This is a one-stop resource to help you learn to backpack, or backpack better. It:
- Establishes a philosophical context;
- Advises on gear, supplies, skills, fitness, and locations; and,
- Links to useful resources and additional reading.
For such a comprehensive primer, it’s length is very manageable. It’s intentionally succinct — it’s high signal, low noise. I wish that I had found something like it eighteen years ago when I began to backpack. It would have saved me a lot of time, money, and heartache. It’s designed primarily for:
- First-time and beginner backpackers, perhaps with some day-hiking or car-camping experience;
- Longtime backpackers who need to update their approach.
It may be of some value to veteran or intermediate backpackers as well, if you are looking to expand or round out your know-how.
In a nutshell: How to backpack
I cannot put it more simply:
A backpacker needs the gear, supplies, and skills that are appropriate for their objective and the conditions.
This statement has five distinct elements — each one is underlined — and the remainder of this page will address them, plus a few other topics.
There are two extreme styles of backpacking:
1. Hike all day, and camp only long enough to recharge for another full day of hiking. This is the endurance athlete’s approach to backpacking, and is best represented by thru-hikers who cover 25, 30, even 35 miles per day for months on end.
2. Hike a little bit (maybe), and spend more time on non-active pastimes like fishing, photography, and campfires. This approach is ideal for those primarily seeking rest and relaxation.
Most backpackers aim for a happy-medium of these two approaches, and vary their intentions based on their location, trip duration, and companions.
For example, when I completed the 6,875-mile Great Western Loop in 7 months (33 miles per day pace), I carried lightweight gear and calorically dense food, and hiked efficiently by always taking care of my feet and avoiding navigational mistakes.
In contrast, when my wife and I hiked the 28-mile Aspen Four Pass Loop for our anniversary weekend, I carried a full-sized tent, her Kindle, and a powerful stove for coffee and a hot wash cloth at night. We moved well, but had more free-time for long breaks and swimming, and could hunker down in our shelter to avoid afternoon thunderstorms.
Takeaway: Whatever your intended mix of activities, you will need corresponding gear, supplies, and skills. If you pursue a backpacking objective with the wrong approach, disaster can ensue.
Do not confuse the hike-all-day style with “ultralight backpacking,” which seems to:
- Mistakenly define backpackers by the weight of their packs, not by why they go;
- Worship gear above all else, even though it’s not the primary factor in one’s success; and,
- Assume that lighter is always better, which is patently false.
- Is the “lightweight backpacking” label dead?
- Stupid Light: Why light is not necessarily right, and why lighter is not necessarily better
After determining your trip objectives, you should research the conditions that you will likely encounter. They are a function of the location, time of year, and route.
The goal of this homework is to be properly prepared for your outing, and not over- or mis-prepared.
The most important conditions include:
- Climate, e.g. temperatures, precipitation, humidity
- Ground cover, e.g. leaf-covered forest, granite slabs, snow
- Sun exposure
- Water availability
- Navigational aids, e.g. blazes and signage, visibility, distinct topography
- Insects and wildlife
- Natural hazards like river fords and lightning
If you’ve made it this far, you deserve some shopatherapy. Let’s buy some gear!
Well, maybe not quite yet. As a frugal person my recommendation is to first identify what you actually need for your objectives and the conditions. You wallet will thank you — impulsive and piecemeal purchases get expensive, because they’re often misguided.
Buy once, cry once!
To help select your gear, I recommend my book, The Ultimate Hiker’s Gear Guide.
This may seem like a shameless plug, but I’m so confident that it’s a good recommendation that I’ll make a deal: If you don’t feel that it was worth several times its price, I’ll buy it back from you.
The Gear Guide tackles all the major product categories: clothing, footwear, shelters, sleeping bags and pads, stoves, water storage and purification, plus a few more. In each chapter, I discuss and pros and cons of the available options, and state specifically what I use. While some of this content is scattered around the internet, including on my website, you’ll spend hours tracking it down and you’ll lose a holistic approach to gear.
Other good reads:
- Trail Tested, by Justin Licther; and,
- Ultralight Backpackin’ Tips, by Mike Clelland
As you settle on specific items, drop them into a gear list to keep organized, estimate your pack weight, and budget for future purchases. For your convenience, I have created a comprehensive gear list template and checklist, and have shared some of my gear lists that can serve as guides for your own.
