How to pack for your first backpacking trip

Making the jump from car camping or hiking to backpacking can be daunting. The planning, the gear, what to eat, how to poop… all these things seem to carry much more weight when you are miles away from civilization with only your own muscle to haul you back to comfort and a hot shower. In my experience, proper packing can be the difference between a brutal hike and shivering night, and cozy camp memories. Here are some of my trail-tested recommendations:


1.) Shelter

2.) Food

3.) Water

4.) Clothing

5.) Storage

6.) Extras


Shelter

When it comes to shelter, your choices can really make a huge difference. I’ve backpacked with buddies lugging their car camping tents and band camp sleeping bags and feeling flat out miserable. The weight adds up really quickly and most casual bags aren’t very warm. Tents and bags can be quite pricey, though, and if you’re not sure if this backpacking thing is for you, the right gear can be a serious money pit.

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Enter REI’s backpacking bundle. Comprised of a 2 person tent, sleeping bag, and sleeping pad, their $199 basics bundle gets the job done pretty well.

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The two-person REI Passage 2 weighs in at 4 lb 13 oz minimum trail weight, which is comparable to others in its price range. Priced at $159 normally, it’s inclusion in this bundle brings a decent bang for your buck. With two doors, ample vestibule space, and a peak height of 40” it has all the necessities for 2 people and is just plain plush for one. It’s included footprint, and color coded poles and pockets enable quick set-up, and, if you decide you’re into a more minimalist solution, the ability to use just the fly and footprint sheds quite a bit of weight.

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Throw in their Trail Pod 30 sleeping bag and Stratus sleeping pad and you have a comfy little base camp weighing in at 9 lb 7 oz. Sure, you could cobble together these three elements individually and achieve a lower combined weight, but for the price, this is a pretty sweet setup!

 

Food & Water

 

Once you’ve got your sleeping situation figured out, it’s on to quieting that grumbling stomach. If you’ve ever visited an outdoor store, you’ve seen the eye-crossing aisles of gourmet freeze-dried meal options. While those are a fine option, you can save yourself the expense and experimentation. Mac n cheese, Ramen, tortillas with hard cheeses and salami, instant oatmeal, trail mix… all of these options provide plenty of sustenance for a shorter trip in the backcountry. Plus, they save you the awkwardness of discovering the effects of freeze-dried food on your guts…

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If you’re going to cook food, you’re going to need a cook set. Again, there are plenty of complicated options that you can shell out for, but for my money here are two great options:

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Jetboil Flash Cooking System: $99

Priced a little high for a beginner at $99, the Jetboil Flash is a reliable workhorse of a stove that really won’t steer you wrong. An all-in-one system that combines the burner and pot, the Jetboil Flash can boil 2 cups of water in 100 seconds (according to their official stat sheet), which is more than enough for most basic backcountry cooking. The fuel canister attaches easily during use and stows inside the pot for travel.

The Jetboil works best when you use the pot to boil water and then transfer it into another vessel. If you’re following our food advice and cooking easy mac or ramen, this might be tough to do, but pre-packaged backpacking meals come in bags designed to accommodate boiling water, make this a breeze. At 13.1 oz (without fuel canister), this is a compact, relatively lightweight solution to your water boiling needs.

 
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MSR Pocket Rocket OR Etekcity Ultralight Portable Outdoor Backpacking Camping Stove + GSI Cookset: from $58

If you aren’t prepared to shell out for a Jet Boil, or you want a more flexible cookset, I recommend my go-to: the MSR Pocket Rocket. The Pocket Rocket is a teeny, lightweight burner that attaches to the fuel canister and accommodates a wide variety of pots. It is incredibly reliable, infinitely stowable, and really really simple to use.

There are a ton of cooksets to choose from, but for beginners, I really like the GSI Pinnacle Soloist. Comprised of a pot, mug, collapsible spork, and stuff sack which doubles as a sink, the Soloist cookset really punches above its weight (about 9 oz). Use the pot solely to boil water or cook your whole meal in it, it really doesn’t matter. The stuff sack doubles as a sink to make dishwashing much less of a chore (just make sure to responsibly dispose of your dirty water).

I love that this set includes a cup, because that means I can easily drink my coffee while my breakfast boils. The cup comes with a no-spill lid an insulating sleeve that makes it a great vessel for warm beverages. 

The whole kit and caboodle (cup, spork, burner, and fuel canister)nests inside the pot (which goes inside the stuff sack) to make a wonderfully packable parcel that will nestle into any corner of your backpack. Combined with the Pocket Rocket burner, this whole set weighs around 11 oz and costs $90.

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If that is still feeling pricey, save some green and try out the Etekcity Ultralight Portable Outdoor Backpacking Camping Stove. Less reliable than the MSR but similarly spec’ed, the Etekcity has plenty of horsepower for a short excursion at a beginner-friendly price point ($12.59).

 
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When it comes to water, the decision to purify or not can make or break your trip. The babbling backcountry brooks might seem clean and pure, but many are home to all sorts of fun creepy crawlies waiting to bust your gut. Purification doesn’t need to be difficult, though. I’ve used everything from iodine tablets, to filters to UV lights, and here are my two go-tos:

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Sawyer Squeeze

In spite of all the options I’ve tried, my favorite continues to be my Sawyer Squeeze Water Filter System. A little pricier than the Sawyer Mini, the reliability of the Sawyer Squeeze is worth the extra $. While my Sawyer Mini has failed a number of times despite meticulous maintenance, my Sawyer Squeeze has never let me down. It can be a little bulky because you’ll need to carry a vessel to hold your “dirty water” (the water you feed into the filter) as well as a clean bottle or water bladder, but the included water bags pack flat and are simple to use once you get the hang of it.

Photo from  REI

Photo from REI

While filters like the Sawyer Squeeze remove particulates and protect against water borne protozoa (like giardia) and bacteria, they aren’t made to tackle viruses. That makes them great for backcountry trips in the US, but not ideal for travel abroad or where there is an abundance of human traffic (and theoretically more risk of viruses). For international travel, or visits to more populated places, I turn to a Steripen.

Steripen: from $105

Substantially more pricey than the $35 Sawyer, the Steripen ($105 on Amazon) is more of a commitment, but definitely worth it if your travel conditions warrant.

Here are the reasons why I like it:

  1. Easy to use: just turn it on, swirl it around in your nalgene, and when the light goes off you’re all set to drink

  2. Easy to pack: No dirty bags or backwash systems needed. Less to pack = less to lose or break.

  3. Easy to charge: My steripen charges via USB, and is easy to charge on the pocket charger I carry with me when I backpack. It can filter up to 50 L on a single charge, though, so odds are you won’t need to charge on the trail. 

There are 2 downsides that I’ve observed:

  1. Doesn’t remove particulates: Because it doesn’t remove particulates, I don’t use this system if I’m going to be in a location with muddy, silty, or still water. Just in case, I always cover the mouth of my water bottle with a bandana to do a little in-field filtering of bigger bits.

  2. Dirty water can linger around the mouth of the bottle: To mitigate this, I loosen the top of the bottle a few turns, invert my water bottle, and allow the clean water to rinse the top and lid. This isn’t foolproof, but it makes me feel better.


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