Today, I’m going to show you exactly how to plan a backpacking trip.
We’ll start with my simple backpacking checklist, cover which gear is best and how to pack it, and end with choosing where to go.
Note, that this is a beginner’s backpacking guide – so it’s geared towards newbies.
Simple Backpacking Checklist
Use our beginner backpacking checklist to help round up gear for your first trip:
- Sleep System
- Sleeping Bag
- Sleeping Pad
- Camp Pillow
- Kitchen Supplies
- Stove (w/ Fuel)
- Matches or Lighter
- Cook Set
- Meal Set
- Water Bottle
- Hiking Clothing
- Hiking Boots
- Moisture-Wicking Base Layer
- Quick-Dry Pants
- Lightweight Fleece
- Sunhat or Beanie
- Rain Jacket
- Camp Shoes (or Sandals)
- Odds & Ends
- 10 Essentials
- Bear Spray
- Bear Canister
- Water Treatment
- Hygiene Products
- Bug Spray
- Portable Solar Charger
- Satellite Communicator
- Cards, Game, Book
Remember, every backpacker requires different gear. You might not need all the gear above and you might want some gear we didn’t include.
The key is to track what works. Write down what you could do without and what you wish you had on each trip. Pretty soon, you’ll have your very own personalized backpacking gear checklist.
Backpacking Gear Explained
Here is a more in-depth look at each category from our backpacking gear list.
You can’t go backpacking without a backpack to hold your gear!
For weekend trips, a backpack between 30 and 50 liters is best. Look for a model larger than that if you plan to take longer trips (more than two or three nights).
Make sure to buy a backpack specifically made for backpacking – avoid day packs and hiking bags.
Weatherproofing is also key. Although waterproof backpacks are available, I prefer a model with basic waterproofing (such as taped seams and a rainproof top lid) which I supplement with a backpack rain cover.
I’m currently using the REI Flash 55 Pack. It’s lightweight, breathable, and versatile. It’s quite comfortable, stays cool on hot days, and packs well.
A tent is the most common backpacking shelter, but is far from the only option available.
A tent is the best backpacking shelter for most backpackers, including beginners.
For short trips, you can get away with a lightish car camping tent, but a backpacking tent is a must for longer trips.
Backpacking tents are lighter and pack down much smaller than normal tents. This also means there’s less interior space.
Most important is selecting a backpacking tent capable of handling your expected weather conditions. A 3-season tent (with rainfly and stakes) is ideal for most campers.
Most backpackers use a 2-person tent, unless they commonly go solo backpacking (in which case a 1-person tent is ideal).
3-person and 4-person tents are available, but you’re probably better off splitting your group up into separate tents at that point.
Because of personal preferences or the demands of certain trips, some backpackers prefer a different shelter over a tent.
- Hammock – A hammock is a lightweight (and, honestly, very comfortable) alternative to a tent. The downside is trees are required for hanging.
- Bivy Sack – Minimalist backpackers rejoice…a bivy sack is a super lightweight and versatile one-person shelter. The downside? It’s very confined.
- Tarp – Some ultralight backpackers prefer to use a tarp instead of a tent due to the weight savings and greater versatility. For me, the main downside is a lack of all-around weatherproofing.
Of course, you can go backpacking without a shelter altogether. In good weather, some backpackers just sleep straight in their sleeping bag right on the ground (sometimes called cowboy camping).
Most backpackers use a sleeping bag and a sleeping pad for their sleep system (although some opt for a backpacking quilt as a lightweight alternative).
Many backpackers obsess over the warmth-to-weight ratio of their sleeping bag.
As the name of the ratio implies, this obsession is focused on finding the lightest bag that still provides good warmth.
Beginner backpackers don’t have to worry quite as much about the warmth-to-weight ratio.
Instead, I recommend simply opting for a mummy bag rated for around 15° below the coldest temperature you expect to encounter on your trips.
