As someone who craves adventure, backpacking has always captured my heart more thoroughly than regular camping. There are so many more options for exploration this way, and there’s something freeing about the knowledge that you can go anywhere you want – simply because everything you need can be carried on your back.
It takes a lot more planning, however. You won’t have access to many resources on the trail, and the amount of weight you can carry is limited. That’s why we’ve put together this backpacking checklist to help you figure out what should come with you, and what should stay at home.
If you’ve ever been backpacking before, you know just how different it is from car camping. While you might be able to bring a grill and air mattress to your local campground, the same can’t be said about thru hikes and other trekking endeavors. So before we get into the nitty gritty backpacking essentials, here are just a few helpful tips that we’ve picked up after countless miles on our feet while backpacking all over the world.
Because you’re responsible for carrying all of your gear on your back, keeping weight to a minimum is one of the most important things to keep in mind. As such, you’ll need to be exceptionally picky about what items you decide to bring, and what you need to leave behind.
Larger pieces of equipment, likes pots and pans, camping cots, and chairs are going to be a no go. Even the items you do bring, like your tent and sleeping bag, should be as light as possible. As much as I hate to say it, this does mean giving up quite a few creature comforts, in an effort to keep weight to a minimum.
However, not all is lost. You might not have the capacity to bring a large chair, but trails stools are certainly light enough to pack. And even though you can’t lug around a giant grill, a single propane burner will still allow you to cook delicious meals.
Don’t neglect your training.
Backpacking is physically demanding. Many trails find themselves on alpine slopes where the air is thinner, and the incline is painfully steep. If you’re used to flat ground at sea level, you’ll be in for a rude awakening if you attempt a mountain trek without training beforehand.
One of the best things you can do in preparation is getting used to spending time on your feet. If you’re used to living a fairly sedentary life, or find that you’re mostly sitting throughout the day, walking several miles over rough terrain will be painful. Even if you consider yourself to be an active person, I’d still challenge you to spend more time on your feet. Make local walking trails your best friend, and wear your full pack while you do so. Find a flight of stairs that you can go up and down as frequently as you’re able to, and don’t forget to break in your hiking boots in the process.
Layer your clothes.
Most backpacking trails find their home in the mountains, which means you need to prepare accordingly. Temperatures fluctuate dramatically depending on the position of the sun – it will be fairly warm during the day, but the moment twilight comes, the air will noticeably get colder.
While doing a mountain trek in mid-October, I was sweating in my t-shirt while hiking, but shivering in my hat and coat at night. All that to say, I can’t stress the importance of layering your clothes enough, even if you’re trekking in the middle of summer. In addition to that, always make sure you have a set of dry clothes on you as well, for when you go to bed. You’ll be damp with sweat after a day of hiking, and trying to sleep like that will leave you cold and miserable.
Food is always an important part of wilderness survival, but there’s a lot more to think about when you’re backpacking. Since weight is such a major factor, you can’t just bring anything you want, and what you do bring should be kept to a minimum.
However, you’ll be burning a lot of calories while you backpack, which means you need a sufficient way to replenish them. High calorie meals (and snacks) should make up the majority of your food options, and you should make it a point to eat regularly over the course of the day. If you need help figuring out what to bring, check out our backpacking meals guide for a good place to start.
Alright, now that you know a little more about the basics of backpacking, it’s time to dive into our checklist for the most essential items. This is going to include things like your shelter, sleep system, cooking gear, clothing, backpack, and toiletries.
While most of us can’t even imagine camping without a tent, it’s more common than you might think. Plenty of trekkers and hunters opt to go without a shelter at all, in favor of cutting back on the amount of weight they have to carry. Instead, they just toss their sleeping bag on the ground and call it good.
While it’s certainly a viable option, I’d caution you to think about it deeply before making the decision to leave your shelter at home. More than anything else, the weather and bugs are going to be your biggest enemies if you take this route. Getting caught in a rainstorm will make for a wet and miserable night, possibly ruining your plans for the next day, if you need to take the time to dry out your gear.
But even if the weather is perfect, there are still bugs to contend with. Since your head will still be exposed to the surrounding environment, there’s a very real possibility that a critter will find its way into your mouth, nose, or ears. Trust me, it happened to a friend of mine, and he had to have the bug surgically removed from his ear. Needless to say, I swore to myself that I would never go camping without a shelter of some sort after that happened!
However, you don’t necessarily need to use a tent for protection. A bivy sack is another option for your backpacking checklist, if you’d still like to cut back on weight as much as possible, without completely sacrificing defense against external elements.
2. Sleep System
To alleviate some of the discomfort that comes from sleeping on the ground, most car campers will invest in an air mattress or camping cot. Unfortunately, neither of those are portable enough to bring on a backpacking trip, so you’ll have to find other ways to stay cozy at night.
A good sleeping pad is a lifesaver, proving an extra layer of cushion between you and the earth, as well as insulation from the cold that will seep up. When paired with a high quality sleeping bag, you may have a hard time waking up in the morning!
We also recommend you check out sleeping bag liners. On first thought, you might be opposed to the idea because it’ll add some extra weight, but here’s the kicker – you can save weight by switching it out with a sleeping bag. If you’re in a warm enough climate, you might not need all the insulation you get from a mummy bag. In that case, just ditch the extra couple pounds and stick with a liner instead.
3. Cooking Gear, Food, and Hydration
As I mentioned earlier, food is one of your most precious resources on the trail, so no backpacking checklist could be complete without it. However, it’s also one of the biggest forms of weight in your pack, between the food itself and the gear needed to prepare it. And if it’s your plan to live on the trail for an extended period of time, it can be very difficult to pack enough to eat without overloading your weight limit.
