A Weekend Backpacking Checklist for First-Timers

The mountains are calling, and I must go." -John Muir

You love hitting the trail and hiking into the wilderness. Feeling the sun on your back and the wind in your hair as you breathe in the fresh air, you are recharged. You have been day hiking and can tackle 10, 12 or maybe even 16 miles in a day. And now you are thinking of leveling up and taking your first weekend backpacking trip.

backpacking checklist

Backpacking frees you to travel farther from the trailhead, allowing you to see sights that few others experience. I won't sugar coat it. Carrying a backpack for miles is not easy, but with proper planning, preparation and thoughtful packing, you can make sure your first backpacking trip is a success. This is where a weekend backpacking checklist comes in handy.

Keep your first trip simple. Start with an overnight backpacking trip not too far from home. Look for a distance that will get you out of the fray. Not sure where to go? Check with the rangers at your local state or national park. They are a wealth of knowledge.

Your Weekend Backpacking Checklist

Backpacking Gear: The Big Three

Start with the Big Three: pack, shelter and sleeping bag. These three items have the most impact on the weight you will carry.

  • Backpack: Look for an internal frame; it's lighter and smaller and will be more comfortable.

  • Tent: This is an area where you can split the load if you're sharing with another. You want a tent that is lightweight. Backpacking tents come in one, two or even up to four person models, but don't carry more tent than you need.

  • Sleeping Bag: This is critical to your comfort. My choice is a down bag. It is lighter and compacts better than synthetic fill, but you will have to make sure to keep it from getting wet; down loses much of its insulating quality when wet. Along with that, a lightweight foam or inflatable sleeping pad will go a long way toward helping you sleep better in the backcountry.

These Big Three items are also some of the most expensive on this list. If you're not ready to take the plunge, consider borrowing one or more of these items your first time.

Backpacking Gear: Food and Cooking

backpacking checklist

  • Water: You know about the importance of water from your long day hikes. Plan on the ability to carry about 3-liters of water, either using a hydration bladder or bottles.

  • Water Filter or Treatment System: You don't want your trip spoiled by a bug. It tastes great and it may look crystal-clear, but filter or treat your water to be safe. Sawyer filters or a Steripen are two good options.

  • Backpacking Stove: A pressured gas stove makes boiling water in the backcountry a snap, and most come with the cook pot -- perfect for cooking freeze-dried backpacking meals.

  • Cooking and Eating: For your first trip, keep the food simple. Go with a packaged backpacking dinner. You boil water, pour it in the foil pouch and let it sit for a while. You can eat it right from the pouch, making cleanup easier. All you'll really need is a spoon. If you really want to get fancy, you can bring an aluminum cup. It can be used for everything from coffee to oatmeal, to a dinner "bowl."

Backpacking Gear: Clothes

Check with the local ranger for the latest conditions on where you will be camping, and remember that weather can be unpredictable. Here's a good checklist for an overnight backpack trip that you can use as a starting point and adjust for the weather.

  • Boots: You have these already from your day hikes, right? Keep in mind that you carry a heavier load when you backpack. Many people find they appreciate extra support of a good hiking boot. Whatever shoe you prefer, be sure to trail test them on day hikes first.

  • Socks: You'll want two pairs of good wool hiking socks; one to wear on the hike in, and a fresh pair to wear on the hike out.

  • Hiking Pants: During my first trips, I wore the same walking shorts that I wore throughout high school. Now I recommend convertible pants with zip-off legs. You've got shorts when the weather is hot, and pants when you hike through brush or if it gets chilly.

  • Shirt: Get a sweat-wicking tech t-shirt as your base layer. Add a long sleeve shirt; it will help keep the mosquitoes at bay and add warmth at night.

  • Wide-brimmed Hat: Keeps the sun off your face.

  • Bandana or Buff: Useful for everything from mopping the sweat from your brow to making a pillow.

  • Rain Jacket: In your pack, have a waterproof rain jacket. If it rains, you'll be ready.

  • Knit Cap and Gloves: If it gets chilly at night, having a warm hat and gloves can make a huge difference.

  • Insulated Jacket: This can be a fleece or puffy jacket or vest for layering when it's cold.

  • Base Layers: This depends on the weather and where you are backpacking, but I often carry a thermal base layer. It helps me sleep better at night, and it can be worn under my clothes during the day if it gets really cold.

Backpacking Gear: Other Must-Haves

Don't forget to add these items to your pack.

  • Food: Keep it simple here, and remember that you're burning a lot of calories on the trail. My breakfast usually consists of instant oatmeal that I add whey protein, nuts and dried fruit to. Instead of lunch, I snack every 90 minutes to two hours while hiking. I pre-pack snack portions of nuts, dried fruit, jerky and bars. And dinner -- at least the first time -- should be a simple freeze-dried backpacking meal.

  • Toilet Paper and Trowel: Get an inexpensive plastic trowel for burying your waste. For toilet paper, leave the rolls at home and bring a travel-size packet of tissues.

  • Insect repellent: Depending on the time of year and where you are backpacking, you may want some form of insect repellent.

  • Whistle: Get separated from your group? A whistle can get their attention. Many backpacks now build one into the sternum strap.

The 10 Essentials

You probably know about the ten essentials already from your day hikes, and they are even more important when backpacking. Watch this video for a quick reminder on the 10 essentials, and make sure you have them with you on your backpacking trip.

This might seem like a lot to pack, but many of these items you probably already have. Resist the urge to add to this list, other than adjusting for the weather. The more you carry, the harder it will be on your body and the less enjoyable it will be overall.

Finally, before you go on that first backpacking trip, take a test-run with your gear. Load your pack like you're going for the weekend, but just do a day hike. Go 5-6 miles in, set up your tent and cook your lunch, then clean up, break down and hike back.This gives you a safe way to trail-test your gear and gives you a chance to make sure you know how to use it before you're deep in the backcountry.

See you at camp!

Team Sierra blogger
posted by
Jeff Hester
Blogger at SoCal Hiker
As a member of #TeamSierra, Jeff Hester receives promotional consideration from Sierra Trading Post. Jeff is an average guy who enjoys exceptional outdoor adventures. Whether thru-hiking the JMT, exploring the Lost Coast, or bagging a local peak, his goal is to help you find your next adventure.
Comments (1)
8/7/2017 at 4:44 PM
Hopefully covered in the 10 Essentials is a first aid kit, and the knowledge to use it. Blister (and dealing with the "hot spot" precursor to blisters) are almost a certainty. Preparation for other, more severe situations - cuts, sprains, abrasions should be part of the kit.
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