Going on your first backpacking trip can feel overwhelming and I still remember ours like it was yesterday. I was excited, nervous and we didn’t really know what to expect. Naturally we over-packed and under-prepared.
We hiked for 3 days through the Sierra Mountains in California and came back exhausted, dirty, sweaty and so happy. And we couldn’t wait to go on our next trip!
Since then we’ve taken numerous backpacking trips in the US and in other countries. Backpacking is a great way to get out in nature for some fresh air, beautiful scenery, and a great workout.
In this guide, we lay out a checklist of our favorite backpacking gear. After lots of trial and error, this is the gear that we love and will set you up for a successful backpacking experience even if you’ve never been before.
Light Backpacking Tent
Our go-to tent for backpacking is the MSR Carbon Reflex 2. This tent is so light yet surprisingly roomy that we really haven’t had much of a reason to use any other tent since we bought it.
The MSR Carbon Reflex 2 has a single carbon pole that makes it ultra-light at under 2 pounds and also makes it the easiest tent to set up that we’ve ever used.
The materials are so thin that it takes up very little room in your pack, allowing you to carry a smaller and lighter pack and making the whole hiking experience so much better.
Another great thing we love about this tent is how big and spacious it actually is inside when we set it up. It has two large vestibules for storing all of our gear and has a square footprint which is great for a couple with a dog.
Over the years we’ve bought and tested a few different tents but there was always something we wanted to be different about them – they were too heavy, too difficult to put up, or retained too much humidity. The MSR Carbon Reflex 2 solved all of those issues and we’ve had no reason to look around since buying it.
- Weighs less than 2 lbs
- Very spacious
- Easy to set up
- Has a square floor space
- Not freestanding
- Sits low
- The carbon fiber pole requires more care than your typical aluminum pole
I’m not the best sleeper when it comes to overnight backpacking trips. But one thing that has made a huge difference for me is upgrading to a better down sleeping bag.
When I first started backpacking I used a basic cheap sleeping bag that didn’t live up to its temperature rating and I would spend most of the night shivering and waiting for the morning sun to rise.
Since I got the REI Co-op Magma 15 down sleeping bag I’ve been getting much better sleep outdoors. The Magma 15 sleeping bag is made for cold mountain temperatures as low as 17 degrees F, it’s mummy-shaped so it traps the warmth inside and is super soft.
The Magma 15 is easy to compress and pack away plus it’s ultra-light so it doesn’t add much weight to your pack.
- Great for mountains and cold weather
- Shaped to the body
- Easy to pack up
- Weights around 2 lbs
- Not ideal for warm conditions
Ever since I got a blowup sleeping pad, I wouldn’t go on another backpacking trip without one. Instead of sleeping on the ground or on a thin roll-up pad, we now pack inflatable sleeping pads.
Inflatable sleeping pads add extra space and cushion between you and the ground so it makes sleeping in nature a lot more comfortable and you won’t wake up with numb body parts halfway through the night.
Tip: Make sure to get a blowup mattress with a pillow for extra comfort.
- Keeps you warmer by elevating you off the ground
- Compresses small
- Can deflate overnight
- Adds extra weight in your pack
Finding a solid backpack is like a lifetime investment that might cost more upfront but will last you a long time. I got my backpack on Craigslist already used when I first started backpacking and even after 10 years of wear and tear it’s still holding up great.
I have a 65 L backpacking pack that is a great heavy-duty beginner/intermediate pack. It is made of durable material and has plenty of space to pack everything for a 2-4 day backpacking trip including a bear canister and cold-weather clothing.
But my pack is on the heavier side to accommodate for the extra room and a sturdier frame to distribute the weight better. If you’re looking for something a bit lighter I suggest going with an ultralight backpack like the REI Flash 55 Pack which is highly customizable and weighs only 2 lbs.
I’ve gone through my fair share of hiking boots over the years. When getting hiking boots I look for ones that are:
- Light (less than 2 lbs)
- Ankle height
You don’t want to get hiking boots that weigh a lot because they will tire your feet pretty quickly. I own a few pairs of hiking boots that look really fashionable but are too heavy to wear on multi-day backpacking trips so they just end up collecting dust in my closet.
