Beginner’s Guide to Packing a Backpack for Hiking | Expert Tips to Help You Pack Like a PRO
So you’ve planned out your first overnight hiking trip. You’ve got all your essential backpacking gear. Now it’s time to pack your backpack for hiking.
But does it really matter how you pack your gear as long as it all fits in your backpack?
Yes, yes, and yes!
Just stuffing your backpack full of gear all willy-nilly will lead to a top-heavy pack that makes it next to impossible to lift a foot without falling over backward. Not to mention the extreme sense of panic you’ll feel when you need to suddenly “take care of business” in the woods and you can’t remember where you put your toilet paper.
Avoid these sticky situations and follow the tips in this beginner’s guide to packing a backpack for hiking. You’ll enjoy your hike soooo much more when you pack your backpack so it works with you and not against you.
Let’s get started with a few basic things you should keep in mind when planning how to pack a backpack for an overnight backpacking trip.
A Few Backpack Packing Basics You Need to Know
You need an actual backpacking pack
Sure, your bedazzled Jansport school backpack could carry a lot of textbooks, but it’s just not cut out for overnight hiking trips.
For an overnight trip, you need a backpack with, at the very least, a 35-40 liter capacity. It should also have a padded hip belt, comfortable shoulder straps, and some sort of a rigid frame (internal or external).
Do a test pack
Before the big day comes when you set off into the wild, be sure to do a test run. Get out all your gear and pack your backpack. Hoist it up, strap it on, and take a walk with it. Try going up and down some stairs. Practice taking it on and off.
How does it feel? Do you need to move some things around? Does it feel too top-heavy? Could you actually fit all your stuff or will you have to make the hard choice of which to leave behind – your favorite bottle of pinot noir or your tent?
Purchasing the right gear and really thinking through what you’re gonna take will make it way easier to pack your backpack because you won’t be packing a bunch of unnecessary stuff.
*Need help planning what to pack? Check out my other articles on planning your backpacking trips.
Ok, so now that you’ve got the basics, let’s get down to the nitty-gritty.
Pack a Backpack in Several Different Zones
*Important – While backpacks differ somewhat in their designs and the way the compartments are divided up, most will still allow you to follow these basic packing guidelines.
When packing your backpack, in order to distribute the weight correctly, you’ll divide it into the following basic areas:
- The Bottom: Bulky items that aren’t too heavy or things you don’t need that often
- The Core: Dense, heavy gear
- The Top: Light, bulky things you may need to access often
- Outside Pockets: Items you need often or need to access quickly in an emergency
- Loops, lash-on points, and straps: For odd-shaped items you can’t fit in your pack
What to Put in the Bottom of the Pack
If you pack too much heavy stuff in the bottom of your backpack, it will sag and swing. So it’s best to fill the bottom with bulky, lightweight gear that you won’t need to access during the day.
- Sleeping bag
- Sleeping pad
- Camp shoes
- Pillow (If you like your trail comforts)
If your sleeping bag comes in a compression sack or stuff sack, it’s best to put that in first and then stuff smaller things, like items of clothing, around it.
What to Pack in the Core Area
This is where weight distribution is really important. The densest, heaviest items should be in the center of your pack and as close as possible to your back.
Keeping most of the load in this core area will create a stable center of gravity that moves with you instead of against you.
Heavy items to pack in the area close to your back are…
- Water (that you won’t need during the day unless it’s a water bladder with a straw you can sip from while hiking)
- Heavy toiletries
- Bear canister
- Your single-serve bottles of pinot noir
Once you’ve got those items packed, fill in the extra space with items like…
- Tent footprint or tarp
- Camp cookware
- Lighter food items
Items to Pack Near the Top
To avoid a top-heavy pack, the top of your pack should be reserved for lightweight items you’re likely to use during the day. And depending on what you can fit in exterior pockets, you’ll also need to make sure emergency items you might need to access in a hurry are close to the top.
The top of your backpack is a perfect place for items like…
- First aid kit
- Rain gear (Like a rain jacket or rain cover for your backpack)
- Bathroom kit (Remember what I mentioned in the beginning?)
*Insider tip! – If there’s the potential for bad weather to move in fast, keep your tent closer to the top of your pack. That way, if it starts to rain, you can grab your tent in a hurry without having to completely unpack.
What About External Pockets?
Pockets on the outside of your pack are best used for other small items you’ll need to get to throughout the day or access in a hurry.
Most backpacks have a combination of pockets like a top or “brain” compartment, zippered side pockets, water bottle pockets, hip belt pockets, and even a small pocket or two on the shoulder straps.
Essentials that should be in your exterior pockets:
- Water bottle
- ID, wallet, keys
- Bug spray
- Headlamp or flashlight
- Multi-tool or pocket knife
- First-aid supplies
What About Strapping Gear to the Outside of My Pack?
