A few years ago, as we gathered at a meeting place for a group hike, one participant arrived with an army-style duffle bag that was supposed to serve as a backpack.
After looks of astonishment from everyone present, the leader of the group raced home and retrieved a spare backpack for the inexperienced hiker, most certainly saving that person from three days of hiking hell.
That’s a far-flung example of backpacking unpreparedness. But one can never assume first-time backpackers know what to bring on an overnight trek in the mountains.
Planning for a backpack trip should be similar to packing for a vacation trip or even a simple trip to the grocery store. Make a list. Check it twice.
It’s also important to travel light. The weight of all the items adds up quickly in your backpack. What you think you need beforehand — multiple sets of clothing and nonessential food — might not seem like such a good idea in hindsight when you’re struggling up a steep trail in the heat of the day with an overloaded pack.
With that in mind, here’s a list of backpacking essentials to bring on your trip:
Backpack: Most are made of nylon with an internal frame made of steel. Sizes can range from 35-110 liters of gear capacity, and can weigh by themselves between 3 and 5 pounds.
Comfortable hiking boots or trail running shoes: Hiking boots will offer better ankle support, which is important on the trail.
Lightweight tent: Most backpacking tents are shaped like a dome and rely on crossing poles and guy lines to create a rigid frame. Two-person tents usually weigh between 2.5 and 5 pounds. One with a rainfly is recommended.
Down sleeping bag and compression stuff sack: Even in the middle of the summer, you might be surprised how cold it gets at night at higher elevations. It’s not uncommon to wake up to frost on the ground. Most backpacking sleeping bags weigh from 1.5 to 3 pounds.
Insulated sleeping pad: Your back will thank you for it. Trying to sleep on the hard ground, and quite possibly on a stray rock or two, is no fun. Air insulated sleeping pads don’t take up much space (many fold into a small stuff sack) and require a minimal amount of huffing and puffing to inflate.
Lightweight cooking stove and fuel: Don’t ever assume you can build a fire for cooking. Many wilderness areas prohibit campfires during hiking season. Most backpacking stoves are small, fold up easily and typically screw onto threaded tops of self-sealing, liquid fuel canisters.
Lighter to fire up the stove: A Bic lighter will do, or matches, as long as they’re protected from moisture.
Water bottles: You’d be surprised how easily you can become dehydrated along the trail, especially when it’s hot. You’ll know it when your leg muscles begin to cramp. Make sure your water bottles together hold a minimum of 2 liters of water for the trail. Keep them handy so they’re easily accessible for frequent water breaks. Also, know ahead of time where the water sources are along the trail for filtering.
Lightweight cooking pot: A pot holding one or two quarts is ideal for boiling water for a small hiking party at the campsite.
Food: Freeze-dried food has come a long way over the years. It’s light, doesn’t take up much room and requires just adding water. Mountain House and Backpacker’s Pantry are two of the more popular brands, and can be purchased at most outdoor outlets. For something more higher end, PackitGourmet can be ordered online. Beyond freeze-dried food, items such as bagels, mixed nuts, dried fruit, beef jerky, granola bars, granola cereal and instant oatmeal don’t take up much room, and can also be good snacks for rest breaks along the trail. Hot-chocolate mix and powdered juice mix add a little variety to water.
Water filtration device: For drinking water, it’s essential to have some sort of water filtration system to remove bacteria and giardia from the water you obtain along the trail. A pump system, a “squeeze bag” setup or a gravity filter method are among the most popular ways to move water through a microfilter. Bacteria can also be removed with iodine pills.
Collapsible water bladder or bag: For filtered water storage at your campsite. You’ll go through a lot of water for cooking, drinking and washing dishes. A bladder that holds about 6 liters of water is a good capacity.
Trekking poles: Not only are they good for balance along the trail, but they provide essential balance support when you’re walking across a fallen log or boulder-hopping a stream.
Weather-appropriate clothing: Think of the old Scandinavian mantra: “There’s no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothes.” Make sure you have quick-drying nylon long pants, a lightweight raincoat or poncho, a stocking cap and fleece gloves for cold nights (for high-elevation hikes), a light wool or fleece sweater, a synthetic long-sleeved shirt, and hiking shorts if you’re expecting hot weather. An extra pair of socks, underwear and fleece or wool pants for the night are also recommended.
Insect repellent: Mosquitoes and deer flies are plentiful in the mountains, and can make your life miserable. Insect repellent with a minimum 40% of DEET (if you’re comfortable with that) helps ward off the pesky flies. If you’re really bothered by biting bugs, a mosquito head net with an insect shield is recommended.
Sunblock and sunglasses: The sun can be intense in the mountains. It doesn’t take much to get a sunburn, especially if you’re walking on snow.
First-aid kit: Always a good idea, even if it’s a minor cut from falling along the trail.
A small flashlight or headlamp: If for whatever reason you must hike at night, or to navigate your campsite after dark, this is another essential item.
A map and compass: Most U.S. Forest Service Ranger stations have hiking maps for their region. Topographical Green Trail maps can also be purchased at many outdoor retail outlets. For phone-based navigation, Maps.Me and Gaia GPS are useful apps. But you’ll want to download a map of the area you’re traveling to prior to your trip since there’s a good chance you won’t have cell service on the trail.
50 feet of rope or utility cord: You’ll want to hang your food at night in a tree in a stuff sack or plastic bag to keep the bears and other critters from eating your provisions. Storing food at night in your tent is an open invitation to them to come and visit you.
A plastic hand shovel and biodegradable toilet paper: Select a site at least 200 feet from a water source whenever possible. Bury waste in a hole 3- to 6-inches deep and cover with soil. Use backcountry toilets whenever possible. Where toilets are not available and digging is not possible — such as subalpine areas, snow, rock or glaciers — pack out waste.
Permit: A federal Northwest Forest Pass is required to park at most trailheads on Forest Service trails, a backcountry permit is required on many national park trails, and a Discover Pass at some lower-elevation trails, particularly at state parks. You don’t want to return to your vehicle to find a ticket on your windshield.
Lastly, you should always let someone know when you’re going and when you plan to be back. And don’t assume you can make a call on your cellphone if you’re lost, stranded or running behind schedule. Cell service is virtually nonexistent, or at best spotty, in the mountains. It’s also a good idea to document your start date, expected return date and the number of people in your hiking party at the “sign-in” sheets, which are posted at many trailheads.