The Benefits of Backpacking
Whether doing a week-long trek through the Grand Canyon, or a two night weekend hike at a nearby state park, backpacking has a number of great benefits and is relatively cheap in comparison to typical hotel-based vacations. I started backpacking four years ago and have enjoyed the physical challenge, natural beauty, relationship building opportunities, sense of adventure, and financial savings.
Each backpacking trip I make has resulted in hundreds of dollars worth of savings – and I’ve never looked back on those trips and said “boy, I wish I had stayed in a hotel and laid around instead”. Interested in learning more about this rewarding hobby, the lessons I’ve learned, and what gear to buy? Read on!
Before you Commit to Backpacking
I won’t lie, getting all the right equipment for backpacking is certainly not cheap – and this is one time where you’ll be thankful that you spent a little more for the high quality stuff. Before you make that big commitment, I’d recommend doing a trial run (or two) with an experienced backpacker who has all the pre-requisite equipment to share.
Backpacking is not for everyone. Some personalities just don’t jibe well with the trail. There’s nothing wrong with that. Don’t force it if you’re hating every minute of it. There will most likely be bugs, sore feet and knees, a few blisters, body odor, and let’s not forget the hole digging. You may even want to simply try a few nights out in a tent in your back yard. Not scared off yet?
By this point, you’ve already done a trial run or two with some friends. You’ve decided you want to commit to this rewarding hobby and get your own gear. There are some hardcore backpacking minimalists out there who daydream about ways to lower their total load weight by 2 ounces. Let’s hit on the essentials first, and then get more into the optional stuff. These are truly all items that I have used personally.
Three General Rules of Thumb when Buying Backpacking Gear
- When comparing items to buy: lighter is almost always better unless you’re sacrificing necessity.
- Opt for high quality stuff. Your life might be at stake, after all.
- Get stuff that packs nicely. Avoid anything that is boxy or has exposed sharp edges.
- You WILL end up buying new gear if you take a liking to backpacking. Don’t fret about every item in the beginning.
- Look for things around the house you can re-purpose vs. buying everything.
Backpacking Supplies List – the Essentials
- Backpack: it would be hard to backpack without one of these. You need a backpack, you need a good one. Packs with a internal frame molded back panel are the standard these days vs. those with an external frame. I have an internal frame, which are known for more flexibility and a closer to the body feel and can’t testify to what, if any, benefit an external frame pack has. I would definitely recommend getting a backpack that has a waist and chest belt. Another nice feature to have is a pack that holds a water bladder in a special compartment.
- Sleeping Bag: A necessity, even if you think it might not be in the climates you plan on hiking in. It can get unexpectedly cold at night, and when you’re out on the trail in the dark, miles from anywhere, your life may depend on keeping warm. Mummy bags trail rated for 0 degrees F are recommended for nights that get down to freezing, while a quilt or 40 degree F bag are fine for most warm environments. I prefer down to synthetic bags because they are much easier to pack and much lighter. They are not cheap.
- Tent: You’ll want to keep critters away from you. Spiders, mosqitoes, mice, raccoons, bears, it doesn’t matter. A thin sheet of nylon in between you and them is a necessity. You’ll want to get a very light tent specifically made for backpacking. Many gram counters have made the move to tarps, however, for a beginner, start with a tent.
- Tent Pad: You will also want a tent pad that is made of a waterproof material to keep ground moisture and sharp objects away from the bottom of your tent. Many tents will come with one. You’ll want one that fits at a size just smaller than your tent so that water doesn’t seep between the two if it rains.
- Water filtration: Forget the iodine tablets. I’ve never gotten sick from water that I’ve filtered through my Katadyn Hiker PRO Water Microfilter. When filtering your water, make sure you are getting it from moving water that hasn’t been stagnate or just downstream from a source that would cause it to be potentially impure (dead animal, etc.). It doesn’t matter how clear the water source is, you need to treat it properly and a micro-filter is the best method.
- Water storage: I use a CamelBak bladder that fits conveniently into a storage compartment in my backpack. Platypus also makes good water storage devices. Some are fans of the Gatorade bottle, but I prefer more storage so I can spend less time re-filling.
- Knife: Knives have so many expected and unexpected uses when backpacking that they definitely make the necessity list. Something small and lightweight is all you need. You won’t be killing any large game after all (I hope).
- Fire: There are a number of ways to make a fire – matches, a lighter, a flint, or some ole’ fashion knowledge and elbow grease. Just make sure you have at least one of those methods covered so that you can cook, stay warm, and make smoke signals in a rescue situation, if need be. A Bic mini lighter is a classic staple in the lightweight backpackers arsenal.
- Boots: Shoes may suffice on short flat trips, but when you’re carrying 30 lbs. and over (not recommended, I maintain a base weight of about 10 lbs.), trekking over rocky terrain, or encountering wet/muddy conditions, you’ll probably want a good pair of waterproof boots.
