11 essentials for every backpacking trip

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Every time I pack my bags for a new adventure I find myself questioning what I should and should not bring. Packing too much is a waste of weight, but packing too little can have nasty consequences. That is why I always start by packing these 11 essentials. Because I know, as long as I pack these things for my backpacking trip, I am going to be pretty well prepared!

Oh, and just so you know, I didn’t make up these essentials myself. They were (a long time ago) established by ‘The Mountaineers’, which is an organization for outdoor adventurers of all kinds. The list was made up of 10 things that should be brought on every adventure to make sure people were able to survive in the outdoors. In the meantime, the list evolved into a system, so it can be adjusted to any backpacking trip.

The only thing I did myself, is to add 1 extra item to the list: Hygiene. As I find this very essential as well! And even like the others on the list, this one is very adjustable for any trip!

Maps, guidebooks, altimeters, compasses, GPS trackers, the sun, and the stars, they are all tools to help you navigate.

Map

A map should always be carried with you when you are going out into unfamiliar wilderness and where there is no clear footpath to follow. Make sure you understand how to read a map!

You can also check the AllTrails app to see if your trail is in there. Download the map beforehand and use it offline on the trail. It shows you exactly where you are and how to find your way back if you wandered off.

Compass

A compass is very essential when you get disorientated during a backpacking trip. In combination with a map, you can find your way back. You might have a compass in your watch or phone but also carry an old-school standard compass. It doesn’t work on batteries, so you can always rely on it!

Guidebooks

Guidebooks are more for preparation than for being a real navigation tool. They tell you what you can expect from the trip. The altitudes you have to ascend and descend and the kind of surface you will find. Often it tells you something about the climate and the weather you can expect during certain periods of the year, etc.

Altimeters

These tools will tell you at what height you are at. This can come in handy when you need to orientate yourself on a map. It also helps you to keep track of your progress during the hike.

GPS trackers

GPS trackers are available in watches, phones, small devices, etc. They are the ideal navigation system, as you always know exactly where you are and where you need to go. The only con is that all these devices work on batteries, so you have to make sure they don’t run out of power. You should also bring other navigation tools, so a GPS device is not the only navigation tool you rely on!

Sun and the stars

This is the oldest navigation tool there is. People have always used the sun and stars as a guide. You just need to be very familiar with how it works before you can rely on it!

2. Illumination

Always be prepared for the dark! Maybe you have to start your day early, when the sun isn’t out yet, to avoid extreme heat. Or maybe the days are really short during wintertime.

A headlamp or torch is always good to have with you. I personally prefer a headlamp, as I have my hand free while I am able to light up my surroundings.

Make sure you also carry extra batteries, so you are always able to find your way in the dark.

3. Sun protection

The sun can either be your biggest friend or your worst enemy. During cold winter days, the sun is able to warm you up a bit, but in the desert, the sun can get you in trouble – real quick!

Sunglasses

Take a pair of sunglasses with you on every backpacking trip. No matter if it is winter or summer, the sun in your eyes can be very annoying. In the winter the sun can even make you snowblind!

A hat or cap

Wearing a hat or cap when the sun is out will avoid you getting a sunstroke. This can be a very nasty and painful sensation. Worst case scenario you also have to throw up, which makes you dehydrated. Not the ideal circumstances when you are out in the wilderness. Especially as it is easy to prevent by wearing a hat or a cap!

A hat for sun protection during a backpacking hike

Sun protecting clothes

A lot of shirts and pants provide sun protection. They can keep your skin sun-safe as long as you are wearing them. Depending on where you go, you should also consider a high SPF.

Sunscreen

The kind of protection we are probably all familiar with. Apply it to your skin and protect yourself from the sun. Check if it is sweat or waterproof and apply multiple times a day. Also, consider taking SPF lip balm!

4. First aid kit

When I pack my bags for my next backpacking trip, I always try to reduce the weight as much as possible, but I never try to save weight on a first aid kit. Before I leave I always check if it has everything in it.

Pre-assembled first-aid kits come in a lot of different levels. From kits with the basic stuff like bandages and adhesive tape to extreme kits that even include needles. These might come in handy when you go to a country where hygiene in hospitals isn’t good.

The number of people and the length of your trip will influence the contents and the amount of all items. Before you leave, always check if the following items are still in your kit:

  • Adhesive bandages
  • Disinfecting ointment
  • Bandages and gauze pads
  • Treatments for blisters
  • Adhesive tape
  • Tweezers
  • Aspirin or similar pain killers
  • Latex gloves
  • Pen and paper
repair kit

5. Repair kit and tools

A repair kit should at least contain a knife, duct tape, and some rope. A knife is the ultimate tool that you can use for many different scenarios. You can use it for cooking, repairing, cutting wood into kindling wood, protection, and first aid.

