I’m as guilty as anyone of obsessing over gear. I geek out about reviews and pride myself in having the right pair of skis for every condition (read: too many). But in 28 years of playing outside, working in outdoor retail, and as Outside’s former video production manager, I’ve learned that it’s not all about the product.
That’s a tough thing for someone like me to admit, but it’s true. Especially when you’re just getting into a new sport. Yes, having the right kind of gear is important, but the specific models and technology matter less. And that’s precisely what this column is about: distilling things down to the essentials, so you spend less time laboring over what to buy and more time outside.
Let’s take hiking, for instance. Hiking, specifically a day hike, is just about the simplest, most approachable outdoor pursuit. Hell, it’s really just walking in the woods. Here are the seven things you need to start doing just that.
Skip the heavy hiking boots and opt for lightweight hiking shoes or trail runners instead. They’ll have more cushion and traction than your regular tennis shoes, but save you a lot of weight (and likely money) over buying true leather boots. Another pro tip: Skip the GoreTex liner, which you don’t need it unless you’re somewhere really, really wet and even then, a trail runner will drain and breath better. You’ll save money in the process.
The North Face Ultra Fastpack II’s are my absolute favorite shoes for just about everything short of a full-on backpacking trip. Make sure to try anything you’re considering before you buy: footwear, especially outdoor footwear, is all about fit.
Let’s assume you’ll be out on a trail for about three hours. That means at a minimum you’ll want some water and a snack, both of which are much easier to carry in a pack. Aim for something in the 10- to 30-liter range, depending on how long most of your hikes will be.
I’ve used an Osprey Daylite for years as my go-to day hiking pack because it’s simple, well made, and accomplishes everything I need it to do. (Read: Comfortably carry my hydration bladder, extra layers, snacks, and a map.) Bonus: it attaches to Osprey’s backpacking bags for more storage and it makes a great summit bag if you find yourself getting into longer missions down the road.
Ditch the insulated bottle and get a hydration bladder instead: you’ll be able to carry more water with less weight and drink more often, so you’ll stay hydrated. Buy one that has a big opening at the top and integrates smoothly with your pack, like Osprey’s Hydraulics 2L Reservoir, and don’t go any bigger than two liters. This makes it easy to clean and refill.
A bladder is also nice because you can use it with other packs if you get into backpacking, ski touring or mountain biking down the road.
Buy them. Your feet will thank you. Wool is known for it’s moisture-wicking super powers, key when your feet are crammed into shoes all day. Options are plentiful, but I like Darn Tough socks. They’re basically legendary, and if you do manage to wear a hole in them, the Vermont-based brand will replace them free of charge for life.
You and your hiking partners will be a lot happier if you bring food. For my money, Clif Bar’s Coconut Almond Butter bar can’t be beat. Not only have these kept me fueled and happy on many a bike ride, morning ski tour and hike, they’ve also kept my wife from killing me when I get hangry. It’s an issue.
I was once talking with a ranger in Glacier National Park when he got a call and had to leave mid-conversation to go rescue “someone wearing death-cloth again.” There’s a reason the whole “cotton kills” saying exists, and the moral of the story is that there are a lot better options when you pull on a pair of pants for a hike.
Prana’s Stretch Zion pants are perfect—they’re lighter than jeans, dry a hell of a lot faster, and come with a DWR finish that makes them water resistant. If you have to pick between a non-cotton pair of pants or shirt, get the pants first, as shirts dry out quicker.
While a smartphone should not serve as a replacement for a good old-fashioned paper map and compass, chances are you already own one of the latter and will have it with you when you hike.
Add an offline phone app to your navigation quiver. While there are loads of great mapping apps that’ll turn your phone into a full-on GPS, start by downloading Hiking Project. It’s a database of different hikes based on your location complete with descriptions, photos, and, in some cases, updated trail conditions. Download at home and you get all that functionality even without cell service.