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.
Essential Day Hiking Gear
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:
- Tennis shoes get wet - and hiking with wet feet is a great way to get sick, and end the hike with really sore feet.
- Wet rocks are slick - Falling and breaking a bone or busting your head open when you're miles out on a trail, and then another 10 - 15 miles from the nearest medical assistance isn't an ideal situation at all. Rocks along trails and at waterfalls in the Blue Ridge are slick.
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:
- Better ankle support - important when traversing rocky terrain
- Taller - The keeps dirt, rocks, and water out of the inside of your boot.
Hiking Shoes provide:
- More comfort - They feel more like normal tennis shoes, but provide additional support and traction.
- Lighter weight - This is the selling point for my wife, she does not like wearing larger, heavier weight boots.
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:
- Men's underwear - Exofficio Men's Give-N-Go Boxer Brief
- Shirts - I have a number of non-cotten, stay dry shirts, but my favorite is the Adidas Climalite Tee - They do have 15% cotton, but it helps with comfort and is a low enough of a percentage for day hiking that it's not a concern. I would not recommend these for longer hikes.
- Shorts/Pants - My goto summer hiking shorts are a pair of Eddie Bauer Travex cargo shorts, but there are many other really great brands including Columbia Silver Ridge Cargo Shorts. When temps are cooler and vary more, I wear a pair of Eddie Bauer convertible pants. These are great as you can just zip the legs off when you get hot or if you need to wade any creeks. Cargo pants are crucial for me though in either case. When hiking, you just can't seem to have enough pockets.
- Socks - Socks are another item you don't want to "skimp" on. Socks have a direct impact to how comfortable your feet are when hiking. Buying a good pair of hiking socks can make or break your day hike.
- Women's Undergarments - ExOfficio Women's Bikini Briefs and Moving Comfort JustRight Sports Bra
- Shirts - Again, we want to avoid cotton as much as possible. Jenn (my wife) wears a number of different "stay dry"/moisture wicking shirts, but her favorite is the Columbia Women's Skiff Guide 3Q Sleeve Shirt.
- Shorts/Pants - To be real honest, Jenn hasn't found a pair of hiking shorts she really loves just yet, but the closest are the Columbia Women's Cargo Shorts. They are light weight, nylon and have lots of pockets. On our list is to get her a pair of convertible pants as well, unless we find something on sale, we'll be purchasing the Columbia Women's Convertible Pants.
- Socks - Jenn prefers standard thin athletic socks, like the Hanes Women`s Cool and Dry Women`s Ankle Athletic Socks. She doesn't like for her feet to get hot.
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:
- Very durable - Made of rugged and thick material
- Water resistant, with a waterproof pull over cover, built in.
- Has two side pockets for water bottles.
- Pockets, and a large main storage area, that expands.
- Water bladder holding area.
- Large enough to hold everything we need.
- Has a key clip, and other clip areas.
- Incredibly comfortable mesh for your back to keep the pack from being directly on your back.
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.
Food and Water
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".
Other Important Items
We also carry a few other items that we've learned (the hard way) to bring with us:
- Toilet Paper/Tissue - In a small ziplock bag, we carry both tissues and a some toilet paper. With kids, especially a daughter, you just never know when you might need it, especially on longer hikes. Oh, and don't leave it on the ground like we've seen many people do, bring an extra zip lock bag to put your used toilet paper in. Sadly, this is far too common problem of a problem.
- First Aid Kit - We've never had to use one, but have used it for other people and children while hanging out at waterfalls. Definitely something you want to carry in your day pack. We made our own, to make it a bit smaller, but the link has a nice one, in a hard case, that is perfect for your pack.
- Bandanas - When hiking , you really just can't have enough of these. We carry 4 with us, and end up using all 4 every single time. They are great for controlling sweat, as napkins, for cleaning off gear, good to eat on to keep from spilling items, backup toilet paper, and the list goes on ... one of the best items you can bring along with you.
- Rain Ponchos - After being soaked, far too many times, we've started carrying rain ponchos with us. One thing you can count on in the Blue Ridge is unexpected rain showers. I linked out to some inexpensive ones, but honestly, I'd strongly recommend something like the Marmot Precip Jacket - Which is more dourable, and more importantly, breathable.
- Pocket Knife - Like Bandanas, the uses for a small lightweight pocket knife are endless. I never hike without one. The link is to the one I personally carry, due to its lightweight.
- 2 Bic Lighters - On a day hike, you'll most likely never need these, but I carry two, just in case. Why 2? In case one doesn't work. Yes, I was a boy scout .... "Be Prepared"
- Sunscreen - Protect yourself from the the sun, especially when hiking in open areas or above the tree lines.
- Flashlight - Flashlight on a day hike? Well, consider this - You under estimate how long it will take you to get back or you get a bit lost. Night time starts to set in, and you're still a mile or two from your car. There are no lights on the trails. We always carry two flashlights, just in case. One as a backup.
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:
- You are in a remote area, that very well could take rescue personal a long time to get to you.
- You will get hungry and thirsty
- You may get hurt
- You might get lost
- The hike might take longer than you expect
- You might get wet
- The weather could change, dramatically.
- Chances are you will encounter wildlife, and more than likely black bear
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.