If you’re brand new to backpacking, or an experienced hiker looking to lighten your load and revamp your backpacking gear, you’ve come to the right place! I’ll lay out the basic backpacking gear items every overnight hiker should have, some packing tips and a few luxury items you might want to bring along if you can spare the weight 😉
For the complete backpacking gear checklist, including all safety gear, small extras and even what hiking clothes to pack – be sure to download the Backpacking Gear Checklist PDF Guide for free above. Now onto the basics…
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Essential Backpacking Gear
- Backpacking backpack: (Obviously!) Most 3-season, warm-season backpackers will want a 45-65 liter backpack with an internal frame, or no frame if you’re going ultralight. 45 liters is a little on the small side, but if you’re buying all ultralight gear or only going backpacking in very warm weather, which calls for a more compact sleeping bag, less bulky clothes, possibly no stove or fuel, you could get away with a smaller pack. Be sure to also grab a pack cover, if your pack doesn’t come with one, or at least use a contractor bag to line your pack and keep your stuff dry. Learn more about choosing a backpacking pack here.
- Tent, tarp, hammock or other shelter: Even if there are shelters along the way, always pack some sort of personal shelter for yourself, just in case you end up stuck camping between shelters, a shelter is full, under maintenance or closed due to wildlife activity. There are lots of options here from free standing tents, tarp tents, ultralight tarps, backpacking hammocks or even bivies. Learn more about choosing a backpacking shelter here.
- Sleeping pad: If you’ll be sleeping on the ground, you definitely want a sleeping pad! The first, and arguably most important, purpose of a sleeping pad is to insulate you from the cold ground and help your body heat keep you warmer at night. You can tell how ‘insulated’ a pad is by it’s R-value. R-values range from 1-11, with 1 being the least insulated and 11 being the most insulated. Most warmer season campers will be fine with a pad with a 3-5 R-value rating. The second purpose of a sleeping pad is to keep you comfy of course. If you’re a side sleeper, you may want a thicker inflatable pad vs a thinner closed cell foam pad.
- Food storage system: You’ll need a way to safely store your food and all scented items at least 200 feet away from your sleeping area to prevent unwanted visitors in the night – like bears, raccoons, mice, etc. I like to use a 13 liter waterproof stuff sack, with all my items separated into scentproof plastic bags inside, and then hang it with 50-60 feet of paracord using the PCT style method. If you really can’t handle the PCT style hang, consider using a bear resistant Ursack instead, again, with the scentproof bags inside to help decrease the appeal to bears. Some places, like National Parks, require a hard sided bear canister instead since there are less user errors with these – watch out – when I’ve been backpacking in Rocky Mountain National Park, a ranger physically checked our bear canister on the trail and would have fined us if we didn’t have it. So, yes, I know they’re heavy AF, and kinda expensive, but you really do need one if the powers that be say so.
- Water treatment: Unfortunately, all natural water sources in the US should be considered contaminated with things like Giardia, E. Coli, Cryptosporidium, or other bacteria or disease, and thoroughly treated before drinking. You can do this with a water filter (there are many kinds from pumps to squeeze to gravity filters,) a chemical treatment like chlorine dioxide (Aquamira) iodine, or bleach in a pinch, or with a UV light designed for water treatment. The CDC actually now recommends for the best chance at killing everything in there to use two different methods. For example, using a filter then also treating with Aquamira because while unlikely, it is possible for some bacteria to slip through your filter so then they would be zapped by the chlorine dioxide. And vice versa, depending on water conditions, chemical treatment might not be efficient enough to kill everything, but by using two different methods, you’re much more likely to cover all your bases.
- 2 1-liter water bottles plus 1 4-liter bladder/bag: Don’t panic, it will be very unlikely that you’ll need to carry all 6 liters of water at once, that would get very heavy. On a typical hiking day, with water sources along the way, I carry 1-2 liters in my water bottles while I’m walking. Once I get to camp at night, I like to fill up my water bottles and larger bladder/bag so I have enough water to drink and cook for the evening, cook breakfast the next morning, and hopefully have enough to just start hiking without having to fill up again. It’s also good to have the ability to carry more than 2 liters while hiking, just in case you have a long way between water sources or there’s not a water source at your campsite and you need to stock up. I also love the tiny caps with the small ‘squirt valve’ that comes on most dromedary bags – that makes it real easy to actually wash your hands or dishes with “running water” or if you ever need to irrigate a wound or wash debris out of an eyeball 😉
- Cook set: While some backpackers only cold soak their meals and don’t carry a stove or fuel, most hikers do choose to cook their food and make hot drinks every once in a while. If so, you’ll want a light backpacking stove, fuel, a 1-liter cook pot with a lid, a spoon, and a small bottle of biodegradable camp soap with a small scrubbie to clean your pot.
- Trekking poles: Okay, I guess you don’t technically need trekking poles, but they will make your hike so much better! I promise! They help your body work more efficiently on uphills, take some much needed pressure off your knees on downhills, and assist with balance on uneven terrain and river crossings. And can save you some weight if you use a tarp tent that goes up using a trekking pole instead of packing extra tent poles.
- Poop kit: An ultralight trowel to dig a proper cat hole, toilet paper, hand sanitizer, wet wipes (optional.) You’ll probably want to have an extra Ziploc bag or two handy to pack out any waste – like used wet wipes (always pack these out, never bury them,) used toilet paper (is required in some areas, not all,) or any used pads or tampons (again, never bury these.) In some high alpine or very delicate areas, you may even be required to pack out your poop. In that case, you’ll want plenty of wag bags and possibly a poop tube or empty Pringles cans to hold the wag bags.
- Headlamp: And spare batteries so you’re not caught unprepared in the dark.
- First aid kit: Make sure your first aid kit is organized, well stocked and none of the medications are expired so you can easily find what you need in any emergency.
How to pack your pack
Luxury items that might be worth the weight
Luxury items are exactly that – a luxury! These are not necessities by any means, but if they will make your backpacking trip even more enjoyable or more comfortable, some of them may be worth bringing along.
- Camp chair
- Book or Kindle
- Portable camping shower
- French press
- DSLR and/or tripod
- Dry shampoo
- Sketchbook with a small container of paints, pastels, pencils, etc
- String lights or inflatable camp lantern
- Harmonica or other musical instrument
- Fresh fruit or veggies
- Other fresh food for the first day out, like a big burrito or a cupcake 😉
Leave any questions or let me know what your luxury item is in the comments below!