Backpacking for Beginners

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2: Get Essential Backpacking Gear and Clothing

Keep your initial investment low by borrowing or renting the priciest items—your tent, sleeping bag and pad. Because they must fit you well, boots, and to a lesser extent packs, need to be your own personal gear.

What Gear to Bring Backpacking

Because you have to carry and fit it all into your pack, backpacking gear has to be lightweight and compact. That’s why, with a few exceptions, it’s not practical to simply repurpose car camping gear. Remember, too, that you’ll be splitting up gear like tents and pots and stoves when you hike with a friend. The following are essential items you’ll need for any backpacking trip:

  • Tent: Plan to share because a two-person tent weighs less and is more economical than two one-person tents. Bring a tent rated for three seasons (spring, summer and fall) rather than a four-season tent because you’re not ready for mountaineering just yet. Learn more by reading How to Choose a Backpacking Tent. You can also check out our guide to the best backpacking tents.Shop Backpacking Tents
  • Backpack: If you do borrow a pack, try it on first to be sure that it fits comfortably. Load it up with assorted items to about 30 pounds, and take it out on a long test hike. If it’s comfortable on the hips and in the shoulders, it’s probably fine for this first backpacking trip. If you decide to buy a pack, have an REI pack specialist measure your torso so they can properly fit you. Don’t be tempted by an ultralight model for your first backpack because it will be less padded and have a less supportive structure than a more deluxe model. If you’re determined to minimize weight, look first at ultralight tents, sleeping bags and sleeping pads. Learn more by reading Backpacks: How to Choose. You can also check out our staff picks for the best backpacks.Shop Backpacking Packs
  • Sleeping bag: If you decide to buy a bag, consider the pros and cons of down fill vs. synthetic fill, especially in terms of the weather conditions you’re likely to encounter. For your first bag, synthetic is a good choice because it’s versatile and generally more affordable than down. Learn more by reading Sleeping Bags for Backpacking: How to Choose.Shop Backpacking Sleeping Bags
  • Sleeping pad: Cushioning is crucial to a good night’s sleep. Insulation is, too, which is why you can’t take a pool float and hope to sleep warm. If you buy a pad, consider the virtues of each type: closed-cell foam pads, insulated air pads and self-inflating pads. If you can sleep well on a super-firm surface, then a closed-cell pad can save a lot of weight and money. For a good compromise between comfort and value, choose a self-inflating pad. Learn more by reading Sleeping Pads: How to Choose.Shop Sleeping Pads
  • Stove: If you own a single-burner camp stove that weighs less than a pound, it’s probably fine for your first backpacking trip. If you choose to buy, you’ll have to consider fuel types first and then make your stove choice. A lot of beginners go with a gas-canister stove because they’re affordable and easy to use. And be sure to pack along a full canister or bottle of the right type of fuel for your stove. Learn more by reading How to Choose a Backpacking Stove.Shop Backpacking Stoves
  • Water treatment: Even pristine-looking sources can hide things you’d rather not drink, so it’s wise to treat all water in the wilds. You can borrow a filter, but an ultralight and simple option for your first trip is chemical treatment: tablets or drops you add to a bottle to purify your water. Learn all about buying and using water treatment gear by reading How to Choose a Water Filter or Purifier and How to Filter Water.Shop Water Treatment
  • Kitchen supplies: Save money by scrounging from camping gear or well-worn items from your local thrift shop or home kitchen (not the fine china). Bring just enough pots, pans, plates, cups and utensils so that you can cook and eat each of your planned meals. Bring a small sponge and some biodegradable soap for washing dishes (well away from camp and water sources). A tiny towel also comes in handy.Shop Camp CookwareShop Camp Dinnerware

What Clothes to Bring Backpacking

No need to buy a bunch of special “hiking clothes” for your first backpacking trip. Simply go through your fitness wear and find clothing made of moisture-wicking, quick-drying fabrics like nylon and polyester. (Moisture-wicking fabric pulls sweat away from skin to keep you dryer.) Avoid cotton, which slurps up water and takes a long time to dry when wet—that can chill you and, in a worse-case scenario, lead to hypothermia.

Your backpacking clothing should be grouped into layers:

  • Next-to-skin base layers (aka long underwear): Important because even warm days can end with cold nights.
  • Hiking layers: Nylon pants (may be rollup or zip-off), T-shirts, sun shirt, sun hat.
  • Insulation: Puffy vest or jacket, lightweight fleece pullover, warm hat and gloves.
  • Rainwear: Definitely bring a waterproof/breathable jacket; whether you also bring rain pantsdepends on the weather forecast (rainwear is also good at preventing mosquito bites).

The beauty of layering is that it lets you quickly adapt to changing conditions. It also lets you put together a robust clothing defense against storms that move in suddenly, bringing cold and rainy weather.

If you have a favorite pair of non-cotton athletic tights or yoga pants, they can work as either your base layer or your hiking pants. Worn as pants they won’t offer you handy stash pockets and they’ll be more susceptible to brush snags and rock abrasion than regular hiking pants.

What Shoes to Bring Backpacking

Because your feet are crucial to a successful trip, footwear is your most important item. Some backpackers insist on supportive over-the-ankle boots, while others prefer lightweight trail running shoes. To learn more, read Hiking Boots vs. Trail Runners: The Great Debate.

Your boots or shoes should be well broken-in before you go. Wear wool or synthetic socks, and consider bringing an ultralight pair of shoes or water sandals for wearing around camp (and for fording creeks).

Basic Backpacking Checklist

We’ve talked about major items above, but that’s not all you need to carry. There’s no convenience store nearby, so you need a way to be sure you have all essential gear in your pack. Use the checklist below to be sure you have everything for your trip, then use it again to check off items as you load your backpack:

You can also take a look at our Comprehensive Backpacking Checklist to find additional things to consider taking on this trip, or on future trips.

Tip: Grab your checklist when you get home from your trip. As you unpack, make notes about what worked well and what didn’t work so well. After a few trips doing this, you’ll have a checklist that’s customized for you.

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