Yes, weight is still important for beginners. You don’t want a heavy bag. But most budget-friendly models are more than light enough for weekend backpacking trips.
Which sleeping bag do I use for backpacking?
I’m currently running The North Face Eco Synthetic 20. It’s a solid mummy bag that’s surprisingly roomy. It’s not the lightest bag at 3 pounds 14 ounces, but it does the job for me (and doesn’t break the bank).
You don’t absolutely need a sleeping pad – but it does make camping a heck of a lot more comfortable.
For backpacking, I actually go the old-school route with a closed-cell foam pad. Currently, I’m using the Nemo Switchback (great for those on a budget).
Many backpackers, however, opt for something slightly more expensive in the form of an inflatable air pad. I’m currently eyeing the Sea to Summit Ultralight Insulated to save a little weight and increase comfort.
Remember, a sleeping pad not only makes sleeping on the ground more comfortable – it also provides a layer of insulation between you and the ground.
In fact, a good trick for backpacking in cold weather is to use an air pad on top of a foam pad for increased insulation at night.
I don’t personally use a pillow for backpacking.
Instead, I just use a stuff sack (like the one for my sleeping bag) and fill it with any extra clothing for a makeshift pillow. It works just fine.
If you insist of using an actual backpacking pillow, the Nemo Fillo Pillow is super lightweight and very comfortable (I’ve tested it out myself).
Sure, you can always eat no-cook meals while backpacking, but who wants to do that?
A basic backpacking stove and cookset will let you make all of our favorite backpacking meals.
Your stove (with fuel!) is the most important part of your backpacking kitchen.
Our guide to backpacking stoves breaks down what to look for when making a purchase.
I swear by my MSR WindBurner Stove. It’s super compact, doesn’t weigh much, and boils water very quickly. It doesn’t have an auto-light ignition (so remember to bring a lighter or matches).
Check out my full review of the MSR WindBurner to see if it’s also the right backpacking stove for you.
Cook Set and Meal Set
You don’t need much beyond the very basics when it comes to cooking and eating equipment for backpacking.
Personally, I bring just one lightweight pot (with lid), a Snow Peak Titanium Spork, and a water bottle.
I cook with and eat out of the pot, use the spork as a multi-purpose utensil, and drink all beverages out of my water bottle.
Some backpacking stoves (including the MSR WindBurner) even come with a built-in pot.
Of course, you don’t have to be so minimalist. Many backpackers bring a lightweight cook set, dish or bowl, and mug in addition to an eating utensil.
There are a ton of different options (and I’ve personally always been a backpacking kitchen minimalist), so I’ll keep my suggestions here short.
The GSI Outdoors Pinnacle Dualist HS Cookset is a good option in itself, but it will also give you a better idea of what to look for in a backpacking cookset (even if you choose another model).
Quality hiking clothing provides more than just comfort – it also keeps you warm and dry (and, thereby, safe and healthy).
A quality pair of hiking boots are vital for backpacking.
Selecting the right boots is a complex topic. Not only do you have to consider proper fit, but also style, weight, materials, waterproofing, and so much more.
Our team has been pleased with our Keen Targhee 3 Hiking Boots. We even reviewed them (both the men’s and women’s models) for you.
Check out Keen’s line of Targhee Boots on REI.
And, don’t forget to pick up some hiking socks while you’re at it (which are almost as important as quality boots).
Benefits of Hiking Clothing
You don’t absolutely need to wear specialized hiking clothing for backpacking – but it’s certainly smart.
Clothing made for hiking and backpacking is lightweight and incredibly versatile.
Look for clothing that is moisture-wicking, breathable, and quick-drying.
Personally, I try to balance comfort with weight. I don’t need the lightest weight clothing available, but I do want to be comfortable!
Remember to Dress in Layers
Dressing in layers is perhaps one of the most important backpacking tips to remember.
The idea is simple. Add a layer when you’re too cold. Remove a layer when you’re too warm.