Read more and resources:
- A gear list: Its importance & functions
- Backpacking Gear List Template & Checklist
- My backpacking gear lists
Finally, before handing over your credit card, especially for big purchases, you may want to read online reviews. Beware of the source: too many “reviews” are simply a regurgitation of sell sheets, and are not based on comprehensive personal experience with the product. Also, be skeptical of sites that are never critical and that pitch every item as the “best” and a “must-have.”
Examples of trustworthy gear reviews:
As a thru-hiker, my supply list included food, water, stove fuel, sunscreen, topographic maps, toilet paper, and even socks — basically, everything that I would “consume” during my trip and need replenished.
Now, my trips are usually less than 10 days, and I carry everything from start to finish. So for simplicity, I account for non-food supplies in the same aforementioned gear list. Food is the only supply that is treated separately.
Footwear and food solicit more divergent opinions than any other categories. What works great for one backpacker will be a complete failure for another. My recommendation: Experiment until you find solutions that are right for you.
- Amounts & types of food to carry
- My Breakfast & Dinner Recipes
- Backpacking Food: Recipes, Rations, Stoves & Storage (e-book)
- One Pan Wonders, by Dicentra Black
The difference between a beginner backpacker and an expert is not their gear or their supplies, which can be bought easily with a credit card.
Instead, it’s what they carry between their ears. An expert backpacker has skills.
Examples of backpacking skills:
- Using map & compass,
- Finding 5-star campsites,
- Planning a trip,
- Pooping in the outdoors, and
- Remaining comfortable in the rain.
Skills cannot be mastered by reading or watching videos, although that helps. Better yet, take an in-person class such as Backpacking Fundamentals, a 3-day course that I offer in multiple US locations. The best, though, is to get out there — there is no better teacher than experience.
Let’s quickly review what you have learned so far:
- Determine your trip objectives;
- Assess the environmental and route conditions;
- Select your gear and supplies, and develop your skills.
This process would get you a long way, but there is one more notable variable in your ability to successfully undertake a trip: your fitness.
I generally consider fitness to be a skill. It can’t be bought — it must be acquired through hard work and dedication. But it’s different than other other skills in at least one regard, so it deserves special treatment.
Our fitness is naturally governed by our DNA, which is why not everyone can be an Olympian. Some itineraries will always be out of reach despite your gear, supplies, and other skills. In contrast, nearly everyone can learn to operate a compass.
In most parts of the country, there are backpacking opportunities within easy driving distance. Quality varies, of course.
While local options may not be as inspiring as California’s High Sierra or the Colorado Rockies, they’re actually more important. You can reach them quickly and for minimal expense, and they are a useful training ground for a larger stage. Plus, it’s fun to really know where you live.
The US has an extensive network of long-distance hiking trails. You have probably heard of some, like the Appalachian Trail, but there are dozens more.
Unfortunately, long-distance trails make for challenging logistics — a point-to-point itinerary requires a car shuttle or hitchhike, which eats up hiking time. Instead, I prefer to find a girthier area of public land where I can do a loop.
- Online trip reports
- DeLorme Gazetteers
- National Geographic Trails Illustrated maps
It’s time for you to get out there.
But if it’s dark, cold, or dreary, maybe you should wait another day or month. In the meantime, peruse my favorite backpacking blogs, websites, and forums for more information.
Disclosure. I strive to offer field-tested and trustworthy information, insights, and advice. I have no financial affiliations with or interests in any brands or products, and I do not publish sponsored content
This website is supported by affiliate marketing, whereby for referral traffic I receive a small commission from select vendors like Amazon or REI, at no cost to the reader. As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.
I’ve been an off-and-on backpacker and/or car camper my whole life—the only thing that’s been consistent is day hiking (things changed when I was in college and changed again when I got married and again when I had kids and so on, but getting out for a day or an afternoon in the woods/desert is always doable).
No matter what you do, the book can be a great resource. It was really helpful to me as someone who already had most of the gear and skills I needed to do most of what I wanted to do outside, but was looking to get back to it.
What the book (and this website and some others) really did was help me clarify for myself the philosophical underpinnings that drive my desire to not just be outside but to do things outside. And that’s what’s helped guide my gear choices as I replace old stuff with new stuff. Not toward specific brands or products (or even necessarily product classes, though some of that). More toward thinking about things that are more in line with *how* I want to enjoy being outside, rather than just buying whatever looks good in the middle-ground price range that I can afford at REI.
