What to Bring Backpacking
Heading out in the wilderness with only what you can carry offers a certain sense of adventure. Everything you need fits all in a backpack, plus a few lashes along the side. But with a pack that can only hold so much, you also have to consider what is absolutely necessary to your survival outdoors.
Wondering what to bring backpacking? Here is the ultimate breakdown and checklist to make sure you pack everything you could possibly need — from the 10 essentials for hiking to personal items.
Basic Backpacking Gear
On a longer backpacking trip, aim for a pack that can hold roughly 30 to 50 liters. Aside from the backpack itself, here is some basic backpacking gear you will need to create your shelter and setup once you arrive at your site or destination.
Rain Cover — Be prepared for rain and keep your pack (and all the gear inside) protected with a cover.
Backpacking Tent — Carry a three-season tent, unless you plan to go winter camping. A small one-person bivy-style tent should be sufficient space. Make sure to test it out at home first and be sure it has the proper stakes. Set up the guy lines beforehand, too.
Tent Footprint — For extra protection against the earth, carry an extra tarp or a footprint designed specifically for your tent.
Sleeping Bag — Choose a lightweight sleeping bag with down filling to stay warm and stuff it in a compression sack to allow ample room in your pack.
Sleeping Pad — A closed-cell sleeping pad offers a lightweight option. Need extra comfort and support? You can also choose an inflatable sleeping pad as well.
Headlamp and Tactical Flashlight — Bring a hands-free LED headlamp to make your way around at night. Of course, in case the headlamp fails, it’s always good practice to bring some kind of backup like a tactical flashlight.
Trekking Poles — If you are planning a backpacking trip that requires you to hike several miles, trekking poles can take some of the load off and offer stability on the trail.
Pillow — Choose an inflatable camping pillow or, alternatively, bring along a pillowcase or stuff sack and fill it with clothes.
Meal Prep Essentials, Utensils and More
As you consider what to bring backpacking, make sure to pack all the items necessary for cooking. Don’t forget you’ll need to clean up after yourself, too, which will require extra items.
Backpacking Stove/Fuel — While you can get away with a gas-burning stove car camping, a lightweight backpacking stove is a must-have. Make sure to pack enough fuel to last through the trip, too. Choose a backpacking stove that works with an efficient fuel like isobutane.
Cookset — Whether you’re cooking up some ramen soup or boiling water for coffee or tea, be sure to carry a complete cookset that has everything you need. It’s also a wise idea to bring a small mitt or silicone pot grabber.
Bowls, Dishes, Mugs and Utensils — When it comes to serving up meals, bring along a dish, bowl and set of utensils that is either extremely lightweight (titanium) or collapsible. The same goes for drinkware! Choose a durable titanium mug that can keep beverages warm or cool to your liking.
Cleanup Set — After you have finished eating, it’s time to clean up! Just make sure to follow the Leave No Trace principles. Use biodegradable soap, but also make sure to wash dishes and cookware 200 feet away from any water sources like rivers and streams. A quick-drying, small microfiber towel can wipe down everything so you can place it straight inside your backpack.
Bear Canister — Backpacking and hiking in bear territory? Then you’ll need a bear canister to keep all your provisions contained. In fact, a bear can catch a scent up to 20 miles away, so place sunscreen and other scented products inside as well. Don’t want to carry a bulky bear canister? Then you’ll need to learn how to hang your food sack and carry extra rope to get the job done.
Meals, Snacks and Water
Pack enough provisions for your journey, including meals and snacks to sustain enough energy. It’s also imperative to drink plenty of water to stay hydrated (more on that below).
Meals — Choosing meals to bring backpacking can be as straightforward as buying dehydrated meal pouches from your local outdoor store. You’ll actually be pleasantly surprised at the types of breakfasts and dinners today’s brands can cook up in these convenient bags. As a safety precaution, not only should you pack enough food for your two- or three-day backpacking trip, but carry an extra meal or two, just in case.
Snacks — Start the day off with a hefty breakfast to sustain you and end with a rewarding dinner. But if you feel like an energy boost during the lunch hour, grab a protein bar, trail mix, jerky or even some hard cheeses that don’t need refrigeration.
Water Container/Reservoir — If you plan to stay at one site for multiple days, a collapsible water container or reservoir can keep several liters or even gallons of water. You wouldn’t want to hike miles into the wilderness with all that extra water weight though. That’s where a water filtration system comes into play!
Water Filtration System — There are several types of water filtration systems you can choose from, such as a compact gravity fed water filter or even a Lifestraw water bottle. Before setting out, find a natural water source where you can collect water to make drinkable. Some backpackers prefer to add purification tablets to the water, too — just in case!
Clothing and Footwear
When it comes to packing clothes, always check the weather forecast and plan appropriately. Of course, preparedness is key, too, so be sure to pack outerwear like a rain jacket or shell to keep you dry in an unexpected downpour. When it comes to clothing, protect yourself from the sun’s harmful rays, too. Of course, you’ll need a reliable pair of hiking boots for your footwear.