Duct tape can fix everything, like a hole in your tent, raincoat, or backpack. If you are a bit creative, duct tape can be used for even more purposes!

A rope can replace a broken shoelace, operate as a washing line, or an extra guy line for your tent. You can also use it to stick together as a group when you are crossing a river.

A repair kit can be extended with many other items. Like a repair kit for your air mattress, a multi-tool, needle and thread, etc.

6. Fire

To be able to survive you should be able to light a fire. No matter if it is for cooking purposes, to stay warm, or for alarming others. Lighting a fire can be life-saving.

To light a fire you need 3 things: oxygen, fuel, and heat. Oxygen is the easiest one, as it will always be around.

Fuel will probably be wood, but anything else that burns can be used as well.

To get it started and to keep it going, you need a lot of heat. So, always make sure you have a lighter, firestick, or waterproof matches with you during your backpacking trip.

To quick-start the fire you can use firelighters. This will also make it a lot easier when the wood is damp or wet.

7. Shelter

Bringing a shelter in the shape of a tent sounds pretty logical when you go out for a couple of days or longer. But even if you are not planning on staying away overnight, it might be useful to bring an emergency shelter. This will protect you from the elements in case you get injured or stranded in the wilderness.

An emergency shelter can be as simple as an emergency blanket, which only weighs a couple of grams. You can also bring an ultralight tarp or a bivy sack. It makes sense to pack this as well if you are going out for multiple days, but plan on leaving camp for day trips.

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8. Extra nutrition

For a simple or organized day trip, nutrition will be a quick snack, like an energy bar, nuts or fruit. If you plan on going away for longer, make sure you always take extra food with you! You never know what will happen, maybe the weather turns against you and you are stuck for one or two days.

The length of your trip will determine how much extra food you should carry. I always bring one-days extra food for every 5 days I am out. Try to bring easy to prepare food or even food that doesn’t need to be prepared at all. Like nuts, dried fruits, energy bars, beef jerky, tins with chicken or salmon, etc.

Keep in mind that your body needs extra energy when you are walking, cycling, kayaking, etc the whole day! So, pack more than you normally consume.

9. Extra hydration

Staying hydrated is the most important thing to do when it comes to surviving! No matter if you are going on a backpacking trip in cold or warm weather, you should drink at least 2.5 liters a day. In warm circumstances, when you lose a lot of water due to sweating, you might even want to consume twice as much.

A camelback is ideal to carry water. These bags have the right shape to easily fit in your backpack. With a little tube attached to the bag, you are able to drink without taking your backpack off your back.

Check if you come across any water sources throughout the day. This will help you to decide how much water you need to carry from the start. Also, check if these water sources are clean, otherwise bring a water filter to make sure you are always able to get fresh drinking water. Always bring some extra water, in case a water source is dry or if you can’t find it.

10. Extra insulation

Depending on where you go for your backpacking trip, weather circumstances can change rapidly. A strong wind or rain can come from nowhere. Make sure to add one or two extra layers in your backpack, to be prepared for colder and wetter circumstances than you might expect.

11. Hygiene

This is not the part where I am going to talk to bring a toothbrush and deodorant on your backpacking trip. That is all up to you. This is the part where I am going to talk about poop and pee! Because you know, we all do it!

Doing your business outdoors can be a challenge, especially when the weather is cold and you prefer not to take off your pants, as your butt might freeze!

There are a couple of things you should take into consideration when you go backpacking:

  • Bring a trowel to be able to dig a hole of at least 8 inches deep to bury your poop.
  • Bring enough toilet paper and a plastic bag to carry your used toilet paper along. Remember to not leave any traces!
  • If you bring any soap to wash yourself or your clothes, make sure to not wash in a river or any other natural water source. Even if it is biodegradable soap, it will cause damage to the environment.
  • Bring wet wipes! They are good to wash yourself a bit, clean your hands after dinner and you can also use them as toilet paper. Don’t forget to bring your used ones along in a little garbage bag! I love wet wipes!

For the girls among us

  • You could consider bringing a pee rag, some kind of a bandana or quick-drying cloth. This works very easy: pee, wipe, hang it on your backpack to dry, reuse. Personally I am not such a big fan of it, I prefer to take my used toilet paper with me, but I thought I should mention it.
  • Menstruating is never fun and being outdoors can be an extra challenge. You can just manage it the same as home when you use tampons or pads. Don’t forget to carry your used ones along in that lovely plastic poop and pee bag! You could also consider using the moon cup.

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We love to hear from you

These were the 11 essentials to pack for every backpacking trip. Hopefully, you now understand why you should always carry these essentials with you! Do you have experience with backpacking or do you have a question? Please leave a comment below.

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