Cover photo by @ttloveskwi on Instagram
It’s hiking season in the eastern Sierra and there’s nothing better than getting out on our local trails. Hundreds of miles of adventure await, with something for everyone. Whether you are looking to log in some workout miles or take a leisurely stroll to a gorgeous fishing spot; the eastern Sierra has your trail.
You can pretty much count on sunshine in the Sierra, but you can also count on change. When hiking the backcountry, it is best to be prepared for just about anything. Luckily, hiking gear has come a long way in terms of weight and bulk, and being prepared doesn’t mean carrying a heavy pack. You don’t have to comb the city streets for gear, either; as we have great outfitters up and down U.S. 395. Never underestimate the value of local expertise and don’t be afraid to ask questions – the people who own and operate the local shops live, play, and breathe adventure. They’ll help you find what you need. That said, here are our suggestions for a well-stocked but still lightweight day pack. Check out the beginner’s guide to backpacking here.
1. Water filtration
If you’d like to jump down a rabbit hole of information; just google “water filtration for hiking”. There are many, many different types of water filtration systems and it can be mind-boggling to walk into the filtration section of a large camping store. Luckily, as a day hiker, you don’t need anything more than a simple, lightweight addition to your pack. You’re going to be carrying water, either in bottles or in a hydration pack, but you want to pack along something for the unexpected event – you drank more than you planned, someone in your group forgot to bring water, or your hike gets extended for one reason or another. We recommend either carrying the readily found chemical drops (like the brand Portable Aqua) or a lightweight squeeze or straw-type filtration (the Sawyer is one) or a UV option (SteriPEN is a popular brand).
Hikers get surprised by the Sierra’s weather all the time. The day starts out with a gorgeous bluebird sky and by mid-afternoon is pouring rain. A poncho or some other type of rain gear will allow you to hike out without getting drenched and chilled. A poncho is so lightweight there is no reason not to throw one in the bottom of the pack and leave it there…. and you can find emergency rain ponchos just about everywhere – drugstores, camping outlets, backpacking stores, even grocery stores in the Sierra. Don’t leave home without one (or some kind of rain gear) and while you are at it – throw in an emergency space blanket as well. A small trash bag works great for covering your pack, and can even be used as rain gear for kids in a pinch.
3. First Aid
You never appreciate a first aid kit until you need one (much like many of these supplies you tuck into corners of your daypack), but when you need it, you NEED it! Like water filtration, there’s a wide range of options available. You can build your own, purchase a readymade kit, or borrow from your home supplies. Washington Trails Association has an excellent blog post on how to make up your own kit and local outfitters carry grab-n-go kits by trusted brands. Just remember to personalize it with any medication you or members of your party might need.
We’re close to the sun here in the eastern Sierra and as good as it feels, hikers need a layer of protection between the sun and skin! Slather on sunscreen before you leave home, and bring extra to re-apply throughout the day. Many hikers are utilizing the thin UV protection offered by clothing these days, including sleeves, leggings, and neck gaiters at Sage to Summit. If you don’t like the wonderful combination of trail dust and sunscreen, this may be the perfect option for you. Sunscreen even comes combined with bug repellent, and for certain times of the year is certainly appropriate. We should have bug repellent as part of this list, but there are many months in the winter when bugs will not be a problem; check with local outfitters on current conditions.
5. Sunglasses / Hat
Good sunglasses and a broad-brimmed hat are sunny eastern Sierra essentials. As we mentioned above, the sun is intense here! Many hikers like ball caps, but we prefer the 360º shade offered by a hiking hat, as well as the chin strap that will help keep that hat anchored to your head during afternoon breezes. Let your personal taste be your guide because there are plenty to choose from locally; from woven straw to fast-drying nylon. Foldable ones are nice in case you are hiking late in the day and would prefer to have that breeze ruffle through your hair on the way home.
You are going to get hungry! We like to carry a mix of food stuff we make (sandwiches, cut-up fruit & veggies, dips like hummus) and packaged snacks like bars and gorp mixes. At our planned stops we’ll munch on the fresher goods, but we keep a stash of the more calorie-rich, non-perishables for the way home or in case of an unexpected extension of our hike.
For the ambitious planner we’ve got some ideas here: https://www.bustle.com/articles/164078-14-of-the-best-snacks-to-pack-for-a-day-hike
For the last-minute hiker we’ve got some suggestions here: https://spoonuniversity.com/lifestyle/10-best-hiking-snacks
7. Map / Compass
Why take a map when you have your smartphone’s GPS? We hear this question a lot and the answer is, well, because. Because the battery can die, because you might end up in a location with spotty satellite, and because there is very little cell coverage in the backcountry. Take a basic map & compass course and you’ll probably never get lost again. Plus, reading a topo map is fun – it’s a great thing to spread out at lunchtime and explore. Maps are addictive, maps are informative, and maps don’t suffer from technology glitches. Sierra Mountaineering offers a backcountry navigation course that will hone your skills AND get you out on an overnight hike. You can also learn the basics of how to read a compass online and pick up a compass and relevant topo maps at one of our local camping and backpacking shops.
8. Fire Starter (lighter)
You may never need a fire, and around here you have to be extra careful with fire. But, that said, carrying a lighter or some waterproof matches and knowing how to make a fire in an emergency could potentially be a lifesaver. Learn how to build an emergency campfire and pick up a box of camping matches (store them in a freezer bag or waterproof tin) or a reliable lighter.
9. Bandana / Buff
A bandana is the unsung hero of hiking – doing duty in so many ways from wiping the brow of sweat to cooling the neck when soaked in a Sierra stream. We keep our bandanas within reach – tie it on your daypack strap. It can be a fashion statement, a location flag, a hair tie, a napkin, a tiny blanket or a towel … the possibilities are practically endless. There are even tutorials for how to tie a bandana (seriously!).
A step up from the cotton bandana is the Buff or tube bandana. Made of stretchy tech fabric, the Buff is almost as versatile as a bandana and just as much of a backcountry fashion statement. There are lots and lots of Buff styles and knock-offs readily available at local outfitters and discount stores, as well as online. Oh, and yes, there’s a YouTube video on how to wear a Buff too!
You can keep almost all of the above in your pack and ready to go at all times – tossing in the food and other perishables at the last minute. The rule of thumb for keeping a pack comfortable is to place the heaviest gear/food at the bottom of the bag. Make sure your water is easily accessible as you might not drink enough if you have to stop every time you need a sip. Stash stuff you rarely need in inside pockets or on the sides, and keep lip balm, sunscreen and camera handy. (Can we hear a shoutout for the fannypack coming back into vogue? We like strapping on a small one facing forward for easy access to those smaller items.)
10. Optional Items: trekking poles, pad (for sitting), dog stuff (leash, treats poop bags), journal/sketchbook, camera/tripod, UV umbrella, fishing gear, bathing suit.
Guilty of taking everything but the kitchen sink, this writer likes to have a sketchbook or journal, some basic watercolor or sketching supplies, and what I call a dog kit (leash, poop bags, treats). The phone goes along on airplane mode as a lightweight camera, and personally, I love my hiking umbrella. You’ll customize your pack as fits your hiking style and you’ll modify it (make that simplify it) as time goes on. Let us know of any essentials you’ve discovered and why you won’t hike without them!
Don’t forget the layers – we think of a fleece shirt and a lightweight wind jacket as essential Sierra equipment on any outing so we didn’t put them on the list but they definitely go with you on every hike. Oh, and one last thing – check the attitude. The right attitude makes every day, every hike, and every adventure a good one. We’ll see you on the trail!