Backpacking is an incredible way to connect with nature, exercise, and escape the craziness of civilization. But, before you can go backpacking, you’ve got to be prepared. If you aren’t, you’re essentially gambling with your life; backpacking is safe, but only with the right gear and the right mindset.. This comprehensive backpacking gear checklist will provide you with the basic information you need to start building your gear arsenal.
Let’s get started!
6 Types of Backpacking Gear: Stuff you need to bring
One of the biggest differences between backpacking and hiking is that you need a bunch of stuff, and you need to know how to use it. These are the 6 categories of backpacking gear:
- Pack and hiking gear: the stuff you need to carry your stuff, and hike safely/efficiently.
- Tent and sleep system: The stuff you need to keep your stuff safe and sleep soundly in your tent.
- Food, water, and cookware: The stuff you need to feed yourself.
- Clothing: The stuff you need to cover your… stuff.
- First aid and tools: The stuff you need to avoid mistakes and survive emergencies.
- Hygiene: The stuff you need to stay fresh and not get sick.
Backpack and Hiking Gear
You can’t go backpacking without a backpack – but what size and type of pack should you choose? There are two things you really need to focus on when buying your backpacking pack: size/volume and comfort.
- Size/volume: Packs are measured in liters, which tells you how much stuff they’re able to hold. For a 1-2 night trip, a 30-50 liter pack is perfect. 3-5 nights, you’re looking at anywhere between 50 and 80 liters. Longer than 5 nights means you probably need at least 75 liters of space, if not more.
- Comfort: Wearing a pack that doesn’t fit is the most effective way to ruin your trip and wind up at the doctor’s office when you get home. A poorly-fitted pack puts a ton of strain on your back, hips, and knees; the 25-40 pounds of gear you’re carrying need to be perfectly balanced in order to avoid injury. I recommend going to an outfitter and having someone help you find a pack that fits you correctly before you spend $200+ on one.
Footwear is almost as crucial as your pack. If you’ve got the wrong shoes on, you’re going to have a bad time. Fortunately, in today’s world there are tons of different and varied options that are appropriate for backpacking. Hiking boots and trail running shoes are the standard, but hiking sandals like Chacos and regular running shoes work perfectly, too.
As with your pack, there are two things to consider when choosing your backpacking shoes: comfort and trail-readiness.
- Comfort: Shoes that don’t fit will make you want to quit. If you haven’t hiked a few miles in your boots/shoes, make sure to do so before you leave. They need to be broken in, and you need to be 100% sure they won’t hurt your feet before you commit to them long-term.
- Trail-readiness: By this, I mean judging your footwear on a case-by-case basis. Running shoes work on most simple trails, but you can get yourself killed wearing them on a muddy or snowy trail. Rocky/gravel-filled trails can be annoying in running shoes as well, because rocks and sand get inside your shoes really easily.
Other footwear considerations
- Socks: In some scenarios, your socks are more important than your shoes. If they get wet, dirty, or are too warm/cold, your chances of having a bad time or even getting an injury go way up. I usually wear Darn Tough wool socks; I love the fit, the breathability, and the warmth provided by the wool.
- Snow gear: Microspikes are my go-to for most snow and ice situations, but that’s only because I don’t hike/backpack in places where I’d need crampons or hardcore mountaineering boots. If it’s going to be snowy, slushy, or icy, you need something on your feet to maintain traction and avoid injuries/falls. YakTrax Diamond Grip microspikes are what I use, and they’ve yet to let me down!
This is a take-it-or-leave-it item for many backpackers, myself included. Trekking poles are great for steep trails that are going to be hard on your knees, they’re great for balance, and they’re great tools for a variety of other purposes. Need a makeshift tent pole? Your trekking pole is perfect for that.
