Nothing is quite as exciting as setting off on a multi-day trip into the wild. The smell of fresh mountain air, the untethered freedom of zero cell phone service, and the ever-looming possibility of being mauled and/or eaten by hungry predators all blend together to form that spirit of adventure we all know and love.
Backpacking is all about self-sufficiency in the wilderness, so to make sure you get the most out of your next trek, we’ve put together the essential backpacking checklist with everything you need to have fun, enjoy nature, and make it back to the car in one piece.
- Hiking boots or trail runners
- Backpack & cover
- Water filtering system
- Backpacking stove and fuel
- First aid
- Sun protection
- Food bag or bear canister
- Power bank
What To Wear
Hiking Boots / Trail Runners
The footwear you add to your backpacking checklist depends on the amount of weight you plan to carry on your back.
There’s some heated debate around this topic, but the general consensus between backpackers is that if your total pack weight is close to or over 40 lbs, you should look for hiking boots or more supportive hiking shoes rather than trail runners.
Choose your “big three” items wisely (backpack, tent, sleeping system) however, and you should find yourself with a total pack weight around 30 lbs or less. Hit that goal, and you’ve got a green light to say goodbye to boots. If you haven’t already made the switch to trail runners, I can’t recommend it highly enough.
For both boots and trail runners, having the right hiking socks on your backpacking checklist is important. You’ll need a sock made from either wool or synthetic materials (no cotton allowed in your backpacking gear) that fits comfortably inside your footwear of choice.
You can experiment with different amounts of cushioning and sock heights, but whatever you choose here, make sure you test them out with your hiking shoes before you hit the trail. You don’t want to find out three hours into a multi-day trek that your new socks are giving you blisters.
Your hiking shirt should be made from moisture-wicking materials (merino wool or synthetics) and should be the right warmth/length for the conditions you’re hiking in.
Remember, wool and/or long sleeves aren’t just for cold weather. I often opt for a lightweight long-sleeve merino shirt when I’m hiking in the desert or on trails with little/no protection from the sun. They breathe well and protect my skin from sunburn without needing to reapply sunscreen several times a day.
If you’re hiking in cooler climates, adding thermal baselayers to your backpacking checklist is the perfect way to stay comfortable day and night.
Both merino wool and synthetic fibers come in a range of thicknesses for different degrees of cold, and work to both wick moisture from your skin and regulate your body temperature whether you’re climbing steep hills or just sitting around camp.
If you read our day hiking checklist, you already know I’m a fan of convertible pants.
I’ll spare you another rant on the topic, but once again, just keep the conditions in mind where you’ll be hiking.
If you’re hiking through thick underbrush, spending a lot of time in direct sunlight, or expecting cooler temperatures, chances are you’ll appreciate the protection of full-length pants.
I like options with a few extra pockets and a sturdy yet breathable ripstop nylon construction.
Remember you can always add or subtract a thermal baselayer on your lower body if temperature is a concern.
Thermal Outer Layer
When we’re talking about backpacking, the amount of space inside your pack is always a concern.
If you’ll be hiking in cooler climates or higher elevations, you’ll want to bring a packable jacket along for the ride.
Down jackets are my personal favorite, as they insulate better than anything else on the market while also being super light and compressible when not in use.
Down can get expensive though, so if you’re on a budget, synthetic insulation will do the trick, but is usually a little bulkier inside your pack.
Last but not least we’ve got rain gear.
For thru-hikers and longer section hikers, this one is a backpacking checklist essential. If you’re going on a shorter trek, you might be able to get by without it.
Still, I recommend everyone pack at least a waterproof-breathable type rain jacket to be as prepared for the unexpected as possible.
If there’s a decent chance of some rain in the forecast, consider packing full backpacking rain gear, which will include a pair of waterproof pants as well as a rain jacket.
Rain ponchos are a popular alternative to full rain gear. They provide good coverage for your entire body and also protect your gear when worn over your pack.
What To Pack
Putting together a backpacking checklist for extended hikes is a little more in-depth than your average day hike because you have to be 100% self-reliant using only what you carry.
