So you want to start backpacking, but pretty much everything sounds intimidating and you have no idea where to start. Well luckily (for you anyway) I get this question a lot so rather than keep copying and pasting suggestions I decided to write a big of a beginners run down on the topic. I should mention that these are just my personal opinions gained from personal experience. Backpacking is a VERY organic thing. What you think will work might not end up working, and you need to be open to the fact that it takes time and money to get a setup dialed in that works for you personally. Your setup will greatly depend on the mileage you'd like to get out on the trail each day too. Here we go!
These are your basic survival needs. This kit should all be assembled in a single bag that goes with you EVERY time you go out hiking. It needs to become a habit that you rely on. Just transfer it from your day hiking bag to your larger backpack as needed. Some of these things seem trivial, but think to yourself, “ok, this is the stuff that needs to help me if I absolutely had to spend 1-2 days in the woods in an emergency”. When you think about it like that they make a lot more sense.
Paper map: This doesn't have to fit in the 10 essentials bag, but you need to have one of the area you’re in. Batteries will eventually die. Maps do not.
Compass: Doesn't have to be fancy. Suunto makes some really nice smaller ones for around $25. Don’t go too cheap, because it does have to work properly.
GPS: Highly recommend getting a GPS app and learning how to use it. Most apps require cell service UNLESS you download the map of your area ahead of time. Then you can put your phone in airplane mode and easily double to triple the battery life. I can get a full 2 days in airplane mode on my iPhone 7 using Gaia GPS.
Sunscreen: I’m a little torn on this one, but so many people recommend it I do have it. I keep a very small chapstick style tube of it.
Extra Layer: For me, this is pretty much my outer shell most of the year (we’ll get to that later), but can depend on the time of year. Layman's terms… always have a jacket. Doesn't need to fit in your 10 essentials bag.
Headlamp: Nothing fancy. A small one that runs off two or 3 AAA batteries are the most common. You’ll use it a LOT backpacking so don’t get something that’s super cheap.
Fire Starter: I go against the grain here. I carry a mini Bic lighter in a little ziploc baggie. I can’t stand matches. The little mini lighters are awesome. I also keep about 4 cotton balls rubbed with vaseline in a little mini ziploc bag to use as fuel to start a fire.
Knife: Doesn't have to be some super duper multi-tool. Just a lightweight quality knife.
First Aid kit: You can find some “lightweight” first aid kits on Amazon. They’re fine, just add a couple more items to them.
Chapstick: Single tube
Dental floss: hint… wrap about 3’ around your chapstick.
One sewing needle and about 18” of thread: Used for treating blisters on a long hike.
Moleskin: Just a single sheet. Amazing for blisters as well
Athletic tape: Not a ton, but wrap some around your tube of sunscreen above.
Small sandwich bag with toilet paper.
2 Oxycodone or somewhat more aggressive pain killer
2-4 Anti Diarrhea pills. Laugh now, but having the shits on the trail is pure hell.
Food: Nothing fancy, just always carry some sort of a high calorie type protein bar with you in your daypack.
Water: Don’t ever hike without it. For every hike my average is 1.5L.
Emergency Blanket: You can get a really cheap one for like $6 or move of a bivy (sleeping bag style) for like $15. Either is fine.
CLOTHING AND LAYERING
This is probably the single biggest mistake I see on the trail. From day-hikes to backpacking it doesn't matter. Proper layering can make all the difference in the world on your comfort while out. The idea is to be able to easily regulate your body temperature. Keep it at a nice constant temp and to stay away from the massive sweats and the freezing cold.
Base Layer: Your first layer. Worn all the time. Best is merino wool as it regulates temperatures the best, but it’s not cheap. Next best is synthetics like polyester blends. NO COTTON. Cotton loses almost all of it’s insulation ability when it gets wet. Ever sweat bad in a t-shirt and jacket then take your jacket off to instantly freeze? That’s why. The idea is to vary your base layer thickness for the time of year.
Insulation layer: This is a pretty broad term, but this is your real warming layer mostly worn when you're NOT moving. Down puffy jacket, synthetic puffy, wool sweater, or fleece is the most common with the puffy being the best overall because of how well they compress and pack down and usually decent ones are water resistant (not water-proof). You’re generally only going to wear this when sitting at camp as you’ll get way too hot hiking in it.
Shell: Your final outer layer. Most common is a hard shell (aka rain jacket), but look into what some call a hybrid shell. They’re amazingly thin and light. You don’t need insulation in this layer. This layer needs to be wind and water-PROOF. Watch out for being tempted to hike in this layer as you can “sweat it out” very easily. They don’t breath well, and it’s easy to get your body temp up really high and soak it from the inside.
Exceptions: Something called a “soft-shell” jacket. These are hard to explain, but magical when you find the right one. A soft shell should be light, very breathable, and water/wind resistant. This, combined with my base layer is what I hike in 99% of the time.