Tent and Sleep System
The term “sleep system” isn’t used super often, but it really is the best descriptor for this gear category. In order to sleep well on the trail, you truly do need a system of gear that will help you rest, relax, and recover. I’m looping tents into this category as well, even though they aren’t technically part of the sleep system. Excluding the tent, your sleeping system will weigh between 4 and 8 pounds, a big chunk of your total base weight. This makes your sleep system part of the Big 3: backpacking items that are crucial, but often heavier than everything else.
Anywho, here’s what you need to get your Z’s:
I’ll start by saying there are a ton of different tents, with different strengths, weaknesses, and features, that are all made for backpacking. Some people, like those who are into ultralight backpacking, sleep in the lightest, simplest tents possible, while others like to have a shelter that feels roomy, safe, and sturdy, even if it is made of nylon and aluminum. And, there are other people who bring nothing but a tarp and a tent pole to sleep under.
The tent you choose can be pretty much anything you like, so I won’t get too bogged down in the details. Instead, I’ll just share the most important considerations when selecting a tent, so you can find a tent that fits you best.
- Waterproof: This one goes without saying: if your backpacking tent can’t keep you dry overnight during light/moderate rain, it’s pretty much useless. The good news is that most backpacking tents can withstand light/moderate rain. Waterproof-ness is measured in mm ratings; a good mm rating for a tent body is 1500; a rainfly and footprint should be higher at 4000 or more.
- Breathable: Warmth and moisture can build up inside a tent very quickly, ruining your sleep with devastating effectiveness. Try to find a tent that is breathable by reading reviews. If you see a lot of people complaining about humidity, stay away. This is a lesson I learned the hard way, and while “go read reviews” isn’t groundbreaking advice, it is the best thing to do!
- Light (or at least light enough): Your tent shouldn’t weigh more than 6 0r 7 pounds in most cases. If you’re bringing a 4-person tent and sharing the weight with others, there’s little to worry about, but a heavy tent is just a drag. The heavier your tent is, the more tired you’ll be, and the more strain you’ll put on your knees and hips. My two-person tent weighs a hair over 6 pounds, and I plan on finding a lighter one soon.
- Compact: Packed volume is the specification you need to look for. This is where camping tents and backpacking tents diverge the most. One is made to sit in the trunk and be set up at a drive-in site; the other needs to pack down small enough that it can fit in a backpack. Before you settle on a tent, look up its volume and make sure it’s appropriate.
- Affordable for you: Here’s the deal – there’s little practical difference between a $125 tent and a $400 one for most people and most trips. Most of the time, the demands of your backpacking trip won’t be nearly enough to justify spending more money than you have. If you’ve got a few hundred to throw around, get that ultra-nice tent. If you don’t (I definitely don’t), know that a cheap backpacking tent is usually perfect anyway.
Choosing a sleeping bag can be a daunting task, because there are a ton of different things to know.
First off, the temperature ratings on sleeping bags, (30, 15, 0, etc, usually in Fahrenheit) don’t always tell you what’s comfortable. Most will give you a flat out answer as to what is comfortable, what is barely comfortable, and what is barely survivable, but not all. And, for the most part, it’s still hard to tell whether or not a bag’s temperature rating is sticking to the standards or just making it up!
Beyond that, there’s choosing between all the different materials (goose down, duck down, synthetic down, the list goes on), and understanding the meaning of “Fill Power“. Still, then, there are more things to consider, because no two sleeping bags are alike.
That said, a lot of the challenges can be overcome with intuition. You know better than anybody how you sleep. The best way to choose a sleeping bag is to look for reviews written by people of a similar size and weight to you; this will help you figure out whether or not the bag is a good fit.
Large, heavy, hot sleepers like me won’t learn anything reading a review written by a small, light, cold sleeper. By understanding what kind of sleeper you are, and finding reviews written by similar people, you can pretty much guarantee you’ll wind up with a sleeping bag you like!
