How to take your first backpacking trip – Part 3: What to bring in detail

In Part 2, we gave an overview checklist of what to pack, and we talked about how to pack it. Now let’s get specific on exactly what gear you should bring, right down to links for you to buy it.

Gear Details

If you already have the gear you need, you could skip to the next post on food if you like, or read on about exactly what gear to get. (If you really want to get into the weeds on this, Andrew Skurka has a whole book on the topic.)

The four key things that everyone needs is a shelter (e.g.: tent), sleeping bag & sleeping pad, and a backpacking pack to put it all in.

Your backpack

Packs for backpacking have hip pads that transfer ~65 – 80% of the weight to your hips, which is much better than having it all on your shoulders like the backpack you wore to school. Getting a good fitting backpack isn’t easy, so I recommend you go to REI to get yours and ask the salepeople to fit you correctly. REI has a great 1 year return policy so if your pack doesn’t work out after you’ve tested it hiking a couple days with a full pack, you can return it. I did this 2 or 3 times until I found ‘the one’ for me.

Get a pack that has a 50 to 55 liter capacity. This is plenty large enough for trips of at least 2 – 3 nights, and even more if you pack carefully, but small enough to force you to pack smart and keep your weight down. 60 L would be my recommended upper limit, and some people might be able to get by with 40 – 45 liters, but 50 – 55 L is my preferred starting point. Many manufacturers make slightly different packs for men vs women to accommodate for differences in hips, etc.

Your pack shouldn’t weight more than 4 pounds, and lighter is better, all else being equal (which it never is.) Some packs weigh as little as 2 – 3 pounds, but you need to balance comfort (e.g.: more cushion in the hip and shoulder pads), cost, and convenience (e.g.: a separate top compartment for easy access) vs weight. As far as brands go, try on a bunch and load them up with the weights available at REI and walk around the store after having the salesperson show you how to tighten the hip belt, shoulder straps, and chest strap appropriately.

Osprey, which I went with and still like very much, is a popular, well-made brand, and I found it to be the most comfortable for me even if it isn’t the lightest pack out there at around 3.5 – 4 pounds. REI also makes some ‘Flashpacks‘ under their brand which can be very good deals for the weight, although I found an older model years ago to not have enough padding for me to be comfortable carrying weights > 20 pounds.

Your pack will be your most expensive piece of gear at $200 – $300, so consider buying used after you try on some packs at REI, and borrowing a friend’s for the first time out (AFTER you try it on and make sure it’ll fit ok when loaded up!) Again, buying through REI to take the risk out of being able to return it is totally worth it, even if you can save a few bucks by shopping elsewhere. Your pack is probably the most important piece of gear, so spend the time and money to get a good one when you’re ready to purchase your own.

Sleep system: bag and pad

Sleeping quilts and lightweight foam pads are popular among the ultralight crew, but the foolproof & most comfortable choice for your first trip, and what I still use, is to go with a traditional mummy-style sleeping bag and an inflatable pad. Down is the lightest insulating material for the weight, but you can also get synthetic versions of it that can be cheaper and almost as warm (with better performance when wet; do not get your sleeping bag wet!)

Get a bag rated to at least 20 F (guys might stretch this up to 32 F) and weighing no more than 3 pounds. At 2 pounds you can get at least 450 grams of down insulation in a polyester/nylon shell for under $100 if you shop around, which should be warm enough for guys, and for many girls on warm-ish nights. If you’re a cold sleeper (women sleep colder than men), get a slightly warmer bag, like a 0 – 5 F one, which will weigh a bit more (~3 lbs, or maybe 3.5.) A warmer bag lengthens the season you can camp in for future trips, even if it’s not as necessary for your first summer trip. Women, and shorter dudes, can & should save on weight by getting ‘short’ versions of both bags & pads when available.

Walmart occasionally has great deals on down sleeping bags. I got mine for $40 for what would be a ~$150 – $200 bag at REI or elsewhere, so check periodically if you have the time. $80 for a ~2 pound bag with 450 gram (or more) of down (~20 – 32F rating) is an excellent deal.

