Geartrade: Backpacking 101
First, congratulations. If you’re reading about backpacking gear, perhaps you have a backpacking trip coming up. And if not, this article may get you thinking about planning one. Backpacking is one of the best possible ways to disconnect from everyday life and properly relax—while getting a wonderful workout and outdoor time. The only downside if you’re new to backpacking is that you may be susceptible to a few newbie mistakes. But stick with us, and we’ll help you sidestep those and have a wonderful time.
This is a very brief guide—entire blogs and books are written on the subject—but this post will give you a very quick’n’dirty overview.
The planning phase
If you’re new to backpacking, strongly consider going with a seasoned friend for your first experience. They’ll be able to not only help choose a destination but monitor what you’ve packed to help ensure you get it right. They can share pro tips too. (Scrub your dirty dishes with a pine cone! Carry a pair of slippers to wear around camp after you take your hiking boots off! If your pack is too heavy to put on by yourself, the next 30 miles will be lamentable!)
Choose a simple overnighter trip for your first experience if possible. That way you can fine-tune your program a bit. A simple online search or backpacking guidebook can give you plenty of ideas for destinations. As you get close to the trip date, keep a sharp eye on the weather and have a Plan B in mind if it looks insanely hot, cold, or stormy.
Think realistically about how many miles you can walk in a day; trust us, they’ll feel harder and heavier than usual thanks to the pack on your back and the inevitable ups and downs of the terrain. It may make sense to start with a trip that’s just a handful of miles each way. Super-seasoned backpackers (who likely have very lightweight, fine-tuned gear setups) will cover 20 or 30 miles per day, but don’t start off so ambitious.
Once you settle on a destination, buy a paper map of the trail. You can download schmancy GPS maps but those rely on electronic devices—and reliable power. It’s always smart to have a paper map too and familiarize yourself with it ahead of time. If you already know the landmarks you’ll see along the trail, you’re much less likely to get lost.
We’ll share a full checklist further down, but here we’ll share a few starting tips.
Your backpack is the foundation for your gear. Research what size of pack you’ll need depending on how many days your trip will be. Pack capacity is typically measured in liters. As an extremely rough reference, you want a 35-50 liter pack for 1-3 night trips. For a 3-5 night trip, you’ll need to expand beyond 50 liters, up to 60, 70, or even 80 depending on how far you’re trekking, how much food to bring, and if heavy cold-weather clothing or sleeping bags are coming along.
Your pack should also fit comfortably; with the waist belt cinched snugly around your hips, the shoulder strap weight should be greatly alleviated, which makes walking much more comfortable. Think about what kinds of exterior pockets and compartments you’d like. Some minimalist folks prefer almost zero pockets, bells, and whistles because those things only add weight. Other people love a designated compartment for different items, while others fall somewhere in the middle—preferring, say, a water bottle pocket within easy reach so they don’t have to remove the pack to take a drink. Keep in mind, you can always clip a few carabiners to the pack exterior and use those to carry extra items within easy reach.
For shelter, you can bring a tent or bivvy sack (or even a hammock if it’s hot … just bring bug-proof netting and a rain fly). You’ll most likely want a tent.
When choosing a tent, think first about how many people you’re packing into it. Typically, backpacking tents are sold for one, two, or three people. These ratings are usually a bit optimistic; plan on being packed in cozy if you’re sharing. But one upside is that you can split the tent, poles, and rainfly among your posse’s packs and save weight for everyone.
A “three-season” tent means it’s appropriate for spring, summer, and fall. A “four-season” tent means it’s heavier, thicker, and more waterproof for winter. Most three-season tents have some mesh panels for ventilation, plus a rain fly that you can put on top if it’s stormy. If there’s absolutely zero chance of rain in the forecast (we mean zero!) you can go without the rainfly to save space and enjoy stargazing through the mesh.
If you’re feeling super minimalist, you may skip the tent and go for a bivvy sack, which is basically a human-sized fabric sack you and your sleeping bag go inside of. This is great and minimalist but not advisable for claustrophobic folks.
There are tons of great UnNew tents for sale on Geartrade at all times. Do a little homework, feel free to ask the sellers questions, research different brands, and think about how easy it will be to set up. Typically, fewer poles and geometric puzzles will make trail life simpler.
These days, lightweight blow-up pads are the norm. (Ditch the big foam pads of yesteryear!) They come in non-insulated form, which is fine for summer, or with an insulation rating that puts a cozier buffer between you and the cold ground.
We have an entire article on how to choose a sleeping bag, so check it here! But basically, for backpacking, you want a sleeping bag rated warm enough for the expected temps but as packable and lightweight as possible. This is the biggest thing in your pack, so if you can get it to stuff way down (and not weigh down your bag) you’re in better shape.
