What You Need to Start Backpacking
Updated: Oct 6, 2019
So the idea of heading into the backcountry with everything you need on your back appeals to you. Self-sufficiency, exploration and disconnecting from the modern world all attract people to kit up and head out into the woods. Once the interest is piqued and you've decided to get started the next challenge is to figure out what you need.
I break down your gear needs into various systems. If what you are thinking of packing doesn't fit in a system then you probably don't need it. I find this an easy way to keep from over packing.
Depending on how long you are expecting to hike will also affect what you bring. If it is a short hike in then a bit of extra weight, such as a camp chair or frozen steaks to cook over the campfire aren't too much of a challenge to carry. On the other hand, if the plan is 20-mile days then you want to keep weight to a minimum. If you are strict with yourself about only bringing the essentials, you will have a much more enjoyable trip. Over time the extra weight really takes a toll on the body.
The list below covers the general categories. For more in-depth information on the individual systems, read our articles that breakdown the specific details about what gear to choose so you buy the right gear the first time. This can save you a lot of money over time.
What you need for a backpack will be dictated by the size and weight of your gear, how long you plan to go, and your fitness level. A lightweight pack generally is only comfortable carrying light loads so if your gear is heavy you will probably need a heavier pack with more support and padding. A good starting point for all-around backpacking is an internal frame pack with a capacity of 50-65 liters.
You need shelter from wind, rain, and bugs. For most people, this means a tent but you can also do a tarp or hammock. Each has its place. You will also need to include items like a ground sheet, tent pegs, guylines, and repair kit.
If you are in a tent or tarp shelter, this will be your sleeping bag or quilt, sleeping pad, and pillow if you use one. For a hammock, you don't need a sleeping pad but you will need a sleeping bag or top-quilt and an under-quilt.
Cooking System and Food Storage
First, you need to decide if you are going to cook or eat ready to eat foods. If you decide to cook you will need a stove, fuel, a cooking pot, utensils, a way to clean up, and food storage. You could also choose to cook over a campfire if the areas you head into permit fires. You will also need a way to store your food away from camp at night, whether you hang it or store it in a bear-resistant canister.
Food for the Backcountry
Depending on whether you are looking to move light and fast, or make a basecamp a short hike from the trailhead will affect your menu plans. If you want to minimize weight then dehydrated foods such as freeze-dried meals, rice, noodles, and oatmeal all maximize calories with the least amount of weight. Aim for 125 calories per oz of food.
If you are not concerned with weight then the sky is the limit. Just remember you don't have a way to keep food refrigerated so bring things that won't go bad during the length of your trip.
Water Processing and Storage
Water is heavy so being able to process safe drinking water along the way will save you a lot of weight. Most natural sources of water will have bacteria and parasites so you will need to filter or use chemical treatment. I suggest carrying both so you have a backup method.
Additionally, you can always boil your water. I suggest this only for an emergency as it uses fuel. You will need a way to carry your water so bottles or hydration bladder will be needed. You will need the ability to transport at least 2 liters, but in desert environments, you may need 10+ liters of carrying capacity.
Things go wrong. From twisted ankles to blisters, you want to be equipped to deal with common medical issues. Additionally, take a first aid and CPR course so you have the skills to deal with any emergencies on the trail.
On a backpacking trip, you probably won't have a chance to shower but that doesn't mean you have to ignore hygiene altogether. Hand sanitizer and wet wipes will keep you clean enough. Toilet paper and the knowledge of how to poop in the woods will handle the lack of bathroom facilities. Plus bring a couple of freezer ziplock bags to carry out all of your garbage.
Think of this as your mini survival kit for if things go wrong. Fire making, signaling, shelter building, and water collecting. You can make use of a lot of your other camping gear as well but having an emergency kit packed keeps these things in an easy to find location if you need them quickly. I also suggest a satellite communicator such as a Spot or Garmin so you have a way to communicate with the outside world when you are out of cell phone range.
While some trails have signs you don't want to count on that. Map, compass, GPS with topographic maps, and smartphones with downloaded trail maps are all useful tools. Don't just rely on electronics since batteries die. Navigation is having the data and knowing how to use it, so practice before you head out into the wild.
You need to have the clothing with you to handle any foreseeable weather conditions. Generally, avoid cotton clothing as it takes too long to dry even in warm weather. Research the historic low for the time you are going to be on the trail, and prepare for that.
Whether you wear boots or shoes, you want to make sure they have good support and traction. High-quality socks are just as important if you are going to keep your feet in good shape.
Knife or multi-tool
Photo Credit: Catharine Gerhard