The thought of backpacking can be a little scary. Stepping out on a 100-mile trail or taking an overseas flight to a far-off land, with nothing but a rucksack on your back and dreams in your head, might not be for everybody.
It takes a little bit of nerve and determination to commit to such an idea. I was a little bit intimidated my self when I thought of doing my first solo trek across Iceland back in 2016. I didn’t know what to expect, or more importantly what to bring.
All I knew was that I wanted to do it and I needed to grab up some important pieces of gear. First was a backpack, I knew that. Then clothing, ok check, grab some clothing.
Uh oh, what type of clothing? Should I get rain gear? How many pairs of socks? Which types of socks? Hmmm, now it’s not as easy as I thought it was going to be. Maybe I should look into this a bit more.
Backpacking is an exhilarating and wonderful experience! I love it, but it requires careful preparation. Having the right gear and essentials can make all the difference between “This is the greatest thing ever!” and “I never want to even look at a backpack ever again”.
That’s where this blog post is going to come in pretty handy for you. In this article, I’ll go over the ideal backpacking checklist and give a few suggestions on what to get and where to get it.
So follow along as I cover the essential items you’ll need to bring with you as you set out into the great unknown. I wish you the best of luck and hope you experience some of the greatest things this beautiful planet has to offer!
I’ll start with the most obvious item you’ll need for your backpacking checklist and that’s of course a nice and rugged backpack! One that won’t let you down in the middle of an arduous trail. Getting this right is priority number 1.
Size is key. Too big and you’ll be lugging around extra weight that’ll enrage your lower back on about day 3. Too small and you’ll be forced to choose between bringing an extra jacket or extra food. Not an optimal scenario.
How to Choose:
It’s all about the distances between your replenishing stations and your provisions for this one. If you plan to backpack across Europe and will be frequently within a stone’s throw of a grocery store or clothing outlet, go with a 1-3 day supply size, about 30-40 Liters.
If you’re going on an awesome expedition and need to carry enough food/supplies for days or weeks, pick something within/or more than the 50-70 Liter range. I have a great article on How to Choose a Hiking Backpack with a detailed breakdown of what you’ll need to know to make an informed decision.
I personally love Osprey for all of my load-carrying needs. They are among the leaders in backpacks and travel accessories. If you aren’t quite sure about the size or type that will fit you best then check out my article on choosing the right Osprey backpack for any adventure.
Other great brands include Gregory, Deuter, and REI Co-op. They are all reputable and known for their quality.
Before you make a substantial purchase, definitely go to a local outdoor retailer, such as Dick’s Sporting Goods, Backcountry, or REI, and look around. Talk to the shop attendants. Tell them your wants and needs and see where they point you!
Now I’m assuming you’ll be spending some nights under the stars along the way. To stay dry and bug-free, you’re going to need a tent. A reliable one that provides shelter from the elements and a comfortable place to rest after a long and brutal day of trekking.
Size, weight, and environment/time of year are going to be the biggest determining factors when choosing the right tent. How many people in your party or are you going solo? Is cost a concern? Is it going to be extremely cold? Will you be in deep snow? These are the questions you should be asking yourself when looking for the perfect tent.
How to Choose:
Usually, you’re going to need one tent per 2-3 people, depending on its size. If you are planning on backpacking with 3 people and want to bring along only one tent, don’t. 2 people max for sanity reasons alone.
You’re also going to need to know the expected weather conditions to pick the correct corresponding tent seasonality (yes that’s a word). They come in 3, 3/4, and 4-season varieties. A quick breakdown –
3 Season Tents – Lightweight and ideal for late spring, summer, and early fall. They usually have ample mesh panels that will keep you cool and bug-free while letting in the fresh breeze. Can withstand most rain showers but isn’t great in gusty winds and heavy snow.
3/4 Season Tents – A little heavier and more robust. These are better for the bookends of Spring and Fall. They usually come with a few extra poles and a bit less mesh which makes them sturdier and cozier than the 3 season variety. Not ideal for a heavy winter environment but they’ll keep you snug as a bug in the higher elevations.
