The Ultimate Backpacking Checklist (with a printable list)

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Planning for a backpacking trip can be tiresome and time consuming. For my first backpacking trip I burned up so much time scavenging across the internet looking for checklists and gear recommendations. Only to find later that the lists I looked at were missing crucial details. So, I made my own complete backpacking checklist.

Since then, I have spent a great deal out in the backcountry completing miles and miles of trails, and this checklist has been the foundation of many of those trips. Which has helped make packing for my backpacking trips a breeze. In this guide I am going to share with you my backpacking checklist that should work for shorter overnight trips to much longer trips.

This guide features my basic backpacking checklist template, think of it as an adaptable blueprint. When crafting your backpacking gear think of your own personal preferences, trip duration, and weather conditions.

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    Our Backpacking Checklist

    If just starting out I recommend trying to start off with a total backpack weight no more than 20% of your bodyweight. Over time evaluate what items you didn’t use, or could be used for multiple purposes, and update gear to lighter versions.

    I recommend focusing on lighter weights for the big items such as tent, sleeping systems, and backpack. These items have a bigger factor in the overall carrying weight. The goal over time is to eventually reach a point that is lightweight however still comfortable for you.

    Essentials of the backpacking checklist

    Backpacking Essentials

    Essential backpacking gear make up the bulk and more heavy items in the list. Some experts also call this the “Big 3” or “Big 4” items which make up the backpack, shelter, and sleeping system (sleeping pad and sleeping bag or quilt).

    Backpack

    • Backpacking Pack (40 – 65L is usually sufficient)
    • Backpack rain cover or waterproof backpack liner
    • Waterproof compression sacks or storage sacks (optional)

    The backpack is known as the centerpiece and often prioritized as the first item to get in a backpacking checklist, however, I actually recommend getting your backpack as one of the last pieces of gear. Reason for this is if you already have majority of your gear especially your other big items when you get your backpack you can see how it will all fit, test the comfort, and packability of the pack.

    For most people going on overnight and multi day backpacking trips a 40L – 65L pack is a good range. Of course, pack size will be dependent on the length of the trip but for more versatility go with a larger pack size you will be able to use it on shorter trips as well.

    Be sure to think about a rain cover or liner for your backpack, they are great way to protect your gear from the rain, read more tips about backpacking in the rain.

    Tent

    • Backpacking tent
    • Tent stakes
    • Trekking poles
    • Groundsheet (optional)

    When choosing a tent, consider factors like price, weight, interior space, ease of setup, and design. A tent that’s quick to pitch can be a godsend after a long day of hiking, and one with sufficient space allows for a more comfortable rest. The two main types are going to be free standing or non-freestanding tents.

    Free standing will have dedicated poles and non-freestanding will use trekking poles as the poles. Both are relatively easy to set up, though I recommend practicing the pitch for a trekking pole tent prior to hitting the trails.

    Trekking poles are a lifesaver on their own and I highly recommend them especially when it comes to joint protection when hiking down hills. I used to never use trekking poles mostly because I just did not really know the benefits. Now they are a staple in my gear list and an essential part of my backpacking shelter since I use mostly non freestanding tents now

    Sleeping System

    • Sleeping Pad
    • Sleeping Bag or Quilt
    • Backpacking Pillow (Optional)

    Part of the “Big 3” items of the backpacking checklist is the sleep system. When creating a sleep system important factor to consider are weight to warmth ratio, comfort, and size. Sleeping pads can be mummy shaped, rectangular shaped, and come often in 20 -25-inch width.

    Sleeping bags or quilts are the best for insulative cover. Bags are offering complete coverage front to back while a quilt is more similar to a blanket but is usually designed to minimize draft. Either one work well but remember that your sleeping bag or quilt will only be as warm as you pad.

    Also, sleeping pads are R valued for warmth. Typically, a 2 to 5 R value sleeping pad makes for a good 3 season pad and 5 and above are better for 4 seasons. Make sure to get a appropriate R valued sleeping pad for the season.