These products aren’t nearly as complicated, but they’re just as important. Your sleeping pad has two purposes:
- Insulate your body against the ground, which gets way colder than you’d think
- Keep your body off the ground, which is much harder than your back would like
There are two types of sleeping pads: closed-cell foam pads and inflatable foam pads. Both are great, and they both have their own fans. I use an inflatable Therm-a-Rest sleeping pad, and I’ve got no complaints. A sleeping pad is not nearly as good as a mattress, but it makes sleeping possible.
The main discussion on sleeping pads is that of R-value, a measurement that tells you how effective something is at keeping you warm. There’s a lot more to R-value than that, but, for most backpackers, it’s enough to know that higher R-values equal higher insulation.
If you’re backpacking in cold weather, or you’re an especially cold sleeper, an R-value of 5 might be a good starting point. For three-season backpackers or hot sleepers (I consider myself both), somewhere between 2.5 and 4.5 should be comfortable for you.
You may love your memory foam pillow, but it’s heavy and bulky and has no place on the trail. Backpacking pillows are designed to recreate as much of the comfort of a real pillow, while still being small enough to pack. It’s not a perfect balance, and I’d be lying if I said I was in love with my backpacking pillow, but it’s so much better than nothing. And, it’s a lot better than lugging a giant pillow up a mountain trail.
Again, as with many of the items in your sleeping system, the most important thing to look for is comfort. If it feels good to you, it’s a buy; if it doesn’t, don’t fool yourself! Head to your local outfitter and figure out what you like; then, you can buy in the shop or head home and buy online with more research.
Alternative: Hammock, underquilt, rainfly, and pillow
Hammock camping is a great way to keep your gear list light, functional, and comfortable. It’s also a minimally invasive way to camp, provided you are extremely careful about which trees you choose to hang your hammock from. Hammock camping is environmentally-conscious in theory, but poor tree choice can damage sensitive habitats.
All that to say: if you choose to hammock camp, do so responsibly and you’re in for a world of comfort and serenity!
Music and Melatonin: your sleep system’s secret weapons
This may not seem like it belongs on a backpacking gear checklist, but after reading a bunch of advice on Reddit, I brought melatonin and a set of headphones on my last backpacking trip. It was a game-changer. I was out like a light, every single night!
If you have any doubts at all about your ability to sleep well, bring along some melatonin, and maybe some music/white noise to help you doze off. There are so many reasons that your sleep might suffer – weather, discomfort, the weirdly vulnerable shelter you’re using – that it’s better to be prepared.
Food, Water, and Cookware
Ya gotta eat. That may be the slogan for Rally’s, but it’s damn true. Fueling the right way makes backpacking so much better. Here are some of the basics of eating on the trail:
- Increase your calories: Unless you spend 6+ hours on your feet, sweating, during a normal day, you are going to need 500-2,000 more calories than normal. If you’re trying to lose weight, you can keep your calories the same, but expect to feel fatigued and groggy by the end of a trip if you aren’t eating as many calories as you burn.
- Protein, carbs and sodium matter: All nutrients are important, but protein and carbs are life. Sodium is life or death, especially when it’s hot, as your body needs it to function and you are going to lose a ton of it to sweat. Make sure you get plenty of each of these, to make sure you feel strong, hydrated, and energized to tackle the demands of the day.
- Multivitamins are great: Depending on the types of food you bring, there’s a strong chance you won’t be getting as many vitamins as you need. Bring along some multivitamins to make sure you’re still getting the nutrients that aren’t provided by granola bars and dehydrated meals.
- Dehydrated food is the best: I’m not a gourmet chef, and, statistically, you probably aren’t either. If you still want a delicious, hot meal when backpacking, dehydrated meal kits are your best friend. You can have chicken alfredo one night, jambalaya for lunch the next day, and go to sleep full of delicious Pad Thai the next. For me, it’s the way to go.
The easiest way to make sure you’ve got enough water is to get yourself a reservoir that sits in side your backpack. I use a three-liter reservoir from Gregory, and it lasts me nearly a full day of hiking before it needs to be refilled. I also bring a 32 oz. Nalgene bottle that I use for extra water/drink mixes.