4 Season Tents – These are the beasts you’ll need if you are planning on summiting a windy and frigid mountain. They are designed to withstand fierce winds and considerable snow loads. They are mountaineering tents that can be used in any season and in any condition. If you’ll be going above the tree line regularly, look into grabbing up one of these.
Solo adventurers should look into the Black Diamond Bipod Bivy. It’s all seasons, packs down smaller than an American football, and only weighs 2 pounds! (Less than a kg). It’s quite cramped inside though so if you need some sitting up room, then check out the next option.
A cheaper, but heavier option that’ll still do the trick is the Clostnature 1-person ultralight. It’s about 4.2 pounds (2kg) but a quarter of the price and is more spacious. It’s a 3/4 season tent as well so you should be good to go unless you’ll be in high altitude.
If there’s going to be two of you and the weather isn’t going to be much of a concern, I recommend the Mountain Hardwear Meridian. It’s only 5 and 1/2 pounds (2.5 kg) and well-priced. It’s only a 3 season tent but should suffice for most camp settings.
3. Sleeping Bag
Next on your backpacking checklist will be a sleeping bag. The last thing you will want to worry about is whether you’ll be warm or comfy after you’ve settled in for the night. It’s essential for a restful night’s sleep in the backcountry and preparation for what tomorrow brings.
How to Choose:
Temperature rating, weight, and pack-down size are the 3 categories that you should focus on. Since you’ll be carrying it around with you at all times, it’s important to know exactly what you’ll need and what will be comfortable for you night after night. A quick breakdown of the temperature scale –
- Summer/low-elevation sleeping bags : 32°F and above (0°C and above)
- 3-season sleeping bags : 20 to 32°F (- 6.6° to 0°)
- Cold-weather/winter sleeping bags : 20°F and below (- 6.6° and below)
If you’d like to learn more, REI has a great article on its site that further explains all of the nuances of how to choose the proper sleeping bag for backpacking. Questions of fit, men vs. women comfort levels, and so on. It’s very informative!
My choice for the best summer/warm weather bag is the Marmot NanoWave 55. As long as you won’t be in freezing temperatures, this bag will do the trick. It weighs less than 2 lbs. (1kg), packs 6”x10”, and is quite soft.
If you need something that will withstand colder temperatures, then you should look into grabbing the NEMO Forte 20 Endless for Men or the NEMO Forte 20 Endless for Women. This bag will keep you nice and warm through freezing temps and the thermal vents will keep you nicely regulated throughout the night.
For sub-freezing temperatures, you can’t go wrong with the Mountain Hardwear Bishop Gore-Tex 0. It’s rated to 0°F (-18°C), has a unisex design, and comes in just a bit over 3 lbs.
Some other great brands to look into are Western Mountaineering and The North Face. As long as you know what to look for, you should be fine. Remember temperature rating, weight, and compressibility are target points for making the perfect decision.
4. Sleeping Pad
Some backpackers forgo the sleeping pad but I think this is a mistake. A great sleeping pad can make or break a restful night’s sleep so if I were you, I’d certainly add one to my backpacking checklist.
There are many different types, ranging from lightweight air pads, to self-inflatable open-cell foam pads and foldable closed-cell foam. Some trailblazers even bring a yoga mat!
How to Choose:
You’ll never guess which attributes you should keep in mind when picking the best sleeping pad. Well if you guessed weight and how well it packs down, then you would be correct! One area of note is how long you’ll be on your trip since durability might come into play for extended Thru-hiking journeys. Basically –
- 4 weeks or less – Air pad or self-inflating for comfortability and insulation
- 4 weeks or longer – Foldable closed cell for extreme lightweight and durability
There are a few other categories like minimalist backpacking or winter camping where you’ll need to consider additional elements but it’s pretty safe to abide by these parameters. If you’d like to read further into the intricacies, read this – How to choose sleeping pads.
One of the best on the market is the NEMO Quasar 3D insulated air pad. It’s very reliable and ideal for those who love comfort. It’s available in 3 different sizes, provides 3.5 in. (9 cm) of padding, and packs down to the length of a banana.
If you’ll be out in nature for a lengthy amount of time and can’t be bothered with inflating/deflating a pad every night or just want something quick, easy, and durable then look no further than the Therm-a-Rest Z lite.
