My first few dayhikes in Washington State were a bit of a "cluster'. My first official hike was climbing Mt. Ellinor in the dead of winter. This was A) probably not a very good idea to begin with and B) definitely not a good idea wearing low top hiking boots and cotton cargo pants. On the way up, my pants got soaked due my body heat... on the way down, the cuffs of my pants froze solid and proceeded to ravage my shins for several hours - making very sure that I almost did not have any shins left by the end of the hike. My second hike was Mt. Si, which is a nauseatingly popular hike in North Bend, Washington. We got an extremely late start on the hike, and were stupidly unprepared for the fact that darkness creeps in around 4:30PM in Washington during the winter months. We had no headlamps, no traction devices for our feet, and we painstakingly used our dying cellphones to dimly light our way back down the trail. Nearly a mile from the trailhead, we actually came across a father and his two sons who were just about to call 911, because they had also forgotten a headlamp, and were unable to see the trail (yes, it actually was that dark).
As silly as my early hiking mishaps were, they actually could have had somewhat disastrous results. I definitely still pack on the more "minimal" side, and typically more so on trails that I am relatively familiar with (although always with the understanding that there can be an accident on any trail). I truly believe that there must be a balance - I ran up and down Mt. Si the other day, and there were hikers heading up with massive packs, complete with ice axes and crampons and wearing Denali-worthy mountaineering boots. I have seen folks carrying ice axes up Mailbox Peak (a small, but steep mountain here in WA) when there is nary a hint of snow in sight. I have never worn anything other than a sturdy pair of trail runners on a training hike (occasionally with microspikes if there is snow/ice), and I have never carried an ice axe on Mt. Si. I'm not saying you shouldn't break in your boots or gear, I'm saying that if you want to enjoy the hike, your feet will like you more at the end of the day if you aren't carrying 40lbs of unnecessary gear and wearing a 5lb pair of stiff boots.
As far as carrying "training weight", I am not a huge fan. Of course, this is my personal philosophy, and there is a definitely a time and place for everything (i.e. training to climb Denali usually involves dragging sleds w/weight). I prefer to save my knees for an actual climbing/backpacking trip. Instead, I pack light and move fast - getting all the cardiovascular/endurance benefit out of the hike, without destroying my joints. I also focus a lot on strength/HIIT (high intensity interval training) workouts off the trail, which has made a huge improvement in my speed and endurance.
I want to give an example of what I pack on a familiar, quick dayhike. For this example, I'm imagining a hike of about 4-10 miles in length, on a good weather day with cooler temperatures. No snow to contend with, and no rain predicted at any point in the future.
A. Food - the fun stuff. Before I start my hike (about 1-2 hours prior), I drink a beetroot juice shot (helps deliver oxygen to the muscles, decreasing fatigue on a fast training hike). For the rest of a shorter hike, I fuel with easy-to-digest foods. I bring 2 energy gels (made with apple puree, and containing branch chain amino acids to start the recovery process), a protein bar (in case I get really hungry), some Skratch Lab gummies (fast energy), and another protein ball. I typically consume about 90-100 cal/hr.
B. A Platypus hydration bladder. Staying hydrated is so important - some people like to add an electrolyte drink mix, but I typically don't on a hike for two reasons: 1) I don't usually need it and 2) I hate cleaning out the bladder after it has had something other than water in it (i.e. what I'm really saying is that I'm lazy). Just make sure you drink regularly, even on cold days, when it isn't as appealing.
C. Clothing - What I am showing here is clothing in addition to whatever I am wearing at the time. For a quick dayhike will probably wear lightweight hiking pants and/or athletic tights, a merino wool short sleeved shirt, and a synthetic long sleeved shirt. In my pack I will place a lightweight puffy jacket (this is a a Rab brand jacket), a buff (to keep ears warm), a pair of gloves, and a hat to keep the sun off my face. Otherwise, I bring no extra clothes.
D. Trail runners - these are the Altra Lone Peaks. I use a variety of trail running shoes. My current favorites are the Brooks Cascadia. While carrying a very light pack, these will give you all the stability that you need on a rugged trail, in combination with using the poles. If you are worried about dirt/rocks going into your shoes, I suggest buying a pair of Dirty Girl gaiters. Whatever you do, do not be the hiker wearing full-on mountaineering gaiters on a dry summer hike. Your sweaty calves will thank you! As far as socks are concerned, I am currently a big fan of Wright Socks - they are double layered socks, and I have had zero issues with blisters while wearing them.
E. Pack - This is the Ultimate Direction Fast Pak 20. I really love it, because it fits like a "vest" and has a ton of pockets in the front of the pack so you can keep your food easily accessible. Also, if you decide to run for part of your hike, having a pack that fits like a vest will prevent the pack from bouncing like crazy and driving you nuts. I also have a smaller pack from Ultimate Direction called the "Wink", which as an even lighter alternative. I line my pack with a lightweight plastic garbage bag, to keep my clothing items protected in the event that my hydration bladder leaks and/or in the event of bad weather.
F. Poles - these are Black Diamond Alpine Carbon Cork poles. I have personally owned 4 pairs of these, and they are worth every penny. In fact, one of the pairs of poles that I bought, I accidentally left at a trailhead after only using them once - hence, the fact that I have purchased 4 of them. They are durable, light and easy to use. I love 3-section poles because they fold down really small in the event that you want to put them away and attach them to your pack. I also love the fact that they have "flick-lock" bindings, as opposed to the type of pole bindings that you rotate to tighten. Every single time I have used poles with rotating bindings, they get stuck or break without fail. There ARE poles lighter than these Carbon Cork Poles, but some of them are a fixed length, which doesn't work so well when you are 5'3 like me.
The only time I don't bring poles is if I am specifically planning to run the majority of the time, as poles can be somewhat annoying while running (although there are poles designed for ultra runners). I used to think that poles were for elderly hikers. I was SO unbelievably wrong. Poles make use of your otherwise useless arms, they prevent swollen hands/fingers, and they drastically reduce the stress on your joints coming down. On tricky sections, they help remarkably with balance. I have crossed many quickly moving rivers with a heavy pack, and without poles, I am guessing I would have taken a few unintentional icy plunges.
G. Miscellaneous gear - toilet paper and a small trash bag (you never know!), a headlamp (please, do not leave home without one), sunglasses, sunscreen. Also not shown - I usually have my cellphone in a ziploc bag with my car key and credit card/ID in my pack as well. In addition, I always let somebody know where I am going and approximately what time I am due back, just in case - rescues happen every year here in WA, even on the most familiar trails.
What do you pack for a familiar dayhike? Would you add or subtract anything from the list I provided? I will continue with this series in upcoming weeks and add/subtract from it for varying conditions. Keep in mind, everybody has their own method of packing, developed over years (or lack-thereof) of experience. My personal experience has helped to shape why/how I pack for my trips now, but there is always room for improvement and learning. One quick note - I'm not sponsored by any of the gear companies I mention ... if I recommend something, it's because I actually use it and like it.
See you on the trails!