Backpacking Basics: What to pack

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The best feeling in the world is having dirt under your boots and everything you need to survive on your back, and nowadays we have so many options for those things we carry in our pack to help us survive in the backcountry and the decisions can be paralyzing. Use my gear guide to help curate your own backpacking kit, and never be in the wilderness without an essential piece of gear again. Learn what you should and should’t bring along and tips and tricks on how to pack and prep for your next trip.

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Location + Length

First pick where you’re going to be hiking, determine exactly how far you’ll be hiking and how many nights you’ll camp. Make sure you obtain permits (if required) in advanced of your trip and/or reserve camping spots (national parks) also consider the weather forecast for the time you are planning to visit so you won’t have any surprises.

In general, the longer and/or more remote the hike is and the more inclement the weather, the more clothing, gear, food and water you’re going to want. But if your taking a short hike and will mostly be hanging out in camp you may want to bring extra things you normally wouldn’t.

If this is your first backpacking trip I would suggest choosing a short hike that is relatively easy and close to home. Get essential gear and clothing and plan your meals in advance—  I list out my favorites below.

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Sierra Designs Flash 3 and backcountry bed, Kylmit Double insulated pad

Backpacking Gear

If this is your first foray into the wild I’d rent the pricier gear like a tent, sleeping bag or pad. But I’d purchase the more personal gear like your hiking boots and backpack. This curated list will help you buy the right gear the first time, it’s a good investment if you choose quality gear that is made to last and perform.

everything you need has to fit in your pack so I would choose the lightest option you can afford, the lighter your load the more enjoyable your time on the trail will be.

Tent

Depending if your solo hiking or trekking with a partner or friends should dictate the size of tent you choose. I would suggest a 3-season, 2 person tent so you have room for a friend, a dog or just to keep your pack inside in inclement weather. Id suggest the Big Agnes UL tent series, any of Sierra designs tents, or even Rei’s half and quarter dome options.

Backpack

Depending on the length of your trips, you could want something anywhere from 45L to 65/70L. I have a 50L pack and have taken it on 1-2 night trips but for a multi-day trip I suggest having at least 60L. Take yourself over to an REI and have them fit you so you can find the right size pack theres nothing worse than getting on the trail with a pack thats too small or too big. My favorite bag is my Osprey Aura AG 50, I love the fit of this pack and with the anti-gravity technology I stay cool and it supports the load so I hardly feel the weight. Check it out here. Don’t forget a rain cover for your pack as most don’t come with one.

Sleeping Pad

If you gotta sleep on the ground you need to choose a good pad, this is not the place to skimp. Choose an insulated option with an R value of 2.5 or higher my personal preference is closer to 4. Depending if your a back or side sleeper should determine if you get a low profile pad or something a little higher off the ground. This is a completely personal choice, something that works for me may not work for you. I would suggest going into your local outdoor retailer and trying out a bunch of pads to see what you like, but my favorites that I use currently are the Big Agnes Air-core Ultra sleeping pad and the Klymit double insulated pad. If your camping with a partner I suggest a double pad it’s the best thing since slice bread, seriously!

Sleeping Bag

First decide if you want synthetic or down fill, there may be some ethical reason you go with synthetic fill but it’s also a good choice if this is your first bag as they are more affordable and resist moisture better than down fill. My choice is Sierra Designs Backcountry bed its a zipper-less construction thats the closest feeling to my actual bed read my full review here.

Water Purification

Figure out if where you are going needs filtration or filtration + treatment. If your hiking in the US your probably safe with a good water filter. I use the MSR Hyper Flow water filter which removes bacteria and protozoa. If you need to treat your water I use the Steripen Adventurer ultra violet light to purify my water further. You could alternatively use purification tablets, and they are always great to have as an emergency water treatment option as well.

Stove

When cooking in the backcountry you want something that will heat up quick and not blow out when there’s high wind or other inclement weather. There are a couple types of stoves I suggest (gas canister stoves) like the JetBoil Mini Mo or the MSR Windburner stove system they are affordable and easy to use. Don’t forget to bring some fuel canisters along.

Cooking Supplies

If you get one of the stoves I suggested above you don’t need to carry an extra pot since it’s built in, some other items you may need are:

Utensils (spork – or multi-tensil, I think I made that word up but check out the Chowpal)
Mug (for coffee!! or tea)
Additional dish ( if you don’t eat out of the bag like I do)
Biodegradable soap like CampSuds
Small towel (might come in handy too, try Paktowl Nano)
Bear canister + hang bag (if your hiking in bear country – roar!)
Trash Bag! (the unwritten 11th essential)

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Clothing + Footwear

When packing clothing for a trip it should be packed with the location-specific weather in mind, you don’t want to pack gear you won’t need. If your new here and don’t have hiking specific clothing yet just choose items that are moisture wicking / quick drying fabrics. Avoid cotton if at all possible, it soaks up moisture and takes a long time to dry.

Layers are important when hiking you want to be able to easily adjust your temperature as you exert yourself more or cool down on breaks.