Shoes — The type of shoes you bring backpacking should be determined by your terrain. If it’s just a light hike and the trails are flat and smooth, hiking shoes and trail runners will do the trick. But if you expect to encounter rocky and rugged areas, you will need a pair of sturdy boots. Pick up accessories like gaiters if you plan on hiking in snow or ice.
Socks — Under your trail runners or boots, wear a pair of wool socks. Wool offers breathable material that is odor-resistant and moisture-wicking, allowing you to use them for several days straight.
Long Sleeve Shirt — Be sure to pack a long sleeve shirt or two. Long sleeves can protect you from the sun, especially if it’s made of a material with built-in SPF, and prevent bugs from biting. One word of caution: Don’t use cotton when hiking or backpacking. It will only absorb sweat and is difficult to dry.
Pants/Shorts — On the trail, longer pants can protect your legs from brush, thorns and even ticks. Bring both long pants and a pair of shorts to change into for more breathability on an extremely hot day.
Sleepwear — To avoid heading into the tent at night wearing dirty, potentially wet clothes, pack some sleepwear to change into. A pair of long johns and a loose T-shirt is perfectly fine.
Underwear — Carry enough underwear for the backpacking trip, plus a few extra. Make sure your underwear is also moisture-wicking and quick to dry.
Lightweight Jacket — Bring a lightweight fleece jacket to stay warm on chilly nights.
Windbreaker/Rain Jacket — Carry an outer shell windbreaker or rain jacket for unexpected showers and strong winds.
Gloves — If it’s cold enough, bring along a pair of gloves to keep your hands warm. Gloves will keep your hands nimble while operating a stove and even protect your hands from cuts and scrapes.
Hat/Beanie — Don’t forget to pack a warm hat or beanie for your backpacking trip, even if you only need to wear it at night. Many backpackers will also bring a broad-brimmed hat for sun protection.
Navigational tools make up several of the Ten Essentials. While many smartphones and even watches can provide GPS and coordinates, it’s no substitute for a good old classic map and compass.
Topographical Map and Compass — These two devices go hand in hand and should always be carried in case your smartphone or GPS watch loses service or is damaged. Choose a waterproof map (or put a paper map in a protective plastic sleeve) that shows the terrain of the area and learn how to use a compass. If compact enough, a route guidebook can come in handy, too!
Satellite Messenger/Locator Beacon — If you are headed into backcountry or are solo hiking, this device can save your life in a severe emergency. Should you get injured along the trail, it can send for a search and rescue (SAR).
Emergency Equipment and First Aid Kit
Speaking of getting injured along the trail, it’s important to know basic first aid and to carry a kit that can take care of smaller injuries. A first aid kit, along with some essential emergency gear, can save you from dehydration — among other things.
First Aid Kit — Purchase a first aid kit designed specifically for hiking or create your own and keep items secure in a watertight, secure case.
Emergency Shelter — Always carry an emergency shelter, such as a small bivy, when backpacking for a small day hike, regardless of whether you have a tent back at a site or not.
Whistle — If you get lost in the woods or injured, a loud whistle can alert nearby hikers that you are in danger and need assistance. Look for something with 120 decibels that can be heard for several miles.
Extra Matches/Fire Starters — Keep extra matches, a flint stick or fire starters on hand to create an emergency survival fire if you get stranded and need to await SAR.
Bear Spray — If you are in bear territory, carry a can of bear spray and know how to use it properly.
Itinerary — While it’s not a piece of gear to take with you, one of the most critical steps you can take in staying safe is to create an itinerary of where you are headed and when you plan to return, giving it to a trusted friend or family member. As an extra precaution, leave a printed itinerary under your car seat, too.
Hygiene and Sun Protection
Even if you appreciate roughing it in the wilderness, there are simply some items you need to pack for your health and hygiene. Here’s a quick list of items to consider for your trip.
- Toilet Paper, Bay Wipes (and a pack-out bag)
- Trowel — Leave no trace by burying human waste
- Menstrual Essentials
- Personal Medications and Prescriptions
- Hand Sanitizer — This comes in useful when you need to wash your hands and there’s no running water.
- Sun Protection — This includes sunscreen and an SPF-rated lip balm.
Backpacking Extras to Consider
Above are must-have backpacking gear and essentials to keep you safe. If you find you have more room to fit some creature comforts, here are some extra ideas:
- Daypack — For day trips away from the campsite.
- Camera and Memory Cards
- Small Binoculars
- Two-Way Radio — If traveling with others
- Activities — Journal, book, cards, etc.
Until you get back to civilian action and out from the wilderness, carry your ID and other items along in a Pelican personal utility case. This watertight case will keep everything secure and dry. Keep car keys, electronics like your smartphone, spare batteries and even credit cards and permits tucked away inside.