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Just getting into backpacking and don’t know where to start? I’ve put together a list of all the gear that you’ll need, along with some essential information for beginner backpackers.
Things to know before you start buying Backpacking Gear
Depending on what time of year you go out will help you determine the gear you want to purchase or bring with you. Warmer weather gear has the advantage of being lighter and less expensive, so if you’re a beginner it’s good to start in the warm months. Look at the average temperatures for where and when you plan to backpack before deciding. It matters a lot especially on items like your sleep system which have temperature ratings.
If you’ve only day hiked before with a pack that weighs no more than 10lbs, adding another 20+ onto that and hiking ALL day is going to wear on you. So it’s important to try and get yourself gear that won’t be too heavy.
The industry rule of thumb is that you don’t want to be carrying more than 20% of your body weight in total. So if you weigh about 150lbs, you don’t want to be carrying more than 30lbs on your back, including food and water. This doesn’t mean that you can’t carry more of course, but it’s a goal to shoot for.
- The term “Base Weight” refers to the weight of all items in your pack, excluding food and water.
- The “Big Three” refer to your tent, backpack, and sleep system. Try to keep these around 3lbs each or less.
- 1 Liter of water weights approx. 2.25lbs(36oz) in a plastic Smart Water bottle.
- Food can vary greatly in weight, but another rule of thumb is around 2lbs of food per day. You’re going to be burning more calories if you’re hiking all day!
- A lot of backpackers use spreadsheets or lighterpack to keep track of item weight. A lot of weights are listed online when you buy items, or you can use a small kitchen scale and measure them yourself for more accuracy.
There are 2 main things you have to look out for when purchasing a backpack: the size capacity, and how much weight it can carry.
Backpacks for backpacking come in all different size capacities, meaning how much gear you can put in them. The capacity is measured in Liters, and includes any side or mesh pockets. I recommend a lightweight 60L backpack for beginners. This will give you plenty of room for all of your equipment as long as it’s lightweight, including a bear can if needed!
For backpacking, you have the options of a tent, a hammock, or a bivy. I would always recommend a beginner to go with a lightweight tent, but it’s good to know that other options are out there.
Some people find hammocks more comfortable to sleep in, you just need to find 2 trees every night to tie it up to, along with a tarp overhead. To keep warm you need a top quilt and an underquilt. Hammock systems and tents on average will weigh about the same with all parts included.
Bivys are like a small little tent shelter that fit just your body laying down in your sleeping bag for the night. They don’t have much headroom, so you can’t sit up in them like a tent, and sometimes people will also hang up a tarp above them. They’re made for hardcore ultra-light backpackers and people who don’t get claustrophobic.
Your backpacking sleep system is made up of your sleeping bag or quilt, sleeping pad, and pillow. Sometimes a sleeping bag liner in addition. Pay very close attention to the temperature ratings on your sleeping bag or quilt, as well as your sleeping pad! These two things work together to keep you warm. You may purchase a bag that says it can keep you warm till 30 degrees F, but if your pad isn’t also properly rated you can still get quite cold!
Backpackers generally do not bring much extra clothing with them. If you want to save weight in your pack, take the clothes on your back, your sleep clothes and an extra pair or two of socks and underwear. It’s also good to bring a lightweight jacket for when it’s cooler out at camp. If you’re backpacking in the winter then you may also need a long sleeve mid layer for extra warmth.
For material, it’s important that you wear synthetic or wool. Don’t wear cotton, because if it gets wet it takes a while to dry and can chafe your skin, especially socks. I’ve tried a lot of different clothing for hiking over the years, but I always wear lightweight quick dry pants, a merino wool t-shirt, and merino socks and underwear. They’re a little expensive but worth it.
Rain gear is optional, depending on the weather, and can consist of several different gear choices.
The one thing that is NOT optional however, is making sure you have a waterproof plastic liner for your backpack. This will keep everything inside that liner dry, even if your pack gets wet.
Food, Cooking, & Water Filtration
Cook kits can vary, but for beginners I recommend a simple setup with a small lightweight pot(500-750ml is good for one person) to boil water, a stove, and a fuel canister. The easiest thing to get for food are freeze dried meals, which you can pour boiling water directly into. That avoids getting your pot dirty.
For filtering water I like using a Sawyer Squeeze, which is the most popular water filtration device with thru hikers. Another one that is popular is the Katadyn Befree. You can also get water purification tablets. In fact, the tablets are small and light enough that it’s a good idea to carry a few with you in your emergency kit, just in case your filter breaks down.
Finally, you’ll need to have a dry sack for your bear bag which you need to learn how to hang properly(you can purchase a bear bag kit), or a bear can. In some areas bear cans are required! Be sure to check where you’re going and if the bear can you have will work. In the Adirondacks for example only a certain type(like the Backpacker’s Cache Garcia can which I have) is allowed. Another thing to note is that in popular areas it may be possible to rent a bear can, so you may not have to buy one if you don’t want.
Also get an Opsack odor proof bag to put your food and garbage inside too, for extra security. The less a bear or critters smell the better!