If you’re a newbie and can afford it, throw down for the snazzy freeze-dried meals you can order online or in an outdoor shop. If you’re feeling more creative, research backpacking recipes (there are tons online and entire cookbooks dedicated to them). Keep in mind that most backpacking stoves are just one burner, so unless you have a buddy who also has a stove, plan a recipe that can be completely made in one pot. (Or strategically use the fire coals to help heat things up—for instance, you can wrap tortillas or naan in foil and warm them.)
The more dehydrated ingredients, the better. Think pasta with just-add-water sauce, dried fruits, oatmeal packets, instant coffee, nuts, rice, lentils, jerky, etc. Dried spices and sea salt go a long way to liven the flavors up. If you do want a few delicacies, bring a little chocolate, salami, or a hard cheese that won’t go bad quickly. We also splurge on a wee bit of whiskey in a collapsible flask, because whiskey and campfires go together so perfectly.
You’ll want to carry more food than you’d think is necessary; you burn hundreds of calories per hour backpacking, adding up to thousands of calories per day beyond what you’d typically burn. That’s a lot of granola bars and pasta packets. So bring plenty of food and plan based on the calories it will give you.
If you’re walking strenuously all day, you’re going to go through several water bottles full of water, and you’ll then need even more for camp cooking, dishes, and tooth brushing. Water is one of the biggest logistical considerations when backpacking. Research ahead to learn about the lakes, streams, and rivers you’ll encounter as you go, and plan how you’ll refill your bottles frequently enough. It’s super smart to set up camp near water if possible because dinnertime bottle-filling is easy. (The only downside of camping near water: higher mosquito likelihood.)
To make the water clean for drinking and cooking, you’ll either need to bring iodine tablets to drop in or carry a water filter with you. These come in lots of shapes, sizes, and brands. Many entail a small packable pump with one straw going into the river or lake and the other straw going into your bottle. Others work like a French-press on your water bottle, and still, others involve a UV light that kills cooties. Research and take your pick. We personally like small packable water pumps because you can filter large volumes of water relatively fast.
The little items make the experience. For instance, it’s nice to stow a small headlamp, a lighter, a compressible puffy jacket, sunscreen, lip balm, a ball cap or sun hat, and a few babies wipe to freshen up.
We know: this sounds like a lot
There is plenty to bring. But the great news is that if you’re buying gear designed for backpacking, it will be far smaller, lighter, and simpler than what people take car-camping. It’s miraculous how much you can fit into a 40-liter pack and go have a wonderful weekend in the woods if you chose the right gear.
Every ounce, pound, or gram you can shave off your packing list will make a world of a difference—we’re not kidding. If your pack is too heavy, every cell of your body will ache by mid-day. But everything you do to strategically reduce weight will make your day easier and more enjoyable. Your feet, hips, and shoulders will thank you.
Basic backpacking gear checklist:
(Adjust depending on your trip, but you’ll either need all these things or will need to have a distinct reason you don’t).
- Map and compass
- Tent with rainfly, footprint, poles, and stakes – split between your pack and a tripmate’s if you can
- Sleeping pad
- Sleeping bag (overview article here!)
- Headlamp and/or small lantern
- Water bottle(s)
- Water filtration system
- Backpacking stove
- Fuel canister(s) for stove
- Cook set, spork, mug, as well as biodegradable soap and a scrubber or cloth to wash them with
- Bear canister or hang bag and cord (to hang your food away from the reach of critters)
- Meals and snacks (more snacks than you think you’ll need)
- Puffy jacket for evenings
- Rain jacket
- Small trowel shovel for going to the bathroom (or a sealable potty bag)
- Fire starter (if fires are allowed—check ahead of time)
- First aid kit (overview article here!)
- Clothing you can wear in layers, including changes of socks and whatever you want to sleep in
- Toiletries, lip balm, and sunscreen
- Trekking poles if your knees like having them
- Insect repellent
- Bear spray (if you’ll be in bear country)
- A book, journal, and/or card game to enjoy
- A plastic bag to stow and carry trash
- Optional: a small solar charger or mini phone charger bank, and a SPOT locator beacon (or other satellite communication tool like a Garmin InReach)
Shave weight by:
- Bringing fewer changes of clothes (or none if you’re really down to get funky)
- Doing purely dehydrated meals rather than bringing fresh fruits, veggies, or cheeses
- Cooking, eating and drinking out of the same pot/mug
- Sleeping in a minimalist bivvy sack rather than a tent
Beth Lopez is a seasoned writer and creative director who loves to tell tales of adventure and discovery—and finds writing a powerful way to give a voice to people, causes, and places. Beth runs amok in the Wasatch mountains when untethered from her computer. She believes there’s no such thing as a bad ski day and considers animals her favorite people. Don’t tell her mother about her Instagram mountaineering photos.