Backpacking is fun and exciting, but also challenging at the same time. In addition to a certain level of physical fitness, you also need to prepare well for your backpacking adventures. With so many items to choose from, without having a backpacking checklist, it can become difficult for beginners to pick the right ones, especially when backpacking for the first time.
It’s important to take some time to research core items such as shoes, tent and sleeping bag, but it’s also important to consider little things that matter a lot when you are out in the wild. Let’s start with the basics before moving on to the stuff you need on your multi-day backpacking trips.
Backpacking is not about carrying as much stuff as possible. It’s more about choosing the items carefully and making the most out of them. The goal should be to only carry the items you really need and cutting as much weight as possible. Packing light is probably the best advice you can give to someone new to backpacking. We have already covered ultralight backpacking in detail, and here is a quick recap of how to cut weight:
- Weigh all the items and make an Excel sheet for future reference
- Prioritize and understand that you have to leave some things behind
- Understand your own requirements and the tradeoffs, is an item really worth carrying around hundreds of miles?
- Choose multi-purpose, smallest gear if it meets your requirements
- Don’t over-pack clothes unless necessary
- Packing just the right amount and right kind of items requires some experience, so make changes gradually and avoid doing it all together (e.g. spending huge amounts of money on buying expensive ultralight equipment, all at once)
Why and How to Make a Backpacking Checklist?
The answer is fairly straightforward and obvious. There are a lot of items involved in a multi-day backpacking trip or thru-hike and without a backpacking checklist, one might forget some important items. A good checklist can help beginners as well as seasoned veterans to come up with all the items they need, and ensures that they don’t miss anything important. There are a lot of things that you can consider taking to a backpacking tour, but here we’ll focus on the important ones.
The Multi-Day Backpacking Checklist
It can take years to master the science and art of balancing weight with comfort and preparedness. Packing light makes the journey more enjoyable, but some luxury or comfort items might be worth the extra weight to you. In addition to the usual stuff such as backpacking permits and a call in advance to the ranger station, backpacking gear can be divided into the following main categories:
Storage: Backpack, rain cover, waterproof stuff sacks, Ziploc
Shelter: Tent, poles, rainfly, guylines, stakes, groundsheet
Sleep system: Quilt or a sleeping bag, sleeping pad, pillow
Food preparation: Stove with fuel, cookpot, spoon, small lighter, cup, spice kit, quick-dry towel
Tools and backpacking accessories: Multi-tool or pocket knife, whistle, waterproof phone case, headlamp, a few extra batteries, Ziploc bags, some cash or credit/debit card
Navigation equipment: Compass, topographic maps, map apps that provides offline functionality or driving directions, GPS mobile app, standalone GPS devices
Entertainment: Optional, according to personal preferences such as books or kindle
First aid: Band-aids, medical tape, antibiotic ointment, latex gloves, moleskin, safety pins, antidiarrheals, tweezers, gauze pads
Emergency kit: Sleeping pad patching kit, whistle, duct tape, stormproof matches, backup lighter, water treatment pills
Food and hydration: Meals and snacks that can provide 2.5-3.5k calories each day, an extra day of supply for backup purposes, food bag, utensils/cookware, 2-4 bottles of water, water containers (preferably collapsible to save space), water treatment pills and water filters. Check out our 25 backpacking food ideas.
Personal toiletries: hand sanitizer, sunscreen, toilet paper or wipes, lip balm, digging trowel, menstrual items, toothbrush, paste and floss, prescription medicine, vitamin pills, glasses/contact lenses, bug repellent, small comb, eye drops (cut hair, shave, clip nails etc. before the trip)
Clothing: Mainly depends on the climate and personal preferences, rain/down jacket, gloves, hat, hiking pants, running shorts, long/short sleeve shirt, 2-4 pairs of Silverlight socks, 2-3 pairs of moisture-wicking underwear, sunglasses and sunhat, bandana, bug-repellent products to treat clothing items with, trail runners or boots, hiking sandals, baselayers
Special equipment according to the climate such as ice axe and microspikes for snow and ice
The items you have to carry depends on the climate, the duration and your own personal preferences. You might not need most of the aforementioned items on short trips, while you might need all of the above on longer trips or thru-hikes.
