Forrest Setnor | 09.09.2016

So maybe you are just getting into the outdoors, or maybe you have spent your outdoor nights in campgrounds with fold-up chairs, an eight-person tent that weighs 20 pounds, and a sleeping bag that has been in your family for three generations. You continue to see amazing alpine lakes, gorgeous meadows and sprawling alpine views all over your social media channels, and you have perused tons of awesome adventures here at Outdoor Project, but a lot of those gorgeous views are miles and miles from the nearest parking lot, paved road, or campground. If you long to access some of those remote places and spend your nights under the stars, you've come to the right place. This introduction to backpacking essentials is designed to get you outside on a multi-day trip and perhaps kindle your interest in a brand new outdoor addiction and lifestyle!

Proper gear is a huge component in enjoying longer trips; it can make your trip safe, comfortable, and enjoyable. That 20-pound tent and beat-up sleeping bag aren't going to cut it when cold weather and miles on the trail are in store. Below is a list of items you are going to need to get your newfound love of the outdoors started right. This breakdown is curated from the items I have used over hundreds of miles to stay safe, warm,  and comfortable. The list is divided into three sections: necessary emergency gear that should be some of your first purchases, necessary gear that is needed to get the job done, and added comfort and enjoyment items. This list is not intended for super lightweight backpacking because that is a whole different style with much lighter gear. Rather, this list is intended to get you going in the hobby and to give you an idea of the items you need to get out in the woods and enjoy yourself.


Emergency Gear

Emergency gear is something you hope never to use, but you do not want to be caught without it when the need arises. Most adventures you will be undertaking are not only far away from civilization, they also may be out of cell reception and far from any available help. Take these recommendations very seriously, and take into account the weight they will add to your load out.

  • First Aid Kit (with Ibuprofen/Tylenol)
  • Compass (keep the instructions in your bag if you don't know how to use one)
  • Map of the area in which you will be backpacking
  • Iodine tablets for water filtration (If you have no water filter and run out of stove fuel)
  • Waterproof matches
  • Nice pocket knife
  • Extra batteries for headlamps
  • Rain poncho (if you have no rain gear with you; mountain weather can change in a matter of minutes)
  • EpiPen or Benadryl (if you are allergic to anything)
  • Bug bite itch pen
  • Signaling mirror
  • Mole skin (for blisters)
  • Bear spray (if you'll be in a bear area)
  • Snake bite kit (if you'll be in an area with snakes)

Necessary Items

This section consists of the bulk of what you are going to need. There are plenty of ways to go about choosing these items, and there are plenty of styles as well. My personal recommendation is that you do your research on each item and choose something that is going to be as light as possible while also being within your personal comfort levels. We all have different feet, body types, strength levels and shapes. Your boots (or trail shoes, if you prefer) and your backpack are two items that should fit you very well. Go to your local outdoor outfitter and try some on for size to get an idea of how they feel. Make sure to wear your boots for a few hours a day before your first trip to really break them in. Believe me, you don't want those first-time blisters out on the trail!

Non-cotton Clothing

Whether you are choosing wool or synthetic materials for your base layer clothing, the important thing is to avoid cotton. This is a big one for a lot of reasons.  At best cotton can cause chafing and blisters; at worst, cotton can literally contribute to a fatal situation. Why, you ask? Cotton does not dry quickly, nor does it wick away sweat or insulate when wet. This can lead to blisters and skin irritation in areas exposed to friction, but it can also lead to hypothermia if the conditions become cold and wet. You want to focus on purchasing synthetic blends like the Patagonia Capilene line or wool clothing such as the awesome lineup from Icebreaker. Synthetics are great at wicking away sweat and drying pretty quickly, so I tend to use these as my base layer during active hiking and summer climbing. Wool base layers are great for wicking away sweat, drying quickly, and most importantly keeping your body temperature well regulated. Also, while synthetics can smell pretty bad after heavy use, wool is decidedly less odiferous. If necessary, both synthetics and wool will keep you insulated even when wet, which can be very important if you are caught in a random rain storm.

Active layers are worn over the base layers. You're going to get warm as you move, and you'll want to wear comfy and breathable clothes. I use pants that can convert to shorts and a synthetic polyester shirt. A thermal layer is ideal when you are relaxing at camp or adventuring in a colder climate. You want this layer to be warm while still being breathable, and there are hundreds of options to choose from: zip-neck long sleeve wool and synthetic shirts, fleece sweaters, puff-style jackets, and goose down belay jackets are all good choices depending on your environment and your own temperature tendencies.

