So I am asked on a surprisingly regular basis what I bring on a backpacking trip. Up to this point, I’ve really resisted making a post on this, because there are a lot smarter people out there than me about this (like seriously, try Backpacker Magazine, or getting a book from the library, or finding an old Boy Scout Backpacking Merit Badge book, or take a class at REI, or just go talk to the AT Thru Hikers and Section Hikers at REI).
But, since folks keep asking (and you are for some reason still reading this and not any of the resources above), I figure better to just post what I take backpacking so that people can argue about what a dolt I am in the comments section (correct answer – a big one).
So to start – a brief, 128 page manifesto about my core beliefs on what to pack while backpacking.
I – I don’t have any money, so it’s needs to be pretty cheap. This rules out a ton of fancy ultralight equipment, although if some some fancy company wants to bribe sponsor me/give me free stuff, I will gladly write a new post where I tell you how their stuff is amazing while their competitor’s stuff is complete junk and how it is, allegedly, made out of baby kittens (you, allegedly, heartless monsters!).
II – If I am spending money, it better last forever. Because I tend to lose and/or break things.
III – Less is more. More weight = more misery, just leave the extra crap at home. I’ve learned this from taking a few dozen Boy Scouts on backpacking trips, many of whom have their parents “help” them pack, most of whom attempt to pack their entire bedroom furniture set and 2/3 of all the clothing found in the great state of New Jersey and maybe a piano or two.
So what do I need?
Where to Spend Money
There’s a huge debate right now between whether you should have hiking shoes or hiking boots, and I’m with you fellas on that one. But seriously, either one has their good points. Whichever one, this is where you put out a little bit of money, because cheap boots with destroy your feet on the trail.
The other place to spend money in on a decent backpack. There are two types of backpacks – internal frame and external frame. External frame backbacks are awesome if you are either a) a Civil War reenactor or are b) about to hop into a time machine and travel back to the 1980s or before. Otherwise, there is zero reason to get one (looking at you endless lines of Boy Scout leaders who insist that these are somehow still a good idea, who [along with their misinformed Scouts] form literally the entire market for those stupid things).
So get an internal frame pack. They balance better. You won’t be tempted to tie 43 things to the outside of them. People on the trail won’t give you weird looks or try to hand you a rifle and hardtack. The best brand of pack is definitely whatever is on sale and fits your back well, which is how I chose my pack that I’ve been using for the past many years. REI doesn’t sponsor me (but should! HINT! HINT! You might as well, you already have all of my money!), but it’s a good idea to go to one and get them to help you find a good pack for you. It’ll cost a bit more, but you know you’re getting the right thing (and they didn’t even pay me to say this. At least, not yet).
- Tent (also hammock or tarp or, if there is no chance of rain, sleep under the stars). I have about as cheap as you can get, an REI Dome 2. It’s not particularly light, and the ventilation can be pretty bad, but the price is right (under $100). For more money, you can get lighter and better tents.
- A sleeping bag. I picked mine up on a super sale at some point, with an eye on weight (mine is a 32 degree bag that weights 2 1/2 pounds).
- When it’s cold, I have a liner I’ll pack to drop my bad rating (Sea-to-Summit Thermolite Reactor Extreme Sleeping Bag Liner… which costs some money, but was way less than buying a new ultralight sleeping bag).
- A sleeping pad. There are inflatable ones and pad ones, but mine cost about $3 in 1994 and I’m still using it. I sleep pretty well on the ground though and don’t need much padding.
What to Wear
So my usual backpacking clothes:
- wicking underwear. If you don’t know what chafing is, go backpacking and you’ll find out very quickly near your most personal of man or lady parts. Invest in wicking underwear (worth every penny) or enjoy walking like John Wayne and feeling terribly uncomfortable “down there”.
- wicking shirt (usually my old Team USA soccer jersey… USA! USA! USA!)
- soccer shorts
- wool socks and polypropylene socks for underneath. Usually I bring an extra pair of each.
- Stupid, filthy, awful Philadelphia sports team hat
- A cotton or mix t-shirt for sleeping in
I then use layers on top if I need them. I don’t always bring all of these, but check the weather forecast ahead of time and take what seems reasonable. Notice I don’t list changes of clothes other than socks.
“But you big dolt,” I hear you saying, “that’s super gross, change your clothes!”
It is gross. But I’ve discovered a universal truth about backpacking… it’s makes you smell bad. Really bad. Like, no matter what. So invest in a good wicking shirt (or two tops) and leave the extra four set of clothing behind. Your back with thank you.
- rain pants that I pretend are normal long pants. This is almost always it for bottom layers, except if its really cold, in which case I’ll add long underwear or fleece pajama pants.
- an old, light fleece
- a fancy puffy jacket that my in-laws got me that looks dumb but is toasty warm and weighs like nothing (thanks Suzanne and Bob!). This is a peice of backpacking equipment worth investing in, it weighs almost nothing and I don’t have to shiver at night anymore.
- a rain jacket that doubles as a wind breaker. I have a decent rain suit that I’ve bought one-piece-at-time at super sales, but a set of Frog Toggs (sponsor me! Sponsor me!) are like $20-30 and work about as well as anything else unless you’re spending about as much as most of my cars have cost me.
- when super desperate because of cold, a hoodie because I can put the hood over my head. I have to be pretty desperate.
