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Packing List for Beginner Backpackers

Wondering what to pack for your first backpacking trip? This basic packing list for beginner backpackers has the essential gear to make your first backpacking trip a success.

Hiking and backpacking are two of my favorite things in the world. While I’ve always enjoyed hiking it took me a bit longer to get into backpacking. I resisted backpacking for a long time simply because I didn’t understand how it worked. I thought that backpacking involved carrying all of my car camping gear on my back- it sounded awful!

When I finally understood that backpacking required new gear I tried to purchase everything as cheaply as possible. I was living in the Bay Area and trying to make ends meet on a small entry-level salary, so splurging on a bunch of new gear wasn’t an option. (If you want to learn my secrets for scoring high-quality backpacking gear on a budget check out my post five ways to save money on backpacking gear.)

I also wasn’t concerned about how heavy my pack was because I was only going out for one night. In preparation for my first backpacking trip I traded my large 6-person tent for a smaller, lighter 2-person Coleman tent. I bought a synthetic 20-degree mummy bag, and I borrowed a backpack, stove, and water filter. The rest of my gear I cobbled together from what I already had available. I used an inflatable swimming pool floaty for my sleeping pad, I brought a spoon and fork from my cutlery drawer, and a small flashlight (I didn’t know about headlamps yet!). For my first few backpacking trips this system worked for me.

In 2013 I went on my first backpacking trip in Yellowstone National Park

When my backpacking hobby turned into an obsession, and I started going on multi-day trips, I knew I had to upgrade my gear. But, there was so much backpacking gear to choose from! All the options were overwhelming! It took a lot of trial and error and tons of research before I felt confident in my gear choices.

How to choose the right backpacking gear

Choosing backpacking gear is a personal decision. The gear you choose depends on your budget, the area where you live (or where you’ll be doing most of your backpacking), and your personal preferences.

For example, if you live somewhere where it is hot and humid and you plan to do a lot of backpacking in the summer you might opt to buy an uninsulated sleep pad and a light quilt. But, if you’re going to be doing a lot of backpacking in the shoulder seasons, or in higher elevations you should probably opt for a 20-degree sleeping bag and an insulated sleeping pad that will really help to keep you warm, like the Thermarest NeoAir XTherm.

The same goes for your backpacking kitchen. If you like to cook a lot of fresh food in the backcountry you may choose to buy a lightweight pot and frying pan combo set and a small stove like the MSR pocket rocket. But, if you simply need to quickly boil water for two for a dehydrated boil-in-bag backpacking meal and a hot beverage you might want to consider the MSR Windburner.

Choosing your shelter is also a very personal decision. A lot of people enjoy sleeping in hammocks. But, if you’re going to do a lot of backpacking in alpine forests, or want to work your way up to doing a long trail (like the John Muir Trail) a hammock set-up might not be the best investment. If you’re going to do a lot of solo backpacking you might want to consider buying a one-person tent instead of a larger 2 or 3-person tent. My go-to tent is the Big Agnes Fly Creek 1-person. It was a bit of an investment, but I’ve had the tent for 3 years, I’ve taken it on several long treks and it is still in great shape.

The Backpacking Gear You Should Invest In

In the beginning I bought a lot of gear that I ended up not using because I found that cheaper “hacks” worked just as well, or better than, the expensive, carefully engineered ultra-lightweight equipment. More importantly, I learned what equipment was worth the investment (tent, sleeping bag, sleeping pad, and backpack), what equipment can be shared (water filter, stove), and what equipment can be hacked, multi-purposed, or bought inexpensively (kitchen essentials, and water bottles).

It is worth splurging on your tent (or hammock set-up), sleeping bag, and backpack because these are typically your heaviest and bulkiest items. Having a good tent that will stand up to the elements and a sleeping bag that will keep you sufficiently warm are also extremely important if you ever get into a survival situation. If you purchase quality gear (and take good care of your gear) it will last you for many years, making your investment worth the money. You can also choose to splurge on a sleeping pad (because getting a good night’s sleep is so worth it!), but if you’re a person who can fall asleep anywhere and everywhere you can get away with a simple foam pad.

