HIT THE TRAIL FOR LESS
Now that spring is in the air (in most parts of the country), Mother Nature is beckoning hikers onto the trails again. Outdoor stores are stocked with pricey gear, and novices can easily be tempted to overspend on equipment designed for extended trips or extreme conditions. For a day hike or even a multi-day expedition, some of the most essential and highest-rated gear costs less than $30.
Related: 35 Great Hikes to Take in 2016
Protection from the sun is especially important on long hikes with little or no tree cover overhead. The American Academy of Dermatology recommends applying at least an ounce of sunscreen every two hours. Look for broad-spectrum options that protect against UVA and UVB rays with a sun protection factor of at least 30. One of Cheapism.com's top picks is No-Ad SPF 45 ($9 at Walmart). The full 16-ounce bottle is heavy to carry in a backpack, so transfer what you need to a smaller container.
Don't let an incessant mosquito at your ear and itchy welts on your skin ruin a peaceful hike. Try making natural bug repellent or pick up an inexpensive bottle that will keep the insects at bay. Repel Lemon Eucalyptus Insect Repellent ($5 on Amazon) is DEET-free and comes in a backpack-friendly 4-ounce size. In testing it has been shown to repel mosquitos and ticks for more than seven hours.
Many hikers prefer merino wool over cotton or synthetic socks. Wool holds moisture without feeling wet and clammy against the skin. Merino wool generally isn't cheap (about $20 is typical for a single pair), but REI marks down merino wool hiking socks up to 50 percent or more. For longer days, pack an extra pair to switch out midway. A clean pair is good to have along in case socks get wet from surprise puddles or streams and can also double as mittens.
Out in the wildness, hikers may get separated from a group, and phone and data service are rare. Bluetooth doesn't need cellular service to work, as long as you're within a certain radius. Tracking devices such as Tile ($25) and Trackr ($30) uses Bluetooth technology to locate tagged items from a mobile phone. Both Tile and Trackr have a range of about 100 feet. The Bluetooth trackers easily attach to backpacks, keychains, shoelaces, and more.
A pocket knife or multi-purpose tool comes in handy for cutting bandages, removing splinters, and repairing gear. Hikers can hardly go wrong with the classic Victorinox Swiss Army Classic SD pocket knife (starting at $13.50 on Amazon). It comes with a host of practical tools, including a knife, scissors, tweezers, and a screwdriver tip. More than 3,600 reviewers have rated this tool a solid 4.5 stars and it's an Outdoor Gear Lab top pick.
Smartphone technology is making leaps and bounds, but battery life barely lasts a full day, especially if the phone constantly tries to establish a connection when out of range. To use the camera, music, and other apps while making sure the phone is available for emergencies, put it on airplane mode and bring a lightweight portable charger along for the hike. The Anker PowerCore+ Mini (starting at $10 on Amazon) packs a whole lot of power (3,350 mAh) for its "mini" size -- enough to fully charge most phones, including the Apple iPhone 6 and Samsung Galaxy S6. Anker also provides an 18-month warranty.
A WATERPROOF LAYER
Be sure to check the weather before leaving for a hike in order to pack efficiently and appropriately. The forecast can be wrong, though. Hikers caught in a surprise thunderstorm can be left scrambling for shelter or end up hiking in cold, wet clothes the rest of the way. The windproof and waterproof Adventure Medical SOL Survival Poncho ($11.69 on Amazon) folds neatly into a tiny nylon pouch and also helps insulate body heat.
All hikers should have a first-aid kit on hand in case of slips and falls and other mishaps on the path. An open wound could result in infection, so it's best to think ahead and bring supplies. The Adventure Medical Kits Ultralight/Watertight .5 ($15 on Drugstore.com) comes with a bit of everything that might be needed to treat one person for up to two days, including gauze pads, medical tape, antiseptic wipes, ibuprofen pills, and allergy-relief tablets. Some hikers reviewing this kit online equally appreciate what's not included: the cheap scissors found in other first-aid kits, which add no value for anyone with a multi-tool. The pouch is water-resistant and has enough room to stash extra pain relievers and other necessities for more than one person.
Blisters can pop up at the most inconvenient times, even after shoes are broken in. Friction and rubbing are almost inevitable on long, rugged trails, especially if feet start sweating. As soon as any area feels problematic and uncomfortable, apply moleskin to prevent more rubbing and blisters. The first-aid kit contains pre-cut moleskin, but many hikers prefer to cut their own to get the right shape and make sure it says on. Dr. Scholl's Moleskin Plus ($5.39 on Amazon), comes in a 24-inch roll and is almost universally admired in customer reviews.
For a hike on a sunny day, opt for a hat with a brim to shield the face from the sun. The Outdoor Research Radar Pocket Cap (starting at $10 on Amazon) has a 3-inch brim that folds up for packing away in a pocket or backpack. The fabric offers 30+ UPF sun protection and wicks away moisture. The hat comes in a range of colors and patterns.
Campfires heat up food, roast marshmallows, and provide warmth, which can be crucial on cold nights during a multi-day hike. To get a fire started easily, bring along a lighter, a handheld igniter, or matches. UCO Stormproof Matches ($7.50 for 50 Amazon) are designed to be easy to light in high winds and rain. They even stay lit underwater. The UCO Titan Stormproof Match Kit ($9) includes 12 bigger matches, a waterproof case, and three replacement strikers.
PERSONAL WATER FILTER
For trips spanning several days, lugging bottles of water isn't practical. Water taken from freshwater streams or lakes along the way must be filtered or purified. The LifeStraw Personal Water Filter ($20 on Amazon) is acclaimed for removing 99.9 percent of waterborne bacteria and parasites. Users insert the LifeStraw into a bottle of collected water (or directly into a water source) and start the water flow by sucking for a few seconds through the mouthpiece. The product has earned an average of 4.7 stars from more than 4,400 reviewers. There's also a water bottle with an integrated LifeStraw ($30).
COMPASS (AND MAP)
Google Maps and Waze don't do much good when you're out of the range of cell towers. Even if you have a GPS unit, pack a detailed topographic map and a compass, just in case, for locating nearby water sources, campsites, and exit routes. The UST Deluxe Map Compass ($7 on Amazon) features a clear base to assist with map reading.
Even if a hike doesn't span several nights, sunset can sneak up at the end of a long day hike. While a handheld flashlight illuminates the map and trail, a headlamp also leaves hands free. The Aennon LED Headlamp ($15 on Amazon). can be tilted to focus the direction of the light and provides up to 164 feet of visibility. There are four light modes powered by three AAA batteries. More than 1,400 reviews have granted it 4.5 stars, and Aennon backs the product with a 100 percent money-back guarantee. Always carry extra batteries just in case.