The Ultimate Backpacking Gear List for Beginners

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There’s something that feels so organic and exciting about backcountry camping- packing everything you need for a night or two into a bag, strapping it on to your back, and heading into the wilderness to find a campsite.

It can, however, be confusing to know what you need to pack and even when you understand the basics, it can feel overwhelming to figure out, in a marketplace full of countless contraptions, what kinds of equipment are actually worth your investment. Tents, for example, can range anywhere from $25 ones you score from Walmart to ultralite gadgets selling for well over $1,000. 

man and woman sitting in a tent surrounded by dense pacific northwest pine trees

For the type of camping I wanted to do with my husband, Justin (i.e., 1-3 nights in the backcountry), I knew that we needed to invest in decent gear, but I didn’t want to buy unnecessarily expensive, fancy equipment that was beyond what we technically needed (we weren’t planning on wild camping in Siberia or anything!). All of the blogs I could find about what a beginner backpacker needs to pack seemed to list dozens and dozens of articles of really pricey stuff that I wasn’t really sure was necessary. 

So after countless hours researching blogs, watching YouTube videos, falling down the blackholes that are camping forums, and lowkey stalking staff at my local REI, we finally picked out all the gear we needed- mid-range equipment that’s built to last, but that wasn’t more technically advanced than what we need. And with several camping trips officially under our belts, I can confidently say I can recommend every single thing that we’ve purchased! 

So with that, here is exactly what we pack in our backpacks for our backcountry camping trips. 

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Table of Contents


What is backcountry camping?

Most people are familiar with the campsites that you drive up to and pitch your tent, sometimes at campgrounds with amenities like shared bathrooms and showers or a camp store where you can buy firewood- this is called “car camping.”

When you backcountry camp (sometimes called “backpacking”), on the other hand, you carry everything you need for however long you plan to camp, from your tent to your food to toilet paper, on your back, hike away from roads or other developed areas, and find a place in the wilderness to make your temporary home! Because you’re responsible for bringing pretty much all of the resources you’ll have access to, it’s super important that you’re adequately prepared for the experience.

Man and woman sitting in a tent along the Skyline Divide trail in Washington's Cascade Mountains

Who is this backcountry camping packing list for?

This list is geared towards folks like us- beginner backpackers who plan on camping a few nights in a row, mostly in the spring, summer, and fall; and who want decent equipment that isn’t going to fall apart, but also who don’t want to break the bank. If you’re someone who has a TON of cash to blow (tell me your secrets!) or someone who is looking for four season or ultra-lite camping gear recommendations, there is probably a better resource out there for you other than this post. 

What do you need to know to go backcountry camping?

Before going backpacking as a beginner, I’d recommend having a baseline comfort level with hiking. Justin and I hike almost every single week in the Cascade Mountains near our home in Seattle, so I’d say we’re in decently good hiking shape.

That being said, all of our camping gear and water in our packs weigh about 30 pounds a piece- so once you strap that load on our backs, what we’d normally consider to be “moderate” hikes become much more challenging. Hiking regularly will help build up your leg and core muscles, which in turn, will help you be prepared and, more importantly, not get injured when backpacking.  In the same vein, I’d encourage you to start small- maybe pick a trail where you only have to hike for a mile or two the first couple of times you try out camping.

Woman hiking up the Loop trail in Glacier National Park, with mountains in the background

Before you go, you should also be well-acquainted with, and be able to follow, the Leave No Trace principles:

Plan ahead and be prepared.

This means you should know about things like weather conditions and trail restrictions (do you need a permit or any special equipment to camp where you’re planning on going?) so you can plan ahead and protect the health and safety of those in your group and of the resources on the trail.

Travel and camp on durable surfaces.

You should stay on the trail as often as you can, to avoid unnecessary erosion and disturbing fragile plant and animal lives.  You should also camp at established campsites or on durable surfaces, like rock or gravel, at least 200 feet away from water sources.

Dispose of waste properly.

Pack it in, pack it out. For human waste, you should dig a cathole 6-8 inches deep, 4-6 inches wide, and at least 200 feet away from a water source. You should bring along a garbage bag and pack out any toilet paper and any other kinds of waste you create (e.g., snack wrappers) so it can be disposed of properly.