Finally, you'll want to pack a waterproof layer that can be worn over the active layer. Rain pants and a rain jacket are more than just comfortable, they are a safety consideration, especially if your insulating layer is a down layer that doesn't insulate when wet. This may be obvious in rainy seasons, but even in drier climates it is a good ideal to carry an emergency poncho. 


Because you will be on your feet with an additional more than 30 pounds on your body nearly all day, your boots or trail hiking shoes are a huge priority.  You want them to be comfortable and supportive, so be sure to customize the fit as much as possible. Do you have weak ankles, and do you tend to roll them often? If so, you may want to lean more toward boots with high ankles.  Will you be in a wet climate? You may want to sacrifice breathability for waterproofness. My boots have a high ankle and are waterproof enough to handle snowshoeing and creek crossings, but they are also equally breathable.

Wool Socks 

All of the aforementioned strengths of wool are especially useful when it comes to socks. I used both cotton socks and synthetic blend socks, and both let me down horribly before I invested in wool socks. Wool socks will keep your feet dry and comfortable, and they are nice and warm at night! I use Darn Tough socks, which are 100% wool and worth every penny. Check them out at their website  

Head Warmth

Alright, so maybe your mother was exaggerating: You don't really lose 80% of your body heat from your head. In fact, the number is probably between 7% and 10%. Still, when the weather is turns frigid or the temperature dips at night, a slight loss in body temperature is nothing to sneeze at. Get a nice beanie; you will appreciate it when your ears and scalp start to cool down and get chilly!


Now to focus on the piece of equipment that will carry all of this gear. First, you will want to choose a volume size. A good rule of thumb is to choose a pack in the 50- to 70-liter range for one- to four-day trips. Longer trips may require pack volumes that exceed 70 liters. It also depends on how much gear and food you plan to carry. There are multiple styles of bags with different styles of support systems. Kelty makes some of the best bags on the market, and they offer a vast selection of styles and sizes. Head over to their website to start looking at the options they offer.  


Your tent is going to be another big decision. Are you packing alone? You may be interested in a single-person bivy style shelter that is just big enough for you and your sleeping bag. Will you be packing with another person? There are a huge amount of great tents available from Mountainsmith that range from two- to four-person capacities. However, you really want to find the lightest most condensed tent possible because it will most likely be the heaviest item you pack. I have the Mountainsmith Morrison Tent. It is a two-person, three-season tent with a door on each side, and is perfect for my wife and me, even if it is a tad heavier then we would prefer. Again, you want to go with a tent that will fit your needs and your style of backpacking! Check out the Mountainsmith website for everything they have to offer.

Sleeping Bag 

The rule of thumb is to get a bag that is rated 10 degrees lower then you expect to experience outside of your tent. If the overnight low will be 40 degrees, you want a 30-degree bag. You will also want the lightest bag you can find that is both warm and within your budget. I use a Teton Trailhead 20-degree bag. It comes in at around two pounds and has done great in all conditions. 


You have a few different options for a comfy night's rest for your head. There are pillows with foam or goose down in them, but with these you will sacrifice both space and weight. You can also opt for inflatable pillows, too. They weigh next to nothing and pack up to fit in a coffee cup, but some aren't nearly as comfortable. I have both styles, and I can honestly recommend a Therm-A-Rest Compressible Pillow if you have the room. It's cheap and comfy, but it takes up a lot of space in my bag, so lately I have been using an inflatable pillow from Sea To Summit, which is more compact but not quite as comfortable. 

Stuff Sacks 

One of my new favorite pieces of gear is a good stuff sack like the Gobigear HOBOROLL or a couple of smaller single sacks if the one you get doesn't have multiple pockets. You'll want to stuff and compress your next day's clothes, your dirty clothes, your food, and your garbage. If you are in bear country, I would recommend you purchase some cheap stuff sacks so you can hang them up in a tree with your garbage and anything smelly. The Gobigear sack is awesome because it is basically the only one you will need. It has multiple pockets, compression straps, and space to store your stuff. It takes care of what a good stuff sack should, and it does the job well.

Water Storage and Filtration 

Get at least a 2-liter water bladder system. There are lots of brands and options out there, and you really seem to get what you pay for with these products. Your water filter is going to be an integral part of your water bladder system. I would strongly recommend you get a filter such as the Sawer Mini because you can set it up inline with your water bladder. You can cut your water line, insert your filter into the line, and enjoy fresh water everywhere you go. These are usually good for a season or two depending on how often you go, and they are a much better and more enjoyable option then filter tabs or boiling your water.


