‘I’m a Professional Trail Steward, and These Are the Hiking Essentials I Always Pack’

Photo: Getty/Jordan Siemens
Outdoorsy types look forward to the summertime for the warm weather, backyard barbecues, and sunny skies just like the rest, but the main event for the mountain lovers among us? The official kickoff of hiking season. While it can be tempting to wake up and hit the trails, take a beat before you do and be sure to add some of these best hiking essentials to your pack because the right technical apparel and gear can make or break your trek.

Caitlin Kelly, a trail caretaker and ski patroller in Adirondack Park in upstate New York, is more or less a professional hiker. Every Friday, she packs into the High Peaks wilderness to her trail outpost where she spends three to four days out of service and away from civilization. From general trail maintenance and conservation, to search-and-rescue, her life revolves around outdoor life in the park. "I mostly educate the public on the rules and regulations of the park, like proper food storage, no campfires, things like that" Kelly says. "I try to explain what the rules are and how they're protecting the land."

Needless to say, Kelly knows a thing or two about preparing for a hike. Whether it's a week-long excursion into the backcountry or just a quick hike to catch a sunset. And she's sharing some general hiking tips and gear suggestions to keep you safe and happy on your adventures. "The '10 essentials' are used in parks nationwide and are basically just a list of gear everyone should have on hand when they go for a hike," she says. "And before you go anywhere, do your due diligence and get to know the rules and regulations. Make sure you're as self-sufficient as possible."

Ready to hit the trails? Below, Kelly offers her advice on what to wear in the wild, as well as those 10 essentials for ensuring a safe, happy hike.

What a professional park steward wears for a summer hike

On your top: First things first—gear up with a solid, supportive sports bra. Kelly swears by all things Patagonia, especially their Switchback Sports Bra ($65) which has cross-back straps and the right amount of compression for keeping everything in place. As for shirts, breathable layers are your best bet. "I love my Houdini Jacket [$99]—it's like the lightest paper-thin jacket ever," she says. "And any one of Patagonia's wool T-shirts [$59]."

On your bottom: This comes down to personal preference. If the bugs are out, or your bush-whacking through brush, maybe cover up with a lightweight pair of leggings. If you want to get trendy, try a skort or an Outdoor Voices Exercise Dress ($100). "I always hike in an Athleta skort," Kelly says. "I love how it makes me feel feminine—I'm all about defining my femininity in a male-dominated sport." We second that. Check out the Athleta Soho Skort ($59) for an A-line look or try a more flouncy feel with the Match Point Skort ($69).

On your feet: "I see people in trail runners all the time, but I really believe in ankle protection," says Kelly. Look for a hiking boot that comes up and supports your ankle to avoid any sprains or ankle-rolls when climbing up and down inclines. And look for something waterproof that you won't mind getting dirty: "It's actually really important to walk through mud instead of around it," Kelly says. "Every time you walk around mud, you're just widening the trail."

On your back (or shoulders, or hips): Again, your choice of pack comes down to personal preference. If you're a classic backpack kinda hiker, Kelly recommends checking out brands like Patagonia and Osprey, which will repair or replace your packs if anything breaks or tears. If not you're trying to lug something that heavy, try a fanny pack or a travel pouch. Our picks? The chic, water-resistant Away Sling Bag ($125) or the snazzy Lululemon Everywhere Belt Bag ($38).

The 10 other hiking essentials you need to pack whenever you hit the trails

1. A physical map and compass

The All Trails app can only get your so far. "I see a ton of people in the summers relying on their cell phones for communication, cameras, lights, and maps," says Kelly. "That's a lot of things to ask for from one device." It may be convenient, but your phone isn't the most reliable resource for hiking, especially when it comes to navigation. Batteries drain and service dips in-and-out, making it difficult to find your way if you get turned around. Kelly suggests always having a printed map handy, as well as a compass. You don't even have to be a master cartographer—watch a YouTube video before you hit the trail so if things don't go as planned, you're able to find your way out of the woods.

2. A headlamp

"Twenty-five to fifty percent of my rescues are because someone has an inadequate light source," Kelly says. Again, your phone flashlight is handy in a pinch, but not for making it down a steep, rocky trail. Invest in a headlamp for handsfree light, so when the sun goes down, you can safely see where you're going. Kelly suggests the Petzl Tikka Headlamp ($23), which comes in a some super trendy colors, like aqua blue and spring green.

3. Sun protection 

Just because you're venturing in the woods doesn't mean you're safe from the sun's rays! Especially when you summit and are exposed to bright sunlight, a strong sunscreen is key. If you want a little extra protection, throw on a baseball hat or a neck buff. And don't forget your sunnies.

4. First-aid kit

The most common injuries Kelly sees in her day-to-day are cuts, sprains, and allergic reactions. Your first-aid kit doesn't have to be chock full of medical supplies, but definitely pack the essentials, like ace bandages, gauze,  Band-Aids, and anti-septic. "Benedryl, Advil, and Tylenol, too," she says. "You can actually do a lot of pain management with just Advil and Tylenol."

5. Knife or a multi-tool

This may not be the most obvious, especially if you're only heading out on a day hike. But it is really good to have knife or multi-tool handy in the wilderness. "If you have to cut your clothes to stop a bleed, or if something is stuck—it's just really important for protection," Kelly says.

6. Fire starter

This is usually more important for heading out into the backcountry during the cold winter months. But even if you're camping on a balmy summer night, fire can keep you warm and help dry out wet, sweaty clothes. Whether it's a lighter, matches, flint, even dryer lint (life hack: lint makes excellent tinder), being prepared for safely starting a campfire is key—just know the rules before you light one.

7. Shelter 

No, you don't have to pack a sprawling, five-person tent if you're just heading out on a day hike. But having a lightweight, foldable blanket, like a Rumpl ($75),  or even a plastic tarp can come in handy for getting out of the elements. If you do plan on camping, Kelly suggests investing in a decent, down-filled sleeping bag. Her favorite? The Marmot Sawtooth 15 ($257), which keeps her snug and cozy on extra cool nights.

8. Extra food

Always pack your snacks! Hiking is hard, and food is effectively fuel for your body. Whether it's tasty Clif bars, a bag of trail mix, or a piece of fruit, bring some snacks along for your hike.

9. Drinkable water

Say it louder for the people in the back: Hydration is everything. You can fill up a reusable water bottle before you go, but once that's finished make sure you have something to filter extra water. Kelly likes the Sawyer SP131 Squeeze Water Filter ($49 for a 3-pack).  "It's basically a bag with a valve and filter, so you can fill it up in a stream and either drink it straight from the pouch or squeeze it into a water bottle." This will suss out any harmful bacteria or minerals that might be floating around.

10. Extra clothes

If your shirt gets soaked in boob-sweat, or you get your socks wet walking through a puddle, you're gonna want to change into something dry for the remainder of a hike. Layering is key, especially in light, airy fabrics like wool (yup, wool), which is breathable and won't get stinky even on the stickiest, humid days.

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