How to take your first backpacking trip – Part 2: What to pack and how to pack it

What to pack

In Part 1 we discussed when & where to go and whom to go with, let’s talk more about what gear you need and how to pack it.

I’ll go over every item in detail in the next post, but here’s a quick checklist with the weights you’re aiming for. REI also has a nice checklist if you want to crosscheck, or use their prettier format:

  • Core Four items (10 – 12 lbs):
    • Backpack (2 – 4 lbs) lined with a black plastic trash bag (+3 oz)
    • Sleeping bag (2 – 3 lbs)
    • Sleeping pad (1 – 2 lbs)
    • Tent (poles, stakes, rain fly, body: your portion: 3 – 4 lbs)
  • Clothing (2 – 3 lbs in your pack, no cotton):
    • Wearing: pants/shorts, T-shirt, cushy socks, underwear, trailrunner shoes (no boots! light-weight boots/hiking shoes ok)
    • For bad weather or in camp: (2 lbs): lightweight rain-resistant shell jacket with a hood, warm mid-layer like a down puffy jacket or wool/fleece sweater or two, beanie, lightweight gloves
    • Extra clothes: 1 pair extra socks, optional: 1 pair extra underwear
    • No-pillow pillow: Put any clothes you’re not wearing into your sleeping pad stuff sack for a pillow
  • Other gear (< 2 lbs):
    • Light: Headlamp w/ extra batteries, backup light source like mini flashlight
    • Sun protection & bug spray: Sunscreen, baseball/wide-brimmed hat, sunglasses (optional, but required if hiking over snow; I bring those flimsy dark plastic shades from the optometrist). Bring DEET or lemon-eucalyptus bug spray. Nothing else is effective, no matter what your hippie friend says.
    • Toiletries: Toothbrush & toothpaste, half a roll of toilet paper/tissue pack, feminine hygiene products, (optional) dental floss.
      • Use your dish soap for soap
    • Pocket knife/tools: Swiss army knife (I like having the screwdriver + scissors that this one has), and I also bring this little guy.
    • Fire: mini Bic lighter, several strike anywhere (or kitchen) matches with a strike pad, fire starter (cotton balls soaked in Vaseline, dryer lint) in a waterproof container (medicine bottle, ziplock bag), (optional) a few stormproof matches, (optional) fire steel
    • Medical kit: a few feet of duct tape + pain pills (ibuprofen/Tylenol), ankle/wrist wrap if you’re prone to sprains, mini tweezers (like the kind that come in a Swiss Army knife), (optional) a few assorted band-aids
    • Navigation: Compass & (physical) map, GPS map, GPS map & trail downloaded (, compass app downloaded.
    • Entertainment: Smart phone w/ ebooks or audiobooks (download the Kindle app + a few books, try your library for audiobooks), earbud headphones, (optional) mini speaker if you promise to use it only in camp/in your tent, and quietly so that no one else around you can hear it at all!
    • Use ziplock bags for storage & organization of gear & food. No need for ‘dry sacks’.
  • Kitchen (2 lbs):
    • Eating (< 1 lb): lightweight bowl, spork (plastic or fancy titanium), lightweight mug/cup. Light plastic, or thin aluminum/stainless steel all work. The lighter the better.
    • Cooking (1 – 2 lbs): Pot that holds 1 quart per person, camp stove, small sponge (I cut a blue one in half) + dish soap in a small container, handkerchief for drying towel
    • Camp fuel (0.5 – 1 oz per day per person): For two people, you’ll probably need 2 – 3 oz gas fuel per day for two hot meals and/or tea/coffee. Just pack an 8 oz can and call it good, although you could easily get by with a 100g (3.5 oz) can for a 1 night trip, and probably for 2 nights.
  • Water (2.5 – 4.5 lbs):
    • Check water sources on trail & at camp ahead of time (maps + trip reports) to minimize the water you need to carry: water is heavy!
    • 1 – 2 liters of water (2.2 – 4.4 lbs) in lightweight pouches.
    • Individual water filter (2 oz per person) or a pump for the group (11 oz.) I recommend everyone bringing their own personal filter instead of having to pump for the group, but some people like the pumps vs drinking through the filter.
  • Food (2 lbs per person per day)
    • Lunch and snacks eaten on the trail (cold & ready-to-eat):
      • Jerky, salami, crackers, cheese/cream cheese, peanut butter, jam, dried fruit, nuts, granola/trail mix, power bars, chips, chocolate, assorted junk food.
    • Breakfasts (hot or cold):
      • hot: oatmeal, freeze-dried Mountain House, bacon with toast fried in the grease, instant scrambled eggs, instant hash browns
      • cold: instant whole milk + cereal, or a peanut butter & jelly sandwich (made with bread or flour tortillas. The latter don’t get smushed.)
      • hot drinks: tea or instant coffee, and sugar or dried whole milk. Could make your instant coffee cold if you’re lazy or want to do everything cold and therefore not bring a stove or fuel.
    • Dinners (hot): one-pot meals like pasta w/ butter or olive oil, sun-dried tomatoes. Add pre-cooked, pre-seasoned fresh meat/protein of your choice at the end. It’s worth the added weight vs trying to reconstitute dried meat, especially since you’re only going for 1 or 2 nights.

