Do you need to know how to pack a backpack before heading out into the backcountry? If you’re new to this, we’ve got you covered with the ultimate packing checklist of backpacking essentials for your next trip.
We sat down with some backpacking experts with countless excursions into the backcountry under their belt. Along with many adventures, they have accumulated a few tips and tricks, backpacking hacks, and sage advice for the savvy adventurer. Get the insider know-how so you can backpack like a pro.
Step 1: Get the Right Pack for your Backpacking Trip
Finding the right pack is the first step of your journey. Before you can learn how to pack a backpack, you need to find the right one. Backpacking is all about creating the perfect balance of lightness and comfort while making sure you have enough space to bring everything you need for the duration of your trip. That’s why, to choose the right backpack, consider the length of your trip:
- Short Trip: Less than 3 days = 40-65 Liter Pack
- Average Trip: 3-10 days = 65 Liter Pack. I recommend a 65-liter pack as a good all around backpacking size. It’s big enough to fit your gear, but won’t be overkill.
- Long Trip: 10 days or more = 65-80 Liter Pack. Be careful here! A large pack can get heavy quickly.
After you have figured out the volume of your pack you will need to make sure you get the right size. Each brand fits differently so make sure you visit the retailer's website and match your dimensions with the corresponding size. You will need a flexible measuring tape for this.
Now that you have your backpack it's time to equip yourself with the perfect backpacking setup with the recommendations below.
Stuff the Sleeping Bag
SPECS: 2lbs, Goose Down Bag
When it comes to sleeping bags, a real goose down sleeping bag is your best bet. It shrinks down easily and is lighter than a synthetic sleeping bag, so grab your goose and compression sack and get to squishing! Go for a mummy bag to stay warmer: the less empty space in your sleeping bag the quicker your body heat will circulate.
- For those who are concerned about the wellbeing of the geese who donated their feathers to keep you warm, check out Feathered Friends, a company that creates sustainable down sleeping bags so you can rest easy.
- Still cold? Stuff clothes at the bottom of your sleeping bag. Less empty space in your bag means less air to heat up.
Scrap the Pillow
I don’t recommend bringing a pillow on a backpacking trip. A rolled-up jacket or clothes stuffed into a stuff sack will provide neck support and good sleeping posture without extra weight.
Break Up the Tent
SPECS: 2-5lbs, 1-2 Person, lightweight
Do you really need a tent? It depends on the weather. Bring a tent if there are mosquitos, rain, light snow, or cold temperatures in the forecast. Otherwise, just sleep under the summer stars and enjoy a lighter pack. When buying a 3-season tent, I recommend choosing one that’s in the 2-5lb range with double doors. Be extra cautious with “ultralight” tents—they have a tendency to rip and are not as durable.
- Traveling in pairs? Break up the tent! One person carries the poles and inner tent and the other carries the tent fly. Trust us, the less weight you have to carry the happier the camper.
Pick your Sleeping Pad
There’s a wide spectrum of sleeping pads for you to choose from based on your sleeping style. Through trial and error we recommend a Self Inflating pad at around 1”-2” thickness. These are great because there’s a foam layer, so even if it pops you’ll still have some cushion. Plus you won’t be left breathless trying to inflate it. The downside? They are a tad bulkier than a fully inflatable sleeping pad. If you decide to go with a fully inflatable pad, beware the noise and make sure to bring a repair kit in case of a hole.
- Bulkiest Option: Foam Roll-Up or Accordion-style Pad
- Middle Option: Self Inflatable 1-2” *Recommended
- Lightest/Smallest Option: Fully Inflatable
Step 2: Dress for Success on your Backpacking Trip
Your backpack is critical for a successful backpacking trip, but so is dressing correctly and packing the right clothing. Here’s what you need to know to do exactly that.