Most hiking backpacks have a variety of straps, tie-downs, and loops on the outside. They work really well for odd-shaped or bulky items you just can’t fit inside your pack.
Some things you should consider strapping to the outside of your pack:
- Sleeping pad
- Stuff sacks with your sleeping bag or clothes
- Camp chair
- Trekking poles
- Tent poles
- Rain jacket
- Tools like an ice pick or shovel
*Important! – Make sure any gear or equipment you strap to the outside of your pack is securely fastened and not swinging around. The last thing you want is to try to step under a low branch only to have one of your trekking poles swing around and smack you in the face (I’m definitely not speaking from personal experience. LOL!)
Women’s Hiking Journal + Motivational Tracker Photo REVIEW (you won’t believe how it looks on the inside!)
So there you’ve got it! Don’t forget the different packing zones. Remember…
Two things you should do if you think you might get wet.
- Pack delicate items in waterproof bags. Make sure your phone, sleeping bag, and food are packed in such a way that if your bag does get a little wet, they’ll be protected.
- Make sure you have a rain cover. Some backpacks come with their own rain cover. If yours doesn’t, get one like this ultralight rain cover to keep your pack fully protected. If you’re on a super tight budget, bring along a heavy-duty trash bag or two that you can fit over your pack if it starts raining.
How do I hoist my backpack?
Now that you’ve got your pack loaded and ready to go, how do you get it from the ground to your back without falling over or throwing your hip out?
- Grab the haul loop (not a shoulder strap since this could actually damage it) and lift your pack up to rest it on your thigh.
- Then while still holding the haul loop, slip one of your arms through the shoulder strap while lifting it to your back.
- Slip your other arm through the shoulder strap and connect the hip belt while staying slightly bent over.
- Stand up straight and properly adjust all the straps on your pack.
Here’s a quick video that shows how it’s done.
Beginner Backpackers, It’s Time to Start Packing!
So whether your first backpacking trip takes you to a state park around the corner from your home or out into the wild Rockies, you need to think about how you’ll pack a backpack.
A poorly packed backpack will end up working against you. You’re already living without running water, Netflix, and your favorite slippers, the last thing you need is to feel like you’re hiking with a 40-lb Red Bull infused monkey on your back.
And remember… if you pack well, you might even be able to find room for a bottle of your favorite pinot noir!
*I’d love to hear about your backpacking trips. Send me a message on Facebook or Instagram and don’t forget to check out my other backpacking articles!
Happy trails! If you’re looking to research more, here are other helpful backpacking articles to get you started!
Stacy Bressler is an avid outdoorswoman, wife, and mother of three who lives in Jackson, Wyoming. She loves all things camping and enjoys sharing helpful tips, fun activities and laughable learning experiences she finds along the way! Navigating the outdoor life through the lens of humor and positivity, she chronicles it all on her website “The Crazy Outdoor Mama”
5 dumb things backpack designers need to stop doing
As many of you may know, I am an endless complaining machine that cannot be satisfied even by the most magnificent of creations anywhere to be found. This debilitating curse manifests itself most thoroughly when it comes to high-tech travel gear, much of which is cartoonishly ruined by moronic designers who seem to have absolutely no idea that even the smallest of modifications could vastly improve their creations by several orders of magnitude.
I have no earthly idea how they’re able to screw things up so frequently, and many a strongly-worded-letter has departed from my desk, only to be cursorily answered or summarily ignored by the willfully foolish recipients whose job descriptions apparently do not include “making things not suck.”
So I’ll just complain here instead.
My new pack.
Backpack manufacturers make a massive variety of packs, churning out the designs every single year, with a billion different sizes, colors, configurations, and everything else. You’d think they’d provide enough variety to satiate the needs of even the most discerning of pack enthusiasts. But nay. Somehow they still manage to screw things up all over the place.
Now I’ll readily admit that in many cases, my subjective needs are not universally ideal; travel-specific packs require a somewhat different set of features compared to hiking packs, and the comparative rarity of travel packs means I quite often have to make do with a hiking pack, which is a bit like giving dog food to a crocodile. He’ll eat it, sure, but it’s still dumb.
But they’re not getting away so easily. Nay! I am here to complain, and complain I shall.
The following problems consist exclusively of design flaws that are not subjectively unsuitable for my purposes, but are just objectively stupid. They’re wrong. Plain and simple. And people need to stop doing them.
Backpack design flaws that need to stop immediately
1. Stupidly tiny “water bottle” pockets
I have absolutely no idea how this trend started. I think it has something to do with the popularity of hydration bladders, and backpack manufacturers figured that’s all they had to worry about. If everybody just has a hydration bladder, they won’t be storing a water bottle in a side pocket.
