When it comes time to pack for a backpacking trip, it’s hard to know what gear to take — or how much. Every experienced backpacker has a story about packing something silly, like Diet Coke cans that exploded in a backpack, submarine sandwiches that were mushed into a mess, or a heavy hatchet that was never used. Once I hauled a folding chair around Rocky Mountain National Park. It was awesome to sit in, but packing it? Not my smartest choice. On the flip side, I’ve known guys to forget core gear like a multitool or worse . . . their hiking boots.
To make sure you have what you need, you need an ultralight backpacking gear checklist. Plus, you should understand why you want certain gear and when you don’t need other gear. For instance, if you have a bear can, you don’t necessarily need 50 feet of paracord to hang your food. If you have rain pants, you might not need hiking pants. If you have a rain jacket and a long-sleeve polar fleece shirt for layering as the weather changes, you likely won’t need a separate jacket.
Of course, where you’re going, for how long, and what time of year will affect this list, requiring heavier or lighter clothing, differences in food and whether you should invest in an ultralight sleeping pad or other ultralight gear to help you save a pound of weight; however, this basic backpacking gear checklist should illuminate the core backpacking gear that will keep you healthy, sheltered, warm, and on the go, including some associated gear that is more easily forgotten — or just nice to have.
AIR MATTRESS/SLEEPING PAD — While you might be tired enough to sleep on rocks, get a decent, lightweight pad and have more fun. Read, “10 Best Sleeping Pads.”
WATER BOTTLE OR BLADDER — Water bladders are fantastic — except for pouring water out or mixing flavored drinks. Consider taking a traditional water bottle as well as a bladder (but always have two options in case of breakage).
RAIN JACKET — A rain jacket is the most important and versatile item of clothing for outdoor adventures — because death happens when you’re wet and cold. Slip a long-sleeve polar fleece shirt or ultralight down jacket underneath a rain jacket, and you’ll be able to survive all sorts of weather. See Marmot Precip.
STOVE WITH FUEL — Some parks and backcountry wilderness areas do not allow open fires and require a stove for cooking. See MSR PocketRocket Stove.
COOKING POT — Most freeze-dried backpacking meals use hot water for cooking, hence the pot. Alternately, a JetBoil system does the trick.
HIKING BOOTS — For heavy loads and rough terrain, rugged backpacking boots are great. For lighter loads and easier trails, hiking boots will work, too. If you’ve got strong ankles and plenty of experience, you can experiment with lightweight trail shoes (but we recommend backpacking boots).
MULTITOOL — A knife is great, but for backpacking a multitool is better, especially if you need to repair some gear along the way. See Leatherman Juice CS4.
FIRST-AID KIT — If all you get is a scratch that requires a bandage, great — but plan for something worse just in case. Besides, many first-aid kits include emergency care guides, which your freaking out buddies might need to read while they are stabilizing you and your wounds, “Best First-Aid Kit for Backpacking.”
MATCHES — While many backpacking stoves have their own spark ignition systems, they could fail in an emergency. Always take some waterproof matches into the woods. Seriously. Never forget. You need some emergency fire starter when you get off the beaten path.
IBUPROFEN — There is a good chance someone will get sore, hurt something, or get dehydrated and get a headache. Take ibuprofen or your favorite painkiller.
CAFFEINE — If you’re an everyday coffee drinker, you can go into caffeine withdrawal and pick up a hardcore headache the first morning you’re out in the woods. Take coffee mixes or caffeinated drink mixes.
BEAR CAN — While you don’t always technically need a bear can, they are handy and great for keeping rodents out of your food. See BearVault BV500.
PARACORD — You’ll want at least 50′, either for repairs or emergencies . . . but definitely to hang your food or sunscreen and chapstick if you’re in bear country if you don’t have a bear can.
MAP — Don’t forget a map. Seriously. The trails and signs aren’t always what they seem in person.
Most people pack too much food, but who wants to be the guy who makes a mistake and packs too little? Here’s how to get it close to right: Plan out your meals for each night, which is most critical. Our buddies usually pair up and share a 2-person freeze dried meal for each night. If you’re big eaters, you can slip in something extra like a pack of flavored (and dried) mashed potatoes or a bag of noodles. Next, figure out your lunches — usually some beef jerky and some sort of dried soup, like ramen noodles. Sure, you can eat energy bars for lunch, but having something hot is so much better in the wilderness. As for breakfast, the trick is not to skip it entirely, even if you don’t usually eat breakfast. One of the best options is a packet of instant oatmeal — cheap and effective.