Everyone has their own preferred method of layering.
I like to use a cozy, moisture-wicking base layer like long underwear, a warm mid layer like a zip-up fleece (or lightweight puffy jacket in winter), and a waterproof outer layer like a rain jacket and rain pants.
Pack for the Weather
Always pack clothing based on expected weather.
On the other hand, you’ll probably want a sunhat, sunglasses, and probably even shorts when backpacking in the summer.
No matter the season, I always like to pack a rain jacket just in case conditions turn for the worse.
How Many Sets of Clothing Do You Need?
Like almost everything on your backpacking gear list, the number of sets of clothing to bring is largely up to preference.
Some backpackers don’t bring any changes of clothing. Others like to bring several pairs, even on weekend trips.
Personally, I always like to bring a set or two of extra socks and underwear.
I’ll usually stick to just one pair of pants and two or three shirts, even on longer trips. I like to pack, say, two short-sleeve shirts and one long-sleeve shirt.
Even in super hot summer conditions, a long-sleeve shirt is nice to keep bugs off and help protect your skin from the sun.
For backpacking in the summer, I also like to throw in a pair of quick-drying shorts for use on the trail, at camp, and for swimming.
Odds and Ends
The tricky thing about putting together a beginner backpacking checklist is that everyone packs different things, especially when it comes to accessories.
The 10 Essentials
It’s always smart to bring the ten essentials on any backpacking trip.
In short, this list consists of navigation, a headlamp, sun protection, first-aid, knife, fire starters, emergency shelter, extra food, extra water, and extra clothes.
Although all of these ten essentials are, well, essential, we most strongly encourage you to bring a camping first-aid kit.
Even a very basic first-aid kit will help with trail injuries. And, you can also pack other essentials (like a map and compass, extra matches, and a little sun lotion) in with the other first-aid supplies.
Just as important is reading up on wilderness first aid basics so you know what to do in case of an emergency.
Backpacking in bear country?
Then you almost certainly need a bear-proof canister, unless you plan on the old-school bear hang method.
Our top bear country camping tips breaks down exactly how to keep bears away from your backcountry campsite.
Packing in all the water you need for your trip is one option.
I personally prefer to pack in my water on most backpacking trips, except for very long ones, with a lightweight water storage bag.
A water filter is another alternative.
Another water treatment option is a chemical water treatment like iodine.
Remember, that you must be confident you’ll find a water source on the trail if you don’t plan to pack in your own water.
Some form of camp lighting is needed for backpacking.
Almost every backpacker chooses a headlamp rather than a bulkier option like a flashlight or camping lantern.
Another benefit is that headlamps are hands free. You can use yours while preparing dinner, reading a book, or even hiking.
Lately, I’ve been very happy with my Petzel Tikka Headlamp.
Don’t forget to bring any necessary hygiene and personal products.
A toothbrush and toothpaste are staples in my kit. Pack feminine hygiene products if you need them.
I like to bring hand sanitizer to use after going to the bathroom (don’t forget to bring a trowel or WAG bags for this).
A great backpacking hygiene tip is to pack very small amounts of these products in lightweight packaging to save weight. For example, a few dabs of toothpaste in a small piece of foil.
Other Backpacking Gear
I’ve said it a bunch of times already, but I’ll say it again – every person and every trip requires different gear.
On very long backpacking trips, it’s nice to keep all your important devices (like your smartphone) charged.
The Goal Zero Nomad 20 is an awesome solar panel for backpackers.
I recently invested in a Garmin inReach Mini for backpacking.
It’s a lightweight satellite communicator with a 24/7 SOS feature so you can contact search and rescue anywhere in the world (even with no cell reception).
The GPS-enabled device also provides basic navigation and the ability to send messages to loved ones at home.
Taking a satellite communicator backpacking has given me a huge amount of peace of mind in the backcountry, especially when I’m alone.