Unless I’m going on a quick day hike, I always wear ankle-height hiking boots. Having ankle height boots is essential to prevent your ankles from rolling when walking over rocky surfaces.
Ideally, you want to get hiking boots made of GORE-TEX waterproof material that serves as a barrier to block any liquids from getting through while crossing creeks and muddy areas.
Personally, I don’t go on any hiking trips without a headlamp. Even if you’re just doing a quick day hike and know the route, having a headlamp is essential in case you get lost and need to find your way back during the night. At the end of the day, having a headlamp could save your life.
We have the Black Diamond Spot 325 Headlamp. We like this headlamp because it has multiple settings including a dimmer which we use when cooking or hanging around the campfire without disturbing our fellow neighbors.
The Black Diamond Spot 325 headlamp also has a red night vision option which is better to use once it gets dark outside. White light can mess with your natural night vision and makes it longer for your eyes to adjust to darkness once turned off. Red light does not affect your night vision and it doesn’t travel which is great for staying under the radar during restroom trips at night.
First Aid Kit
For an overnight backpacking trip having a medical kit is a must. Things CAN and WILL go wrong (speaking from our personal experience) so it’s always best to go prepared.
There are some great ultralight medical kits available that come with all the necessary basics to care for small wounds, blisters, bleeding, and scratches. Most medial kits also include medications like ibuprofen, aspirin, and sting relief wipes.
This ultralight medical kit weighs 8 oz taking up very little space and weight in your pack.
I don’t know how I lived without a portable charger before I got one. Over the years phone batteries seem to be getting worse, not better, and these days my phone only lasts a few hours, especially outdoors. Maybe it’s the 10,000 videos and photos I take on every backpacking trip. Who knows…
Other factors play a role in our phone battery life like weather and altitude. In colder conditions and in altitude phones use up more battery and can die overnight even if you set it on airplane mode and don’t use it. That is certainly not the ideal situation to wake up to especially if you need to look up maps or make an emergency call.
Nowadays I always bring a small portable battery so I can charge my phone and camera especially on multi-day backpacking trips.
Small Shovel & Wipes
Everyone poops. There is no denying it. But what do you do when you need to go #2 outdoors and you can’t hold it until the end of the trip?
Following the “Leave No Trace” guidelines it’s our responsibility as hikers, backpackers, and campers to leave the wilderness better than we found it – without any trace of us being there. To do so we recommend carrying a small shovel like The Deuce by TheTentLab for outdoor bathroom needs.
Made of aluminum material The Deuce is ultralight yet can dig through the toughest of surfaces. After going always make sure to pack out the toilet paper in a small bag like Ziploc because animals and wind can carry toilet paper around and that wouldn’t be so great for nature (other backpackers after you).
We have a camping stove set that comes with two pots. This is handy when you want to make two separate items in the same meal like coffee and oatmeal.
We can eat our meals right out of these pots eliminating the need for extra plates. Our stove pots are made of aluminum so they are easy to clean with some water and a little scrub that we usually bring along.
This Amazon camping set is budget-friendly compared to most stoves that you’ll find at other outdoor stores and works just as great.
This set doesn’t come with a propane canister so you will need to get one on Amazon or at any store that carries camping equipment like REI, Big 5, or Walmart.
If you get a camping stove set that doesn’t come with utensils, you may want to get a few cheap camping sporks that can be used as a spoon and a fork saving space and weight.
Having a water filter is essential for backpacking. Even if we plan to pack enough water, we always bring along a water filter in case we run out.
We’ve been using Sawyer water filter for years and it does the job well. The only part that we don’t like about the Sawyer filter is that it’s slow and takes a while to filter even just two water bottles.
With the Sawyer filter, you can use the water pouch that comes with the set or bring your own water bottles for refills.
When looking for an outdoors backpacking knife I recommend getting one that is foldable so you can easily store it in your backpack or your pocket and not worry about the blade sticking out.
While you can spend over $100+ on an outdoor knife, for our backpacking and camping trips we use the foldable Smith & Wesson Extreme Ops knife. It comes at a great price, it’s very sharp and folds up for safety.
