What to Bring into the Wild: A Backpacker’s Checklist

Planning a backpacking trip? Check out this packing list to make sure you've got everything you need.

Photo by Maddie Gavigan Martin
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I’m sitting on a stump, listening to tree frogs sing their chorus, feeling the crackle and spark of the fire before me. My friends laugh together, a dog barks, trees sway in unison. Then silence, stillness.

An evening in the woods (or better yet, a week) gives me clarity and peace of mind. Bringing only the items I need, all strapped tightly to my back, is empowering and wakes up a longing for wildness within me that’s often dormant in my day to day life.

I paint a peaceful picture, yet the process of getting to that fireside bliss can seem arduous to beginner and expert backpackers alike. There exists a mountain of information about what one could, should, might, or ought to bring on a backpacking trip. Lets sift through these items and pull together equipment that is appropriate for your trip into the wild.

Basic Essentials

First things first. Go and get all of the backpacking gear, clothing, and food that you have compiled and spread it out on the floor in front of you. Take over the living room with your synthetic fabrics and plastic baggies for an afternoon. Looking at all of your equipment at once will help you a) prioritize what you actually need and b) ensure that you don’t leave anything important behind. Learning to prioritize is incredibly important with backpacking as you literally carry your choices with you. Every item will be lugged for miles, possibly up to the top of mountains and back down the other side. The saying goes, ounces equal pounds and pounds equal pain. Cutting down on a few items can save your body, and your sanity, in the long run.

If you’re still with me then all of your gear is strewn before you, underwear and all. Let’s start by ensuring that the basis essentials are within that pile. These basics are often referred to as the “10 essentials,” and are considered to be essential in helping prevent potentially dangerous situations. Most you will use, some are brought to mitigate risk.

  • First-aid kit containing appropriate items for your trip
  • Fire starter. I bring two lighters and matches for backup.
  • The appropriate amount of food (more on this later)
  • Water and the ability to treat water at your campsite (again, more on this later)
  • Map of the entire area you are traveling, compass, the knowledge of how to use both together
  • Headlamp or flashlight with extra batteries
  • Extra clothing, including warm layers and rain gear, no matter what weather is predicted
  • Knife
  • An emergency whistle
  • Shelter, most likely a tent, tarp, hammock, bivy sack, or something similar

I use this list to guide me even when I’m just packing for a day hike. Weather and nature are unpredictable. It is imperative to plan ahead and think through the “what ifs.”

An orange and white tent among the trees
On the six-day hike of the Washington J-section of the Pacific Crest Trail when this photo was taken, a good tent is a must. Photo by Maddie Gavigan Martin

Further Essentials

There are additional, incredibly important, items to a backpacker that the above list misses.

First and foremost will be your backpack. Not just any backpack, but one that fits you well and is the appropriate size for your trip. A general guideline to backpack size – a weekend trip requires a 35 to 55 liter backpack. Three to six days will necessitate a 55 to 70 liter backpack. If you plan to be out for more than a week, you should have a pack capacity of 65 liters and up.

Important to the success of your trip will be a sleep system that you are comfortable setting up and comfortable sleeping upon. This includes your sleeping bag, rated to an appropriate temperature for the time of year and location you are camping, as well as a compression sack. Your sleeping pad, either an inflatable pad or a lightweight foam pad (or both if you are camping in snow). Sleeping pads are an important buffer between you and the cold ground, providing insulation and comfort, and trapping your body heat.

Whatever you have chosen to be your shelter (such as an appropriate backpacking specific tent) is also included in the sleep system equation. Ensuring that you, and everyone in your party, keeps warm, stays dry, and feels comfortable overnight are the key priorities here.

Footwear

A pair of hiking boots that fit and are broken in is essential for avoiding blisters, sprained ankles, bruised toenails, and other potential problems that come along with hiking all day, multiple days in a row. Well-fitted boots will have a touch of room in the toe, a snug fit in the heel to eliminate slip, and enough width side to side for a snug, not tight, fit. Don’t go backpacking in brand new boots. Wear them around the neighborhood, take them on day hikes, break them in. I personally recommend boots with high ankle support, especially if you have a heavy pack or will be hiking through rough terrain.

The only other pair of shoes you will need are camp shoes. Something lightweight than can double as a water shoe is ideal. Crocs, to me, are the perfect option. Sandals with a heel strap (like Tevas, Chacos, or Keens), or an old pair of running shoes, will also work well. I would avoid flip flops and opt for a sturdier choice instead.