The Garmin inReach Explorer+ is a more robust model with more features, including the ability to more easily send custom messages to those at home.
Books, cards, and games are a must for staying entertained once the hiking is done and you’re chilling at the campsite for the night.
Backpacking Meals and Food
Proper fuel and nutrition is pivotal to planning a great backpacking trip.
What to Eat While Backpacking
High-calorie, lightweight foods (look for a good weight-to-calorie ratio) is rule number one for backpacking meal planning.
Base your backpacking meals not only on your personal eating preferences, but also on the length of your trip and type of backpacking stove. In general, easy-to-prepare camping meals with minimal cleanup required are ideal.
Freeze-dried backpacking meals are a popular go-to backpacking meal. Just drop the meal into boiling water and you’re good to go.
Other ready-to-eat foods like GORP, jerky, hard cheese, fresh fruit, and energy bars are also extremely popular.
How Much Water for Backpacking?
Water is just as, if not more important, than food for backpacking.
Each person should carry at least 2 liters of water per day on the trail, more if hot weather is expected.
Carry water in water bottles or a hydration reservoir.
A water purification system (filter or tablets) allows you to pack in less water and still drink enough, as long as there are adequate water sources along your route.
Check for potential water sources before your trip. Mark these on a map. Then call the local ranger station to confirm the status of these water sources.
Always remember that otherwise plentiful backcountry water sources can easily dry up, especially in the summer.
Proper Backcountry Food Storage
As a backpacker, it’s your responsibility to prevent wild animals from getting into your food in the wilderness.
First and foremost, never leave your food in your tent and never leave your food unattended.
Check local regulations for additional food storage rules.
When hiking in bear country, you typically must use a bear proof canister and/or hang your food bag from a tree.
Although keeping your food away from bears (and following all other bear safety best practices) is vital, proper backcountry food storage also benefits all other wild animals, including small ones like mice and other rodents.
How to Pack Your Backpack for Backpacking
Learn how to properly pack your backpack to fit the most gear, make important items easily accessible, and create good balance when hoisted on your back.
- Bottom – Pack items needed only at night (sleeping bags) at the bottom of your bag.
- Middle – Heavy items, like your stove and cookware, should be packed near the middle of your backpack. If you have a bearproof canister, fill it as full of other items as possible and pack here as well.
- Top – Pack frequently used and lightweight items at the top of your bag. Think rain jackets, snacks, and maps.
- Exterior – Sleeping pads, trekking poles, and tent poles can all be attached to the exterior of your backpack to free up additional interior space.
- Split Items Up – Split tent components up when backpacking with a partner. For example, one of you carries the tent body while the other carries the poles and rainfly.
Plan Your Route
You can’t go on a backpacking trip without first planning a route.
- Skill Level – Select a route that matches your skill level. Beginners should go on a short overnight trip first before embarking on a long multi-night expedition.
- Trail Type – Your choices include a loop trail, out-and-back trail, or point-to-point trail. I personally prefer a loop trail when possible as you see the largest variety of scenery.
- Trail Distance – As mentioned above, beginners should start small. 3 to 10 miles per day is a good average for most in-shape hikers. Depending on the terrain, fewer miles is often wise, especially when encountering serious elevation gain.
- Weather Conditions – Check the current weather conditions the day you leave. Make sure to pack appropriate gear for the weather. And, if snow or other weather makes your planned route at all unsafe, pick an alternate route or reschedule your trip.
- Expected Terrain – The type of terrain you expect to encounter dictates what gear you need and how much water to pack. Dry, hot, open terrain requires more water while a wet, soggy, rainy environment requires wet weather camping gear.
- Personal Preferences – Do you like hiking on flat ground or a lot of hills? Do you prefer hiking in the mountains, along a river, or through the desert? Let your personal preferences dictate the location for your first backpacking trip.
