Not your every day carry - solo day hiking
August 29, 2017 5:04 PM   Subscribe

I have some questions about what I really need to carry for safety and comfort during solo day hikes through Yellowstone and the Rocky Mountains, plus what I should carry it in. I'm not new to the outdoors but I'm not used to solo hiking in relatively remote areas.

I am leaving next week for Yellowstone, the Tetons and Rocky Mountain National Park. I will be car camping and hiking during the day, alone. I'd like to minimize what I take but also not forget anything important.

Stuff I already have & plan to carry:
Bear spray
Paper maps
Water bottles
Buck knife
Headlamp and/or flashlight
Rain jacket
Spare socks (in case of stream crossings)
iPhone, for GPS (I do not expect voice or data signals)
Bandages and ... what else do I really need for a first aid kit?

Maybe: DSLR & tripod. I'm kind of worried I will just use my phone because it's easier & more accessible, and I've carried the weight for nothing. I haven't used my camera in a long time; then again I haven't been anywhere spectacular in quite awhile.

These are the two bags I own: laptop backpack and camera backpack. Both are bigger than I'd like, but I am not going to buy another pack for day hikes. The laptop bag is roomier and includes 2 water bottle holders, but is relatively heavy and cumbersome. The camera backpack has a specific holder for my camera and will probably keep it safer if I drop it.
posted by AFABulous to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (31 answers total) 27 users marked this as a favorite
Sunglasses and a wide-brimmed hat and toilet paper.
posted by turbid dahlia at 5:06 PM on August 29, 2017 [3 favorites]

I know you said you're not buying another pack, but consider doing so just to get one that can accommodate a water bladder. Having a tube next to your face encouraging you to drink constantly is huge; most folks just don't hydrate enough on hikes, especially in the summer, especially at high altitudes above the treeline. It'll also be way more comfortable than either of those beasts you linked. Osprey Packs are great and have a lifetime warranty--and they cover accidental damage too. I know you'll decide yourself if it's worth it, but for me it is even at 10x the price.

To make your SLR always accessible, the Peak Design Capture is the thing. I'm never without mine when hiking. Don't worry about the tripod unless you e.g. want to take long waterfall exposures or something.

For your iPhone, get the Gaia GPS app, which will let you pre-download maps of your hiking areas. PeakFinder is fun, too, and lets you identify peaks on the horizon.

For your first aid kit, moleskin is paramount. Painkillers, larger wound bandages, Ace bandages are all useful. It's really easy to think "it's so unlikely... I'll never need this stuff" until you twist your ankle and there's no one around to help carry you out of the backcountry. Don't mess around on this.

I also typically carry storm-proof matches, a space blanket, and a puffy jacket. You never know when you're going to have to spend a night out, and cold will kill you quick. Also consider picking up an ultralightweight water filter; the Katadyn BeFree is on sale for $25-$30 at REI this week and weighs nothing. Again, it'll keep you alive if something hits the fan, and keep you hydrated and comfortable in normal use. I used one as the primary filter for 3 people for 5 days and they're surprisingly awesome, even without taking into account that it's tiny and light.

Otherwise, compare your list to the Ten Essentials and make sure you cover it all. Be safe out there!
posted by Special Agent Dale Cooper at 5:20 PM on August 29, 2017 [11 favorites]

If I were solo hiking in a remote area, I might consider bringing a personal locator beacon or a SPOT in case I needed to signal search and rescue folks.
posted by cnidaria at 5:20 PM on August 29, 2017 [2 favorites]

External battery for the phone.
posted by Johnny Wallflower at 5:30 PM on August 29, 2017 [5 favorites]

If I expect stream crossings I wouldn't want to do barefoot, I like to carry Teva-type sandals, crocs, or old sneakers. (I attach them somewhere on the outside of my pack.) You don't want to wade a stream in your boots; it will take them forever to dry out and just having spare socks won't help that much.

If you're going to higher elevations, make sure you have something warm to put on. (Even if you're not going to be very high up, if it starts to storm it can get a lot colder. And it's always possible you'll get hurt and have to stay out after dark.)
posted by Redstart at 5:31 PM on August 29, 2017 [1 favorite]

Bring ibuprofen. Take a couple in the morning and lots of water to stave off altitude headaches.

You'll have too much crap the first few hikes, and will get into a groove soon enough. Extra water, extra food, and at least an extra jacket will get you a long ways if things go bad.