Speaking of refilling, let’s move on to how you will find fresh water once you’ve gone through what you started with:
There’s just no way you can bring enough water for an entire trip, unless you’re some sort of human camel who just doesn’t drink water that often. That’s why an essential part of your backpacking checklist should be some sort of water purification device. For most people, that device looks something like this:
This is a basic LifeStraw backpacking filter, and you can products exactly like it at any outdoor retailer. All you do is dip the bag into a stream, lake, or pond and let gravity do the rest. After a few minutes, your entire reservoir will be filled with clean, potable water.
The blue bag at the top is filled with water from a stream. It flows down the tube, through the filter at the bottom, and straight into my resevoir. From empty to full, it takes about 4 minutes.
Most backpacking foods don’t require cooking or prepping, and the only time you’ll really need a flame is if you’re bringing dehydrated meals or you want to be a backcountry chef. This means that you probably don’t need any complex cookware, either.
Dehydrated meals and coffee/tea only require boiling water, which is easily accomplished with a light, compact backpacking stove like the Jetboil Flash. You can boil water in under 2 minutes, pour it in your dehydrated meal pouch, and boil another cup for coffee while you wait for the food to be ready.
If you do want to get more complex with your cooking, there are lots of backpacking-specific cookware sets you can buy, like this one from MSR:
Each piece of the set nests inside the others, which makes it possible to bring enough cookware to make a truly amazing meal no matter how deep into the woods you are.
Going backpacking in bear country? You’re probably going to need a bear canister – a tough plastic container that bears can’t get into. Pack all your food, toiletries, and scented items inside, and place the canister at least 200 feet away from your campsite at night. Bears likely won’t smell anything inside the caniser, and if they do, they won’t be able to break it open.
Bear canisters are required at many national parks, recreation areas, and state forests in bear country. You can buy one for yourself if you are going to be backpacking frequently, but many ranger stations have them available to check out for free. I guess park authorities figured buying a bunch of bear canisters is a lot cheaper than rescuing people from bear encounters over and over!
Clothing: What is best for backpacking?
I won’t spend too long on clothing, because so much of your packing decisions depend on where you’re going, what time of year it is, what feels comfortable to you, and how much money you’ve got to drop on performance clothing.
So, instead, I’ll just share 4 clothing tips that apply to most backpacking scenarios:
- Cotton is rotten: Cotton clothing might be comfortable at home, but it holds water and sweat, takes forever to dry out, and just plain stinks after a long day of hiking.
- Wool, linen, and polyester are your friends: These fabrics are breathable, keeping moisture away from your skin and helping you feel cool all day long, even when you’re sweating profusely.
- Cover up, even when it’s hot: Long pants and long sleeves are often better at keeping you cool than shorts and t-shirts, as long as they’re made from the right materials, when hiking in hot temps. A long-sleeve white t-shirt, made from wool or breathable polyester, keeps you protected from the sun and even helps your sweat cool you more effectively.
- Layers, layers, layers: When choosing between one item and another, think of its potential for layering. Some of the jackets you own are great for layering; others are not. The better you’re able to layer your clothing, the better you’ll pack and the better your options are for handling changes in the weather.
First Aid Kit, Survival Gear, and Tools
A lot of these items are also the ones that backpackers forget most often. For example, on my last backpacking trip, I forgot to bring a flashlight – a big rookie mistake that was only mitigated because I remembered my headlamp. Long story short: this is an important part of the backpacking checklist, because it includes life-saving gear that you don’t need until you really need it.
First aid kit
Backpacking first aid kits are very, very important, but they’re not hard to find. Most people use a pre-packaged kit like the one pictured below, but others choose to build their own. No matter which direction you go, your first aid kit should include the following at a minimum:
- Pain relief
- Anti-itch cream
- Something for dealing with Poison Ivy
That’s a very, very incomplete list, but those four things are probably going to be used the most. Having a first aid kit and knowing how to use it is one of the first backpacking skills you should have.