It’s outfitted with ThermaCapture technology which takes your radiant heat and reflects it back and up to you. It’s very lightweight and weighs basically nothing!
5. Food and Water
You’re not going to get very far without packing the proper nutrition and hydration. Walking around all day with a heavy bag on your back burns a lot of calories so you’ll need to replace them efficiently, and of course tastefully.
Everybody has a different palate so I won’t go into specifics, but the goal is to pack lightweight, calorie-dense foods and ample water to stay fueled and hydrated throughout.
If you need a jumping-off point, read my article on delicious backpacking food ideas for a breakdown on how and what to bring along on your journey.
How to Choose:
First, you need to know where you’re going and for how long. A good rule to live by is 2 pounds (1 kg) of food per day you’ll be away, so on a 5-day trip, you’ll need 10 pounds (5 kgs), erroring on the side of bringing more than less, but not overdoing it. Things to keep in mind –
- Pack a variety – It’ll help you stay motivated and happy. Mix the textures of crunchy, soft, hard, and crispy to keep it fresh and fun!
- Include fresh food – Ripe fruits and veggies can be bulky but are great to have. Eat them toward the beginning of your trip to shed weight and avoid food waste.
- Just add water – Instant rice, noodles, pasta, or couscous are lightweight and easy to prepare
- Ready-to-eat – Although these can be pricey, they are so, so convenient and come in a wide variety of options. If there will be a lot of strenuous hiking on the itinerary, I highly recommend at least half of your food stores be ready-to-eat.
- Snacks – Choose simple items that are easily accessible from a hip or jacket pocket that can be eaten on the go. Dried fruit, nuts, and pretzels are some of the go-to’s.
When it comes to water, I like to go with the old-fashioned water bottle as opposed to a water reservoir in your backpack. To me, they are easier to refill and drink out of. but to each their own!
My preferred ready-to-eat meal company is Mountain House. Most, if not all, of their meals, are made in under 10 minutes, do not require any pots or pans, and only need some hot water to be enjoyed.
More than 30 options to choose from and all of them delicious. You really can’t go wrong so check them out when you have a chance.
Layers, layers, layers! This is everything. No matter the weather, you’re going to sweat so to keep from being completely miserable, opt for thin and moisture-wicking/quick-drying fabrics that provide both warmth and breathability.
Everybody has their preferences when it comes to what they wear so it’s hard to narrow down exactly what you should carry along with you. I’ll just go over the basics.
How to Choose:
This is a case where heading down to your local outdoor gear shop is advisable. Nothing matches the touch and feel of trying on or comparing different articles of clothing with your bare hands. Look for the following –
- Hiking Shoes/Boots – This is not something you should skimp on. Don’t be afraid to drop some serious coin on a great set of hiking footwear.
- Rain jacket – Unless you’ll be backpacking through the Sahara, there’s always a chance the weather will turn. Pick one that’s thin enough to double as a windbreaker.
- Convertible pants/shorts – You should have at least 2 sets of hiking pants that can easily change to shorts either zippered off or rolled up. Saves time and space.
- UPF Rated long-sleeve shirt – Even in overcast or colder climates, the sun can give you a bit of a burn. I try to bring at least 2 sun protective long sleeves.
- Fleece Top – Great for keeping you warm by the fire, yet doubles as a pillow when you’ll be taking a nap. Very versatile. Make sure you have room for 1.
- Insulated Jacket – I usually go with a down jacket. They are extremely light, yet will heat you like a furnace—a must-have in any colder weather scenario.
- T-shirts – Some backpackers like wool, but I usually pick synthetic/polyester t-shirts. They are the perfect cross between thin and soft. Bring a minimum of 5.
- Socks – Invest in 5 pairs of high-quality (*cough* expensive) hiking socks. Usually a wool/synthetic blend. These will keep your feet happy and prevent blisters.
- Hat and Sunglasses – Choose a fun bucket hat with a brim that covers 360° and a nice pair of UPF sunglasses.
- Underwear – Personal preference but you should avoid cotton. It takes forever to dry and causes chafing. Whatever you choose, just make sure they are airy and breathable.
