Essential Backpack Checklist

Essential Backpack Checklist: Everything You Need for Your Next Adventure

Preparing your pack for a hike can be daunting. This backpack checklist covers all the essentials without the fluff. We’ll help you choose gear that’s effective and lightweight, ensuring you’re well-equipped for the trail ahead.

Key Takeaways

  • Prioritize lightweight gear for everything from your backpack to your electronics, ensuring both comfort and manageable pack weight.
  • Invest in a quality sleep system, including a sleeping bag or quilt and a comfortable, insulated sleeping pad.
  • Stay hydrated with lightweight water bottles or reservoirs, and ensure water purity with reliable filters or purifiers.

Essential Backpacking Gear

Backpacking gear including hiking boots, sleeping bag, and backpack checklist

The initiation of your backpacking journey involves gathering your gear. Think of your backpacking gear as your lifeline while you’re out exploring the wilderness. It’s what keeps you comfortable, safe, and prepared for whatever the trail may throw at you.

But what’s the criteria for selecting your gear? Well, the answer lies in the trifecta of cost, weight, and comfort. It’s about finding gear that won’t break the bank, won’t break your back, and will keep you comfortable in the great outdoors.

While it may be appealing to bring along everything, including the kitchen sink, bear in mind that every ounce counts when you’re covering miles on foot. To guarantee a comfortable journey, it’s important to minimize the overall pack weight. And trust us, after hiking the John Muir Trail, we can vouch for the benefits of investing in quality, lightweight gear.

What then, should be included in your pack? Think essentials. These are the items that will get you through your trip, including:

  • The right backpack
  • Shelter
  • A solid sleep system
  • Proper hydration
  • A first aid kit

You’d be surprised how much you can trim down your pack weight just by focusing on lightweight essentials. And don’t forget about your electronics. Lightweight is the name of the game here too.


Selecting the appropriate backpack is akin to finding an ideal hiking partner. You want it to be reliable, comfortable, and just the right fit for your journey. When it comes to capacity, consider the duration of your trip: 30-50 liters for overnight trips, 50-80 liters for 3-5 nights, and 70 liters or more for trips longer than 5 nights.

A good backpack isn’t just about capacity, though. It’s also about fit. The best backpacks are tailored to the wearer’s torso length and hip circumference, with women-specific models offering tailored fit options and youth-specific packs providing adjustable suspensions.

When shopping for a backpack, keep an eye out for features that enhance comfort and convenience. Look for backpacks with:

  • Dedicated sleeping bag compartments
  • Comfortable padding on hipbelts and lumbar pads
  • Diverse pocket placements
  • Extra features like a ventilation system to prevent sweating and removable daypacks

Having a backpacking checklist can ensure you include these features that can make your backpacking experience more comfortable and convenient with the right backpacking pack, especially when planning your backpacking trips.

Meanwhile, internal-frame backpacks are popular for their stability on rough terrain, efficient weight transfer to the hips, and external attachment points for extra gear.


Regarding shelter, you have numerous options available such as tents, tarps, and hammocks. Each comes with its own set of pros and cons, and the right choice depends on your personal preferences and the type of backpacking trip you’re embarking on.

Tents are the most traditional form of backpacking shelter. Double-wall tents offer more interior space and protection from condensation with their extra layer. However, this comes at the cost of additional weight and bulk compared to single-wall variants.

Single-wall tents, on the other hand, are valued for their lightweight design and quick setup, although they might require seam-sealing and can be prone to internal condensation.

If you’re looking for something different, there are also tarps and hammocks. Tarps offer significant weight and space savings, though they may require intricate setup and usually lack the full protection against elements and bugs offered by tents.

Hammocks, designed for suspension above ground, often include protective elements such as insect nets and rain tarps, and they require insulation like an under-quilt for colder conditions.

Sleep System Essentials

Sleep system essentials for backpacking including sleeping bag, quilt, and sleeping pad

Nothing beats a good night’s sleep for rejuvenation after a strenuous day of hiking. That’s why a quality sleep system is crucial. The quality of your sleep, largely influenced by your sleep system, directly affects your endurance and performance on the subsequent day’s trail. Sounds pretty important, right?