Remember, all sorts of not fun stuff happens when you sweat, and I mean both body and feet. Skin does not like to rub other skin when it’s wet. Chaffing, blisters, etc. all happen very quickly. Not a big deal on the short 4-5mi hikes around home, but if you want to start putting in 10+ miles per day then it’s stuff that needs to be considered.
NO COTTON. That includes socks, underwear, and everything else. It takes FOREVER to dry out. Wools and synthetics retain their insulating properties and dry out far quicker.
THE BIG 4
BACKPACK: Sized and style per trip needs. It’s easy to think in the beginning that one will do. The sooner you realize you’ll have at least 3 different packs after your first two years hiking the sooner you can laugh at yourself for thinking one would do it. 15-30L is plenty for day-hiking. 40-60L is plenty for most backpacking trips. Remember, number of days out really don’t add a TON of additional size requirements because the only thing your increasing is your food. Your pack will be mostly sized by how compact and compressible your gear is. Also, you will inevitably fill whatever size pack you buy so don’t buy one that’s too big. (2-4lbs)
TENT: 3 Season tent is just fine. Only get a two-person if you know you're going to use it. Weight is king here as there are a lot of good tents out there. Try for 2-2.5lbs for a one-person tent and no more than 3.5lbs for a two person tent. There’s about a gazillion different small features that tents have so read the reviews and go from there. You do not HAVE to have a footprint for your tent. All depends on the ground in which you’ll be setting your tent up on and what thickness the bottom layer of your tent is. If you’re dealing with lots of rocks then one would be good, but usually just being careful to comb your tent spot is fine.
SLEEPING BAG: They’re rated in “degrees”. Most of your typical PNW or North Cascades trips won’t need anything more aggressive than a 20* bag. If you’re a warm sleeper or only fair weather camper then a 30* should do fine. Don’t forget, you can always wear some of your clothing layers to bed if needed. Backpacking isn’t like at home. You do whatever works to keep you comfortable. Watch the weight here. 2-3lbs is ideal. Also consider looking into a quilt. Enlightened Equipment makes some amazing ones. They come in right around 1.5lbs, and are by far my personal choice.
SLEEPING PAD: Very personal preference. Try to keep it between 1-1.5lbs though. If you’re not a picky sleeper then the ThermaRest Z-lite SOL is super cheap and quite popular. My guess is about 30-50% of the people out on the trial use them.
So remember those beautiful make believe scenes about cooking over a campfire out in the wilderness? Umm yeah… not so much. Reality is that 95% of your meals will have water added to it at some point, lol. True “cooking” outdoors is not overly difficult, but again, requires some fairly heavy components to make work. Most backpackers make their meals by boiling water on a stove, then adding it to some sort of either dehydrated meal, noodles, etc. to make their dinner. Its’ simple, consistent, and easy. You can add in all sorts of snacks as you see fit obviously, but just keep it in mind how much stuff weighs. I think it's incredible if you have the skills to cook up some masterfully tasty meals in the outdoors, but I'd focus more on this once you get your general "backpacking" skills down.
STOVE: Most lightweight 3 season hikers go with the MSR Pocket Rocket or the Snow Peak Gigapower stove. They’re small, light, and do the job just fine unless in heavy wind. If you want to get up higher in elevation, or have little patience like me, then a Jetboil style is a great unit.
POT: Ideally you only need one pot. Most people go with a titanium one that’s just barely big enough to fit the fuel canister for the stove in it. Then the stove sits on top of that, and the lid goes on the pot and everything is in one container. Amazon has “kits” that have this all together.
Utensils: Either a plastic or titanium Spork is ideal. Only difference in weight vs. cost on which one. You only need one.
Cup/Bowl: You only need one of each. I personally like the silicone collapsible ones, but there are cheaper ones that don’t collapse. I prefer a lid for the bowl as well. I boil water in the morning and use the cup for coffee. The lid for the bowl keeps the steam in for when you're soaking something like Top Ramen or letting a dehydrated meal “sit” and thicken.
I’ll start this with the big warning that I’m a shitty cook and a very non-picky eater so these are super basic.
Top Ramen: Very easy to cook and lightweight. Cheap
Mountain House/other brand dehydrated meals: Very tasty. Easy to cook. Expensive.
Instant oatmeal: Light. Easy to cook. Cheap
Lots of dehydrated fruits
Focus on foods that are high in calories per ounce of weight
SHIT SHOVEL: Yep, you read that right. You do NOT want to be that person leaving their shit and toilet paper just laying there. Plastic or aluminum doesn't matter. I have one called the Deuce of Spades (the name kills me, lol) and I wrap the handle with some duct tape (which btw.. Is great to have in emergencies).
TREKKING POLES: I hesitate to call these a must, but damn if you’ll ever catch me leaving home without them. They’ll save your knees on the downhills, help your legs on the uphills, help your balance in slippery spots, and help you balance with a heavy pack on while crossing creeks, logs, etc.
WATER PURIFICATION: This is a must. There’s a ton of different setups from tablets to elaborate pumps/filters. I personally use a MSR trail shot and love it. Sawyer is another great one for the dollar. You absolutely must filter your water or you’ll end up sicker than you’ve ever been. Giardia is a horrible thing to get.