- Permits & Regulations – Always plan ahead by getting the proper permits/passes and checking local backpacking regulations. Backcountry permits for overnight stays are common as are trailhead parking fees. Check with a local ranger station for the latest info.
- Create a Detailed Plan – Never go backpacking without a plan. Know where you want to go and bring a map. I always bring a paper map as a backup, even if bring a GPS device, like my Suunto Traverse Alpha Watch. Make a written plan with details of your route, including each spot you intend to camp. Leave a copy with a friend and another in your vehicle at the trailhead in case of an emergency.
- Go With a Friend – Solo backpacking is an amazing experience, but new backpackers should always go with a friend. Better yet, join along with a more experienced friend to learn the ropes with someone who knows their way around the backcountry.
Additional Backpacking Tips
As a beginner backpacker, here are a few additional tips to consider for at home, on the trail, and in case of an emergency.
Before you leave for your backpacking trip, consider the following:
- Practice – Set up all new gear at least once at home. Familiarize yourself with your tent, camp stove, and other equipment so you don’t encounter any problems in the field.
- Break In Boots – Take time to break in new hiking boots before your trip. Wear them around town and on short day hikes before you go backpacking.
- Get in Shape – Don’t go backpacking unless you’re in decent shape. Make walking a regular part of your routine, go on a few day hikes, or hit the gym.
- Talk to a Ranger – Contact your local ranger station before you leave for current information on your planned backpacking route. They’ll tell you about wildlife sightings, road closures, trail conditions, campfire restrictions, and more.
- Share Your Plan – Never plan a backpacking trip without telling someone else where you’re going. Leave a detailed plan with a friend so rescue workers know where to look if you don’t come home on time.
On the Trail
Keep the following top backpacking tips in mind while on the trail and at your campsite:
- Set Up Camp – Always select an existing campsite if possible. Otherwise, select a flat, sturdy area. Set up camp as soon as you arrive. Make sure not to set up camp within 200 feet of lakes or streams and never camp on fragile wildflower meadows.
- Filter Water – Never drink directly from a lake or stream. Infections like giardia is common, no matter how clear the water. Pack your own water or being along a water purification system.
- Cook Safely – Cook backpacking meals at least 200 feet from your campsite. Wash all dishes this distance as well. This reduces the chance of spilling food that will attract wildlife to your tent. In bear country, wearing a different outfit to cook in versus the one you sleep in is also important.
- Properly Store Food – Minimize wildlife encounters, including those with dangerous animals like bears, by properly storing all food at night in a bearproof canister or hanging from a tree.
- Build a Campfire – Check if backcountry campfires are allowed in the first place. If they are allowed, follow all campfire safety best practices, including keeping the fire as small as possible, using only wood collected from the ground, and never leaving the fire unattended.
- Use the Bathroom – Pee at least 200 feet away from your campsite and any water sources. For “number two,” either bury in a small hole or pack it out. Many backcountry areas now require you to pack out all human waste. Bring toilet paper and check out our tips for going poop in the woods for more info.
- Leave No Trace – Respect the wilderness by always following the 7 leave no trace principles while backpacking.
In an Emergency
If you find yourself in an emergency while backpacking, follow these tips to stay safe:
- Stick to the Plan – Remember that detailed plan of your route you gave to a friend before your trip? If injured or lost, it’s best to stick to that plan. Rescue workers will start searching in the areas you were supposed to be when you don’t come home on time.
- STOP – STOP is an acronym that stands for stop, think, observe, and plan. As soon as you feel lost, stop and relax, think if you can navigate back to your last known location, observe the surrounding area for recognizable landmarks, and come up with a plan. It’s almost always best to remain in one place when seriously lost rather than try to find your way back to the trail.
- Personal Locator Beacon – PLBs are becoming increasingly common for backpacking in remote areas. They alert local authorities to your exact coordinates if you’re lost or injured. As mentioned above, I like the Garmin inReach Mini.
Check Out Our Other Checklists