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10 essential items for a backpacking adventure: don't leave home without them

backpackers on ridge
Have a successful backpacking adventure with these 10 essential items (Image credit: Getty)

All of the places you’ll go on a backpacking adventure will be entirely different. The weather will be different, the trails will be different, the scenery will be different – that’s partly why you keep exploring. But you’ll need a lot of these same essential items no matter where you go or how long you’re on the trail. 

Here’s a list of 10 key items you should always carry when you’re on a backpacking trip.

1. A waterproof shell jacket

Even if there is no rain forecast, you should carry a lightweight, waterproof shell jacket. Word to the wise: don’t bother with a water-resistant jacket when you go backpacking, only opt for a fully waterproof jacket. First of all, no matter if you’re in the mountains or the forest or along the coast, a surprise rain shower is a constant possibility and you’re always better safe than sorry. Secondly, a waterproof shell jacket can protect you from the wind and generally keep you warmer than a wind shell if the temperature drops. Lastly, you can sit on your waterproof shell on dewy grass and wet ground to keep from soaking your bum. Advanced, high-end lightweight jackets aren’t cheap, but they’re a great investment that can last for many years. 

Check out our guide to the best waterproof jackets you can buy right now to pick the right one for you.

2. Hardy footwear

It used to be that everyone wore staunch leather hiking boots on backpacking trips. They were heavy and stiff, but they were also sturdy, secure and durable. However, materials, trends and backpacker preferences have evolved over the past two decades, allowing for a wider range of footwear choices. You should still demand good traction and some level of support in your shoes, but depending on what kind of terrain you’ll be on and how fast you’ll be moving, you might opt for heavy boots, mid-weight approach shoes or lighter trail runners. But you’ll still want to pack a pair of lightweight flip flops for moving around the campsite, too. (It makes it much easier to scurry into the woods in the middle of the night when nature calls.)

While there are still great classic waterproof backpacking boots available, there are also some unique, new designs, and variations of lighter and more flexible trail running shoes if you want a more athletic vibe out on the trails. 

See what's best for you in our guide to the best hiking boots you can buy.

3. An appropriately sized backpack

If you’re going backpacking, you’ll need to carry a lot of stuff. Extra layers of clothes, food, stove and a wide range of equipment (sleeping bag, tent, headlamp, utensils and more) all need to fit in your pack. The longer you’re planning to be the trail, the more gear you’ll require and the bigger the pack you’ll need. Having the appropriately sized pack for the length of your adventure is especially important to maximize your experience, comfort and, of course, what you can or can’t bring. 

Generally speaking, there are three sizes of backpacking packs based on the duration of the intended trip: 

  • Weekend packs are for one to two nights of backpacking and have roughly 30 to 50 liters of storage capacity.
  • Multiday packs for three- to five-night excursions are typically in the 50- to 70-liter range.
  • Packs for extended trips can be as large as 65 to 85 liters in size, and allow for a lot of gear, apparel and food you’ll need for long excursions in all types of weather.

Thinking of making a purchase? Our buying guide to the best hiking backpacks should point you in the right direction

4. A bright, long-burning head lamp

Once the sun goes down and darkness sets in, you need an artificial light source to perform key tasks around your campsite. While handheld flashlights can be great and pack a lot of power, a bright, long-burning headlamp can be much more useful. The hands-free operation of a head lamp can be crucial in helping you set up your tent, making dinner, cleaning up and walking into the bush in the middle of the night when you have to wee. The advent of high-powered LED lights and rechargeable batteries has resulted in smaller, lighter and more powerful headlamps. 

We list the best on the market in our guide to the best head lamps you can buy

5. Dry socks

There’s nothing worse than getting wet feet while you’re hiking, but it happens. Tricky stream crossings, dewy grass, unavoidable snowfield crossings and unexpected rain showers are among the many obstacles that can make your feet wet. Having a second pair of dry socks will not only keep you warm and comfortable, but it can keep your feet from blistering and improve your whole mental outlook. Make sure you wear socks that rise above the top of your shoes, have extra padding and no-slip features so they stay in place. Some brands' socks are made from antimicrobial materials that wick moisture away from your skin to help keep for feet from staying wet, cold or stinky. Waterproof socks are also an option you might want to think about.

(If your original pair of socks get wet, try to dry them after you take them off, either by carefully placing them next to a camp stove or campfire or by hanging them so the sun or breeze can help reduce the moisture content. If your other socks get wet, the original pair will still feel better if they’re at least partially dry.)

Cooking by tent

Freeze-dried meals will help give you the energy you need for a backpacking adventure (Image credit: Getty)

6. Good food and beverages

Trail mix is a great snack, and you should always have a hearty helping of your favorite variety at arm’s reach. But if you’re backpacking for multiple days, you’ll want to load up your pack with nourishing dehydrated freeze-dried meals. These lightweight, cook-in-the-bag meals are simple to make with boiling water and are available in a variety of scrumptious varieties. You can buy them in single- or double-serving sizes or opt for multi-day, multi-person packs. Something to cook them on is essential too. 

Our essential buying guide to the best camping stoves on the market will help get you cooking.

7. Warm gloves

Even if it’s sunny and warm during the day, cool weather, rain or a breeze in the morning or at night will make your hands cold. If your fingers get cold, you’ll lose the dexterity needed to do nimble tasks related to setting your tent, preparing meals and making coffee in the morning. Always make sure you have a heavier pair of gloves to keep your digits warm in the coldest possible temperatures and also provide a good amount of grip. You can also wear featherweight liner gloves during the daytime. 

8. A solar-charging battery

Let’s face it, there are a handful of helpful devices we typically take into the backcountry, whether it be a flashlight, head torch, smartphone or a Bluetooth speaker. A portable solar panel device that can quickly charge small- to medium-sized devices and lights is an excellent thing to have on board for longer adventures. 

See our guide to the best solar chargers to decide which one you need.

9. Health, safety and sanitary gear

If you're wondering why take a first-aid kit, the fact is that accidents are bound to happen in the backcountry. It makes good sense to carry a basic first-aid kit so you can treat basic maladies like cuts, blisters, sprains, headaches and more. While you can clean up with water from a nearby lake or a flowing stream, it’s not a good practice to drink or cook with water from those sources unless you treat it. Untreated water can lead to Giardiasis and Cryptosporidiosis intestinal infections caused by microscopic parasites and pathogens that can thrive in what appear to be freshwater sources, often related to heavy animal traffic (wildlife or livestock) upstream. To avoid those impossible-to-see things that can lead to fatigue, nausea, cramping, gas, bloating, vomiting and diarrhea, take a water purifying filter. And always pack a roll of toilet tissue for every three days you plan to be backpacking. 

10. Your smartphone

While most of us like to disengage from the digital world when we’re hiking and backpacking, a smartphone can be a very helpful tool when you’re out in the wild – even if you don’t have cellular service. At the very least, you should download digital maps (.gpx files) of where you’ll be ahead of time so you can keep track of your location via GPS signal. But if you do have cellular service, you can keep tabs on changing weather conditions and also call or text for help if you get injured or get into an emergency situation. (Lastly, you can also fall asleep listening to an audio book.) Key apps you should consider downloading are The Hiking Project, All Trails, Gaia GPS, Spyglass, PlantSnap and Peakfinder. And have a look at our guide to best navigational apps.