You're going to want a nice headlamp that will work in all weather, be bright, and not rip through batteries. A headlamp allows you to light up the dark and still have both hands to work with. Whether you are reading a book or making an early morning (or late night) ascent up a mountain to get that sunrise view, your headlamp will be an integral piece of your kit. There are many options to choose from, so spend a little extra and get a good quality one that will last. We use Black Diamond headlamps and have been very happy with them.


Paracord is great for hanging food if you aren't using a bear canister, but it is also good to have for emergencies. A 50- to 100-foot bundle of paracord is a good idea.


Just trust me, you will want some!

Lighters and Duct Tape

It's good to get a five-pack and put one in each pocket. You can nicely roll 50 feet of duct tape around one of them. You never know when you may need a few feet of duct tape to fix a tear or rip!


There are some really cool stoves on the market these days ranging from wind resistant set ups to little wood burning stoves. The wind resistant styles are going to be better suited for higher altitudes where the wind can really get ripping and increase your cooking time. Smaller jet stoves are more inclined to work quickly in less windy areas, but they aren't nearly as fast as the more expensive insulated models. As for the little fold-up wood stoves, I would honestly say from my experience not to waste your time with them.  They take a much longer time to boil water, and they rely on having dry useful tinder around, which is not always available.  Check out MSR for their stove line up, they make some of the best in the industry.

Pots and Utensils

Pots aren't just for cooking or boiling water when you are in the backcountry, they are great as cups or bowls for that morning coffee or little bowl of whatever you may bring or make. You really want a pot set that you can store your fuel and possibly your stove in. I enjoy the Optimus Terra Solo pot set for its simple versatility. As for utensils, I recommend one like the Light My Fire Spork; it is all you really need for the basics of eating.


You chose your stove and pots, but those are pretty useless without some food to make! If you are an outdoor chef, you may opt to bring stuff to literally cook in the backcountry. If, however, you just want a great meal that is ready to go in a matter of minutes with nothing but some boiling water, Mountain House may be the best choice for you. The food is light, takes up little space, and best of all (and to my honest surprise), it tastes absolutely great. It is freeze-dried food; you just add water, let it sit for a few minutes, and then have at it. After a long day of climbing into the backcountry, it really is a treat to enjoy lasagna or beef stroganoff that actually tastes like it should. They have lots of food options and some great deals on their website.

Non-essential Items

These are items that make for added comfort and enjoyment while you are out in the woods. I don't consider them priority items as I and many others have put in many many miles without them, but most agree that they add to the experience. Additional items means additional weight, however, and that can be a big deal if you are going it alone!

Trekking Poles

Some would consider these a priority. I had not used them until recently, but after using them during a rather large climb I can honestly say I loved them and really think they made a difference both in balance and in lessening impact to my lower joints. You don't need them, but you may just love them if you get some. To get an idea of a style you may like, check out Mountainsmith for their selection.


If you are a three-season hiker who is not really active in snow or winter, you may want a pair of gloves to keep from blistering if you use trekking poles or to keep hands warm in the evenings, but they are not a necessity by any means. If you want to do things during winter, I recommend you get a nice pair. As a photographer and someone who enjoys snow adventures, I've had good luck with Marmot Windstopper Convertible Gloves.

Sleeping Pad

I grew up sleeping on the ground in our tent, so I was never a really big sleeping pad person. However, with all the comfortable styles ranging from foam to inflatable, you may find you really like having one. I wouldn't consider it a priority as they do tend to be a bit heavier and take up space in your bag. But if you want a restful and fulfilling night's sleep, pads will increase your comfort level and warmth by a large margin. Full disclosure: I do use a sleeping pad now.


They are totally not necessary, and they usually add a couple of pounds to your pack, but they are super comfortable and they are a great way to take a nap or star gaze at the end of the day!​

Portable Solar Cell 

These can be great for charging any electronic gear you may bring along like your camera, batteries, or GPS. However, you are going to be sacrificing a lot of weight and space with some of these set ups.


So there you have it, a great reference list for stuff you really need to get into backpacking! Your own list will develop with time and over the course of your own trips. For more great information about backpacking basics, be sure to check out the Clever Hiker video series. 


It's a great list, but I really wish people would quit pushing and selling "snake bite" kits. They do no good at all - as a matter of fact that cause more damage. The only solution to a venomous snake bite is the correct anti venom, which is very expensive and will only be administered in a hospital setting.

Another thought is emergency communications - while emergency beacons are great, they have been known to misfire. If I'm in the US, I usually carry an amateur (Ham) radio. The basic license is pretty easy to obtain, costs $15 and is good for 10 years. Handheld ham radios start at about $25 these days, and in most of the back country of the Sierra I can reach a repeater. They also work on cloudy, stormy days and in canyons. Thanks for the article!
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