Stay Sun Protected while Backpacking
Keep an unscented chapstick, and a deodorant-style sunscreen stick handy in your side or waist pocket. I recommend Neutrogena’s Ultra Sheer non-Greasy Sunscreen Stick in SPF 70 or Badger SPF 35 Face Stick. Whip that baby out every 30 minutes so you don’t end the day red in the face.
If you are super sensitive to the sun or just don't want to get skin cancer consider SPF clothing. My three musts on a sunny backpacking trip are:
- TK Hat (we recommend the TK Sun Brim to avoid the dreaded backpack bonk)
- Patagonia's Women's Sunshade Hoody
- Outdoor Research Sun Gloves
- Buff for your neck and face
Clothing Do’s and Don’ts
- DO - Bring your Têra Kaia Basewear Top! You can hike in it, sleep in it, and jump in a lake. It's the perfect top for outdoor adventure.
- DO - Bring a sun hoody. Your skin will thank you.
- DO - Pick shoes with ankle support if you have loose ankles, and bring insole shoe inserts for high arches.
- DO - Pack “sacred socks” in your sleeping bag for night time. Trust us, you’ll be excited about having sweat-free socks at the end of the night.
- DON’T - Wear black. You will be hot, sweaty, and miserable.
- DON’T - Forget a hat! Your face will fry in the sun.
- DON’T - Wear cotton. It doesn’t dry quickly, so you will be a sticky, sweaty mess who freezes when the wind picks up.
Step 3: Get Your Food and Water Management Right for Backpacking
You need to eat and drink, but food and water can be challenging to plan, pack and carry. Here’s what you need to know to make sure you bring what you need without weighing down your pack.
The magical water formula? A liter of water equates to 2lbs and you’ll want to have the capacity to carry a minimum of 2 liters of water a day, and then refill as you go with natural water sources. If you are hiking in an area with limited water sources like the desert, plan to carry more water accordingly.
- Hydration pack: This is your primary container for water.
- Small water bottle (half-liter): Bring this just in case your camelback breaks.
- Two 1 liter Nalgene bottles: an alternative to the camelback option.
Clean Drinking Water While Backpacking
There are certain things when you are on a backpacking trip that you want to pack backups of. Water purification is one of them. You’ll need two things to make sure you have clean water: a water filter and something lighter like tablets. For groups of 2 or more, we recommend a gravity filter because it is pretty light and has the capacity to clean and store large amounts of water which is nice in group settings. If you are flyin' solo consider something like the Sawyer Squeeze, it is compact and fits nicely on a small-mouthed water bottle. If something goes wrong with your gravity filter (for example, it gets clogged) you can use Iodine and Neutralizer Tablets to clean your water or simply bring the water to a rolling boil to kill all bacteria before drinking.
Avoid the Iodine tablets if you can; they don’t taste good and are not good for your health if used repeatedly. Note that you’ll also have to wait 30 minutes to drink your water after adding the tablets.
Cooking Do’s and Dont’s
When it’s time to eat, these tips will help you cook your food quickly and easily.
- DO - Cut a sponge up to make ‘mini-sponges’. Pack your mini-sponge in a plastic baggie to keep it clean.
- DO - Bring a small container with mixed salt and pepper. No need to keep it separate.
- DO - Clean your dishes 200 feet away from a water source.
- DON’T - Forget to bag your oil. If you plan on cooking with oil make sure to keep it in a plastic bag in case of spillage.
- DON’T - Overdo it with the cutlery. One spork, one knife, and one bowl is plenty.
- DON’T - Eat too much dehydrated food. It can mess with your digestive system, trust us. Pack a few fresh food items to balance out all the dry stuff.
Food to Pack
Here are some foods I like to bring with me:
- Block of cheese
- Dried meat/salami
- Dehydrated veggies
- Box of macaroni and cheese
- Tuna Packs
- Tasty Bite
- Peanut butter packets (I love Justin’s Almond Butter)
- Dried fruit
- Instant Coffee (Starbucks Via or Trader Joes 2 Packs)
- Caffeine-free tea or hot chocolate (for nighttime hot drinks)
Pick your Stove Setup
Choosing the right set up can make cooking and cleaning a breeze. Start by selecting the right stove and fuel for your trip. Here are some options to consider.
