In the summer of 2007, I decided to go on my first backpacking trip. I bought a backpack in the wrong size for $20 on Craigslist, loaded it up with my camping gear (like, my car camping gear), and hiked up into the San Gabriel mountains near my home. It was a rough hike, to say the least, but I loved it. And, hey, everyone has to start somewhere, right?
Since then, I’ve made some big changes to my backpacking gear list. I hiked the John Muir Trail in 2012 and that really required me to think through what I was carrying and make some investments in quality items – many of which I’m still using today.
Michael and I have been backpacking together since 2013, and we’re hiking the JMT this summer as our honeymoon (!!), so we’ve had a lot of time to work out the kinks in our backpacking packing list. While we’re confident in the gear that we have chosen for this backpacking season, we plan to keep this list updated as we cycle out old gear and cycle in the new.
Our Current Backpacking Gear List
In this post, you’ll find our complete backpacking checklist. Our gear list is generally the same whether we’re going on a 3-day backpacking trip or a multi-week trip, but where relevant, we’ve included any modifications we make for longer trips. While we backpack together, this checklist is applicable to solo or couple backpackers.
We don’t upgrade our equipment every year, so this list contains a mix of new and older products. It is by no means our “dream kit” with all the latest and greatest backpacking innovations. It is, however, the latest iteration of a collection of gear we’ve been refining for over 10 years. We hope that by showing our “real world” examples, it will give you a place to start.
Most of our gear was purchased ourselves, but for the sake of transparency, we’ve indicated any gear that was given to us. Additionally, the following links are affiliate links, so we’ll make a small commission if you find this list helpful and purchase gear based on our recommendations.
Every successful backpacking trip starts with finding the right backpack. If possible, go to a gear store, have your torso sized properly, and spend time trying on a bunch of different packs to find the right one. Early in my backpacking career, I hiked too many miles with packs that were just wrong for me. Finding the right pack made a huge difference, and even though both Michael and I carry what some would consider “heavy” backpacks, neither of us notice the extra weight of the pack itself because the packs fit correctly and distribute + carry the weight well.
Michael’s Pick: Osprey Atmos 65AG. My first backpack was an exterior frame Jansport I bought in 2005 for touring through Europe. It was uncomfortable empty and only got worse when loaded. Years later, I borrowed a friend’s Osprey Atmos 65 and it was a night and day difference. After that experience, I got fitted at REI and picked up my own Osprey Atmos 65AG. At this point, Osprey had developed the Anti-Gravity trampoline back (AG), which was great for comfort and ventilation. This pack does a great job distributing the weight onto my hips, so even when fully loaded I don’t “feel” the weight anywhere. It’s also on the larger size for bags, which is ideal for us because I carry a lot of the heavier “shared” gear items. -Michael
Megan’s Pick: Osprey Kyte 46. Full disclosure, the only way I’m able to get away using this pack is because Michael and I share so much gear. I’m able to fit a BV500, my sleeping bag, sleeping pad, clothes, and some miscellaneous items into this pack, but Michael carries the tent and our cooking system. -Megan
This is a bit of a unique tent that makes some compromises in favor of it being lighter-weight. To start, it’s single-walled, so there are some condensation issues. Additionally, it’s not free standing on its own and has to be staked out. You can convert it into a free-standing tent by using trekking poles if the camping surface doesn’t allow it to be staked out (like on rock or very fine sand) – though I’ve never run into a situation where I had to do this.
That being said, the tent itself is only 42 oz and most importantly, it’s one of the few backpacking tents that is long enough for Michael (he’s 6’5”).
I’ve used this tent since 2011 and it’s still holding up strong!
Even though we are 3-season backpackers, we opt for warm sleeping bags because nothing is worse than shivering through a night in the backcountry (we both made this mistake, independently, using bad sleeping bags while camping in the late fall in Utah). The rule of thumb when it comes to temperature ratings is that the listed rating is what you can survive in, but to be comfortable you’ll want to add ~15F.
Good sleeping bags are definitely an investment, but they will last a pretty long time if treated well. I have had mine since 2011 and Michael has had his since 2014.
There are two schools of thought when it comes to sleeping pads. Do you want to sleep comfortably, or hike comfortably? Obviously, gear is more nuanced than that, but generally speaking, the more comfortable a pad is at night, the heavier and bulkier it will be in your pack. Either way, you’ll want to choose one that provides some insulation from the ground to keep you warm at night.
We both upgraded our sleeping pads this year. I feel like I have found the best balance between comfort and weight with the Nemo Tensor pad. It has 3 inches of cushion but packs down to the size of a Nalgene bottle and weighs 15 oz. Michael went with the ultra-comfortable Sea to Summit Comfort Plus, which at 40 oz is certainly not ultralight, but his philosophy is that a good night’s sleep is worth the weight.
