Expert Recommended Backpacking Checklist: The Essentials

The first time I went backpacking, I learned a valuable lesson. Backpacking is quite different from tent camping near your car. Everything you need, you must carry on your back

You don’t get the luxury of coolers, excessively sleeping amenities, and a running car to save you from the bitter cold. No. You’re on your own.

That’s why I’ve decided to create the ultimate backpacking checklist for ambitious campers looking to hike their way into nature and get down to the basics of survival.

Follow along for a comprehensive list.

The Ultimate Backpacking Checklist

As I mentioned above, backpacking is a whole different game than a tent or car camping. It takes competent preparation and planning. It also takes some nerve.

If you think you’re up for, take a look at what you’ll need!

1. A Plan

An imperative part of your backpacking checklist is coming up with a gameplan and doing some research. Your comfort and safety depend on it.

Ask yourself the following questions:

  • Where am I going?
  • How long will I be there?
  • Who should I notify about my plans?
  • How cold does it get at night where I’ll be camping?
  • What kind of dangerous animals might I encounter?
  • How commonly are these animals sighted?
  • Am I going alone or should I bring someone with me?

Answering these questions will help you pack for exactly what you need and a little extra. Remember, regardless of if you go alone or with a friend, always tell someone else where you’re going and how long you intend to be gone. In case you don’t come back, this person will be able to send help.

2. A Quality Pack

One of the most important items on your backpacking checklist is your pack. You need a quality pack that can tolerate some weight, some abuse, and some weather.

Make sure your pack is waterproof, in case you get rained on during your hike. You can’t afford all of your gear getting wet.

However, you’ll also want to make sure that your pack is exceptionally comfortable. A pack weighing 20 to 50 pounds may not sound like a lot now, but after the first few hours of hiking, your body will say differently. The least you can do is make sure the straps all ride comfortably.

3. Comfortable Hiking Shoes and Water-Wicking Socks (and a Backup Pair of Each)

Next, your backpacking checklist needs to contain a quality pair of hiking shoes/boots and a backup pair in case they get wet. However, make sure you break these in before the hike or you’ll have a ton of blisters to deal with.

Additionally, make sure you bring several pairs of comfortable, water-wicking socks. These will be important for keeping your feet dry while hiking and avoiding extra blisters or worse.

4. Bear Protection

Another essential safety item on your backpacking checklist is bear and animal protection. Typically, hikers choose to carry bear spray. This is an effective pepper spray that deters bears from pursuing interaction (or an attack).

However, keep in mind that you will likely experience some of the symptoms from the mist of the spray if you have to use it. This includes burning eyes, uncontrollable eye-watering and nose running. However, it’s better than being mauled by a bear.

Another bear protection option is bringing a high-caliber pistol. However, this is best left to people experienced with firearms. For those of you with weapons experience, I recommend a .44 magnum revolver or something with equal stopping power.

5. A Durable Water Vessel

You’ll also need a durable, mid to large-sized water container for your hike and the rest of your camping trip. I suggest a metal bottle with at least 32 ounces or more storage capacity. This will keep you from needing to fill up every hour.

It may also be a good idea to get a water bottle with a built-in filtration system. These are a little spending but are incredibly useful.

6. Water Filter or Purifying Tablets

Speaking of water filtration, it is essential on your backpacking checklist. You can use a water pump filter, a filtered water bottle, or purifying tablets.

Regardless, make sure you’re using a flowing water source. Stagnant water often means more bacteria and pathogens.

7. Snacks for the Trail

You also need to keep plenty of snacks handy for your hike into the woods or up the mountain. You’re going to be burning calories at a demanding rate and need to make sure you’re well-nourished.

I’ve always found trail mix and beef jerky to be some of the best trail snacks. You can also use snack bars, protein bars, or fruit leathers.

8. Sunscreen and Bug Spray

One of the worst mistakes you can make is failing to put on sunscreen during your camping trip and on the hike up. Believe me, hiking with a heavy pack and a sizzling sunburn is no picnic.

You’ll also want to bring insect repellant, as the mosquitos in the mountains are not only prevalent, but they can also be huge, as can the horse flies.

9. Light-Weight Tent

Unless you’re planning on building a lean-to out of fallen trees and spruce branches, you’ll also need a tent. However, it’s important on a backpacking checklist that you choose a small, light-weight tent. It may be your only shelter but you’re not planning on hanging out in there all day – smaller is better.

Every pound counts when your backpacking, learn how to lighten the load where you can.

10. Appropriate Sleeping Bag

Next, based on your research, you need to determine what sleeping bag you need to bring. How cold is it going to get? How good of a temperature rating should your sleeping bag have?

This is one area where I encourage people to spend a little more money. You can buy a light-weight, high-rated sleeping bag that will keep you warm in below-freezing temperatures. Better safe than sorry!

11. Inflatable Sleeping Pad and Pillow

You need to consider your comfort while sleeping. Just because you’re camping, it doesn’t mean you have to be uncomfortable. The best sleeping pad will likely be an inflatable one you can roll up nice and tight and hardly notice in your pack.

12. Warm, Layerable Clothes

Next on your backpacking checklist is clothing. You’ll want to be able to strip or add layers at ease to adjust to the changing temperatures. Wearing a t-shirt with a giant parka on top is not ideal.

