How to Pack for a 2-3 Night Backpacking Trip

Not sure what to bring along for a weekend backpacking trip? In this guide, Camping & Hiking expert Kat Smith shares everything she brings and how she packs it all up.

Someone hikes up a hill with a large backpack that has external straps holding the tent horizontally on it.

Photo by Kat Smith

You purchased your lightweight camping gear, you planned your route, and you obtained your backcountry permit (if needed). There’s only one thing left to do before hitting the trail for your 2-3 night backpacking adventure – pack!

Packing for 2-3 nights in the backcountry is challenging. If you over-pack, you are stuck carrying the extra weight (literally on your back!), which may slow you down or even force you to end your trip early. But if you under-pack, you may be stuck out in the wilderness with no cell phone service, cold, hungry, or uncomfortable. So how do you pack exactly the right amount of everything you need AND fit it all into your pack?

Step 1: Layout your gear

Take over your living room and layout all your camping gear – clothing and food included! This will allow you to see every item as you decide what goes with you and what stays behind.

Step 2: Decide what needs to come

This is easier said than done, as a good argument could be made for why just about any piece of camping gear deserves to come on the trip! To make these decisions easier, break down your gear into four categories.

Essential Camping Gear

This is the gear that you absolutely must have with you in order to not only enjoy your trip but survive it! The list below is the essential camping gear you should not leave for a backpacking trip without.

  • Appropriately sized backpack (50-65 liters is a good size for 2-3 nights in the backcountry)
  • Shelter
  • Sleeping bag
  • Sleeping pad
  • Water bottle and water treatment system
  • Camp stove (such as the MSR PocketRocket 2 Stove) and fuel
  • Cookware
  • Emergency Gear: headlamp, fire starters and lighter, first aid kit, knife, compass, and map
  • Miscellaneous: medications, sunscreen, trowel or small shovel and toilet paper, trash bag, hand sanitizer, and a bear can and bear spray (if you are heading into bear country!)

Clothing

A woman stands on trail with her backpack on. She wears a short-sleeve shirt, tight pants, socks, and hiking boots.

Photo by Jos Smith

This is where it starts to get easy to over-pack. For a backpacking trip, you will need 3 outfits: a hiking outfit, an at-camp outfit, and a sleeping outfit.

Your hiking outfit is what you wear while you are on the trail, so you want it to be comfortable and breathable! It will include:

  • 1 pair of hiking footwear
  • 1 or 2 breathable, quick-dry tops
  • 1 breathable extra layer (i.e. a lightweight fleece)
  • 1 or 2 pairs of breathable pants or shorts
  • 1 or 2 pairs of hiking socks
  • 3-4 pairs of underwear (1 pair for each day!)
  • 1 hat with a brim
  • 1 rain jacket. And even if the weather is calling for sun and nothing but sun, bring a rain jacket!
  • Optional: Rain pants, highly encouraged if the weather forecast is wet.

Having dry, comfortable clothes to hang out in when you get to camp will make a world of difference! Your at-camp outfit will include:

  • 1 dry, comfortable top
  • 1 pair of dry, comfortable pants
  • 1 pair of dry socks
  • 1 warm jacket
  • 1 beanie
  • 1 pair of gloves
  • 1 pair of “camp shoes”, such as old running shoes, Crocs, or Chacos.

Your sleeping outfit will include whatever you choose to sleep in! This varies from person to person and may overlap with your at-camp outfit. Your sleeping outfit may include:

  • 1 pair of long johns or fleece pants
  • 1 tee-shirt or comfortable top
  • 1 pair of dry socks

Set aside one of each item in your hiking outfit in a pile. This is what you will wear the first day, so it does not need to be packed! Pack all of the other clothing items together in a designated compartment in your backpack. A compressible dry bag, such as the Sea to Summit Ultra-Sil Compression Dry Sack, is ideal for packing your clothes in – it will compress your clothes to 1/3 its size! While this does not decrease the weight of your final packed bag, it does help create space in your pack.

When you are backpacking, it is important that you embrace the stink! Putting on a shirt you hiked in for 8 hours the day before may not sound ideal, but as long as it is dry, it will serve its purpose. In general, your backpacking group will all be in the same boat, and being dirty and stinky is well-accepted out in the backcountry.

Food

Two people sit on boulders in a meadow while they eat. Rocky peaks rise in the background and blue sky peeks out from behind clouds.

Photo by Richard Marschner

When you are hiking 8 to 10 or more hours per day, you will be burning plenty of calories! You will want to pack a breakfast, a lunch, and a dinner for each full day, and plenty of calorie-dense snacks. In general, food is heavy! You don’t want to lug around food that you aren’t going to eat, but you also don’t want to run out of food before you hike out. Food that you add boiled water to, such as dehydrated meals and instant oatmeal, are easy to prepare and light in weight, making them perfect for backpacking. Other light, calorie-dense, and nutritious foods that pack well and don’t need refrigeration include trail mix/nuts, granola bars, tortillas, peanut butter packets, dried fruit, jerky, and tuna packets.

If you are planning to catch and cook your food, it is always smart to have a packed meal or two with you, just in case the fish aren’t biting that day!

Just like the clothing, pack all your meals together in one compartment or space, but keep some snacks stashed away in easy-to-reach pockets! And if you are backpacking in bear country, be sure to have a bear can or hang bag and rope!