It might seem a little intimidating at first, but once you’ve got all the items below, you’ll truly be ready for whatever mother nature throws at you.
If you’ve never gone backpacking before, you might not realize just how much stuff you’ll carry on your back.
Ultimately the size pack you’ll need to accommodate everything on your backpacking checklist depends on how many days you’ll be out on the trail (extra days = extra food). If you prefer traveling on the lighter side, you can typically get away with a bag around a 60-liter capacity.
For extended trips (or extra gear), you’ll want to move closer to the 70-liter mark.
Rain cover: Some packs will come with a dedicated rain cover, but if yours doesn’t, make sure you bring along something to shield all your gear from the elements, even if it’s just a large trash bag or poncho.
Tent Or Shelter
Ah, the all-important backcountry hotel.
Your tent is obviously an important piece of gear, but if you’re buying one for backpacking, not just any tent will do.
Backpacking tents should focus on being as lightweight and packable as possible. Most hikers will opt for either a one-person or two-person tent depending on how much space they need, but whichever size you choose, you want it to weigh less than five pounds.
If you’re interested in trying an alternative to a traditional backpacking tent, you might consider packing a hammock instead.
Hammock camping has become popular in the last few years, and saves weight and space by using a simple tarp or rain cover to keep you out of the elements while you sleep. If you go this route though, make sure you include some sort of bug net in your setup or you’ll be miserable during mosquito season.
A good backpacking sleeping bag is a serious investment. There are lots of options out there, so you’ll want to keep a few things in mind before making a selection.
The first is fill material, which will either be down feathers or synthetic insulation.
Down feathers are the most popular for backpacking because they pack down much smaller than synthetic insulation and weigh a whole lot less. If you can afford it, you’ll want to get a down bag.
Before you pull the trigger on that sweet down bag though, make sure it’s the right temperature rating for your destination.
Sleeping bag temperatures are given in ranges, with both a “comfort” and a “limit” rating listed. You’ll want to focus on the comfort rating, as the “limit” rating is the lowest possible temperature you can use a bag without seriously risking your health.
Even with the most expensive down sleeping bag on the market, you need a sleeping pad between you and the ground if you want a chance for a good night’s rest.
Sleeping pads come in a wide range of shapes, sizes, weights, and warmth ratings, so do your research before marking this one off your backpacking checklist.
Most backpackers will opt for an air-filled pad to maximize warmth, comfort, and packability.
Don’t rule out classic foam pads though: What they lack in size and thickness they more than makeup for in dependability and versatility.
Backpacking food has come a long way since the days of dehydrated mashed potatoes and trail mix.
There’s still plenty of that on the trail, and you’ll likely have a few servings of both in your pack, but there’s never been a more tantalizing time in the history of hiking for packable meals.
There are a ton of options out there for trail food. With a little research and creativity, you’ll be surprised how many different meals you can squeeze out of four or five ingredients.
Whatever you pack for food, just make sure you’ve got enough calories packed away for breakfast, lunch, dinner, and constant snacking on the go, plus another day or two on top of that in case you end up spending an extra day on the trail.
You’ll also want a safe place to store your food, which we’ll dig into further down.
Once you’ve figured out how you’ll treat water on the trail, you need to decide how you’ll store it.
Typically this means carrying either a large hydration reservoir like a Camelbak or a few larger capacity water bottles.
Many backpackers find carrying two 1L Smartwater bottles with them as the gold standard.
Whatever you decide on, make sure it works with your filtration system and has about a two-liter capacity or higher to get you through longer stretches between water sources.
Water Purification System
Unlike most day hiking trips, backpacking requires both a way to carry water and a plan to refill along your route.
That means having to collect water from natural sources like lakes and streams, which are dangerous to consume without first being filtered and/or purified.
Water filters: Most backpackers opt for a filtering system, which uses either a reservoir and an in-line/gravity filter or a hand-pump filter for collecting freshwater. Once your water is filtered, it’s effectively safe to drink.