In any case, you need to be very careful with the choices you make. It’s recommended to start with a comprehensive backpacking checklist containing all the possible options and weed out things you don’t really need. The combined weight of a lot of small items can end up making your journey difficult and less enjoyable.
Reducing the heaviest gear such as the backpack, shelter and sleeping bag can have a significant impact on the overall weight. That’s why we recommend investing in ultralight options, which can reduce the overall weight by as much as 10 pounds. Clothing items mainly depend on the climate and trip conditions, so they can vary from one region to another. However, there are a few important points to consider that apply to most conditions:
- Choose quick-drying fabric clothing items that wick moisture away from the body and regulate temperature effectively in both hot/cold conditions. E.g. polyester, nylon, wool, silk, bamboo and synthetic blends
- Clothing made of cotton should be avoided in most situations because it is not that effective in wicking moisture and takes longer to dry. This can lead to different issues including chafing and blisters
- Pick items that you can wear in layers such as wearing fleece and goose down that has excellent insulation properties and provides the best balance between warmth and weight
- Choose lightweight and breathable rain gear, which can also be used as an additional layer for extra warmth
Essential Backpacking Equipment and Our Recommendations
A 30-50L backpack is considered the right size for overnight trips, so you need something larger than that for multi-day trips. You’ll probably need a 50-80 L backpack for 3-5-night trips and a 70+ L for extended trips involving 5+ nights. Backpacks are available in different shapes with varying features, and are priced accordingly. Here is a link to a relatively affordable and durable 65L internal frame backpack that checks most of the boxes.
Important things to consider when buying a backpack include:
- Capacity (represented in liters, varies from 30-80 L)
- Features and refinements
- Fitting (Torsi length is more important than your own height, waist size, women-specific, youth-specific)
- Ventilation/breathability (suspended mesh-back backpacks, ventilation chimneys)
- Pack access (panel access, top-loading i.e. what goes in first comes out the last)
- Pockets (elasticized pockets at the side which are flat when empty and can be used to store water and other loose objects, shovel pockets, hip-belt pockets and front pockets)
- Removable daypack (some backpacks have a daypack that is easily removable)
- Padding (helps prevent sore spots on the lower back and hips)
- Compartments for organizing stuff
- Attachment points for attaching trekking poles, ice axe etc.
- Hydration reservoir
- Frame type (internal/most common, external for carrying irregular and heavy load and frameless for faster hiking)
- Rain cover (prevents water from sipping through zippers and seams)
A backpacking tent is an essential item for multi-day backpacking trips and provides protection and refuge in the backcountry. Picking the right tent depends on different factors, including the weather, number of persons and weight targets. A majority of three-season 2-person tents (the most popular size) weigh around 2-5 lbs., but you can also consider minimalistic and ultralight tents to cut weight.
As mentioned earlier, it’s recommended to go ultralight when it comes to the tent. Although more expensive than regular tents, ultralight tents are an investment worth it in the long run as they are among the heaviest backpacking items. An ultralight or lightweight tent is highly recommended if you can afford it.
The REI Quarter Dome SL 2 offers a great balance between price and weight and has two large openings, so your partner can get in/out without invading your space. Features such as interior pockets for organization and air vents make this tent easy to recommend, while a 1-person variant of the same tent is also available if you plan on going solo. Here is another link to an affordable option for a 2-person tent.
You need a quality sleeping bag after long hikes to get proper sleep. Although it can be another expensive purchase, a sleeping bag can last for quite some time if you treat it well. Sleeping bags come in different shapes, sizes and made of different materials. Depending on your own requirements, you can choose between streamlined, roomy, plush mummy or summer quilts (lightweight). These are available in different builds such as synthetic and down filled.
