We've compiled our backpacking essentials based on all of our years and experience of expeditions and adventures in the great outdoors. Out there, no two days are ever the same. All of the places you’ll go on a backpacking adventure will be different. The weather will be different, the trails will be different, the scenery will be different – that’s partly why you keep exploring. Even when you revisit an old favourite, it'll be different. A gentle hill in summer can become a gnarly mountain in winter. What would be a straightforward hike in benign conditions can feel like a battle with Mother Nature herself when a storm descends. This is why, regardless of how long your planned adventure is, equipping yourself with the backpacking essentials is so important.
Being prepared is crucial in the outdoors. The basics should be obvious, but here's a reminder. No matter the season or forecast, never set foot into the wilderness without your best waterproof jacket. You're going to be carrying substantial weight on technical trails, so the best hiking boots are also important for comfort and ankle protection. And, of course, it's called backpacking for a reason; the best hiking backpack goes a long way to ensuring an enjoyable trip.
These days, the term backpacking covers a number of different pursuits and the way you approach your adventure will have a bearing on the specifics behind your backpacking essentials. For example, the best hiking gloves for a fastpacking mission will be markedly different from the gloves you wear when peak-bagging in winter, while the best backpacking food for one night out in the wild may be different to what you would take for a week long expedition. These are things you need to consider when you plan a backpacking adventure.
However, regardless of the kind of adventure you have planned, the principles remain the same. Here’s a list of 10 key items you should always carry when you’re on a backpacking trip.
1. A waterproof shell jacket
Top of our backpacking essentials is a waterproof 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.
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, including even vegan footwear.
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 hiking shoes or lighter trail running shoes. 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.
3. An appropriately sized backpack
If you’re going backpacking, you’ll need to carry a lot of stuff. Extra layers of clothes, food, a stove and a wide range of equipment (sleeping bag, tent, headlamp, camping 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.
4. A bright, long-burning head lamp
High on our list of backpacking essentials is a headlamp. Once the sun goes down and darkness sets in, you need an artificial light source to perform key tasks around your campsite. While a handheld flashlight 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 headlamp 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.
Once your confident with your headlamp, you might even opt to go night walking. This is good training if you have ambitions of tackling mountains in winter – or in the Rockies, Alps or Greater Ranges – when pre-dawn starts are common.
5. Dry socks
There’s nothing worse than getting wet feet while you’re hiking, but it happens. That's one of the reasons why dry socks are one of our backpacking essentials. Tricky stream crossings, dewy grass, unavoidable snowfield crossings and unexpected rain showers are among the many obstacles that can make your feet wet. Knowing how to stay dry while hiking will see you facing even wet conditions without a second thought and will enhance your enjoyment greatly.
Having a second pair of hiking socks that are kept dry – perhaps by packing them in a dry bag – will not only keep you warm and comfortable, but can prevent blisters 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 your feet dry and stop them getting 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.)
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. It's also a good idea to bring a hiking flask that will keep the coffee you brew up in the morning hot by the afternoon.
7. Warm gloves
A warm pair of hiking gloves are an absolute backpacking essential. 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 charger that can quickly charge small- to medium-sized devices, lights and other camping tech is an excellent thing to have on board for longer adventures. Alternatively, you can get portable battery packs that you charge in advance of your expedition.
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. Insect repellent is a must for certain regions, such as for fending off midges in the Scottish Munros in summer. Likewise, having a tick removal device (often known as a tick twister) is important in the UK as, if you don't carefully and properly remove these nasty hitchhikers, it can lead to Lyme's Disease.
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 komoot, The Hiking Project, All Trails, Gaia GPS, Spyglass, PlantSnap and Peakfinder. And have a look at our guide to best navigational apps.
Brian is an award-winning journalist, photographer and podcaster who has written for Runner’s World, The Times, Outside, Men’s Journal, Trail Runner, Triathlete and Red Bulletin. He's also the author of several books, including Kicksology: The Hype, Science, Culture and Cool of Running Shoes. He lives in Boulder, Colorado, and loves to run, bike, hike, camp, ski and climb mountains. He has wear-tested more than 1,500 pairs of running shoes, completed four Ironman triathlons, as well as numerous marathons and ultra-distance running races.
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