    Clothing layers from base to outer

    Clothing Layers

    • Underwear
    • Hiking socks (synthetic or wool)
    • Short sleeve
    • Long sleeve shirt (bug or sun protection)
    • Fleece pullover (mid layer)
    • Packable puffy or down jacket
    • Hiking pants or shorts (quick drying)
    • sleep shirt / base layer top
    • sleep pants / base layer bottom
    • Bandana or BUFF
    • Fleece or Down Pants (optional)
    • Gloves or Mittens
    • Beanie (fleece or wool)
    • Rain Jacket
    • Rain Pants (optional)

    Having appropriate clothing layers is essential for comfort and safety out in the backcountry. The one big recommendation I can provide is to go with wicking materials like synthetic fabrics or wools. Do not wear cotton out on the trails, in most cases cotton is a poor choice and does not insulate when wet which can lead to hypothermia.

    Also, be sure to bring the appropriate layers. The clothing layers I recommend in this list are designed to work together and be layered together from light t shirt or long sleeve shirts, midlayers, to outer layers whether that is a puffy or down jacket or your rain jacket.

    Most times on the trail I am only wearing my pants or shorts with a short sleeve or long sleeve shirt. My fleece mid layer will get tossed on if it gets cooler out. A rain jacket will get tossed on if it is windy or rainy. And if I am setting up camp, I will often use a puffy or down jacket to stay warm when my body is not creating its own heat anymore from hiking.

    Hiking boots vs trail runners

    Footwear

    Footwear, the often-overlooked component of a successful backpacking trip, demands careful consideration. Selecting between hiking boots and trail runners is a decision that hinges on the type of terrain you’ll encounter and your personal comfort preferences. Hiking boots offer durability and ankle support, making them a great choice for rugged or uneven terrain.

    They’re also preferable in cooler conditions where extra warmth and waterproofing are beneficial. On the other hand, trail runners are lightweight, provide good traction, and are comfortable for long distances on well-maintained trails.

    But it’s not just about the shoes. Think about the socks you’ll wear. Avoid cotton and choose moisture-wicking materials to keep your feet dry and reduce the risk of blisters. And when it comes to camp shoes, your feet will thank you for letting them air out after a day of rigorous hiking.

    Navigation items in the backpacking checklist

    Navigation

    • GPS device or GPS phone App
    • Map (waterproof bag)
    • Compass
    • Satellite Messenger and/or PLB (optional)
    • Extra batteries, Power bank, & charger cords

    Navigation is one of the most important sections of this backpacking checklist. These days with the advancements of technology there are quite a few reliable hiking apps that can be used for GPS. Although this should go without saying, but always download the map on the app prior to starting your backpacking trip.

    Still to this day I always carry a topographic map and compass as a backup source, I know how to use them. But I have never had to thankfully. GPS devices and smartphone apps are great tools but can run out of battery, your phone could get wet, or malfunction.

    Satellite messengers or Personal Locator Beacons (PLBs) are quite pricey, so I don’t necessary recommend them as mandatory tools. However, if you can afford them, they are absolutely worth it especially in case of an emergency. Phones are getting so advanced with features now most phones have an SOS feature that satellite messengers or PLBs may not be so essential.

    backpacking camp kitchen

    Camp Kitchen

    • Backpacking stove
    • Fuel
    • Cook set/ Pot
    • Cup
    • spork
    • dishes / bowls
    • biodegradable soap
    • quick dry towel
    • collapsible water container (optional)
    • small pot scrubber/sponge (optional)
    • small strainer (optional)

    What is backpacking without food? If you are anything like me, you enjoy cooking a good meal out in the backcountry. But with that being said, you have to make sure you Leave No Trace and properly clean up afterwards. The cooking kitchen portion of this backpacking checklist really focuses on light but practical pieces of gear for cooking and cleaning.

    For cleaning up I really like to use a small scrub sponge that I cut up into a small square, but you could totally go completely minimalist and just clean with your fingers. Also, for straining food from gray water I like to use a mini strainer though it might sound unsettling, but you could go minimalist again by adding water and drinking the food remains like a soup.

