Making the jump from day hiking or car camping into full on wilderness backpacking can be intimidating! On top of the instinctive fear of the unknown, there’s more planning and preparation to do before a multi day backpacking trip through wilderness areas. Plus, you’ll need to make sure you have all the backpacking gear you need to be totally self sufficient and keep yourself safe out on the trail.
Essential Backcountry Backpacking Gear
Investing in the right gear from the beginning can save you a lot of time, hassle and money down the line as you go on more and more trips. This list will get you started if you’re just beginning to build up your backpacking gear stash. You’ll need:
- 45-65 liter backpacking backpack, lined with a contractor bag and/or a pack cover to stay dry
- Lightweight tent, tarp or hammock for shelter
- Down or synthetic sleeping bag
- Sleeping pad or underquilt for a hammock
- 10-13 liter waterproof stuff sack + 50-60 ft of paracord to keep food in and hang a bear bag or a bear canister
- Water filter or chemical treatment
- 2 1-liter water bottles + 3 liter dromedary bag for extra water
- Hiking first aid kit
- Poop kit = trowel, toilet paper and hand sanitizer
- Cookset = camp stove, pot with lid, fuel, spoon, biodegradable soap with small scrubbie pad
- Map and guide book
- Pocket knife
- Bear mace, if in bear country
- Trekking poles
Download the complete backpacking gear list, including what clothes to wear here, if you haven’t already.
Surviving Backpacking in the Wilderness
Just having all the right gear does not magically turn you into a badass backpacker – you’ll need to learn and master some essential backpacking skills before you go out on your first trip. These will help keep you safe and could possibly save your life in an emergency or if you get lost or injured.
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Proper food storage
One of the biggest questions I see floating around the interwebs is, “Do I really need to hang a bear bag/store my food??”
YES! Really. You do need to properly store your food and all smellables at night while you’re backpacking. There are several different ways you can do this and no excuse not to. Check local regulations first to see if bear canisters are required, if they are required then that’s an easy, fairly foolproof way to store your food at night. You’ll still need to stash your canister downwind and at least 200 feet away from camp so you don’t attract bears to your campsite.
If bear canisters aren’t required, then you might want to invest the time into learning to hang a PCT style bear bag to store your food. These only work if done correctly and are starting to get a bad rap because too many user errors get hikers food stolen and then ultimately create more nuisance bears.
A good middle of the road option is use an Ursack instead, which also only works if used correctly but is arguably easier to use than a PCT style bear hang. Or if you’re lucky, your campsite will have bear cables, poles or boxes already built.
Most hikers don’t consider proper food storage a ‘survival skill’ (which is also part of the issue) but remember, bears are not inherently out to get hikers…. unless they start to associate hikers, packs and tents with delicious food. Bears learn quickly and some who have repeatedly gotten a food ‘reward’ from a hikers campsite will start to harass more hikers in the future – whether they have food or not because the association as already been burned into their brains. That is when bear-human incidents and injuries occur. Or we could all decide to work together, store all our smellies away from campsites and simply prevent nuisance bears and incidents from happening in the first place.
Yes, you also really do need to carry a map and compass and know how to use them. Please, please, please for the sake of search and rescue teams everywhere – don’t only rely on your phone or technology to navigate you. Technology fails, it malfunctions, batteries die, it can get wet or crushed accidentally, too many things could go wrong there. Learning how to read a map and compass is an invaluable skill that can save you if you end up off trail or need to re-route for any reason during your trip.
Starting a fire
Learn and practice starting a fire with all different kinds of kindling, and in different climates and weather. Make it easy on yourself and pack one or two fire starters in your first aid kit in case of emergencies. I like to carry a few cotton balls covered in Vaseline in a Ziploc baggie for a solid way to start a fire anywhere.
If you’re lost, starting and keeping a signal fire going can 100% make the difference between being found by search and rescue teams or staying lost until it’s too late. Having a heat source can also be a life saver if you or another hiker is at risk of hypothermia.
As hikers and backpackers, sometimes we find ourselves hours and hours away from any emergency medical services. Having the knowledge, training and supplies to be able to treat illness and injury out on the trail until other medical services arrive can literally save someone’s, or your own, life!
If you’ll be backpacking frequently or in very remote locations, I highly recommend getting trained in Wilderness First Aid or Wilderness First Responder, but even basic first aid and CPR is useful.
I provide way more in depth lessons on the survival and backpacking skills you need to know before your first backpacking trip here in my Backpacking Essentials program.
Choosing a Backpacking Trail
If you’re new, or newish, to backpacking you’ll want to choose a trail and route carefully to set yourself up for a fun, safe and successful trip.
Consider how far you can comfortably hike in a day and choose a route with plenty of water sources and campsites to choose from so you’re not forced to try to hike too far to make it to a campsite or water source. Consider how much elevation gain you can handle in a day and plan your distance accordingly. 8 miles on relatively flat land is way different than 8 miles + 5,000 feet of elevation gain.
If you’re just starting out, try to choose a trail that’s relatively close to home and preferably has cell phone service so you can easily text or call a friend if you’re feeling nervous or something is freaking you out.
After you have a trail in mind, do a little research on the region you’ll be hiking in to learn and prepare for any local hazards. Is there any dangerous wildlife there? Any weather patterns to be aware of like flash floods, blizzards or icy conditions, high heat, etc? How accessible are water sources and towns? How well traveled or isolated is the trail?
Those are some of the things you’ll want to think about and look into before heading out. Look for forums or Facebook groups online for the specific trail or state you’ll be going to and ask questions in there, or call the local visitor’s centers or ranger stations to gather more information.
Backcountry Camping Tips
Practice Leave No Trace
Always practice and follow the 7 Leave No Trace principles while hiking and backpacking. Some of the most pertinent ones are to pack out all food and trash. Only have campfires when and where permitted and in designated fire pits, never create your own fire pits. Dispose of human waste properly. Always camp on durable surfaces, at least 200 feet away from trails and water sources.
Check your campsite
Always check your campsite for widow makers – any dead trees or large dead/broken branches that could fall on or near your tent, never camp near those!
I also like to check for any obvious/recent signs of large wildlife – like trees that have been chewed or scraped by moose, or rubbed and scratched by bears, or big footprints going right through camp. I probably wouldn’t camp there for fear of encroaching on a wild animals home/territory.
Also check the ground – is it a durable surface? You don’t want to set up your tent on a field of wildflowers and squish and kill them all, look for a bare dirt or gravel-like surface instead. Look around the area to see if it looks like water pools there, even if it’s dry now, you don’t want to wake up a large puddle or small pond if it down pours in the night.
Gear, clothes and food
Always make sure you have the appropriate gear to take care of yourself on the trail, the appropriate clothes and rain gear to stay dry and warm even if the weather turns nasty, and enough food to keep your body fueled and running well. I usually pack one extra meal and one extra snack, a ramen packet and a clif bar, for example, just in case I end up being out longer than expected or something goes awry.
Avoid packing unnecessary items to help keep pack weight down and prevent fatigue, muscle and joint strain while backpacking. The Backpack Weight Calculator is an amazing tool to help you see what your pack weight is at a glance and any obvious items you could eliminate or replace to shed some pounds off your pack.
Hopefully this post gets you started in the right direction for your first ever wilderness backpacking trip. I’d love to hear how it goes and of course, leave any questions you have in the comments below!
For more wilderness backpacking tips, check out:
- 35 Backpacking Tips and Tricks
- How to Poop in the Woods
- 14 Things to do while Camping Alone
- Choosing the Best Backpacking Stove