The Day Hike
Now that we have the basics of the day hike covered, it’s time to consider what you have to carry with you. Here we have to strike a balance between the things we will actually need for the hike, and what would be considered emergency gear, in the unlikely even that something goes wrong and you have to spend the night in the bush. Try to resist the urge to bring your house with you, just in case.
First, lets consider the most important equipment you have with you, your clothing. Your clothing is what will keep you warm and dry, and in the unlikely event you have to spend the night in the woods before you can get back on the trail, it is what will let you do it without having to worry about shelter or fire. I strongly believe that you should have sufficient clothing on you to let you spend a (moderately cold) night in the woods without any other gear. Always carry enough clothing for the lowest temperature you are likely to encounter in the 24 hour period after you start your hike. Keep in mind that during the night temperatures in the mountains fall a lot more than they do in the city.
Let’s start with some basic issues. You have probably heard that “cotton kills”. What people mean by that is that cotton, once it gets wet, will lose most of its insulation. Remember, that your clothes will get wet not only from external sources like rain, but also from your sweat. That is why it is best to avoid cotton (including jeans), within reason. Synthetic materials and wool are the preferred choices for outdoor clothing.
Also remember, that the best approach to clothing is to layer the clothing items. It is better to have three thin shirts than one thick shirt. That is because the multiple clothing items create more dead air space, which preserves heat, and it allows you to better regulate your body temperature. If you get too warm, take off one of the shirts. If you get cold, put it back on. You will have to do a lot of regulating, as there is a big difference between how warm you will be while walking, and when you stop to rest. People often carry what is referred to as a base, a mid, and an outer or shell layer.
Keeping all that in mind, let’s look at some clothing items.
Boots-A good pair of boots can make a trip much more enjoyable. That being said however, good booths are expensive, and it is hard to know what type will work for you until you actually do quite a bit of walking in the woods. For example, I have come to like boots with flexible, but thick soles. That is because I carry fairly light loads, which eliminates the need for a stiff sole, but I backpack in very rocky and rough terrain, which requires the thick soles, so I don’t feel every stone. You will figure out what works for you after you spend some time walking with all your gear. I would not spend $150 on shoes before then. A pair of running shoes, or a pair of comfortable work boots will do just fine for now.
Socks-Some good wool socks will go a long way towards making your hike more comfortable. They do not need to be 100% wool, nor do they need to be any special type of wool. You should be able to get a three pack for about $20. If you go to an Army surplus store, you can find Army issue new ones for much less.
Base Layer-This layer of clothing is the one directly against your skin. It should be of material that wicks away sweat from your body. Keeping cost in mind, your best bet here is a simple synthetic (polyester) t-shirt. Technically it would be great if you could find synthetic underwear, but I have done fine with regular cotton ones for many years now. A synthetic t-shirt, or one that is a mixture of synthetic and cotton fibers (try to look for something that is more that 50% synthetic) work well, and should cost you no more that $5. Target has a great brand, C9 by Champion, which has great cheap clothing for this purpose.
Mid Layer-First, the pants. Your best value for the money is a pair of cargo pants that is more than 50% synthetic. You can find them in most department stores, and in many military surplus stores (new, not surplus). They should cost you about $20.
For the upper body I like to split it into two clothing items. I may carry one or both of them depending on the time of the year. Here we are again looking at synthetic clothing. The lower mid layer should be something that fits well and is not too bulky like a thin fleece. A long sleeve synthetic shirt will also do well in this role, and in fact would be preferable in hot environments.
For the upper mid layer thicker fleece works great. It will keep you warm, and you can find good fleece clothing for $20 or $30 at any Wal-Mart.
Shell Layer-Keep in mind that fleece does little to stop the wind from cutting through it. A shell layer will stop both the wind, and will protect you from the rain. For this I like a simple nylon jacket. The jacket should have no insulation, as this is provided by the mid layer. A simple nylon jacket should cost less than $30. I bought mine at an Army surplus store, even though it was a commercially made model. C9 by Champion, available at Target, also has some great jackets of this design for under $30. Some people like to carry rain pants as well, but I have managed to go without them so far. A poncho is also a good shell against rain, but the reason why I prefer the jacket is that the jacket can be used as wind protection and to add warmth. A poncho is however, a very good alternative and will cost you about the same.
As you probably noted, all of the clothing I have recommended is synthetic, in some cases mixed with cotton. You may have heard that wool is a good choice for the outdoors, and if used properly, it is. However, new wool clothing can be very expensive. You can find cheaper options in surplus stores, but since my goal here is to recommend low cost commercially available items, wool is out of the picture. If by chance however, you have wool clothing that you would like to use, try to stick to thin shirts/undershirts and sweaters. Avoid thick wool coats. They offer poor insulation for their weight and bulk. A wool sweater combined with a wind proof shell layer will offer you much more warmth for the weight.
Of course, remember to alter the above basic clothing options to suit your local environment. For example, if you live in an area that is mostly a desert, then a hat with a wide brim and a pair of sun glasses would be a good option to add. Rain gear on the other hand may not be needed.
Just remember that you do not have to spend a lot of money to be comfortable. Most woodsmen throughout history managed just fine with low cost equipment and whatever clothing they could find. It is tempting to go after the top of the line materials, which offer great performance, but for our purposes, the above clothing will be more than enough. In fact, in the picture below you see me wearing the exact clothing you see in this post in below freezing temperatures, with the addition of a pair of gloves and a scarf.
In time, when you start to figure out what works for you, you can start looking at those more costly items, but they are certainly not necessary, especially for three season backpacking.