But not everybody has a hydration bladder. In fact I’d be willing to bet that more people have water bottles than hydration bladders, and they need a place to put them goddammit. Where the hell can they go besides the damn side pocket. Not in the main compartment of the pack, surely. Not only is it a stupid hassle to take it out whenever you need a sip of water, but if there’s a leak of any kind, all of a sudden your day is ruined.
But I see backpacks all over the place…seemingly the majority of them…that have extraordinarily small side pockets with no ability to expand whatsoever. Which means they’ll be flat against the wall of the pack itself with a round water bottle trying to find its way inside! You’re literally stuck trying to fit a round object into a flat compartment. Do they even bother trying to fit any of those bottles that are sold in the same stores into the side pockets before shipping the product out the door.
But they even issue promotional photos displaying a water bottle fitting into the pocket. Quite often the pack itself is only partially filled, meaning the water bottle dug into the empty space of the main compartment, meaning if the bag were full, you’d be out of luck.
And it’s not like they can’t handle solving this problem. It’s actually stupidly easy. All they have to do is:
- Use stretchy fabric
- Fold the fabric
In fact you only really need to do one or the other. In either case, the fabric will lay flat when the pocket is empty, and pop open when you stuff a water bottle inside. It’s literally that simple. And even if you don’t need to fit a water bottle in there, it’s still objectively superior anyway.
It’s like magic.
I will never stop complaining about this, because it’s the most annoying thing in the world to me. I shouldn’t have to figure water bottle location into pack purchase decision making. They should just all be good.
2. Compression straps that cover the side pockets
So it’s one thing to make a side pocket so stupidly small that you can’t use it. But it’s another thing entirely to have a perfectly good pocket and lash something right over the top.
They’re called “compression” straps, and you have to pull them tightly to compress the pack. And you know what happens when you pull a strap tightly over a pocket? You can’t use the pocket anymore. You literally have to decide whether you’re going to use the pocket, or the strap, but not both. Or at least, not very well. The strap won’t be doing much in the way of compression if it’s loose enough to access the pocket itself, and thus is pointless.
The worst offense is when not one but two straps go right over the side pocket. On packs so small that they don’t need the double strap anyway!
In some cases, these straps can actually be routed behind the side pocket, so they won’t get in the way of things. But the fact that certain companies allow this option only on some of their packs is incredibly annoying. It’s also not even the best way to solve the problem.
Once again, a variety of solutions exist. Here’s the easiest one:
You can just SEE the silliness.
You can cut them off, but why don’t they just not do stupid things to begin with.
3. Filthy dirty lie “panel” loading
This is mainly a vocabulary problem. Allow me to elaborate:
Backpacks come in a few varieties: Top loaders, which consist of giant cylindrical main compartments with a lid on the top; and panel loaders, which have a large, horseshoe-shaped zipper which allows the entire pack to be opened up like a suitcase.
Except when they fail to make the zipper go all the way to the bottom of the pack and you can only open it halfway. Plus, they’ll put the zipper in the middle of the pack, rather than at the edge, making it even more difficult to open completely.
Which means it’s not a panel goddammit. Check the damn dictionary!
Now I’ll admit that in some cases the half-panel loaders (that’s what I’m calling them) have their merits. School, for example. When you want to flip through a few books, all of which are balanced vertically, you’d want to open the pack from the top and flip through the options and take your pick. This works better than a full-length panel loader, which you’d sort of need to place flat on the ground to see what’s inside, and even then, you’d probably only be able to see one book at a time, unless you arranged them differently than anyone in the world ever has.
But it’s a terrible way to organize anything else. If you’ve ever had a sock at the bottom of the pack, you need to unload the whole damn thing to find it. And this is the weakness of half-panel loaders. They are by far the most difficult type to fill to capacity. And once you’ve packed them nearly full, it’s incredibly difficult to access anything at all.
It’s not to say they’re bad, but they’re horrible in certain cases. Travel, for example. And regardless, they certainly shouldn’t be called “panel” loaders.
Dome loaders? I don’t know.
Again, half-panel loaders have their merits, but when I say I want a panel loader, I mean a real one.
And there’s a very clever hybrid solution found in the Kelty Redwing, which combines top loading with panel loading into a single zipper. Unfortunately, it was one of the most horrifically uncomfortable things I’ve ever experienced.
4. “Bridge” shoulder strap
A bridge too far. From sanity.
I have no idea who thought up this incredibly stupid idea. I bet it went something like this:
“Hey guys! Let’s change something that’s been working perfectly for decades!”
“Because fuck you, that’s why!”
