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The Complete Guide to Backpacking

Updated: Sep 16, 2021

Whether this is your first time backpacking or you are looking for a packing checklist for your next expedition, here is your complete guide for what to bring on your next backpacking trip.

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No matter if you are looking to traverse one of the great thru hikes or are hitting the trail for a day hike, experts always recommend bringing what is known as the “Ten Essentials.” These essentials are the basic items you need to stay safe in the wilderness and mitigate risk should anything go awry. You will not always need to bring everything on this list for every trip, but it is the best place to start when packing for a given trip. See below for the Ten Essentials as well as more detail on some of the products I recommend for each.


The Ten Essentials:

  1. Navigation: map and compass, personal locator device, phone with apps

  2. Lighting: headlamp or flashlight

  3. Sun protection: hat, sunglasses, sunscreen, long-sleeve clothing

  4. First aid kit: ibuprofen, moleskin, wound cleaning, band-aids, wraps

  5. Knife: folding pocketknife, fixed-blade or multi-tool

  6. Fire: matches, lighter, tinder, cooking equipment

  7. Shelter: tent, sleeping bag, sleeping pad, tarp, emergency bivy

  8. Food: more than is necessary

  9. Water and water filters: more than is necessary

  10. Extra clothing and rain protection: extra layers, raincoat, extra socks

  11. Other important items: boots, bearspray, cooking equipment/mess-kit, wag bags and toilet paper, phone charger, duct tape, parachute cord, bugspray

  12. Luxury items: waterproof cards, camp sandals, biodegradable soap, roll-up bucket

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1) Navigation

Navigation should always be your first consideration as knowing where you are and where you are going will go the furthest in preventing emergency situations. Downloaded GPS maps on your phone are a good start, but phones die or break, so it is important that you always maintain a back-up plan.

  • Physical Maps: learn to read a topographical map and keep it in a plastic bag to prevent water damage.

  • Compass: when combined with a physical map, you will never find yourself reliant on a battery.

  • GPS Device: spot devices such as the Garmin In-Reach are leading the cutting edge regarding handheld GPS navigation for the backcountry. They require a subscription (similar to a phone service), but this is some of the best money you can spend for prevention or mitigation of emergency situations. You can reach emergency medical services in very remote places as well as determine your location in real-time. Find out more here.

  • Altimeters: Great for determining your altitude.

2) Lighting

Your smartphone might have a flashlight built in, but you should never rely on this alone, especially if you are also using your phone for navigation. Headlamps allow you to be hands free while hiking, cooking or setting up camp, so they are typically the most recommended option for backcountry lighting.

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3) Sun Protection

Sun burns and heat exhaustion are some of the easiest ways to ruin a backcountry trip, so always assume there will be minimal shade on a trail and make sure you are prepared. The sun is much more intense at higher altitudes, so it is best to cover up even with cloud cover or lower temperatures.

  • Sunscreen: I recommend water-resistant SPF 30+ sunscreen. Sunscreen sticks are a great way to apply protection to your face without getting it on your hands as well.

  • Sunglasses: I am a big proponent of cheaper sunglasses, as I tend to lose them way more often than I break them. Knockaround and SunCloud are two brands that make great sunglasses for $20-60.

  • Hat: Always, always, always bring at least a baseball cap (your scalp will thank you). I usually hang my hat from my bag using a carabiner when I am not wearing it. Wide-brim hats will provide even more sun protection (especially for your neck and ears).

  • Long-sleeve clothing: Always bring a synthetic long-sleeve shirt to protect your arms (even if starting the hike in a short sleeve). Pants are great as well, but your arms will be much more susceptible to burning.

4) First Aid Kit:

If you are just starting out, I would recommend a pre-assembled first aid kit to ensure nothing is forgotten. I try to leave a first aid kit in each of my backpacks so that I never forget to bring it. The most important items to have packed are ibuprofen, wound cleaning items, bandages, moleskin, benadryl (for allergic reactions and bee stings), tweezers (for ticks, cactus needles, bee stings, splinters, etc.), sterile gloves and a wrap for twisted ankles. Know how to use the items in your kit and replace items that are running low at the end of your trip (so you don’t forget next time).

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5) Knife

Not only a means to protect yourself, knives can help in a variety of other circumstances such as shelter making, fire building, food prep and first aid. A simple folding knife will be sufficient, but I also love fixed-blade knives for durability and cleanliness, as well as multi-tools that contain a knife.

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6) Fire

It is important that you are always able to start a fire in the backcountry, even if you are only going out for the day. This is your means of staying warm during an unexpected overnight in the woods, cooking your food, drying clothes, sterilizing water and getting rescued.

  • Lighters: easiest way to start a fire, but are liable to break if exposed to dirt or water. Always bring an extra and keep in a dry, protected place.

  • Waterproof matches: wax-tipped matches will help you start a fire even with a complete submersion of all of your gear. Very cheap and small, so highly recommend keeping in your bag at all times.

  • Firestarter: if you have ever tried to start a fire with damp wood, you know the importance of bringing a reliable firestarter. Household items that make great firestarter include cottonballs covered in vaseline (highly combustible), duct tape and dryer lint.

  • Stove: can be used to cook food, boil water, melt snow or provide emergency heat, even in places where firewood is not available. PS: don’t try and light a fire with a stove like a makeshift flamethrower, it will flare up in your hands and not work (don’t ask how I found this out). I recommend the MSR PocketRocket as a lightweight, durable and budget-friendly option.