A pillow is totally optional and is entirely a personal preference. Michael uses this lightweight Cocoon Pillow and hasn’t looked back. I shove extra clothes into my sleeping bag stuff sack and call it a night.
We consider hiking poles to be part of our essential backpacking gear, but really they are optional. Poles will help you on the uphills and take the pressure off your knees on the downhills, so we think they are well worth the weight!
I have been using Black Diamond’s Trail Pro Shock poles since 2011 and they haven’t let me down. (Obviously, there have been advancements in trekking poles over the past 8 years, so they are definitely not the lightest, nor the most compact. If those factors are important to you, check these ones out.)
In addition to the cooking gear below, you’re obviously going to want to pack enough food! We aim for 2500-3500 calories each per day. You can check out some of our best backpacking food ideas here.
Your cooking system is going to be very dependent on your food strategy, the number of nights you’re out for, and the number of people you’re cooking for. You can read alllll about choosing the right backpacking stove here. Living in the West where there is a near constant threat of wildfire and many restrictions that follow, we are mostly limited to self-contained canister stoves, which are reflected in our two setups below:
Our current pick: the MSR Windburner Duo. While heavier than some alternatives (at 21.1 oz), this system wins for us for a few reasons. It’s super fuel efficient, so we don’t have to worry about running out of fuel as quickly (an issue we encountered with our secondary system while hiking the TCT). Additionally, the Windburner will boil water lightening fast when we’re just cooking freeze-dried meals, but it will also provide enough simmer control that we can cook our own meals.
Our secondary system: if we are only going out for one or two nights, we use the MSR Pocket Rocket 2 with the MSR 1.3L ceramic pot . This system is 10.1 oz but not as fuel efficient. You’ll likely want to use a windscreen to help with efficiency. That said, if you cook most of our meals (vs just boiling water for bagged food), it’s a great setup and allows for lots of versatility in preparing DIY meals.
Fuel: MSR or Jetboil Isobutane/Propane Fuel
Both of our cooking setups use isobutane/propane canister fuels. We’ll take a 3.5oz, 8oz, or 16oz canister depending on the length of our trip. While this is not backed by any sort of science, we are pretty loyal to MSR and JetBoil fuel because we’ve never had an issue with them. We’ve experienced mixed results with other brands when the canister gets below half-full.
While our Windburner has an auto-ignite switch, we don’t want to rely on it 100%, so we pack a lighter in the event it craps out on us.
This spork is 1/2 oz, long enough to reach into a freeze-dried meal bag, and has a smart design that really allows you to scrape up every last bit of food, making cleanup easier at the end of your meal. (NB, this was a gifted item.)
If you’re morning coffee (or tea) drinkers like us, you’ll probably want to pack along a dedicated mug.
This GSI mug is super lightweight at 3.5 oz – making it even lighter than our old titanium insulated mugs and they are a fraction of the price. Sure, the GSI mug won’t keep your coffee hot for hours, but we find it’s perfect for backpacking mornings. Bonus, the cup has measures on the side, so you can use it for measuring out water for your breakfasts & dinners.
Many of the places that we backpack, like the Sierra, require bear canisters, so we opt to carry the BV500. I have been able to pack 10 days of food for myself or 5 days for the two of us into this thing. If you’re a weekend backpacker, you could probably get away with the smaller BV450.
BearVaults are super durable and approved by nearly all agencies in the US, but they are on the heavy side. If the areas you backpack in allow them, a Ursack might be a better choice (while the Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee approved the Ursack in 2014, many places still do not allow them).
Having a way to filter and purify water is essential in the backcountry. We’ve carried pump-style filters as well as the UV Steripen, but we are making the switch to the Platypus Gravity Works 4L for this upcoming season. It’s lightweight at 11.5 oz, and will filter 1.75L/min with essentially zero effort. You simply fill the bag, then hang it so the “dirty water” bag is hung above the “clean water” bag. Gravity takes care of the rest.
We always bring at least one hard-sided water bottle in case our soft-sided bottles get holes in them. Soft-sided containers are great because they collapse when you don’t need them and they are super lightweight. (You could also opt for one of those water bladders with the drinking hose for easy sipping.)
If your meal strategy is strictly freeze-dried meals in bags, you might be able to skip the soap. Since we alternate between DIY cooked meals and freeze-dried meals, we carry a small bottle of unscented biodegradable soap to wash our pot with. Please read up on the proper way to use soap in the backcountry, and for the love of god don’t use it IN rivers or lakes.
We budget 2-3 of these wipes per day to clean off all the sweat and grime. The ingredients of these wipes are literally just water and grapefruit seed extract, so we find they don’t leave a weird residue feeling behind.
This thing is cheap, durable, light (3.1oz), and is faster at digging a cathole than using a stick. If you want to spend an extra $15 to save two ounces and some space, check out The Tent Lab’s trowels.