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Planning meals for long multi-day hikes can be a bit challenging. You have to find the perfect balance between what will fit into the bear canister, tastes good, and is quick to make.
If you want to take the easy route, REI offers a lot of great backpacking meals like Pad Thai with chicken, Mexican style rice & chicken, and Fettuccini Alfredo. These meals come dehydrated so all you need to do is add hot water and enjoy.
For a cheaper option, we usually go to our local grocery store and get a couple of cans of chicken (which we drain and put in a Ziploc) and a pack of ready rice. For lunch, we usually eat tuna, crackers, fruit, and protein bars.
For breakfast, we bring a few packs of oatmeal, instant coffee, and dehydrated milk that we use for oatmeal and as a creamer in our coffee.
Lately, I also started dehydrating fruit snacks at home like bananas, strawberries, kiwis, and apples. Homemade dehydrated fruit comes out tasting a lot better than store-bought and serves as the perfect snack on the trail or a tasty addition to our breakfast oatmeal.
If you’re planning to go on an overnight backpacking trip, it’s likely that you will need to bring a bear canister with you to store your food and any other scented items like toiletries, dog food, and trash.
Most National Parks and National Forests in the US require you to have a bear canister, especially in California, Colorado, Washington, and Alaska where bear activity is high.
Having a bear canister on a backpacking trip is essential because it can save both your and the bear’s life. Bears that become accustomed to eating human food are more likely to venture out of the wilderness into residential neighborhoods and often get injured or put down.
Most ranger and permit stations rent bear canisters for around $5 per week (plus deposit) on a first come first serve basis.
If you plan to go on a lot of backpacking trips, it might be a good idea to invest in getting a bear canister so you don’t have to worry about the ranger stations running out.
Note that only certain bear canisters are approved and allowed. The canisters that ranger stations use are the Garcia Bear Containers made of solid black material.
On the downside, these canisters are big, weigh over 2 lbs, and usually take up half of the space inside a pack. But if a ranger stops you on a trail and you don’t have one, you might get slapped with a fine or be asked to leave.
For toiletries, we bring travel-sized products that take up the least space in our packs and will fit into the bear canister. We try to use biodegradable or natural products that are better for nature (and our bodies too).
Here’s a quick checklist of the toiletries that we typically pack on our backpacking trips:
- Biodegradable wet wipes. Wet wipes can be used to take a “quick shower” at the end of the day or for going #2. Even if you get biodegradable wipes make sure to pack them out because there is nothing worse than finding toilet paper or wipes from previous backpackers.
- Biodegradable soap like Dr. Bronner’s. I’m pretty obsessed with Dr. Bronner’s biodegradable soap ever since I discovered it. It smells really good and the peppermint scent leaves your body feeling fresh and tingly.
- Small travel washcloth. During hot hiking conditions, nothing is better than dunking a washcloth in an ice-cold creek for instant heat relief. It can also be used to wipe down your backpacking gear.
- Small natural deodorant. During backpacking trips, I always break quite the sweat and a small natural deodorant can help me keep it under control.
- Travel size sunscreen. Don’t let the mountain conditions fool you. Even during cold backpacking trips, it’s easy to get a sunburn. Always pack a small sunscreen to protect your skin from sunburns and skin cancer.
- Insect repellant. Although they are small, pestering insects can be quite annoying. I remember one backpacking trip in Chile where giant flies followed us for around relentlessly for 2 days nonstop. Insect repellant can keep those buggers aways for a more enjoyable trip.
- Travel size toothbrush. A small foldable travel toothbrush takes up less space and is easier to store in a bear canister.
- Natural toothpaste. Following the “Leave No Trace” behind it’s suggested not to spit the toothpaste out on the ground. Try to use as little as possible for brushing and dispose of it in other ways.
- Lip Balm. My lips get very dry and chapped outdoors so I always pack a lip balm on my trips.
Depending on the season and location of your backpacking trip, your clothing list will vary. A trip to the mountains will have different weather conditions and clothing needs than a trip to the desert.
I try to pack the least amount of clothes necessary and usually I will wear the same pants for the entire trip. If anything I’ll bring extra underwear, an extra pair of socks and maybe an extra t-shirt for a fresh feeling in the morning.