Sleeping pads

You need a sleeping pad both for comfort and to insulate you from the cold ground. The warmth (insulation) is measured by the R value. Choose a minimum R value of 2-3 (men) or 3-4 (women.) The most comfortable, lightweight, warmest, but most expensive (~$100 – $150) option is an inflatable air pad like the Neoair style pioneered by Therm-a-rest. Bring the patch kit and small battery-powered pump with you, or prepare to spend 5 minutes blowing it up yourself. (Manufacturers tell you not to do this because the moisture in your breath might cause mold. I dunno. I just risk it sometimes…) Because of the price and the possibility of it popping, I recommend getting this style from REI for the warranty. They are definitely the most popular among the majority of backpackers I see.

Less warm, light, & comfortable, but cheaper (~$50) and more durable, are self-inflating pads, which is what I still use, even though I really should pony up the dough to get a nicer, lighter air pad…

The cheapest, most durable, and lightest, but least comfortable, option is a closed-cell foam pad like the Z-lite ones popular with the ultralight crowd, or the simple blue foam pads your dad made you sleep on as a kid. Leave these for the pros for now, as they require you to find a comfortable site to sleep on, and/or perfect sleeping on your back. (I’m a hardcore side sleeper, unfortunately.)

Your sleeping pad should weigh under two pounds: around 1 lb for a nicer air pad, or for the closed-cell foam kind, and closer to 1.5 pounds for the self-inflating, or some of the cheaper/warmer air pads. This is another great piece of gear to borrow from a friend.

Shelter: tents

You need shelter to protect you from the rain, wind, bugs, and cold. Using a traditional double-walled tent is the best option for newbies, and I still use one today, even though ‘tarp tents’ and lighter-weight options exist for the more skilled. For a frugal option, Coleman makes very good, affordable, and durable 2-person ($40-50, 6.5 pounds) and 4-person ($70-80, ~10 lb) tents, both of which I use and recommend. They aren’t too much heavier than more expensive backpacking tents, but they will add at least 1 pound per person vs a lighter option. I’ve used the 2-person ‘bathtub’ floor style Coleman Sundone tent for years. It has held up remarkably well, and remained dry throughout torrential downpours.

REI also has very good, lighter, and (usually) more expensive tent options under their own brand, although the 2-person ones I’ve seen tend to be snug and best for couples vs platonic buddies. See if your friend already has a tent y’all can share. It’s warmer when you have another body in there with you! Make sure to open the bottom and top vents to keep the air moving to reduce condensation that will build up in the cold morning.

You should aim to have no more than 3 – 4 pounds of tent per person. Split up a multi-person tent into the rain fly, main body, stakes, and poles and divvy it up among your fellow travelers, but make sure to bring all the pieces! I once forgot the poles on a trip with my dad and was saved by him rigging up some cordage attached to nearby trees to hold up the tent…

If you’ve followed my weight guidelines for your pack (3-4 lbs), bag (2 – 3 lbs), pad (1 – 2 lbs), and tent (3 – 4 lbs), your pack weight so far shouldn’t be more than 10 – 12 pounds, which is right where you want to be to stay under 20 – 25 pounds when fully loaded for a 1 – 2 night trip.

Clothing

Material

The #1 rule for clothing is to avoid anything cotton, including cotton blends. Though more expensive than polyester, wool, especially for base layers, is great since it doesn’t stink and is lightweight for the warmth. I pick up cheap Merino wool sweaters at thrift stores like Goodwill for $8 – $10 apiece for my midweight layers (and just wearing all through winter generally), although down is warmer for the weight if you can afford it. If you can score a Merino wool T-shirt, underwear, or socks on sale, I highly recommend them.

Darn Tough in Vermont makes really nice, comfortable wool socks in the USA with essentially a lifetime replacement guarantee (which I’ve used; it’s legit.) They’re $18 a pair, but worth springing for one set!

