Beginners Backpacking Guide – Tips & Gear

Gear Guide / Thursday, January 12th, 2017

**disclaimer:  This is a beginners backpacking guide according to MY OPINION.  I’m no expert – I’ve only been backpacking since summer 2015, nothing extreme, haven’t been on too many adventures and have taken a few girls on their first backpacking trip, but I want to share what I’ve learned for anyone else looking to transitioning from day hiking to overnight backpacking.

For starters, I’d recommend going with someone who has been before.  Make sure you check if there is a permit system for your 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 the fellow backpackers out there… so know your limits.

Once you get to a good camp spot, I always like to pitch my tent, blow up my air 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.

Backpacking Gear

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 fine, 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 and Adventure16 both offer great gear rentals!  I find that this is a good option to test out items and also for 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 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 1-2 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 – can’t go wrong with merino wool
  • Headlamp (& extra batteries)
  • Portable Stove 
  • Layers – This really depends on where you’re going, but these are the essentials I always like to have with me
    • Base layer
    • Down jacket (or another soft shell insulating jacket)
    • Rain jacket
    • Gloves
    • Hat / beanie
    • Neck warmer/ buff/ scarf
    • 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,
  • Quick-dry towel
  • First aid kit
  • Pocket knife (personal preference)
  • Hiking poles
  • Water filter
  • Fork / spork/ eating utensil
  • Sunglasses
  • 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 at least need clean leggings.


Of course 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 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 trek soon without any food coma.  Reward yourself with a yummier 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’s 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), bacon, jerky

Dinner:  MRE meals, freeze-dried meals, cup of noodles, foil pouch tuna, spam, summer sausage, couscous, quinoa, instant rice, freeze-dried vegetables, curry

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.


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18 Replies to “Beginners Backpacking Guide – Tips & Gear”

  1. Great write up with a ton of helpful tips! I can totally relate to you on trying to look cute while hiking so i’m glad i’m not the only girl concerned about this haha.

  2. Keep up the good work. Great 101 tips I could have used on my first backpacking trip. Great idea about icing the water bladder to keep the food cold!
    Mash potato powder pouch is also great to take cause you can just add hot water to make it. It’s great along the lasagna MRE!

  3. Are leggings warm enough in winter? My fiance does not like to hike in winter because her legs get too cold, but I love winter hiking (I run hot, she runs cold). I’d like to get her something so she’d be more inclined to join me when there’s snow on the trail.

    Thank you for the tips!

    1. Hi there! Superrrrr sorry I am somehow just now seeing your comment!! I hope you were able to figure out a warm solution for her but some leggings are warm enough for me when I hike since I am constantly moving. Fleece-lined leggings are perfect because they’re a little thicker but I have found that hiking in the snow with a lot of incline def warmed me up a bit. Adidas Terrex also offers a thicker pair of leggings which I posted about in my personal backpacking list at the bottom of this post, and Glyder has a pair of sculpt leggings from their Fall 2018 collection that was thicker and warmer with pockets 🙂 Hope this still helps!

  4. Love these tips! I’m starting to build out my pack (using an Osprey Kyte 46) and it’s definitely been a challenge balancing weight vs $$$. I totally know what you mean about pants – I still mainly wear Lululemon WUs or Athleta tights ?

    1. Thanks, Kristy! It’s a constant battle of buying, trying, and returning or keeping haha. I guess I’ll have to look into Athleta tights as well! 😀

    1. Hi Aleksey,

      Thank you for your message. I understand and agree with you – that’s actually how I learned it too. I guess I should rephrase my wording to mean the sleeping bag goes on the bottom since it’s super light, the quick easy gadgets on the top pockets, easy-to-access outerwear on the outside pocket, and the heavier stuff is closer to the middle-top back. But everyone learns their own ways to pack however they are comfortable with. Thanks for sharing 🙂

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