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7) Shelter

Besides the obvious need for a tent, you should also carry some type of emergency shelter in case of an unexpected night out on the trail (due to injury or getting lost). Tarps, bivys, emergency blankets are some of the options available for emergency shelters. Sleeping pads and bags are two of the most important items in your bag and where I would most recommend buying higher quality over lower cost. Not to say low cost means low quality: I have used the same $200 sleeping bag for the past 6 years.

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8) Extra Food

I always recommend bringing an extra day’s worth of shelf-stable food, even if it is just a handful of extra Clif Bars. Nuts, jerky, dry food such as macaroni or pasta and dried fruit are all great options.

9) Water and water filters

You should always start your trips with at least 2-3L of water as well as a way to treat water on the trail. Experts agree that most people will need about half a liter of water per hour of moderate activity, although this can be much higher on difficult hikes or at higher temperatures. I also recommend bringing two different containers for your water in case your spring a leak in one. Even if you bring enough water, carrying it in two separate containers will ensure you won’t lose everything to one incident. Never drink untreated water - giardia is a hell of a bug and a total pain-in-the-butt to get rid of.

  • Water bottles: collapsible water containers are great at not taking up space when empty. If you bring a Nalgene, I recommend wrapping it in duct tape so that you always have that handy. Nalgenes are also great for cold weather, as you can boil water and put the bottle in the bottom of your sleeping bag for a toasty night of sleep.

  • Water Filters: the Sawyer squeeze filter system is a classic option and is very trail hardy at a reasonable cost. Be sure to keep it warm at night, as it is susceptible to freezing which would require a replacement.

  • Water treatment: iodine is a great option, but there will be slight taste and discoloration associated with it. I recommend keeping a small bottle in your bag as an emergency backup, but it will obviously not do anything for filtration of your water.

  • Stoves: boiling water or melting snow is a great option for emergency water

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10) Extra Clothes

Layering is the name of the game in the backcountry, so I recommend clothes that you can wear on top of each other. Always ensure you are prepared for rain and avoid bringing cotton clothing if possible (it does not dry quickly or insulate well when wet). Synthetic clothing is your best option, especially when sweating.

  • Raingear: the raincoat comes with me on every hike, even with no rain in the forecast. It can also be a great layer against the wind and can be quite warm when worn with other layers. I personally use a Helly Hansen raincoat, but plenty of options are available at your local Army-Navy store.

  • Synthetic baselayers: I always keep one layer of synthetic long underwear (top and bottom) especially for camp to ensure it is always dry. Melanzana's (local brand in Colorado) micro grid hoodie is my absolute favorite base layer - you can find them used on Ebay and they are worth the cost.

  • Extra socks: always bring at least one extra pair of medium weight wool socks. I like to rotate a pair for hiking and a pair for camp. Pro tip: put damp or sweaty socks in the bottom of your sleeping bag at night and they will be toasty, warm and dry in the morning.

  • Gloves: light, wool gloves are great for cold mornings, especially when taking down a tent (those damn tent poles get so cold).

  • Down jackets: the best bang for your buck in terms of weight to warmth ratio. These jackets are lightweight, pack down very small and will keep you very warm. I recommend the Patagonia down jacket - this jacket will last you a very long time and their customer service is great if something happens.

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11) Other important items:

Although not technically part of the Ten Essentials, here are the other items I would recommend bringing on most trips, especially with an overnight itinerary.

  • Boots: alongside the sleeping bag, this is the item you do not want to skimp on. I recommend the classic Merrell Moabs, but be sure to break them in prior to your first hike (even if it is just around the neighborhood).

  • Bear prevention: bear canisters are great for keeping all animals (not just bears) out of your food. Squirrels, chipmunks and marmots will chew right threw your bag or tent to get to food or trash, so keep all scented items in this when away from camp or at night. Ursacks are a great light-weight option, but require trees and a bit of skill to set-up properly. Lastly, bearspray is a good option if traveling in bear country (especially WY, MT, ID or WA).

  • Cooking equipment/mess-kit: don’t forget to bring a pot and mess-kit for meals

  • Wag-bags and toilet paper: please do not bury toilet paper on the trail. It is not going to decompose, my dog is going to eat it and no one is going to pick up after you. Bring some doggy bags and carry it out with you. I do recommend burying human waste and covering the hole with rocks, so my dog doesn't try and eat that too.

  • Phone charger: cold is a notorious killer of electronics, so I recommend bringing a portable charger (especially if you are relying on your phone for navigation).

  • Duct-tape: good for about everything - try wrapping your Nalgene in tape for emergency circumstances. It is a great fire-starter and can fix a broken tent pole if needed.

  • Parachute cord (aka “p-cord): great lightweight alternative to rope - can be used for a variety of uses.

  • Bug-spray: I recommend something with DEET, although be aware that it will burn holes through plastic (especially tents).

  • Hiking poles: not always necessary, but they will help you keep your balance with a heavy pack and are very helpful in the event of a twisted ankle.

  • Sponge: cut a piece off a kitchen sponge for cleaning dishes in the backcountry

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12) Luxury items:

  • Waterproof cards: lightweight way to have some fun at camp. I recommend Gin Rummy as a great 2-4 person game and Hearts with 4+ people in the party.

  • Camp Sandals: I always bring an extra pair of sandals for camp. Chacos or Tevas are great if you are also planning on any water-crossings and are sturdy enough for hiking long distances, but TJ Maxx is a great place to find $10-15 lightweight flip-flops.

  • Biodegradable soap: Dr. Bronner's is great for cleaning yourself or your dishes. Its made from all natural oils, so its safe for the backcountry.

  • Roll-up Bucket: Great for dishes or bucket showers even if the stream is only a small trickle. Lightweight and can hang on the outside of your bag, so it doesn't take up much room.

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