Your sleep system typically comprises two main components: a sleeping bag or quilt and a sleeping pad. The aim is to keep weights around 2-3 pounds for sleeping bags and 1-1.5 pounds for sleeping pads. It’s all about striking that perfect balance between comfort and weight.

Ultralight sleeping bags, like the Feathered Friends Hummingbird YF 20, are a popular choice for their warmth-to-weight ratio. Quilts, such as the Enlightened Equipment Revelation Quilt, are also gaining popularity for their lightweight and customizable features.

When it comes to sleeping pads, lightweight doesn’t mean compromising on comfort. A lightweight and comfortable sleeping pad, like the Sea to Summit Comfort Plus sleeping pad, is key to a restful night’s sleep.

Sleeping Bag or Quilt

Choosing between a sleeping bag and a quilt can be a tough decision. Sleeping bags provide superior insulation due to their ability to fully enclose the body, with temperature ratings being critical for preparing for specific climates. On the other hand, quilts are gaining popularity among backpackers because of their lightweight design and the versatility they offer for various temperatures.

The materials used in sleeping bags and quilts also play a significant role. Goose or duck down and synthetic fills are chosen based on aspects like weight, compressibility, and dry time, impacting the overall weight of the sleep system.

For instance, the Enlightened Equipment Revelation Quilt:

  • is an example of a customizable quilt
  • balances light weight with flexibility
  • offers choices in fill power and temperature ratings suitable for diverse environments.

So, whether you’re a sleeping bag kind of person or a quilt enthusiast, there’s plenty of options to suit your needs and preferences.

Sleeping Pad

A sleeping pad is more than just a comfort item. It’s a crucial component of your sleep system, providing essential comfort and insulation from the ground.

When choosing a sleeping pad, you can pick from self-inflating pads for convenience, manually-inflating pads for adjustable firmness, and closed-cell foam pads for ultralight weight. Each offers a trade-off between comfort, weight, and insulation.

Also, consider the R-value of your sleeping pad. This measures its insulating power, with higher values providing better insulation. This is especially important if you’re planning to backpack in cold weather.

Some top recommendations for sleeping pads include:

Hydration and Water Treatment

Hydration and water treatment options for backpacking

Moving onto essential items, let’s discuss water. Hydration is crucial when you’re out on the trail. You should plan to drink about a half liter of water per hour of moderate activity in moderate temperatures. But how do you carry and treat water when you’re in the backcountry?

There are several alternatives available for carrying water. Lightweight water bottles, such as flexible and collapsible bottles, are a popular choice. They’re much lighter and take up less space compared to traditional Nalgene bottles.

Some backpackers prefer hydration reservoirs, like the Osprey Hydraulics Reservoir, for easy water access while hiking, despite issues such as difficulty in refilling and potential for leaking.

When it comes to treating water, you’ve got a handful of options. The Platypus GravityWorks Water Filter System offers an energy-saving method of filtering water using gravity, which is convenient for backpackers.

Micropur tablets serve as a backup water treatment option for purification without the need for mechanical filters or pumps.

Water Bottles or Hydration Reservoirs

Your choice to transport water in a bottle or a hydration reservoir primarily depends on your personal preference. Each has its own advantages and drawbacks.

Hydration reservoirs, such as the Gregory 3D Hydro, offer practical benefits like easy filling, a handle for convenience, and durability. They allow for more frequent drinking due to ease of access, and they can be more compact and lighter than bottles when not in use.

On the other hand, hard-sided water bottles are appreciated for their durability, ease of filling, and capability to be insulated, which helps to regulate the temperature of liquids. Soft-sided water bottles are lightweight, collapsible, and can be backed up by at least one hard-sided bottle for enhanced reliability.

So, whether you prefer the convenience of a hydration reservoir or the simplicity of a water bottle, there’s an option out there for you.

Water Filters and Purifiers

For backpackers, hydration is vital and access to clean drinking water in the wilderness can be assured by a trustworthy water filter or purifier. The Sawyer Squeeze water filter is favored for its lightweight, quick filtration and comes with a lifetime warranty, a top choice for many backpackers.

If you’re traveling solo, consider the Platypus GravityWorks 2L water filter. It offers a hassle-free gravity-based process, perfect for filtering large volumes of water.

