Have you ever been around one of those backpackers who’s like, “Just get out there and do it!” They give the impression that they find a backpack lying around, fill it with granola bars, and next thing you know, they’re telling you how they just finished the entire Pacific Crest Trail.
Once you’ve backpacked enough, the packing does become second-nature. For novice or intermediate backpackers, however, you’ve probably figured out that it’s actually quite gear-intensive and that carefully packing the right items is what makes a trip enjoyable versus tiring or dangerous.
Read on to learn about the essential gear for backcountry camping so you can create a collection that is so complete it will seem like you just rolled out of bed and were ready to conquer a mountain.
If you weren’t sleeping outside, it wouldn’t be backpacking! Stock up on the arguably most important gear for multi-day hiking.
Tent or Tarp
An ideal backpacking tent fits only the number of people sleeping in it and doesn’t have many unnecessary bells or whistles because the goal is to be as light as possible. Think about how much of the year you’ll be using your tent before you decide on how many “seasons” you buy for. A 3-season tent lets you camp most of the year while a 2-season offers less protection from the elements and 4-season is more protective but might be unnecessary. A tent with a “vestibule” – or a covered outdoor space created by the tent cover – is very handy as well.
If you’re shooting for “ultra-lite” status, or having the very minimum weight, consider buying a camping tarp (and string) to use as a cover.
To extend the life of your tent, buy or make a tent footprint. These are plastic pieces that go under your tent, between it and the rocky, dirty ground. You can trace and cut your own quite easily. Fold it up, and put it in your tent bag – it’s a couple extra ounces, but will probably add years to your tent’s life.
Like tents, consider how cold your average camping conditions are actually going to be before purchasing a sleeping bag. There’s no reason to have a 0° bag if you live in steamy Florida where it never gets below freezing. Buy a bag rated for 10° less than the temperature outside (if it’ll be 20° outside, get a 10° rated bag). If you occasionally camp in colder conditions, get a sleeping bag liner to add warmth without having to get a whole new bag.
You might think you’ll be a natural Bear Grylls out on the trail and can make do without a sleeping pad – camping is all about roughing it, right? – but bring a pad just in case it turns out that you are like the huge majority of people who think sleeping pads are well-worth the hassle. Styles range from the foamy, cheap pads that you have to strap to the outside of your pack because they’re so big to Nalgene-sized or smaller pads that inflate into ultra-cozy air mattresses.
Old-school and ultra-light campers use rolled up clothes as a pillow, however, nowadays there are tiny, handheld inflatable pillows that will make you forgot you’re not at home in your own comfy bed, and they weigh almost nothing.
Half the fun of hiking is the hot meal at the end of the day, so come prepared!
Lightweight Pot or Pan with Collapsible Handle
These can get bulky and heavy so while shopping, remember “not too big” and “not too heavy”. There is an endless selection of pots and pans suitable for carrying, it’s simply a matter of doing a little research to find what works best for you and the meals you plan on preparing during your adventure.
Stove (and Gas and Lighter)
Collapsible camping stoves can be quite small. But don’t forget your gas canisters and a lighter or matches!
There are lots of cool, lightweight camping utensils available for backpackers today. Durable plastic sporks, sets with detachable bases so the same piece can be a fork, spoon, or chopstick, etc.
Plates or Bowls
Don’t forget something to actually put your food onto. Of course, if you’re hiking solo, eating out of the pot is A-okay.
You need soap to clean up after your hearty dinner, but be sure that it is good for the environment
Collapsible windscreens can make cooking a lot easier by protecting your stove.
Jetboils or other rapid boiling mechanisms make whipping up soups and coffee the work of a couple minutes.
Odds ‘n Ends Gear
Hopefully no one has forgotten that they would need a backpack to go backpacking, but the question remains – what kind? There are so many! It’s first important to find a pack that fits your body. Staff at an outdoors store can help you figure out what size you are, or you can have a friend take your measurements. A feature that many hikers appreciate about a backpack is having two entry points so that if you need to get to the stuff at the bottom, you don’t have to take everything out to get to it. A few side buckles are always nice to be able to clip things (like a sweater when you get too hot) to the outside.
Never leave home without a headlamp! It gets dark before camp is set up? Need a midnight trip to the bathroom? Want to play cards in the tent? – Headlamp for all of these.
You literally never know when you’re going to need to cut a rope, fashion a marshmallow stick, or slice a tomato. Have a sharp knife for all the unexpected moments.
First Aid Kit
A well-stocked first aid kit is essential for long outings on the trail and is one of the ten essentials you should carry with you on every adventure. From bandaids for blisters to ibuprofen for hypoxia headaches to more serious injuries, you’ll want to be prepared to deal with uncomfortable or dangerous health problems on the trail. Included in this is sunscreen and bug spray – your best friends when you’re outdoors 24/7.
In addition to the casual clothes you might wear on a day hike, backpacking protocol requires that you also bring some extra layers (for the chilly night), extra socks (because if one pair gets wet and you have many miles to go = blisterville), and rain gear (because being wet without a home to go into is the absolute worst).
If They Can Do it, So Can You
Don’t let the super chill hiker bros trip you out. If anyone ever makes getting ready for a backpacking outing seem like “totes no big deal”, it’s only because they’re highly experienced, just as you will be now that you know exactly what gear to collect for a successful trip.
In addition to what we covered today, there are lots of extra gadgets and doodads that might be perfect for your particular trip, but if you start with these basics, you’ll be set for a good time. Just get out there and don’t sweat it, bro (but sweat it a just a little until you get the hang of it).