Nylon is tough and a great outer layer for pants. Polyester/synthetics are cheap and also fine, although they tend to stink after a while and not breath as well as wool, in my opinion. Water-resistant outer-layers like Goretex are a must for your jacket, but not necessary for pants unless you expect very rainy & cold weather. Silk is also acceptable, and some people use it for their base layers.

Clothes to pack

You want to dress in layers so that you can shift from lightweight clothes while warm & moving to adding warm layers at night, with a lightweight, water-resistant rain shell just in case. Excluding the base layer (pants + T-shirt + socks + underwear) that you have on, the clothes in your pack shouldn’t weigh more than 2 – 4 pounds, and that includes your jacket & warm layers. Most rookies pack too many clothes that end up as dead weight in their pack. You’re not going on a European tour here, just a couple of nights in the woods.

Just wear (and re-wear) the underwear you have on the whole trip. If you must, bring one extra pair. Briefs are lightest, although consider boxers/boxer-briefs in colder weather and to avoid thigh chafing aka ‘chub rub’. Bring one extra pair of socks in addition to the ones you’re wearing, either to sleep in one pair in case your ‘day-time’ socks get wet, or to wash & dry one and wear the other in alternation.

For pants, try nylon hiking pants that convert into shorts. You definitely want the option of long pants for warmth, bug protection, and any scratchy or dewy undergrowth along the trail. I like the option of shorts because I’m always warm when moving. I use a Goretex pair of water-resistant pants only on rainy + cold winter trips, and I definitely recommend them in those conditions: being soaked through is no fun.

Your chest is where you’re going to do the most layering. Choose a comfortable Merino wool or polyester T-shirt as a base layer. (Or a long-sleeve shirt in cold & wet, exposed sunny, or really buggy conditions, but you should already be avoiding that for your first trip!) I use a Merino wool sweater as a base layer in winter, and use it as a midweight layer in warmer weather. A polyester fleece jacket/sweater also works and is better than wool in wet weather. A down puffy jacket or vest is the gold standard mid-heavyweight layer, followed by a (very) lightweight water-resistant rain shell with a hood like this one on top. Your midweight/warm layer shouldn’t weigh more than 12 – 16 ozs, and if you pack an extra one, 24 oz total. A hood on your warm/middle layer is optional, but nice to have in cold weather.

If you’re worried about being cold sleeping in just your underwear at night, you could pack a pair of wool or synthetic long-johns/tights like these wool ones that I use, or cheaper polyester ones. I usually only bring those on late fall/winter trips, but ladies especially might want them, or those with sleeping bags that aren’t super warm.

Most people use too heavy of a rain jacket in warm weather, which is ok if that’s what you have on hand, but being able to wear it comfortably on top of your T-shirt without overheating while hiking uphill in some rain is desirable. If you’re going in summer, this is more of a backup for short, unexpected showers, or just for wind protection at night, so having something light (< 8 – 10 oz) is nice.

If you’re in a really low-rain place like California, you could even break my #1 rule and rock a cotton T-shirt as a base layer as long as you can swap it for another item at night if it gets damp from sweat or some freak rain. Ditto for cotton underwear, although I’d still stick to wool or synthetic socks since these tend to get wet either from the outside (rain, river crossings, muddy trails) or the inside (sweat.)

Pack a lightweight pair of gloves like some wool glove liners or these synthetic ones. Costco often has great deals on nice, smart-phone-compatible lightweight gloves in fall, which are a bit heavier than you need, but they’ll work! These are nice to have both for the cold, but also for handling a hot pot or pan while cooking, or gathering & splitting (“batoning”) firewood.

If your warm layer doesn’t have a hood, or if you’d rather wear a beanie to bed than use your hood, pack a synthetic beanie hat too. I don’t recommend wool here just because it’s really hard to get dry once it’s wet.

Bring a (trucker-style, optionally for breathability) baseball cap for sun protection, or a wide-brimmed hat if you’re going somewhere sunny. You can ditch the beanie and use your rain hood + baseball hat for warmth if you wanna save a couple ounces and it’s not too cold.