A woman looks ahead on a rocky hiking trail
Hiking along the Pacific Crest Trail. Photo by Maddie Gavigan Martin

Clothing

This is an area where extra ounces and pounds can be all too easily added. Keep your wardrobe as minimal as humanly possible and keep in mind that you and everyone with you will all stink in unison – it’s part of the fun! My clothing list looks like this:

Hiking Outfit

  • Quick-dry synthetic or merino wool hiking shirt. If I’m out for more than one week, I will splurge and bring two.
  • Hiking pants or shorts (depending on the weather and personal preference) made of a quick-dry fabric. I wear soft shell pants in the spring and fall, and leggings that end below my knee in the summer.
  • Underwear and a sports bra (if you wear one) made of a quick-dry fabric – super important that these breathe. My standard is to bring one pair of undies for every three days.
  • Wool hiking socks. I bring two pairs (no more, no less) regardless of the length of my trip so I have a backup in case one pair doesn’t dry out overnight.
  • Lightweight fleece, puffy, or soft-shell jacket for cool mornings or lunch breaks
  • Rain jacket and rain pants
  • Sun hat or baseball hat to protect you from the sun. I also like to bring a bandana, headband, or buff to keep the sweat out of my eyes and hair out of my face.

Camp Outfit

  • Warm jacket, or multiple jackets to layer, for when things get cold at night. Not including my lightweight fleece for hiking, I bring two additional warm layers, one of them being a very toasty, warm down puffy coat.
  • Long johns or fleece pants
  • Warm hat and gloves
  • My trick to staying comfy at camp is to bring one set of extra socks, bra, and underwear that I solely wear around camp and know will be sweat and stink free.
  • Whatever you want to sleep in – it could be a long sleeve synthetic shirt and your long johns, it could be a pair of boxers. I’ll leave that decision in your hands.

My take away advice: cotton is not ideal in the outdoors because it holds moisture and dries very slowly – avoid it where possible. Keep your clothing list to the bare minimum and become comfortable with the idea of wearing the same clothes for multiple days in a row.

Cooking and Eating

A good camp stove ticks all the boxes of being efficient, lightweight, and easy to use. I recommend choosing a stove based on the meals you intend to cook. If your food plan predominantly involves dehydrated meals, oatmeal, or other items that solely require boiled water, a stove such as a Jet Boil is an excellent choice. They can cook pasta, but you can’t get much more gourmet than that. If you want to whip up scrambled eggs and bacon, getting a stove with an exposed burner will be important. I own a MSR Pocket Rocket, which retails for the good value of $45, and I can cook just about anything from coffee to burritos to veggie pasta. Don’t expect to cook over a campfire. This is not always possible and shouldn’t be your main method for preparing meals.

Two people eat on a rock overlooking a lake
A meal with a view. Photo by Maddie Gavigan Martin

The only eating utensils required in the backcountry are a bowl and spoon. If coffee is on the menu, a small mug isn’t a bad idea, although a half-liter water bottle also works well for this purpose. The cookware you bring will depend on your stove and what you plan on eating. A Jet Boil requires no additional pots or pans, while an open burner stove needs a pot for boiling water and frying pan for eggs, toasting bagels, or anything a pot can’t do. I always bring an extra utensil for stirring or flipping that is sturdier and has a longer handle than the spoon I eat with. A drip coffee cone and filters can elevate the morning brew, but remember you will have to pack out all of your soggy, used grounds – I usually opt for instant coffee instead.

Food and Fuel

What you eat and what you cook with will make up the bulk of the weight you carry in your pack. Both are heavy, but both are essential. Striking a balance for packing the appropriate amount of each can be tricky. It is good to have extra, but nobody wants to lug around a hunk of cheese they never ended up eating – trust me, I’ve been there.

Food. A general guideline for packing food is to consider the quantity of calories you will want to be consuming per day. For a three-season trip that’s not incredibly strenuous, one should strive to consume between 2500 and 3000 calories per day, which ends up weighing around 1.75 to 2 pounds.

The best backpacking foods are calorie dense but light in weight. Good examples of this include trail mix, granola bars, dried fruit, jerky, summer sausage, tuna, crackers (I prefer Wheat Thins), beans, rice, dehydrated meals (Backpacker’s Pantry Pad Thai is my definition of wilderness gourmet), instant oatmeal, pasta, and more.

For each full day in the backcountry, one should plan on bringing three square meals and plenty of snacks. Collaborating on meals with your trip mates can be a good idea to spread out the weight of heavy or bulky items. However, keeping snacks and lunches separate is wise, as people burn through calories at different paces and need various amounts of food to refuel. Create a full, written food plan detailing each meal so you can ensure you have the food quantities you need. Make sure your trip mates are doing the same.

Fuel. The type of fuel and the amount you bring will depend entirely on your stove. Fuel is typically calculated on a per person per day basis, and your stove manufacturer should have advice and estimates on how much fuel your particular stove burns. Bringing a little extra is always a good idea, especially if coffee or tea are on the menu – boiling water can use up a good amount of fuel.

Water Treatment

Water purification for safe drinking water is best done without the assistance of your stove. There are a lot of products on the market for the task of removing microbes and bacteria from natural water sources that could make humans sick. The simplest way to do this is by adding a chemical compound that kills off the bad stuff. Iodine and chlorine dioxide are the most common, and multiple products exist on the market for doing this safely and quickly in the backcountry. Make sure that this method is sufficient for where you are traveling, as these compounds do not kill off all harmful microorganisms.

