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, and along the way have really learned what hiking gear is necessary, and which hiking gear isn’t. You definitely don’t want to visit your local REI store, as they’ll send you home with some great stuff, but most of it you won’t need.
Based on our experience, hiking 3 – 8 mile day hikes with six kids, here’s our list of essential day hiking gear:
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 proposes 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 and I prefer boots, but some people swear by hiking shoes. We prefer boots due to:
The downside of boots of course is that they are more bulky and a little heavier. 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.
We purchase boots for ourselves, and hiking shoes for our kids. I wear Timberland hiking boots and my wife and kids wear keen hiking boots and shoes. Both brands are decent, and provide the necessary features without being too expensive.
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 unexpectantly. Rain storms can come up out of the blue (pun intended), 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. I was chaffed in a number of places for days, not to mention really cold, and this was in the summer.
For winter hiking, cotton can literally mean death. I know, we’re talking day hike 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, spare clothes and whatever other items they want to bring, like small cameras, iPods, etc. One person 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 New Outlander Lightweight Travel Backpack Daypack. What we love about this pack is:
My only complaint is that it has no waist or chest strap to make it more stable. I’m sure they left these off to keep the weight down, and really a minor complaint, but I do miss them not being there sometimes.
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. 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. Personally, we’ve never done this, and bring our own water with us. Just not worth getting sick over.
We also carry the following snacks with us, in our day pack:
All of these are full of protein and sugar, two very important ingredients when hiking. The snickers bars of course are really bad for you, but come in really handy on longer hikes when you start to run low on energy.
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.
Tip: If you ever get approached by wildlife, especially a bear, group together, make lots of noise, and move to higher ground. If you have food in your pack, drop the pack, and keep moving away. Chances are the bear smells the food in your pack.
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.
Smaller cameras pack great in your day pack wrapped up in a Bandana. If you have a DSLR and associated gear like we do, investing in a quality camera backpack is a wise investment. I personally use a LoweproFlipside Sport 15L, best camera backpack ever in my opinion. Plenty of room, light weight, water resistant and comfortable.
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.