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Backpacking Gear Essentials Checklist

Backpacking Gear Essentials Checklist

Posted by Michael Wallace on Jun 10th 2021

The Essential Backpacking gear

  1. Backpack
  2. Shelter & Comfort
  3. Clothing
  4. Footwear
  5. Lighting
  6. Navigation
  7. Knife
  8. Fire & Emergency Supplies
  9. Personals & Toiletries
  10. Food & Water

This list is intentionally comprehensive and is intended to make sure anyone can backpack comfortably, and solve for their own basic needs in the wilderness for at least 3 days.

Gear Breakdown

1. Your Backpacking Pack

Features to look for:

  • 40-60 Liter Storage Capacity
  • Water reservoir sleeve and tube holders
  • Water bottle pockets on the sides
  • Supportive and adjustable straps and waist belt

Bonus Points if:

  • There is a raised mesh backing for air flow
  • It has a self contained waterproof cover
  • The waist belt has storage pockets
  • *Has additional features specific for your activities* like helmet storage or gear loops

On a basic level your pack should have a comfortable fit, appropriate capacity to accommodate all of your gear, food, water and clothes. Extra features tend to also increase the price. Unless you are looking for a specific feature, we often advise that a basic pack is the right way to go.

40-60 liters of storage capacity is a perfect size to fit a three day backcountry trip without over packing. Empty space tends to fill itself with something. Most of the time that tends to just add unnecessary weight to your pack. If you are planning on using your pack for colder and more inclement weather, go with a larger storage capacity to accommodate your bulkier insulation needs. If you plan on using this for fairer weather, smaller storage is usually advisable. I personally like the 'less is more' approach and limit my pack size to avoid filling it with unnecessary items.

Pro Tip - Make a list of everything you bring on your hike. After you are back, check off everything you used (or had probable cause to use... don't nix the first aid kit) and remove anything that you did not from your packing list.

Packing Tip - If you use dry bags or stuff sacks to organize your gear. This will allow for quick access to your gear and some extra water protection.

Ready to Upgrade your pack now?  Shop backpacking packs

2. Shelter and Comfort for Backpacking

What you should pack:

  • Tent with rainfly, tent stakes & foot bed or ground cloth OR a hammock camping system
  • Sleeping bag (rated 10-20 degrees below the lowest projected weather forecast temperature and based on personal preference)
  • Sleeping Pad
  • (Optional) Sleeping bag liner
  • (Optional) Pillow

Features to look for:

  • Waterproof rainfly & Built in foot print (tents)
  • Rain Tarp (Hammock systems)
  • Bug nets and mesh
  • R-Values (Sleeping Pad)
  • Left Zip or Right Zip (Sleeping bags)
  • Synthetic or Down insulation (Sleeping bags)
  • Short, Regular, & Long Lengths (Sleeping bags)

This is your protection from the elements. Much like your clothing, the goal in selecting these items is to control precipitation, regulate temperature, ward off hungry trail critters, and maintain your comfort level.

Tents vs. Hammock Systems:

Hammock camping systems tend to weigh much less and take up less real estate in your pack, however, there is a bit of a difference between camping in a tent than a hammock. For starters, hammocks leave the person much more exposed to temperature and airflow (that is great for those summer, but much harder to regulate during colder nights without extra gear.). This can be mitigated by proper planning and knowing what gear that you need. Tents are tried and true, but tend to be much bulkier in weight and packing size. You can always take the 'ultra-light' route, though that tends to come with a much higher price tag.

Sleeping bags - what you need to know before you buy:

When selecting a sleeping bag, one of the first things you will notice is a number on the front. This temperature is the comfort rating of that bag. This is based on an EN (European Norm) standard adopted by the sleeping bag industry and is more of a guideline than a definitive number for several reasons: everyone's physiology is different, their temperature tolerances are different, whether they sleep hot or cold, etc. Taking a 30 degree bag out into 30 degree weather is going to be miserable, and buying that zero degree bag for 50 degree nights is going to make you sweat all night and dehydrate. Using a bag that is rated for 10-20 degrees colder than the trip's lowest project temperature is a great place to start when selecting a bag. 

Pro-Tip: Some sleeping bag liners are designed to add extra warmth for colder nights and take up remarkably less space in your pack than going with a much bulkier and colder rated sleeping bag.

Also pay attention to details on the bag that you buy. Left zip and right zip bags are designed for different dominant hands. Bags come in different lengths and are meant to be snug, but not impossible to fit into. Read the label and sizing chart to see if you need a different length.

Synthetic vs. Down insulation - what is the difference?

When choosing between the two insulation types, it usually comes down to how much space are you willing to sacrifice versus your budget. There are two main types of insulation, and they have different pros and cons. Synthetic insulation is usually a polyester or nylon filling, and down insulation is, well... bird down. Synthetic insulation will still keep warming properties even if it gets wet, and tends to be cheaper, but tends to be bulkier in size and weight. Down, in a weight to warmth ratio, is much more efficient and can compress much more than a synthetic bag. The draw backs of down are its much higher price and that if it gets wet, the down tends to clump together, allowing much more air to pass through it. This means that the bag then loses its insulative properties.

