What do you need for a backpacking trip? This checklist of backpacking essentials will help you remember every important item.
The essential gear items that you bring on any backpacking trip will almost always be the same. Beginner backpackers and seasoned vets will agree that your exact backpacking essentials kit will change over time, and most of us are still refining our gear list each time we go. Yet our essentials seem to always make the list despite our unique needs and climates.
No matter your experience level, using a list can help you remember all the vital equipment. Along with the packing list we provided, we’ll break down how to choose appropriate gear for your overnight camping adventure.
This backpacking essentials checklist is meant to be a general guideline to give you a baseline of necessary gear. Item types and amounts will vary depending on the backpacker.
This isn’t an ultralight backpacking list, but it ensures you have all the items you need for an overnight trip in the backcountry.
Backpacking Essentials: Camping Gear
For an overnight trip, you should be able to get by with a backpack that holds 30-50 L. If you’re backpacking for an extended trip (3-5 days), then you will need a larger pack (50-70 L).
Other than the length of your trip, backpack size is determined by how bulky your gear is. Remember, all the additional layers for a winter trip will add more bulk to your bag than a standard summer outing.
Even if there’s no rain in the forecast, plan to bring something to cover your pack. A simple rain cover is fine, or you can bring a large trash bag.
The first part of your sleeping setup to decide on is if you want to use a backpacking tent, tarp, bivy sack, or hammock. All of these sleeping shelters have their pros and cons and are very personal choices.
If you’re just busting out your tent for the season, make sure it’s in tip-top shape before your trip with our waterproofing, patching, and spring cleaning guide.
The sleeping bag you need depends on the climate and weather conditions. Be well-prepared for the night ahead by determining the appropriate bag temperature/comfort rating. Seek out a bag rated at least 10 degrees colder than the anticipated low temperature.
So if you expect the low for the night to be 30 degrees, pack a 20-degree bag or lower. Mummy bags are recommended for backpacking because they provide more warmth and are easier to pack down.
The next consideration should be if your bag is insulated with down or synthetic materials. Both have pros and cons, but the main difference is that down tends to be lighter and easy to pack down small with a higher price tag. Synthetics are bulkier, but they still insulate when wet and dry much faster.
For most skilled backpackers, keeping a bag dry isn’t too tough, so the light weight, compressibility, and long life of down bags makes them a top choice.
The final piece of the sleeping setup is a sleeping pad. Don’t forgo packing this item. While it’s tempting to think of a sleeping pad as only a comfort item, it provides much-needed insulation and warmth while you sleep.
No matter the shelter you’ve chosen, a sleeping pad is a must. Classic Therm-a-Rest Z Lite pads are an ideal and affordable sleeping pad choice, as you don’t have to worry about air leaks. Check out our list of the best sleeping pads on the market.
We didn’t include a pillow on the list. You may choose to bring an inflatable pillow for your sleeping arrangement. But for most backpackers, a great tip is to stuff some clothing into a stuff sack for a sufficient pillow for the trail.
Notice that we recommend a headlamp, not a flashlight. If a flashlight is all you have at the moment, it’s certainly usable. And some experienced campers love the power and versatility of a small flashlight.
However, for most people, a headlamp makes your life much easier during backpacking trips. It frees up your hands if you have to set up or cook in the dark. Plus, it makes hiking in early mornings or late at night much safer.
Even if you’re only out for one night, bring fresh batteries along. You can opt to change the batteries right before you go, but having a backup set should become a habit.
If you’re shopping for a new headlamp, pay careful attention to the battery life in the product specs. While extra lumens can be nice, you don’t need a ton of light for most backpacking, as you’re moving slowly or working close to your body. But long battery life is very helpful on multiday excursions.
Opt for a headlamp with a rechargeable battery versus disposable batteries for a more versatile headlamp. But keep in mind that you’ll likely need to bring a battery pack for recharges in the field when on longer trips.
Stove and Fuel
For overnight trips, there are ways to get around packing a stove. Still, part of the delight of a crisp morning outdoors is a hot cup of coffee and a warm breakfast. You can cook these using old-fashioned fire and coals, but there are fire restrictions in many areas.
Having a camp stove and fuel makes cooking after a long day of hiking quick and easy. There are many options of camp stoves, ranging from very simple and small, like the proven MSR Pocket Rocket, to cooking systems like the Jetboil Mini Mo and multifuel liquid stoves that can function well even in bitterly cold weather. Then you have the more minimalistic stoves like a biofuel stove that burns biomass or alcohol stoves for a lightweight heat source.
Check out our article on the best backpacking stoves to learn more.
Beyond your stove, you’ll need a cooking pot, mug, and utensils. To keep things minimal, consider using a compact cookset that packs down together. These will usually have one utensil, one cooking pot with a lid, and a mug that all pack back down into the size of the pot.
For silverware, a spork is a standard option. Try to research the materials and read product reviews. There are many plastic spork options available, but metal or titanium utensils will last you much longer.
Minimalism on the trail may be a learned skill, but it will save you pack weight without compromising necessary creature comforts.
With minimal cookware, dishwashing becomes a breeze. We recommend bringing some biodegradable soap along and a packable microfiber cloth to dry the dishes. Still, with only a few dishes, you should be able to get by without the use of a dishwashing tub.
If you prefer a dishwashing tub, some innovative and packable designs make doing the dishes easy.