Once you have your three core meals planned for the number of days and nights you’ll be trekking, turn to snacks. Think one or two energy bars per day, beef jerky, nuts, trail mix, and dried fruit. And — even if you don’t normally have a sweet tooth — take some sort of candy or fruit leather. Most people really appreciate a bit of chocolate or a high-fructose corn syrup invention somewhere along a multi-day backpacking trip.
Once you cover these basics, you can augment your planning with a special treat if the location and occasion calls for it. Here’s the core options for your checklist:
RAMEN NOODLES — Choose some sort of dried soup (or flavored noodle packet) for lunch (sometimes we’ll add chicken from a foil package for extra protein).
INSTANT OATMEAL — Peaches and Cream is the best, of course.
ENERGY BARS — A real energy bar or granola bar will do the trick. Packable and full of energy. 1-2 per day.
POWDERED DRINK MIX — Because sometimes a guy craves a little raspberry lemonade.
HOT CHOCOLATE/TANG/TEA/APPLE CIDER — A hot drink on a cold evening or morning can soothe the soul.
CANDY — Trust us, Tootsie Rolls, Peanut M&Ms, Hot Tamales, gummy bears, Skittles, etc. Great for sharing around camp.
TORTILLA/ROLLS/BAGEL — The occasional crushed hunk of bread is surprisingly good in the backcountry, especially with a little single-serving packet of butter or jelly.
Again, the challenge with backpacking clothes is to pack only what you need in the lightest possible configuration. That means a heavy pair of jeans are definitely out. Some guys, for instance, like to pack a fresh pair of underwear for every morning while others will last a day or two. Whatever you do, pack at least one spare pair of underwear. Seriously. Freeze-dried gumbo isn’t for everyone.
RAIN JACKET — A decent quality breathable rain jacket is best, but any lightweight rain jacket is better than none. Remember the Marmot Precip mentioned above? It’s a can’t-go-wrong option.
POLAR FLEECE SHIRT OR LIGHT JACKET — Polar fleece is inexpensive, warm, durable, and water resistant. Best lightweight option: An ultralight down jacket.
T-SHIRT — When it gets hot, it’s hard to beat a t-shirt.
WOOL BASE LAYERS — Merino wool is great to sleep in during cold nights, plus it naturally fights funky smells. Fantastic all-natural material. Sierra Trading Post has some of the most cost-effective options for wool base layers.
UNDERWEAR — We’ve known some guys to forget extra underwear on week-long trips — don’t. It’s not good.
WOOL SOCKS — Look for more than 50% merino wool, which will keep your feet cool and warm, fight stinky bacteria, and help you avoid blisters. The best way to go is to wear a lightweight wool liner sock with a mid-or-heavyweight wool sock. We’re big fans of L.L.Bean’s Cresta line of wool hiking socks.
CAMP SHOES — At the end of a long day, you’ll want to get out of your backpacking boots and let your feet breathe. Some guys pack flip flops or Crocs, but lightweight water shoes are great, too. They airy but are rugged enough that you could, for example, hike out in a good pair if you got a nasty blister from a new pair of boots (which happens more often than you might think).
NYLON CARGO SHORTS — You want a lightweight synthetic fiber — like nylon — that is breathable and dries fast. Add cargo pockets on your outer thighs and you’ve got a versatile backpacking short.
PANTS OR SHORTS-PANTS COMBOS — You’ve got a choice: If you have a wool base layer — tights, basically — you can use them underneath waterproof rain pants, and you’re covered for some really bad weather. Or you can buy a lightweight, synthetic pair of mens outdoor pants (womens here) that you can actually wear around town, too — just look for something that has slightly stretchy material or articulated knees and gusseted crotches for freedom of movement. Or you can get a hiking short/pants combo where the pant legs zip off when the weather warms up. These work great, but the only problem is that many of the designs give you old-school short shorts when you zip off the legs — so pay careful attention to the inseam length of the shorts to get the look and feel you want or you end up with a pant that you only wear in the backcountry.
The only real must-have backpacking item that uses electricity is a headlamp — but a smartphone is pretty handy, too. Not only can a smartphone make an emergency call in many backwoods locations, you can also use it to take photos and video . . . or fight boredom if you get stuck in your tent during an all-day downpour. Ebooks in the dark on a smartphone work great, too.
