Backpacking Gear List + Seasonal Additions
Hiking deep into the backcountry requires you to carry everything you'll need to get through your hike. The temptation to bring everything including the kitchen sink is normal. That said, you can cover more miles, hike safer, and generally be more comfortable if you can keep your gear lightweight and minimalist.
Summer Backpacking Gear List
I use a 45L backpack that has served me well over the last few hiking seasons. Purchased at Walmart, it didn't cost a fortune and holds everything I need to get out and enjoy the backcountry. Here's what I keep in my pack for summertime trips:
Road ID bracelet
Cushioned, quick drain trail running shoes
Phone in waterproof case
Trash bag (quart-sized zip-lock from a meal, stored in food bag overnight in bear country)
Camp Gear (bottom of or strapped to pack)
Tarp, cut to footprint of tent + vestibule (doubles as sit pad)
Sleeping bag (rated to 40 degrees, but comfortable at 60)
Clothing stuff sack (use as pillow, sit padding)
Jetboil Sol (includes coffee cup)
Omniheat quart-sized food pouch
Bathing wipes (use nightly)
4 firesticks (used only when drying fire needed)
Small BIC lighter
Backup phone battery & cable
Lightweight microfiber camp towel (use after shower or as extra blanket)
Clothing List (on me and in stuff sack)
Wicking socks (one for each day between towns)
Wicking boxer briefs (2)
Wicking convertible pants (doubles as shorts)
Wicking short sleeve t-shirt
Wicking long sleeve t-shirt (doubles as sun or camp shirt)
Smartwool socks (camp use)
Cotton/poly blend t-shirt (camp use)
Food/Bear Bag (top of backpack)
Dehydrated meals in quart-sized zip-lock baggies (3 per day)
Protein pouches (2 per day)
Snack bars (3 per day)
Titanium long spoon
Paracord (to hang food bag in bear country, doubles as emergency rope)
Quick Access Items
Phone in waterproof case
32-oz. water bottles (2 or 3 depending on water availability and temps)
Headlamp, stored without batteries
Headlamp batteries, recharged prior to putting in bag
First aid kit (blisters, cuts, tick removal)
Camp flip flops (lightest, cheapest possible attached with carabiner)
Spring and Fall Substitutions, Additions
Substitute smartwool socks instead of wicking socks depending on temps
Substitute cotton/poly boxer briefs for wicking boxer briefs
Add lightweight rain jacket/windbreaker
Add cotton/poly long underwear (for cool nights below 50 degrees)
Add cotton/poly long sleeve hooded t-shirt
Add sock hat
Add camping quilt (for temps below 50 degrees)
The easiest and most important step to making your backpacking trip a success is with a good bit of trip planning. Through researching things like water sources, campsites, resupply locations, trail conditions, weather, and exit points, you can give yourself the best chance at having an awesome, safe hike while eliminating stress, anxiety, carry weight, and more. Here are some items to consider:
Water sources. This is critical. You need to know where reliable water sources are located and calculate how much water you’ll need to carry OR how much extra mileage you’ll need to add to come off the main trail and out to water sources. Ridgeline hikes are notorious for this, as reliable water sources are downhill - sometimes requiring multiple descents/ascents to secure water for your hike. If water is in short supply, plan to carry more or to hike more miles. Also, slackpacking (leaving your big pack on the trail) can be useful here, but be sure to take your food items with you in bear country.
Resupply locations. All but the most remote trails will have resupply locations available every couple days. When this is the case, you can dramatically reduce pack weight by carrying less food. As an example, we hiked the opening sections of the Sheltowee Trace and for the first 80 miles, there is a resupply location every 2 days - meaning we only needed a 2-day food supply instead of 4, 5, or 6 days worth of food. Also, I highly recommend cutting weight even if the resupply is off your intended trail. As an example, some resupply points are a mile or two off the trail. I will trade up to 4 miles (2 miles each way) of slackpacking for a resupply over carrying the extra weight!
Campsites. While you can pull up anywhere along the trail and setup a campsite, it pays to know where you can find already impacted areas where you can bed down for the night. This saves a good bit of bushwhacking while also alleviating stress and anxiety that can creep in when you don’t know where you’ll be staying.
Trail conditions and usage. This one came front and center when we decided to end our backpacking trip on the Sheltowee Trace early due to extremely poor trail conditions. A large section of our planned hike (20+ consecutive miles) was on shared use trails for hikers and horses. With unusually high rainfall, these turned into deeply trenched trails with shoe-sucking mud more than a foot deep with watery bottoms - the perfect recipe for trenchfoot (which I got from one day on these trails). Looking back, we should have chosen a different section of the 300+ mile trail.
Weather. You can save yourself some weight by knowing the weather ahead of time. As a rule, I will not bring rain gear unless daytime hiking temperatures are below 40 degrees. Also, overnight lows dictate what combination of clothing and sleeping gear I’ll bring. Above 60, minimal clothing. Between 50 and 60, an extra top layer and camp blanket. Below 50, extra top and bottom layers and a camp blanket.
Early exits. Should shit hit the fan due to injury, severe weather, gear failures, or your experience simply isn’t fun, know some exit routes. This can be any combination of trails, Jeep roads, Forest Service roads, or regular highways and byways. We’ve had to do this before, and that’s why it pays to have a really good map of the area. The goal is to get to a road, get back to civilization.