TP + Trash Bag
If you’re following Leave No Trace principles (and we hope you are!), you’ll know that packing out all your trash is important – and that goes for your used TP, too. I use a ziplock bag that I “black out” with painters or duct tape.
Trash Bag for Food & Misc Waste
Technically, you could have one trash bag for everything, but I like to keep opening and closing my TP bag to a minimum, so I bring a separate one for storing my used food packaging.
BioLite’s new headlamp has a totally different design than the standard headlamps on the market. The battery pack is in the back of the band, instead of on your forehead, distributing the weight in a way that’s way more comfortable. The light tilts, dims, and has a red light setting. It’s only 2.5 oz so it’s super lightweight.
You’ll get nearly 40 hours of use out of a charge, so you will need a solar panel or battery bank with a micro-USB port to charge it on longer trips. We carry one for our camera gear anyway, so it’s not a big deal to us.
(NB, this was an item we received for a product photoshoot but it has made its way into our regular gear setup.)
First Aid Kit
You can make a DIY first aid kit using a stuff sack, or buy a pre-packaged one like this.
Our current kit is a bit Frankensteined as we use and replace items, but generally speaking we carry: bandaids of various sizes, 2nd skin/blister bandaids/moleskin, butterfly bandages/wound closure strips, gauze, tape, elastic bandage, antibiotic ointment, antiseptic towelettes, tweezers, safety pins, ibuprofen, Imodium, antihistamine (this is admittedly a pretty basic kit).
In the event something happens to our water filter, we keep these Micropur tablets in our first aid kit.
Gear Repair Kit
Usually just duct tape and sleeping pad patches, a sewing needle, and nylon thread.
Whistle (Built into backpack straps)
While we usually use a GPS app on our phones (see below) for navigation while hiking, we always bring paper maps as well. If your phone runs out of juice, gets water damaged, drops and the screen cracks, or you lose it, you don’t want to be stuck without a way to navigate and route find. These get stored in a ziplock bag along with any required permits.
Your maps & compass will only help you if you know how to use them, so you might want to check out a navigation class at your local REI.
GPS: iPhone with Gaia GPS
While there are plenty of expensive hand-held GPS devices out there, we have been pretty happy over the years just using our iPhones and Gaia GPS! The premium version will set you back a few bucks but allows you to download maps before your trip so you can use them offline.
Layering is the name of the game when it comes to dressing in the backcountry!
For cool mornings and cold nights, a warm insulated jacket is essential. We look for jackets that can be compressed and packed down small so they don’t take up a ton of room in our packs since that’s genrally where this layer will be stored while we’re hiking.
Optional – on some trips (higher elevation and exposed trails), I like to pack a UPF rated long sleeve shirt. This Columbia one is roomy enough that it’s pretty comfortable to wear even on hot days, and this way I don’t have to keep slathering on the sunscreen.
Sometimes we will leave the rain jackets behind if we’re just going on a weekend trip and the weather is clear. But for longer hikes, we always pack rain gear since the weather can be a bit unpredicable. (NB, both of these jackets were provided to us for photoshoots.)
While both Michael and I have been known to backpack in trail runners, we do love our Merrell Moab Ventilator boots and will be switching to these for this summer’s backpacking adventures. They are still lightweight and breathable but will offer a little more support on the more rugged terrain we’re planning on hiking.
Both of us like to bring a gaiter or bandana to keep the sun off our necks (and keep a bit warmer on chilly mornings).
Camp Clothes (1 set)
Perhaps this belongs in the “Optional” category, but one of the luxuries that we bring backpacking is a completely different set of clothes to wear at camp & while sleeping.
At the end of the day, we strip off all our dirty, sweaty hiking clothes, wipe down with wet wipes, and change into our clean(ish) camp clothes for the evening. We feel fresher going to bed, and since these clothes don’t carry any residual hiking sweat, we sleep warmer, too.
We each pack a shirt, bottoms, underwear, and cushy socks.
This is honestly much too large of a setup for most backpackers. If we weren’t professional photographers, we’d ditch this entire system and just use our iPhone X (a lot of the times that’s what we actually do use while hiking and just taking photos for fun!)
This is the only thing on this list we don’t own yet but are planning on adding to our kit before summer backpacking season begins. This clip attaches to your camera and to your backpacking strap, so you can have your camera easily accessible on the trail (currently we have to carry our camera on a sling or in our packs – neither is a great option!)
This hooks right into our solar panel or battery bank and lets us keep our extra camera battery charged via USB (instead of the 120v charger our camera comes with).
Solar Panel: Enerplex (discontinued)
We bring a folding, lightweight solar panel to keep our camera, phone, and headlamp charged. This particular panel is no longer available, but there are a number of similar panels on the market. We haven’t personally used it, but this one has a comparable weight and charging ability.