If you are hiking in Colorado, buy a COSAR card.
posted by Pogo_Fuzzybutt at 5:50 PM on August 29, 2017 [3 favorites]

Seconding 10 essentials list.
posted by sebastienbailard at 5:59 PM on August 29, 2017 [1 favorite]

I usually carry some green tea (in bags) with me since black tea is too much caffeine, and I recently discovered that it helped a _lot_ with altitude headaches. So, maybe incorporate that.

If you are at all worried about bee stings or snake bites, The Extractor kit is really great, but a little bulky. I've been thinking about seeing if I could make it smaller to carry somehow, or maybe you could put other first aid stuff inside the yellow plastic case.
posted by amtho at 6:10 PM on August 29, 2017

Yes, make sure you've got the ten essentials. If you're uncertain about how concretely to meet those criteria, you can search for other people's gear lists. I like to look at what reputable guides or bloggers recommend their clients and readers bring; it cuts out some of the chatter from my fellow noobs. For example, or

I find an easy way to think about it is to prepare to stay out 24 hours longer than I expect to need. Not only will you be better prepared if something goes wrong, but knowing that you have the extra margin of safety is often itself enough to keep you from doing risky things to try to make your milestones.

Also, make sure you know how to use everything you bring. If you've never taken a Wilderness First Aid or a Map & Compass course, and have time before you leave, that knowledge will be the most helpful thing you can bring.

Check out the relevant poop policies. You probably need a trowel to bury it or smear it thin (rare), or else bags to pack it out (unfortunately becoming more common, but often distributed for free at the trailhead).

River shoes are a good idea, but so are extra socks. A buck knife sounds like overkill to me; I'd go for a razor myself.

For the first aid kit: painkiller, antipyretic, anti-inflammatory, anti-diarrhea, anti-bacterial ointment, needle-nosed tweezers, tape, vaseline, sterile gauze, band-aids. Also, remember that your duct tape, bandanna, and razor have first aid applications too, and you'll probably use your signalling mirror for tick checks more than signalling. If you want to mix all your pills in a single bottle (they're often distinct enough to do that) make sure you bring a key and the dosing instructions.

+1 on buying a new day pack. I have and recommend both the REI Flash 18 or the REI Flash 22.

Regarding the DSLR, since you'll be car camping, can you bring it on the first few day hikes and re-evaluate based on that? It should be free, weight-wise, to leave it in your car.
posted by d. z. wang at 6:34 PM on August 29, 2017

+1 on a down or insulated layer, and don't ever forget the duct tape.
posted by Dashy at 6:48 PM on August 29, 2017

Make sure you have a photo ID and some phone numbers for emergency contacts in your bag, too.

Related to your question, when I am doing day hikes where I drive to the trailhead, I like to make sure my car serves as a sort of base camp for right after a hike, especially when hiking alone. Just having a gallon of water, extra clean and comfy shoes, baby wipes, and snacks to come back to in the car feels great after a hike. And, if you run out of water or food earlier than expected, you'll at least have water and snacks waiting for you at your car.
posted by shortyJBot at 6:51 PM on August 29, 2017 [1 favorite]

My homemade hiking first aid kit fits in a sandwich baggie, and includes thick moleskin, two alcohol cleansing pads, one insect sting relief pad, six assorted band-aids, a tiny envelope of triple-antibiotic ointment, a roll of tums, and a snack-size baggie filled with roundabout 10 tylonel, 10 ibuprofin, 2 hydrocodein, 5 benadryl, 2 immodium, and 5 phenazopyridine (uti pain relief). Equally important: I also carry a good knife, a quick-dry towel, extra snacks (food snacks: protein bars, fruit, etc., and morale-boosting snacks: chocolate, caffeinated gels, hard candy), and at least one more liter of water than I anticipate needing. Water is life. Gosh, now that I look in my bag I also have an extra pair of wool socks, a tiny notepad and pen, 4 extra AAA batteries for the headlamp, and a handful of flagging, to help if I get really lost.

Re: carrying your phone. I keep my iphone in a plastic baggie, and then in a padded phone holster (mine is Timbuktu bought at REI sale). The holster slips on my hipbelt and keeps the phone safe. It's a slight hassle "unwrapping" it to take photos, but the protection is worth it.

Don't forget TP!!!
posted by scrubjay at 8:24 PM on August 29, 2017 [2 favorites]

Also, I highly recommend hiking poles.
posted by scrubjay at 8:25 PM on August 29, 2017 [4 favorites]

Hey, I live in the Yellowstone area and go out solo in the mountains for runs and stuff all the time! So most of the advice so far is great, here's what I'll add: carry your bear spray somewhere you can quick-draw easily. My rule of thumb is to have enough gear to spend a night out there—doesn't have to be comfortable, just survivable—that's never happened yet but I've been close a couple times.