For shoes, I strongly recommend you use a pair of lightweight, comfortable trail runners and NOT a pair of heavy hiking boots. There are some ‘hybrid’ lightweight boots out there that can work too. A “pound on your feet is worth five on your back“, and boots tend to give people blisters. If you’re worried about ankle support, lace up your shoes as high as they’ll go, and strengthen your ankles and the muscles around them by walking on uneven ground regularly (e.g.: get out and hike more in the forest!) and doing one-legged balancing exercises at home.

I’ve found that the best thing to do for my injury-prone ankles (thanks years-of-basketball!) was to hike a lot, which seemed to strengthen my balancing muscles, and also to wear natural flat shoes which kept me from turning my ankles since I was flat on the ground at all times. (If you are interested in switching to minimalist footwear, definitely give yourself time way before you think about backpacking to adjust, and wear them hiking first! It took me about 3 months to ‘forget’ that I was wearing ‘barefoot’ shoes. Your muscles need time to adapt and grow strong.)

Cooking and eating equipment (1 – 1.5 lbs)

If you’re going to cook, you’ll need a lightweight pot. I use and really like this one. It weighs 10.4 oz which holds two quarts (64 oz) and has a lid and handle. Two quarts is big enough for 2 – 3 dude meals, but I use a bigger kettle when cooking for four guys. Boil your water for tea/coffee first in the morning, then cook your food in it. You only need one pot if you meal plan accordingly, and you can fry stuff in the fairly-non-stick surface of this one if needed. If you want to cook fancier, go for it, but consider sticking to boil-and-eat meals like pasta, instant rice, or even deydrated meals like Knorr rice or pasta sides or complete Mountain House meals for your first trip. (I do encourage doing your own meal prep though. The instant meals just don’t taste as good. That said, I often bring Knorr rice/pasta sides and just add pre-cooked meat and some extra spices too them. The extra weight of the fresh cooked meat is worth it! Instant Indian sauce pastes added to instant rice & pre-cooked meat, and maybe some carmelized onion, are also amazing.)

You can go all out and get a titanium cook & mess set, but thin stainless steel, or an old aluminum set like you can find in a thrift or antique store, are almost as light and a lot cheaper.

For eating, bring the lightest plastic or metal mug, plastic bowl, and eating utensil you have, but make sure they are sturdy enough not to crack. Even some disposable flatware, a keg cup, and disposable bowl could work for a night or two, although get a heat-resistant cup if you’re going to make hot drinks. This spork ($4, 0.3 oz) (or a multi-pack of cheaper knock-offs: 12 for $9), or the titanium one ($15, 0.7 oz) I use, or this titanium one ($10, 0.6 oz) are all popular choices.

Again, for your first trip, just scrounge together what you have or can borrow, and buy better stuff later (or never!)

For stoves, using a canister stove like this cheap Chinese one ($15 as of writing, sometimes found for $10 or less), or a nicer MSR-brand one like this, is best for beginners*. Use blended iso-butane camp fuel like this.

We’ll talk about backcountry cooking and what food to bring in a later post, but in general you want your food to average 3 or 4 calories per gram (ex: 100 calories / 28 gram serving = 3.6 cal/g), so take dried or fatty foods that cook quickly (< 10 minutes.)

How much food to bring?

Two lbs of food averaging 3.5 cals / g = 3,000 calories, which is a good estimate per person per day. You’ll eat at least 500 – 1,000 calories more that your usual 2,000 – 2,500 when you’re on the trail, given how hard your hike is. If you’re small/female you might only need 1.5 lbs per day.

Of course you can meticulously count up all the calories in what you’re bringing, but I recommend just eyeballing the amount of food in the meals you’re making, adding in snacks for extra, and then weighing it all and making sure you have around 2 pounds per person per day.

Other gear (< 2 pounds)

If you’re merely tagging along with friends, they might provide all the communal cooking and other group equipment, so coordinate on what to bring as a team. (In my group, everyone brings their own eating utensils, but one ‘chef’ brings the stove, fuel, and cook pot(s) for all.)

