What Gear Do I Need for Backpacking?

Backpacking Essentials: Gear recos for a beginner on a budget
Backpacking Essentials: Gear recos for a beginner on a budget

Backpacking Essentials

Prior to my New Zealand trip, my friends and I were discussing backpacking essentials for the Milford Sound Trek. Since it apparently books out early, we didn’t want to take any chances and we booked the day reservations opened. It’s certainly one of the most beautiful treks you can find, so we were super stoked.

I’m pretty geared up and always ready for pretty much any kind of trip. However, I had some friends coming who were beginners looking for some info on what gear they would need. Backpacking can also be expensive when you’re getting started, and they were on a budget. The nice thing about the Milford Sound trek is that there are huts along the way where you sleep, so that lightens up some gear needs. No tent, no air pad, no stoves, etc.

This list of backpacking essentials should help any beginner looking to acquire some essential gear for backpacking. I provide recommendations and affiliate links to help guide you, and I also share what to consider as you’re researching your own gear. If you’re looking for a complete backpacking checklist, I have that too!

*Disclaimer – this list of backpacking gear essentials assumes you’re a beginner and that you’ll be going with someone with more experience and gear than you who will have some of the next level essentials – ie/emergency gear, first aid, water pump/purifier, etc.

Backpacking Gear Essentials
Backpacking Gear Essentials

#1 Backpacking Essential – Hiking Boots

This is probably one of the toughest items to buy when it comes to backpacking essentials, so start early. You’ll need time to break them in before you hit the trail. I’ve owned my Vasque hiking boots for about 6 years now and they’re wonderful. Enough so that I’ve been putting off buying new ones because I’m scared to have to break in a new pair. That being said, I think I got blisters from these maybe 3 times, so it was easy to break them in.

The only time I’ve ever had an issue with these boots was trekking through the snow in the Himalayas because they have mesh areas. The mesh is great for breathing, but terrible for getting your feet wet in zero degree temps. On the flip side, the mesh is great for spring/summer hiking and backpacking because it’s very light and breathable. And, if you have to walk through some water, they dry very quickly (especially if you extra-waterproof them).

Finding good boots is like finding a good boyfriend. They may look great on paper – absolutely perfect. But until you actually wear them out hiking the trails, you won’t know if you’re compatible enough for the long haul. (If I could only count how many online dates I went on with guys who looked great on paper but just weren’t quite the right fit!)

Vasque makes wonderful boots, so I definitely recommend checking them out. And boot weight is an important consideration. Also, consider if you want high ankles or low – I roll my ankles constantly, so I need the support, but I have a friend who just can’t wear anything above her ankles. It’s all about what will be comfortable for you!

Two pairs of Vasque boots
Two pairs of Vasque boots

#2 Backpacking Essential – Sleeping Bag and Liner

The right sleeping bag will make the difference between a good night’s sleep, and a terrible night’s sleep. And when you’re hiking for multiple days, sleep is very important.

I would say the biggest consideration for me was weight vs. price. What could I afford to carry vs what could I afford to pay. Down fill is obviously preferable because it’s lighter, but you have to be careful with down if it gets wet. I was lucky enough to find a water-resistant bag made by REI which I love so much, so that had the best of both worlds! And as a frugal shopper, the bag was a reasonable price (especially during REI’s 20% off sale).

This bag does great in the cold, and if it’s warm, I just leave it unzipped. It’s also great if you’re camping somewhere with frost. I’ve woken up with the outsize of my sleeping bag frosted over and wet from dew, but inside I was warm and dry. For the really cold nights, I bring along a liner which adds some extra warmth.

If you’re shopping for a sleeping bag as part of your backpacking essentials, you also want to consider size. I’m relatively tall for a chic, so it was nice that my bag came in regular and long. However, be careful not to get something too long because extra room = extra space for cold air.

Also, consider what kind of sleeper you are. Are you okay being cocooned up where you can’t pull your legs up, or do you get claustrophobic? Do you need something a bit wider for your legs? What does the hood of the sleeping bag look like? My sleeping bag has these great flaps by your chest that help keep air from seeping in from your face, and a drawstring cord so you can adjust how tight the head closes.

The only downside is that this sleeping bag (at least the older model that I own) can be difficult to zip and unzip. Hopefully they’ve fixed this with the newer models, but be sure to test the zipper on any bag you buy!

Dog not included in purchase
Dog not included in purchase

#3 Backpacking Essential – Hiking Poles

I always recommend hiking poles. They’re not always necessary going uphill, but (especially as you get older and your knees don’t want to cooperate) they’re lovely for going downhill!

Now, the biggest considerations for adding hiking poles to your backpacking essentials are:

  • How stable are the poles? Do they wobble, or can they handle some weight?
  • How lightweight are they?
  • Do they compact down, and what does that mechanism look like?

That being said, I owned my first pair of hiking poles for about 6 years and they were an inexpensive pair of Mountainsmith poles. They twisted down into themselves which was great, but after 6 years the locking mechanism started to fail (which is very reasonable for $60 hiking poles). I think I got them in an outlet online somewhere, and they did the job.

However, I recently just got a new pair of Black Diamond hiking poles from backcountry.com, and I can tell a difference when backpacking. The aluminum is incredibly lightweight which does make a difference. The grip is also soft which is nice, although the palms of my hands were still a bit sore at the end of the trip. I tend to hold tight when stepping down on the trail, so that may just be me.

So, again it’s a game of weight and comfort vs. cost. If you’re a beginner backpacker, it’s okay to try out some less expensive hiking poles for your backpacking essentials if you find some light ones on sale. I always tell beginner backpackers that it’s okay to try cheaper to start. This way you can decide what features really matter for when you’re ready to invest and spend more!