Be ready for snow! This time of year it'll be uncommon but not unexpected, if that makes sense. Be sure you have the clothing/experience/whatever ready for four seasons of weather because they're all possible now.

There's smoke in the air now from various fires; exactly where & when & how much change even from hour to hour. If you aren't familiar with how it affects you be prepared not just for eye and throat irritation but everything to feel just a little more difficult and tiring.

Don't count on GPS. Mountains block line-of-sight to the satellites and it's often that I don't get enough reception to have a fix. (Conversely on a peak I'll often get full 4G reception. Radio follows its own rules.) Streams are pretty low this time of year: that's good for crossings, but it can be a problem if you're looking for places to refill on water. If you aren't, you should be. It's hot during the day, dry, the air is thin, and could be windy. It's hard to carry a day's worth of water. Plan your water needs against your route's water sources carefully and tank up when you need to.

I guess lastly, it's common advice but especially important in this area, have people who know where you're going and when you're getting back. If you fall and break your ankle, you could easily be somewhere you won't see another human for days unless they're looking for you.
posted by traveler_ at 8:29 PM on August 29, 2017

Also, I highly recommend hiking poles.

I forgot this in my previous answer: yes yes yes to poles. I thought they wouldn't make much difference. I was so wrong. They are amazing.
posted by Special Agent Dale Cooper at 8:30 PM on August 29, 2017 [1 favorite]

Consider something lightweight that will allow you to drink the water you find on the hike. I like the Lifestraw but there are other options like the SteriPen or tablets (which will have a somewhat unpleasant flavor). This gives you the option of carrying far less water on your back.

Definitely bring an extra layer- I like light merino wool. It should be something that stays warm when wet, and wicks moisture so it doesn't get clammy when you sweat.
posted by cushie at 8:37 PM on August 29, 2017

take a whistle (or two .. they're light)
Sound from a whistle travels much further than a shout .. three blasts means you need help

For hiking & backpacking I've settled on Aquamira as the lightest and best tasting water treatment.
posted by anadem at 9:02 PM on August 29, 2017

If you don't know exactly what you want the DSLR for you might not want to carry the weight for it. I dropped like two pounds of pack weight when I switched from a Canon DSLR to an Olympus mirrorless camera, and even at that I now have so much gear I try to think through the shots I'd be likely to take and maybe bring just the lightest possible setup instead of the "oh, I might want that" scenario.

On that front: I bought a compact travel tripod because it was significantly lighter than the one I already had, but I only carry it when I expect to stitch a panorama, attempt a time lapse, or do long exposures. So, at Yellowstone I hauled it out for Old Faithful, but we were staying in the Old Faithful Inn so I didn't haul it far. I used it for night skies in a couple parks. And I carried it on a few hikes where I thought I might want it for a pano, but I don't know that I ever actually used it for that. (I tried shooting a pano at Grand Canyon Lodge with the canyon lit by the full moon, but it was like two stunts too far and too many shots in the sequence weren't usable).

Seriously: if you don't plan to take photos then don't carry a DSLR. It's like three or four pounds of dead weight. If you want a camera that's better than your phone just in case, think really hard about a Sony RX100 variant (probably the III or IV). Lots of photographers carry them (and camera reviewers recommend them) as pocket/hiking/travel cameras. If you don't know of a specific reason you want a tripod, don't bother.
posted by fedward at 10:29 PM on August 29, 2017 [1 favorite]

Also: layers, layers, layers. We were in Yellowstone last September and there was frost on the car when we got up before sunrise and drove to Hayden Valley, and by that afternoon it was warm enough for short sleeves. They're not kidding about the "prepare for all four seasons" thing.
posted by fedward at 10:36 PM on August 29, 2017

A couple of trash bags with drawstrings. Many uses. As a ground cloth, stuffed with leaves and grass as a pad, or with light cordage as a tarp shelter. Cut the bottom out and make a rain skirt. Cut a slit in the top and at elbow level for a poncho. Make an arm sling, or leg gaiters in cactus fields. Carry water. Line your backpack. Cut the bottoms out and duct tape two together for a water-resistant sleeping bag cover with a bottom vent hole (be careful about sweating and condensation in frigid weather). If you get a bright color, as an emergency signal or flagging.

