Backpacking Essentials for Any Trip

May 21, 2019

Gearing up for a backpacking trip is a balancing act. You’re trying to pack the essentials for survival, safety and comfort without overburdening yourself with weight that dampens the fun, or worse, causes injury.

There are many options when choosing backpacking gear, most important being the internationally recognized 10 essentials. Some of your gear choices will be based on your purpose of the adventure. For example, you might want a tent instead of a tarp if rain and mosquitos are in the forecast. We can’t cover every combination here, but here are the generally accepted essentials needed for any backpacking trip.

Matt Vodjansky and Ashley Buttelmann backpack along the Colorado Trail near Kennebec Pass, CO

Courtesy of Osprey Packs


This is your protection from the elements. Your shelter could be a hefty tent, a lightweight tent, a hammock system or just a tarp.  Most three-season backpacking tents range between 2 to 5 pounds depending on materials and features. There are a variety of minimalist shelters that weigh even less if you want to pass on features such as netting to hold off insects and critters.


Like your shelter, backpacks range from heavier, full-featured models, to stripped down ultralight packs. Some packs come with a multiple pockets and spaces for gear storage and organization, while others are just one large chamber for you to fill. When choosing volume, most multinight bags run from 40 to 75 liters. Factors that affect your size choice include trip length/resupply of food options and the amount/size of your other gear.

Sleeping Bag/Quilt

For many folks, getting a comfortable night of sleep is paramount to enjoying the next day. Sleeping bag manufacturers produce bags with temperature ratings that help you choose something for hot climates to freezing conditions and everything in between. Many ultralighters or hammock sleepers opt for the less restrictive quilts. Look for something that weighs less than 2-3 pounds but keeps you warm.

Backpacking Food

Freeze-dried meal options have improved quite a bit over the years. They’re more nutritious and taste better than ever. The variety of food options ranges way beyond dehydrated meals, including jerky, oatmeal, granola, trail mixes and summer sausages. There are multiple websites dedicated to meal prep for backpackers. You’re going to burn a lot of calories, be sure to pack plenty of food that provides energy.

Water Filtration System or Purifier

Nothing ruins a trip quicker than a stomach bug. Clean water is a must in the backcountry, where you may have to make the best of what’s available. To do that, pack a water filtration (takes out protozoa and bacteria) system or water purifier (takes out protozoa, bacteria and viruses). Options include gravity filters, squeeze filters, drops, tablets and using ultraviolet light.

Standard Water Bottles or a Reservoir

Water storage is vital for hydration on the trail. Some people prefer bottles, while others carry a reservoir within their pack with a hose for easy drinking on the move. Water bottles can be found in several different styles, ranging from plastic-free material to collapsible containers.


You must have light in some form to function at night, especially if you might hike then. A headlamp offers a hands-free way to light up up-close jobs like putting up a tent or hanging a bear bag. There are solar-powered, collapsible lanterns that can light up a larger area such as the tent or tent or cooking area.


GPS devices and mobile programs are incredibly accurate. But their huge downside is being powered by batteries. A map and compass will be the most reliable way to stay on course.

First-aid Kit

At a minimum, you may need to doctor blisters, insect bites or small cuts. Or you could be dealing with a fall and a broken bone. First-aid kits can be basic and homemade, or more elaborate with instructions and more materials from a manufacturer. Consider the risks on each trip and be prepared.

Rain gear/clothing

Dress to stay warm and dry. Raingear can be as basic as a poncho or more involved, such a jacket and rain pants. Clothing should be lightweight and dry quickly.


Always carry at least one way to make fire: matches, lighter, flint and steel.

Putting it together

Picking the right gear may look daunting, but it’s worth spending some time thinking about your trip and making the right choices. If you are having a hard time with that, visit an outdoor adventure specialist. They will help you to get expertly fitted with the best backpacking essentials.