How to Pack for a Backpacking Trip

Backpacking is a favorite outdoor activity, but it is very physically challenging. One of the most important steps to making your trip more pleasurable is packing well. Taking only the items and articles absolutely needed will add to your enjoyment, by lightening the load you carry.


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    Make a list to include everything that you will possibly need on your trip. Don't leave things out and think you will remember what you needed. Include everything that you will need, as well as what you might need.
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    Follow the rule for backpacking, which is if you cannot decide if you need it, you probably will not need it. Instead of bringing an extra heavy duty flashlight, bring a second set of batteries.
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    Bring a backpack. Whether you buy one or borrow one, adjust it for your body. Fully loaded, nearly all of the weight should be on your hips and sacrum. The shoulder straps are mostly there to keep the pack vertical and close to you.
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    Reduce food weight and volume by packing primarily dehydrated meals. Avoid excess raw meats, especially on long trips. Pack calorie dense food, but try to eat from a variety of food groups. Eat a lot of carbohydrates and protein. Since you'll sweat a lot, make sure you get sufficient salt. Most food packaging is bulkier than necessary and less waterproof than you'll prefer. Before you go, divide up your food and repackage it into zip-top bags.
    • Consider the following foods: oatmeal, Pop-Tarts, granola bars, nuts, and dried fruit for breakfast; bagels, hard cheese, crackers, peanut butter, summer sausage, raisins, nuts, and apples for lunch; and pasta, macaroni and cheese, couscous, instant black beans and rice, instant soup, Ramen, and quesadillas for dinner. Don't forget dessert--pudding or cookies are lovely.
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    Shop for a tent that suits your needs. Avoid excess, it will add weight. A two person tent is sufficient for two people; do not be tempted to buy a larger one. Bring a sleeping bag and a ground cushion to insulate you from the ground to keep you warm. If you don't want to bring a pillow, stuff a sack with spare clothing at night.
    • Borrow a tent if you can. Make sure it has a rain fly and a ground cloth. Something small and lightweight is preferable. You don't need more floor space than your bodies will take up for sleeping since you'll keep your pack outside. If you are going somewhere rocky, bring a tent that stands up on its own, unstaked. It can be hard to find good places to put stakes.
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    Check your map to determine how far apart water stops are, then determine how much water you will need between the two points. 64oz (~2 L) might be sufficient for a cool day, but more, up to 200oz (~7 L), might be required in arid regions. Water should be available at your campsite or from natural sources such as streams and lakes. Use water purification tablets or filters in natural water, no matter how clear it looks. Make sure water sources are reliable. Some may be dry during droughts or in summer months. Call the park rangers for the area to ask if you are in doubt.
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    Wear whatever you find comfortable; there is no hiking dress code. Bring rain gear for rainy days (a poncho just doesn't cut it for backpacking; invest in a rain suit consisting of a jacket and pants). Hiking boots protect your feet and provide ankle support. Buy heavy wool or synthetic socks to wear with them, and consider sock liners (thin socks underneath the wool socks made of polypropylene or nylon) to prevent 99% of blisters; no cotton! In cool or rainy regions, cotton kills! It wicks moisture, is slow to dry, and provides little insulation. Polar fleece, polypropylene, olefin, Thermax, and CoolMax are among the suitable materials for outdoor wear.
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    Buy a titanium or aluminum pot with a Teflon non-stick surface. Make sure they have handles, preferably plasticized to prevent burning your hands or invest in a pan gripper. Ensure the pot is large enough for one-pot cooking .
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    Bring a hand-held flashlight or a headlamp, for hands-free use.
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    Bring tinder to start a fire. An excellent tinder is dryer lint. Cotton balls and newspapers work, but the ultimate is dryer lint rubbed with Vaseline or Petroleum Jelly. These will start easily and burn very intensely. Take fire-starters that create sparks and fire without a match and a large supply of waterproof matches. To make waterproof matches, dip strike-anywhere matches in melted candle wax. Disposable cigarette lighters are also OK.
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    When packing your backpack, place heavy items, such as water, camp stove and fuel, tent poles and stakes, and food near the bottom of your pack and close to your back. Place the lightest items, such as fleece, sleeping pad, and rain/wind gear at the top, away from your back. Place your bulky sleeping bag at the very bottom of your pack, close to your back as well. Some backpacks are made with a special pocket for your sleeping bag. Beware that these can allow water to enter through the zip so ensure your bag is well protected from getting wet if there is a possibility of this. Medium-weight items, such as utensils, clothing, lighter foods, and your tent body and fly can either go near the top away from your back, or near the bottom close to your back. In the outside pockets, place miscellaneous items that you might need to access quickly: map, compass, knife, flashlight, fire starters/matches, etc. Make sure you pack a trash bag or two for garbage at your campsites and wet clothing.
    • Pack clothing inside a garbage bag with the top folded over. Put the heaviest items closer to the small of your back and near the top. Keep your rain gear, snacks, and whistle easily available. Use zip-top bags and stuff sacks liberally. Keep all of your aromatic items in one or two places so that you don't forget any when you need to place them in the bear keg/bag.


