What gear should you pack for a backpacking trip? We share our complete backpacking checklist with all of our lightweight backpacking essentials!
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 even hiked the JMT last summer for our honeymoon (!!), so we’ve had a lot of time to work out the kinks in our backpacking checklist.
Our Backpacking Checklist
In this post, you’ll find our complete backpacking gear list. Our backpacking checklist is generally the same whether we’re going on a 3-day backpacking trip or a multi-week trip. Even though we share some gear, this backpacking checklist is applicable to solo or couple backpackers since it includes everything you need to pack for a backpacking trip!
We don’t upgrade our equipment every year, so this packing list contains a mix of new and older products. It is by no means our “dream” backpacking checklist with all the latest and greatest 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.
Backpacking Gear Basics
This section covers the basic backpacking systems: hiking, shelter, and sleeping.
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. When I first started backpacking, I hiked too many miles with packs that were just wrong for me. Finding the right pack made a huge difference!
Michael currently hikes with an Osprey Atmos 65AG which is heavy but carries the weight well due to its suspension framing. I have been hiking with an Osprey Kyte 46 (which I can manage since we share a lot of gear).
Previously, I hiked the JMT with a ULA pack, which is a lighter weight option than the Osprey packs. It’s great if you can keep your total packed weight down below 30 lbs or so. I will likely be returning to this pack for future trips! Alternatively, if you’re a lightweight backpacker, we have seen an increasing number of Hyperlight packs out on the trail and Michael is considering upgrading to one of those.
We’ve been using the Tarptent Double Rainbow for nearly a decade. It’s a unique tent that makes some compromises in favor of it being lighter-weight at 42oz. 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.
If you’re looking for an ultra-lightweight tent, check out the Z-Packs Duplex which is only 19oz! We saw tons of these on the JMT and everyone spoke highly of them—so much so that we’ve started saving our pennies to upgrade. There is also a solo version that weighs in at 15.3oz.
Or, if you want a true freestanding tent that is still lightweight, the Big Agnes Copper Spur is a solid choice (50oz).
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.
A good, lightweight sleeping bag is definitely an investment, but it will last a pretty long time if treated well. I have had my Sierra Designs Vapor 15 since 2011 and Michael has had his Montbell Down Hugger since 2014.
Sleeping Pad: Nemo Tensor Insulated
There are two schools of thought when it comes to backpacking 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.
After using everything from the minimalist Z Lite to the totally luxe Sea to Summit Comfort Plus, we finally found the happy medium between comfort and weight with the Nemo Tensor insulated pad. It has 3 inches of cushion but packs down to the size of a Nalgene bottle and weighs only 15 oz (only 1 ounce more than a comparably sized Z-lite and SO MUCH more comfortable).
Camp Pillow: Cocoon Pillow
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. 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! Check out some of our best backpacking meal ideas here.
Backpacking Stove/Cook System
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 all about the best backpacking stoves on the market here.
Living in the West where there is a near-constant threat of wildfire and many restrictions that follow, we are usually limited to self-contained canister stoves, which are reflected in our two setups below:
Favorite Integrated System: the JetBoil MiniMo. It’s fuel-efficient, so we don’t have to worry about running out of fuel as quickly. It boils water lightning fast when we’re just cooking freeze-dried backpacking meals, but it will also provide enough simmer control that we can cook our own dehydrated food. If you only boil water, check out the Jetboil Flash, and if you are a solo hiker, check out the JetBoil MicroMo.
Favorite Stove + Pot System: Our secondary cook system is the MSR Pocket Rocket 2 with the MSR 1.3L ceramic pot. This system slightly lighter, but not as fuel-efficient. You’ll likely want to use a windscreen to help with efficiency. If you cook most of your meals (vs just boiling water for bagged food), it’s a great setup and allows for lots of versatility in preparing DIY backpacking 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.
Even if your backpacking stove has an auto-ignite switch, don’t rely on it 100%. Pack a lighter in the event it craps out.
Eating Utensil: Morsel XL Spoon
This spork is only ½ 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. (Save 10% by using our code “FOTG10”!)
If you’re morning coffee (or tea) drinkers like us, you’ll probably want to pack along a dedicated mug.
This GSI mug is lightweight at 3.5 oz – making it even lighter than our old titanium insulated mugs and they are a fraction of the price! Sure, this 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 and dinners.
Knife: Opinel #8
It’s always good to carry a small knife or multi-tool. I found that the only part of the multi-tool I ever used was the knife, so we ditched it in favor of our lighter Opinel knife (1.6oz).