REI, Patagonia, Arc’teryx, and Columbia are all great brands that offer a broad range of outdoor apparel designed for backpacking and trekking. Look online to see which styles and price points suit you best, then head down to their store for a first-hand experience.
7. Navigation and Safety Gear
Besides using an app on your phone, anybody and everybody who is roaming the backcountry should have a compass and a map with them at all times. You might be asking yourself, “Really?”. Yes really.
Take this story about Andrew Devers – I Survived Being Lost For Nine Days who luckily survived his ordeal. He went out for a simple day hike in shorts and a t-shirt and almost didn’t make it back alive. A map and compass could have saved him and his loved ones a lot of stress and fear.
In addition, you should always carry a first aid kit and a whistle. You don’t want a rash or bug bit to get infected or have no way of communication with the authorities if you become lost in the woods.
How to Choose:
If you want to purchase a dedicated handheld device for navigation, be sure to get one that is durable and has a long battery life. It’s a good idea to have a backup set of batteries on hand too, just in case.
You can also go with a GPS watch if you want to keep your hands free and feel like a high tech spy!
Proposed items you should include in your FIRST AID KIT –
- Medical tape – For blisters and cuts
- Antiseptic wipes – To clean wounds
- Butterfly closure strips – To close small shallow cuts
- Dressing/Gauze – For larger wounds
- Antibiotic ointment – Prevent infections
- Ibuprofen tablets – Pain relief
- Antihistamine tablets – Allergy and bug bite relief
- Survival tape – Used to fix or repair basically anything temporarily
- Utility tool with a knife – Various uses
- Emergency Fire starter – In case you need to get warm or need to cook
- Sewing needle and thread – Cotton thread for clothing repair, silk/nylon for medical
I prefer the Garmin eTrex 22x for an affordable handheld that you can go anywhere with. It provides 2 global navigational systems (GPS & GLONASS), 25 hours of battery life (2 AA batteries), and a full-color display.
For the best watch, the Suunto Vertical takes the cake. This bad boy uses solar charging, offline maps (No wifi needed), and duel GPS and GNSS satellite navigational systems. The titanium solar variant’s battery can even last up to a year without charging! Incredible.
Recommendations (First Aid):
If you don’t want to put together a first aid kit yourself, I would go with the Adventure Medical Backpacker Kit. It comes with a first aid manual for common backpacking/hiking injuries, trauma supplies, and medications, all contained in a package you can stuff in your bag.
8. Personal Items/Accessories
It’s the little things in life that make all the difference, wouldn’t you agree? When you’re out and about on a challenging trail, the small luxuries can change that frown upside down so definitely give it a thought about which “extras” you’d like to bring with you.
Little items such as toiletries, sunscreen, or insect repellent, to bigger and bulkier fair like an inflatable pillow or trekking poles are all good choices depending on what you’re doing and where you’re going.
How to Choose/Recommendations:
Certainly, this all comes down to your individual needs and preferences but I’ll list a few more items that might feel warranted for your exact quest.
Some of these take up valuable space and might seem crazy, but for a select few, they can’t travel without them. These are some of my favorites –
- Water filter – To ease your mind in areas with questionable water sources
- Pajamas – To feel like home
- Lightweight camp chair – To be extra fancy
- Hammock – If you want to make all of your backpacking friends jealous
- Camp mug – To enjoy that delicious cup of coffee or hot chocolate
- Swimsuit – In case you want to go for a quick dip in a river or lake
- Quick dry towel – To dry off afterward
- Journal/Notepad – To document your adventures!
- Inflatable pillow – So you don’t sleep like a mummy all night
- Sandals – To wear around camp instead of boots/shoes
- Solar panel charging station – For electronics
Unless you’re a cat, you’re going to need some way of looking around at night. The easiest and most common tool for this job is a headlamp. A flashlight or lantern will certainly “work” but keeping your hands free while digging through your backpack or wandering around camp is incredibly, how shall I put this, handy (see what I did there?).