- Water Only Stove Setup: Jet Boil + Butane Canister. Only need hot water? The Jet Boil is the way to go. This works perfectly if you only plan on adding hot water to dehydrated food and instant coffee.
- Simple Stove Setup: MSR Pocket Rocket + Butane Canister + Lightweight Pot. This option is recommended for beginning backpacking trips, and warm summer trips. Butane starts to lose pressure when it’s cold and low on gas and won’t work. If this happens, you can try to heat it up by holding your hands around it or sleeping with the canister in your tent or sleeping bag.
- Advanced Stove Setup: Whisper Light + White Gas + Lightweight Pot. When you get into long, or cold weather backpacking, the Whisper Light is the way to go. It comes with a field repair kit, and you’ll pressurize the gas yourself which is helpful in the colder temps.
Bear Proof It
If you’re backpacking in truly wild places you’ll likely have to worry about bears. If bears aren't a major concern in your area little critters like marmots and squirrels should be. Check ahead to see if bears are native to your destination, and if so, make sure to get a bear canister. Pack any and all food or toiletries that have any kind of a scent away from your sleeping area.
- I recommend the Bear Vault BV 500. It’s clear blue with a black lid, and it’s not too expensive. If you rent a bear canister from the park service they’ll give you a heavy black one and you’ll be weighed down.
- Pack all smellable items in your bear canisters and pile em’ up approximately 50 feet away from the area where the campers are sleeping.
Step 4: Come Prepared to your Backpacking Trip - Navigate like a Pro
Channel your inner navigator (traditional navigation techniques existed naturally long before any gadgets were invented to help us find our way) by coming prepared, and understanding the environment around you. You don’t need google maps, you are google maps.
Be ready with the right navigational tools so you’re not relying on cell service that likely won’t be available.
- Topo Map: I recommend Tom Harrison waterproof maps, which you can likely pick up at the gear shop nearest to your destination.
- Compass: For advanced adventurers, we recommend a compass with a mirror, although they can get a bit expensive. If you’re going the tech route you can use the compass on your smartphone.
- Journal and Pen: Journal as you go to keep a record of what you learn and experience. Jot down notes about trails, good camping spots, or anything else you encounter that could be useful on a future trip.
These digital tools provide offline maps (downloaded ahead of time) so you have one less thing to pack on your backpacking trip.
- Gaia App: Download topos ahead of time with Gaia and you’ll have a map on your smartphone.
- Hillmap and CalTopo Website: Head to www.hillmap.com and use their route creating tool to map out your path. This way you can add way-points and remember good camping spots. Download your route as a GPX and open it on your phone using Gaia.
Step 5: Keeping it Clean and Packing it out
Ah yes, there really is nothing like taking care of your business while backpacking in the great outdoors. With the right set up business will be booming. Yep, that pun was intended - we’re talking about poop.
It’s Business Time
No joke, doing your business on a backpacking trip can be a very liberating experience if you manage it right. For any backpacking trip, you will definitely have to pack the right items so you can go to the bathroom. Check out the tools below so you can pop a squat without making a mess.
Kula Cloth: The Kula Cloth is a pee cloth for anybody who squats when they pee. Leave the toilet paper at home so you can LNT (Leave No Trace) any time you hit the trail. Our signature TK Moonrise Kula print is inspired by the full moon over an alpine lake.
Sh*t Kit: The sh*t kit is a simple system consisting of 2 Plastic Bags, a small shovel, some toilet paper, and hand sanitizer. Yep, it’s that easy. One bag is the “clean bag” the other is the “dirty bag”. No explanation needed there.
