Outdoor backpacking can be quite daunting to many, especially for those of us who have never travelled far beyond the city walls. It may seem like there is always more things that need preparation, but once you have a good set of equipment and a system going, it is as simple as loading up in a car/plane and the world is yours to enjoy!
I remember the first time I went backpacking was in the beautiful mountains of Banff National Park for a two week trip. I fell in love with being outdoors and admired the amazing scenery…if only I wasn’t so tired from the load I was carrying! I had packed a giant sleeping bag that filled up half of my backpack, a yoga mat for a sleeping pad, and a many other careless things that cost me space and energy in my backpack. Now, three years of experience later, I’ve gotten a little better with preparing the right items and compiled this list to serve as a basic guide so you too can enjoy camping out without going through your own set of trial and errors.
NOTE: This guide is mostly appropriate for those who are just starting out and wanting to try a couple of days of backpacking in moderate environments. If you are planning a trip in extreme climates or require special tools (i.e mountaineering in high altitudes), please use a more specific guide that focuses on the terrain you will be visiting.
Planning your trip
- Campgrounds – Once you know where you will be visiting, do a little bit of research of the area to check out what kind of camping facilities is available. Not all campgrounds are equal – from the most secluded wilderness camping with no amenities to ‘glamping’ in resort-styled campgrounds. Answering these questions during prior to your trip will help you pack more efficiently and be better prepared for unexpected situations:
- Do I need to reserve a campground site in advance or is first-come first-serve?
- What type of transportation is necessary to access it?
- Is there potable (drinking) water / restrooms available?
- Where is the nearest food available for purchase?
- Backcountry – enjoy nature in all its glory, camp in the backcountry. The ‘wildest’ type of camping (i.e no campgrounds and amenities) is necessary for multi-day hikes and is extremely rewarding. You will usually have the entire scene to yourself. But as such, ensure you are well equipped with safety gear (see below) and have all the information about the place. Call Rangers managing the area and ask about the terrain, temperature in the visiting season, locations suitable for setting camp, and maps detailing the topography. I would suggest doing this only if you are already comfortable with camping in campgrounds.
- Transportation – not an issue if you can drive your own car, but that is seldom the case if you are travelling from outside your home. The best way to travel differs from region to region: in North America, nearly all parks are only accessible by driving (you can fly into some, and then you need a car to travel inside), in South America the common form of transportation is by shuttle buses. I recommend reading forums about your location to see what people who have visited in the past have done. Hitchhiking is always an option, but has its own risk and time factor if you are willing to spend it.
- Packing – this part gets easier the more and more you do it. But at the beginning it is always riddled with decisions. Important factors to always consider: weight, durability, necessity. I’ll go through more about individual items in the next section, along with examples of my own gear (prices are in USD).
My advice is to invest in good gear the first time round – they last long and you will love camping. If you don’t see yourself doing it multiple times, rent one from an outdoor store!
- Tent $60 – varies from 1-man to 10-men tents, choose the size you think you’ll use the most (usually 2 or 3-men). Make sure the tent poles are made of sturdy material (not fibreglass), and has proper wind and rain cover. On long trips, bring tent tape and pole stints in case of tears and breakages. (For those who are concerned about heavy rain, waterproof the tent canvas prior to the trip)
- Tarp $5 – important to keep the bottom of your tent dry, ensure the tarp dimensions is close to that of your tent base.
- Sleeping bag $200 – Probably the most pricey item on the list, you get what you pay for when it comes to sleeping bags. The most important factor to note is the temperature limits of the bag. A bag of 30F ~0C rating usually means that 30F is the temperature limit for survival, not for comfort. So if you are going somewhere you know will be 30F at night, get a bag 10F lower in rating i.e. 20F. Otherwise be prepared to wear many layers to sleep. I recommend bags with down filling as those are light, compressible, and warm (I bought a compression sack that squeezed it down even more $25). Only downside is that they are also more expensive.
- Compression pillow $20 – best $20 ever spent. I highly recommend getting one to prevent stiff backs.
- Sleeping mat $50 – I spent a little more to get this self-inflatable one and have never regretted. Folded up its smaller than a 1L bottle and it feels like a mattress when blown up.
- Backpack and Daypack $150 – I got one that can be combined together on the back (to check everything in together) and can be strapped on easily in the front when walking.
Make sure to get a rain cover for your bag if it doesn’t already come with one ($10)
- Gas stove $11 and Pans $17 – I got budget ones, but they have lasted me a good deal of trips! I love that my gas stove comes with an igniter installed, so I do not have to carry a lighter on me.
- Life straw $20/ compression filter – for extracting drinking water from natural sources in the wild. Great to use if you need lots of cooking water.
- Towel $9 – Microfibre towels are great for all kinds of traveling.
- Lamp $10 – Don’t get stuck in the dark! Bring head lamps and spare batteries. I like this standing lamp for lighting up the tent in the dark.
Base cost: $587 for around 60 days of camping over 3 years =~$10 a night. Camping gets less expensive the more you do it!
- Food – Freeze-dried food is the way to go (I use Mountain House) $20 for 8 meals if you buy a tin = $2.5 a meal.
- Water – Pack at least 2 L a day.
- Gas canisters – a 500mL can could last you a week of cooking daily.
Clothes tend to be overpacked by most people. This may save you the worry of laundry and wearing clothes in suitable temperature, but it does add quite a bit of space and weight. Here’s a list of clothes I would pack for a 1 week backpacking trip (no laundry) in a region with varying daily temperature.
- Rain gear – 1 Rain coat and rain pants are a must (unless you are in California where it hardly ever rains).
- Underwear – 4-6 changes of cotton underwear
- Long underwear – 1 synthetic thermal light to mid-weight. I use Uniqlo’s heat tech shirts, they are amazingly comfy, thin, and warm (and look good too)
- Shirts – 2-4 cotton/ polyester shirts
- Sweater – Fleece
- Jacket – Down (light / heavy depending how cold it gets)
- Pants – 2 pairs, light to mid-weight. I bring Columbia convertible pants, and Uniqlo fleece-lined cargo pants (this one actually makes up for 1 underwear and 1 pants).
- Gloves – 1 pair fleece/wool lined with synthetic cover
- Beanie – 1 wool/fleece beanie especially for sleeping.
- Hat and shades – 1 Sun hat
- Socks – For hiking long distances, I usually wear two layers of socks to prevent blistering. A small blister could ruin your entire trip! This said, make sure you wear shoes that are slightly larger so the socks do not compress your feet.
- Inner layer: short sweat wicking socks (for hygiene and comfort)Outer layer: long cotton/wool sock to prevent abrasion provide support
- Shoes – I prefer high-ankle boots (prevent blistering around the ankles) with toe caps. Invest in shoes with Gore-tex or waterproof your shoes. I’ve owned my Salomon hiking boots for 3 years and it’s still doing great.
- Camp sandals – Teva-type sandals. Tevas a great for light hiking and wading in streams too.
Safety and Others
- Bear spray
- Insect repellant
- Toilet kit
- First Aid Kit
- Plastic bags
I hope this guide will help in making decisions when you go on your next adventure. Use it as a stepping stone to search for other gear that may suite you more and tweak it as you go along! If you feel like I have missed out on something, or have want to share about things that have worked well for you, please leave a comment below, or email me from my contact page. I love to hear from you!