My Backpacking Packing List

The items on my packing list are the items that I now confidently carry with me every time I backpack. They are my go-to items that I’m a bit lost without.

I’ve broken the list into four categories: hike, camp, eat, and what to wear. The hiking section contains items that I use when hiking into camp. Eat is everything related to my camp kitchen, and food and water needs. Camp has my shelter and sleep system along with other small essentials that I need to spend the night under the stars. Lastly, my what to wear section has info on what I wear hiking, what I wear to bed, and any extra layers that I bring with me.

(Scroll to the bottom of this post to download my super-simple checklist that I use when packing.)

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HIKE

CAMP

  • Tent, bivvy sack, or alternate shelter (My personal tent is the Big Agnes Fly Creek)
  • Sleeping bag with an EN tested temperature rating that meets the predicted nighttime low temperatures. My favorite bag is the Sierra Designs Cloud 20- it is so comfy! (You don’t need to purchase multiple bags, you can always unzip a warmer bag or add a liner to a lighter bag. I prefer down sleeping bags because they are lighter and pack smaller than synthetic bags.)
  • Sleeping pad (I love my Klymit Insulated Static V inflatable pad)
  • Bathroom bag with toilet paper, trowel, sanitary products, and hand sanitizer or sanitizing wipes.
  • Basic toiletries (toothbrush, toothpaste, contact solution)
  • Bathing kit: bandanna, Dr. Bronners travel size soap, gallon-size Ziploc freezer bag.
  • Glasses (if you plan to wear contact lens)
  • Headlamp and backup batteries
  • Comfortable camp shoes or sandals (optional)

EAT

  • Appropriate number of meals (breakfast, lunch, dinner, and snacks) for your trip.
  • Stove (If you are just going to boil water the MSR Windburner and the JetBoil are great. If you want to prepare fresh meals the MSR PocketRocket meal kit has everything you need for two people. Decide how you want to cook and then purchase a stove that meets your needs.)
  • Fuel (most isobutane canisters are compatible with multiple models of stoves)
  • Matches/lighter
  • Water filter (I love my Sawyer Squeeze, but a few drops of bleach also work)
  • Water bottles or water bladder (anything works here, but a SmartWater bottle is cheap and it fits perfectly with a Sawyer Squeeze)
  • Bowl/cup (I usually bring one of these Ziploc twist n’loc containers)
  • Long-handled utensils (or a spork and a small pocket knife)
  • Gallon-size Ziploc bag for trash

What to Wear

Here’s what I have in my bag whether I’m backpacking for one day or 10 days.

  • Rain protection: I pack a light rain jacket and rain pants because these can function as an additional warm layer if the temperatures drop unexpectedly, but a sturdy poncho works well too.
  • Hiking clothes: A high performance shirt that wicks sweat (I love Target’s athletic shirts!), and a pair of hiking pants or leggings.
  • Lightweight fleece for hiking out of camp on chilly mornings (I have a Columbia pullover fleece with a large front pocket and a hood that I love!).
  • Down or synthetic puffy jacket to wear around camp at night. (The weight of this jacket varies on the season. I have a massive 800-fill down jacket that I bring along for winter camping and a lightweight down sweater that comes with me on summer adventures.)
  • One set of camp/sleep clothes: I prefer long johns because they are comfortable and they keep me warm at night.
  • 3 pairs of wool socks. (Two pairs of socks are my hiking socks, and one pair are my dedicated sleep socks. I wash my hiking socks at the end of each day, and I try to keep my sleep socks as clean as possible!)
  • 2 pairs of underwear. (I wash my underwear at the end of each day so I always have a clean pair.)
  • Hiking boots or sturdy footwear with good tread.
  • Warm hat

What do you have on your gear list? Have you developed any hacks to multi-purpose or replace expensive gear? Join our private Facebook group for women who are new to backpacking or backcountry adventures and share your gear list or learn more about backpacking and backcountry adventures. Come say hello!

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