Opening up a world of the outdoors beyond the (seriously awesome, but seriously unattainable) extreme mountaineering/skiing/and so on books and documentaries that the commercial/mass market outdoor industry pushes so hard. Meru is cool, but I’m probably never going there. Section hikes on the Arizona Trail though? Well, that’s in my backyard.
Even though you’ve been self-critical about your more extreme attitude in mk1 of the book, and you’ve talked about a more open-minded stance in the second edition, I think compared to the outdoor industry at large, you were already out in front a good distance.
Anyway, just wanted to give the book a plug. It really is at least as good as you think it is.
“More toward thinking about things that are more in line with *how* I want to enjoy being outside, rather than just buying whatever looks good in the middle-ground price range that I can afford at REI.”
Andrew, this article is superb. My daughter and I are finally ready to tackle our first overnight backpack trip. We live only one mile away from a section of the Pennine Way in the UK, so we will tackle a small bit of that track and know we aren’t far from home. We read this list before we bought our supplies so we were very thankful for the ease of your articles. Thanks again.
This is all great stuff. I am a million years late, but can you recommend any gear reviewers who are assessing women’s-cut clothing?
Most recommendations are gender neutral, but when we get into things like puffies, the folks with more curves have a lot fewer options for finding out what fits and holds up.
Sorry, can’t help you. I follow quite a few female bloggers, but none are prolific with their reviews.
Thanks for responding anyway! I appreciate how much you connect with individual questions here.
Of the resources Andrew has listed above, check out Alan Dixon. Though he’s male, he appears to get a lot of input from his wife who joins him on many of his trips.
The other issue I think we run up against in women’s gear is the greater variety in fit — our bodies are a little less standard issue than men’s. So while I may love a specific brand/model of hiking pants, they may not fit you at all. (Whereas if I were a guy, a pair of EcoMesh RailRiders would probably fit great.) Heck, even with the same body, when I lose/gain weight and change sizes I shift between an ArcTerxy fit and a Patagonia fit for pants! Hard to avoid trying on in store or online order returns. Like footwear, shortlists of good candidates that check all the spec boxes, are most useful for narrowing down what to order or find in-store.
In the long run, once I spend a lot more time outside, I hope to provide what you’re looking for!
The variation sure is a thing. On the other hand, my body is a lot closer to the center of the bell curve than a lot of the guys I know, and I can often wear both Women’s and “Unisex”/Men’s cuts. (Which is nice, as I am trans and don’t identify fully with either. But practically speaking, I shop in the curvy section when fit matters.) People of all genders with larger midsections often have trouble with standard hiking gear tailoring.
Even just knowing more about what is popular among serious hikers without personally cross-comparing ten individual gear lists would be nice.
I will check out Alan Dixon, and I look forward to your future wildly popular gear blog, Katherine!
I thought of another thing for anyone who is wondering if they should get into the women’s gear reviewing gig: YOU CAN TELL US IF CLOTHES HAVE REAL POCKETS.
Everyone who has ever worn a pair of jeans from the women’s department knows of which I speak.
The Hiking for Her blog has a lot of info on women’s cut clothing.
Hello, I hope that it’s OK that I share this link I thought maybe it would be inspiring as well as there are links that would refer you to famous hikers that are women.
I found each and everyone of their stories just so inspiring! 😊 have a great day‼️
Surely someone has given you good-natured flack about the roll-away luggage you apparently took on your King’s Canyon hike.
Nope, you’re the first.
Andrew, appreciate the website, book, and all your helpful advice. I’m not a newbie, but trying to backpack again after a long (decades long) hiatis. My problem is the mental game. I get FREAKED OUT by the animal noises at night; larege (at least they sound large) animals walking through camp keep me on edge all night long. Any advice on getting out of my head and rolling with the experience? Here in NC it’s black bear. Out west it was brown bear and elk; majestic, but not sleep inducing.
Find confidence in the data.
How many documented cases are there of a black bear in NC breaking into an occupied tent? Probably very, very few. Even if there is one or two per year, the odds are still in your favor — backpacking is probably safer than driving your car at 80 MPH on the highway. Ditto for brown bears in places like Yellowstone, Glacier, the Bob, etc.