Ready to upgrade your tent?  Shop tents

Ready to try out hammock camping?  Shop hammocks

3. Clothing for Backpacking

Features to look for:

  • UPF Sun Protection
  • Moisture Wicking
  • Quick-Dry
  • Waterproof
  • Windproof
  • Merino wool and anti-microbial fabrics

You should pack:

  • Tops & Bottoms
  • Underwear & Socks (One for everyday, plus one extra)
  • Fleece or Down insulation (weather dependent)
  • Rainwear (Jacket & Pants, or Poncho)
  • Hat or bandana for sun protection
  • (Optional) Base layers, beanie, neck gaiter, and gloves for colder weather

Trail clothing is all about regulating environmental factors like temperature, precipitation, and exposure to the sun and wind. Look clothing that has UPF (sun protection), quick-dry and moisture wicking properties to mitigate sweat and outside moisture, and (ideally) compact rain jackets and insulation / base layers for inclement weather.

Pro-Tip: Leave a change of clothes in the vehicle to change for the drive back.

Need some new hiking clothes?  Men's Apparel or Women's Apparel

Cotton socks smelling funky? Try some  merino wool blends

4. Footwear for Backpacking

What you should pack:

  • Boots or trail runners
  • (Optional) Camp shoe
  • (Optional) Gaiters
  • (Optional) Hiking cleat

The two things you should look for in your trail footwear:

  • Toothy and aggressive sole / tread
  • A great fit

A good trail shoe should be able to provide protection and support, especially on rough terrain. Lose rocks on trails, creek crossings, unexpected motion; all of these can put a real beating on your feet. Having a proper fitting shoe with great tread is going to keep you stable on slick and rough terrain, and mitigate most of your foot related injuries.

There's a lot of trends in the footwear industry that make it more difficult to navigate which shoe is the best for me, and it genuinely comes down to a matter of 'does it fit properly.' You can buy the beefiest mountaineering boot with every bell and whistle on it, but if it doesn't fit the shape of your foot, you are not going to have a good time with it.

Mid Height - The cuff of the shoe rises above the ankle. This provides ankle support and is great for steeper and rocky terrain.

Low Cut - The cuff of the shoe is below the ankle. This style tends to be moderately lighter than the mid height variations. This is a great 'versatile' style.

Waterproofing - This is a membrane liner inside the material of shoe that protects the inside from outside water. This tends to make the shoe much less breathe able and hotter than non waterproof shoes.

A short note about boots vs trail runners - Boots provide excellent support and protection and are great for carrying packs with more weight than you are used to carrying. Trail runners are running shoes - they have a familiar tennis shoe feel, and an athletic fit, and are great for light days and faster activities. Before you chose which shoe is the right style, check with a professional about what you plan on using the shoes for and see if it truly matches your activity.

Old shoes not cutting it for the trail? Check out  Men's Hike & Trail Shoes or Women's Hike & Trail Shoes

5. Lighting for Backpacking

What you should pack:

  • Headlamp, Flashlight, or Lantern
  • Extra Batteries

A good camping light will have, at minimum, a high, low, and red light setting. This is most commonly found on headlamps. Flashlights and lanterns also work, but also tend to be heavier and have to be held, making the late night camp chore a but more difficult.

A note about lumens and max battery life -There is a bit of confusion we see that people have when their headlamp doesn't stay on for the maximum time advertised on the box. The chart has a battery life for each lumen strength setting, and maximum only applies to the lowest light setting. Make sure to check the box and product details for more information

Wanting to add some lumens to your gear list?  Shop Camp Lighting

6. Navigation for Backpacking

What you should pack:

  • Map
  • Compass
  • (Optional) Waterproof Map Case

Always carry a navigation set up with you for instances where you may get lost on the trail.

Pro-Tip: Depending on the trip, you can download an offline map on Google Maps as a backup. It is advisable to ALWAYS have a backup navigation solution

7. Knife for Backpacking

What you should pack:

  • A lightweight knife

Bonus points if:

  • It has a serrated blade
  • Has multi-tool capabilities that match your needs

The one true survival tool from which you can make all other tools... if you know how to at least. Never leave without one.

Looking for solid camping blades?  Shop Knives

8. Fire & Emergency Supplies for Backpacking

What you should pack:

  • Emergency Blanket
  • First Aid Kit
  • Waterproof matches or a lighter
  • At least one extra day worth of food
  • Bug Repellant
  • Sunscreen

Never skip packing your emergency essentials. While we all love the outdoors. We all want to be safe. 

9. Personals & Toiletries  for Backpacking

What you should pack:

  • Tooth brush & Tooth paste
  • Contacts & case, solution, glasses (for anyone like me without 20/20 vision)
  • Toilet paper
  • Trowel
  • Biodegradable soap
  • Phone
  • Portable charger with cables
  • Compact Towel
  • Parking pass
  • (Optional) Trekking Poles
  • (Optional) Sunglasses
  • (Optional) Headphones for lounging at camp
  • (Optional) Your go to camera

Be sure to limit your toiletries and entertainment to reduce your pack size and weight. Many camping toiletries offer travel size, or other space saving features.

Pro-Tip: Download podcasts, shows, and music before you hit the trail. Trying to unplug? Books are great too.

10. Food & Water  for Backpacking

  • Dry / non-perishable food (enough for at least one extra day than you intend on using)
  • Stove
  • Fuel
  • Utensils, cups, bowls & plates
  • Water bottle or water reservoir (2-3 liters storage capacity)
  • Water filter and / or water purification tablets
  • Bear Canister or rope and dry bag for hanging your food

Easily one of the most space consuming and weight intense parts of your pack. The key to finding a good balance with your camp kitchen is finding space saving kitchen wear and simple, non-perishable meals. 

Pro-Tip: think about how to limit space by getting cookware with multiple uses and that can be self contained.

Need some Grub?  Shop Dried Foods & Snacks

Need a way to cook that food?  Shop Camp Stoves and Cookware

Time to upgrade your hydration game?  Shop Water Reservoirs and Water Filtration

Now, get out there and explore!