Leave what you find.

We all love seeing cool flowers and rocks- that’s why we go hiking, right? But it’s important that we leave it there- both for others to enjoy and to minimize our impact on the environment. 

man and woman hiking on a trail in bryce canyon national park

Minimize fire impacts.

Make sure you’re aware of and following local regulations. If fires are permitted, use established fire rings and make sure to never leave them unattended.

Respect wildlife.

Don’t feed, chase, or otherwise threaten animals and make sure your food is properly stored while camping. 

Be considerate of others.

Keep noise at a minimum and make sure any animal companions you bring with you on the trail are under control. 


Finally, whatever equipment you buy, make sure you know how to use it before you actually head out. Justin and I, like the cool cats we are, pitched our tent and set up camp (sleeping pads and all) in our living room a week before we went on our first camping trip to make sure all of the necessary parts were included in our gear’s original packaging and that we actually knew how to put those parts together.

What to Pack for Backcountry Camping

Okay, now that our are legs are JACKED and we’re primed and ready to dig ourselves a cathole, let’s finally get to camping. Here is exactly what Justin and I pack for a backcountry camping trip.

Backpack

Well, you need a backpack that’s big enough to fit your shelter, clothes, food, and water for the days you’re out in the backcountry, right? Backpacks have a ton of different features to consider- how much they weigh, how much stuff they can carry, what kind of ventilation they have on your back, how they open, and on and on.

I’m not going to go into all of the details about backpacks (that in and of itself could be a pretty meaty blog article), but one thing I will mention is, that if you’re planning on going on trips from 1-3 days in length, I’d recommend getting a bag that’s between 50-70L.

When the associate I was talking to about backpacks at REI told me that (and showed me the size of backpack he was talking about), I thought he was CRAZY- there’s no way I’d need that much stuff to go camping for a few nights. But after packing up my bag several times for camping trips, I’m sure glad I got a 65L bag (and really, even if you get a bag that’s a bit too big for some of your trips, most backpacks come with enough compression straps to make the size a non-issue). 

woman hiking down a trail surrounded by colorful wildflowers with mt rainier in the background

Choosing the right backpack is SUPER important- not only can selecting the wrong backpack make your camping experience terrible (think back sopping wet from sweat or having to annoyingly pull everything out of your bag to access something at the bottom, only to have to immediately repack everything), but you could also REALLY mess up your back and hips.

When you wear a backpack, most of the weight should be distributed through your hips; while you’ll obviously feel some pressure on your shoulders, you should not feel like the majority of the weight is being placed there. When we were trying out bags at REI, the store associate we worked with recommended adjusting our packs so that 70% of the bag’s weight was on our hip-straps and the other 30% on our shoulders.

While you can certainly get an idea of backpacks you’re interested in online, I’d highly recommend going into a store like REI to try a variety of backpacks on- stuff the backpack with the amount of weight you’d expect to be carrying in your bag (most stores have sandbags for this purpose) and walk around the store with it on your back. I was pretty surprised how comfortable some bags were- and how others caused me immediate pain.

I wound up choosing an REI Co-op Traverse 65 Pack, both for the size, how comfortable it was; and several features (like a J-zip, which allows you to access stuff at the bottom of the pack without unpacking everything; hip belt pockets that fit my phone perfectly; and mesh on the back that provides excellent ventilation).

After initially going to several stores and not finding a backpack that fit him comfortably, Justin eventually found his rolltop backpack made by Jansport from a secondhand sporting goods store. The main takeaway- make sure to try on as many bags as possible to ensure you find the fit that’s right for you.

Man wearing a backpack overlooking a blue lake along the Heather Maple Pass Loop Trail

Shelter

Sleeping bags:

There’s a few factors for you to consider when you’re choosing a sleeping bag.First of all, you have to choose whether you’re going with down or synthetic insulation. Down is made from the plumage underneath the outer feathers of waterfowl and is known for its high weight-to-warmth ratio. It’s difficult to clean, though, and does not provide good insulation when wet. Synthetic insulation is more affordable than down and provides better insulation when wet; however, its insulating power is less durable. As Justin and I follow a vegan lifestyle, synthetic was the clear choice for us. 