- Compass: I’d recommend getting a good ole’ fashion high quality magnetic vs. a digital version. I’m sure the digitals are efficient (when they work).
- First Aid Kit: Essentials for backpacking include band aids, antiseptic, pain reliever, rubber bands, sewing kit, blister pads, and a snakebite kit.
The Nearly Essential Backpacking Gear:
Some of these things are considered to be essentials by many people and just extra weight by others. They become more or less essential based on on the terrain, weather conditions, experience level, and length of hike – so it’s often a judgement call by the hiker.
- Head lamp: you don’t want to get caught out on the trail in the dark (or get up in the middle of the night to tinkle) without a headlamp. They are very efficient and light. I’d argue essential.
- TP: make sure to get the biodegradable kind. You’re truly hardcore if you don’t want to carry the extra weight of TP.
- Stove & Fuel: A light stove is essential if you want to eat anything warm. Cooking anything on a wild fire is not easy, especially for a beginner. I’ve moved to a lightweight alcohol burning stove.
- Watch: I think a watch is essential so that you can scout out where you are and where you need to get to by certain times if you are in between campsites. Also essential for determining when you need to start setting up camp.
- Soap: You can get dirty now and then on the trail. You can find special environmentally friendly soap for hand washing and dish washing. Dr. Bronner’s is great for this.
- Bug Spray: Not a necessity if you are backpacking at the right times. Essential if you’re not.
- Sun Block: Sun block is definitely essential in certain geographies. Not so much if you’re in the forest for the majority of your trek.
- Toiletries: Toothbrush, and toothpaste.
- Bandana: I don’t pack a towel (too heavy), but I do pack a few bandanas to dry things. They are extremely light, but do the job nicely and you can tie them to the outside of your bag to dry.
Next Steps for Aspiring Backpackers
That’s it! Well…. not quite. You may have noticed there are a few essentials missing from this list – clothing and food. Those two are worth of their own post (upcoming). We’ll also get into training and getting out on the trail. Stay tuned in!
I subscribe to Backpacker Magazine and Backpackinglight.com and learned a ton from both resources. They are worth the price.
- What backpacking gear would you add to or remove from these essential items lists?
- Any particular brands you highly recommend or have terrible experiences with?
This is a good list. I think a tiny garden shovel is a good one to add, but probably not a ‘necessity’. It’s a whole lot easier than digging with a stick. I’ve tried an external frame pack once and did not like it – internal frame is much more comfortable and snug. Anyhow, you got me excited about getting out this year!
I’ve been backpacking for several years and have done multi-day trips all over the US. I agree with your list for the most part, but have a few comments:
To the essentials, I’d add sleeping pad. You don’t need much, but a small, inflatable pad adds a lot of comfort and keeps you thermally insulated from the ground when it’s cold.
As for sleeping bags, I’d actually recommend for 3-season campers to get something with a rating in the teens or twenties. Unless you’re doing winter camping, a 0 degree bag is too warm to keep zipped up and it can be hard to find the level of comfort between being half-in/half-out of the bag. I have a 20 degree bag and I don’t start to get chilly at all until it’s under 30 F. Most people won’t do any winter camping, but for those who do, they’ll definitely want the colder-rated bag. Serious backpackers often own a winter bag and an ultra-light summer bag. In addition to temperature rating and weight, it’s really important to know how small you can pack up your tent and buy a good compression sack to do the job.
Most national parks and many other areas don’t let you light open fires in the backcountry. If you’re planning to cook (which is half the fun), you’ll want a good camp stove. You can get them very small and they run about $50 and work fantastically. The big debate is propane vs white gas. I prefer propane because I hate having to keep the line pressure up, which is an issue with white gas. Even if you can build a fire, it’s much easier to cook on a camp stove and you won’t get carbon deposits all over your camping cookware (something else for the list).
Knife: I prefer the multitool. There are plenty of reasons to have a larger, nicer knife, but fighting a bear is not one of them. If you think your knife will help you in the rare event a bear attacks you, you’re sorely mistaken. It’s important to know what kinds of wildlife are in the area and what to do. You often need to hang your food and some areas require you to use a bear canister. Black bears pose almost no threat to humans and in Grizzly territory, your best bet is bear spray (a giant canister of special pepper spray) should one come after you.
@Will: You can get a nice cheap 6″ plastic spade at stores like REI that are great for digging your cat hole, but hardly weigh a thing.
It’s also important if you’re going to be in the backcountry to make sure that you observe Leave No Trace ethics:
Buying all this stuff is crazy expensive if you try to do it all at once. Your advice about going out with someone experienced is right on. I recommend people start by buying a sleeping bag and pad, which is enough to go car camping with a friend who has a tent. Then add on the boots and backpack and you can go backpacking with a friend. Then tack on things like a tent, stove, water filter, and first aid kit and you’re ready to take other people out who just have the first phase!
