The Blue Ridge Mountains offer more than 5,000 miles of hiking trails. Many of these trails are fairly long, and only suitable for overnight hikes.
Right now, with young children and busy schedules, we prefer trails that can be hiked in the same day, often called day hikes(read all about our 10 favorite trails family hiking trails). While day hikes don't require the necessary preparation and gear that an overnight or multi day hike requires, being prepared is important.
We've been day hiking for more than 10 years here in the Blue Ridge Mountains, and along the way have really learned what hiking gear is necessary, and which hiking gear isn't.
Based on our experience, hiking 3 - 8 mile day hikes with six kids, here's our list of essential day hiking gear for most families:
The most critical element of a successful day hike is good hiking shoes.
Many inexperienced people will tell you that a good pair of tennis shoes will do fine. Well, that depends on the terrain.
Many trails in the Blue Ridge are wet and have lots of large rocks. This is particularly true when visiting a waterfall area, which provides two unique issues:
Purchasing a good set of non-slip, water proof hiking boots or hiking shoes is money well spent, to avoid both of the issues above, and for numerous other reasons.
Whether you get shoes or boots really doesn't matter, the choice is really all about personal preference.
My wife prefers shoes, and I prefer low cut boots. Boots provide:
Hiking Shoes provide:
Which is best? That's a personal choice, that's different for everyone.
Hiking boots/shoes range from as little as $20 to a couple hundred dollars for a really good pair. A good price range for good quality adult boots is $80 - $100. For kids, $30 - $50.
We don't recommend putting a great deal of money into kids hiking shoes, as they'll out grown them quickly. Replacing boots once or twice a year for kids can really add up over time.
Both brands are decent, and provide the necessary features without being too expensive. The choice really comes down to which ones fit better and feel better for you.
For summer hiking, a decent pair of shorts and a t-shirt will suffice, but isn't optimal.
Something many people forget to consider when hiking in the Blue Ridge is that it rains often and unexpectedly. Rain storms can come up out of the blue, and soak you.
Standard cotton clothing does not due well in these conditions, and as someone that has personally had to hike back to our car for more than 2 miles in wet underwear, shorts and and shirt, it's not a pleasurable experience, and in cooler temperatures, can cause hypothermia, even in the spring, summer, or fall.
For winter hiking, cotton can literally mean death. I know, we're talking day hikes here, but seriously, it's cold and a rain or snow storm suddenly shows up, soaks you, and you're miles away from your car, your clothes can freeze, resulting in hypothermia, and possible death.
The best way to solve both of these issues is to wear non-cotton, "quick dry" moisture wicking clothing.
Just being a little frank here, you'll find that your best investment will be in quality underclothing. Chaffing for men and women is a real problem when hiking and can turn your wonderful hiking trip into a miserable experience.
If you are just purchasing day hiking gear, and don't plan on any longer hikes, a small amount of cotton is fine, say 20% or less.
A number of manufacturers make this type of hiking clothing, and they are a seriously smart investment and can be used for more than just hiking. We wear and recommend the following:
Neither one of us wear hats, but I do sweat a lot and carry cheap cotton bandanas with me to wrap around my head and to use for many other purposes as well.
As I said, appropriate shoes and clothing are the most important and essential items for your hike, but there are other things like food, water and supplies you'll need to carry along with you. You'll need something to carry all of this gear in, which is when a lightweight day pack fits the bill.
When we hike, everyone generally carries 2-3 bottles of water, some spare socks and whatever other items they want to bring, like small cameras, iPods, etc. One of us carries the main bag, and Jenn and I carry our camera bags.
For their own bags, our kids prefer simple Nike gymsacks. Personally I don't know how they do it with the thin straps, but it's their choice.
We've tried a number of different packs for our main day pack. The one we use currently is the Osprey Hikelite 18 (if you prefer a larger pack, go with the 26). What we love about this pack is:
One thing we've learned is NEVER forget your camera. We have never been on a hike and not wanted to get a photo of something or someone. So make sure you bring your camera.
If you have a small camera, and little to no gear, the Daypack we mentioned above will work fine. However, if you're like us, and have a DSLR, with multiple lens, filters, batteries, a tripod and so on ... a dedicated Camera Backpack is going to be a better option for you.
I personally use an older LowePro, camera backpack. The newer version of the one I have is the LowePro Flipside 300 AW II - It's the back I'll upgrade to once mine wears out.
The bag has plenty of room for your camera gear, essential dayhiking gear, some snacks, your tripod, a water bottle, and is incredibly comfortable to wear. It even comes with a waterproof protective cover built into the pack.
Staying hydrated and keeping your energy levels up while on the trail is critical, even while on a short day hike. This is particularly true during the warmer summer months where humidity levels and temperatures can be high in the Blue Ridge and Smoky Mountains.
We typically pack 2-3 bottles of water per person.
Many of the creeks and streams in the Blue Ridge are crystal clear, but don't be tempted to drink the water! While it's probably safe, don't risk drinking it straight from the creek. If you want to drink creek or stream water, always boil it first or use a filter, like the Sawyer water filter (which we keep in our pack at all times).
We also carry the following snacks with us, in our day pack. Things like trail mix, protein bars, snickers candy bars, peanut butter crackers, beef jerky, and other items we all like. You'll want high carb/high protein items, as hiking burns lots of calories. Salt is also good, as it helps you stay hydrated.
We store all of the food in ziplock bags, so the smell doesn't attract any wildlife, especially bears. We also bring an extra ziplock bag to store any trash or wrappers for the same reason. You can also use drawstring or fold-over "ditty bags".
We also carry a few other items that we've learned (the hard way) to bring with us:
One of the big mistakes inexperienced hikers make is not being properly prepared. When hiking in the Blue Ridge, you must realize that even when you are day hiking, you are in a remote and wild area. Know that:
Considering all of these things, you definitely want to be prepared. There are many other items to consider, but these are what we consider the essentials for a day hike in the Blue Ridge Mountains.