Make sure to dig a hole at least 6” deep and 200ft away from a water source to poop in, or your excrement could end up on the bottom of another backpacker’s shoe or worse back in the water you are drinking.
She-Wee: The She-Wee is a rubber funnel that allows you to pee standing up. Yes – it’s awesome, and yes you will likely tap into your inner 12-year-old boy once you get the hang of it by running around trying to pee on as many objects as you can. She-Wee is ideal for cold-weather backpacking so you don't have to leave the tent. Bonus points if you figure out how to pee your name in the snow.
IMPORTANT: Make sure to do a few trial runs in the shower to get the hang of your shee-wee! Your body doesn’t know how to pee standing up, and without practice the chance of peeing on yourself is quite high. Stage fright is also completely normal – just position the funnel, take a breath, and let it go.
The Backcountry Shower aka. Baby Wipe!
Yea, you’re gonna be sweaty and gross by the end of the day. Wipe the day away by packing two unscented Baby Wipes for each day of travel. Make sure to keep them in a separate plastic bag so you can pack them out.
Step 6: Med Stuff for Backpacking Trips, Just in Case
Heading on a backpacking trip into the backcountry? Pack some basic wound care items, KT Tape, ibuprofen, blister care. Some lady-specific items to consider include UTI medication, tampons/ pads, or a menstrual cup if you know you will be hiking around that time of the month.
Step 7: Pack it!
How to Pack for a Backpacking Trip
Now that you have an idea of what you need to pack for your trip, it’s time to get down to the important step: how to fit all of it in your backpack. In general, remember the following rules of thumb:
- Put heavier things closer to back
- Keep Lighter things away from your back
- Maintain accessibility on top
- Keep the center of gravity closest to your back
- To make sure your pack isn’t slanted to one side or the other, set it down on the ground and see if it topples to one side or the other. It should sit still.
Now, fill your backpack in layers, using the following as a guide. If using a camelback, remember to slide your full water insert into the back of your pack first.
Throughout this process, think of it as brick and mortar, your big items (bear can, sleeping bag, sleeping pad, cooking pot) are your bricks and your clothes are your mortar.
Layer 1: Bottom Half of the Pack
- Least accessible items.
- Tent unpacked and stuffed at the bottom of the pack.
- Sleeping bag and pad in next (bottom). Compress sleeping bag in a sack if you have a compression sack. Note that down is also better for compression than synthetic.
- Use clothes, socks, underwear and other small flexible things to fill the small empty spaces.
Layer 2: Middle of the Pack
- Layer 2, heaviest items. Place bear canister vertically or horizontally in the middle of your pack close to your back.
- Pack in the water filter, first aid kit, stove, more clothes.
Layer 3: Top of the Pack
- Most accessible items
- Removable clothes that you might want to use throughout the day. (jackets, rain layer, ect)
Outer Layers: Top Loader and Side Pockets
- In the top loader pocket, the zip pocket that sits on the top of the pack: Snacks for the day, sunscreen, Iodine tablet backups, toothbrush, toothpaste, hand sanitizer, spoon/spork, bug spray, maps.
- Outside Pocket: Bag of unused toilet paper and bag of used toilet paper.
- Side Pockets: Use of these pockets vary. Easy access makes these pockets nice for hard water bottles, water crossing shoes, hiking poles when you are not using them, ect.
Now You Know How to Pack a Backpack
Now that you know how to pack a backpack you’re ready to head out on your adventure! Make sure to download your backpack checklist to make sure you have everything you need! Don’t forget to learn how to start a fire and the 7 Leave No Trace Principles before you go too!
About the Author
Lauren Breitenbach has been a backpack/ rock climbing guide since 2015. She spends at least a quarter of her year in a tent guiding trips such as the John Muir Trail, Mount Whitney, and Women’s climbing clinics. She has multiple certifications from NOLs and American Mountain Guide Association including her Wilderness First Responder Certification, Single Pitch Instructor Cert, and Apprentice Rock Guide.
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