You want a pack with an internal frame. They offer the support you need to carry a lot of weight. Backpacks range in size from 30 litres to over 100 litres. For short (2-4 day) trips, most beginners start out with packs in the 40 to 60-liter range. The important trade-off here is that a bigger pack can hold more things, but that will make it heavier.
Modern packs have a huge variety of pockets, mesh things, straps, zippers and flaps. Of all these fancy extras, the most important is the slot inside that allows you to hold a water bladder. This allows you to sip water from a tube at any moment while you’re walking. (Stay hydrated!) When selecting a water bladder for your bag (they’re sold separately), get a 3-litre or maybe a 2-litre. Don’t go smaller. I carry a 3-litre bladder and a 1-litre bottle.
The fit is also really important. Try on your backpack in person, with weight in it, and wander around the store before you buy it. Adjusting a modern pack is easy once you get used to it, but is not immediately obvious. The most important thing to know is that the weight should be resting on your hips and not your shoulders.
There is a nice description of how to adjust your new backpack here.
You need a lot of clean drinking water to live.
If you lost access to drinking water right now, you would die in three to five days. If you are stuck outside hiking around with a heavy pack on, it might only be two days.
THE official information on water purification can be found on the CDC webpage.
The CDC defines the problem in terms of what you’re trying to kill: Protozoa, Bacteria, or Viruses. They address each of those in terms of water treatment methods: Boiling, Filtering, Chemical Disinfection, (or now-a-days UV Treatment).
Please read what they have to say before you head into the wilderness. It is short and authoritative.
Wrist straps are your friend.
Hiking poles are only necessary because you’re carrying so much weight. They help you go up and down steep terrain carrying a heavy load. And they spread your weight over 4 points on the ground, which reduces the chance you’ll roll an ankle.
Don’t buy your hiking poles online. Try them out in person. You want something that feels comfortable in your hand and is the right height for you. When you hold your trekking pole, your arm should be at a comfortable 90 degrees.
One thing you’ll notice about about a modern trekking pole is the strap on the handle is big and strange. If properly used, these straps mean you barely have to hold on to the handle at all. Which is one less thing to distract you from the view. Here is a nice drawing showing how to use the trekking pole straps.
An important feature of your hiking poles is the locking mechanism used to keep them at the right length. Some poles have clips, some have clamps, and some just screw down tight to fix the pole at a certain length. My advice is to not get the poles that twist. These do not seem to be as reliable; I have seen them fail multiple times.
Assuming you’re not camping in snow, all you need is a light-weight tent. There are hundreds of really great options out there. There are tents with carbon fibre supports wrapped in exotic materials. There are tents designed to be easy to set up in a thunderstorm. There are tents for areas where mosquitos and malaria are the concern. There are ultra-lightweight tents that are little more than a tarp help up by your trekking poles.
As it turns out, I know half-a-dozen backpackers who just went to REI and bought The Half Dome. It’s the cheapest backpacking tent on the market, it’s small, and it easily fits two people and gear. Is it as big and roomy as that tent your parents had when you were a kid? No. Is it light enough to suit an ultra-lightweighter? Hell no.
There are two types of sleeping bag materials: synthetic and down. The standard wisdom is that synthetic bags are cheaper but down bags are lighter. You should also know that down sleeping bags are worse than useless when they’re wet.
Modern sleeping bags have hoods that cover your head. They are also fairly snug and should fit your body height well.
When selecting a sleeping bag pay careful attention to its ‘temperature rating’. Each sleeping bag has an approximate minimum rating for how cold it can be for you to sleep comfortably. And it is important to know that these temperature ratings assume you are wearing a hat and gloves while you sleep.
In backpacking you quickly learn when is essential to life and what is a luxury. Well, if sleeping pads are a luxury they are the #1 best luxury and the first one you should add to your pack.
A sleeping pad is a foam or inflatable miniature mattress that you put underneath your sleeping bag. They make the ground a lot softer and almost everyone says they help you sleep. They also serve the important function of insulating you from the cold ground at night. The inflatable matresses are a lot more expensive than the foam matresses, but they also pack down a much smaller and are a lot more comfortable.
Aside from price and weight, the most important feature in an inflatable sleeping pad is how it is inflated. Some pads have to be inflated like a large balloon, with your mouth. Which is easy enough at home. But if you’ve been hiking for 12 hours and you’re tired, it’s a loathsome task. And if you are trying to set up camp at elevation, the exertion needed to fill the pad can be a dizzying pain. More modern pads have hand pumps built right in. These are much easier to fill. But, honestly, either will be fine.
There are a few major theories on the food you need to bring with you. Ultra-lightweight backpackers bring only freeze-dried food, to save weight. They buy pre-made meals or make their own at home. All of their cooking is done with a Jetboil stove and water.
Some campers prefer to bring lots of real, fresh food. This is heavier, but healthy and delicious after a long, hard day of walking.
Either way, make sure you plan all your meals long before you get out on the trail. And bring snacks. Eating a huge meal will slow you down and make you tired. But if you’re eating small, nutritious snacks while you’re walking it will be easier to keep up your energy. The same goes for drinking water. Don’t wait until you need a whole bottle; sip a little bit constantly throughout the day.
What camping stove you bring backpacking depends entirely on your food plans. If all you’re going to do is boil water to rehydrate food, then you should get a Jetboil. If you plan on cooking meals, you will need a small propane stove. Many companies make these, but the smallest and lightest sit right on top of the propane tank:
In a real emergency, fire is key.
