While I am a big fan of getting out there without much, I also think it's important to consider bringing a few things if you plan on heading out on trails you've never done, or if you aren't sure exactly how long you'll be out there. Bringing extra stuff also means if the hike is really going well and the trail allows, you can go farther than you originally anticipated.
Here are 10 easy-to-pack items I throw in my bag when I am not totally sure of where I am headed:
1. A Mini Headlamp
I can't tell you how many times I have been out on a hike later in the day only to find myself racing the setting sun as I head back toward the car. There are tiny inexpensive headlamps that are literally no bigger than a silver dollar and probably weigh less that will give you a little extra comfort if the sun is slipping down faster than anticipated.
2. A Few Band Aids
You don't necessarily need a whole medical kit, but it's pretty easy to cut your finger or toe on a stick. True story: a stick once punctured my son pretty well on a trail when we were hiking in sandal hiking shoes. Not that it was a life threatening necessary thing to have, but I realized after that experience that the long bout of crying could have been easily remedied with pulling out a band aid and playing doctor quick-like. Band aids make kids feel better right away. Bonus points for band aids with cartoon characters on them.
3. High Value Food
Snacks that aren't messy, compact down well, don't disintegrate when they end up on the bottom of your bag and have high nutritional reward are key. This is especially true when you suddenly realize you are farther out than you thought. Fruit leather, nuts, bars with low sugar, squeeze packs, and string cheese are my go to snacks.
4. Purifying Water Bottle
I am not a fan of water tablets, so I love the fact that all kinds of water bottles are coming out with purifiers in them. I usually bring one bottle of water without a purifier and then a second one with if I am not sure how long my hike will be.
An extra clip of some sort to clip things on like a water bottle, flashlight, mirror, compass, or camera is great to have on the outside of your pack. This way when you need something to be readily available, it's easy to clip it on and not have to dig for it.
6. Extra Layer
I am a big fan of carrying a thin "bonus" layer that's either polypro or silk, even on a hot day. It's easy when you hike up, to forget about what chilled sweat will feel like on the hike down. The wind factor or setting sun can cool you down quickly. That extra little layer doesn't account for much weight, but you will be grateful you have it. Also a thin layer actually can be nice if you start to burn in the sun on an exposed hike.
Tools are awesome. Scissors, a knife, a fork... These things can all come in handy for everything from cutting your apple to snipping your friend's locks when they somehow get permanently snagged in a jacket zipper (yes, this has happened to me).
8. Duct Tape
Wrap a bit of duct tape around a water bottle so you don't need to bring a whole roll. Or just wrap a bit up on itself and throw in your bag near band aids. Duct tape can serve as a temporary bandage, hold together a pack with a busted zipper or help stop a blister from forming. The uses are endless.
9. Trail Education
Did you know there are now apps that can help you identify everything in front of you on the trail? No need for cell reception with many of them. Take an extra minute to add an educational element to your next hike by learning a little about the forest and fauna around you when you pull your phone out of your pack for a quick picture.
10. Sample Packets
I keep a few sample packs of sunscreen and bug repellent in my pack. It's too easy to forget these items or skip them all together because you don't want to carry the big bottle. This allows you to lube up once at the car, then later if you notice you are burning or bugs are getting bad you can reapply with the sample packs. Keep a few of these on hand and replenish in the pack from time to time. Also keep an eye on expiration dates for these so you can make sure they are still effective.
Photos courtesy Ashley D. Scheider Photography, Yanna Bennet and Jessie Emslie of Hike it Baby.