Elk aren’t going to bother you. Now you’re just being foolish. They survive by NOT hanging out where people are, because between August and January they’ll get shot.
Had an elk literally eating beside my head in the middle of the night. Was afraid that if I made a sudden move I’d get stomped. Brown bear was a few yards away from my tent when sleeping in Idaho. And a couple of years ago a black bear killed a kid not far from one of my regular haunts -the boy and his father did everything ‘right’. I know most of it is in my head, but close calls are still close calls and the mental game is what I’m seeking help for.
Billy – Earplugs my friend! They’re light and cheap. If you’re exhausted enough from the day’s journey, you should sleep okay.
Say to yourself “It’s a chipmunk.” Then pop an Benadryl (dual purpose for mosquito bites).
Are you going solo? Being with another familiar sentient being often helps, even if it’s just a dog or a seven-year old kid.
For me, it’s more the boogey-man. But I discovered a trick: If I can’t see him, he can’t see me! I guess the equivalent of that would be earplugs if you can tolerate them.
Regularly take Ambien, still get woken up
I always bring bear spray, knowing fully well that I’m very very very unlikely to ever have to use it. But it gives me that extra comfort & makes me sleep better at night.
2) after someone sleeps in the backcountry like a hundred times…and nothing happens…you kinda just forgeddaboudit.
I was wondering, since a woman has a lower center of gravity, would it be OK to pack the bear can in the bottom of her pack? I’m using a Gregory Deva 60L, and I can’t get my “small” bear vault stable above my sleeping bag and pad. It just fits better in my pack on the bottom. I haven’t actually hiked with the bear vault yet. I’m experimenting with packing it. =)
Can you go into more detail about how you can’t get it stable?
If your bear can had about the same density as your sleeping bag and pad (so maybe on the last full day of the trip, and on the hike out), there will be no difference if you put it at the bottom of your pack. But when there’s more food in it, it will be denser, and that’s a tough place to cantilever any weight because it’s below your pivot point.
Since you’re in experimentation mode, try it and see if you can tell a difference.
Just be sure to take out all of the food you will need for the day before you bury your canister deep in your pack. You don’t want to go digging like that when you’re supposed to be hiking.
Great article Andrew.
Trying out gear is half the fun!
But it seems no matter how much you research a piece of gear, next year there will be some company that makes it lighter and more durable.
So I try it…and darned if it isn’t a big improvement!
I have seen your earlier posts about using a bidet once a day to stay clean. This seems to have become more common in the western world of hiking. My question is why people still are using TP (in addition to TP). When doing long-distance treks I never carry any TP, and just clean/wipe with my hand using water (starting with some natural materials). Doing it this way, you don’t need to use any TP, and your butt is sparkling clean right after you are done pooping, rather than waiting till later to wash your butt.
For other readers, here’s the bidet post, https://andrewskurka.com/pooping-in-the-outdoors-part-4-the-backcountry-bidet/
People use TP because they’re comfortable with it. For many people, it’s a big deal to simply poop outdoors. To then also clean their butt with water is next-level stuff.
Dixie used the Showa 281 gloves. I too have those possum gloves she wore on the CDT but man they’re not windproof, thus the 281s would help with that. I am not finding 281s on Amazon or by Showa. They only have the 282s which are lined and I do not need the liner. Do you know where I can get the 281s? I have checked locally and the next best thing I can come up with are Ansels model # ANE399-122-10, again, a lined glove. Thanks!
Get the 282, and rip out the liner when it starts to delaminate.
I’ve just finished to read every single article of this great blog of yours. Just wanna to thank you for sharing all these good information with the world and compliment you for the wonderful adventures you had. Hope one day you’ll have the chance to visit the Dolomites in Italy, where I live. I’m sure you’d like it.
Greetings from Italy
Is it doable and fun to hike the Four Pass Loop in two days? We’re four middle aged dudes who are pretty fit and have some hiking experience. We’d like to do one overnight stay on the trail.
With a route like this, you should think about it in terms of vertical gain and loss per day, not horizontal mileage. The Four Pass has 7,800 vertical feet of gain. If you do that over two full days, that’s 3,900 vertical feet per day on average, at elevations 8-12k above sea level. Without knowing more details about your fitness (BMI + weekly exercise regimen) and past trips, I won’t venture a guess if this is doable for you. This page might give you some guidance, https://andrewskurka.com/guided-trips/trip-intensities-training-tips/