What’s the first thing we think about when planning a backpacking trip?
It should be “What’s the route like?” “What’s the trail like?” “What’s the weather forecast?”; but if you are anything like me (a gearhead and classic overthinker) the first thought is always about what I’m bringing.
It could be an hour-long day hike a mile down the road from my house or a week-long leg-buster up in the mountains of New Hampshire, I’m always thinking about my gear and packing list.
But for a beginning hiker or backpacker, the process of planning and packing gear can be one of the most confusing and difficult parts of the process. In the world of hiking and backpacking today, there are literally thousands of different gear brands, all with different uses, styles, sizes, and functions – enough options to make your head spin.
From that chaos though, there are three huge pieces of advice to make your next (or first) trip into the outdoors as easy and painless as possible: Keep things simple. Do your research before buying. Don’t overthink or overpack.
With this guide, you’ll learn what items you’ll absolutely need to backpack and camp safely.
Note: This guide only covers backpacking and camping gear, we’ll discuss clothing and food in a future article.
What should I bring on my backpacking trip?
It’s an easy question, with a lot of answers. The simplest answer is that it depends on where you’re going, what the climate and weather are like, and what you want to get out of the trip.
But the first thing you need to worry about is what people in the hiking and backpacking world refer to as The Big Three: Your backpack, sleep system (sleeping bag and sleeping pad or hammock system and under quilt) and your shelter.
The Big Three – Backpack, shelter, and sleep system
These items will normally be your heaviest items (not including food and water), the most expensive items, and beyond all of that, they will be the pieces of gear that will determine whether your trip is enjoyable or not.
My biggest piece of advice with these three items (Backpack, shelter, and sleep system) is to do your research (see the next section), test out items that seem like a good fit, and buy the best quality items you can afford. In the world of hiking and backpacking it’s not always necessary to buy the newest, most expensive items, but for your big three items, trying to save a few bucks by going with a lower quality item can come back to bite you out in the field.
Cook System – Stove, pot, utensil, fuel, cup, or bowl
I’ll tell you right now that if you’re doing any hiking, you’re going to get hungry. So, you’re going to need to cook and eat.
Luckily, this area is where you’re going to find the cheapest gear and a lot of tried and tested options to choose from.
For 1 to 2 people going out into the backcountry for just a few days, my personal suggestion is a JetBoil stove and cook system. The JetBoil combines your stove, pot, bowl, and fuel storage into one portable package that can easily be packed into a bag. JetBoil also makes larger size options for larger group sizes.
For utensils, cups and bowls don’t overthink things, there are many lightweight options available.
Protection from the Elements – Rain gear, warm jacket, rainfly or tarp, pack cover or liner, gloves, hat, scarf
Like The Big Three items, this is an area that can make or break your backpacking experience. Regardless of where you’re going or what the weather forecast is, these items will need to be on your packing list each time you head out on the trail.
I’ve seen hikers in the summer use simple ponchos and fleece jackets to stay dry, and personally, I have nothing against either of those options (I did my entire Thru-Hike with an REI Fleece). But when it comes down to my warmth and dryness, I don’t take any chances.
For your Rain Gear, look for jackets that combine water resistance breathability. You shouldn’t expect your rain gear to keep you perfectly dry in all circumstances, especially not if you’re wearing it while hiking. But jackets like the REI Co-op Groundbreaker and REI Co-op Rainier are great for staving off the elements and insulating.
Unless you’re really expecting a monsoon or extremely low temperatures, don’t bother with rain pants. If you are really worried about your bottom half getting soaked, you can always make yourself an improvised rain skirt out of a thick trash compactor bag.
For your Warm Jacket, we suggest either a down or fleece jacket (depending on the temperature your are expecting). Both have advantages and disadvantages. For example, down jackets should never be allowed to get wet, but provide huge amounts of warmth; fleece jackets are much more tolerant to wetness but need to be layered with other clothing items for peak warmth.
Rainfly and tarps should be covered in the shelter section of this guide with your big three, but it’s always good to double-check that your shelter has a waterproof covering of some type that fits correctly.
Pack Covers and Liners are how you’re going to keep water from infiltrating your backpack (very important) and all your nice warm/dry gear. Pack covers go on the outside of your pack and are sold in a wide variety of sizes. Get one that fits your pack and doesn’t break the bank. The pack liner, like the name implies, goes inside your pack and is the last line of defense for keeping your stuff dry. A pack liner can be something as simple as a big plastic trash compactor bag. Seriously!
Warmth Accessories like a wool hat, gloves and scarves are a great call regardless of the weather. Please bring them with you and use them.
Tools and Equipment – Headlamp, first aid kit, water filter, bear prevention
This last section is basically the junk drawer of everything else you’ll need to stay alive and backpack successfully on a short to medium-distance trip into the backcountry. There are other things you might want to bring along, but these items will be a baseline of what you’ll want.
A Headlamp is vital. You’ve got to be able to see and having your hands free is especially great in the backcountry. Choose a headlamp that has a good battery life, plenty of lumens and a comfortable band.
First Aid Kit. Really it should come as no surprise that the outdoors are dangerous, but I’ve seen more people than I can count rushing out into the woods without a thought towards what will happen to them if they’re injured. A first aid kit, like all the gear you’ll buy, will change as you use it and will have to be restocked regularly. But to start, pick out a basic kit with medications, bandages, and plenty of moleskins. After you’ve bought it, open your kit up all the way and learn how to use each piece. If you don’t know how to use it, it’s not much use, right?
Water Filter. When you’re hiking, water is life, so having access to good clean water is a big priority. In the backcountry, the way we accomplish this priority is by filtering or treating water taken from natural sources like mountain streams (our personal favorite), creeks, rivers, and pools of water.
Like nearly everything else we’ve talked about in this guide, water filters come in all shapes and sizes. But to make your life easier, we have three recommended types that you should consider. The first is the Sawyer Squeeze Water Filter, which attaches to a water bottle or bag for easy filtration on the go. The second is the Platypus GravityWorks Water Filter System, which is more expensive but can filter much larger quantities for larger groups. The third option is Aqua Mira Treatment & Purification Drops, which are used to chemically treat water and act as a lightweight alternative to heavier water filters.
Bear Prevention. When heading out into the backcountry, you are bound to enter bear country at some point. The best way to deter dangerous situations with wildlife (bears), is to prevent the situations before they happen. You do this by either placing your food and other “smellable” items in a sealed container, called a Bear Canister, or by hanging it from a tree where it can’t be reached by animals, which we call a Bear Bag Hang. For the Bear Canister method, we suggest the BearVault BV500. For the Bear Bag Hang method, we suggest using an REI Co-op Roll-Top Dry Bag, 100 feet of 550 Paracord, and a small to medium-sized carabiner.
Other Items to Consider
In addition to the items outlined above, you should also consider these items as well.
- Knife or multi-tool – Don’t go overboard thinking about a knife, but it’s always good to have something along.
- Trowel, toilet paper, and hand sanitizer – Everybody poops. 100% needed to use the bathroom correctly in the backcountry.
- Matches and a lighter – To start your stove and campfires.
- Sit pad – For sitting on logs, rocks, and around the campfire.
- Camp Shoes – It’s nice to be able to get out of your boots at the end of a long hike.
- Maps and Navigation Gear – How will you know where you’re going without it? Always make sure you have two ways of navigating.