Bear Canister: BearVault BV500
Many of the places that we backpack, like the Sierra, require a bear canister, so we opt to carry the BV500. I have been able to pack 7-8 days of food for myself or 4 days for the two of us into it—but you may be able to fit more food if you’re making your own dehydrated food instead of packing bulky freeze-dried backpacking meals.
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 you backpack in areas that allow it, 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).
Water Treatment: Platypus Gravity Works 4L
You never know what is in the water sources you come across in the backcountry, so make sure you have a reliable way to filter water. We’ve carried pump-style water filters as well as the UV Steripen, but we now LOVE our Platypus Gravity Works 4L. It’s lightweight at 11.5 oz and will filter 1.75L/min with essentially zero effort, and it’s easy to maintain on the trail. 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.
If you’re a solo backpacker or want to save some weight, there is also a 2-liter version.
These soft-sided bottles are great because they collapse when you don’t need them and they are super lightweight. We always bring at least one hard-sided water bottle in case the soft-sided bottles get holes in them. You could also opt for one of those water bladders with the drinking hose for easy sipping.
Biodegradable Soap: Dr Bronner Unscented or Campsuds
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. Please read up on the proper way to use soap in the backcountry, and for the love of god don’t use it IN any water sources.
Small Piece of Sponge
Optional, but recommended if you cook food directly in your pot.
Quick-Drying Dish Towel: REI Multi Towel Mini
We use folding travel toothbrushes. They take up less space and guard the bristles from touching anything else in your toiletry bag.
Travel-size toothpaste tubes are perfect for backpacking trips (no point in dragging a full tube out on the trail!)
An absolute must for faces, necks, and hands. We try to reduce the amount of sunscreen we need by covering up (long sleeves and pants), but a small travel container of sunscreen is critical.
Between the sun and the wind, it’s so easy for lips to get chapped on the trail. So we always make sure to pack some lip balm with SPF.
Let’s be honest, cleanliness becomes a relative term on a backpacking trip. But before we prepare our food and after we go to the bathroom, a quick spritz of hand sanitizer goes a long way to cover our bases.
Wet Wipes: Water Wipes
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.
Trowel: GSI Cathole Trowel
This trowel is cheap, durable, light (3.1 oz), and is faster at digging a cathole than using a stick. If you want to spend an extra $15 to save weight and some space, check out The Tent Lab’s trowels.
Toilet Paper + 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 toilet paper, too. I use a ziplock bag that I “black out” with painters or duct tape.
If you’re looking for TP alternatives, you’re in luck! There are a number of products designed with backpackers in mind that will help you cut down on the trash you have to pack out.
- Kula Cloth: This is an antimicrobial pee cloth that can be used in place of toilet paper for #1. If the idea of a pee cloth is new to you, here are the answers to your first few questions: Yes, it’s sanitary when used properly, and no, it doesn’t stink. You can read allll about it on the Kula Cloth website.
- TUSHY collapsible bidet: A great TP alternative that gained attention last year is the bidet–and this TUSHY travel version is a great option for backpackers. We met a gal on the JMT who used this one and couldn’t say enough good things about the experience. It’s essentially a soft bottle that can be filled with water, then squeezed to create a gently pressurized spray to clean up after you use your cathole.
Trash Bag for Food & Misc Waste
Health and Safety
Headlamp: BioLite 200
BioLite’s 200 headlamp has a minimalist headband design, which distributes the weight in a way that’s super comfortable. The light tilts, dims, and has a red light setting. Additionally, it’s USB charged so there’s no battery pack which helps make it one of the lightest headlamps we’ve found – it’s only 1.5 oz!
You can get up to 40 hours of use (on low) 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, we received this item for a product photoshoot.)
First Aid Kit
You can make a DIY first aid kit, or buy a pre-packaged one like this.
Our current kit is a bit Frankensteined, but generally speaking, our basic kit includes things like band-aids 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, and antihistamine.
Backup Water Treatment: Micropur Tablets
In the event something happens to our water filter, we keep these Micropur tablets in our first aid kit.
Gear Repair Kit
Usually sleeping pad patches, spare stove O-ring, duct tape, a sewing needle, and nylon thread.
While we usually use a GPS app on our phones (see below) for navigation while hiking, we always bring paper maps. If your phone runs out of juice, gets water damaged, or drops and the screen cracks, you don’t want to be stuck without a way to navigate. Maps are stored in a ziplock bag along with any required permits.
Your map and 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 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 backpacking trip so you can use them offline.
We carry a Garmin In-Reach Mini which works outside of cell service, meaning we can text with our family or friends via satellite (for weather updates, wildfire info, or just to say “we’re having a blast!”), call for SOS help if needed, and acts as a GPS with tracking. It’s only 3.5oz, but it a pricy item and it requires a subscription to use all the satellite functions. However, it’s been worth it for peace of mind for us and our families.