You need a sleeping pad not only for comfort, but also to insulate the body from the cold ground below. Pad insulation level is often defined by the R-value in specifications i.e. a higher R-value means better insulation. The Therm-a-rest air-mattress is one of the most popular sleeping pad types because it’s well-built and is fairly lightweight. Another option you might want to consider is the REI Flash three-season sleeping pad.
Stove with Fuel
Portable stoves allow you to prepare food or heat prepackaged meals. These stoves can range from compact and lightweight portable stoves to powerful ones. In addition to size and weight, the other main thing to consider is the type of fuel you want to use (and carry). Propane or isobutane canisters are popular, but you can also buy multi-fuel stoves for longer trips. Backpacking stoves range from simple 2-ounce compact stoves to all-in-one and screw-on stoves.
The Coleman butane stove is an affordable option that works well for 2-3 day backpacking trips. MSR PocketRocket is another lightweight option that also comes with a Piezo igniter. These are inexpensive and lightweight options, but depending on the trip and the number of people, you might have to carry a bigger or more powerful stove.
Special care is needed to create a simple, yet nutritious meal plan. Keeping weight of food items down is a skill that takes some time to master, but the general idea here is to pick calorie-dense food that is easy to prepare and lightweight. At the same time, you also need to keep in mind that freezer-dried packaged meals can have high amounts of sugar and sodium, which can be an issue if you eat it in excess.
Many experienced backpackers take another approach and use food dehydrators to prepare their own meals. They dry vegetables, meats, fruits and sauces and later combine them with dried goods that rehydrate easily such as couscous, pasta, minute rice instant refried beans and potatoes. This allows them to make customized meals that are high in nutrition and low in cost. Despite the cost saving benefits, these meals can add weight, so it’s a balance backpackers have to create.
Dehydrated foods have gotten better over time and can provide the nutrition backpackers need. You can simply boil water and prepare a meal without having to clean dishes or cook. Ready-to-eat meals are a good source of much needed protein and made with 100 percent beef. Some popular brands for backpacking food include Good To-Go, Backpacker’s Pantry, Mountain House and AlpineAir. It’s always a good idea to plan well and carry a meal or two as backup for situations when you have to stay at one place for longer than expected.
For more ideas, check out this web story with 25 Delicious Backpacking Food Ideas
Utensils and Cookware
With food comes cookware, but like many other backpackers, you can buy all-in-one stove systems to avoid carrying a lot of weight. All you need is a lightweight cup for tea/coffee and a spork for eating. However, you need a pot for cooking and a dish or two when using a simple stove. Ultralight cookware can be quite expensive, so we recommend finding a middle ground between weight and price instead of spending a lot of money on utensils that are just a few grams lighter. Popular backpacking cookware options include GSI Outdoors, Snow Peak and MSR.
From chemical and UV options to pumps and gravity filters, you have plenty of options to choose from for treating water. Some backpackers prefer fully purified water, while others consider filtered water to be good enough. When backpacking in areas where human or animal waste is a concern, full-on purification is the best option. Water filters work well for most backpacking situations and are light enough for easy carriage. Solo backpackers might want to consider chemical drops or minimalist pumps.
Standard water bottles are good enough for most multi-day trips, but many prefer more convenient drinking through a hose connected to a reservoir in the backpack. BPA-free bottles like the Nalgene Tritan is an affordable and durable option that’s easy to hold.
A lot of items fall under this category including hiking shoes, hiking socks, hiking pants, hiking shirts, rain jacket, synthetic jacket, down jacket, base layers and so on. Choosing the right items depends on the environment and length of the trail, but we recommend going lightweight because you can save quite some .weight here. The general rule of thumb is to only carry clothing items that you need during the trip and try reusing them as much as possible by washing and drying.