Also, echoing the "Ten Essentials," including duplicates (one each on your body at all times) of a) two ways to make a fire, b) two ways to purify drinking water, c) two cutting tools, d) two lighting devices and batteries. I carry a spiral key chain in my purse at all times with a Swiss Army knife, pen light, ball compass, clippers, and pepper spray (I have discouraged a few growling dogs on walks). The BIC lighter is in the same spot, as is my headlamp.

It's a luxury item but... binoculars?

Also, echoing make a written itinerary and leave a copy with a park ranger, and check back in to let them know you made it back safely. Offer an apple or a bottle of Gatorade to make yourself memorable. That's plan B if things go south and you need backup, or acts of God happen and the rangers need to evacuate you.

Sounds like a great trip. Have fun and take lots of pictures!
posted by TrishaU at 3:32 AM on August 30, 2017 [2 favorites]

Also, toilet paper or Kleenex are fine, but ripped squares of paper towels hold up better in wet weather. Wet Wipes work well for sanitary purposes and general clean up.
"When in doubt, pack it out; if it didn't go through, pack it out, too." Girl Scout shout-out, there.
posted by TrishaU at 3:40 AM on August 30, 2017

Whistle. Get a flourescent orange bandanna. It's often handy to have a bandanna, and hunter orange is incredibly visible in case you need to be spotted by air.* Binoculars would be a pleasant addition. I would say take the camera but leave the tripod. An extra fleece or synthetic down jacket, fleece hat, mittens, wool socks.

And, again, make sure someone knows roughly where you have gone and when you should return. Car camping - leave a note on your windshield with the date and details. Call a friend, give them your basic info- Car descr & license plate, trailhead where you parked, time at which they should be concerned.

We saw Old Faithful erupt at night, full moon, highly recommend a night visit if possible. This was on advice of a ranger, so do ask for suggestions; they're an excellent resource. Those parks are gorgeous and it sounds like a fantastic trip.

*The excellent writer Colin Fletcher did a test trying to signal with a mirror and had someone in a plane try to find him. They flew right over him, never saw the flashes of light from the mirror, but on another occasion his blaze orange was immediately visible. I wikipedia'd him to get the link, and there was a perfect quote for you.

But if you judge safety to be the paramount consideration in life you should never, under any circumstances, go on long hikes alone. Don’t take short hikes alone, either — or, for that matter, go anywhere alone. And avoid at all costs such foolhardy activities as driving, falling in love, or inhaling air that is almost certainly riddled with deadly germs. Wear wool next to the skin. Insure every good and chattel you possess against every conceivable contingency the future might bring, even if the premiums half-cripple the present. Never cross an intersection against a red light, even when you can see all roads are clear for miles. And never, of course, explore the guts of an idea that seems as if it might threaten one of your more cherished beliefs. In your wisdom you will probably live to be a ripe old age. But you may discover, just before you die, that you have been dead for a long, long time. — The Complete Walker

posted by theora55 at 5:56 AM on August 30, 2017 [6 favorites]

I took a hiking class last year (it was great! we hiked a lot and I got way more confident hiking.) One of the best things I learned was how to make and use a potty pack. Get two ziplock baggies. One is your outer bag to contain everything, the other is your inner garbage bag. Fold the inner bag up and stick it in the outer bag (I often take two inner bags so I can double bag if things get stinky). Get as much TP as you think you'll need for the day, and stick that in the outer bag too. As someone mentioned above, paper towels often work better for TP. I also keep individually-packaged wet wipes in my potty pack to use on my hands before or after as needed. Finally, butt rash will ruin your day -- you won't know if you will chaff until you are out there, and if it happens it will seriously ruin everything. So, get individually-wrapped preparation-H wipes -- they do double-dooty (sorry, couldn't resist) for cleaning and preventing chaffing. Put a few of those in your outer bag.

Now when you have to go, leave your pack on the trail pointed the direction you are going to go do your business (if you have hiking poles, put them on the trail pointing that direction either with your pack or instead of it) -- this is so if you get lost, people have a clue of where to look for you -- take your potty pack with you, dig a hole* (yes, even for peeing) and go in the hole. Wipe yourself, and put the used TP and/or wipes in your inner garbage bag, seal it and put it in our outer bag. Do not put your TP in the hole -- it will "bloom" out of the hole during a rain. Cover the hole you dug. Stick a stick upright in the spot where the hole is so that another hiker won't dig there. Use your hand santizer (some people put the sanitzer in their potty pack -- I don't because I like to have it handy for use before eating, and don't want to have to look at used TP before I eat. Ick.) I carry a small aluminium trowel for digging, but a lot of people just use a stick.