In addition to the insulation material, you then have to pick the appropriate temperature rating. A temperature rating is usually included in the name of the product and is supposed to help you determine what the lowest temperature at which you’d be comfortable sleeping in that particular sleeping bag.

For example, my sleeping bag is an REI Co-op Zephyr 20 Sleeping Bag, which means it’s rated for temperatures as low as 20°F (i.e. I should hypothetically be able to comfortably sleep in my bag in conditions from around 20° F and higher). This means that if you only plan on backpacking in the summer in Southern California, for example, you would be able to get away with picking a more affordable sleeping bag with a higher temperature rating (say, 45°F), rather than someone who plans to camp in the springtime in the mountains of British Columbia, Canada.

Word of warning, though- my understanding is that sleeping bags are usually rated lower than they actually should be (i.e., they won’t withstand as extreme cold temperatures as advertised), so I’d recommend adding 10-15 degrees to your sleeping bag’s temperature rating to get a better idea of what their rating *should* be (i.e., my 20° F bag would actually let me be comfortable in temperatures down to about 35° F or so). 

Given Justin’s and my plans to camp mostly in the summer and fall in the cooler mountains of the Pacific Northwest and our choice of synthetic insulation, we wound up selecting the Zephyr 20 Sleeping Bag for me and the equivalent bag for Justin. Bonus- the bags zip together so you can make a giant sleeping bag with your partner, perfect for cuddling in colder weather!

Two person tent:

When purchasing a tent, the main things to consider are how many people will you be camping with (do you plan on going solo or with your three kids?) and how you’re going to use it (do you need an ultralite tent to go thru-hiking or are you mostly going on overnight or weekend trips? Will you be camping in six feet of snow or mostly in the summertime?).

Justin and I wanted something that could comfortably fit two people for a weekend, capable of withstanding cooler temperatures, and would be leakfree in the rainy Pacific Northwest climate. We wound up picking up a Northface Storm Break 2 tent and I love almost everything about it.

The doors are huge and gives you a great view outside the tent; the vestibules (i.e., the space created between the actual tent frame and the fly, which essentially acts as a “mudroom” before entering the tent) are really roomy and perfect for leaving our bulky backpacks and boots at night without having to worry about inclement weather; and it’s super easy to pitch and take down. I even love its color scheme (gives me Wes Anderson vibes, right?). 

Couple sitting in a tent with Mount Baker in the background

The main thing I don’t love about it is the weight. Assuming you buy the tent with the footprint accessory (which helps protect the longevity of the tent’s floor), the total weight in the stuff sack is 5 lbs., 14.2 ounces, whereas a more expensive, ultralite 2-person tent should weigh less than 3 pounds.

Since we don’t plan on doing a ton of thru-hikes, though and mostly plan on doing weekend camping trips, the weight isn’t a huge issue for us. If you, on the other hand, are going to be primarily backpacking by yourself (and won’t be able to share the load with a partner) or are planning on using your tent on longer, multi-day treks, the weight may be a dealbreaker for this one. 

If you’re looking for a tent that’s a bit lighter (and again, be forewarned, you’re going to pay a lot more for a lighter tent!), I’d recommend checking out the Nemo Dragonfly Ultralight Backpacking Tent, weighing in at just 2 lbs. and 15 ounces.

I’ll also say here that some folks prefer hammock camping, where, instead of a tent, you bring along a hammock to sling up between two trees. Tent camping appeals to me much more (even though it’s just some thin material stretched across a couple of poles, a tent gives me a much stronger sense of privacy and security) but if you’re interested in hammock camping, here’s a good reference to start you off.

Sleeping pads:

The purpose of a sleeping pad is pretty self-evident- it’s a pad that you put your sleeping bag on to make the ground a bit more comfortable and not so cold to sleep on. Some things to consider when buying a sleeping pad- whether it’s an air pad (which is lightweight, comfortable, and pretty similar to a pool float- you can adjust the firmness based on how much air you blow into it); a self-inflating pad (which uses a combination of foam and air to provide firmness; they tend to be a bit heavier than an air pad, but provides more insulation); or a closed cell-foam pad (sort of similar to a yoga mat, so they’re pretty bulky and not super comfortable).

I’d also recommend looking at the R-value, which relates to how much insulation it will provide in cold weather- this ranges from 1-5.5+, with an R-value of 1 being intended to be used for warmer weather and an R-value of 5.5+ for extremely cold weather). 

