A Hiker’s Guide to Shopping for Essential Backpacking Gear

Three images featuring products from the article below, including a water filter by Sawyer Products, a fuel tank by MSR and a Geertop backpacking tent.
Sawyer Products/MSR/GEERTOP

Once you’ve accomplished several day hikes, that itch for a little more adventure might need to be scratched. Multiday hikes and backpacking trips are the next logical (and exciting) step, but you’ll definitely need more gear.

If you’ve been hiking for some time, you probably already have a solid idea of what all you’d pack for a normal day hike, like reliable footwear, for example.

For this list, we’re focusing on the gear you’d want to take if you’ll be spending the night outdoors. However, this will build on the list of items you normally take on a day hike.

Sleeping pads, tents, and cooking tools are all things you’ll want to consider, and after several backpacking trips along the Appalachian trail, we’ve got plenty of reliable recommendations for you.

What Is Backpacking?

Backpacking is when you hike during the day, carrying all of your essentials in a backpack, and then camp at night. These adventurous treks can be as short as two days, or as long as a few weeks or months. How long you plan to hike, will greatly affect how much gear you need.

If you’re a hiker, who’s looking to spend a little more time in the great outdoors, backpacking might be just for you. It’s like a level up from regular hiking because, at the end of the day, you’ll experience a night under the stars like never before.

Sunrise is even better, as you sip your coffee on a cool crisp morning. Being miles away from the bustle of town and city streets is also a treasure.

Before you venture out for a multiday hike, though, you’ll want to do a little research. There’s always more you can learn about both backpacking and the location you plan to visit.

How to Select the Right Backpack

Four backpackers looking out over a mountain hiking trail.

When hiking turns into camping overnight, a backpack becomes especially crucial, because you are literally putting all your life’s necessary items in a pack. Sleeping gear, food, water purifying equipment, and cooking gear are all things you’ll need to have a comfortable stay outdoors.

You’ll want to reach for a multiday pack if you plan to spend a few nights outdoors. However, anything longer than a five-day hike will likely require a larger capacity pack like an expedition pack.

Selecting a pack takes careful research and requires an in-person fitting session where you’ll get to try various packs until you find one that’s perfect for your body shape and size.

There’s a lot to consider when selecting a pack, so be sure to read up on our tips and specific considerations before purchasing.

Pack Your Hiking Essentials

The list below will build off of everything you’d take on the trail for a regular day hike, but with special considerations in mind.

For example, hiking for days, means you need more than a few bottles of water. That’s where water purification systems come in. Additional clothing and layers come in the clutch too especially when temps drop at night. We’ll cover it all.

Just keep in mind that additional weight makes an enormous difference. Efficient packers will weigh everything down to ounces to ensure they aren’t adding on additional unnecessary weight.

We’ll give you some helpful tips and guidelines about how much weight you should carry.

6 Packing Tips

A man packing his hiking backpack.
New Africa/Shutterstock.com

Packing takes careful consideration and loads of self-discipline. I’ve been on both ends of the spectrum: packing too heavy and not packing enough. Both suck, but I’d rather have a little extra weight than not enough.

Below are six tips we’ve learned through trial and error:

  • Set everything out: Once you’ve purchased all your food, gear, and supplies needed for your backpacking trip, set everything out on the floor or a bed. Look at everything you have. Are you missing anything? What items can you eliminate?
  • Pack, unpack, then pack again: When preparing for a trip in the backcountry where you don’t have the convenience of stores or online purchases, you’ll really want to make careful selections. We always recommend you pack, then unpack and pack again until you’ve added weight that’s right for you. It’s a great way to see what’s missing and what’s unnecessary.
  • Weigh everything: Most hiking and camping gear comes with weight specs, so you can add these numbers while packing your belongings. Other things like food and clothes should also be weighed so you know just how much weight you are taking in. The weight of your pack will drop over time as you eat more of your stash each day.
  • Weigh your filled backpack: Once you’ve weighed everything separately, also be sure to weigh your entire pack filled with everything. You can do so by weighing yourself with the pack, then without accounting for the difference.
  • Know your weight limit: For a multiday backpacking trip, it’s wise not to exceed more than about 20% of your body weight. So, if you weigh 130 pounds, don’t carry more than 26 pounds of gear. That takes careful consideration, self-discipline, and meticulous packing.
  • Pack extra food: Even if you’ve just about reached your weight limit, a few extra snacks and meals are so worth it. Aside from not having water, realizing you might not have enough food is a gut-wrenching feeling. Don’t put yourself in that spot.

Now, it’s time to get specific about what to pack. The following recommendations are all lightweight, and while that’ll cost you extra, it’s worth every penny when you’re away from amenities for several days.

Sleeping Gear

A hiker showing off his new Hyke & Byke mummy sleeping bag with the surrounding views of mountains.
Hyke & Byke

Taking a backpacking trip means you won’t have a comfortable mattress at night. Having quality sleeping gear, however, will feel like luxury out in the woods.

These are our top recommendations:

Mummy sleeping bag: Quality shelter is important but keeping yourself warm is vital, too. Our mummy pack is the absolute best because it’s designed to wrap around your head to keep your head warm at night. The Hyke & Byke down sleeping bag is an ultralight mummy bag perfect for various weather conditions, especially the coldest ones. The bag is complete with a compression sack, which will help dramatically compress it for storage.

Tent: This backpacking style by Geertop has so many excellent perks. It’s rather lightweight for a two-person tent and comes in two bright colors, which are great for visibility. Plus, it features a rain fly for extra protection during rainstorms. You’ll also appreciate the easy setup and built-in pockets.

