Guest Post- Packing Smart for a Day Hike

Today’s post is a guest post from Brian Coughlin who will talk about packing for a day hike.

One of the things that’s often overlooked when packing for a day hike is how to get all your gear in the bag. It’s not simply a matter of stuffing everything in you backpack. Yeah, you need to get it in there, but if you don’t balance the weight correctly your back will let you know the next day.

I just got back from a trip to Northern Minnesota and enjoyed a bit of hiking with a few of my younger cousins. The North Woods is a beautiful place, and we had fantastic weather, so a leisurely hike was a great opportunity to enjoy the outdoors (and get the kids away from their Gameboys!).

I’m lucky to work at OpticsPlanet, as we sell a ton of awesome hunting and camping gear and I was able to try out a new backpack and flashlight on my trip. The Blackhawk Sling Backpack caught my eye before I left, so I grabbed one, and it proved to be the perfect bag for shorter hikes. On longer camping trips and hikes you’d want a bit more room, but for just a few miles it had enough storage space while staying lightweight and comfortable.

How to Pack for a Day Hike

I brought the usual suspects of hiking supplies: a couple bottles of water, snacks (fruit snacks, Rice Krispies treats, a couple energy bars and trail mix), a flashlight, some neat bug repellant bracelets (they actually work pretty well, though I prefer OFF! Deep Woods Bug Spray), a folding knife, a small first aid kit and my phone for emergencies. My phone has a compass and GPS in case we got lost, but our number one hiking rule is no electronics (to keep Gameboys at home), so it had to stay at the bottom of the bag except in case of emergency.

I like to be as light on my feet as possible, but with three kids in tow I had to be the mule. The trick to traveling light when you have extra equipment is packing smart. I opened up my Sling Backpack as wide as it goes (which is really wide) and started at the bottom. Normally, I’d put a blanket in first, but I forgot to bring one with me so I put my flashlight and cell phone at the bottom of the bag. We would be hiking during the middle of the day, but having a flashlight along in case we get lost or stuck out after dark is always smart.

Next up I packed the water bottles. Because of the size and shape of the backpack it was necessary to have the water pretty low. In bigger bags I’d put a bit more below the water, but as they were the heaviest thing in the bag I wanted them centered on my back, as close to my spine as possible. This alone made the bag much easier to carry. Everything else was pretty light, and balanced nicely with the water.

As the primary weight was centered on my spine and snugly in place, I put the food and medicine on top of it, side by side. The weight of these two groups was pretty similar so they didn’t unbalance each other. I kept a couple Rice Krispies Treats in the outer pouch for even easier access.

Backpack for Day Hike

At the top of the pack I put the lightest gear. Part of this is to keep the weight even, but my sunglasses and my little cousin’s extra pair of sunglasses are delicate and I didn’t want to crush them on the bottom of the bag.

A few things to consider: if you look at the Blackhawk Sling Backpack you’ll notice the MOLLE webbing (rows of straps) on the outside of the bag. These are great for attaching more gear, but similar rules apply to putting gear on the outside of a bag as inside. Keep the weight centered. Keep gear from shifting around (this is especially important for free-swinging gear on the outside of the bag). Put lighter equipment on top.

Ready for a day hike

There’s a temptation to attach a water bottle or something else big and heavy at the bottom, as this does free up more room for more gear, but I tried this once and the bottle kept hitting me in the back of the legs. The weight shifted so much that only a very measured, steady walk prevented the bottles from swinging back and forth, throwing me off balance. If you attach a water bottle to the straps, place it higher and centered to allow it to rest on the bag.

I didn’t need to use the webbing on this hike, but it’s great to have a bag that I can use in a variety of ways.

And the best part? Our hike was a great success! I was a bit worried I’d have to use one of the EpiPens in the first aid kit (one of my cousins is allergic to bee stings), but we only ran across a handful of mosquitoes and our bug spray was more than sufficient. With the waist strap on my backpack I was able to run and jump around as much as I wanted, which helps a lot as I like to keep hikes interesting for my cousins by challenging them to race up hills and over obstacles like fallen trees or through streams.

Without a properly packed bag I’m sure I wouldn’t have had as much fun as I did. The next day my back didn’t hurt a bit, and I continued my Minnesota camping trip without issue.

Brian Coughlin is the editor of Optics Planet’s hunting and nature blog and regularly tests out the latest gear for hunting and birding.

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  1. Interesting post. My packing list and style are quite different for a dayhike but it’s cool reading what other people put in their packs. I’m curious though, how does a sling backpack compare to a regular old backpack. Does it distribute the weight evenly?

  2. Hi Rebecca,

    It depends on the backpack. For the one in the post, the waist strap on the Blackhawk Sling BackPack made it great for hiking and distributed the weight very evenly, but I’ve used messanger bags in the past that were uncomforatble after a short time walking. Most good hiking packs have waist straps to make it more comfortable and more securely attached to you.

    I actually used a Maxpedition Versipack once that was very small, practically a purse, but the waist strap made it fairly comfortable. That’s a small and light bag that won’t hold as much as the BlackHawk back from my post, but I think it’s always important to make sure you have plenty of options for securing the bag to your body.

    And like I say in the post, it’s largely up to you to get the weight evenly distributed! The best bag in the world will be uncomfortable if you don’t pack it right! Get the heaviest stuff in the middle of your back up against your spine.

  3. Great guest post. Understanding how to properly pack a bag is a great skill to have for a hike of any duration! Too often people buy the latest-and-greatest merchandise without a core understanding of how to properly use it, which can lead to a seriously sore back and a disappointment in your new gear the next day. Pack smart, and enjoy your hike!

    • Thanks Jonathan!

      I’m always learning new things, but I definitely like to try out new techniques for making my camping trips a success! I’m glad I packed right. I didn’t have a sore back the next day!

  4. You honestly dont need much if you know what you are doing. Just rbmemeer 2 things..Light is Right and Cotton Kills. Take light weight items to keep pack weight to a minimum and avoid cotton. Keep dry clothes to sleep in and only wear them when you are going to sleep. Throw the damp or wet clothes you wear during the day into your sleeping bag. I wont get into the physics of it but they`ll be dry in the morning. If you really need to know then just shoot me an email from my profile. Wear a hat to bed. Store your Nalgene Bottles upside down. Ice forms on the surface of the water, so make the surface the bottom of the bottle by turning it upside down. If any ice forms it wont freeze up the lid making it possibly impossible to drink. Instead of 2 nalgenes bring 1 nalgene with water and 1 thermos with hot cocoa or a soup. If theres snow then theres water, no need to carry extra weight when you can just melt snow.Dont wear too thick of a sock or 2 pairs of socks. This causes your feet to get cold 2 ways: 1) You cut off circulation to your feet, even a little loss of circulation in the capillaries will cause your toes to get cold and then frost bitten. Its your blood flow that provides warmth. 2) You`ll compress the air space that is meant to trap warm air. Your feet will give off heat and there needs to be a dead air space for that warm air to sit. The smaller the space the less heat in your boots.Rent snow shoes, you`ll thank me later and you`ll have a much better time.Wear light layers, yes you`ll be chilled or cold at the start but once you hike especially in snow you`ll start to sweat, dont sweat, You get wet you get cold and then your stuck. I hiked in the catskills this past weekend in an underarmor Tshirt, a softshell jacket (think heavy fleece) and softshell waterproof pants. I was cold at the start but i didnt sweat and was comfortable in the 14 degree temperature with a -8 degree windchill. Keep a jacket or fleece handy to throw on when you take breaks. If you get chilled while taking a break you`ve been sitting still for too long.

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