I’m referring to the so-called “haul loop” found at the top of the pack. You can use it to pick up the bag, hang it on something, or whatever. And a few companies have started making bags where the haul loop is integrated into the shoulder straps, forming a bridge between them.
This is a terrible idea. I mean really awful. It means you cannot adjust the pack to fit high up on your back. You are required to carry it lower on your back than you otherwise could, meaning if you like wearing it up high, you’re stuck with something digging into the back of your neck all day.
I’m pretty sure the designers consisted of incredibly large people who wear their packs low and never bothered checking with anyone else.
Oh, and the haul loop is smaller and thus harder to grab, and it’s vertically positioned rather than horizontally, so it’ll dig into your fingers more. Hooray!
I really want someone to explain the thought process behind this one. I am really oblivious.
Seriously, how did no one say anything?
5. Centrally-placed vertical zipper
Okay, I know this one is kind of a reach, because it’s somewhat obscure. But it’s also dumb.
I’ve only seen this in a few places, and I think it’s supposed to be for maps, which are (usually) vertical pamphlets that can be slipped inside flat pockets with tall zippers. But tall, centrally-located vertical zippers are just incredibly stupid.
Firstly, it’s hard to put small things in there. It’s practically impossible seeing inside while trying to find them, and they might even fall out. And secondly, it’s also difficult putting large things in there. It seems like a decent place for a rain jacket, but the process consists of stuffing the jacket into the left half of the compartment, and then stuffing the rest into the right half. You literally cannot access the entire pocket all at once, because it’s just this tiny slit that’s somehow supposed to provide access to this massive pocket.
I had this sort of zipper on an old pack of mine, and I literally did not use the pocket. Ever. It just sat uselessly. It’s so difficult trying to take things in and out that I just didn’t bother anymore.
Was that so hard?
I really don’t get this one either. If you’re supposed to fit tall, flat papers into there, it would still work better to put the zipper literally anywhere else. Horizontally across the top, or vertically along the side. But, best of all, upside-down letter U. Done and done.
Backpack design error objective vs. subjective
Now I’ll readily admit that my particular needs may not be the same as those of someone else. But in the cases listed above, with the exception of the panel-loader vocabulary problem, the design choices are just objectively wrong. And, annoyingly, they are incredibly frequent. I really have no idea why they continue to exist.
I wonder if it’s simply that most people are more or less fine with a pack as long as it’s good, and they’ll live with the limitations as long as it holds up to serious use. I’d feel that way as well, but when I see design flaws, especially incredibly dumb ones, it just ruins my whole day.
- Backpack manufacturers have apparently not realized that the load lifter straps (the small strap on top of the shoulder strap, that pulls the pack closer to your body) can be routed quite conveniently into hydration bladder port straps. Pretty much ever pack has a tiny strap, on the shoulder strap, where a hydration bladder hose is held in place. It’s also a great place to stick the load lifter straps so they don’t flail around annoyingly. The reason I think pack manufacturers haven’t realized this is that sometimes they’ll only put a strap on one side, instead of both.
- You know those hip stabilizer straps? Basically, it’s the small strap, on top of the hip strap, that pulls the pack closer to your body. It also forms a dangly thing that, if you have dual hip belt pockets with a slot where the dangly strap can go, can be kept out of the way. Once again, I don’t think pack manufacturers have quite realized this, because many of them give you only one hip belt pocket and the strap on the other side dangles annoyingly.
- When the base is rounded instead of flat, the pack falls over whenever you set it down. It’s incredibly annoying.
- If you have a top loader pack whose lid pocket attaches to a strap whose only connection point to the pack itself is at the very bottom of the pack, every time you unclip the buckle to open the pack, the strap will fall all the way to the ground. There could be something to prevent this, and it would be incredibly easy. I used dental floss. I’m sure they could do something a little more clever.
And you’ll notice that in many of the pictures shown above, the “bad” pack was an Osprey pack. And there’s a reason for that. Osprey make a million different packs, and plenty of people are happy with plenty of them, but…if I want to find a pack that’ll annoy the hell out of me, I know exactly where to go. Osprey is the absolute biggest culprit of tiny side pockets, and straps covering the side pocket anyway. Among other things.
I intend to continue complaining about these problems until I become such a thorn in the side of these companies that they are forced to acquiesce to my demands. Wish me luck!
What to Keep in a Hiking Backpack: 25 Essential Pieces of Gear
Gaby works professionally in the outdoors as a guide, instructor, and educator. She enjoys helping others gain the knowledge and experience they need to get out and adventure in the mountains.
Let’s face it: Hiking and backpacking are gear-intensive pursuits. So, it’s understandable if you’re not sure what to keep in a hiking backpack during your outdoor adventures.
Thankfully, we’re here to help.