You can use the ‘10 essentials‘ list to make sure you haven’t forgotten anything, but here’s my rundown of what you still need:

  1. Headlamp (1 per person): this might be the most important thing you should bring on any hike, whether for the day or overnight. If night falls and you don’t have a light source, you’re staying put. Having a hands-free headlamp vs a flashlight is much better both for hiking and in camp. Try setting up a tent in the dark one-handed! I use the Black Diamond Spot, which is a great value (~$30-35) for the brightness (300 lumens as of writing), features (wide vs tight beam, red light for nighttime), and reasonable weight (3.1 oz). Bring extra batteries (the Spot uses three AAA), and also bring a secondary light source like a mini flashlight as backup. This one seems ok (30 g, 150 lumens), or these (18 g.) I do NOT recommend those flat, diamond-shaped keychain lights. They are worthless for anything other than a reading light because they aren’t bright enough.
  2. Water filter & containers (1 per person, or bring a pump for the group): this is also a crucial piece of gear for backpacking & hiking since it let’s you safely drink water from virtually any water source you’ll encounter (except something chemically polluted such as agricultural runoff.) I use the individual Sawyer mini filter ($20) which screws onto a regular water bottle as well as the 1 liter water bladders (I carry two of them for most trips where there’s plenty of water along the way & in camp.) The Sawyer is also available at REI or Walmart. It comes with a syringe to backflush it once sediment builds up in it. Bring the syringe for longer trips, but otherwise leave it at home and flush between trips. Make sure to completely dry out your Sawyer before storing it between trips so that it doesn’t grow any mold inside! You can also get the pump kind of filter and share it among the whole group. A friend of mine really likes his BeFree individual filter with an integrated 1 L bottle ($45). It doesn’t require any backflushing, and has a faster flow rate with no worries on getting a tight fit between the filter and bottle, or molding, versus the Sawyer. Optional: I bring a few of chlorine dioxide (Micropur) tablets as backup in case, say, I lose my filter. For containers, I recommend getting the cheapo Walmart water bladders that I linked above. They seem just as durable as more expensive ones from REI. Small cracks that will eventually occur around the mouthpiece can be repaired with duct tape if you’re cheap frugal like me. Or, you can just bring a couple of sturdy used water bottles like the Smart water brand, but they take up more volume even when empty & can be harder to fill in shallow streams or puddles. Carry 1 liter (2.2 lbs) of water if there are plenty of sources to fill up along the trail & in camp, more (2 liters, 4.4 lbs) if not, or if you’re hiking up hill or in hot weather. Pro tip: Drink up when you get to a refilling spot to ‘camel’ water in yourself without having to carry as much of it on your back.
  3. Sunscreen & bug spray: along with your sun hat, pack enough sunscreen to cover exposed skin like your neck and arms. I use a spare contact lens case to store sunscreen in. As with everything else, bring only what you need for the length of your trip. If you’re traveling in forests in the northwest you can get by with very little. If hiking in open plains in southern California, maybe you need a whole travel bottle’s-worth. Bring a travel container of DEET or lemon-eucalyptus bug spray.
  4. Navigation: Map, compass, GPS (e.g.: your phone). These days, I mostly navigate using my phone’s GPS with a synced map downloaded from AllTrails (I pay for an annual subscription.) But, you should have and learn to use a physical topographical maps and compass in case your electronics fail. Green Trails makes really nice maps for about $10 – 14 apiece, and REI stocks them (call ahead to see if your store has the one you need), or download & print one from AllTrails (subscription might be needed, but check) and also save it to your phone on the AllTrails app, along with the route you intend to take. Then, open the app and follow your GPS dot on the route. You can always use your compass + physical map to double-check if you think your GPS isn’t accurate, or if you otherwise are unsure. It’s worth navigating with just the map & compass, and only using the GPS to check yourself, for the first few trips to build the skills.
