. Preset outdoor activities—from gravel biking to swimming to running to bouldering—track biometric data so you can analyze your runs and routes later on. The built-in altimeter, barometer, and compass round out the reasons we call this admittedly pricey unit the top outdoor watch in our Best Fitness Trackers guide.
This affordable watch is mentioned in both our Best Fitness Tracker guide and our Best Smartwatches guide. Sync it to Garmin's Connect app, and you can track and analyze heart rate, blood oxygen, respiration, and sleep data. There's no onboard GPS, since its focus is on tracking health data, but the battery lasts an impressive three to five days.
A Few More Things
There are always a few odds and ends that make your trips a little more enjoyable, whether by taking pressure off your battered knees or keeping your phone juiced up so you have plenty of evidence when your friends back home say, “Pics or it didn't happen.”
I always bring a small battery bank to keep my phone topped up. There are no power outlets in the wilderness (I've checked). Check out our Best Portable Chargers guide for more recommendations.
Some people like to bring camp chairs on their hikes, but I never want to carry anything that heavy and bulky. I'd rather stuff a hammock in my pack. The Eno impressed me with its build quality, especially for such a low price. It comes with the straps needed to string it up between trees and, for once, some decent instructions for folks unaccustomed to hanging a hammock. There's a two-person DoubleNest for $75 that holds a combined 400 pounds, if you'd like to bunk down with somebody in the breeze.
Suunto makes my favorite compasses. The park ranger's office will usually have topographic trail maps if you stop off before the trailhead, but America's parks are more popular and crowded than ever. Buy some ahead of time if you can, so you're not without a map if the ranger's office runs out.
I'll let you in on a little secret. The expensive detergents marketed for your precious hiking clothes are no better than a typical liquid laundry detergent. I've been using Tide to wash most of my gear for years, and it's still as good as new. The exception is goose down clothing and sleeping bags. I use this down-specific detergent to keep from weighing down the loft and reducing their overall loft. And remember to only wash your puffy clothes and sleeping bags in top-loading washing machines. Front-loaders will shred them to pieces. Speaking from experience here …
The ground can suck a lot of warmth from your body. Even if it seems warm outside, a lengthy break seated on the bare earth can leave you chilled. If you're hiking when it's cold out, or if the nights are chilly (it takes a while for the ground to heat up during the day), bring along an insulated foam pad to sit on during breaks. Your rear end will thank you for it.
We're all familiar with DEET insect repellent. Chances are your folks sprayed you with it liberally as a kid to keep all the ticks and skeeters away from you. But although effective, DEET has a nasty tendency to melt synthetic tech fabrics, the kind outdoors gear is often made of. I switched over to using this Picaridin years ago. It works nearly as well, and it doesn't harm my expensive gear.
Permethrin is a kill-on-contact insecticide. It doesn't repel insects, it just kills them when they trespass. Spray some on your shoes and pant cuffs if you're heading into tick-infested areas. Ticks like to crawl up the leg and latch onto warmer areas, such as the groin. This spray keeps them from getting that far. Three notes of warning. First, permethrin is highly toxic to cats and birds, so if you have either pet, avoid the stuff. Two, don't spray it directly on your skin. It's not a substitute for DEET or Picaridin. And three, use it smartly. Don't spray it on tree straps for a hammock, for example. That causes unnecessary insect casualties, and you're in their home, so be nice.
You need to protect your face when you're outside. The problem is that most regular sunscreens clog up your pores and make you break out. I've been using this Sun Bum lotion for all my outdoor pursuits for years without complaint. Whether I'm chugging through the Chihuahuan Desert or climbing peaks at 10,000 feet, it has kept my face from roasting and breaking out for the past five years. For the rest of the body's exposed skin, I prefer Banana Boat Sport Ultra SPF 30 Spray Sunscreen for $9. The spray is quicker to apply and less messy, and it works just as well as the more expensive options from Sun Bum.
Don't forget about your lips. It's all too common for folks to slather on the sunscreen and insect repellent but forget about their lips, which can burn, dry out, and crack. I tried a few brands of high-SPF lip balm, including Sun Bum's offerings, but didn't like how thick and pasty they felt. Carmex is the most comfort and—this is a subjective feeling—most moisturized-feeling among those I've tried. Even in full sun at high altitudes, the 15 SPF Carmex worked well enough to prevent chapping and burning.
I've tried pretty much all the hiking specialty snacks out there and don't really recommend any of them. Options like the GU Stroopwaffel and the Sweetwood Fatty Meat Stick are very expensive and usually too packed with sugar or salt to be healthy. And—this is a judgment call—most of them taste pretty rank. I recommend packing your own snacks at home. Include lots of salty ones, since that helps your body retain water and ward off dehydration. If you want something more environmentally friendly than Zip-Locs, check out Bee's Wrap ($18). Bring a typical trash bag from home to pack out your trash.
If you're like me and have to have your coffee every morning, Alpinestart's brew isn't half bad. And you won't have to carry around damp coffee grounds in your trash bag from making pour-over or French press coffee. Even I, a coffee snob, look forward to a cup on mornings when I like to perch myself on a rock and take in the sunrise. This package will make eight cups of medium-roast coffee.
Many people love listening to tunes out on the trails, but please keep it in your ears and don't disturb the great outdoors for those who want to enjoy the quiet. The Pixel Buds A-Series (8/10, WIRED Recommends) were named the best overall in our guide to the Best Wirefree Earbuds for their IPX4 water resistance, easy pairing with Android devices, and Google Assistant integration.
Picture this: You're outdoors on the trail, nature calls, and there's no bathroom in sight. At that point, you'll be glad you packed a cheap trowel to dig a cathole for solid waste. This one weighs only 3.1 ounces and can be kept in an exterior pocket of your pack.