Couple sitting in a tent overlooking Mount Hood from the Tom, Dick, and Harry Mountain trail

Given the types of places we plan on camping, I selected a REI Co-op Trailbreak Self-Inflating Sleeping Pad, which has an R-value of 5.3 (i.e., great for cold weather!). I generally really like it- it does a pretty good job of providing me some cushion, but, while it’s fairly lightweight, I wish it wasn’t as long and bulky as it is. Justin, on the other hand, has this airpad with an R-value of 3.3. It’s lightweight, compact, and, given that we don’t camp in extremely cold weather, the lower R-value hasn’t been an issue. 

Pillows:

If you’re trying to cut down on weight, this is definitely one that you can leave at home- lots of people just use some clothes or their backpacks as their pillow, but I’m a comfort QUEEN. While there’s plenty of camping pillows on the market, we actually just repurpose our regular inflatable travel neck pillows under our heads (reuse, reduce, and recycle, right?)- and they’re surprisingly comfortable! 

Eating and Drinking

Food:

What to eat in the backcountry could be a whole different article, but you’re going to want to pack light-weight, shelf-stable items that won’t be crushed in your bag. For snacks, I recommend things like Clif bars, trail mix, and dried fruit and for meals, things like ramen noodles, peanut butter and banana wraps, oatmeal, or dehydrated pre-packaged meals (I prefer ones that you can make in the pouch that they come in so you don’t have to mess around with cleaning food residue off your pots, like this one, this one, or this one). 

Campstove system:

To boil your water or to heat up your food, you’ll need a campstove. You’ll need to attach a burner (we have this affordable lightweight one that packs down super tiny), a fuel canister (we use MSR IsoPro Fuel Canisters), and a lighter (we usually pack two Bic lighters you can just pick up at a gas station).

Cookware:

Assuming you’re mostly going to be adding hot water to dehydrated meals as recommended above, you don’t need to go crazy and spend a ton of money on cookware. We get SO much value out of this Stanley cook set, which comes with two thick plastic cups that we use for coffee or wine, and a lidded pot that cooks up to 24 ounces of water (usually the perfect amount to make meals for two people). The cook set fits nicely into this 18 ounce stainless steel cup with folding handles, which is helpful for holding a bit more volume (like when we make soup) than the smaller cups that come with the Stanley set. 

hand holding a cooking pot full of noodles and tofu with mount baker in the background

As for utensils, we got these folding sporks due to their pricepoint and their space-saving abilities. We’ve used them several times and while there’s been no problems so far, I wish they were a little sturdier. For an extra buck, I would probably recommend picking up these titanium ones instead. 

We tuck a small piece of steel wool into our cook kit to help clean it after we make our meals and, since we always struggle to get our dishes clean without soap, I plan on picking up a tiny bottle of concentrated biodegradable soap, like this guy, to bring along as well (bonus- if you’re going camping for a couple of days, you can use the soap to wash yourself!).

Water:

While some people swear by hydration packs (sometimes called bladders or Camelbaks), I personally don’t prefer them as they’re usually cumbersome to clean and honestly, get gross pretty quickly.  On our camping trips, I instead prefer to carry large Nalgene bottles, like this one, and bring along several smaller plastic bottles (that I reuse!) in my backpack to refill the Nalgene. 

Woman drinking from a water bottle while hiking

Justin and I always carry what seems like an absurd amount of water (for example, if we’re going for a night, we take at least seven liters with us), which is HEAVY and frankly, never enough as we should bring (once, we had to conserve the little water we had left for the hike out and didn’t have enough water to make coffee in the morning- THE HORROR!).

This is a pretty dumb move on our part, but I thankfully was recently gifted a Sawyer Squeeze mini water filtration system so we can filter water from rivers and streams and don’t have to worry about facing the dilemma of being dehydrated or drinking a whole bunch of giardia if we run out of water. 

Drinks for extra-ness:

If you’re counting every ounce you pack, these can certainly be left behind, but in my non-ultralite opinion, there are two camping essentials: some good ol’ camping wine to drink while you’re stargazing before you snuggle into your sleeping bag and coffee to sip while you’re watching the sunrise the next morning.