How to pack

Once you have everything assembled, take 4 minutes to watch Andrew Skurka tell you how to pack, or just read my description below.

Start with all of your pack straps loosened. You want to pack the heaviest things in the horizontal center of your pack closest to and aligned with your spine, towards the middle and top of your pack vertically (some people just say heavy things in the vertical middle, but I like to have the weight mid and high.) Pack the things you need quick access to on the trail near the top or in the side or top compartments.

Stuff your sleeping back into you plastic trash bag-lined pack first (with no stuff sack), followed by your clothes that you don’t need while on the trail. For me that means everything except your sun hat, gloves, and rain shell. I put my rain shell, hat, and gloves in the top separate compartment of my pack for easy access.

Next I put in my tent body & rainfly, wrapped in its own plastic bag so that I can use that if it gets wet or dirty to protect the rest of my gear. I put my sleeping pad alongside my tent.

Then, I add my 10 essentials kit (all your ‘Other gear’, which I store in a gallon ziplock bag), minus the headlamp, water filter, compass, map, bugspray, sunscreen, and tissue paper (in a ziplock bag for waterproofing), which I keep in my side hip pockets or top pocket for easy access on the trail. Anything else you expect to need on the trail should also go in the easy access pockets. I also put my stove & cook pots and food bag in now. Keep the densest/heaviest items closest to your back and centered, and the lighter items around it, keeping your pack balanced from left to right.

Lastly, I stuff in my food bag alongside my other gear + stove + fuel, separating snacks for the trail in my top compartment. (Skurka recommends putting your food bag on top of your tent next to your back, with your clothes around it. That works too, but I tend to put my food bag in last because I’m usually packing it last minute, and I want to access it first thing when I get to camp to start cookin’.)

I can fit a 1 liter bladder of water in my top compartment too, or else in one of my side pockets (especially if you’re using a rigid water bottle.) I sometimes put my fuel canister in the other side pocket if I don’t have room in my pack for it, or to balance the weight. Trekking poles go in your hands or else can be strapped to the outside of your pack.

Tent poles can often fit vertically along your back in the pack. I tend to put the stakes in the lower part of the top compartment, but in with your other tent stuff close to your back is fine too.

Make sure to cinch down the sides of your pack to center the weight

Once you’re completely packed up, lay your pack on its side and cinch down your pack using the lower straps first (flip it and do the other one), then cinching down the upper straps. This is very important to keep the weight of your pack both centered and high-ish.

I find that if my pack weight dips low due to gravity I have more lower back pain. You can remove your pack, lay it flat or with the bottom end up, and pound on the bottom part where your sleeping bag is with your fist to try to push the weight back up if it descends while you’re hiking. Then re-cinch.

How to wear your pack (REI video that’s useful, or their fuller article)

Lift your pack using the loop in the center-top of the pack where your neck would be, to avoid stressing the shoulder straps, and put it on. Tighten the hip belt first around your illiac crest (the knobby bits on the sides of your hips.) You want it cinched quite tight to hug your hips firmly to keep ~80% of that weight on them. Rock your shoulders back and forth to see if your pack weight feels centered around your spine, cinching more or rearranging something if needed.

Next, tighten your shoulder straps, and then the ‘load lifters’ (the straps connecting your shoulder straps to the top of your pack; see the REI pack-fitting video. This brings the back weight forward against your back.) Do the chest strap last, with just enough tension (not that much) to take a little pressure off your shoulders, making sure it’s in a comfortable spot, maybe 2-3″ above your nipples (probably on the higher side for ladies to keep the weight from crushing your boobs.)

Re-adjust everything as needed during your hike to try to take the pressure off any spots starting to get sore. If your back is tired, tighten your shoulder straps to put more weight on your shoulders. Do the opposite to relieve your shoulders. I frequently have to tighten my hip belt while hiking to keep that weight on my hips, usually first rocking my pack upwards above my hips before tightening to keep it all high.

When you take your pack off, undo everything in reverse (I keep the load lifters in the same tight place though if I’m still hiking.) Remove your pack whenever you take a 5 minute break to drink, rest, or eat a snack. This really feels good, cools you down, and helps reenergize you if you’re getting tired.

In the next post, we’ll get into the gory details of exactly what pieces of gear you should get.

Author: Ward Williams

Personal finance blogger with an interest in saving, investing, and learning new skills and doing things for myself & others!

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