UV purifiers, such as the Steripen Adventurer Opti, are also effective but require a mesh pre-filter in non-pure mountain waters to remove sediment before use. Whatever your needs, there’s a water filter or purifier out there that’s perfect for your backpacking adventure.

Cooking and Meal Planning

Cooking and meal planning for backpacking including dehydrated meals and cooking gear

Mealtime on the trail isn’t merely a break from hiking. It also serves as an opportunity to recharge, refuel, and potentially prepare a gourmet meal amidst nature. But to do that, you’ll need the right cooking gear and a solid meal plan.

Backpacking stoves come in various types, including:

As for cookware, go for lightweight options like aluminum cookware, which conducts heat well, and nesting cooksets for space efficiency.

Meal planning for a backpacking trip is an art in itself. Here are some tips to help you choose the right backpacking food:

  • Carry an extra day’s supply of food
  • Focus on calorie-dense snacks like energy bars, jerky, and nuts
  • Aim for 2,000 to 5,000 calories per day depending on exertion level

After all, backpacking is hard work, and you’ll need all the energy you can get!

Clothing and Layering

On the trail, your attire primarily shields you against the elements. The right clothing and layering system, including a rain cover, can keep you warm in the cold, cool in the heat, and dry in the rain.

Your base layers should prioritize moisture management. Materials such as polyester, nylon, merino wool, or silk are available in lightweight to heavyweight options. Mid-layers include polyester fleece, which offers warmth even when damp, and insulated jackets or vests utilizing down or synthetic materials.

Outer layers protect against the elements, with options like breathable soft shells for light rain and wind protection, and waterproof/breathable varieties for harsher conditions.

Backpackers should adapt layers as weather changes, removing shell layers when rain stops or adding insulation. Remember that synthetic insulations retain warmth even when damp. So whether you’re hiking in the heat of summer or the chill of winter, the right clothing and layering system can make all the difference.

Footwear Considerations

Considering the amount of work your feet will undertake on your backpacking trip, selecting the correct footwear is imperative. Hiking boots, shoes, trail runners, and approach shoes each offer their own benefits, and the best choice will depend on your personal preference and the type of trip you’re planning.

Hiking boots, such as Oboz Bridger BDry, offer stability, durability, and protection. They’re ideal for cold-weather hikes and rough terrain but are heavier and typically require a break-in period. Hiking shoes strike a balance between support and weight and are versatile enough for both day hikes and technical backpacking.

For those who prefer a lighter option, trail runners offer lightweight comfort and quick break-in, though they may lack the protection and support needed for challenging terrain. Hiking shoes provide durability and traction but aren’t as comfortable for extended trail use.

So whether you’re a boot person, a shoe person, or somewhere in between, there’s a perfect pair of hiking footwear, including hiking socks, out there for you.

Personal Care and Hygiene

Although keeping up with personal hygiene during a backpacking trip may appear difficult, it need not be so. With a little planning and the right products, you can stay clean and comfortable even in the great outdoors.

Waste disposal is a key aspect of personal hygiene while backpacking. Here are some guidelines to follow:

  • Toilet paper should be carried in a plastic bag, or alternatively, leaves, snow, or smooth stones can be used.
  • Biodegradable soap is essential for washing hands and dishes in the wilderness, but should be used at least 200 feet away from water sources.
  • All waste, including hygiene products like wet wipes and toilet paper, must be packed out to maintain cleanliness and environmental respect.

Keeping clean on the trail also includes regular washing of armpits and the groin area to prevent attracting wildlife. Body wipes can be used for personal hygiene and easily packed out, supplemented by unscented, alcohol-based hand sanitizer, and sponge baths with biodegradable soap using a bandana or washcloth.

For menstrual hygiene, a menstrual cup or sealable plastic bags for used products can be used, ensuring clean hands before handling menstrual cups. Clothes should be changed regularly, wearing clean, dry clothing when sleeping to prevent rashes, and synthetic or wool fabrics are preferred for being easy to care for and odor resistant.

For longer trips, clothes can be washed using a gallon zip bag with biodegradable detergent and water, shaking to create friction, then disposing of the water appropriately and rinsing. And of course, always remember to practice Leave No Trace principles.

