**Disclaimer: This is a beginner’s backpacking guide according to MY EXPERIENCE AND OPINION. I’m no expert – I’ve only been backpacking since summer 2015 but I want to share what I’ve learned for anyone else looking to transition from day hiking to overnight backpacking. This guide is to help you get started with planning and a gear list, but if you want to see what I personally pack, jump over to my other guides here:
- Tiff’s Personal Backpacking List: My starter gear set, non-ultralight (2015-2018)
- Ultralight Backpacking Guide: Pack Lighter, Move Faster (2018-present)
For starters, I’d recommend going with someone who has been before if it’s your first time. Make sure you check if there is a permit system for your intended trail. Many people have asked me how I trained to backpack; hiking trails with elevation gain and walking on an inclined treadmill both help. Remember that when you actually get out there, it’s just you and other fellow backpackers out there… so know your limits and know it’s ok to turn around if you’re not comfortable.
Once you get to a good camp spot, I always like to pitch my tent, blow up my inflatable sleeping pad, and lay out my sleeping bag right away so I won’t be too tired when I’m relaxed after dinner.
Below I’ve listed the gear you will need to acquire as a beginner backpacker, my personal gear list, and food recommendations.
♥ If you have any questions, feel free to ask me in the comments below.
♥ If you just want to know my recommendations/ what I like to use, scroll to the bottom or click here. 🙂
New to backpacking? Here’s the rule of thumb I have noticed – the lighter the gear, the more expensive it is… and remember, you are carrying everything on your back! Ultralight backpacking is always a good option for backpacking but it comes at a price. Everything is a live-and-learn process.
If you are new to the wonderful world of backpacking, you probably don’t want to drop too much money at first which is understandable, just get a decent starting set of gear and upgrade along the way once you’ve figured out how much you want to invest into this new hobby. You also have the option to rent your backpacking gear: REI offers great gear rentals! This is a good option to test out items if you are unsure if you want to spend a lot of money on something you may not want to keep up with.
Now here’s what you’ll need:
- Tent – lightweight, backpacking purpose.
- 3 season: built for spring, summer, fall
- Sleeping bag – ladies, get a women-specific bag if you can. You’re probably looking at a 3-season sleeping bag until you get more comfortable to go in the winter (I’m not even quite there yet), which you would then invest in that ridiculously expensive winter bag (which I just did).
- Down vs synthetic: main difference – down is warmer but synthetic isn’t totally useless when it’s wet (unlike down feathers, synthetic dries faster) and synthetic tends to be cheaper. If you are going to be in damp/wet conditions, go with the synthetic. Otherwise, down feels better if you run cold as I do.
- Storage at home: do not keep it compressed in the little compression bag you hit the trails with! Keep it inside the bigger stuck sack it comes in, this way it helps keep your bag fluffy.
- Sleeping pad – get an insulated one, it makes a huge difference! Each pad has an R-value which measures the thermal resistance of the pad; the higher the number, the warmer you’ll be. I heard a 5/10 means you can sleep on snow and not feel the cold… but I have yet to test this out. Personally, I don’t like the mummy size pads even though this will save some weight and breath for you. Also for winter, I hear you should get a foam pad to go under your air pad.
- Overnight backpack – 50 liters is good for 1-3 nights. There are sizes and proper ways to adjust your pack to your body so stop by REI (or your nearest backpacking equipment store) and have them size it for you. There’s also a proper way to pack your bags and strap it on. Many modern, lightweight backpacking packs have a sleeping bag compartment on the bottom of the backpack, and everything else on the inside big pouch should be packed with the lightest items on the bottom and heavier on top-middle up against your back so the weight doesn’t hurt your lower back.
- Hiking shoes & socks – hiking socks make a big difference as opposed to wearing normal workout socks and you can’t go wrong with merino wool.
- Headlamp (& extra batteries)
- Portable Stove & propane
- Layers – This really depends on where you’re going, but these are the essentials I always like to have with me
- Down jacket (or another softshell insulating jacket)
- Rain jacket
- Hat / beanie
- Neck warmer/ buff/ scarf/ bandana
- Pants – as a girl, I know we struggle to look cute while hiking and let’s be honest… hiking pants aren’t really cute. I always wear leggings.
optional (but recommended):
- Hydration pack
- Battery pack – if you rely on your phone for pics
- Bear canister – find out ahead of time if it’s required or not
- Hygienic necessities: toothbrush, toothpaste, toilet paper, trash bag to pack it out, sunblock, etc
- Quick-dry towel
- First aid kit
- Pocket knife (personal preference)
- Hiking poles
- Water filter
- Fork / spork/ eating utensil
- Bug Spray
- Fresh pair of clothes for the next day – some people don’t mind re-wearing clothes to save on space & weight, but for a quick trip, I prefer clean leggings.
This will vary depending on how many nights you are backpacking and your taste, but basically, anything lightweight will do the trick. Freeze-dried meals are good options because it’s super light and you can cook it right in the bags for convenience by just adding hot water. Remember that you are carrying the fuel so make sure you check how long it will take to cook up your meals (like rice may take a while). For lunch, you probably want to keep it quick and light, so you can get back on the trail soon without any food coma but again, you know your body best. Reward yourself with a yummier full-size meal for dinner! I find it helpful to pack up your snacks and meals in separate ziplock bags, for easy access and to save space (especially spices). & Don’t forget snacks!! Here are some meal ideas:
Breakfast: banana, oatmeal, cereal with powdered milk, bread/ pastries
Lunch: sandwiches (salami & bread works well because salami doesn’t need to be refrigerated and provides a lot of fat and protein to burn), bacon, jerky, granola bars
Dinner: MREs/ freeze-dried meals, cup of noodles, foil pouch tuna, spam, summer sausage, couscous, quinoa, instant rice, freeze-dried vegetables, curry, soup
Snacks: granola bars, protein bars, rice cakes with almond butter or peanut butter, nuts, dried fruits, granola, fruits (even though they weigh more), jerky
*Random food tip: if you are only going for one or two nights, you can freeze half of your water bladder and slip any deli meats against the inside so it creates a temporary cooler.
See my other Gear Guides:
- My Favorite Gear from the REI Memorial Day Sale 2021
- REI Labor Day Sale 2020: Shop My Favorite Items
- Resource Guide for How to Plan An Epic Backpacking Trip
- Summer Hiking Essentials: Protect Your Skin from the Sun
- Best Leggings to Hike In
- Snow Hiking Basic Safety Guidelines
- Thanksgiving Deals: Shop Tiff’s Favorite Gears
- Best 3 Hiking Shoe Recommendations in 2021