The other main method of water treatment is to filter your water with either a hand pump or gravity filtration system. Filtering water is a more thorough method of removing unwanted particles, but takes a bit more effort and can require cleaning the filter in the field. Make sure you are comfortable using whatever filtration system you acquire. Practice using your water filter before you head out on your trip, and read the manual for best practices that will extend the longevity of the filter.

Have the capacity with your water bottles to store a full day’s worth of treated water, which will be consumed on the trail. This typically means at least two liters capacity or more

A lake with trees and the sun shining
One of the many gorgeous sites along the Pacific Crest Trail. Photo by Maddie Gavigan Martin

Additional Items

Prioritization of additional items is absolutely key in order to prevent bringing everything but the kitchen sink. My essential extra gear list items are outlined below. The advice here is, keep it simple.

  • Trekking poles (or sometimes even just one pole) especially if I anticipate creek crossings or slick terrain
  • Sunglasses
  • Sunscreen in a small container and sunscreen lip balm
  • Toothbrush and small container of toothpaste
  • Toiletries and/or medications, which will vary person to person. Leave the vast majority of skin care, hair care, or bathing products at home. I even ditch the deodorant, but I will bring a tiny container of biodegradable soap on long trips and an equally tiny container of moisturizer. As a contact lens wearer, I also bring glasses, my contact case, and a small bottle of solution.
  • If applicable, tampons/pads/etc. even if you don’t think you will need them
  • Trowel or small shovel for going number two in the woods. Something small and lightweight, but durable, is ideal. I’d also recommend hand sanitizer. Some folks prefer having a bathroom bandana for going number one – if this interests you, check out Kula Cloth.
  • Toilet paper and/or baby wipes. Sometimes I bring this and sometimes I don’t. But I always remember to pack out each and every square of toilet paper I use, and I will take a sealable ziplock bag solely for this purpose.
  • Large trash bag (trash compactor bags work well for this) to line the interior of my pack and ensure my items stay dry
  • Pack cover to keep my pack extra dry in a downpour
  • Playing cards or a small, lightweight game (my favorite is Pass the Pigs)
  • Book or journal
  • Camera gear if I want to take photos
  • Small repair kit. Mine includes: duct tape, needle and heavy thread, a pole splint, seam grip, p-cord, a multitool, zip ties, matches, extra water purification tablets, and more.

Depending on where you are hiking, you may need to bring specific items to keep you and the wildlife safe and separate. If you are backpacking in grizzly bear country, this should include bear spray. If you are traveling anywhere where grizzly bears, black bears, or any bears live, this should include a bear can, ursack, or a hang-bag and rope of at least 50 feet to ensure food is out of reach. Certain areas have regulations on what to bring, so do your research.

Safety and Responsibility

Last but certainly not least, you will need your trip itinerary. This detailed, written out plan of where you are hiking and camping will go hand in hand with your map and any necessary permits. Your daily intended plans should be well thought out and include caveats for weather or shortened days, as well as a familiarity with exit routes in case of injury or emergency. When planning an itinerary make sure you aren’t biting off more mileage than you can chew. If you are a novice backpacker, start off with shorter mileage (under six mile days), stick to easy terrain, and keep the trip length within a weekend. It takes a long time to build up the skills and endurance required for a more intense adventure.

A trusted (and willing) friend who lives in your area should be given a copy of your trip itinerary. You should provide them with an expected return date and contact them on this date when you are out of the woods and safe. If they don’t hear from you on that date, direct them to reach out to you and everyone in your party, have them check in to see if your car is parked where you left it, and alert emergency rescue services if needed. The cell phone number of everyone on the trip, detailed locations of where your vehicle is parked, and local emergency contact information should be included on your itinerary, both the one for your friend and the one you take into the backcountry. This is extremely important. If you don’t believe me, go watch the movie 127 Hours.

Another way to stay safe is to invest in a GPS device, such a Garmin InReach, that uses satellites as a means to contact the outside world. You can use such a device to call for help in a medical emergency as well as send a message to your mom reassuring her that you are just fine. You should not expect your cell phone to serve this purpose. Cell service should not be anticipated and battery life is finite.

Finally, before you head out, ensure that you are familiar with the seven principles of Leave No Trace. For a quick rundown, head to their website. These principles are an incredible guideline for practicing stewardship in a backcountry environment and ensuring that each place you hike and camp will be left as you found it for others to enjoy. The basic take away message is: leave only footprints, take only pictures (in other words, pack it in, pack it out). Following these guidelines helps to ensure that everyone is able to have a peaceful and remote experience during their trip into the wild.

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Written By
I’ve been backpacking, kayaking, snowboarding, cross-country skiing, and fly fishing since I got hooked on the outdoors as a kid in Northern Michigan. Being outside is my happy place, and it’s probably yours, too.

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