With respect to wine, you should try to find either cans or a carton of wine for maximum wine-to-weight ratio (i.e., glass bottles are super heavy!)- Bandit Wines and Underwood are a few tasty options to check out. Even if you skip on the wine due to weight concerns, for under an ounce, you can bring along a few packets of instant coffee to get you GOING in the morning (we just use Starbucks Via, but if you’re more particular about coffee, Alpine Start is a slightly bougier version that’s quite tasty or Aeropress is the coffee snob gold standard).

man and woman drinking coffee along the heather maple pass loop outside of the north cascades national park

Bear bag:

This is obviously dependent upon what part of the world you’re camping in, but if you’re camping in bear country (see a map of where bears live in North America here), you’ll need to keep all your food and food waste (and cooking activities) at least 200 feet away from your tent.

There are a ton of different contraptions on the market to help keep bears away from your tent (and, well, you), but the most affordable, versatile, and packable version I’ve found is using a drybag (we have a 20L version of this bag, which is plenty big to fit enough food for the two of us for a couple days and can be used as an actual drybag on trips where we go kayaking or paddleboarding), coupled with some paracord.

Whenever you’re at your campsite and not cooking, you should put all your food in the bag, attach the rope to the drybag, and tie the bear bag to a tree so that it’s at least 15 feet in the air and 10 feet away from the trunk (here’s an awesome video about how to tie up a bear bag by Homemade Wanderlust, a badass lady and great resource for all things camping and hiking).    

I want to flag that there are some popular camping spots, like Yosemite National Park or Yellowstone, that require campers to have an approved type of bear canister, a hard-sided round container that bears can’t smash or otherwise break into.  Bear canisters are heavy, bulky, and expensive, but if your destination requires one, they have those restrictions for a reason- you need to pick one up. BearVault canisters are widely accepted in U.S. National Parks and have good reviews. If you’re only camping in a spot that requires a  bear canister as a one time thing, I’d check to see if you can rent one from a ranger’s office at the park or a nearby outdoor store (like an REI).

Stuff to pack and clean up your food waste:

When was younger, my parents always told me “take only pictures, leave only footsteps”. Along those lines, you need to make sure you come prepared so you’re not leaving your discarded Clif bar wrappers blowing around the mountaintops. Always pack a trash bag or two, several sheets of paper towels, and some reusable food storage baggies in your pack.

Tech Gear

Headlamps:

Assuming you don’t want to fall off the top of a mountain, you’re gonna need a headlamp to use the bathroom or to make your way back to your campsite once it gets dark.  Justin and I have these rechargeable ones (who wants to fart around with replacing batteries?!) and I LOVE them!

woman sitting in a tent at night with a clear starry sky and a large snowcapped mountain in the background
You should definitely bring along the headlamps, but I’d categorize the rest of the stuff in the tech category below as “nice-to-haves” if you’re trying to cut down on weight.

Portable power bank:

Given that we have rechargeable phones, cameras, and headlamps, we take our battery charger with us literally everywhere- including in the wilderness! We bought our Charmast power bank for our honeymoon in November 2017, have traveled with it to 20 countries in the past three years, and it’s still going strong. Highly, highly recommend!

Also, don’t forget to pack along your charging cables for your phone, camera, and headlamps.

Cameras:

I mean, how else are you going to capture that epic sunrise from your tent? Justin and I are both photography enthusiasts and while we are frugal in almost every aspect of our lives, this is definitely an area where we splurge! Justin has a Sony a7III, coupled with a Sony 16-35mm Vario-Tessar lens, and I have a Sony a6400 (I got it with the kit lens, which isn’t great, so I’d recommend just buying the body and picking up a zoom lens for a cropped sensor camera, like the Sony E 16-55mm F2.8 G lens).

I have yet to find a good solution for toting around my camera, but Justin uses the Peak Design Capture Clip, which lets you easily clip your camera in a readily accessible place (like your backpack strap) and quickly release it whenever you want to snap a photo. He loves it so much that I’m thinking about snagging one too!

Woman standing under Delicate Arch in Arches National Park at sunset

Also if you don’t have an ABSURD amount of money to blow on camera gear (seriously, why is camera stuff so expensive?!), no worries- most cell phone cameras these days take really great pictures!