Here are some general guidelines for what I usually pack on my backpacking trips.
The majority of our hiking trips take place during the warmer seasons (late spring, summer, and early fall). I always bring along a pair of hiking shorts because the chances are that it will get hot during the day.
Exercise, carrying a heavy pack, and the sun increase body temperature. Even though we might start off the hike wearing lots of layers in the morning, by mid-day we’re usually down to tank tops and shorts.
For my hiking shorts, I try to stick with darker colors since I end up getting pretty dirty by the end of the trip.
Along with hiking shorts, I pack at least one pair of leggings.
My usual go-to legging brand is Nike. They make durable leggings that last me for years and don’t get stretched out in weird places. My favorite pair is the mid-rise Nike One Luxe which has a simple style, is made of 50% recycled materials, and fits the body shape really well.
During the day I tend to hike in breezy tank tops or t-shirts but during the night I throw on a cozy long sleeve shirt.
As soon as the sun sets the temperatures outdoors can drop immediately so you want to pack a thermal or a long sleeve shirt to keep you warm.
On most of my backpacking trips, I always bring a rain jacket. You never know when the weather will turn on you so it’s best to bring one and be prepared.
I have The Northface rain jacket that’s waterproof and light. I’ve worn it on numerous backpacking trips including in South America where the weather is known to be unpredictable and can change from a sunny day into a heavy rainstorm without any warning.
This rain jacket is versatile and can be used for rain, wind, or as an extra layer in the evenings when it starts getting chilly. But it doesn’t protect against really cold temperatures so if you plan to hike during extreme weather make sure to bring a winter jacket for warmth.
If there’s one area to invest more money into backpacking gear-wise it’s socks. A good pair of hiking socks will cost around $20 per pair but will last you a while and will prevent your feet from getting blisters.
For hiking and backpacking, I stick to merino wool socks because merino wool keeps your feet from getting sweaty and provides a comfortable cushion so your feet don’t get tired.
Other Clothing Essentials
Here are a few other clothing essentials that are part of our backpacking checklist.
- Sandals. I usually bring a pair of sandals to let my feet rest outside of the hiking boots once we reach the campsite.
- Sports Bra & Underwear. I bring a fresh pair of underwear for every day that we’re out hiking. On the other hand, my husband claims that turning inside out is good enough. Your choice.
- Sunglasses. Personally, I don’t bring my nice sunglasses hiking. I’ve lost or broken too many pairs over the years to trust myself on wilderness trips. For backpacking, I bring a cheap pair of polarized glasses to help with sun protection and glare.
- Hiking bandana. You can wear a bandana around your head during the day and as a neck scarf at night.
- Beanie. To help keep you stay warm during colder temperatures.
- Gloves. I have a set of cheap outdoor gloves that I use when filtering cold water or in the evenings when cooking and hanging around the campsite.
We hope you found this backpacking guide helpful. While this list covers our current backpacking gear keep in mind that it’s taken us around 10 years of upgrades to get here – so if some of the brands don’t fit your budget, don’t worry.
On our first backpacking trips, we used the cheapest gear that we could find. Maybe there were some leaks into our tent or the gear felt heavy, but we still made it work and so can you!
Before you go, make sure to check out some of our other popular posts below:
- 3 Best Light & Ultralight Tents For Backpacking
- How To Backpack The Eagle Peak Trail In Yosemite
- Backpacking The Trans-Catalina Trail: All You Need To Know
- How To Choose The Best Camera For Beginners
- Van Life – How Much Does It REALLY Cost?
Interested in how I capture photos on my trips? Here is my suggested camera gear that I use to create my images:
- Main camera: Sony a7II Camera With 28-70 mm Standard Lens
- Polarizer Filter for the standard lens (helps eliminate reflection and enhance color, especially on super bright days): Amazon Basics 55 mm
- Wide Lens (great for nature shots): Sony 16-35 mm F4
- Polarizer Filter for the wide lens: Amazon Basics 72 mm
- Small Tripod (to stabilize photos and eliminate blur): JOBY Gorrilapod
- Memory Cards: SanDisk 32 GB
- Batteries: Wasabi Power battery charger and extra battery pack
- Camera Bag: Lowepro weather-resistant bag
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