In this article, we’ll walk you through the 25 most important pieces of gear to take with you on a day hike or backpacking trip so you can always be prepared. Plus, we’ll even offer up some top tips for choosing the right gear for your hiking trip as well as some suggestions for making the packing process as simple as can be.
Let’s get started!
Top Tips For Choosing The Right Gear For Any Adventure
With so many different pieces of hiking gear to choose from, picking the right equipment to take hiking isn’t as easy as it might seem. In this section, we’ll offer some brief tips to help you decide what gear is right for you:
How To Choose The Best Hiking Boots
In reality, you’re not going to get far on your next outdoor adventure without a quality pair of hiking boots on your feet. As you search for your next hiking footwear, consider the following:
- Shoe Type. Your first order of business when shopping for hiking footwear is narrowing down what type of shoe you’d like. Whether it’s a lightweight pair of trail runners or burly leather boots, shoe type is a key concern while shopping around.
- Fit. An ill-fitting pair of boots is no fun on the trail, so be sure to consider your personal comfort at all times when buying hiking shoes. If your shoes don’t feel right when you try them on, they won’t feel any better after a long day of hiking.
- Durability. Hiking shoes that fall apart after a single trip are best avoided. So, opt for shoes that are made from durable leather or rugged nylon panels.
Oh, and once you have your new pair of boots, don’t forget to take the time to break in your hiking boots before you take to the trail.
How To Choose The Right Backpack For Hiking
A backpack is one of the most important pieces of gear that you’ll bring into the mountains. Here are some key things to keep in mind as you shop:
- Fit. A backpack that doesn’t fit properly or that feels uncomfortable isn’t going to do you any good as you hike. So, always prioritize fit above all else when shopping for a hiking backpack.
- Capacity. Your next major concern with any pack is its carrying capacity. For a day trip, you can usually opt for a pack with a 15 to 45L capacity. Backpacking trips can require anywhere from 60 to 105L, depending on the length of the trip.
- Features. Additional features, like hydration packs, pockets, and straps can enhance your hiking experience on the trail, so keep an eye out for them while doing your research.
Layering For Hiking & Backpacking: What You Need To Know
If you want to stay warm, dry, and comfortable outside, you’ll need to master the art of the clothing layering system. With this system, you’ll wear and pack the following on every hike:
- Base Layers. Also called long underwear, your base layers are designed to wick moisture as you hike.
- Mid Layers. Crafted with insulation in mind, mid layers are puffy jackets and fleece sweaters that keep you warm in the cold.
- Outer Layers. Your final layer of protection from the elements, your outer layer is usually a waterproof and windproof rain jacket to keep you dry in foul conditions.
For a more detailed understanding of how this layering system works, check out our ultimate guide to layering in the great outdoors.
25 Must-Have Pieces Of Gear To Keep In A Hiking Backpack
If you’re heading outside, it’s imperative that you have the right gear to keep you safe, warm, and happy, regardless of conditions on the trail. While there are dozens of pieces of gear that should be on any camping checklist, here are 25 must-have items for day hikes and backpacking trips, alike!
The 10 Essentials Of Hiking
Regardless of if you’re heading outside for a short jaunt in the woods or an extended expedition in the mountains, there are some pieces of gear you should never leave home without. Here are the 10 hiking essentials that you should take on every trip.
1. First Aid Kit
Although you hope to never have to use it, a first aid kit is a must-have whenever you head into the great outdoors. Even a short day hike can be quite a distance away from the nearest hospital, so having the gear you need to deal with a medical emergency is essential.
A small, lightweight kit, like the Adventure Medical Kits .7, is a solid choice for most day hikes and short backpacking trips.
However, keep in mind that a medical kit is only helpful if you know what to do with it. So, we highly recommend taking a wilderness first aid course if you plan to spend lots of time outside.
2. Navigation Tools
Navigating in the great outdoors can be tricky, even for the most skilled of adventurers. Even if you suspect that you’ll be on a very easy-to-follow trail, it’s always best to pack navigation tools for your journey to help you find your way.
At a minimum, all hikers should come prepared with a paper map and a compass, as well as the skills to use them efficiently. Other key navigation tools to pack include a hiking GPS, like the Garmin eTrex 30x, or a set of maps downloaded onto your phone for offline use.
Always remember, though, that technology can fail in the outdoors, so having paper maps and a compass is critical.
3. Fire Starting Supplies
Staying warm during an emergency is no easy feat, so having a way to start a fire while you’re outside is a must. Sure, you could make a bow drill and start a fire the “old fashioned” way, but this technique is harder than you might think and it takes years of practice to perfect.
Therefore, packing fire starting supplies, such as a windproof lighter, a set of waterproof matches, and a fire-starting tool is important. Since these items are pretty darn lightweight and portable, it’s a good idea to pack a few different ways to start a fire, just in case.
