After a COLD trip in the High Sierra, we have updated our checklist with some new items and budget options.
Download a PDF of The Checklist
We distil the entire article below into a concise checklist PDF. Just click the link above then print it out or save it to your phone for your next backpacking trip.
How to Use This List
- Start with the Must-Bring Items, you need this gear.
- Next, move onto Clothing and Footwear Essentials.
- See if you need any Optional Items (but highly recommended). You can probably get away without them, but they may make your trip more pleasant.
- Next, see the list Optional Items (that are either luxuries or for specific applications). You probably don't need these but they might be useful.
- Finally, if you are obsessed with having the lightest pack possible, see the Ultralight section at the bottom.
1. Must-Bring Items
- Backpack — See our Backpacking Backpacks and Women's Backpacking Backpacks reviews. Those reviews have some light options, but the ultralight options are here.
- Backpack Cover — Most manufacturers sell covers to fit their packs but trash bags (good) or trash compactor bags (better) work great. Some people line they pack with the bag, some people put it on the outside, and some do both.
- Bear Canister (if required)
- Buff or "Multisport Handband" - They claim "12 ways to wear" these but 4 stick out: face mask, balaclava, headband or neck sun protection under a cap.
- First Aid Kit — You can build your own or buy an already-filled kit. Get to know the contents of your first aid kit, and know how to use them.
- Food — See The Best Backpacking Food and The Best Camping Food reviews. Our favorite energy bar is the Probar Meal.
- Headlamp — Carry extra batteries or an external battery if your headlamp charges by USB.
- Lighter and/or Matches — For starting fires and in case the built-in igniter on your stove fails.
- Map and compass — Make sure you know how to use both and that all members of your team have them. Since most people use apps and GPS devices, it's good to remember that if your gadgets fail, a paper backup map is essential.
- Mug and Spoon/Spork — See our Spork Review. Our favorite is the Snow Peak Titanium Spork and our favorite mug is the Olicamp Space Saver Cup. This is all you need if you are using a system like the Jetboil Flash with just-add-water food. If cooking, you also need a light cook set like the G4Free Outdoor Camping Set.
- Permits — Reserve permits months in advance (online or by phone). Some areas may also have walk-in permits you can get the morning of your trip.
- Sleeping bag — See our Backpacking Sleeping Bag Review and Women's Sleeping Bag Review. See ultralight options below.
- Sun protection — (hat, sunscreen, lip balm, sunglasses). See our reviews for Sun Hats, Sunglasses and Sun Shirts.
- Duct Tape — Don't bring a roll, just wrap a trekking pole, water bottle, or toilet paper tube with about 3 feet worth.
2. Clothing and Footwear Essentials
See our Introduction to Layered Clothing Systems and How to Layer Clothing for Each Season for an overview and detail on how to layer for different activities and weather conditions.
Warm Weather Essentials(Low temperatures above freezing)
- Hiking Pants — See our men's Hiking Pants Review and Women's Hiking Pants Review reviews. Our men's favorite: the Prana Stretch Zion Convertible Pants. Our women's favorite: the Marmot Lobo's Convertible Pant - Women's.
- Hiking Shoes or Boots or Trail Running Shoes — See our Best Hiking Shoe Review and Best Hiking Boots for Men Review. Also, see our Best Women's Hiking Shoe Review and Best Women's Hiking Boots Review.
- Light Down Jacket or Insulated Jacket — See our men's Down Jacket Review and Insulated Jacket Review. See also our Women's Insulated Jacket Review and our Women's Down Jacket Review.
- Underwear — We have not noticed a huge difference in various synthetic underwear models but we do review some fancy models in our travel underwear review.
Cold Weather Essentials(Low temperatures above freezing)
- Balaclava — In cold weather these are essential. Our favorite is the Smartwool NTS Mid 250 Balaclava.
- Warmer Down Jacket or Insulated Jacket — See our Down Jacket Review and Insulated Jacket Review.
3. Optional Items (but highly recommended)
- Cord — For fixing broken shoelaces, gaiters, pole grips etc. We like the Kelty TripTease LightLine.
- Gaiters — For keeping dirt out of your hiking shoes and boots.
- Light Fleece Jacket — See our Fleece Jacket Review and Women's Fleece Jacket Review. We only use light fleece. Heavier fleece is too heavy and doesn't give enough warmth compared to an insulated jacket.
- Handheld GPS — You might also consider using an app on your smartphone but keep in mind you need to download maps in advance and store them on your phone while you have an internet connection.
- Rain Pants — Rain pants are only optional in relatively dry areas with predictable weather like the Southwest desert or the Sierra Nevada. For rainy areas, they may be mandatory.
- Satellite Messenger or Personal Locator Beacon — Indespensible for coordinating a rescue or calling for help if you are out of cell service.
- Toilet Paper — and heavy duty zip locks to pack it out
- Trekking Poles — You can also use ski poles or no poles.
- External Battery and/or Solar Charger for charging your phone, camera, headlamp etc. Here is our Current Favorite External Battery. Also, follow our iPhone Battery Saving Tips for Backpacking.
4. Optional Items (that are either luxuries or for specific applications)
- Backpacking Chair — You can also sit on your foam sleeping pad or bring a small piece of foam.
- Camp Shoes — Shoes or booties that weigh only a few ounces and have no sole or a very soft and light sole. We recommend a shoe like the Nike Free which weighs little and can double as a river-crossing shoe.
- Wind Jacket — We generally prefer an ultralight rain jacket like the Outdoor Research Helium 2 because wind jackets are only a little lighter than ultralight rain jackets and not waterproof.
5. Ultralight Gear List
Keep in mind that many of the options above are already very light. The ultralight gear listed below shaves, even more, weight in two ways; 1. by using dramatically more expensive materials like titanium, 900+ fill down, and cuben fiber, and 2. by using minimalist design principles such as tarp shelters which have no walls or a floor and quilts which have no zippers or hoods.
While many OGL Reviewers love ultralight backpacking, we also acknowledge the gear comes at a higher cost and requires learning new skills and habits that many backpackers, especially casual backpackers, may not want to pay for, or experience.
- Bivy Sack — If you are going solo, this saves you weight and set up time. See our Bivy Sack Review and Buying Advice.
- Hammock — Only for certain climates and sleeping situations.
- Minimalist First Aid Kit — Some backpackers feel you only need some Advil to manage pain and duct tape for blisters, to cover minor cuts, and to create a splint to get you back to the trailhead for real medical attention.
- Ultralight Sleeping Bags and Quilts
- Stuff sack — All sleeping bags come with them, but you might want to upgrade to a compression stuff sack to save space. See The Best Sleeping Bag Stuff Sacks.
- Tent Accessories — Most tents come with a ground cover, tent stakes, and tensioning cord. But if you're trying to go ultralight or just want the best quality, you may consider an upgrade described at the bottom of our Ultralight Tent Review. See also Modular Accessories for Floorless Tents.
- Ultralight Tents and Tarp Shelters — These ultralight alternatives to a traditional tent save pounds but are rarely free-standing or enclosed. See our Ultralight Tent Buying Advice to see if they are right for you.