Backpacking 101

Okay, you’ve done some hikes, you’ve camped at a campsite, but ready to combine the two? With backpacking, you can get to more remote areas, see more, and experience wilderness far different than any day hike. But it can be a fairly large jump from hiking to backpacking. You’re carrying more gear, more food. So naturally, you’ll be going at a slower speed than you might day hiking. And you’ll probably need more food to fuel yourself and more water to stay hydrated. You may get away with no snacks and little to no water while hiking, but that’s a hard line to follow while backpacking. I think of backpacking as slow and steady in comparison to day hiking. I want to address two things about backpacking here: 1. How to prepare 2. How to pack

How to Prepare for Your Backpacking Trip

Well first, where are you going? Think about how far you want/can hike in a day with more gear. There’s trails that are out and back or a loop. You could set up camp and do multiple day trips from there. One way I like to find a trail is starting with a region to explore and narrowing it down to lakes or mountains I want to hike to. It’s like planning for a day hike but for a longer time. A good place to start is to take what you consider to be a moderate hike (elevation and distance) and use that as a baseline for how far/much you can backpack to. And soon enough, you’ll figure out how much you can do in a day.

And a couple things to consider when planning for  trip:

  • Where are water sources along the trail?
  • Where would you ideally camp?
  • Is there flat, dry ground to set up camp?
  • What permits are needed? Are they self-issued or do you reserve them in advance or get them at a ranger station?

Other than planning the trip, here’s a few more things to think about:

  • Do you need a car shuttle for a thru-hike?
  • Check regulations for the area you’re exploring – Are dogs allowed? What is the max group size?
  • Check the weather before you go
  • Make sure you know your limits and fitness ability
  • Know how to use all the gear you’re bringing (i.e. practice setting up tent if you haven’t before)
  • Let someone know about your plans who’s not on the trip

Packing for a Multi-Day Trip

Let’s get started on what you might need to bring backpacking for 2-3 days. This is not an exhaustive list and can vary depending on weather and where you’re going. A general rule of thumb is to carry < 20% of your body weight, but this can vary depending on your fitness.

How to Pack

Collecting all the items in this long checklist can be intimidating, but it should all fit in your backpack. But how should you pack? Depending on your backpack and personal preference, this could vary. But one rule is true: always put the heaviest items towards the lower center of the pack, closest to your back. If you put heavy stuff on the outside, it offsets your center of gravity, working against you while you hike. And a second rule: place accessible items in outer pockets and overnight gear furthest inside. That way when you stop briefly, you can quickly get to your snack, your phone, your sunscreen, without having to dig through everything for 10 minutes.

Steps to pack a bag
  • Start by placing sleeping bag at the very bottom of the pack.
  • If you’re using a bear barrel, stuff as much stuff as you can inside, doesn’t have to be food for the first night – could be easier to stuff clothes into it first. But this should go at the bottom right on top of your sleeping bag. It’s bulky.
  • Then place the tent (you could split up the tent and poles with your partner) inside along with the sleeping pad. If you have a foam sleeping pad, that’ll go on the outside.
  • If you have more containers for water than you might need, you could place the extra bottles of water in the center near the back.
  • Then add your cooking gear (pots/fuel/stove), dinner food and water filter.
  • Then start stuffing the cracks and holes with your extra clothes and camp clothes/gear.
  • At the top should be your lunch/snacks.
  • Hopefully your pack has outside pockets/brain section. This would be a great place for items like headlamp, hand sanitizer, toiletries, batteries, etc… anything that is small and might get lost in the main compartment.
  • Lastly, add your water bottles to the side pockets or use a water bladder on the inside of your bag. And if you use a foam pad, this will go on the outside however the straps work on your pack.