Staying hydrated is of the utmost importance for our health, especially if you’re sweating a lot while hiking. Drinking enough water while outside, however, isn’t as easy as when you’re at home because there’s no clean running water available to the turn of a tap.
That being said, it’s not possible to carry all the water you need if you’re heading out for more than a day of adventure. So, in addition to having a few water bottles or a hydration pack, you’ll also want to have some tools for purifying your own water while outside.
Depending on your personal preferences, you can opt for any one of a number of different water treatment systems, such as water filter pumps, chemical treatments, UV lights, and nifty little tools like the Lifestraw Go Water Bottle.
5. Food & Nutrition
Hiking burns a whole lot of energy, so you’ll need to fuel your body if you want to enjoy yourself on the trail.
Fueling your body properly while hiking requires coming prepared with plenty of snacks for your day of adventure. While the types of snacks that you bring will depend on your dietary preferences, it’s best to opt for easy-to-eat no cooking food, like trail mix, hiking bars, sandwiches, and the like.
Alternatively, if you’re going backpacking, it’s usually easiest to create a full meal plan for your trip so you don’t accidentally under- or overestimate the amount of food you need during your expedition.
6. Repair Kit & Tools
Even if you tread lightly on the trail, at some point, your gear will break or malfunction. Therefore, having some multi-purpose tools and supplies on hand to repair broken gear is a must.
Every hiker should pack a small repair kit, with a lightweight multi-tool, a knife, paracord, duct tape, and other similar items, like Gear Aid Tenacious Tape for fabric repairs.
If you’re backpacking, we’d also recommend bringing additional backpacking-specific repair items. Good things to bring include a stove repair kit (see if your stove manufacturer sells a specific model), as well as splints for broken tent poles.
7. Spare Clothing
Even if you’re planning a summertime day hike on a day with beautiful, bluebird weather, you never know when the conditions might change. As a result, you’ll always want to pack plenty of spare clothing to keep you warm and dry.
In particular, you should plan to have at least one or two more layers of warm clothing (e.g., a puffy jacket or a fleece) than you think you’ll need to stay cozy on the trail. Additionally, don’t forget to pack a rain jacket and a pair of rain pants to help you stay dry in foul conditions.
8. Sun Protection
Perhaps the most frequently overlooked of the 10 hiking essentials, sun protection is a must, even if the weather isn’t forecasted to be particularly sunny.
Well, the harmful effects of the sun on our skin are well-known, as excessive sun exposure can increase your risk for cancer and other conditions later in life. Plus, if you plan on spending lots of time in high-elevation or snowy environments, your risk of sunburn and other sun-related issues increases drastically.
To combat these harmful effects of the sun, always pack ample sun protection while hiking. This can be as simple as a tube of sunscreen, though other items, like a wide-brimmed hat, sunglasses, sun gloves, and even a sun shirt can all make a difference.
Getting benighted on the trail is something that happens to all of us at some point during our hiking careers. Even if you’ve planned on completing just a short day hike, emergencies and other situations can easily derail your adventure, keeping you out in the mountains until well past sundown.
Therefore, all hikers should come prepared with a reliable headlamp and spare batteries, even for a day trip. If you’re going to be out camping for more than a couple of nights, we recommend bringing a few sets of spare batteries, just in case.
Short day trips can quickly turn into an overnight epic with things don’t quite go according to plan. While we hope this never happens to you, having an emergency shelter with you at all times can make it easier to survive an unexpected night outside relatively unscathed.
If you’re backpacking, your tent, hammock, or tarp counts as your shelter. So, there’s no reason to pack another emergency shelter unless you think you might do short day hikes from a remote basecamp during your trip.
For day hikers, however, bringing an emergency blanket or bivy, like the ultralight and highly packable S.O.L. Emergency Bivy is a great idea.
15 Must-Haves For All Hiking Adventures
In addition to the 10 hiking essentials, there are a whole host of other items that any adventurer should bring when heading outside to make your experience more comfortable and enjoyable. So, here are 15 excellent pieces of gear to pack on your next hiking trip:
1. Bug Head Net
Fact: Bugs are annoying.
Whether they’re biting flies, mosquitos, or swarms of midges, keeping insects away from your face can be a pain in buggy locales. Although you certainly can use insect repellent as another layer of defense, a bug head net is usually your best bet for weight savings on longer hiking trips.
In fact, since they’re compact, lightweight, and fairly inexpensive, a bug head net should be a part of any camping checklist, just in case you find yourself in a mosquito-infested location on your travels.
2. Emergency Communication Device
Another addition to the list of items that you hope to never have to use but you certainly want to have during a serious situation, anyone heading outside should have an emergency communication device on hand at all times.
