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Spring Gear Guide: Essential Hiking Tools and Gadgets

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Take a Hike

Spring is here, and that means extracting yourself from the couch after your long hibernation and getting outside. And there's no better way to shake off the winter doldrums and work out the kinks in your rusty limbs than taking a hike. Hiking can be as easy as putting one foot in front of the other, but being prepared and bringing the right gear can mean the difference between a memorable day out and spending the next weekend sending thank you notes to the search and rescue team. So with the help of Chris Townsend, author of The Backpacker's Handbook; Jeff Alt, author of the award-winning Appalachian Trail book, A Walk for Sunshine; and Carson Tang, who has spent the last 15 years leading hikes, we've put together this roundup of core essentials will keep you comfortable and safe.

Hiking Shoes

Your feet are going to be handling the load, so you want to wrap them in something supportive, comfortable and above all, lightweight. Because Jeff Alt warns, "Every ounce on your foot is a pound on your back." The 760 Steep GT from Zamberlan are an Italian design with award-winning comfort straight out of the box. Handcrafted from premium Hydrobloc-treated Italian nubuck leather with double stitching for improved durability, a waterproof breathable liner, and the exclusive new Vibram StarTrek sole delivers superior lateral support and ankle protection as well as stability and traction on uneven terrain.

Wool Socks

Even if you're wearing top of the line hiking shoes, putting the wrong socks between them and your foot can result in painful blisters. And as any seasoned hiker will tell you, cotton is evil and wool is the only way to go. Darn Tough performance hiking socks (left) made with naturally moisture-wicking, quick drying and antimicrobial Merino wool. High-density knitting and fine-gauge yarns create a sock that's soft and cushiony yet tough as iron. And they have the industry's only Unconditional Lifetime Guarantee. PowerSox (on the right) were developed with help from pro mountain guide Dave Hahn, who has summited Everest 13 times. They're made from fine micron Merino wool that's super-washed to prevent shrinkage, with contour cushioning in key strike zones and a hint of Spandex for better fit to reduce blister-causing friction.

Traction

If there's snow on the ground, or mud from melting melted snow or flooded creeks, you'll want to keep from slipping down a steep slope. Slip on spikes can help keep you upright. The Kahtoola stainless steel, slip-on MICROspikes stretch over any footwear, no straps or buckles required, and dig into all types of terrain -- ice, packed snow, wet rocks, and concrete. Lightweight and compact, they fold up and go back in your pack when not in use.

Day Pack

Even if you're taking a short hike, you'll still have a list of essentials, and you'll need something to carry them in. Look for a pack that's lightweight, comfortable to wear on your back, and has multiple compartments for grabbing gear on the fly. AT 35L.L. Bean's Day Pack (right) is a mid-sized, light pack with a butterfly aluminum tubular frame with trampoline suspension to keep it away from your body for better airflow. It also has EVA foam at critical points for comfort. Seven external pockets keep your gear organized, and the hydration sleeve and port accommodates a reservoir and hose to keep you hydrated. A front spandex 'shove-it' pocket is perfect for stuff you need to grab quickly. Gregory's Fury 40 (left), perfect for anyone looking to shave weight but not lose comfort or functionality, features an anatomical back panel with center channel ventilation that keeps you cool, as well as shoulder strap quick-access pockets, a top pocket with internal security compartment, and front stretch bucket pocket to keep gear handy. It also has dual tool/axe/trekking pole attachment points.

Stay Balanced

Hiking with poles requires 21 percent less energy, reduces stress on vulnerable knee and ankle joints, and helps you maintain balance on rough, uneven terrain. Sure, you look like Gandolph, but you'll be glad you brought one. Hikelite Anti-Shock hiking poles absorb shocks and bumps, reducing fatigue even further. These three-section aluminum poles weigh a scant 9.5 ounces and extend from 70 up to 140cm. Core-Tec grips and padded neoprene straps keep your hands and wrists from wearing out on long hikes. Tungsten/carbide flex tips provide excellent grip and will stand up to years of hiking.

Topo Maps

A necessity for hiking an unfamiliar trail, maps are essential even if you've been down this road many times. A slip down a hill, or a sudden storm can make familiar terrain look completely different. And while your map app may help you in town, when you're well out of cell range, old-school paper maps are the ones to choose. Especially topographical maps. MyTopo maps are made from the original US Geological Survey topographic maps. All are custom made, so you can precisely center your map anywhere in the US. This solves one of the biggest problems with stock maps -- having to buy two, four, or more maps to cover the area you want. Since you design every map, you can add your own titles, your name, and GPS navigational grids. Each is available in a variety of sizes from 18-by-24inches to a huge 36-by-48 inches and in a variety of finishes including waterproof synthetic papers, glossy papers, and full-seal laminated maps. Every map is printed with UV/fade-resistant inks designed to last through the harshest tests for years to come.

Personal GPS

Even with the best maps, there's a chance of getting lost. And the longer you're out there, the more critical your situation. A personal GPS device can send an emergency signal, along with your exact location, to family and park rangers. The SPOT Satellite GPS Messenger is able to track and save your whereabouts using Google Maps. You are also able to send an SOS to an international search and rescue team, and pinpoint your exact location to within 10 meters.

Backup Batteries

Batteries run out. And if your flashlight, phone, GPS or other critical gear runs out of juice, you've just created a problem. Pack extras. We like the Mophie Juice Pack Outdoor edition, featuring an iPhone battery case, and NeoTreks app bundle. The case not only provides complete protection of your iPhone with a dual-injected hard shell case and a shock-proof rubberized band, it also allows you to charge your phone on-the-go with the switch of a button, doubling your battery life.