Base layer: long underwear, even when its not cold during the day it can get very chilly at night and these will help.
Hiking layer: hiking pants that are water and tear resistant or athletic yoga pants in the summer/ fleece in winter, T-shirt/tank top, Hat
Insulating layer: Puffy jacket or vest, fleece sweater/flannel, beanie + gloves
Shell: raincoat, and/or pants (if hiking in wet conditions)

Vasque Skywalk GTX

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Vasque Skywalk GTX

Hiking Boots + Camp Shoes

Your feet take you to all the cool places cars and technology can’t so its fairly important what you put on them to get there. Boots are another very personal piece of gear that is imperative to a good experience, make sure you take your time trying on boots for the right fit and test them out a fair amount of times before you go on your trip. Also bring along a pair of water shoes or other light weight shoes for river crossings and hanging around camp. My favorite hiking boots are Vasque Talus UltraDry boots or Vasque Skywalk GTX for heavier loads or longer treks and my preferred camp shoes are usually a pair of Teva sandals.

Tips + tricks:

  • Buy a half size larger than you normally wear
  • Test them on a steep incline to make sure your toes don’t run into the front of your boot
  • try them on with thick hiking socks
  • Looking for support: go with over the ankle boots
  • Looking for something lightweight: try out trail runners
  • Most importantly break them in before your hike

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Navigation + Emergency Gear

Navigation and emergency items are on the ten essentials list these definitely come in handy when your trying to navigate long trips on the trail or situations you might not expect.

Navigation: Trail Map, compass, GPS (optional)
Emergency: First aide kit, Itch Eraser, whistle, lighter / waterproof matches, fire starter, emergency shelter ( if you plan on taking day hikes away from camp) headlamp or flashlight + batteries or solar charger
Tools + repairs: Knife / multi-tool, duct tape, tent/sleeping pad repair kits

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Kula Cloth

Health + Hygiene

Even on the trail we still have some hygiene we must maintain, and most of these items take consideration and care when choosing and using them in the wild. Take care to Leave no trace and pack out what ever you pack in. Read more on Leave No Trace principles. My newest favorite piece of gear in this department is my Kula Cloth it’s the greenest way to go pee in the outdoors and still feel clean and dry, do give it a try.

Camp Bathroom: Pee-cloth ( like a Kula cloth) Toilet paper (sparingly) Hand sanitizer (EO lavender spray is my go to) , trash bag, trowel
Sun/bug Protection: Sun screen, bug spray, sunglasses, Lip balm

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Kate’s Real Food – Stash Bar

Food + Water

Food: For an overnight trip plan for one breakfast and dinner and a couple lunches, I’d go with freeze dried meals, they are fast and easy only requiring water. However this approach can get pricey quick especially when you go for longer. I suggest going to your local grocery store and finding the isle with grains and canned protein — below I list some of my grocery store favorites, some of my go too “backpacking” meal choices, and my favorite trail snacks.

Backpacking meals:

  • Backpackers Pantry
  • Mountain House
  • good-to-go

Grocery store finds:

  • Foil chicken pouch ( next to the tuna – pre cooked)
  • Idahoan instant mashed potato pouches (so many flavors)

Snacks:

  • Kates real food bars
  • R.e.d.d bars
  • MunkPack Oatmeal squeeze + protein cookies
  • Dried fruit
  • trail mix
  • Jerky
  • Instant Coffee
  • Tea
  • Trail butter + apple
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Filtering water – MSR Hyper Flow

Hydration: Carry at least one water bottle I like Hydroflask (temperature controlled) or a Nalgene (if you like to save on weight) and I suggest using a hydration bladder as well at least 2L in capacity. I use an Osprey which is discontinued but here is a similar option that is available.

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What NOT to bring 

As tempting as it is to bring everything you think you might want, please don’t! You will most likely regret the heavier weight on your back and not even use the extra items you thought were necessary from the comfort of your living room floor. Do yourself a favor pack light and enjoy the journey that much more. Here’s a list of things I used to bring/ common items you think you need but you actually don’t.

  • Hair brush (you’ll be fine for a night or two)
  • Make-up (Im not sure why, your already beautiful)
  • too many clothes (one outfit is good with some layers)
  • speaker ( we should be enjoying the sounds of nature anyways)
  • Jewelry ( or anything thats valuable and can easily be lost)
  • Overdoing it on medical supplies ( a simple first aid kit should suffice)
  • books/ magazines and unnecessary electronics  (Unplug for reals you won’t regret it)
  • Cotton clothing ( pick up some wicking material items for the trail)

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Extras + Nice to have gadgets 

Even though we are keeping it light there are some things that are considered “extra” I still bring like a camera, my phone for maps and maybe a blow up pillow but here is a list of those extras that may be useful for the tech savvy adventurer.

  • Small camera (like a mirrorless)
  • Extra lens (Portrait or wide angle)
  • GoPro + stick
  • Small tripod ( like a Joby)
  • Bluetooth camera remote
  • Smart phone
  • Blow up pillow
  • Light wool blanket ( like Sackcloth & Ashes)

Is there something you normally take backpacking that I missed? let me know in the comments. As always packing for any adventure is totally unique to each person outside the basics so use this as a guideline but tailor your gear list to where you are going and what is most important to you. Happy trails and safe travels.

*As always none of this is sponsored or and ad this is my personal opinion based off my experience with these products.

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