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Beginners Guide to Packing for Backpacking

Updated: Dec 4, 2023

So you wanna go backpacking? Great! You're gonna love it, especially if you study up and use some of these tips. I went on my first backpacking trip in winter with a boyscout troop when I was 13 years old. Back then I remember using a MASSIVE -20 degree bag that I could barely stuff into my 70L Teton Sports bag, a stainless steel mess kit, one of the big self-inflating sleeping pads that roll up, a big 4 person walmart tent, and bringing WAY too much extra clothes. My pack probably weighed at least half as much as I did at 4'11" and 95lbs. Looking back now, I chuckle a little because I would never make some of the same mistakes that I did back then. But, you've gotta start somewhere, right? Hopefully your first backpacking experience will be better than mine. (Not to say that mine wasn't totally awesome, because I'm still here, right?)

Cooking dinner on top of Half Dome in Yosemite

I didn't really get into backpacking until later when I went to college. There's a sharp learning curve when it comes to planning a trip, and especially how to pack. Sometimes it takes a few hard experiences on your first trip or two before you finally figure it out. Let's get started with a few things that will make your first trip as good as it can get!


Things to Consider:

  • What are the high and low temps for the route and time that you've selected? The coldest temps will be in the morning, just before you wake up. Your ability to pack for the weather can make or break your experience, more on that later on.

  • How long will you be gone, and how far will you be hiking? When it comes to packing food and water, you've gotta get an idea of how much you are going to need.

  • What gear do you already have? What gear will you need? What are the cheapest, lightest options that you have access to?


Backpacker walking through paria canyon in southern utah
Me carrying a 28L backpack with everything I need for a 4 day backpack through Paria Canyon in Southern Utah

The Big Three:

The heaviest, and arguably most important things in your pack will be the things which you use to sleep. These are the things that will keep you comfortable, warm, and make sure that you don't spend hours counting sheep. One time a friend and I went backpacking in late fall and opted to sleep in hammocks since there would be trees. We didn't plan well enough for the temperatures and ended up freezing our butts off for hours. That night ended in us laying uncomfortably together in a one-person hammock to stay warm, and getting approximately 0 sleep whatsoever.

Sleeping Bag:

Most sleeping bags will have either a "comfort rating", or more commonly, a "limit rating". A "comfort rating" means that the average person could sleep comfortably at that temperature while laying on their back and stretched out. A "limit rating" means that you can sleep -somewhat- comfortably at that temperature curled up in a ball inside the bag. When you buy a sleeping bag, make sure you know what it is rated for. Since I mostly do three-season backpacking, I use a 20 degree limit bag, which keeps me comfortable on any night getting down to about 28 degrees. If I were backpacking in the winter, I'd probably want something a little warmer, but for the things I do this is the perfect balance of warmth-weight. Something that not many people understand is that sleeping bags do not "create heat", they only insulate. Your body has natural processes that will create heat, such as shivering, but the sleeping bag only serves to retain that heat. If you are freezing cold when you get into your sleeping bag, you will take a lot longer to warm up than if you get in while you're still warm, use hand/foot warmers, or even heat up some water to keep in your bag with you. (Be very careful not to spill, or to use water which is too hot. Being wet=being cold, and boiling water=burned skin, you've been warned).

Sleeping Pad and Pillows

I've met people who think that this is "just a comfort item". Personally, I have no issues with sleeping on the ground either, but most people would be extremely uncomfortable doing so. Once again, counting sheep for hours. However, there is a much bigger reason why sleeping pads are so important. They insulate. When you lay down in a sleeping bag, the insulation underneath your body is compressed, thus allowing heat to seep out from your body and into the cold ground. Sleeping pads have an associated "R-value" which signifies exactly how much they insulate against the cold. The colder your overnight temps are, the higher you want your R-value to be. This is just as important as having a warm sleeping bag. There are typically two types of pads that you can choose from: the foldable, eggshell foam ones, or the inflatable ones. There are also the large, rollable, self-inflating ones. These are great for car camping, but please don't take them backpacking. Advantages to the eggshell foam pads is that they are typically very light, cheap, and durable, but I find that they are less comfortable, less insulative, and somewhat bulky to pack. I opt to carry an inflatable pad instead, such as the Nemo Tensor Insulated. These are comfortable, including for side sleepers for myself, insulated, and pack down to the size of a nalgene. However, be very careful not to pop them. There's nothing worse than sleeping on a deflated pad all night. Inflatable pillows are available too, or you can roll up your hoody and sleep on it. Personally, I don't love the plasticy material of the inflatable pillows, so I usually wrap them in a shirt or something to sleep on. In my opinion, anything other than that is too large to bring on a backpacking trip. To each their own though, right? If you want to bring your full-size pillow with the spongebob pillow case and strap it to the outside of your bag, I won't stop you.

Shelter:

This is a huge opportunity to shave some pounds, but make sure you're packing for the conditions you are going into. I'm a big desert backpacker, so I'm used to arid, hot environments. Personally, I don't even take a tent backpacking but opt instead to carry a small groundsheet or tarp that weighs only a few ounces. If you're backpacking anywhere with a chance of rain, extreme cold, or wind, this is not the option for you. Once upon a time I thought that I'd take my desert skills to the Uintah's in Northeastern Utah. The forecast was clear, but sure enough, it started pouring rain when we got to our camp. We spent hours trying to build a fire, and then building a lean-to to sleep ten people out of pine thrushes and tarps. It was one of the wettest, coldest nights of my life. Look for 1, 2, or 3 person backpacking-specific tents. These can range anywhere from 1-5lbs depending on the price you pay, and have various advantages/disadvantages. No, the 4, 6, or 8 person tent that your family owns for camping will not do for backpacking. If you are backpacking with a partner, I'd recommend that one of you carry the poles while the other carries the tent. This is one of the easiest ways to save weight when carrying a tent!