A small burner and pot will get you through almost anything, from my experience. Dehydrated food is a great way to have a hearty meal that only weighs a few ounces, and meal bars will give you energy during the day. You’ll also need a utensil to eat with, and a towel to clean your face and hands when you’re done.
In general, it’s good practice to consume somewhere between 2,500 – 3,500 calories per day. If you’re planning to really exert yourself, it’s smart to bump that number up to 4,500 – 5,000. I know that sounds like a lot, but trust me when I say you’ll be burning off even more than that in a day.
Cooking Gear, Food, and Hydration
- Stove with fuel
- Spoon or spork
- Small towel
- Soap (optional)
- Hydration pack/Bladder
- Water purification device
Moisture wicking layers is the name of the game when it comes to clothing. It’s likely that you’ll be hiking at altitude, which means the temperatures will be fluctuating wildly. And since you’ll be walking for many miles with a heavy pack on your back, sweat is unavoidable. You know what happens when you combine sweat with rapidly cooling air?
With that in mind, it’s wise to avoid materials like cotton, which absorb and retain moisture. Instead, whatever layers you end up putting on should be lightweight, wicking, and quick drying.
- Rain jacket
- Short sleeve shirt
- Long sleeve shirt (for warmth, and bug and sun protection)
- Hiking pants
- Down jacket
- Fleece (optional)
- Base layer (optional)
- Sun hat
- Trail shoes or boots
- Sandals (optional)
5. Backpack and Storage
Obviously, you can’t have a backpacking checklist without a backpack. It’s your lifeline on the trail, storing all of your belongings as you wander through uncivilized land. Because you’ll literally be attached at the hip to your backpack, it’s important to find one suitable for your needs. They do come in various sizes (measured in liters), and some are definitely more comfortable to wear than others.
We’ll also put some other items related to storage in this checklist, such as a place to put your trash. Various baggies are also helpful to have, as a way to segregate your clothing, food, and other gear.
Backpack and Storage
- Trash compactor bag for backpacking
- Waterproof bags for clothes and other items
- Stuff sack for tent
6. Toiletries and Hygiene
Personal maintenance in the wild can be a bit of a hassle, but it’s still important to keep up with it. Really intense backpackers will cut their toothbrushes in half to save ounces, and I know someone who dehydrated baby wipes to use instead of toilet paper. At the very least, those who do use toilet paper often take out the cardboard roll to make it easier to compress and lighter to carry.
Am I saying you have to take it that far? No, not at all – at the very least, it’s entirely up to you regarding how nitpicky you want to be about weight. Unfortunately, it’s usually not reasonable to bring something like a shower tent with you, but you can still pack soap, toothpaste, female products, and other personal hygiene items if you want them.
Toiletries and Hygiene
- Small comb (optional)
- Hair ties
- Lip balm
- Toilet paper or wipes
- A bag to pack out used toilet paper/wipes
- Small shovel
- Hand sanitizer
- Menstrual products
- Bug spray
Nature is unpredictable, and you won’t have access to many facilities on the trail. In case of emergency, you’ll have to make do with what you have, whether you need power, protection, or something to help you during your hike.
Trekking poles are common accessories, and can be used for a variety of functions (like propping your tent up). I always like to keep a knife on me as well, because I find it to be one of the most versatile tools out there. A good bushcraft knife, in particular, will get you through almost anything.
Aside from that, you’ll likely have your phone on you, and need a portable power bank to recharge it. If you don’t feel like bringing your phone but still want pictures, it can be nice to have a high quality camera to take stunning photos as well. When I was backpacking in Nepal, one of my group members brought his DSLR with him. Despite the extra weight, it was well worth it for the ability to capture the incredible scenery!
- Portable power bank
- Trekking poles (optional)
- Lantern (optional)
- Bear spray (for use in bear country)
- Extra batteries
- Camera with waterproof case
- Ziploc bags
- Cash, ID
In a land where street signs don’t exist, and cell phones may be without service, having navigational equipment (and knowing how to use it) is essential. Sure, your phone can still help you out in some cases, as long as you’ve planned ahead and downloaded offline maps. But do you really want to waste precious battery life on navigation? And on the same line of thinking, what happens when your phone dies, and you have no other way to figure out where to go?
A topographical map and compass should find their way into your pack no matter where you go. If you need a refresher on how to use them, we’ve made a guide just for that, which you can find here: Using a Map and Compass.
Remember to bring a waterproof bag to stick your map in, too. You may need to navigate when it’s raining, and the paper map won’t last long when exposed to that much moisture.
- Topo map
- Waterproof bag for the map
- Phone with GPS app
- Pre-downloaded offline maps
- GPS/Glonass watch or other device
9. Emergency Items
As much as I’d like to tell you that your backpacking journey will go off without a hitch, Murphy’s Law will beat you up if you aren’t prepared. As such, I’ve combined items in this list that you’ll need to repair your gear, if it gets damaged, as well as common first aid products. Hopefully you won’t need to use most of them, but when you’re exploring a remote location, it’s better to be safe than sorry.
- Duct tape
- Patch kit for tent and sleeping bag
- Matches/Fire starter
- Super glue
- Needle and thread (optional)
- Medical tape
Hopefully this backpacking checklist was able to get you on the right track. Some of you will probably find other things that you want to take with you, while others of you will likely pack less. A lot of it depends on your personal style, the amount of weight you’re willing to carry, and the location you’ll be backpacking in. However, in general, these items will see you through just about any trek that you plan to embark on.
If you’re interested in learning more about some of my personal backpacking experiences, you can check out part one of my journey through the Annapurna circuit in Nepal here: My Story.