And one last note: I’d move headlamp up to the essentials. You’ll find plenty of uses for it even when you’re not backpacking!
Oh, and I nearly forgot: lightweight rain gear is really nice when it rains!
It depends what type of backpacking you are doing. You are more suggesting hiking and camping out. I have done a bunch of backpacking throughout Europe and the Middle East and have experience and a lot of the tips you mention still hold true. Pack light, learn how to tightly wrap things up, and prefer to live and travel on minimums. But when backpacking through cities, you have more the luxury of hostels, so you don’t really need the sleep or camping equipment. The bag itself is expensive but a must and having it once can help in the future.
@ Greg – a lot of good suggestions. I don’t know how I forgot tent pad on my list. Adding it to the list. The knife was a joke – I don’t expect a Swiss Army or even a machete to save you if a bear is hungry. I’ll cover bear safety in an upcoming post.
Excellent post. As an avid camper/hiker, I will echo your sentiment that you will definitely want to spend more money on quality equipment. There’s nothing worse than a malfunctioning piece of equipment. Even a water bottle leak can be extremely annoying on a long hike.
Looking forward to next post! I am curious about ideal types of clothing while backpacking.
Thanks for writing this series – this concept/article certainly caught my attention. I’m not sure I’m backpacker material yet but I have wanted to get outside and see the earth’s scenery (moutains, etc) for years. I’m in decent physical shape but aside from neighborhood walks in sandals I haven’t tried anything like backpacking… ever.
Anyhow – since I’m currently a soft-shelled, computer programmer from the suburbs I have to say ‘animal safety’ (bear/etc) is the first thing that comes to mind as I start to educate myself on this hobby/activity. For reference – I’ll say that one of my all-time favorite movies is ‘THE EDGE’ – and we all know about the bear in that movie! :)
Anyhow – I’m anxious for that ‘bear safety’ post you said you’d make! I’ll keep checking back!
@ Chris – good idea. Glad that someone out there was inspired by this series, thanks for the feedback. I was planning on doing a ‘once you’re out on the trail’ post, and bear safety will definitely be a topic that I’ll cover.
a notebook and pen. backpacking gives you time for a lot of self reflection in a lot of very pretty environments. You may want to write down these reflections or even reminders of things you might need for your next trip.
I have done some city/ country backpacking around and in Berlin, and can say that I’m fairly hardcore. So, even though it’s years after this post was recent I’ll type my experiences here and hope that it will be of help to you.
I was really grateful for bringing a tent, even though I was in a city, because you always know that you have a place to sleep in, keep you out of the rain and more warm than without one (against wind!).
I was happy with my air-mattress until it got a leak.. After that it was useless, but I was lucky and I managed to scavenge a rump-sized piece of a normal foam sleeping mattress. Nice and thick, I had no trouble with pinecones, roots, rocks or COLD! I only cut a piece the size of my torso because that is all the length I need (my legs don’t care about padding; my head, ribs and hips do). Even though it’s a pain to roll up being 2 inches thick, and weighs maybe a tiny bit more than my old, big air-mattress I was and still am very happy with it.
A thing I definitely miss in the list is DUCT TAPE! It is invaluable for me.
Someone here typed that a leaking waterbottle is a pain. Yes it is! But with duct tape not any more!
A normal roll is bulky and heavy, so I rolled a decent amount around the middle part of a pen. Everybody has some pens laying around, just unscrew one and roll the tape around it, I found out that the middle part of all my pens laying around here is just wide enough to hold the tape. The result: a tiny, lightweight instant repair kit. Really handy for ALL kinds of rips and holes because it keeps sticking whatever happens, it is waterproof, really durable and pretty strong. I fixed rips in my sleeping bag, tent and air-mattress with it (though it was not so successful with the mattress: air seeped through). And you can of course use it to stick things together, or last them together by making a kind of rope by sticking the sticky-sides together. Heck, you can even make a net from it!
For a sleeping bag I first had one, going down to about 50F. But it was too cold for me even at 60! I had the luck that I could get a bag from a friend who had found one at a festival. It was really nice and warm and snug in my two sleeping bags, and when it was too warm I used the other as a blanket. What is also handy about having two sleeping bags is that you can share one with somebody in case of need.
I also think it’s nice to have one with a water-resistant outside coating, against moisture seeping into your backpack, tent (condense), stains (by the ground, spilled food or drink) etc.
I’ll keep it at this for now, I hope you got any wiser after reading my big-ass post ;-)
Great article… Keep it cheap and efficient! Never grab the best brand name just cause you see it. many things double as a different tool. Hike on, be safe travelers
I totally agree about light gear…I made the mistake of getting a few items when I first got started that were cheaper but heavier. After hiking for a few days, you realize the ounces count!
@Greg, good call on the sleeping pad.
Great information especially about light gear. What matters most when backpacking is not the gear. It is what is between your ears hahaaa. Keep the pack light and keep your back happy!