Clothes

Since I don’t know whether you’re camping in Banff in October or along the Amalfi Coast in July, I’m not going to tell you exactly what clothes to pack, but I will say two things. Pack light (camping is the one of those times when it’s 100% okay to be a bit of a dirtbag and wear the same outfit a couple of days in a row; I promise I won’t tell anyone!) and second of all, it’s ALWAYS chillier than you’d expect at night or in the early morning.

So I’d recommend packing a few layers and, if you’re going any place where you might suspect it will get even a little cool at night, bring along a fleece pullover (like this one for ladies and this one for guys), an extra pair of socks (seriously, my feet are always freezing at night- here’s what I use and here’s an option for guys), and a knit hat (with options for ladies here and guys here). 

Woman hiking along the Skyline Loop trail with Mount Rainier in the background

Toiletries

Skin protection:

For how pasty Justin and I are, it’s astounding how often we forget to bring along two simple items: Chapstick and sunscreen

Toothbrush and toothpaste:

I usually pack a cheapo travel toothbrush and some biodegradable toothpaste to brush my teeth in the backcountry. This is one instance that you do want to spray it, not say it- it’s surprisingly not very eco-friendly to spit a huge hunk of toothpaste on the ground, so it’s better to instead spew the paste as far and wide as you can to minimize the impact. Note that bears and other critters can confuse your minty smelling breath as a delicious treat so please do this no less than 200 feet from your tent.

Poop kit:

Justin and I have a gallon Ziploc baggie that permanently stays in my backpack lovingly called, you guessed it, “the poop kit.” In it, we stash several yards of toilet paper; a lightweight trowel for digging catholes (hilariously called the “Deuce of Spades”- worth the cost alone!), and a few dog poop bags for packing up any used toilet paper and, ahem, any other really dire circumstances. Friendly reminder- for human waste, you either need to dig a cathole 6-8 inches deep, 4-6 inches wide or pack everything (and, I mean EVERYTHING) out.

I want to flag that there are some places, like Moab, Utah, which do not allow the digging and disposing of waste in catholes, due to the location’s popularity and the impact on the fragile environment. Some of these places require a “commercial toilet bag system” like a Wag Bag (i.e., a glorified version of the dog poop bags Justin and I take) when you’re backcountry camping, so bottom line- make sure you research the restrictions before you head towards your destination.

Survival Gear

Bear spray:

(This is another one you only need if you’re going to bear country): Most of the time, Justin and I go camping near our home in the Pacific Northwest, which also happens to be the home of tens of thousands of black bears. While bears are not usually aggressive towards people, they may act so if you startle them (like say, if they confuse the smell of your toothpaste as a yummy midday snack) or if their young happens to be near. To mitigate this risk, we always bring along a can of bear spray (which is used much like pepper spray to temporarily deter, but not permanently injure aggressive animals) to keep with us while we hike and camp. Although we thankfully have never had to use it, we have this one.

Knife

Whether you need to cut yummy veggies or cut some paracord in a survival situation, it’s helpful to bring a knife along, especially when it’s a handy dandy Swiss Army knife (i.e., you also get a can opener, a screwdriver, tweezers- all the things!). 

Compass:

I’ll be honest- Justin and I usually go on fairly populated trails and rely on GPS apps on our phones, like AllTrails, to make sure we’re staying on the correct course, rather than a compass. Since this list is geared towards campers who are just starting off, I’m assuming you’re probably not going too off-grid, but if you plan to (and really, it’s best practice to have a backup navigation option in case your phone dies or gets stolen by a mountain goat), you should absolutely bring with a compass and actually know how to use it. If you’re as clueless as I am on that front, this video is pretty helpful.

First aid kit:

Bringing along a first aid kit is needed if you’re going to meet the “be prepared” component of the Leave No Trace principles. If you get a pre-packaged one, like this one, it can be perfect to supplement with special equipment you might need for the environment you’re camping in and to store any prescriptions you might otherwise need.

Couple sitting on the Watchmen Trail in Zion National Park

And that is a blow-by-blow list of everything we pack in our backpacks to take with us on our backcountry camping trips. Is there anything I missed or gear that you won’t hit the trails without? Let me know in the comment section below!

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