  5. Medical kit: The most minimal med kit would be some pain pills (ibuprofen/Tylenol) & duct tape. Wrap the duct tape some around a plastic bottle or piece of a toilet paper roll to just take what you need. If you want to expand your kit, you could include band-aids, a lightweight wrap for sprains (or even a full ankle brace if you’re prone to them; hobbling out on a sprained ankle would be really tough), a small bit of gauze + a tiny roll of medical tape to attach it (or use your duct tape instead.) I bring a small Swiss army knife ($25, 1.1 oz) that has scissors & tweezers, and a Philip’s head screwdriver (which came in handy when I had to tighten something that came loose on my stove.)
  6. Repair kit: your duct tape plus some needle & thread (hotel sewing kits are perfect for this) should be sufficient. If you’re using an air pad, bring the patch kit for that. A small packet of dental floss can be useful as thread too if you were planning on bringing some anyway. The Swiss army knife I mentioned with its screwdrivers is nice to have for any mechanical failures.
  7. Knife: Get the ultralight (0.6 oz) Gerber LST ($16), which has a fixed blade so you don’t accidentally close it on your finger while cutting. You can use this for food prep as well as batoning wood or making feather sticks (both for starting fires.) The Morakniv (4.1 oz) is great if you want something heartier, but I hardly ever bring mine except maybe in winter if I think I’ll be batoning larger pieces of wood.
  8. Fire starter & ignition source: a mini Bic lighter, and several strike anywhere matches (or just kitchen matches) with a strike pad as backup, is plenty for good weather conditions. I bring a few stormproof matches for wet & windy conditions. Matches & a lighter are much more reliable than trying to use a fire steel, although feel free to pack the latter if you wanna try to learn how to use it. If your lighter ever gets wet and won’t light, try blowing out the water from the striking part. For firestarter, my favorite so far are Vasoline (petroleum jelly)-soaked cotton balls/rounds. Just work a dime-sized bit of the Vaseline into each ball, or half a cotton round, and store them together in a waterproof container. I use an old plastic film canister, or one of those orange plastic medicine container that prescription pills come in. (I save a lot of small, lightweight containers… Start doing the same; they’ll come in handy!) They burn for a long time thanks to the jelly, and light really easily. Other popular starters including dryer lint, or my dad’s method: dripping some candle wax into individually cut up cardboard egg carton cups. You can of course try to find wild tinder like dry ‘old man’s beard’ moss or making a feather stick, but bringing your own is definitely recommended for ease of use. When you really need a fire is when it’s going to be hardest to start one (wet & cold), so make life easy on yourself. Pro tip: baton (split) your wood first to get at its more ignitable core, and to make smaller kindling. Look for dry wood under downed trees or other places shielded from the rain. More on wilderness fire-making here.
  9. Cordage: get a 100 ft roll of 550 paracord. (50 feet is probably ok if you’re a gram weenie like me.) This can be used for everything from handing your food away from animals to replacing a broken tent pole or cord. You can even unstrand it to get at the thin white individual strands and use them for fishing line or dental floss I suppose.
  10. Toiletries: a travel toothbrush, or saw off half the handle of a regular toothbrush to save a few grams, and the tiniest tube of toothpaste you can find (your dentist office might hook you up, or keep an eye out at hotels), or squeeze some into a lightweight container. Pack some toilet paper, or one of those individual tissue packs. Use your dishsoap for hand soap (or your handsoap for dishes: Dr. Bronner’s is biodegradable.) Ladies, pack your feminine hygiene products, and whatever you need to use the bathroom in the woods.
  11. Entertainment: Smart phone w/ ebooks or audiobooks, (optional) earbud headphones, mini speaker if you promise to use it only in camp and quietly./
  12. Optional: A large bandana-style handkerchief, the kind you’d use for a bank robbery in the 19th century, like these (~1 oz each) have myriad uses as a towel, neck protector, pre-filter for muddy water, pot holder or warmer (wrap around your kettle after cooking), bandage, etc. You can grab one at a drugstore for about $1.50 each.

Pro tip: Use ziplock bags for storage & organization of gear & food. No need for ‘dry sacks’. I use a one gallon ziplock for all my miscellaneous gear, and sandwich bags for organizing stuff within it: one for toiletries, one for sponge and soap, one for fire material, etc. Keep your phone in a ziplock too in case of rain. Ditto for toilet paper.

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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