HEADLAMP — Must-have gear, great for nighttime cooking, bathroom breaks, and hiking in or out in the dark. Also good for inside the tent because it’s hard to find a clean pair of underwear by feel alone.
CAMERA — While your smartphone camera is great, seriously consider packing the weight of a DSLR or a newer camera system with a smart brain and a big lens. Why? You might not ever return to some of these places, so make sure you have the gear to capture the images of a lifetime. Also consider small waterproof rugged cameras — you get an optical zoom lens and the toughness you need on the trail, which makes for a good compromise between a smartphone and full-size DSLR.
SMARTPHONE — Just get a rugged case for it, if you can, and pay attention to packing it. A sealable sandwich bag makes it pretty darn waterproof, too.
BATTERY CHARGER — If you’re going to use your smartphone for reading and photos, better take along a backup battery charger in case you need the phone for emergencies.
You’re going to need some backwoods toiletries.
TOILET PAPER — Grab a half-used roll from the bathroom, smash it flat, and place it in a sealable plastic food bag. You do not want it to get wet.
HAND SANITIZER — You can use anti-bacterial wet wipes in individual little packets and/or use a small container of hand sanitizer gel.
BACKPACKING TROWEL — You’re going to need a small and light shovel-like tool to dig a hole to poop in — and then cover it back up. Seriously. That’s the basic human waste rule in the wilderness. It’s the price of admission: Dig a hole, use it, then cover it up. While there are a few outdoor outhouse-like toilets in the backcountry, they are few and far between. (If you’re prissy, you should look for a different sport.)
Gear Up Alert from Sierra Trading Post:
COMPRESSION SACK — Handy if you need to squeeze all the air out of your clothes help fit your gear into a full backpack. Also useful for compressing tents or sleeping bags. Alternately, drawstring nylon bags are handy, too — for dirty clothes and clean clothes or organizing bits of related gear.
WATERPROOF PACK COVER — Most packs aren’t waterproof, and the last thing you want is wet gear. A pack cover can protect your pack while you wear it. In a pinch, you can modify a black plastic lawn and leaf garbage bag to do a similar job, and by all means, consider protecting your down sleeping bag in a white kitchen garbage bag inside your pack if there is any chance of rain.)
HAT — Keeps the sun out of your eyes and adds warmth.
STOCKING CAP — For high altitude or cold weather backpacking, a stocking cap is well-worth the weight.
SUNSCREEN — There’s little pollution to block the sun’s UV rays at high altitude, so take some sunscreen.
MOLESKIN — Useful for preventing/protecting blisters (so just slip some into your first-aid kit).
BUG REPELLANT — Mosquitos and gnats . . . sometimes you just can’t run from them.
GLOVES — For high altitudes or cold weather, a thin pair of wool or polar fleece gloves are nice to have.
HAMMOCK — There are some great lightweight hammocks available these days that you could sleep in . . . or just relax in. If someone in your crew packs a hammock, it’ll get used — guaranteed.
AIR PILLOW — A blow-up pillow is light and adjustable. Alternately, stuff your clothes into a stuff sack and use it as your pillow.
EARPLUGS — If you’re sleeping a couple of feet away from a buddy who snores, you’ll want earplugs.
Last of all, while your entire backpack is technically “survival gear” you might not always be packing it around. For instance, one of the best ways to enjoy the wilderness is to haul your heavy gear into a base camp, set up your tent, and then go explore a peak, ridge, lake, or spur trail. In this situation, it’s usually a good idea to take a daypack that has a bit of food, matches for a fire, a small emergency rain poncho — for you or anyone else in need — and an emergency blanket or bivy sack. When the storm clouds roll in, the lightning starts hitting, or the visibility drops to 50 feet, it’s easy to get lost — or injured — just a half-mile from your base camp. Pack some simple survival gear and hope you never have to use it.
How to Pack a Backpacking Pack
A day or two before you head out, spread your backpacking gear out on the floor so you can visually see that you have all the gear you need. You can cut down on the gear between two people. For instance, don’t pack two stoves, just split the fuel and stove between two backpackers in your group. Same goes for a tent — one guy packs the poles, the other packs the tent. One buddy packs the dinner for one night, the other for the next night. As you pack up, try to keep heavy gear lower in your backpack and closer to your back — and make sure your rain jacket is near the top for easy access.