Chemical treatments are a viable alternative to a water filtration system, but I don’t recommend relying on them entirely. Water treatment tabs tend to make water taste a little funky, don’t filter out any sediment, and require you to wait anywhere from 30 minutes to several hours before your water is safe to drink.
I recommend either a squeeze filter or a small hand pump, and carrying a few chemical tablets along with you as well for backup.
How much cookware you include on your backpacking checklist depends on the type of meals you’re planning, but here are the basics:
Cookpot: This is the all-purpose pot you’ll use for everything from boiling water for drinks to simmering entire meals over your stove. If you’re going solo and planning to eat pre-made camp meals right out of the bag, you can probably skip the cookpot, but if you’re splitting meals with other hikers or cooking anything that needs to simmer, a lightweight cookpot should be on your list.
Plate: Once your meal is done cooking, you’ll need somewhere to put it. Again, if you’re going solo you can probably get away with eating right out of your cookpot, but if you’re planning on multiple courses or splitting meals between hikers, you’ll need a plate (or bowl) of some kind.
Mug: Pretty self-explanatory, but your mug will hold any beverage that isn’t in your water bottle or bladder. Pack one made from steel or titanium and you’ll have a versatile mini-cookpot you can heat water or eat from in a pinch.
I’ve managed to go my entire outdoors career with nothing more than a single plastic spork.
If you want to get fancy and pop for titanium cutlery or separate fork-spoon-knife kits feel free, but just know if you happen to lose all three, you can walk into any fast-food joint and pick up a suitable replacement for exactly $0.
Backpacking Stove And Fuel
From hot coffee in the morning to warm meals at night, having a backpacking stove and the proper fuel ensures you’re able to eat good off the grid.
There are several different brands and designs out there, but the important specs for any good stove are its packed size/weight and its boil time (how long it takes to boil 1L of water).
Depending on your stove’s efficiency and how often you’re cooking, a single 4oz fuel canister is usually the perfect amount for one hiker for three days and nights. Do a little math here to make sure you bring enough, but when in doubt, always bring a little more than you need.
For backpacking first aid, I recommend you start with a store-bought “all-in-one” kit and upgrade it from there.
You’ll get all the essentials from bandages to ointments, plus a few over-the-counter favorites like ibuprofen and antihistamines for allergic reactions.
Once you’ve got a basic kit, upgrade it to suit your personal needs with any prescription medications or specialty items you need. The most important thing to add to any backpacking first aid kit is quality blister repair and prevention items.
Moleskin, duct tape, and athletic tape are a few common blister-focused additions. Find out what works for your hot spots and pack enough for multiple applications.
Another 10 essentials mainstay, the humble headlamp is a must-have for anyone hiking or camping after dark.
If you’re a flashlight fan, you can always bring along your favorite baton as well, but if you only bring one source of light, the hands-free operation of a headlamp can’t be beat for anything from walking the trail at night to setting up camp after hours.
Dry Bag or Alternative
Dry bags are a common sight out on the trail, and I recommend you bring at least one if only for your electronics and other essentials that you can’t risk getting wet (a down sleeping bag, for instance).
Some hikers use multiple dry bags to organize the inside of their packs while others use a single extra-large bag, called a “pack liner,” to waterproof the entire main compartment of their pack.
A large dry bag can also make a great food bag to hang at night if you don’t feel like hanging up your entire pack
A simple and cost-effective alternative to dry bags are ziplock bags and trash bags. These options aren’t as rugged as dry bags, but they cost next to nothing and protect just as well, and double as a quick and easy place to put your trash and waste between towns.
*Pro-Tip: If you’re going the trash bag route, look for “compactor bags” rather than normal garbage bags. These are much thicker, will last longer, and are less prone to punctures.
Map And Compass/Navigation
Smartphones are great for getting around town or even your local trails, but for any serious backpacking, you’ll need a real navigation system.
The classic topo map and compass have been part of the 10 essentials of backpacking for decades, and can’t be beat for their simplicity and reliability.
You should always carry a map and compass, even if just for backup, and have the option of adding a GPS system and/or smartphone GPS app for convenience as well.