Sunscreen

You're going to be outside in the sun for hours. A hat and clothing can only provide so much protection. Be sure to pack and use a good quality sunscreen. Skin Authority's Age Defying Hydrating SPF 30 sunscreen is one of the first sunscreens to achieve a four-star rating by the FDA. Very water resistant, it provides full-spectrum UV protection while also moisturizing your skin and the exclusive Dry Finish Technology leaves skin dry to the touch, not feeling greasy.

Sunglasses

Remember how fun you thought snow blindness was when you were a kid? Well out on the trail, it's not so much fun. Always keep your eyes protected, even in cloudy conditions, and you'll be able to see your way home. Nike MAX Transitions (top) adaptive sunglasses are specifically engineered for outdoor sports performance. They adapt to changing light conditions, providing optimal vision at all times while you are hitting the trails -- regardless of whether it's sunny, cloudy, early morning, or high noon. SolarComfort Obispo wraps (bottom) provide advanced UV protection for your eyes with scratch resistant polarized lenses, and start at under $20. An exceptional value that won't break the bank if you leave them behind on the trail.

Water Bottles

Water is one of the most important things you'll need to pack for your hike, and choosing the right container is crucial. That they are lightweight, easy-access, and able to clip on your pack are key. The Vapur anti-bottle is a favorite. It's a foldable, reusable, freezable, washable, and attachable alternative to disposable water bottles. When filled it'll stand upright like any bottle, and the new widemouth Supercap makes drinking a breeze. When you're done, the Vapur rolls or folds for stowing in a pocket or pack.

Trail Food

You're going to need to fuel up during your hike, and you'll want to pack food that's nutritious, provides energy, and is easy to take with you. The new trail mix blends from Bear Naked (top) combine the brand's signature whole grain granola with a variety of hearty nuts, tasty dried fruits, crunchy seeds and more. Available in Cranberry Almond, Pecan Apple Flax, and Chocolate Cherry. Need something more substantial? Try a meal from GoPicnic (bottom). They're ready-to-eat, pre-packaged, and require no refrigeration or preparation. Each one is individually wrapped to avoid waste and drawing the attention of unwanted animals. Running the gamut from gluten-free to Kosher to vegan, each GoPicnic meal is under 500 calories and contains no trans fats, high-fructose corn syrup, MSG, or artificial colors or flavors.

Pack Your Trash out

You know the mantra: "Take only pictures, leave only footprints." The PioPod is a must on any hiking trip to easily contain micro-trash. If you've ever been out hiking and can't find a spot to put wrappers, trash found on the trail or even used gum, the Piopod is the answer. Tie it directly onto your pack with the included zip tie or slide it over a piece of webbing with the clip on the back, and you're set.

Bug Repellant

Nothing ruins a hike faster that spending most of it swatting mosquitos. Make sure to pack your bug repellant, and use it before and during your hike. BugBand natural insect repellent keeps bugs away without chemicals that can harm skin, kids, pets, or gear. Geraniol, the plant-based active ingredient in BugBand, has been proven effective in repelling a wide variety of insects, including mosquitoes, flies, gnats, no-see-ums, and fleas. BugBand’s sprays and towelettes are effective against ticks, as well.

Fire Starter

In the outdoors, getting warm quickly can be a matter of life or death. If you never learned how to start one with sticks, bring a fire starter with you. And make sure it's waterproof. The Zippo Emergency Fire Starter has a reliable flint-wheel ignition that easily lights water-resistant waxed tinder sticks. And with a water-resistant O-ring seal built into the case, the contents stay dry, no matter where you take it.

Survival Knives

For both preparation and protection, having a good knife on hand is critical. Some prefer a traditional blade, some like a multi-tool. Here are two to consider. Inside the Micarta handle of the TecX Brute (top) from Case is a gut hook blade for cutting rope and fishing line; it also has a partial serration on the blade for slicing or sawing your way out of a jam. The SOG PowerDuo (bottom), is "neither knife nor tool," but an equal combination of both nested in a compact form. Take away the pliers and you have a multi-blade pocketknife with a full size locking blade, screwdrivers, can/bottle openers, tweezers, etc. Take the knife side away and you have compound leverage pliers with one-handed flip opening capability.

READ MORE: Top 5 Survival Knives (and How to Choose the One That’s Right for You)

Flashlights

Hike taking you past sundown or into a cave? Even if it doesn't it's a good idea to bring one. The Solo flashlight (top) from Goal Zerohas a built-in solar panel that lets you charge in daylight, then use at night. You'll get up to 2 hours of light from the 5 LEDs in a 3.2-ounce package. The 2720 Headlamp from Pelican (bottom) gives you hands-free LED light, featuring Gesture Activation Control technology, so you can turn on the light with a wave of a hand.

First Aid Kits

Things happen on the trail, and bringing a basic first aid kit isn't just a good idea, it should be a mandatory item on your packing list. Arctic Ease wraps are eco-friendly, re-usable, cold-compression wraps infused with a non-toxic, biodegradable cooling agent that stay cold for hours without having to be put in a freezer. They work by absorbing heat energy from the body to cool the covered area. The absorbed heat is then lost to evaporation which results in a sustained cooling effect.

See More Spring Gear Guides from Discovery.com:

Spring Gear Guide: 8 Essentials for Runners Spring Gear Guide: Best Camera Backpacks Spring Gear Guide: Essential Hiking Tools and Gadgets Spring Gear Guide: 10 Essential Gadgets And Tools For Cycling

Check out all of our Spring Gear Guides here!