Backpacking Essentials- What to Bring?
Explore in Earnest
There are few activities that provide as much freedom and access as backpacking outdoors. With a single pack you can explore the bottom of the Grand Canyon, the top of Mount Whitney, and countless destinations that are otherwise off limits when you're tethered to roads or a hotel room. You're carrying your kitchen and bedroom everywhere you go, and you'll realize how little you really need to explore new places comfortably.
But going backpacking for the first time can be intimidating- how much should you bring, and which equipment works best? Traveling with too much or the wrong type of gear can really weigh you down, making what could be an awesome trek into a grueling sludge. On the other hand, not carrying enough equipment be dangerous, or just make your trip a lot less comfortable (Yes, Gary, I'm talking about that time you forgot to bring bring wet wipes).
Although variables like trip length, weather, and the availability of food and water will change what you pack, we have found that our core equipment stays the same about 90% of the time. We aim to keep all our base kits at less than 18 pounds, which allows you to have a comfortable camp without weighing you down along the way. We've refined our gear over thousands of miles of backpacking, and below is a quick rundown of our favorite items. Although a lot of the gear can be expensive, check out ExperienceGear to rent some of the gear if you're starting out or don't go backpacking too often, and we offer the items in blue either as rentals or as freebies with your order.
Backpack: the size and style of your backpack will usually depend on how much gear you like to carry, and mulit-day packs usually range between 45 liters to 75 liters and 1 to 10 pounds. For most trips, a 65 liter backpack will do just fine, and we like carrying something under 5 pounds with hip-belt pockets, a hydration sleeve, and a ventilation system for your back to maximize comfort. We really like Deuter, Gregory, and Osprey packs for weight and versatility.
Tent- The ultimate home away from home! Most tents you see are 3 season tents, but most are not designed for backpacking because they're heavy and take up too much space. A good backpacking tent provides shelter, durability, and space at less than 4 pounds for a 1 -person tent. There is no substitute for a quality tent, and beware of cheap knock-off that will break down or leave you soaking from condensation. Brands we use at ExperienceGear: Big Agnes, Sierra Designs, and MSR.
Sleeping Bag- Sleeping bags vary based on your trip, but a good 30 degree rated bag can take you most places comfortably outside of winter. Because they're lofty by design, normal sleeping bags tend to take up a lot of space, but down bags are notoriously good at providing a good warmth to volume ratio (but also hard to dry and clean). We started using a sleeping bag liner for more temperature control with our bag, and liners also help make your bag feel more like a bed. We suggest trying to stay under 4 pounds. Brands we use: Mountain Hardware, MSR, Nemo, Enlightened Equipment.
Sleeping Pad- As side-sleepers, we understand the misery of sleepless nights on a cold ground, but with the right system you'll sleep as good as you do at home. We generally like self inflating pads, as some of inflatable pads can feel like sleeping on a pool raft, but it's usually up to your preference. Just make sure your pad has an r-value (warmth rating) of at least 2.5. We try to keep our pads under 1.5 pounds. Brands we use include Thermarest and Sea to Summit.
Cookset- Most of your meals usually only require boiling water for coffee, oatmeal, and freeze dried food, and you'll quickly discover how annoying doing dishes becomes in the backcountry (see our meal blog for some more info on food). For just boiling liquid, we use a pocket Rocket Stove with simple 750 ml titanium pot for boiling water, eating, and drinking whiskey (mmmmm). If we want to grill some trout or pancakes along the way, we use the top our our pot which doubles as a pan. The Pocket Rocket and similar stoves are run on disposable propane/isobutane tanks, and a typical 8 oz. tank will last a person between 3-7 days depending on your system, altitude, and cooking frequency.
Hiking Poles- I distinctively remember as a kid thinking how goofy and unnecessary hiking poles seemed, then I used a pair and I've never gone back. In addition to preserving your joints, hiking poles literally help propel you forward as a quadruped, entering you into the ranks of the noble cheetah! While most hiking poles do the trick, make sure you get carbide tips and try to stay under 2 pounds per pair. Our favorite brand hands-down is Black Diamond.
Headlamp- Is it weird I recently packed mine for a friend's wedding? Headlamps will become your next best friend if you haven't used one already, and we recommend getting one with at least 150 lumens and waterproof. Don't forget a spare set of batteries too (usually AAA).
Water Filter- Always clean your water, as it's simply not worth the risk given how easy filtration systems are these days. There are a lot of different methods, ranging from iodine tablets to large gravity filtration systems. For your first trip, we recommend a small filter like the Sawyer (more info in a our blog post). It can handle a lot of volume and filters out over 99% of the demons from your water (remaining 1% demon is perfectly safe). Note that nearly all common filtration systems do no filter out all chemicals, so you should still be conscious of where your water comes from (don't get water near a coal mine).
First Aid Kit- A base kit would include bandages, pain medication, tape, anti-histamines, blister pads, and antiseptic, but the actual items you carry should depend on the number in your group and how prepared you want to be. All ExperienceGear kits come with some complimentary First Aid Kits to get you started.