Although cell phone service is usually quite unreliable in the mountains, bringing a fully charged phone is a great move on any hiking trip, just in case. Furthermore, if you’re heading out on a longer expedition, non-cell phone communication devices, like Personal Locator Beacons (PLBs) or a Garmin InReach is a wise choice.
Or, when all else fails, going old school and packing a classic signaling mirror is a great decision on any hiking adventure.
3. Bear Canister or Bear Hang Kit
If you’re planning on backpacking in any recreation area with a known bear population, local regulations will almost certainly require that you come prepared with a bear-proof way to store your food. Depending on your local land manager’s regulations, you may need to bring a bear canister or a bear hang kit on your travels.
For bear canisters, you’ll want to check in about the specifics of what canister models are acceptable in your local forest or park. The Backpacker’s Cache Bear Canister is a popular choice, but be sure to check regulations to ensure it’s allowed in your hiking area.
If you’re allowed to use the bear hang method to store your food, however, you’ll want to come prepared with a dry bag for your food, 100ft (30m) or more of durable 7mm rope, and a tiny 0.5L stuff sack to get the job done properly.
For more information on different outdoor bear-proof food storage options, check out this video from REI:
4. Toilet Paper & Trowel
At some point during your hike, you’ll likely need to answer nature’s call. Since there (usually) are no flushing toilets in the wilderness, it’s important that you have the supplies you need to use the loo with minimal hassle and while following Leave No Trace guidelines for human waste disposal.
For the most part, hikers are normally expected to bury their solid human waste in a hole that’s at least 6” (15cm) deep, known as a “cat hole.” Doing so helps the waste decompose and prevents it from contaminating nearby water sources.
Digging a cat hole, however, usually requires something to dig with, so don’t forget to pack a small trowel on all day hikes and backpacking trips, just in case. Additionally, if you’d rather use toilet paper instead of natural wiping materials, bring a small roll on your adventures.
5. Hand Sanitizer & Soap
Spending time outside doesn’t mean you have to skimp on your personal hygiene. Whenever you hike or backpack, you should come prepared with a small bottle of hand sanitizer and a small container of soap to help you stay fresh and clean on the go.
If possible, opt for biodegradable soap, like Dr. Bronner’s to help lessen your impact on the environment.
6. Trekking Poles
Okay, while trekking poles don’t technically go inside your hiking backpack, they do make adventuring much more enjoyable in rough terrain, so they’re worth adding to your gear list. So why use trekking poles?
Even if you’ve never used trekking poles before, most hikers find that they help quite a bit with balance and stability on the trail. Plus, many folks find that using trekking poles lessens the stress on your knees, hips, and ankles as you hike downhill. What’s not to love?
7. Portable Battery Pack
Although many of us head into the backcountry to unplug from technology, we generally bring small devices, like headlamps, phones, GPS units, and emergency communication tools on our hikes.
Therefore, it’s important that you have a spare portable battery pack, like the iWalk Portable Powerbank, in your pack at all times, just in case you need to quickly charge your devices.
8. Pack Cover or Pack Liner
On a particularly rainy day or a snowy winter camping trip the naturally water-resistant fabric on your hiking backpack might not be enough to keep your gear dry in the mountains. For a more reliable waterproofing solution, we’d highly recommend using a backpack rain cover or pack liner while hiking.
Backpack rain covers are designed to fit over the front of your backpack to shield it from moisture and foul weather. You can normally buy a pack cover from your pack’s manufacturer to ensure that it fits properly.
Meanwhile, pack liners, like the Osprey Ultralight Pack Liner are sort of like giant dry sacks for the inside of your backpack. They keep your gear dry on the inside and are more reliable in very windy and stormy conditions.
If you find that you spend a lot of time hiking in hot and humid locales, you probably notice that you get quite sweaty on the trail. In these conditions, frequently replenishing your electrolytes is essential if you want to protect yourself from dehydration.
For day hikes and backpacking trips, alike, portable electrolyte tablets, like those from Nuun are a simple solution for all your on-the-go hydration needs.
10. Bandana or Buff
Bandanas and buffs are among the most versatile pieces of gear you can bring into the mountains.
Whether you’re partial to buffs or bandanas, both offer plenty of great benefits on the trail, especially when it comes to protecting you from the sun. Plus, they’re super lightweight and they’re highly portable, so there’s no reason not to have one in your pack.
No one likes getting rocks, twigs, dirt, snow and other debris in their hiking shoes while outside, so a quality pair of gaiters is critical for ensuring a seamless hiking experience.
Since there are dozens of different gaiters on the market, it’s important that you find a set that’s best suited for your needs. For example, folks who wear low-top trail runners while hiking might find that ankle-height gaiters are more than sufficient. Alternatively, for hiking in deep snow, consider knee-height gaiters, like the Outdoor Research Crocodile.