    Also, I recommend using small pot systems typically for two people about 1.1L – 1.3L pot is what we like to use, and you could go up from that for more cushion room

    Food and water items

    Food and Water

    • Water filter / chemical treatment
    • Water bottles / reservoirs
    • Meals for everyday + 1
    • Bear canister / Food bag
    • Instant coffee or Tea (optional)
    • Electrolyte mix (optional)

    Food and water are essentials to any backpacking checklist and having a way to filter water is necessary for water safety. My personal favorite methods for water filtrations are to use the Sawyer Squeeze and to use a chemical-based treatment such as chlorine dioxide.

    I often use the Sawyer Squeeze exclusively for most water sources that are less suspect but rely on chemical treatments and the Sawyer Squeeze filter together for dirtier water sources.

    Backpacking toiletries

    Toiletries

    • Hand sanitizer
    • Toothbrush & toothpaste tabs
    • Prescription medications
    • Prescription glasses and/or contacts
    • Trowel
    • Toilet paper and/or bidet
    • Menstrual products
    • Urine Rag / bandana (optional)
    • Wet / bath wipes (optional)
    • Small brush, extra hair ties (optional)
    • Deodorant (optional)

    In my experience toiletries can be one of the most debatable sections of any backpacking list. Some people cut up their toothbrushes and hairbrushes to make them lighter. While there are also many backpackers that decide not to bring makeup and even defer the use of deodorant.

    Ultimately, my viewpoint on this is to do what makes you comfortable and experiment with ways to make your toiletries set more simple and lighter. In the end your personal care routine will most likely look slightly different than it is at home.

    It’s all about modification and simplification. Instead of a regular stick of deodorant go with a travel size, use bath wipes instead, or just go completely “au naturel”. For another example, instead of showering you might need to go showerless or use unscented baby wipes or take a dip in a water system.

    Backpacking safety and repair

    Safety & Repair

    • First aid kit
    • Headlamp or flashlight
    • Safety whistle
    • Emergency fire starter
    • Backup water treatment (chemical)
    • Copy of itinerary (left with friend or family member and one in the car)
    • Knife or multi tool
    • Repair Kit (Sleep pad, tent, tape, etc)
    • Bear Spray (optional)

    When out int the backcountry being safe and having a way to repair gear when broken is crucial to comfort. I have had to repair many things out backpacking from down jackets to tent mesh things just happen and it helps to have a repair kit handy to fix problems.

    Most of the safety items in this list is taken from the 10 essentials and put in our comprehensive checklist. Some safety items like bear spray are optional to the area and some items may be excluded due to duplication. For example, most of my backpacks have a safety whistle built into the sternum clip so I never bring an additional safety whistle.

    Personal Items

    • Phone
    • Photo ID, Cash, Credit/debit cards
    • Backpacking Permits (if needed)
    • Car Keys

    In our backpacking checklist personal items are those essential items that are important for identification, payments, and permitting information.

    Sun and bug protection items

    Sun & Bug Protection

    • Sunglasses
    • Sun hat
    • Sunscreen
    • SPF Lip Balm
    • Insect repellent
    • Mosquito face net (optional)

    Two things in my experience that can make a backpacking trip uncomfortable are bug bites and sunburns. This is why there is a specific place for this section in our backpacking checklist. In most cases we recommend treating clothes with permethrin if hiking in a buggy environment. In some cases a mosquito net may be needed but this is mostly in severe bug seasons in wet environments.

    For sunscreen we opt for sunscreen sticks due to weight and size instead of messy hands-on greasy tube applications

    A few backpacking extra or luxury items

    Extra Items

    • Daypack or Summit pack (optional)
    • Camera, battery, memory card (optional)
    • Sleeping eye mask (optional)
    • Ear plugs (optional)
    • Books or reading materials (optional)
    • Journal with pen / pencil (optional)
    • Lightweight chair / sit pad (optional)
    • Cards or games (optional)
    • Binoculars (optional)

    Backpacking isn’t solely about the distance traveled; it’s equally about creating memories and enjoying moments of relaxation along the journey. While most backpackers choose to enter the backcountry to immerse in the wild.