Safety and Navigation

Safety and navigation take precedence when you’re out on the trail. From maps and compasses to GPS devices, the right tools can help you stay safe and on track.

A waterproof sleeved map is a crucial item for any backpacker. Combined with a declination adjustable compass, it can provide accurate navigation in even the most remote areas. Regularly confirming your position against the map, known as ‘staying found,’ ensures constant location awareness and should be complemented with pencil and paper for noting details and leaving messages.

For tech-savvy backpackers, GPS devices and apps can provide additional navigation aid. Devices like the Garmin GPSMAP 67i and inReach Mini 2, as well as apps like GaiaGPS, offer free maps and easy interoperability. However, it’s important to remember the limitations of tech-based navigation and always have a map and compass as a backup.

Extra Gear and Accessories

Beyond the essentials that we’ve discussed, there are additional items that can enhance the enjoyment of your backpacking trip. From lightweight seating options to trekking poles and cameras, these extra pieces of gear can add comfort and convenience to your adventure.

Lightweight seating options such as the Big Agnes Skyline UL Chair offer varying levels of comfort and convenience at the campsite. Trekking poles, such as ultralight models or those with shock-absorbing features and various grip materials, provide stability across terrains, have adjustable lengths, and can even feature camera mounts.

For those who want to document their journey, lightweight cameras like the Sony full frame mirrorless, and convenient camera mounting options such as the Peak Design Camera Clip, can add valuable memories without much weight.

And let’s not forget the humble backpacking pillow. Although not essential, a good pillow can significantly improve sleep quality and overall comfort in camp, with inflatable and down/synthetic fill options available. A stuff sack can be used to store your pillow when not in use, keeping it clean and compact.

Packing Tips and Techniques

Efficient packing tips and techniques for backpacking

After assembling your gear, it’s time to fill up your backpack. Efficient packing can assist in uniformly distributing weight, thereby enhancing the comfort of your backpacking journey.

Start by placing the lightest items at the bottom of your backpack. Heavier items should go in the center, while medium-weight items can be placed on top. Use your backpack’s exterior compression straps to stabilize the load and maintain a comfortable weight distribution during the hike.

Long, stiff, or bulky items such as trekking poles or tent poles can be secured to the exterior loops of the backpack, ensuring they do not swing and are tightly fastened. With these packing tips and techniques, you’ll be ready to hit the trail in no time!


Well, there you have it – your complete guide to everything you need for your next backpacking adventure. From choosing the right gear and packing your backpack efficiently to maintaining hygiene on the trail and navigating safely, we’ve covered it all.

But remember, while this guide provides a comprehensive overview, it’s important to adapt and customize based on your own needs and preferences. After all, backpacking is a personal journey, and what works for one person might not work for another. So go ahead, lace up those boots, pack that bag, and hit the trail. Adventure awaits!

Frequently Asked Questions

What do I need backpacking?

You will need personal items and extras such as a basic repair kit, navigation tools, a cell phone with charger, extra batteries, a notebook and pen, a book or Kindle, and bear protection like a bear canister or spray, along with waterproofing tools such as Ziploc bags. Additionally, essential items include trekking poles, a lantern, a backpacking stove with fuel, water bottles and/or reservoirs, water purification, sandals, a route description, a first-aid kit, insect repellent, and a knife or multi-tool.

What should I consider when choosing a backpacking backpack?

When choosing a backpacking backpack, consider the duration of your trip to determine the capacity, and ensure it’s properly fitted to your torso length and hip circumference to prioritize comfort and functionality. Look for features such as dedicated compartments, padding, ventilation systems, pocket placements, and removable daypacks to suit your needs.

Which is better: a sleeping bag or a quilt for backpacking?

It really comes down to personal preference. Sleeping bags offer great insulation as they fully enclose the body, while quilts are lighter and adaptable to different temperatures. Choose based on your own needs and priorities!

How can I maintain personal hygiene while backpacking?

To maintain personal hygiene while backpacking, carry biodegradable soap for washing hands and dishes, use body wipes, and pack out all waste, including hygiene products, for cleanliness and environmental respect.

What kind of clothing should I wear for backpacking?

Wear moisture-wicking base layers, polyester fleece mid-layers for warmth, and protective outer layers for elements like rain and wind. Make sure your clothing is suitable for backpacking.