Knife, Hatchet, or both
There’s not much to say about knives and hatchets other than that they are incredibly useful. Cooking, setting up camp, gathering firewood, improvising tools, even first-aid: a good knife can do it all. Hatchets aren’t quite as versatile, but if you’ve got space in your pack, you might as well bring one.
Headlamp and Flashlight
Another item on your backpacking checklist that goes without saying. You have to be able to see clearly when the sun goes down; a nice headlamp and a flashlight are all you need to do just that.
You can also bring a lantern for to light your tent and campsite, but they can be pretty bulky; I usually leave the lantern at home unless I think I’ll really need it. A bright headlamp and flashlight are more versatile than a lantern, and with a couple of spare batteries you’ll never have to worry about running out of light.
Even if you’re backpacking somewhere that fires are not allowed, you should still bring one. If you or someone in your party gets injured or lost, being able to start a fire can save your life in two ways. First, it can keep you warm enough to survive until you’re found, and second, the smoke makes you much, much easier to find.
That said, starting a fire in a place where they’re banned is a pretty horrible idea, so you should only use your firestarter in these areas when it’s truly life and death. If you do have to start a fire to stay alive, be incredibly cautious about how you do it.
You’ll probably never need bear spray, but it’s something that should always be part of your backpacking gear checklist. Bear spray is essentially pepper spray’s big brother, and it’s the safest, most effective way to survive encounters with bears, moose, and mountain lions.
Just like your knife, you’ll never run out of ideas for how to use rope on a backpacking trip. Grab a couple of 50-100 foot lengths of cord, toss them in your pack, and they’ll be there when you need them. You might never use the rope, but it’s just so versatile that it never makes sense to leave without it.
Personal Locator Beacon (PLB)
The PLB is one of the most important inventions of the 20th century, at least for backpackers, hikers, and people who live and work far from civilization. A personal locator beacon is essentially just a GPS with a panic button that alerts your selected contacts and authorities if you’re in trouble and need help.
Some PLBs are small and only include a couple of buttons that let you send an “I”m okay” or “I’m not okay” update, along with a few pre-programmed messages. Others are fully-functional GPS systems that you can use to navigate with and send fully customized messages the same way you’d send a text.
Garmin’s InReach product line is the most popular these days; I rented an inReach Mini on my last backpacking trip that was shipped to my hotel two days before my backpacking trip started.
This one’s more of a take-it-or-leave-it, but mosquitos are pretty much everywhere, and they’d love to take a little bite out of you and let all their friends know about the buffet.
No running water, no bathrooms, no showers. These are the items you need to bring backpacking if you want to feel fresh and clean (and avoid the myriad illnesses that come with unsanitary living).
A couple of rolls in your pack should be more than enough; if you want to save space, you can pull out the cardboard tube before you leave. Alternatively, you can bring a portable bidet; I love bidets, but most North Americans aren’t used to them, so it’s up to you!
Face wipes, wipes for your hands, and wipes to take an improvised “shower” on the trail. Bring them all, use them all, feel fresh and clean all day long.
Shower stuff/shower approximation
If you’ve got a little extra money and a little extra room in your pack, you can get a portable shower. Backpacking-focused companies like Nemo have developed models that are as portable and packable as they can be, and you might have room for one in your pack!
Most of them use a foot pump to pressurize the water, and are also made with a material that heats up the water when you leave it out in the sun. A small nozzle completes the shower system, allowing you to use up to 5 gallons of water to clean yourself and your gear.
These portable showers aren’t cheap, and they arent that packable; if you can justify it, you’ll be glad you brought it, but they’re just too expensive and bulky for most backpacking trips.
(Because expertise matters, my wife wrote this section)
Personal hygiene is very important for a comfortable and enjoyable trip. If you happen to be in the unlucky situation of getting your period on your backpacking trip- being prepared is a must!