  • Bring extra socks. Wet feet are the worst.
  • Remember: Whatever you pack, you have to carry on your back for however long you have to hike. PACK LIGHTLY!
  • Pack everything separately in plastic bags; they are pretty much impervious to water and are negligible in terms of space and weight. For even more space, suck all of the air out of a ziplock bag before closing. This does not count as air-tight, so don't use this method for storing perishable food items.
  • For women: if you need to bring feminine products, pack them in plastic bags to avoid water damage. You also should plan to pack out used pads or tampons in a plastic bag, since there may be no place to dispose of them.
  • Try to bring items that can do double duty- an extra shirt or a fleece, for example, can also work as a pillow.
  • Buy the lightest tent that you can within your budget. Buy for layout, not square footage. Do not be scared off by high prices as a good tent can last you many years. Just pick a tent that you like, and make sure you consider that you'll be carrying it around quite a bit. Before you go hiking with it, set it up in your backyard a few times so you can do it in the dark or rain. Also, see if your camping supply store sells a footprint or mat made for your tent to keep the bottom dry. If not, just buy a plastic tarp or a bivouac/survival bag. Don't forget the hammock option. Light and does little damage to the environment. Just remember that you will need more insulation under you because of convection.
  • Remember, a little can go a long way. don't go crazy, and only bring the stuff you really need to have with you.
  • Once all of your gear is in your pack and you've filled up your water bottles, it should definitely weigh less than 1/3 of your body weight and hopefully less than 1/4.
  • Dress in layers, it keeps you warmer and if you get hot you can just take layers off.
  • When starting to hike, go on marked trails with water spots, this will make it harder to get lost.
  • If your backpack has a hip strap (it always should), put the heaviest on the top and light things on the bottom. This will prevent your pack from leaning away too much from your shoulders. the hip belt's sole purpose is to take the load off your shoulders and onto your stronger leg muscles, so there is no need to distribute weight in your pack to make your shoulders comfortable, and it really shouldn't be done.
  • Learn to navigate with a map and compass.
  • Use compression stuff sacks for bulkier items like clothing, tent, and sleeping bag. They will save a lot of space.
  • Buy a GPS. Not only does it help you orient yourself, it can be invaluable for navigating at night. You just need a map to get your coordinates from.
  • A sleeping pad will keep you from feeling the rocks underneath your tent, and will insulate you from the cold ground. It is essential if it will be chilly at night. Your sleeping bag's filler will be compacted under your weight so it will only protect the top of you. If you have the money to spare, therm-a-rest self inflating pads, such as the NeoAir or the ProLite line, are great, but bear in mind these are not the lightest option. If you want something cheaper but not as comfortable, the Therm-a-Rest RidgeRests aren't bad, they are a non-inflating pad. the advantage with these is that they are extremely lightweight. For the ultralite minimalists you can also just try to find a piece of soft eggshell foam from a packing crate and use that.
  • If the nighttime temperature will be warmer than 60 °F (16 °C), you can bring just sheets or a blanket. The tent will keep you pretty warm on its own. When you are packing your sleeping bag, line your stuff sack with a garbage bag. Stuff in your sleeping bag and then fold over the garbage bag before you tighten down the drawstring. This is very important for keeping your sleeping bag dry.
  • Check the weather map to see if the destination you are going is going to be warm or cold. You wouldn't want to be travelling to a warm place and bringing clothes meant for colder weather. Be smart and plan ahead.
  • For anything other than middle of summer camping at low elevation, buy or borrow a down-filled mummy bag. The main differences between down and synthetic are that down will pack down smaller and be lighter for the same temperature rating, but if it gets wet it will not dry quickly and will be useless. If you are going to be in wet conditions either ensure your bag is going to be well protected from getting wet, or consider a synthetic fill bag. It should be rated for at least 30 °F (−1 °C). Mummy bags have a hood that extends up over your head and allow you to close off the bag such that nothing but your nose and mouth is exposed.