How to Choose:
The key here is a rechargeable vs non-rechargeable model. Headlamp battery life is pretty decent so it’ll depend on how long you’ll be away from a power source, unless you bring your own. More of the main traits to look out for when picking a great headlamp are –
- Lumens – How much light is coming out
- Beam type – Flood (wide) or spot (narrow)
- Beam distance – How far away the object you’re aiming at is to illuminate
- Run Time – Battery life/Charge
- Weight – Only really noticeable on activity-specific models
- Brightness – The concentration of the light
- Water Resistance – How well it can function in the rain other wet conditions
My pick under the rechargeable umbrella is the Petzl Aria 2. It comes with plenty of power/brightness, an adjustable beam, red/blue/green light options, weighs under 4 oz (113 grams) and automatically adjusts light, depending on the conditions you’re in.
For the non-rechargeable variation, take a look at the Black Diamond Spot 400. It comes with both flood and spot beam types, red and white light, 100-meter beam distance, and can run up to 200 hours with 3 AAA batteries. A great choice for the average backpacker.
Some other mentionable brands include BioLite, Ledlenser, and Princeton Tec. If there’s one that catches your eye, read a review or two and you’ll be good to go!
10. Backpacking Stove and Cookware
Nothing beats a hot meal after carrying a heavy pack all day. I tried going the easy route with pre-cooked or pre-packaged meals but after about day 2, I was going crazy and desperately wanted something warm and delicious.
The solution to this is finding a great backpacking stove. To me, it’s absolutely crucial to sustain morale and to keep bellies nice and full.
How to Choose:
There are a few main types of fuel systems for camp stoves and choosing the correct version for your needs is key. Here’s a quick rundown of the pros and cons of each –
|Clean, fast, and easy to use
|Not great for extreme cold or high altitudes, bulky, tough to find abroad
|Easy to find fuel, refillable, works well in cold and high altitude conditions
|Complicated and expensive. Slower than canister stoves.
|Simple, small, lightweight, and cheap
|No flame control, not good in wet conditions
|Simple, lightweight, and cheap
|Dependent on natural fuel (wood/grass/twigs), no flame control, not good in wet conditions
|Simple, small, lightweight, and cheap
|No flame control, not good in wet conditions, limited burn time
For a very thorough article on all the advantages and disadvantages of any and all types of cook stoves, check out – How to choose a backpacking stove.
To keep things moving I’ll say all have uses but luckily, the most common and favored form of cookware is the canister. The majority of the hiking and backpacking world uses these. Unless you’ll be going to an extremely cold or isolated part of the world, I would stick with a canister stove.
The Jetboil flash cooking system is the fastest and easiest backpacking stove on the market. It’s an integrated system that’s great for boiling water for beverages or ready-to-eat meals. It clocks in at under 3 minutes and 30 seconds to boil a liter of water. Crazy fast!
If a priority is sustainability or you’ll be in very cold and high climates, then check out the MSR WhisperLite Shaker. It might take a few attempts to get the hang of, but you can depend on creating a flame in about any conditions.
Last, but certainly not least, are the fun little extras everybody needs for those unforeseen downtime moments. Traveling between treks, detours in schedules, or simply sitting around a campfire are typical situations where a good book or deck of cards will make a huge difference.
If you’re an extrovert like me, you might get by with just hanging out and chatting with fellow adventurers but if not, you should bring at least one distraction –
- Deck of cards
- Kindle or E-reader
- Pair of dice
- Mini chess/checkers board
- Travel games
- Music player of your choice
- Vocal games like 20 questions, I spy or would you rather?
- Hacky Sack
- Yo-Yo or other types of skill toys
I could go on and on but you get the idea. Pick something that you can either share with friends or work to get better at. You might be amazed how good you actually get when away from the common distractions of everyday life!
How to Choose/Recommendations:
This is of course all about what you like to do. I leave it up to you to figure it out. Pick something that’s durable or easily replaceable and small enough to fit inside your pack without taking up too much space.
Well, I guess that it’s! I hope you got something out of this incredibly long article and are all set with your backpacking checklist. As you get more and more into the fantastic hobby/lifestyle of backpacking, you’ll whittle down the contents of your bag to a perfect balance of necessity vs. weight.
Just remember to plan before you leave, research and get your hands on gear options, and choose fun or swanky items that can entertain while also suiting your individual needs and preferences. Happy backpacking, I’ll catch ya on the flip side!