- Also when cold, a winter hat and lightweight gloves. These don’t weigh much and help keep you much warmer.
- travel deodorant
- Toothbrush, sawed in half because I’m just showing off at that point
- travel toothpaste
- Toilet paper in a ziplock bag. Don’t forget this.
- Small plastic shovel. Goes well with toilet paper.
- When needed, travel size sunscreen and/or bug spray
People can go crazy with cooking stuff. I try to keep it simple.
- Stove (I am a big fan of a Pocket Rocket or something similar, because they are super simple, light, hard to break, and you can get the fuel anywhere)
- Sierra cup (other cooking cups work just as well)
- Lighter (mine has Elvis on it. Because ELVIS!)
This doesn’t weight much, and it lets me make dehydrated meals and hot chocolate, and what more could a person want?
Some people ditch all of this stuff and just eat cold meals, but I just can’t bring myself to do that, because I’m only mostly crazy, not completely.
To start, I can’t recommend the pre-packaged dehydrated meals enough. Yes, they cost stupid amounts of money ($8-11 each). But if you are out for only a few days, you just can’t beat the convenience of boiling water, putting it in a bag, eating out of the bag, then not having to clean anything. My favorite at the moment is Chicken and Dumplings, which is pretty much chicken pot pie in a bag. I recommend bringing salt and pepper packets to help spice these up a bit.
If you insist on wanting to clean dishes, noodle meals and ramen noodles are popular among long distance hikers. You can also go super crazy and cook real meals, like tacos (friend of the blog Danny dehydrates cooked taco meat, then rehydrates it… it smells amazing) or spam sliders, which is totally a real thing I saw someone make on the AT in Maryland once (with guda cheese, or a cheese spelled much like that one).
I’m not much of a breakfast person and usually skip it, but you can do oatmeal, granola bars, breakfast bars, or cereal in a bag (my brother-in-law brings dehydrated milk right in the bag… brilliant). You can also buy dehydrated breakfasts, but they usually turn out pretty terrible (looking at you scrambled eggs and bacon).
For lunch, the old standbys are peanut butter crackers, granola bars, and GORP/trail mix. Snacks are more of the same, although I like mixing in goldfish or Cheez-its, and pretzels.
To mix it up on longer trips, I’ve become a huge fan of pepperoni sticks. They have some kick, go great mixed into the dehydrated mac and cheese meals, and don’t go bad in your pack.
Water is absolutely key. I usually carry two one liter Nalgene bottles, although using old Gatorade bottles are cheaper and works just as well. If its hotter out, I’ll carry three. Camelbacks work, but I’d always carry a water bottle too in case yours breaks.
When I first started backpacking, I used iodine tablets to treat my water to make it drinkable. These made me a little sick though (which apparently isn’t normal for most people), but was better than drinking untreated water. They are also cheap and lightweight.
I now use a Sawyer squeeze water filter, which you can pick up for $30-40 (go with the regular one, not the Sawyer mini), because the water tastes so much better. As a bonus, I can fill the squeeze bag with water and cap it, so when I can carry an extra liter or two of water when I need to without having to carry a third Nalgene bottle.
I avoid the hand water pumps, because every time I use one, it either immediately clogs or it just flat out breaks, often while I am still just looking at it in its packaging.
Odds & End
These are the “others” that I bring with me.
- Whistle (mine is built into one of my pack clips)
- Basic first aid kit with moleskin & your three major medicine groups – pain relievers, allergy pills, and anti-diarrhea medicine
- Flashlight OR headlamp with fresh batteries. Headlamps are MUCH lighter, I’ve been going with one of those lately.
- 50′ of braided nylon cord. Costs not much at REI, great for bear bagging or making a clothesline. Weighs next to nothing.
- Map or trail guide & compass – for hopefully obvious reasons.
- Hiking pole or poles – I need one for my crummy knee.
- Duct tape (10 or 15 feet wrapped around you hiking pole or something small like pencil) – fixes everything. EVERYTHING.
- And after I cut down all of that weight and make sure my pack is light… giant four pound SLR camera with a lens. Hey, if I’m working that hard, I want nice pictures at the end of it.
- When I’m out with Scouts – charging pack for my phone. By myself, I leave this at home and just turn my phone off. If I need to leave it on for parents, I need to be able to recharge.
- Safety pins – I stick a few in my first aid kit for emergency pack repairs.
My Secret Weapons
I have two secret weapons when it comes to backpacking. They do a million things and weigh almost nothing.
- Trash bags
Need an emergency rain coat? Wet gear? Need a pack cover? Have to pack out something gross? Trash bag to the rescue!
Water pump putting out dead leaves (this seriously happened to me once, it was so gross)? Need a wound bandaged? Head sweaty? Bandana to the rescue!
Ready for the Trail
Finally, I pack up all this junk. My sleeping bag goes inside a trash bag, because rain.
All of my other stuff gets sealed in zipper lock ziplog bags, because rain and/or spills.
In this way, I don’t have to worry about water from the outside or mess from the inside ruining my trip. Then it’s on my back, and away we go. For a fair weather trip, my pack fully loaded comes in between 18 and 22 pounds, which isn’t too bad.
Anyway, this is the backpacking knowledge I’ve gleaned from somewhere between 700 and 1000 miles of backpacking. Let the war in the comments about big a dolt I am begin!