Hiking pants are lightweight, water-repellent, durable and can also be used for everyday wear. Hiking shirts are mostly a matter of personal taste and you have plenty of options, including this lightweight merino jersey baselayer. It’s a good idea to keep a lightweight rain jacket even if you don’t expect rain during the trip.
You might also need a synthetic or down jacket in the early morning and the evening. Down jackets provide excellent weight-to-warmth ratio, while synthetic jackets are better at insulating in wet conditions. You can get a reasonable, packable and water-resistant jacket for under $30.
Hiking/Backpacking Footwear and Socks
Footwear is one of the most important backpacking items. That’s why we have a dedicated post on hiking boots vs. trail runners that can help beginners make a more informed decision when choosing between different types of hiking shoes. Another post on how to choose the perfect hiking socks makes it easier to pick the perfect socks for backpacking. Lightweight hiking shoes are suitable for most backpacking trips, while many even prefer barefoot trail runners in not-so-challenging terrains.
In addition to hiking shoes, you also need at least 2-3 pairs of quality hiking socks for a comfortable and blister-free journey. Silverlight hiking socks are designed for comfort, blister prevention and odor-free hiking. Here is a quick summary of what makes Silverlight the best hiking socks:
- Silver infused threads prevent bacteria from growing
- Dual layer construction, 2-in-1 design wicks moisture and provides light compression without being thick
- Made from temperature regulating merino wool and blended with spandex and nylon for durability
- Seamless stitching
- Grippy outer layer made of spandex
- Prevents blisters and hotspots
- Supports the feet in the right places i.e. the heel, toe and midfoot
- Lifetime guarantee and no-questions-asked free returns
Under $40 can get you a headlamp that’s reasonably bright, but you need to invest in a powerful headlamp if you plan on doing nighttime adventures. The amount or brightness of light emitted is represented as lumens, but that is not the only thing to consider. Other factors to consider include waterproof rating, durability, battery options and charging speed.
The Black Diamond Spot headlamp offers a great balance between price and functionality and is perfect for backpackers on a budget. You can also use an inexpensive flashlight in most situations, but the headlamp is more convenient and frees your hands for other tasks.
First Aid and Repair Kit
Keeping a first aid kit (even a very basic one) is always a good idea regardless of the duration of a backpacking trip. The contents of the first aid kit mainly depends on the length of the trip, but it should at least include band-aids, basic medications and duct tape. We have already covered how to prevent blisters (which can happen to any backpacker) and things to include in a blister treatment kit. Ultralight kits are easy to carry and can be very useful in emergencies.
Depending on the journey, a repair/backup kit can have duct tape, puncture repair items, utility cord, waterproof matches, extra batteries, lighter, stove repair kit, large Ziploc or some garbage bag, a multi-tool, sewing kit, seam sealer, safety pins and zip ties.
Almost all modern smartphones have a built-in GPS module and navigation apps, which can be used for basic navigation. However, paper maps and dedicated navigation hardware remain the classic choice. Smartphones serve the same purpose as dedicated navigation devices i.e. to show you where you are on the trail, but you need long battery life and connectivity to make it all work. You can find maps for most popular trails from their respective websites, while there are also plenty of hiking apps to get you through different trails.
Optional, But Useful Backpacking Items
- Trekking Poles
- Backpacking chair
- Camp shoes
- Daypack for day-trips away from your camp
- Books or other reading material
- Cards or games
- Compact binoculars
- Two-way radios
- Action/regular cam with extra batteries and memory cards
- Night-sky identifier
- Outdoor journal
Whether you are planning for your first multi-day backpacking trip or are already a seasoned veteran, having a good backpacking checklist is always helpful. Being aware of the essentials and things you can leave behind helps you tailor your backpacking trip according to your own requirements, difficulty, weather conditions, trip distance and duration. The important thing is to do your research, follow the local guidelines and always keep yourself prepared.