I doubt that it’s anyone’s favorite part of backpacking, but when nature starts calling, you can only send her to voicemail so many times.
I recommend you come prepared in that regard unless you fancy rolling the dice using leaves as toilet paper.
Typically you’ll want a small trowel for digging a “cathole” to function as a single-use toilet, and enough toilet paper and/or disposable wipes to last your entire stretch in the wilderness.
Check the regulations in the areas you’ll be traveling to though: Some don’t allow waste of any kind to be left on the land, which means you’ll need some extra bags to pack it out. Ya’ know… Just like hiking with a very large dog.
Long sleeves and long pants are both great defenses against the sun’s rays, but you’ll need more than that for most hikes.
Hats, sunglasses, neck gaiters, and plenty of sunscreen are all important considerations for your backpacking checklist.
Creature Comforts To Consider For Your Backpacking Checklist
Food bag and/or bear canister: Some stretches of trail actually require hikers to carry bear-resistant canisters for their edibles and scented items. As we mentioned above, a waterproof food bag is a great alternative that’s easier to pack around when a bear canister isn’t required.
Camp Chair: If you brought a bear canister, this works great as a makeshift stool. If you didn’t, there several great ultra-light options for backpacking chairs and recliners out there. Some even utilize your sleeping pad for extra cushioning!
Bug spray: If you’ve ever gone hiking in the south, you know this one is essential. Buzzing flies, stinging insects, and blood-sucking mosquitoes are all great reasons to carry bug spray. I also like to pack an ultralight “bug net” for my face as an alternative when space is low.
Trekking poles: There’s a reason you see so many thru-hikers walking with trekking poles. They take stress off your joints, add stability over uneven surfaces, and come in handy for slippery creek crossings too.
Hammock: It’ll add a little weight and bulk to your back, but having somewhere to put your feet up after a long day in the wilderness is worth the weight.
Gaiters: Gaiters seal the gap between the top of your footwear and your leg, keeping rocks and debris out of your shoes. No more regular stops to dig pebbles out from between your toes.
Travel towel: A small packable towel is great after a rainy day, a creek-crossing gone wrong, or a dip in a freshwater swimming hole. Aim for the smallest you can live with to save space.
Camp Shoes: A lightweight shoe like Tevas or (I can’t believe I’m saying this) Crocs are great for giving your feet a chance to decompress and air out without walking around the campsite barefoot. As an added bonus, I can’t emphasize enough how nice it is to have a slip-on shoe just outside the tent for midnight bathroom breaks.
Disposable wipes: Nothing like spending a few sweaty days without a shower to get you smelling ripe. Disposable wipes are the quintessential “backcountry shower” when you’re tired of smelling yourself, and can be tossed in the bag with your other “toilet” waste.
Emergency signal: Nobody wants to get lost or stranded in the wilderness, but emergency preparedness is all about expecting the unexpected. Whether you choose a signaling mirror, a loud whistle, or splurge on a personal GPS tracking device, bringing something along to send an S.O.S signal is never a bad idea.
Power bank: If you’re going to rely on any electronics, bringing a power bank along is a smart move to ensure they survive the length of your trip. Small solar panels are also convenient for charging devices while you walk.
Final Thoughts On Your Backpacking Checklist
In a nutshell, every backpacking checklist should start with the 10 essentials and go from there.
Following the 10 essentials will ensure you don’t leave home without any of the basics like a means to start a fire, an emergency shelter, and whatever items you need to survive an injury or unexpected detour.
And while I’m thankful for all the latest gear on the market, it’s worth noting that knowledge is ultimately the most valuable thing you’ll bring with you into any wilderness. Knowledge and equipment combined will help you to make the most of your backpacking journey, discover beautiful places lost in nature, and if you are lucky, observe the local wildlife and birds.
So keep reading up on our site, practice outdoor skills whenever you get the opportunity, and consider taking a few backcountry preparedness classes at a local outfitter. The more you “know before you go,” the more prepared you’ll be, and the more you’ll enjoy even the most challenging trips.