Hiking gives you a chance to see and experience some of the world’s most beautiful landscapes first hand. Even if you don’t imagine yourself as the next Ansel Adams, having a small camera on hand can help you capture the experience without draining your phone’s battery.
Or, if you’re not interested in photos, consider packing a sketchbook or some portable watercolors, instead for a relaxing activity while in camp.
13. Bear Spray
If you’re hiking in bear country, it’s important that you come prepared with important safety gear, like bear spray to help you stay safe in the mountains.
A bear spray canister, like one from Counter Assault, which comes with a convenient holster, is a must for travels in known bear terrain. However, be sure that you always keep your bear spray accessible as you hike so you have it on hand in the event of an emergency.
Whether you’re a bird lover or simply keen to check out the trail ahead, a pair of compact binoculars can truly enhance your hiking experience.
Of course, binoculars can get quite heavy, so it’s best to look for a pocket-sized pair unless you’re a particularly enthusiastic ornithologist. Oh, and if you’re interested in learning more about the local wildlife, consider packing along a pocket guidebook with identification information for species in your area.
15. Quick Dry Towel
Last but not least, a quick dry towel, like the PackTowl Personal, is a great option for drying off after a rainy day or after a brief swim in an alpine lake.
Since traditional cotton towels are bulky and slow to dry, a lightweight microfiber model is a sure bet for any outdoor escapade.
The Ultimate Hiking Packing List: A Cheat Sheet
We want you to have the easiest possible time packing for your adventures. So, here’s a printable checklist with all 25 must-have items to keep in your backpack for you to use as you pack for your next hiking trip!
How To Pack For A Day Hike?
Packing for a day hike starts with knowing what you actually need and what’s just nice to have. Since no one wants to carry more weight in their pack than is absolutely necessary, we recommend the following:
- Never Skimp On The Essentials. The 10 essentials of hiking are called essentials for a reason. As such, you should aim to take them on every hiking trip, no matter how short it may be.
- Prioritize Your Other Gear. After you pack all the essentials, it’s time to start thinking about what else you might bring. If space in your pack is limited, make a list of all the potential items you might pack in order of most to least important. Then, cut items from your list as packing constraints dictate.
- Revise Your Packing List Frequently. Although there are some pieces of gear that you shouldn’t leave at home, even if they don’t get used often (e.g., emergency communications devices and first aid kits), we all fall victim to packing more than we actually need in the mountains. So, after each hiking trip, take the time to review all of your gear and consider leaving any items that you didn’t use at home on your next adventure.
Tips For Packing Gear And Packing Efficiently: The ABCs of Packing
As we’ve mentioned, hiking trips require a whole lot of gear. With limited space in your pack, it’s imperative that you pack efficiently. So, as you pack, follow these ABCs of packing principles to get the job done properly:
- Accessibility. Gear that you’ll definitely need during your hiking day, like your map, compass, snacks, and rain jacket should be at the top of your pack in an accessible spot.
- Balance. Strive to pack your gear so that it’s equally balanced on both sides and that the heaviest items are at the bottom. Otherwise, you might find that one side of your body gets more of a workout than the other.
- Compression. If you have a lot of gear to fit in a small pack, you’ll need to compress everything down as much as possible. Stuff gear into every nook and cranny of your pack to use all the available space.
- Dry. No one wants wet gear while hiking. So, use dry backs, a pack liner, or a pack cover to keep your gear dry on a rainy day in the mountains.
Can You Use A Regular Backpack For Hiking?
You certainly can use a regular backpack for hiking, though it’s not ideal. In particular, regular backpacks (like the ones you might use for school or walking around town) aren’t designed for carrying heavy loads.
So, while they’ll get the job done, regular backpacks are not as comfortable for outdoor adventure as a dedicated hiking backpack because they don’t have padded hip belts and shoulder straps, nor other useful features.
What Should You Not Take On A Hike?
Although it’s impossible to list everything, a few of the most important things that you shouldn’t take on a hike include cotton clothing, really heavy objects, and valuables, such as jewelry and non-waterproof electronics.
Why’s that, you might ask? Well, cotton clothing is a no-go for hiking because it offers no insulating value when wet. Meanwhile, heavy objects will just hold you back as you hike and valuables are likely to get lost or damaged, so they’re best left behind.
How Much Water Should You Bring On A Hike?
On average, you should bring about 4L of water per person per day on a long day hike, though you may need more if you’re in a very hot environment. However, you don’t necessarily need to carry all of this water during your trip.
Instead, if you know that there will be water sources located along your hike, you can start your trip with just 2 to 3 liters of water. Then, you can use a filter or another water treatment system to purify water while you’re on the trail.