Backpacking Checklist

Article By:
Chris McNamara
Founder and Editor-in-Chief

Last Updated:
October 16, 2017

This page includes all the gear you need for a backpacking trip. It may intimidate you (and your wallet) but don't worry: you likely need less than half the things on this page depending on where you are traveling and your style. We will walk you through it step by step to help you figure out what you actually need.

Updated Fall 2017
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

  1. Start with the Must-Bring Items, you need this gear.
  1. Next, move onto Clothing and Footwear Essentials.
  1. 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.
  1. 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.
  1. Finally, if you are obsessed with having the lightest pack possible, see the Ultralight section at the bottom.

1. Must-Bring Items

  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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)
  • 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)
  • Warmer Down Jacket or Insulated Jacket — See our Down Jacket Review and Insulated Jacket Review.

3. Optional Items (but highly recommended)

  • Gaiters — For keeping dirt out of your hiking shoes and boots.
  • 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
  • Wipes
  • Whiskey

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.
  • 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.
  • 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 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.

The Deuter ACT Lite  one of our Best Buy Award winners  is a simple yet versatile backpack that carries comfortably. While hiking the John Muir Trail  we didn't even take the backpack off at rests  it was so comfortable!
The Deuter ACT Lite, one of our Best Buy Award winners, is a simple yet versatile backpack that carries comfortably. While hiking the John Muir Trail, we didn't even take the backpack off at rests, it was so comfortable!

Chris McNamara at Big Sur  2008
Chris McNamara
About the Author
Chris is the founder of OutdoorGearLab and serves as Editor-in-Chief. Climbing Magazine once computed that three percent of Chris McNamara’s life on earth has been spent on the face of El Capitan—an accomplishment that has left friends and family pondering Chris’ sanity. He’s climbed El Capitan over 70 times and holds nine big wall speed climbing records. In 1998 Chris did the first Girdle Traverse of El Capitan, an epic 75-pitch route that begs the question, “Why?” Outside Magazine has called Chris one of “the world’s finest aid climbers.” He’s the winner of the 1999 Bates Award from the American Alpine Club and founder of the American Safe Climbing Association, a nonprofit group that has replaced over 14,000 dangerous anchor bolts. Chris is also the founder and lead author of the rock climbing guidebooks publisher, SuperTopo. He is a graduate of UC Berkeley. You can follow him on Facebook, Twitter or He also has two Lake Tahoe Vacation Rentals here and here.

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