Water Bottle/Bladder- We now use a few 1 liter Smart Water Bottles, but we use a 3 liter Camel Pak with an extra water bladder if in drier conditions. Check out our blog post here for more information on water.
Weather obviously factors in big here, but we feel confident from 45 degrees to 100 degrees with the items listed below. We usually pack the same clothes for a 3 week trip as we do for a 3 day hike. Stay clear of cotton so you minimize moisture and odor, and try to have clothes that provide sun protection and ventilation!
- Boots/Trailrunners- wars have been waged over which is better. We suggest boots for first time backpackers. Don't forget to get at least a size larger than usual to account for bulky socks, walking downhill, and foot swell!
- 3 pairs tall wool hiking socks- (1 for hiking, 1 for bed, 1 for backup)
- 3 pairs wicking underwear- Polyester/spandex works best
- Convertible hiking pants- zip off the bottoms for sweet breezy times
- Long Underwear- the tighter the fit, the better (and sillier!) to keep warmth in
- Wicking longsleeved t-shirt- have the option to roll up the sleeves if it gets hot
- Wicking longsleeved hiking shirt- button down polyester shirts with ventilation in back work best
- Mid-layer- a wool quarter zip works great
- Insulated Jacket- we love down because it's warm and compresses easily
- Raincoat- if there's any rain on horizon always bring a proper shell, but you can just bring a cheap poncho if rain is highly unlikely
Bathroom business instills fear in some first time backpackers, but the process is typically easy and sanitary (and dare I say satisfying!). Always check the rules where you're going because some people allow you to bury waste and paper while others require you to pack it out. Our gear provides for both scenarios:
- Trowel- small shovel used for burying human waste, and also satisfies many requirements for campfires
- Toilet Paper/Wet Ones- we usually opt for dried out wet ones and re-hydrate them to reduce weight
- Ziplock Bags- these can be used to carry out paper if necessary , and we double bag most trash anyway. Ziplocks are also great for cooking and eating (more on that later), and they're one of the most versatile accessories you can add to your kit
Plan for at least 3,000 calories a day, so go with foods with a high calorie-to-weight ratio (go nuts!). Food is a topic within itself, and check out our blog for more info.
- Map- I use my phone for GPS on airplane mode, but always bring a hard copy of a map
- Compass- same idea as above, and learn how to use it prior to your trip
- Mini-Bic lighter- Get a pink or red one for better visibility
- Waterproof Matches- lighters break, and always make sure you have an extra fire source.
- Hand Sanitizer- Next best thing to washing your hands, and it can double as fuel top start your fire in a pinch
- Knife- You'll be amazing by how much you don't use a knife while backpacking, so we suggest something small,sharp, and simple
- Duct Tape/Patch Kit- just a few feet will usually do, and we include it with all our kits
- Pillow- While you can sleep on a bundle of extra clothes or your hands, you can also eat soup with a fork. We think a lightweight pillow has been a great addition to our sleep set-up, and you can get a good, inflatable pillow or compressible pillow that weighs less than half a pound.
- Phone & Charging Cable- We use our phone for navigation by downloading the maps beforehand and putting in on airplane mode (my phone lasts about 6 days on one charge dimmed and on airplane mode ). It also doubles as a camera, flashlight, and jukebox.
- Spork- Use it to eat, stir, and cook with. We suggest a long one to reach into your food bags
- Sunscreen- honestly, your primary protection from the sun should be clothing, not sunscreen, but light bounces and works in mysterious ways. Always bring sunscreen or risk spoiling a good campfire with a sunburn.
- Sunglasses- master how to take them off while looking cool too
- Lipbalm- why is this Burt guy so possessive of his bees?
- Toiletries- toothbrush, toothpaste, and medications
- Bug Spray- we like deet, but I'll skip the deetails
- Extra Gas- make sure you have extra fuel on hand. We usually use a pocket rocket or something similar, so we use isobutane 4 and 8 oz canisters
- Bear Canister- this may not be optional depending on where you're going, as many places require them. Bears are rarely a safety concern in most of the US (Alaska/Montana, different story), but the canisters help keep them from going through human food
- Mosquito Net- weighs next to nothing but will be treasured if the no see-ums or mosquitoes come out. Can also be used for fishing in streams.
- External Battery- used to recharge phone and headlamp if compatible. For a week+ hike we carry a 10,000 mAh device
- GPS Messenger- often more valuable to your family who want to know you're ok, but can provide an extra level of safety
- Pack Cover- some folks simply carry an extra trash bag, but we nearly always carry some type of cover since most backpacks are not waterproof
- Camp Soap- Dr. Bronners usually works fine, but keep in mind things like runoff and don't use it directly in lakes or streams
There are other items you may bring based on trip type, weather, and your equipment preferences, but the items above should suit most scenarios for backpacking. Please let us know if this was helpful or if there's anything else we could cover in greater detail!