Food and Water:

Guy making surprised face at large bag of food while sitting in the desert
I'll be honest, I pack a lot of food #hungrydudeproblems

First, food: Don't be that person that brings an entire jar of peanut butter. 'nuff said. Buy dry, nonperishable foods. NO CANS! Good examples are: Mac and cheese, ramen, instant mashed potatoes, tuna, meat foil packets, etc. Pack an apple or some fruit cups if you'd like something a little more fresh. Dehydrated backpacking meals are delicious and can be bought at pretty much any grocery store, but they're rather expensive ($10-15 per meal). I'll normally buy at least one for each trip, to make sure that I have at least one tasty meal. Life hack: Hard meats and cheeses don't go bad for at least a few days (depending on temperature, etc.) The cheese might get a little sweaty but I promise it'll still be good. I love bringing some ritz crackers, pre-cut summer sausage, and Sharp Cheddar or Parmesan cheese and having a little backpacker's charcuterie for lunch. I'll make another post someday with a more complete list of ideas, but to get you started, try to plan 3 meals a day that won't break the bank, will get you the calories you need, and weigh the least amount possible.

Water: Let's be honest, every wannabe granola kid loves their nalgene, owala, or hydroflask with all of the stickers on it, myself included. However, you'll save a lot of weight if you just take smartwater bottles instead. Sorry! If I'm going somewhere with limited access to water, I'll carry anywhere from 3-6 liters of water, or if I'm going somewhere where I can filter water at any given point I'll only take 1 or 2. The sawyer squeeze is an excellent, budget-friendly, all-around-good water filter that meets just about anyone's needs. Try it out. It can even screw on to the top of your smartwater bottle if you don't want to go through the hassle of filtering the whole bottle everytime that it runs out. If you'd prefer to fill all of your bottles with clean water, I'd recommend getting a 2L CNOC bag to replace the dinky ones that come with the Sawyer Squeeze.


Clothing:

Guy sitting in a backpacking chair in the desert wearing cozy clothes
Braxton chilling at camp with a fleece, sun hoody, and nylon pants

If I could only teach you three things about clothing for backpacking, it would be these.

  1. What you wear on your back, you don't have to pack: No, you don't need a change of clothes for each day while you're backpacking. A single outfit probably weighs at least 1.5 pounds, and it's gonna get dirty anyways. Pack enough clothes to stay warm, and wear them on your back, not in your pack. I've gone on weeklong trips where I've worn the same pants, same shirt, same hat, same jacket, for the entire trip. That's really all you need. Sidenote: Packing extra underwear and socks is permissible I suppose ;)

  2. LAYERS: Once again, only take what you need. However, here's some tips. The perfect layering system consists of a baselayer, midlayer, and shell. You can ditch the shell if there is no wind or rain. For a midlayer, I'd suggest either a synthetic/down jacket, or fleece, and for different things. Fleece insulates when wet, but is somewhat heavier and less insulated, while down or synthetic jackets are very lightweight and insulated, but not very helpful when wet. (down jackets become practically useless when wet)

  3. Cotton kills: Haha, I guess I did learn something from scouts. Don't wear cotton, it absorbs lots of water and drys slowly. Wet=cold. I LOVE wearing sun-hoodies year round for practically any activity, weather, or temperature. They are incredible. I also wear ripstop nylon pants for basically any outdoor activity. I would highly recommend this setup to anyone, it'll drastically improve your comfort in the outdoors.

A few more noteworthy items..

  • You don't need a fancy jetboil or msr stove to enjoy backpacking, in fact, there are lighter options such as the BRS 3000T which you can buy on amazon for $16. Instead of a full mess kit, pack a titanium/tin cup and a lightweight spork. Boom, that's your cook kit. No, you don't need a pot, pan, lid, spatula, cooking spoon, seasoning rack etc. It's not that deep guys. Carry less, save more (money and weight).

  • Headlamps are a life-saver, and they're pretty cheap too these days. I'd recommend a Black Diamond Astro ($20). No need to carry a big bulky flashlight.

  • Split group gear! Like I said earlier, you can split the weight of your tent by sharing the weight with a partner. Same goes for things like first-aid kits, bear cans, shared meals, etc.

  • There are super cool apps like Alltrails (subscription to download offline maps), or my personal favorite: Gaia GPS (free to use!) that will allow you to download maps and explore hiking trails. This is a good place to get started when planning your next backpacking trip.

  • HAVE SO MUCH FUN!!! Some of my most intimate, profound moments in nature have been during backpacking trips either alone or with my friends. It's a great way to escape the crowds, experience the outdoors, and find some peace. It's also one of the most accessible outdoor recreation activities for people of most skill levels. I think everyone should try it!


Check back in the future for most posts about gear, trail recommendations, and tips for your outdoor pursuits. Until next time!


(In the meantime, if you'd like to check out the gear that I use, take a gander at my lighterpack: https://lighterpack.com/r/2seyp2)


Braxton






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