Your choice of feminine hygenic products is definitely a personal one, and the idea that bears will smell your blood and be lured to you is anything but an exaggeration (thanks for that one, Anchorman). However, all human fluids can attract animals and bugs so it’s important pack out all used femine products/tolietries.
The most hygenic and convienant method of feminine protection in my personal opinion would be the menstrual cup. I use a menstrual cup and my favorite thing about is it is you only need to empty it every 12 hours, which is ideal especially for someone on the trail and exerting a lot of energy. Another thing that’s great about the menstral cup is it is reusable so you won’t need to pack out any trash! I wish I would’ve started using a mentrual cup years ago, it really is so convienant and once you get use to I would argue its the most comfortable!
If you prefer using pads or tampons, making sure you have a trash bag to pack out is a must! Getting your period on a backpacking trip is definitely a bummer, but it doesn’t have to dampen the mood at all if you come prepared!
Bags for Packing Out Trash
Almost without exception, you will need to “pack out” your trash, including used toilet paper, wipes, and other hygiene products (you’re rethinking that bidet now, right? way better than carrying used toilet paper!). Many outfitters sell bags designed specifically for packing out, but you can also use sandwich bags and freezer bags.
Putting your trash in one bag, sealing it tight, and then putting that into a second or even a third bag is a good way to make sure contaminants don’t spread around and you can pack out your trash without feeling so grossed out all the time.
Packing out trash and toilet paper is one of the most unfortunate realities of backpacking, but there’s no other way to make nature accessible for people without ruining it.
Other things you might bring backpacking
Now that we’ve reached the end of the necessary considerations for your backpacking checklist, it’s time to talk about some of the extras and luxuries you might want to bring.
Unless you really, really know what you’re doing with the cameras on your phone, you’ll never be able to capture the scenery exactly the way your eyes are seeing it. A decent quality digital camera and a couple of lenses – either owned or rented – will get you the photographic results you’re looking for.
Lightweight camping chairs and stools like the one pictured below are surprisingly packable, eay to strap to the outside of your backpack. If you don’t fancy sitting on tree stumps, logs, or in the dirt, you might want to think about grabbing one and strapping it on your pack, weight be damned!
The hiking boots/trail running shoes you’ve had on all day are going to be really getting on your nerves by the time you’ve got camp set up. Camp shoes – whether they’re cheap sandals, indoor/outdoor slippers, or just a pair of flip-flops – help your feet breathe and recover so that you can enjoy your time at camp and get ready for the next day.
Stuff sacks are the backpacking equivalent of Space Bags. They’re not the same at all, though; it’s just that they help you make things as small as they can possibly be. Putting your clothes, sleeping bag, etc into a stuff sack makes packing much easier.
Most stuff sacks are relatively affordable, and they can be found just about anywhere. If you’re concerned you might not be able to fit everything you need, a couple of stuff sacks should be able to help.
It’s always going to vary, but the general advice is to keep your pack weight between 10% and 20% of your body weight. This prevents you from overpacking and exhausting yourself, as well as protecting your joints. Read our guide to learn how to measure your backpacking weight.
There’s no golden answer, but you should plan on doubling the amount of water you drink on a day at home. For most people, that probably equals between 2 and 5 liters per day, depending on the weather and the intensity of the hiking.
You should avoid wearing a very heavily scented deodorant, but you don’t have to forgo it completely. A neutrally-scented deodorant should be fine; strong scents are iffy because they attract insects and other animals.
1. Jewelry and valuables
2. Cotton clothing (at least, not much)
3. Perfumes, colognes and other scented sprays
4. laptops and tablets (unless they’re replaceable)
Preparation and proper equipment are two essential backpacking safety skills that are heavily affected by the quality of your gear. If you’ve got the right gear, and you know how to use it, you can ensure your safety on any backpacking trip!