Sleeping pad: A sleeping pad is another must-have item for two reasons: comfort and warmth. You don’t realize how cold the ground feels until you lay on it. My first backpacking trip was a three-day, two-night excursion, and I didn’t get much sleep because I didn’t have the protective warmth under my body. The sleeping pad is light In weight, self-inflatable, and packs down to the size of a water bottle. It’s like taking a thin air mattress out in the woods. Alternatively, you can try a closed-cell foam pad but they aren’t as comfy.

Headlamp: These are basically mini flashlights attached to a band you place around your forehead. They allow you to see in dark conditions without holding a flashlight, which really comes in handy if you have to relieve yourself in the middle of the night. Always opt for battery-powered options (not rechargeable) like this one, and pack extra batteries, too.

If you need a pillow, try to pack something light, like this inflatable model. I tend to just fold some clothes into a pillow because it saves weight and space in my pack.

Cooking Equipment

Two images featuring the GSI microduelist cookware pot with utentils and marrying bowls.
GSI Outdoors

Cooking for a hike involves lots of thinking ahead of time, but once you finally get to enjoy a hot meal at the end of your day, it’s worth all the trouble.

Here’s are five must-have items to pack:

A cooking set: This one from GSI Microduelist is perfect. We’ve used ours for eight years, and still haven’t retired it. It comes complete with a strainer lid and bowls. It also includes foldable foon utensils. We also always take a lightweight metal spoon for cooking and eating, and usually leave the bowls behind—we eat right out of the pot.

A camping stove: A camping stove is a small three-or-four-pronged tool that you’ll attach to a fuel tank as a quick source of the fire. You’ll need one of these to cook your meals while out on the trail. The MSR ultralight stove is a basic model that’ll boil your water in just minutes. The adjustable flame is a must, but if you are interested in a stove designed with a built-in igniter, opt for the deluxe model.

Fuel tanks: There’s no point in owning a camping stove if you don’t have a fuel tank. These little propane tanks are what provide fuel for your fire, and without them, you’ll have to find other methods of cooking. The MSR tank comes in various sizes, so make sure you bring enough for the trial. We always recommend bringing extra fuel.

A mug: Having a lightweight mug on the trail for sipping coffee on a cold crisp morning is another luxury to be enjoyed. This Coleman mug is as basic as it gets, but it gets the job done after all, and doesn’t weigh much.

Biodegradable soap: You’ll need to wash your dishes and this biodegradable camping soap is a great option. It’s safe for the environment, and its intention is for cleaning much more than camping cookware. Use a small drop for your body, hair, clothes, and more, all while enjoying the refreshing scent of pine.

We could recommend all the gear in the world, but if you’ve never used it, you’ll find yourself a bit lost on the trail without google for help. Be sure to use all your products beforehand, so you can get a feel for how they work. There’s no better way to workshop any issues that might arise.

Water Purifying Tools

A hiker filling her water bottle with purified water from a sawyer products filtration system.
Sawyer Products

Carrying enough water to last you days, is way too heavy, so you’ll have to find a safe water source out in the backcountry. However, you have to purify it before drinking.

Below are two forms of water purification:

A water filter: These pull in the water, while removing dangerous particles and bacteria so you can safely hydrate yourself. The Sawyer mini filtration system is a compact filter that can be used as a straw or to dispense filtered water into a water bottle. It’s lightweight, inexpensive, and filters up to 100,000 gallons of water before it has to be replaced.

Water chemical treatment: You can also chemically treat water with iodine tablets. We’ve used Potable aqua tablets several times and have never gotten sick. They do have a bit of a chemical taste, though.

Quality Clothing

Two hikers enjoying the view form their tend while wearing fresh smartwool socks after a long day outdoors.

Even in the hot days of summer, sometimes nights get really chilly, and there’s nothing fun about shivering yourself to sleep. Aside from warmth, you want comfortable clothing to wear around camp.

Check out our five clothing recommendations:

Extra socks: Not only is having extra socks essential, but having the right socks will make all the difference. Always opt for socks made with Merino wool, which contains properties that both warm-up and cool down those sweaty feet. We love the Smartwool brand, but feel free to shop around.

Fleece or a sweater: A thin, lightweight fleece like this Columbia zip-up is a great extra layer to have on the trail for cool mornings and cold nights. The extra pockets are great for holding things like lip balm, and they are super cozy, too.

A warm hat: Keeping your head warm is another small luxury when you’re out in the woods. This tactical beenie offers military-grade material, is lightweight, and will surely keep your ears warm while sipping on a cup of coffee in the morning.

Long underwear or leggings: Having a warm additional set of these leggings or any long underwear is great when it’s cold out. This Weerti thermal base layer clothing is fleece-lined and super warm, so if you normally get hot at night, these might be a bit much for you. You know your body best.

Camping shoes: These should differ greatly from your other hiking footwear. They should be comfortable to wear around your campsite. At the end of a long day’s hike, you’ll really appreciate taking off those sweaty, hot boots and letting your toes air out in a pair of classic crocs.

Phew! That was a mighty long list, but just like any hobby, you can purchase your hiking supplies over time. Something else you might want to consider purchasing is some hiking poles to keep your balance over the ever-changing terrain.

Emilee Unterkoefler Emilee Unterkoefler
Emilee Unterkoefler is a freelance food writer, hiking enthusiast, and mama with over ten years of experience working in the food industry. Read Full Bio »

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