I’m going to tell you right upfront, backpacking gear can be expensive! It is different than camping gear(where you carry everything in your car to get to your campsite). Weight is very important, and unfortunately the lighter something is in this industry, the higher the price.
That said there are some cheaper budget alternatives, however you still have to be prepared to spend several hundred dollars if you’re just getting started. Also you might not want to cheap out on some items like your sleep system(it’s very important to get a good night’s rest out on the trail!), and you don’t want your tent leaking in case it rains. Always check and read reviews before buying.
Another thing, if you want to try backpacking but you’re not sure you’ll like it, you can possibly rent gear. REI has gear rental for tents and more, so if you have a store nearby this could be an option for you. Or perhaps you can borrow extra gear from a friend who’s coming along 🙂
Where to Buy
The recent years have seen a surge in backpacking, as well as many small “cottage companies” located in the US and elsewhere who sell and some that even manufacture their own gear. Pretty cool that you can support a lot of small businesses in the industry!
If you can, shop local where you can actually see and try the items first-this is especially important for a backpack, to get the fit right. There’s only a Dicks Sporting goods near where I live, and unfortunately the selection there is very lacking, so I ended up purchasing almost all of my stuff online. Thankfully that worked for me and I didn’t have any problems.
I’ve bought gear from many different websites, depending on the prices, sales, and if I’m looking for something specific. Here’s a few of the major companies to check out online:
Garage Grown Gear – This company sells tons of smaller indie brand merchandise, a great place to shop for backpacking items. Definitely check them out! I’ve purchased from them several times already and have gotten good deals.
Outdoor Vitals – A company specializing in a lot of lightweight backpacking gear. They keep growing and innovating new gear every year. I’ve got a bunch of their items and have been really happy with the quality so far. They also offer a membership plan that includes discounts and early access.
REI – The big retail store of all the name brand outdoor gear. You could buy everything you need from REI if you wanted, they’ve got good sales throughout the year, and their membership plan is worth getting. They’ve also got a great return policy if you’re not sure about something, including shoes! If there’s an REI store near you, you can go there and try on all the backpacks, etc. to see what works for you.
Amazon & Walmart – I prefer to shop elsewhere, but there are some deals on cheaper gear on these sites that are hard to find anywhere else. It’s also nice that if there are no specialty stores in the area there are a few good items you can pick up in a local Walmart’s camping section.
Backpacking Gear Check List
Note: this list can change depending on time of the year, the weather, and your own personal needs and preferences. Take it as a guide to follow when putting together your pack. As you go out on your own trips, you’ll learn what works best for you and add or subtract items as needed!
Optional items are marked with a *
The “Big Three” – Backpack, Tent, Sleep System
- Waterproof pack liner bag
- Tent Stakes
- Sleeping Bag or Quilt
- Sleeping Pad
- *Sleeping Bag Liner
Clothing – in backpack
- Extra pair of socks
- Extra pair of underwear
- Lightweight Jacket
- *Camp shoes/sandals
- *Water shoes
- *Beanie Hat
Clothing – worn
- Synthetic or Wool Shirt
- Quick Drying Pants
- Moisture Wicking Socks
- Quick drying Underwear
- Trail Runners or Hiking shoes
- *Ankle Gaiters
- *Sun/Rain Hat
- *Bug net shirt and/or hat
- *Rain Jacket
- *Rain Pants, or Skirt
- *Pack Cover
- *Lightweight Umbrella & attachment clips
Cooking Kit & Water Filtration
- Water Filter or Purification tablets
- Small Backpacking stove
- Fuel can
- Cooking Pot
- Extra ziplock bags – to separate garbage items
- *Pot Cozy or Freezer Bag Cozy
- Bear Bag with hanging kit or Bear Canister, with odor proof liner bag.
- *Pee Rag
- Toilet paper
- Wet wipes
- *Bandana or small towel
- Extra ziplock bags to pack out toilet paper if necessary and any garbage
- *Other things to consider: chapstick, moisturizer, chaffing cream, sunscreen, glass cleaning cloth, hand sanitizer, bidet cap, bug spray
- Power Bank to charge your phone, and USB cable – 10,000 mAh minimum recommended to charge your phone for a few days.
- *Emergency Satellite Communicator – such as a Garmin InReach or Zoleo.
- *Extra batteries for your headlamp, or camera, etc.
- *Wall adapter for power bank
- First Aid Kit
- Small Knife or Multi-tool
- Paper Map & Compass
- Trekking Poles
- *Stuff sacks for sleeping bag, clothes, and other small misc. items.
- *Sit pad, lightweight foam pad, or camp chair.
As you can see, there’s a lot of parts to backpacking gear! And each piece of equipment is a research project on its own. I spent months learning about it all before going backpacking for the first time. I compiled what I know here on my site for easier reference to help others start their own journey! 🙂
If you’d like to read in more detail about each piece of gear I’ve written separate articles on the different categories:
- All about Backpacks for Backpacking
- Choosing your Sleep System
- Lightweight Backpacking Tents
- Clothes for Hiking & Backpacking
- Backpacking Rain Gear
Do you have a piece of gear that you find essential that I don’t have listed here? Or anything else important to add for beginners? Let us know in the comments below!