*unless you are required to pack out your poo -- in which case do whatever the rangers tell you.
posted by OrangeDisk at 6:57 AM on August 30, 2017 [4 favorites]

Lots of good advice here. I would ditch the camera if you're not sure you're going to want it. And I would also recommend going through your gear list after a few hikes and considering where you can trim some weight. With any backcountry travel there is always a tension between bringing enough gear to keep you safe/comfortable, while keeping things light enough so that you can travel efficiently. And efficient travel is important for safety as well. The more fatigued you are, the more likely you are to make bad decisions, and the slower you are the harder it may be to get back to camp by dark/before the storm hits/etc.

Also, seconding making sure someone knows where you are and when to expect you back. I usually pad my "worry time" by a few hours to allow for getting off route etc.; I don't want somebody worrying about me just because I decided to take a leisurely lunch, and I don't want to feel like I'm rushing back just to make my assigned check-in time. But if you're off for a day hike and you're not back by, say, 10pm, you want rescuers looking for you at first light in the morning.
posted by craven_morhead at 8:00 AM on August 30, 2017

One option, if you're interested in using hiking poles, it making sure one of them doubles as a monopod for your camera. If you think you might be doing long exposure captures, it's one less thing to worry about.
posted by Emperor SnooKloze at 8:15 AM on August 30, 2017 [2 favorites]

Don't carry the tripod. You're likely to be hiking mostly during the day, where shutter speeds are plenty fast enough to hand hold a camera. If you want a photo as it gets darker or a long exposure of a waterfall or river, put the camera on a stump, fence post, rock or the ground. DSLR photos are dramatically better than phone photos, so definitely use the better camera.

Seconding a whistle if you're on anything like a backcountry hike. I wouldn't bother on well-traveled trails.
posted by cnc at 8:43 AM on August 30, 2017

Instead of binoculars get a monocular. It'll be lighter and show you the view just as well.
posted by azalea_chant at 9:57 AM on August 30, 2017

"making sure one of them doubles as a monopod for your camera. If you think you might be doing long exposure captures, it's one less thing to worry about."

I'll push back on this, having recently bought and returned the Mountainsmith Trekker monopod/trekking pole you linked to. The problem is that a monopod isn't a tripod substitute, and the monopod/trek pole combo is a bad trek pole.

In certain circumstances, having a monopod is useful. This is mostly when you're shooting something far off with a long lens--in this circumstance, you need to add stability, even at shutter speeds you'd normally handle by...hand. So if you want to get that eagle off in the distance, a monopod would be useful. But a monopod isn't going to do anything if you need an actual long exposure--e.g. to capture the stars, or a time-lapse, or the blur movement of water. For that you need a tripod (or a Gorillapod may work).

You say "hey, why not just get the trekking pole with monopod, just in case? Even if I never use the monopod, it's still a trekking pole." But you'd be wrong, at least for the options I looked at--they have worse handles that don't fit to your grip, are heavier, and don't pack down as small as other trekking poles, making them more difficult to pack. They basically seem like low-end monopods that have a trekking pole foot/basket/strap added on.

That was my experience with the Mountainsmith Trekker, anyway, YMMV.
posted by benbenson at 10:43 AM on August 30, 2017

Dear God, people must be walking out into the woods loaded down like rented mules! Ice picks? Duplicate multi tools? Whatever makes you comfortable I guess.

Heres my list

Bug spray
Small tube sunscreen
A sharpie
A whistle
Extra cash
A lightweight personal water purifier
A space blanket
Extra energy bars.

Have a good sun hat and a jacket with a pair of ear bags ( in the pocket.

Dont hike off the trail and have fun!
posted by WalkerWestridge at 5:53 PM on August 30, 2017

Yeah, there are a lot of suggestions here that are probably good if you really want to be safe and prepared. But if I were going day hiking on a well-marked trail, here is all I would actually be likely to have with me:

2 liters of water
rain jacket
fleece jacket
map or trail guide if I had one
possibly binoculars

If I thought I'd need sunscreen I'd probably just put it on at my car and not carry it with me unless I was going to be in a place with intense sun.
posted by Redstart at 8:27 PM on August 30, 2017

If I thought I'd need sunscreen I'd probably just put it on at my car and not carry it with me unless I was going to be in a place with intense sun.

The thing with high elevation is that the sun is very much more intense. UV exposure increases by 10% every 3000 feet or so. Better to wear long sleeves and a hat, but you will fry without sunscreen.
posted by Pogo_Fuzzybutt at 6:03 AM on August 31, 2017 [1 favorite]

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