GPS/BEACON: Expensive, but one of the safest devices out there. Direct SOS button you can push that does not require cell service. The ability to send text messages via satellite. This is a luxury item indeed, but they've saved many lives. I refuse to set foot in the woods without my inReach.
SIT PAD: Very cheap and awesome. Just a small pad similar to the material the Z-Lite sleeping pad is made out of. Gives your a dry, warm, and soft place to sit wherever you are. Note: Your backpack might have a removable “back pad” that you can take out and use a sit pad. Saves weight from bringing an additional pad.
UTILITY CORD: You know, just that small little “rope” that your tent has coming off it for tying down. Keep about 30’ of this in your pack. You can use it to hang your food bag, and it’s got plenty of other uses.
CAMP SHOES: A slight luxury, but VERY worth it in a lot of people’s eyes. Crocks are very popular as they’re durable and light. Nothing better than slipping your feet into something like that after a long day hiking in shoes/boots.
Learn how to tie a Taught-line Hitch. It’s an amazing knot. Especially when it comes to staking a tent down. A good tent doesn't make a bit of difference if you don’t know how to stake it out and tie it down properly.
See which way the wind is blowing BEFORE setting up camp. Can you block the wind with your tent? Does the wind blow right into the door of your tent? If you have a campfire which way will the smoke go?
Keep your pants, additional socks, and soft-shell in the bottom of your sleeping bag overnight. They’ll be nice and warm to put on for those chilly mornings.
If you’re concerned about possible rain line your backpack with a kitchen trash-bag. Just open it up inside your bag then proceed to pack like normal. Cheap and easy!
Don’t worry about bringing soap or deodorant. You're going to stink. At most, a little squeeze travel size bottle of hand sanitizer, but that’s it.
Synthetic base layers and underwear will get really stanky! Merino wool is the king because it not only wicks moisture the best, but also keeps odors down. Synthetics wick well, and are much cheaper, but tend to get some good stank to them after a hard day's hiking.
WEIGHT IS KEY!! I’ve mentioned it a lot in here, but it really is that crucial to enjoying your backpacking trip. Set a target goal of no more than 35lbs including everything in your pack for a 2-3 day trip. It is absolutely possible to get down to 20-25lbs for 2-3days. If you're bored on a rainy day and have like a 10lb kitchen scale that can measure in ounces sit down and get all your gear out and measure each individual piece. Make a spreadsheet in Google Sheets and write everything in there. This way you easily add it all up quickly to see where you’re at. It also helps to have those weights handy when you’re shopping. What items to upgrade will gain you the most ounce-per-dollar. Sometimes what we might want to upgrade isn’t the best thing for saving weight. You can also use this list as a checklist for packing for your trip!
Hiking/Backpacking is not “proper”: Meaning, do what works, not what you think is “cool”. Cold at night? Put your hiking pants on and your puffy! Put two pairs of socks on. Don’t bring an extra blanket to stay warm when you have clothes sitting right next to you. Who cares! This is especially true with women. I’ve seen some hilarious outfits out on the trail, but they chose those items because of comfort and function. That’s what it’s all about.
Practice LNT (Leave No Trace). It really is a very important thing to do. We all love the wilderness, and leaving it exactly as you found it ensures everyone gets to enjoy the same experience and beauty.
NO EATING IN BED: Wait whaaaaaat? Yep, that’s right. Keep your food out of your tent no matter what. Store your food in a bag and hang it downwind at least 100ft away at night. Critters love your food and will chew right through your backpack if they want it bad enough. Not to mention if a bear IS going to eat your food we’d prefer he did it away from the tent and not in it with you.
GARBAGE: Pack it out. Period. What that means is bring some sort of bag to put it in so you can keep it separate from the rest of your stuff. I ALWAYS forget this one.
PILLOW: Most people find it sufficient to just pack all their extra clothes into their clothes stuff sack and use that for a pillow.
COMPRESSION BAG: Great for putting your sleeping bag in. Allows you to get it all in there then squeeze the bag down tighter and tighter getting all the air out, and keeping your sleeping bag as small as possible.
BUG SPRAY: Don’t forget it! Organic is cool if you’re into that sort of thing but a high Deet content really rules. If you're going into a notorious bug area look into a bug repellant wrist band, and even spraying your clothes/gear with Permethrin.
Out of all the missing people that come up each year about 80% of them have missed some of the basic “must do’s” when it comes to heading out into the wilderness. You absolutely need to tell someone where you’re going, and when you plan to return. Doesn't matter if they know the area, or are even a hiker themselves. Give them an emergency return time too. As in, if they haven’t heard back from you by X time then call the authorities. Make it a habit, and do it every single time you go out. When it comes to emergency situations time is of great importance.
Download your maps ahead of time. This is my #1 mistake. I get in a hurry, or just completely forget, and show up at the trail with no cell service and no GPS map saved.