Bring a lighter or matches.
You can bring a flint, but make sure you have practised with it at home a lot. And most people consider flint a back-up option only.
Keep the wildlife wild.
When you’re camping you need to put all of your food and toiletries (anything with a smell) in a container to keep it out of reach of animals. In some places it is sufficient to hang your food (and toiletries) from a tree in a sturdy food bag. However, if you camping anywhere with bears, wolves, or coyotes, you need to use a Bear Can.
A bear can adds some weight, but bring it anyway. Put it 100 yards from your camp site and it will prevent curious bears from eating all your food.
Headlamps don’t weigh that much, just get one. Make sure it is a modern LED lamp, the batteries will last longer.
The heavier your pack, the stiffer your boots need to be.
If you’re an ultra-lightweight backpacker and your pack weighs 4 pounds, you can wear regular sneakers. But most of us need boots with stiff soles. The theory is that your body is not meant to support the extra weight, and it’s hard on your feet and ankles to carry it over rough terrain.
The heaviest soled boots are called “backpacking boots” and you can find them at REI or any similar store.
By the end of a long backpacking trip you will stink. Bringing more clothes won’t help.
The average backpacker might bring some spare underwear or socks on the trail. But don’t worry about changing your shirt or pants. Bring clothes that are light enough to keep you cool during a hot stretch of hike, but long enough to protect you from a chill wind. This is why REI sells all those synthetic pants that zip off at the knees: they’re really practical outdoors. Also look for long-sleeve shirts that have a button so you can roll them up and they’ll stay in place during the hot weather.
Obviously, the coat you need depends on the weather. But remember that while you are hiking your body will stay very warm and when you lay down to sleep at night it will get very cold. Layers are your friend.
One option popular with backpackers are puffy coats. They will act as a good warm layer, but they weigh almost nothing and ball up into something the size of grapefruit.
Sleeping outdoors is not like at home. If it gets cold, put on every single stitch of clothing you have when you get into your sleeping bag: hats, gloves, all three pairs of socks, regular underwear, long underwear, and pants. All of it.
An easy way to stay warm at night is to bring one set of long underwear that you put on before bed.
You can wear wool socks, or you can get athlete’s foot. It’s your choice.
This is one of the places where beginners get into trouble. Sure, you probably need sunblock. But do you need bug spray? Can you go two days without dental floss? How many headache drugs do you REALLY need to take with you?
first aid kit (cloth bandage roll, Bendryll, Iodine, and Advil/Asprin)
Bring good trail maps. Make sure you can read them. Put them in a water proof plastic bag.
A knife is an extremely versatile tool.
If you’ve ever watched survival shows on TV, or taken a survival course, you’ll know that purists think the only piece of equipment you need to survive in the wild is a knife. Since you are backpacking, you can be a lot more prepared than that. Still, a good knife can be quite handy.
A lot of factors go into choosing a backpacking knife, but I will break it down into four categories:
There are a lot of high-quality knives out there in the 1-3 ounce range. The most experienced “ultra-lightweight backpacker” I know recommends the Spyderco Dragonfly ($50). With only a 2-inch blade this knife won’t be much good at slashing your way through the jungle, but it will serve well for meals and light work.
It is what it is.
If you are stranded in the wild, a good knife might mean the difference between life and death. As such, backpackers frequently use “survival knives”. Survival knives might come with a lot of extra features (a compass, bandages, you name it), but I think two features are the most important:
The whistle. It might help scare away bears or coyotes, but this is primarily an emergency whistle. Imagine you have fallen and broken both your legs. Do you want to scream for help for hours on end? No. This will work better and be far less taxing.
The flint. If you’re stranded in the wild, fire is key.
The survival blade I like best is the Tool Logic SL3 ($20). This only has a 3-inch blade, but it weighs 2-ounces and I find it to be the best compromise between utility and weight.
If your plans depends more heavily on your knife, you will have to accept a little extra weight for a longer blade. A good bet there will be something like the Gerber Bear Grylls-model survival knife ($40 and 11 ounces). This even has a built-in sharpener.
In the end, the knife you need depends on where you are going and what your plan is. If you are going to be slugging through deep jungle, get a machete. If you’re going to be fishing, maybe you need a Swiss Army knife or a Leatherman. Maybe all you need is a small, light knife to cut open your dried food packages. A knife can be a useful tool if you plan ahead, but the most important thing is that you have a plan.
A final note on materials
You will probably get a stainless steel knife. A knife made of 440 steel will be lighter and sharper. But a knife made of 1080 (or higher) steel is meant for more heavy-duty work and will keep its edge longer. Whatever the material is, all knives need to be sharpened eventually.
People are used to taking all sorts of things on vacation, and so people frequently bring unnecessary stuff backpacking just to make themselves more comfortable. Remember that carrying a heavier pack may also detract from your comfort.
Some of the most common “unnecessary weight” items that backpackers bring with them are:
Obviously, a GPS device or a cell phone might be an important piece of safety gear. And I like to bring a small camera along with me. Car keys might be unavoidable. But when selecting these items, try and remember that the weight adds up.
If you want information on a particular piece of gear, OutdoorGearLab is a great resource.
This is meant to be an introductory primer. I did not cover cold-weather camping. I did not cover elevation sickness. I did not cover how to deal with grizzly bears, lions, polar bears, or poisonous snakes. I did not cover wilderness navigation or medical emergencies. Before you go out into the wild, you need to research the place you are going. Talk to your local experts.
No one is responsible for your safety but you.