Plan for layers in your sleeping clothes as well. Sleeping when you’re too hot or cold is nearly impossible.

13. Rain Gear

Speaking of adequate clothing, you also need to be prepared in case of rain (which is more than likely in most mountains). I recommend having an emergency poncho at the very least. However, I prefer durable raincoat and rainpants.

You don’t want to spend your entire camping trip stuck inside your tent because you don’t have any rain gear.

14. Small Tarp

It’s also a good idea to add a small tarp onto your backpacking checklist. You can use this for extra tent protection against the rain or to keep firewood dry. There are various other applications for a tarp, but trust me, it’s best to bring one along.

15. Rope and Cordage

Next, you’ll want to bring along some rope and paracord string. The rope can be used to haul firewood and string your food up in trees, away from a bear’s reach.

The paracord can be used to temporarily fix straps, tie things together, create a roasting rack for fish or other food, fix broken shoestrings, etc.

16. Machete or Hatchet

You absolutely need a tool for cutting firewood. You shouldn’t be cutting down any live trees (bad for firewood and unnecessary damage to the ecosystem), but you’ll need a machete, saw, or hatchet to cut dead trees and branches to size.

I recommend a machete with a serrated backside. This way you have a tool for lopping off smaller branches and sawing through thicker pieces.

17. Multitool

As far as tools go, you’ll also want a multitool. This will be handy for fishing, carving sticks, or making any necessary repairs.

18. Cooking/Eating Necessities

When you’re backpacking, you can’t afford to pack a ton of kitchen and cooking ware. Depending on the food you brought, however, you may need to boil water to rehydrate food, make tea, etc.

I recommend bringing a means to boil water for multiple reasons. However, you will probably need a knife/fork/spoon combo tool and maybe a durable plate and bowl. If you don’t plan on using the fire to cook your food, you’ll need a pocket stove with the appropriate fuel.

19. Calorie-Dense Food

Whatever food you decide to put on your backpacking checklist, it needs to be calorie-dense. You want the highest caloric bang for your buck, like hiking, fishing, exploring, gathering firewood, and preparing camp take a lot of energy.

I recommend MREs, freeze-dried camping meals, trail mix, dried fruit, candy bars, gummy candies, and protein bars.

20. Safety Gear

No backpacking checklist is complete without essential safety gear. These include flares, a whistle, a compass and a map, a GPS system, and even a personal locator device.

When you’re backpacking, especially by yourself, you need to make sure all of your emergency safety bases are covered.

21. First Aid Kit

Along the same lines of safety, let’s talk first aid. You need a lightweight but comprehensive first aid kit on your backpacking checklist. It should have all of the essentials including:

  • Small, medium, and large adhesive bandages
  • Ace bandages
  • Safety pins
  • Medical tape
  • Gauze pads
  • Antiseptic ointment
  • Kits for snake bites, bee stings, and poisonous plants
  • Tweezers
  • Scissors

22. Flashlight and Headlamp

Next, you’ll want to make sure you’re never left in the dark. The woods can be an easy place to get lost mid-day, let alone when it’s dark. Make sure you bring multiple sources of light and extra batteries.

I recommend and flashlight and a headlamp at a minimum.

23. Personal Ammenities

When you’re building your backpacking checklist, you also need to consider your personal needs. This includes hygiene and personal comforts. These items may include:

  • Soap
  • Deodorant
  • Hand sanitizer
  • Washcloth and towel
  • Toilet paper
  • Wet wipes
  • Toothbrush and toothpaste
  • Brush/comb

24. Fishing Gear

It’s not a bad idea to plan on eating fish for many of your meals. However, you never know what your luck will be like fishing, so always have backup food.

However, you’ll need your fishing gear to even test your luck. Make sure to bring plenty of hooks, lures, bate, and extra fishing line.

25. Fire Starters

Starting a fire is an essential part of enjoying your camping experience. Make sure you bring plenty of resources to start a fire.

First, you put a couple of lighters and waterproof matches on your backpacking checklist. Never rely on only one source.

Next, you may need a fuel source. For backpacking, we recommend dry firestarters. These are easy to light and burn hot long enough to get even the most stubborn fires started.

26. Extras

No backpacking checklist is all-encompassing without a miscellaneous category. Think about any extra items you might want to make your trip more enjoyable or comfortable. Here are some ideas:

  • Sunglasses
  • Hats
  • Watch
  • Sandles
  • Music and Headphones
  • Coffee or Tea
  • Etc.

27. Entertainment

As much work as it is to set up camp, keep the fire going, prepare dinner, and so on, you will find yourself with some downtime. It’s a good idea to bring some form of entertainment.

I recommend bringing along a good book, a deck of cards, a journal, and a sketchbook. Don’t weigh yourself down packing a ton of stuff you don’t need, but you should account for quiet times during the day or when it comes time to wind down for the evening.

Are You Ready?

I highly recommend using this backpacking checklist as your guide when you start preparing for your trip. Print it out and go over it while you’re packing. The last thing you want is to get miles up the trail and realize you forgot something important!

Before you go, feel free to check out the rest of our articles on camping and hiking. And remember, be safe and enjoy yourself! Good luck on the trail!

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