Clothing
  • Day hiking clothes – layers are most efficient and no cotton, a change of clothing for trips > 3 days
  • Underwear – I bring some for longer trips but not short trips
  • Warmer layers for night time for temperature lows
    • Above 70ºF – one long sleeve
    • Below 70ºF – fleece, long sleeve
    • Below 50ºF – down jacket, long sleeves, gloves, hat
    • Below 30ºF – down jacket (maybe even 2), fleece, extra pants, gloves, hat
  • Rain jacket – good for any precipitation or wind even if weather forecast is sunny
  • Optional: Rain pants if expecting heavy rain
  • Socks – I bring at least 2 pairs to switch off
  • Hiking shoes
  • Optional: camp sandals/down booties
  • Optional: swimsuit for alpine lakes
Hygiene/Essentials
  • Sunscreen
  • Sunglasses
  • Optional: hat with brim
  • Optional: extra hair ties for long hair, I can’t imagine hiking with hair down for an extended period!
  • Optional: insect repellant
  • Optional: deodorant, I realize I only use it occasionally when I bring it
  • Hand sanitizer
  • Headlamp, extra batteries
  • First aid
  • Matches/lighter
  • Toothbrush/toothpaste – use biodegradable if spitting out
  • Toilet paper – all sorts of uses
  • Optional: feminine hygiene things – ya know what you need if you need
  • Ziplock for trash
  • Pocket knife/tool
  • Downloaded maps on phone or printed
  • External battery for phone
  • Optional: camera for pictures with extra batteries

Gear
  • Backpack – at least 45L (mine is 65L but works for longer trips), but be careful of being tempted to bring more than you need and over stuffing a larger pack
  • Optional: rain cover for backpack or alternatively a durable trash bag 
  • Optional: daypack if you can afford to bring it for day excursions
  • Hiking poles – helps keep you balance and offset your weight going downhill
  • Sleeping bag – rated decently lower than night temps (mine is rated to 15ºF and I’m comfortable in 20ºF temps while wearing a puffy too)
  • Sleeping pad – foam or inflatable, this works both to cushion your body and increase life of your sleeping bag
  • Other hiking gear – for snow specific gear see this page
  • Water bottle – 2L minimum
  • Bowl and fork – for dinners

Group Gear
  • Tent – 3 season tent works in winter conditions in PNW, 2 person tents are most popular; depending on season, you could also get away with no tent (warm enough, no rain)
  • Water filter
  • Stove, fuel, pot – always check you have enough fuel before heading out
  • Bear barrel – if you’re in bear country, also helpful for keeping small animals from getting to your food
  • Optional: some people enjoy little luxuries like a coffee maker and mug
Food
  • Breakfast: It’s important to fuel before hiking, whatever you choose
    • Instant oatmeal packets – pour water straight into the packs, no bowls needed
    • Granola
    • Pancakes – personally have not tried this but have heard it been done
    • Bacon – if outside temp is low it can be safe to bring
    • Leftovers from dinner the night before
  • Snacks: This varies from person to person but here’s a handful of what I’ve brought before and what I’ve seen friends carry
    • Orange – a luxury item since it has a high water content
    • Apple – keep at top of pack to prevent bruises
    • Dried fruit
    • Granola/nut bars – I bring about 2-3 per full day
    • Trail mix – one of my favorite mixes is peanuts, cheerios, chocolate chips
    • Candy – for quick energy if you bonk
    • Carrots/baby bell peppers
    • Hummus
  • Lunch: Simple lunches that take little effort to put together is key
    • Anything in the snack category
    • PB+J – for long trips I’ll bring whole containers of peanut butter and a preserve to be shared with my partners, I’ll use anything from tortillas to pita to bagels, anything that won’t be squished
    • Sausage + cheese
  • Dinners: I enjoy doing group dinners to minimize the cooking but here’s a few ideas
    • Freeze dried meals, i.e. Mountain House/Good To-Go
    • Salmon Pesto Pasta: use angel hair, canned salmon with easy peel or packed in foil, small container of pesto, add pre-cut veggies
    • Couscous Curry: premix a bag of quick cook couscous with curry powder and boil till soft, add protein
    • Peanut Noodles: make a peanut sauce with peanut butter and loosen it with water
  • Drinks: Little things that keep you happy
    • Coffee
    • Tea
    • Cocoa