  • Avoid wearing jeans and all cotton clothing. If cotton gets damp it loses its insulating properties and takes a long time to dry. In hot weather it will make you feel clammy and uncomfortable. In cold weather it can kill you.
  • Always make sure someone knows where you are. Leave your itinerary and the ranger contact information with a friend or family member, with very clear instructions on when to call, and what to tell the rangers.
  • Unless you are very skilled and experienced, always hike with one or more other people, it's safer that way.
  • Don't overdo it. Just because you have no problem walking 6–7 miles (9.7–11.3 km) on a path doesn't mean you can go up and down hills with a 25 pound bag on your back.

Things You'll Need

  • 1. Written Packing List
    • List of Items to Grab Last Minute including frozen meat for first nights meal and last minute items to get from store on the way
  • 2. Food and Meal Plan for X Days
  • 3. Cooking & Eating Kit:
    • Water Bottles (2 32 oz. Nalgene bottles work great)
    • Backpacking Stove and fuel (ground fires are illegal in some places and not advisable in dry conditions).
    • Mess kit - bring only the pieces you need
    • pot for cooking and any utensils you might need (don't bring the whole cook kit!)
    • Spoon (this is all you need, no forks or knives. Also make sure it is plastic, not metal, as plastic is much lighter)
    • Cup and Bowl (also make sure this is plastic. A Ziploc plastic container with a lid works great)
  • 4. Sleeping Kit:
    • Tent - including all poles, ground cloth and rain fly
    • Sleeping Bag - appropriate warmth for conditions
    • Sleeping Pad (Closed foam to insulate you from the ground.)
  • 5. Clothes for X Days (use nylon, polyester, and synthetics - NOT COTTON)
    • 2-3 pair socks minimum
    • Extra pants - Synthetic zip-off pants
    • Extra synthetic underwear
    • Short & long sleeve shirt
  • 6. Outdoor Essential - Take on every trip into the wild
    • Water
    • Knife
    • Rain Gear
    • Jacket
    • Fire Starter/Matches (waterproof)
    • GPS/Compass
    • Map
    • Cell Phone (only if you are likely to have reception)
    • Whistle
    • First Aid Kit w/moleskins for blisters
    • Headlamp or tiny flashlight and extra batteries
    • 50–100 feet (15.2–30.5 m) of light rope (parachute cord works great, make sure you get something synthetic that is 3/8" thick or smaller, anything thicker will be too heavy)
    • Bug Spray (not needed in winter months)
    • Sunscreen
    • Toilet Paper
  • 7. Desirable Extras
    • Camera
    • mini binoculars for bird watching
    • Pen and Paper
    • Sunglasses
    • Bandanna (not absolutely necessary, can be used as sun protection in desert conditions or as an emergency filter)
    • Tinder (fatwood, char-cloth; or you can get natural tinder right where you are camping. Birch bark and red cedar bark work best. Make sure you get it from trees all around, don't strip from one tree! The birch is pretty straightforward, but with cedar you need to split the bark into a very fluffy, thread-ball like thing which can catch air easily when lighting.)
  • 8. Backpacking Gear:
    • High quality properly fitting backpack with a padded hip belt
    • Hiking Boots or sturdy walking shoes
    • Wide brim hat to protect from sun and rain
    • A waterproof cover for your pack. Make sure it is large enough to cover all your external pack gear or ensure all the contents of your pack are protected from getting wet by using a pack liner.
    • Large garbage sack - but don't rely on this to double as rain gear in emergency as your arms will not be protected and cold air will funnel through it.
    • Bear box or stuff sack and rope for hanging a bear bag
    • NO Jeans - Heavy cotton can lead to Hypothermia and kill if it gets wet.

Sources and Citations

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Categories: Backpacking and Hiking