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. The Patagonia Nano Puff is a classic or the Patagonia Down Sweater offers some more warmth without a ton of extra weight.
Base Layer Tops & Bottoms
Base layers can help you regulate your body temperature in camp and on the trail as the temperature fluctuates throughout the day. We opt for Patagonia Capilene base layers on warmer trips or Smartwool base layers if it’s going to be colder.
Quick Dry Shirt (1-2)
Look for something that’s moisture-wicking and breathable. Avoid cotton as it holds onto moisture—opt for quick drying material instead. Patagonia’s Capilene Cool Lightweight Shirt is a great place to start!
Button Down Sun Shirt: Columbia Silver Ridge Lite
Optional – when hiking at higher elevations and on exposed trails, I pack a UPF rated long sleeve shirt for additional sun protection. This one is roomy enough that it’s comfortable to wear even on hot days, and this way I don’t have to keep slathering on the sunscreen!
Rain Jacket / Windbreaker: Columbia OutDry Eco + Cotopaxi Rain Shell
A lightweight rain jacket will be worth its weight in gold if you encounter rain on your backpacking trip! We’ll pack these regardless of the forecast since the weather in the mountains can be unpredictable, and it doubles as a wind-resistant layer. (NB, these jackets were gifted to us.)
Hiking Pants: Prana Brion Pants
The Prana Brion hiking pants are quick-drying, lightweight, and offer a bit of stretch for a good range of motion.
Hiking Shorts: Vuori Clementine
These Vuori shorts are great because they are quick drying and breathable.
Quick Dry Underwear (2-3)
We each pack 2-3 pairs of breathable, quick-drying, moisture-wicking hiking underwear. These get rotated daily and on longer trips, we’ll rinse them with water and some Dr. Bronner’s soap.
Hiking Socks (2-3)
Footwear might be one of the most important pieces of backpacking gear! It doesn’t matter how lightweight the rest of your gear is if your feet are in pain or covered in blisters. Spend some time really feeling things out when you’re selecting hiking boots or trail shoes. We recommend REI for this purchase because of their return policy. You can actually put your shoes to the test and if after a trip, it turns out they weren’t the right fit, you can return them for a refund within a year.
Michael has been hiking in Merrell Moab Ventilator hiking boots, which are lightweight, breathable, and supportive. I tend to prefer trail runners like the Vasque Mindbenders (discontinued, unfortunately).
Buff / Gaiter / Bandana, Optional
We 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)
One of the luxuries that we bring along when backpacking is a different set of clothes to wear at camp and 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. 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, Teva camp shoes, and cushy socks.
Camera Gear and Electronics
We bring a fairly heavy DSLR since we are professional photographers, otherwise, we’d ditch it and just use our iPhone X (a lot of the time that’s what we actually do use while hiking and just taking photos for fun!) or a smaller camera like the Canon G7X or the Sony RX100.
This clip attaches your camera to your backpack strap, so you can have your camera easily accessible on the trail.
Camera Battery Charger: Newmowa Dual USB
This charger hooks right into a solar panel or battery bank and lets us keep our DSLR camera battery charged via USB.
Battery Bank: Anker
A battery bank is optional, but if you have devices that need to stay charged, it might be worth the weight. They come in a number of mAh capacities. This 10,000mAh pack will charge your phone ~3 times.
We bring a folding, lightweight solar panel to keep our camera, phone, battery pack, and headlamp charged. This particular panel we use 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.
Ultimate Backpacking Checklist
Use this checklist to help organize all your backpacking gear for your next trip.
Backpacking stove read more
Bear canister/food storage
Food and snacks read more
Small sponge optional
Quick dry towel optional
Toilet paper and waste bag
Insect repellant optional
Health and Safety
Extra batteries optional
First aid kit
Backup water treatment
Gear repair kit
Small signal mirror
Itinerary left w/ friend or family member
Quick dry hiking shirt
Long sleeve sun shirt optional
Hiking pants or shorts
Camp clothes optional
Camp shoes or sandals optional
Mosquito head net optional
Solar panel optional
Chargers or charging cablesoptional
Credit card or cash
Extra ziplock or trash bags
Waterproof pack cover/trash compactor bag
Sit pad or camp chair optional
Extra hair tie optional
Ear plugs / eye mask optional
We hope that this backpacking checklist will be helpful as you plan your next backpacking trip! If you’re looking to buy or upgrade gear, be sure to check out this post about where to buy discounted outdoor gear to save a bit of cash.
If you want to dig deeper, we have articles about choosing a backpacking stove, details on our backpacking kitchen, and articles about dehydrating food for backpacking and buying and packing backpacking food for your trip.