Zero days. When the weather is bad or you’re not feeling anywhere near 100%, take a zero day. Stay at your camp for the day, let your body and mind recover, and chill the f out. All backpackers take zero days on the trail (quiet) or in town (fun and air conditioned/heated). It is a good practice to plan for one zero day every 5 to 7 days on the trail. It is foolish to beat up your body day after day without providing a recovery day.
There are four weight classes of backpackers - normal, light, ultralight, and sub-ultralight. Generally speaking, most backpackers start heavy (40-70+ lbs.) and over time work their way down until reaching a comfortable weight. As a rule, the lighter you get, the more you will spend on gear.
The advantages of carrying less weight are many - better feel, easier movement, ability to cover more miles, less injury risk, etc. That said, I fit into the light weight class because I’m too damned cheap to spend the kind of money needed to shed more pounds. All-in with water, food, and everything else, my pack is 25 lbs. for a two night trip - definitely light, but not ultralight.
Backpack. My current backpack is an Ozark Trail 45L model that has an expansion at the top. For weekend trips, everything including my tent fits inside without having to use the expansion space. By using a smaller pack, I am able to limit gear and weight. Humans are maximizers, so the bigger the pack, the more likely it’ll get filled with stuff you don’t need - weighing you down with every step.
Tent. I use an Alps Mountaineering 1-person tent that does the job just fine and weighs in at about 4 pounds. There are options to cut this weight in half or even drop down to about one pound in exchange for a few hundred dollars more than I paid for this tent - not to mention sacrificing a little comfort along the way.
Sleeping bag/quilt. I’ve recently switched from an Ozark Trail 40-degree bag to a Kelty Camp Blanket. I do most of my backpacking when it’s warm, but should the temps drop, I’ll bring my old bag and new blanket. This combination makes for a true 3-season sleep system and can be had for about $40. For comparison, we bought my son, Chase, who lives in Steamboat Springs a 3-season bag on sale for $360 (regular price $500), but he lives in the mountains where cold is serious business.
Air mattress. A number of years ago, I purchased a Therm-a-rest air mattress that has served me well over time. It wasn’t cheap at around $90 on sale, but it’s compact and only weighs a pound and a half. It’s mighty comfortable too.
Cook system. Jetboil Sol is my jam. Given to me as a gift, it’s been my go-to cook system. This little thing boils water quickly, and I use it with my dehydrated meals. I’m also a coffee lover, so this gets me caffeinated in no time at all.
Food. Most of my calories on the trail come from dehydrated meals including Knorr sides or ramen noodles. This saves a ton of pack weight compared to wet meals and snacks. And, they’re $1 and $0.25, respectively, compared to Mountain House meals that routinely sell for $8-9 each.
Clothing. I’ve pared down my clothing considerably because there’s no sense in putting clean clothes on a stinky body. Pack less - period. That said, I do like having a fresh pair of socks each day to cut back on bacteria/fungus on my feet. Foot problems are the #1 reason thru-hikers quit, so keep ‘em clean.
Flip flops. Some consider this a luxury item; I don’t. Having macerated feet is no laughing matter and flip flops present an opportunity to get your feet some much needed air when milling around camp. I didn’t have these on a wet trip and paid the price with a little case of trenchfoot.
First aid kit. This is another area where I’ve ditched most of the items in the kit. It’s now a blister and cut management kit because those are the most common injuries I’ve seen while hiking. Plus, you can’t carry everything for anything that might happen.
Town etiquette. When stopping in at your resupply points, you’ll likely visit a restaurant, pub, gas station, and/or grocery store. You’ll also smell like bona fide hiker trash. Break out a bathing wipe, clean yourself up a bit, and maybe even throw on a clean-ish shirt. While some like to wear their stank as a badge of honor, I generally believe in being less offensive rather than more so. Also, some establishments won’t allow backpacks inside, respect the rules - a bad experience is nearly always the root of any rule.
Caloric deficits. Most backpackers will have plenty of food to avoid hunger pangs, but will remain at a caloric deficit each day on the trail. This is normal and in my experience, it’s hard to eat enough calories to stay even, so I don’t bother. I eat around 2,000 calories while logging between 10 and 20 miles each day. To stay even, that would require eating between 3,500 and 5,000 calories per day. I’m never hungry enough to eat that much on the trail, so backpacking is a good weight loss plan for me. That said, when in town, it’s common practice to fill up on high calorie foods that help to offset some of the accumulated deficit.
Airplane mode. I generally track all of my hikes using my RunKeeper app while my phone is on airplane mode. I don’t want to be bothered while on the trail and will check-in nightly if phone service is available. This saves an enormous amount of battery life, as phones burn lots of energy when searching for service and while syncing data over slower connections that are common on trails. Try to have your phone on airplane mode except when periodically checking in - it makes for a quieter trail experience and can save pack weight by eliminating a back-up battery or two.
GPS tracking. Speaking of RunKeeper, I like apps like this for two reasons - I love seeing my activities, but more importantly when hiking, I can use the app’s GPS map to compare against paper maps for route finding. This has come in handy when in the ‘green tunnel’ where landmarks are obscured or when hiking at night. Also, if you’re going into the deep woods without any service, consider purchasing a satellite GPS device for emergencies or to ping family that you’re okay and where you’ve made camp.