    Sometimes it is nice to bring extra items to enhance your experience in the backcountry. In our extra items section of our backpacking checklist, you can think of these as more luxury items. I recommend being mindful about what you choose and maybe limit yourself to only about 1-3 of these items just depending on how much weight they contribute.

    For example, I bring a sit pad quite often, but it only weighs about an ounce which is very negligible in weight contribution. I also often bring sleeping ear plugs but again the weight is so little it hardly contributes to pack weight.

    But sometimes I will bring a book or a camera which these contribute quite a bit more weight. If I added 3-5 books to my backpack you could see how that would significantly increase the pack weight and make my time out on trail more difficult.

    packed backpack at the end of a trip

    Packing It All In: Techniques and Tips

    Well now you know have reviewed the backpacking checklist and know what to bring. Now it is time to pack all these things in your backpack. Packing your backpacking takes a bit of practice but becomes easier as you do it. To achieve stability and comfort, follow these steps:

    1. Pack your heaviest items in the middle and close to your back. Use compression straps to keep them from shifting.
    2. Place lighter items and those you’ll need frequently in the top and outer pockets.
    3. Non-essentials can go towards the bottom.

    When putting on your loaded backpack, follow these steps:

    1. Hoist it onto your thigh.
    2. Slide one arm and then the other through the shoulder straps, distributing the weight evenly and avoiding strain on your back.
    3. Make full use of your backpack’s design—adjustable loops, cinch cords, and hip belt pockets are there to secure extra items and provide quick access to essentials like water bottles and snacks.
    4. Remember to pack your tent poles and other elongated items in side pockets where they won’t poke or prod you as you move.

    By mastering these packing techniques, you’ll not only maximize your backpack’s potential but also ensure a more comfortable and efficient hike. With everything in its place, you can step onto the trail with confidence, knowing you’re prepared for the journey ahead.

    Frequently Asked Questions

    How do I decide between a tent, tarp, or hammock for my shelter?

    Consider the weight, space, setup complexity, and environment before making a decision. Tents offer more protection, tarps are lighter and versatile, and hammocks work well in wooded areas without flat ground. Overall, though I recommend tents over tarps and hammocks especially for new backpackers.

    Can I really pack enough food for a week-long backpacking trip?

    Yes, you can definitely pack enough food for a week-long backpacking trip by aiming for about 2500 calories of food per person per day (Note: this calorie recommendation will change based on gender, weight/height, and energy expenditure). To make it easier to get calories in choose lightweight, non-perishable, and calorie-dense options.

    What’s the difference between ultralight and traditional backpacking?

    When it comes to backpacking, ultralight focuses on carrying the lightest gear for a base weight of 10 pounds or less, while traditional backpacking allows for a heavier load and prioritizes comfort and preparedness. I recommend shooting for the in between going for not a ultralight but lightweight approach if able.

    How much water do I need to carry, and can I rely on water sources along the trail?

    You should plan on carrying about a half-liter of water per hour of moderate activity or about 1 to 1.5 liters of water per 5 miles of hiking or backpacking and always check the availability and reliability of natural water sources along your route.

    Is it better to wear hiking boots or trail runners on my trip?

    It depends on the terrain and your personal preference, but generally, hiking boots offer more support and protection for rough terrains while trail runners are lighter and more comfortable for well-maintained trails. I tend to prefer trail runners for majority of my hikes really only using hiking boots for colder weather.

    Summary

    As we wrap up this backpacking checklist, remember that the journey is as much about preparation as it is about exploration. From selecting the right gear to packing it efficiently, every choice you make shapes your experience.

    Whether you’re marveling at a mountaintop view or cozying up in your sleeping bag under the stars, the right preparation ensures that your adventure is a safe one. So, take this backpacking checklist and tailor it to you and your backpacking trip so you can hit the trails with confidence.

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