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What to Pack on a Backpacking Trip

Whether it is your first backpacking trip ever or your first of the season, it can be hard to remember everything you need to bring with you. It can also be easy to get into a rut and bring the same things every time, regardless of if you actually use them. We’ve outlined how we think about packing for a trip, and provided a handy packing list.

As I plan a trip, I think about what my objectives and goals are for that trip. This is the driving factor behind every decision I make regarding packing. I consider the types of activities that I plan on doing, and pack gear accordingly. On a typical summer trip, my activities (and therefore my gear) fall in the following categories: sleeping, eating, spending time at camp, and (of course) hiking. If I plan on spending a lot of time at camp with friends (or younger children), the gear I carry reflects this. If I plan on pushing kilometers and hiking a lot more, the gear I carry will reflect that too. If I am planning a trip with a more specialized goal (like climbing or photography), I will need to make sure I have the gear for that as well. It is a simple and obvious way to think about gear, but also provides a framework you can adjust as your trips morph and grow.

The first activity I think about is sleeping. For most people, your sleep system tends to be the heaviest and bulkiest gear on a trip, and forgetting something here can be a trip ender. It’s also the most expensive and hardest to pick up at the last minute, so thinking about it first helps to set you up for success. I think in terms of something to sleep on (a sleeping mat), something to sleep in (a sleeping bag or quilt), and something to sleep under (a tent or a tarp). From here, you can decide if you want to carry a pillow, or a sleeping bag liner, and what layers you want to sleep in. For those who only go hiking in the summer, this sleep system can be the same for every trip. If you do any shoulder season or winter camping, or use the backcountry huts, this category will likely change for each trip.

The next activity I think about is eating (hydration will also fall into this category). I start by thinking about what kinds of food I want to eat on my trip – if I want to cook fancy meals, if I want to eat simple boil-in-bag meals, or if I even want to cook at all! Once you’ve figured out your preference, you will need something to cook with (and compatible fuel), something to cook in, something to eat out of (and with), and something to drink out of at camp. You will also need something to filter or treat water with. For me, this category tends to change the most from trip to trip. If I’m going on a trip with a big group of friends, and we plan on cooking and eating fancy communal meals together, then as a group we will carry one or two larger pots, a single stove, and everyone will carry their own mugs and bowls. We will also generally share a gravity style water filter, to make that camp chore more convenient. If I’m hiking by myself, or if as a group we plan on cooking our own food, I carry a much smaller stove and pot, and usually don’t bother with a bowl. I always carry a mug because I love hot chocolate. If you aren’t inclined toward drinking hot drinks, then can probably leave that behind and just use your water bottle. This is also when I decide what dry bag I will take to use to hang my food in a tree (or if you are lucky, there may be a bear pole or a bear locker available at camp).

The third activity I think about is spending time at camp. This category tends to be all of the luxury items. If I’m spending lots of time at camp, I might bring cards or a packable game. If I look at the weather forecast and it looks like it might be cold or rainy at camp, I like to be prepared with a tarp and extra layers. If I’m spending time with a group of adults, we might bring something nice to sip. For kids maybe kites, fishing line or small toys could be added. My favourite luxury item is a book or a kindle for reading, other hikers like to carry a camp chair or sit pad. This category is the category that changes the most from trip to trip (it’s also the category with the most last-minute additions). If I am planning a short hike, I will likely bring along lots of camp items. If I’m planning a big trip and don’t plan on spending a lot of time at camp, I bring far fewer camp items.

The next activity I think about is hiking and my goals for the trip. I generally have an idea of what this category will look like as I plan a trip, and the details of the trip dictate what I carry in this category.  When I’m hiking, I need a backpack, hiking boots, water, snacks, sunscreen, hiking poles, and a map & compass (and GPS if I have it). These are all the things you would take with you on a day hiking trip, taking into account that you will have a heavier load on your back. I also think about any specialized equipment that I may require for specific activities that I may be doing like photography, scrambling, glacier travel, rock climbing, caving, or mountaineering while on my trip. Most items are the same for every trip, with the exception of my backpack, specialized equipment, and maybe my water bottle. If I’ve decided to bring lots of extra layers or items for camp, I’m carrying any specialized equipment, or I’m camping in a colder season and need a warmer sleeping bag and pad; I will bring a pack that is capable of carrying a heavier load comfortably. If I am planning a trip where we are hiking far and fast, my load is likely lighter so I will often take an ultralight pack. Pack choices also depend on season and activity. I usually carry a different pack in winter compared to summer, as my activities and needs from each pack change.

The final category I think about is likely the most important, but I think about it last because it is the same for almost every trip. This is my “what-if” category or my safety category. Here I think about carrying a first aid kit, a way of getting help if we need it (like a SPOT device), and leaving a trip plan behind with a reliable friend. This is also when I think about bear spray, or other animal deterrents. I already have a waterproof bag to hang my food in, but I will always pack a rope if I think we might need to set up our own bear hang as well.

Think about clothing in terms of what you can and will do in each piece of clothing and remember to layer clothing whenever possible to avoid carrying too much. You need clothes for sleeping (like base layers), clothes for spending time at camp (like a puffy jacket or thick sweater), and clothes for hiking (like pants or shorts, a wicking top, a mid-layer, and rain gear).The extras I would consider are things like extra socks and changes of clothing for multiple days.

This way of thinking provides a framework that can help simplify the process for packing. It is adaptable for every trip – if you are doing a hut trip, the way you prepare food, and where you sleep changes, but you still need to consider what you will need to do each of those activities. This framework also helps you to carry things because you need them instead of because you always carry them – which is the first step in lightening your load! Of course, sometime you just need a checklist, and you can find one here. 

Finally, at the end of each trip take notes! Think about what you wish you had, what you didn’t use – and what you forgot in the rush of packing. Just remember that not using your Bear Spray or First Aid Kit are both signs of a great trip.