I’ve spent a lot of time on the trails this summer hiking all over San Diego County, putting my fair weather gear through its paces. It’s been a great opportunity to take note of the necessities and dump the gear I either don’t use or don’t need, and replace the gear I don’t like.
My essentials list is just that. It’s the minimum type and amount of gear I will hike with if I’m doing anything more significant than a 1-2 hour hike in ideal conditions in a populated area. As the hike changes, so does the gear I take with me.
Here is a breakdown of the gear I use when I’m hiking in San Diego and how I might adjust it to suit a particular hike:
- Hiking shoes or trail runners
- Hiking or running shorts
- Synthetic, loose-fitting shirt
- Ball cap or sun hat
- Pocket knife
- Hydration pack with plenty of water
- Optional items: Minimalist first-aid kit & survival essentials
Hiking shoes or trail runners
They’re great, rugged all-purpose hiking shoes with extremely tough and grippy soles that will stand up to just about any terrain you might encounter. But they are a little heavy for trail running, which I am doing more of all the time.
I will certainly replace my old Merrells at some point in the near future, but for now I am wearing Vasque Mindbender trail running shoes.
They’re lightweight and breathable, yet sturdy enough that I don’t feel every rock and pebble I step on. They also have ample traction for all but the most uncivilized of trails.
Hiking or running shorts
For well-traveled trails where I won’t be battling thick underbrush, I usually will wear a pair of lightweight running shorts. They’re loose-fitting and keep me cool and dry, plus they’re extremely comfortable to run in. They don’t stand up well to bushwhacking, however.
For trails where I think, or know, that I will encounter heavier brush, I opt for a sturdier pair of hiking shorts to give me a little more protection from prickly, spiny, scratchy things. My lower legs are still exposed, but they’re used to getting beat up by now and I rarely even notice the cuts and scratches I’ve received until a day or two later.
Hiking shorts also offer the added benefit of secure pockets for storing extra cargo, like snacks or a cellphone, that can easily fly out of the pockets of running shorts, if they even have pockets.
Synthetic, loose-fitting shirt
Because I tend to hike fast, and often run, I will usually wear a loose-fitting, 100% polyester tech shirt. They’re lightweight, breathable and designed to wick moisture away from your body to help you stay dry and cool.
Cotton shirts are a big no-no. They hold on to moisture, so you’re more subject to chafing.
Also, remember that t-shirts leave your arms exposed, so if you’re hiking in direct sunlight, be sure to slather on lots of sunscreen. Or better yet, wear a loose-fitting long-sleeved shirt to reduce your exposure to the sun.
I wear close-fitting sunglasses with UV protection to shield my eyes from the glaring San Diego sun. Sunglasses without UV protection are useless and should be avoided, and squinting alone won’t protect your eyes from the very real damage that can occur over time.
Ball cap or sun hat
I don’t always wear a hat, but when I do I try to be purposeful about my choice.
Ball caps are great at keeping the sun out of my eyes, and they offer my face a little protection from exposure. They’re also a good way to protect your scalp if you happen to be follicly challenged, which I fortunately am not. At least not yet.
The drawback to ball caps is that they leave your ears and neck exposed, and only offer minimal face protection.
On hikes where I know it will be hot and I will be exposed for a long time, I’ll wear a sun hat.
A sun hat will protect my head, face, ears and neck from exposure to direct sunlight, and the one that I wear is ventilated, so it also does a great job at helping me stay cool.
Sun hats are available in a variety of styles, so don’t let your fashion conscious ways keep you from taking advantage of this useful piece of hiking gear.
I grew up surfing in San Diego and sunscreen was one of those things that I just never saw much need for. Fortunately I’m a bit older and wiser now, and I’ve had enough bad sunburns to know that sunscreen is a must if you’re hiking in San Diego.
Don’t be shy, just slather it on!
On the trail, pocket knives are great at cutting, prying, flipping and sticking just about anything. You never know when you might need one, so better safe than sorry, I always say!
I’ve been carrying the same Spyderco pocket knife on my keychain with me every single day for nearly 25 years, and I’ve found a use for it at least once a day for all but a handful of those days.
So at a minimum, this little pocket knife is with me anytime I’m on a hike. Of course, I got it for $20 back in the day. Man, inflation is a real bugger!
I always take a 2 liter hydration pack with me when I’m hiking. I’ve been using the same minimalist 2 liter Camelbak for about seven years now. It’s compact and lightweight, yet it has enough storage space to carry all my essentials.
On longer hikes, I might take a larger day hiking pack to carry more stuff, but for most purposes, this little pack does everything I need it to.
Plenty of Water
I see people heading out on the trail all the time with a single 20oz water bottle in hand thinking it will be sufficient for the 3 hour hike they have ahead of them. They’ll rip through that water like a dog drinking from a garden hose before the hike is half over, then toss the bottle in the bushes off the side of the trail.
Meanwhile, they struggle through the rest of the hike, all the time wondering at exactly what point they should call 911.
Don’t be that person!
I never start a hike with less than 1.5 – 2 liters (32-64oz) of water, and I’ll adjust that amount as needed based on the hike I have planned. For instance, on the Three Sisters Falls Hike, I took 3 liters of water even though it was a relatively short 2 hour hike because it was extremely hot, and I knew the trail was going to be a beast.
Turns out, 3 liters was just about right.
I had about ½ of a liter left at the end of the hike, which I quickly gulped down as soon as I had my truck running and the AC cranked up. I also had another gallon of water waiting in reserve to make sure that I would have plenty to re-hydrate with if I ran out on the hike.
Don’t mess around when you’re hiking and it’s hot out. Dehydration and heat exhaustion can sneak up on you quicker than you think.
Be smart, stay hydrated.
Snacks are not only a luxury when hiking, they are a necessity. There have been times that I haven’t carried a snack with me, whether for a lack of space, or time, or whatever. In any case, I always regretted the decision.
Hiking burns a massive amount of calories, and you lose electrolytes your body needs to regulate itself when you sweat. Snacking on some trail mix or an energy bar can go a long ways towards restoring your energy and keeping your body working like the well-oiled machine it is.
If I’m going anywhere that’s even slightly remote, I always take a basic first-aid kit with me. The kit I use is a modified version of the Adventure Medical Kits Ultralight .5. The he exact contents of my kit will vary depending on where I’m at and who I’m hiking with, but it will always include a few simple items: band-aids, antibiotic cream (Neosporin), and Ibuprofen.
There are as many ways of putting together a first-aid kit as there are hikers to tell you about them. Andrew Skurka, a seasoned adventurer with more than 30,000 miles under his belt, has some of the best information I’ve found on the subject of DIY ultralight first-aid kits.
For most day hikes, Andrew’s recommendations are overkill, but it’s best to understand the purpose behind everything so that you know exactly what you can afford to go without.
On remote hikes where I know there won’t be a lot of people around, or where the potential for getting lost or seriously hurt is abundant, I try to pack some basic survival items.
- Map & compass – learn to use them so you can find your way out
- Lighter – can’t overstate the importance of fire
- Whistle – so I can alert people to my location
- Water purification tablets – Pick some up, you will run out of water eventually
- Cellphone – to call 911 if I can (may also have GPS, maps, compass, and can provide light)
So that’s my fair weather, Sunny San Diego hiking essentials gear list.
I take some variant of these items with me on every fair weather hike I go on. My list is far from set in stone and I’m constantly adjusting my load to suit my personal needs as I test my gear and gain more experience.
What do you think about this list? Is there anything you would change, add or remove completely? Tell me about it in the comments below.
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