The Ultimate Backpacking Checklist for Beginners

Backpacking is freeing; a liberation from hyperconnectivity and the manufactured stress that surround us. Unlike traditional camping, backpacking is all about mobility and simplicity. For many, it’s a lesson in how to live with less, as you need very few objects to actually begin a backpacking adventure. By carrying less, your mobility increases, which in turn expands the horizons of where you can go and what you might achieve.

We’re here to help you take those first few steps.

We’ve compiled the following checklist through first-hand backpacking experience. Our hope is that it can be used during the planning stages of your backpacking trip to help determine the things worth carrying. In addition to this list, We highly recommend that you consider factors like trip length, climate, and group size; having thorough plans will help you to better customize your backpacking setup to maximize your enjoyment.

Let’s take a look at what to bring (and what to leave at home) for your first backpacking trip!

“The Big Four”

You’ll hear this term a lot in the backpacking community. “The Big Four” refers to the four major pieces of gear that are considered essential for all backpackers because they protect you from weather, extreme temperatures, and allow your trip to happen in the first place. It’s important to carefully consider each of these gear choices, as they’re often the priciest and heaviest pieces of your backpacking setup.

Pack

  • Shelter (tent, tarp, hammock, or bivy)*
  • Sleeping bag or quilt
  • Sleeping pad

*Pro Tip: Research your route ahead of time! Not all shelters are created equal, and you’ll soon find that your chosen region isn’t well suited for a specific type of shelter. Hammocks require trees while tents require flat surfaces. Trust us, it’s better to determine the best shelter for your trip before you take your first steps.

Food Setup

No matter where your adventure takes you, you’ll need to plan on fueling yourself with something. Food is typically stored in vehicles or hung in trees while camping to avoid attracting unwanted wildlife, so plan on some sort of storage option ahead of time and stick to it! Otherwise, camp cooking isn’t nearly as intimidating as it seems. To make the most out of your experience, you’ll want to make sure you have at least the essentials listed below.

Food list

  • Dry bag*
  • Carabiner*
  • Nylon cord (50 ft.)*
  • Small stuff sack*
  • Camp Stove
  • Fuel (depending on stove type)
  • Lighter or matches
  • Mug
  • Eating utensil
  • Knife
  • Other: __________

*Pro Tip: Most public trails require you to follow Leave No Trace principles while hiking, so you’ll need a hanging system in order to safely guard your food from rodents and larger wildlife. A dry bag is used to carry food in your pack, while a carabiner, cord, and stuff sack are used to set up a hanging system in nearby trees. If you’re looking to avoid losing your precious backpacking food to hungry critters or potential fines, make sure to pack a hanging system!

Health & Hygiene

Health is a crucial element to consider when planning a backpacking trip; lack of preparedness can cut your trip short in the worst case or make your experience unpleasant and uncomfortable in the best case. That being said, you don’t have to plan for every possible emergency, as that would have you carrying a significant amount of weight that would most likely go unused. We recommend packing the basics while establishing an emergency plan to allow for a safe exit if the need arises.

For Hygiene

  • Toothpaste
  • Toothbrush
  • Floss
  • Quick-dry towel
  • Toilet paper*
  • Menstrual products
  • Other: _________

For General Health

  • Sunscreen
  • Insect repellent
  • Antibacterial wipes
  • Hand sanitizer
  • Prescription Medications
  • Water filter
  • Other: ____________

For a First Aid Kit

  • Antiseptic wipes
  • Antibacterial ointment
  • Gauze
  • Ibuprofen or Aspirin
  • Oral rehydration salts
  • Antihistamines
  • Other: __________

*Pro Tip: Although you should plan on packing toilet paper, that doesn’t mean you need to carry a full roll at all times. Consider splitting supplies with a hiking partner or simply bringing enough for the length of your trip. Backpackers typically plan supplies for the length of their trip plus an additional day in case of emergencies.

Clothing & Layers

We’re getting pretty specific with our clothing; most beginners tend to overpack, leading to lots of unnecessary weight. When it comes to backpacking, clothing is important, but clean clothing isn’t an absolute must. The recommendations below are made under the assumptions that you’ll be re-wearing certain articles of clothing.

For Clothing*

  • 3x Underwear
  • 1 Hiking shirt
  • 1 Pair of shorts
  • 1 Pair of camp shorts
  • Other: __________

For Footwear

  • Hiking Boots or shoes
  • Camp shoes or sandals
  • 3x Socks
  • Other: __________

For Layering

  • Baselayer top
  • Long underwear
  • Insulating hat
  • Insulated jacket
  • Rain jacket
  • Midlayer top
  • Other: ________

*Pro tip: Just because you’ll be re-wearing your clothes doesn’t mean you’ll have to suffer with lingering odors. While it’s true that you’ll have to accept a lower standard of cleanliness, you can greatly extend the wearability of your clothes by washing them at the end of each day. You can wash your clothes at least 200 feet from water sources, then rotate in clean clothes while your wet clothes dry.

Electronics

Just because you won’t have full access to outlets and internet connections doesn’t mean you have to toss all of your electronics! Portable electronics are now widely available and affordable, so you can record your trip and stay connected with ease.

For the Campsite*

  • Camera
  • Music player
  • Headphones
  • Portable power bank*
  • Cell phone
  • Charging cables (for all electronics)
  • USB Charging block*
  • Other: ________________

*Pro tip: Consider a USB charging block with multiple ports. Since you’ll be recharging your electronics when you resupply, you’ll want to make sure that you can recharge as quickly as possible. Also, consider which of your electronics should be charged first; while you may be tempted to charge cell phones and cameras, a full portable power bank will allow you to charge electronics several times. It may be worth it to prioritize your devices to ensure sustained (though consciously limited) connectivity.

Extras, Luxuries, & Repairs

When backpacking, there are some tools, gear, and items that are hard to categorize. Below are some helpful additions to your backpacking setup that help with preparedness without adding too much extra weight.

For Extras

  • Identification
  • Credit and/or debit card
  • Cash
  • Headlamp
  • Storage bags
  • Trash compactor bag*
  • Ziplock bags
  • Plastic water bottle(s)
  • Buff
  • Whistle
  • Compass
  • Route Map
  • Trekking poles
  • Other: __________

For Repairs

  • Sleeping pad repair kit
  • Duct tape
  • Needle & thread
  • Other: __________

For Luxuries

  • Earplugs
  • Sunglasses
  • Pen and/or pencil
  • Inflatable pillow
  • Day pack
  • Other: _______

*Pro tip: Trash compactor bags are commonly used to keep essential gear dry. Because they’re durable and fully waterproof, you can store clothes, sleeping bags, electronics, and other necessities without having to worry about carrying a pack cover or bulky cases. Trash compactor bags are used to line the inside of a pack, and can be secured by twisting and rolling the bag opening.

Conclusion

Though backpacking seems to have a rather steep learning curve, beginners can start by experimenting with gear on shorter trips. Short hikes in controlled environments are referred to as “shakedown hikes,” as they allow beginners to determine what gear choices do and don’t work so that they can avoid mistakes on longer trips. Remember, your end goal is to get out hiking and to start a new hobby.

This list provides a helpful overview of the various gear considerations to maximize your experience. If you start small and plan your shakedown hikes and gear carefully, you’ll find that the learning curve isn’t so steep after all.

If you do other types of camping, you can check out our camping checklist as well.

Want to print the checklist, let us know by comment! We will prepare it for you! 

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