For an overnight trip, it may be possible to pack a bladder of water to last for the length of the trip. However, you don’t want that to be your only available option. Having at least one water bottle ready to drink from at all times is advised, and having a water filtering system on hand will give you the security and flexibility you need to have a safe and enjoyable trek.
If you bring a water bladder along with your water bottle, bring at least a 2L bladder, although a 4L bladder is ideal. MSR makes very durable dromedary bags for backpacking.
Looking for a water filter? Check out our list of the best water filters here.
Disclaimer: Your backpacking food shouldn’t gross you out, and you need to bring enough!
There are so many fantastic backpacking food options available. Some are prepackaged, so all you have to do is add boiling water.
For an overnight trip, it’s easy to plan for food. When planning, make sure to think beyond mealtimes. Bring plenty of snacks to fuel you as you hike. Things like trail mix, power bars, and fruit such as oranges and apples are all great options.
As most of our food is packaged, especially for backpacking, be sure to follow Leave No Trace guidelines. If you pack it in, pack it out!
Depending on the area you’re traveling to, you may need to keep your food away from bears. Be sure to do your research and bring either a bear canister or bear bag when necessary.
Apparel and Footwear
Three important things to remember about backpacking clothing and shoes are as follows:
- Your clothes should be moisture-wicking materials. Avoid cotton, as it absorbs moisture easily.
- Pack and wear layers of clothing. You can pack clothing according to weather forecasts, but layering is the best way to prepare.
- Make sure your shoes are broken in before your hike. No one likes blisters. Ouch!
When you’re backpacking, you don’t need to change your pants and shirt every day. Backpacking life often means you should expect to get a little dirty (and maybe a little smelly).
So if you’re planning a simple overnight trip, you can expect to wear what you had on the first day. Bring an extra pair of underwear and socks, though. It’s nice to have a fresh pair, and you won’t have much other clothing packed, so no worries about space.
The clothing you should bring depends on the climate and current weather conditions. Even if there is no rain in the forecast, it’s better to be safe and pack at least a light waterproof jacket.
Packing layers of clothing also makes things more comfortable because temperatures vary throughout the day. So having to put on or take off one layer is much easier than having to change a complete outfit.
Your clothing and layering system should also include jackets. The type and number of jackets you bring depend on the climate and weather conditions.
Hiking boots or trail shoes should be a priority when planning a backpacking trip. They protect you from rocks and carry you over varying terrain. You need to trust that they will support you the whole way.
Most importantly, know the climate and terrain. If you’re going to be in a cold, wet environment, consider waterproof shoes or gaiters to protect yourself. If it’s hot and dry, maybe trail running shoes will fit the bill. Each trip and each person has different needs for footwear.
You’ll also want to break in your shoes properly if they’re new. This process can be done through various day hikes or just wearing them throughout daily activities.
There are only a few backpacking essentials on the personal hygiene list, so they’re easy to keep in one place. These should include basics like a toothbrush, toothpaste, hand sanitizer, and any prescription medications.
Other than that, also bring items like a trowel for digging catholes or wag bags to pack out your waste. If you use toilet paper or wipes for sanitation, bring a sealable bag so you can pack them out after you’re done.
For female backpackers, menstrual products are essential as well. It’s a good idea to pack some even if you aren’t expecting your cycle to start. If you don’t want to carry around disposable menstrual items, you can use a menstrual cup. If you have never used one before, test it out before your trip.
Emergency Kit and Personal Items
Emergency or survival kit items are the most frequently forgotten items for most backpackers. They’re easy to forget because they won’t necessarily be used each day. Even though you won’t use one often, they play an important role in your backcountry safety. So take emergency gear seriously and add it to your backpacking essentials list.
A simple emergency backpacking kit should include a first-aid kit, whistle, firestarter, waterproof matches, emergency shelter, and a multitool.
Other safety and personal items that can make life easier on the trail include a knife, a gear repair kit, sunscreen, a sun hat, and insect repellent. If there are bears in the area where you’re backpacking, bring bear spray as well.
Having a reliable navigation system should be included on this list. Many hikers now use their smartphones for this. However, smartphones always have the potential to die or break on the trail. Having a laminated map and a compass as backup is a safe way to ensure you know your current location and where you’re going.
Finally, don’t forget other personal items like keys, identification cards, your wallet, permits, and your phone.
When you’re packing for your overnight backpacking trip, lay out all of the essential backpacking items on the floor before you pack them. This way, you can inspect your gear and make sure you have everything on your list.
If you want to keep your backpacking essentials organized in your pack, using stuff sacks or organizational bags can be very helpful. Separating items in pouches or bags can make gear more accessible, organized, and compact. Using this packing process will ensure that you don’t forget any of your backpacking essentials.
The final tip we will leave you with is to print out two copies of your itinerary the night before you leave on your trip, even if it’s only an overnight adventure. Give one to a friend or family member and leave the other one in your car.
If you can’t hand off a paper copy, at least contact a trusted friend or family member and tell them where you plan to be in as much detail as possible, including when to expect you to return. This way, if something happens to you while you’re gone, someone will be able to alert the authorities right away, and they’ll know where to start looking.
Planning, packing, and embarking on a trip as a beginner can be intimidating. Because this article is focused on your packing list, not specifically how to pack, here are some more backpacking tips and tricks to help you get out there.