Luxury Items

These items are not essential to your survival and success in the backcountry, but contribute to your overall happiness! Some luxury items are standard, including trekking poles, a toothbrush and toothpaste, deodorant, bathing and skin care toiletries, and sunglasses. Other items will vary greatly from person to person and include a book, a journal, a hammock, a packable pillow, a portable French press (if you are a coffee lover like me!), camera gear, and a GPS navigation system.

Step 3: Organize all of the chosen items so that they are ready to go into your pack

Get all of your gear into its lightest, most compact, organized form. For some backpacking-specific gear, this is obvious: roll and compress your sleeping bag and sleeping pad, break down your tent into its carry bag, and stack your cookware inside of itself. But what about the clothing, food, and all those random, loose items?

A man sits in a hammock with his back to the camera. He looks over an icy lake.

Photo by Kat Smith

Whether you are using a compression sack or a plain old plastic bag from the grocery store, pack your clothes in the order you think you will need them. The items you will need sooner, like your at-camp outfit should go on top, and the items you won’t need until later in the trip, like your extra hiking shirt, should go on the bottom. Your rain jacket and extra layer should be at the very top since you may need them on the trail, or you may consider keeping them loose at the top of your pack for extra easy access. This strategy will save you from having to unpack and repack each time you need an item, which will make it efficient to add or remove layers on the trail!

The same strategy applies to your food: the meals you are going to eat first go at the top of your food container, and the meals that you are going to eat on the last day go on the bottom. If you are bringing a bear can, pack your meals right into it! If you are not bringing a bear can, use a lightweight bag to compartmentalize all your meals together in your pack. Stow the snacks and lunch you plan to eat that day in easy-to-reach pockets for easy access on the trail!

Lump together as many of the loose items as you can. For example, pack toiletries and general hygiene items together in a Ziploc bag.

Step 4: Pack it up!

You started with gear, clothing, food, and all kinds of various items taking up every inch of your living room, and now you are down to just a few small piles! But you are probably still wondering, “How in the world is this all going to fit inside my pack!?”

Two people walk on a log that crosses a stream. They're both in shorts and wearing large backpacks.

Photo by Richard Marschner

Properly loading your pack isn’t just about fitting everything inside. Yes, that is an important part! But a properly packed backpack will feel evenly balanced from side to side, won’t shift and sway from a top-heavy load, and will therefore provide comfort and prevent injury on the trail.

Backpack and gear shapes and sizes vary, so there is no one-size-fits-all way to pack, but there are some general rules of thumb to follow.

The main compartment

This is where the majority of your items will go, as it is the largest space. Just like packing your clothing and food into their individual bags, you want to pack your bulky, heavy gear that you absolutely will not need until you reach camp in the bottom of the main compartment. This includes your sleeping bag, sleeping pad, and bear can (if you have one) packed only with meals you will not need until you reach camp. You may need to try different configurations until you find what works best for your size gear and pack.

Once the heavy items you won’t need until later are in the bottom of your main compartment, add the items that are not quite as heavy and bulky and that you may potentially need on the trail. This includes your cookware, fuel source, clothing bag, and food bag. I like to keep my rain jacket and extra layer outside of my clothing bag for easy access, and my snacks for the day in easy-to-reach pockets. However, you never know when you may need to dip into your clothing and food bag and retrieve something earlier than you expected (for example, your beanie or a little extra fuel to get you through to camp). Keeping your food bag toward the top will also save your food items from being squished!

The last things to go into your main compartment are items you want easy access to, are lightweight, but are too large to fit into an accessory pocket. This includes your rain jacket, extra layer, and water filtration/treatment system.

As you add items to your main compartment, fill in spaces and gaps with smaller, conformable items such as a packable pillow or a soft-cover book. This will help to create a stable load that won’t shift while you are walking.

Accessory pockets

Most packs have large pockets on the top lid and front, and smaller pockets on the sides and along the hip belt. The larger pockets are where you will pack the items that you need on the trail often or urgently, but are too large to fit in your hip belt pockets. This includes your lunch and snacks for the day, first aid kit, emergency gear/kit, GPS navigation system, sunglasses, and sunscreen. I also like to pack my small, loose items that are more fragile into these pockets, such as my MSR PocketRocket Stove, even though I won’t need it right away.

External straps

To save space in the main compartment, many people opt to use the tool loops and straps on the outside of the pack for oversized, long, and oddly shaped items. This can include your tent, trekking poles (when not in use), fishing gear, and specialty equipment such as ice axes, crampons, or snowshoes. Make sure these items are strapped tightly to the pack and won’t swing side to side or catch on low-hanging branches or overgrown parts of the trail.

A woman walks into the distance where jagged, snow-dusted peaks rise.

Photo by Jos Smith

Step 5: Hit the trail!

You did it! Your living room is spotless and everything that was once scattered is now neatly packed away into your backpack. All that’s left to do is get to the trailhead, and let the adventure begin!

If you want free, personalized advice or recommendations on the perfect gear to bring along on your backpacking trip, reach out to a Camping & Hiking expert here on Curated.

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Growing up in a suburb of New York City, most of my outdoor adventures were in the Northeast. Hiking, skiing, horseback riding, or just exploring the woods, when I was outside, I was in my element. Now, I am lucky to call Salt Lake City my home, where the world’s greatest outdoor playground is my ba...

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