#4 Backpacking Essential – Waterproof Gear

The Milford Sound averages 264.4 inches of rain a year. I think San Diego, where I live, averages like 12″. So, regardless of when you visit the Milford Sound, it’s likely you’ll get some precipitation.

When we did the Everest Base Camp trek, we had waterproof jackets, but after 3 hours of hiking in pouring rain, followed by about 4 hours of hiking in the snow…we were soaked. I had wool gloves, they were also soaked, and my hands were totally numb.

And, those who know mountain regions like the Sierras and Rocky Mountains know that it can be clear skies one moment, and storming out of nowhere the next.

Point is – it’s important to be prepared for weather when buying backpacking essentials. Take the following recommendations into consideration, but also consider where you’ll be backpacking. If you’ll be in really bad weather, consider all of the following. If there’s just a chance of rain, you can be more selective.

  • Waterproof Jacket – your jacket doesn’t need to be heavy because you can layer underneath it, but you want something that is waterproof, and it helps to have a good amount of pockets. My waterproof / windproof jacket only has 2 outside pockets and it could use many more. It also helps to have something that has an adjustable waist and hood, especially when it’s windy. Vents are very nice to have (under the arms, usually), too.
  • Waterproof gloves – if you’re like me, where my hands turn white in 50 degree (F) temps, then it’s worth carrying a little bit of extra weight to have waterproof gloves to keep your hands warm. It’s hard to walk with your hands in your pockets when you’re trekking over uneven terrain and holding poles! However, again this is only really relevant if you’re going somewhere where it might rain a lot, and often…and will be cold.
  • Waterproof pants – I would say these aren’t necessarily crucial, but some people like to have them. My hiking pants dry very quickly, so I have yet to invest in waterproof pants. You can also buy waterproofing to treat your hiking pants so that they are more water-resistant.
  • Gaiters – These are the funny looking things that go over your pants and boots. You can find an inexpensive pair on Amazon and I definitely recommend them if you’ll be hiking in rain or snow! They help keep the bottom of your pants, and whatever they can of your boots, clean and dry. And if you’re planning to wear the same pair of hiking pants for multiple days, you’ll want them clean and dry (ish)!
    Trekking to Gorak Shep
    Trekking to Gorak Shep

#5 Backpacking Essential – Hiking and Fleece Pants

I have about 3 pairs of hiking pants but I think I only ever wear 1. When we do multi day hikes, it’s really about keeping weight down. I usually wear my hiking pants and pack a pair of fleece pants for bed, and that’s about it.

Something to consider for your backpacking essentials is the functionality of your hiking pants. My Prana hiking pants are convertible, so if it’s really warm I can zip the bottoms off and they become shorts. They have a nice drawstring waist, and side and back pockets. I bought a pair of hiking shorts last year and didn’t realize until after wearing them how important pockets are while hiking! They’re also stretchy which is great when you have to climb up over boulders, or hike up stone steps on the trail.

For fleece pants, just make sure you don’t get something that’s terribly heavy, weight wise. I have a pair of millet fleece pants that are super warm, but fairly light to pack!


#6 Backpacking Essential – Moisture-Wicking and Breathable Layers

The temps in March in the Milford Sound average about 45-65 degrees (F) so it’s fairly comfortable…I like it a bit cooler. Regardless, it always helps to have layers in your backpacking essentials. I usually bring 2 moisture-wicking tanks, 2 thin-ish base layers, a fleece and a down jacket or two. Cotton isn’t a good idea because it doesn’t dry well, and then you can end up with a rash, or worse, freezing.

If you are afraid your fleece may get wet leaving you with nothing warm to wear, consider bringing a second but remember to consider weight! Fleece layers can often be heavy, so it may be better to bring an extra base layer or an extra down jacket. Marshalls actually has awesome base layers, and I got my favorite fleece from Costco!

#7 Backpacking Essential – Hiking Socks and Liners

Socks are such an important consideration for your backpacking essentials. One thing you don’t want to skimp on are dry socks.

For our Everest trek, I brought 2 pairs of hiking socks and 3 pairs of liners for an 11 day trek. For a 3 day trek, I usually bring 2 pairs of socks and 1 pairs of liners. It’s good to have a combination because you can switch off if they get wet…or smelly. And, liners are thinner and lighter than most hiking socks so you can save on weight by bringing a combination. On our trek, our socks got soaked every day (photo below is us trying to dry all our gear on one small space heater).

For hiking socks, it’s important to find socks that will be breathable, and dry quickly and easily. Wool is great, cotton is not. I’ve also heard good things about bamboo socks. You don’t have to spend a lot on socks, just make sure you get the right kind. Having wet and cold feet that won’t dry is incredibly uncomfortable!

#8 Backpacking Essential – Cup, Bowl, and Utensils

The basic consideration here for your backpacking essentials is that you want something you can eat and drink out of / with that won’t weigh a lot and won’t take up a lot of space. That being said, there’s a lot to consider.

I’d say the three biggest considerations are:

  • Weight
  • Durability
  • Compact-ability

If weight and compact-ability aren’t a huge concern, I swear by the Hydroflask. The coffee sized hydroflask isn’t incredibly heavy, and it’s really nice if you’d like to save some hot coffee or tea for the trail. The Snow Peak double walled titanium cups are also great because they’re very lightweight and will keep your coffee hot while you sit around enjoying breakfast. They’re not the most compact, but the light weight is nice.

For compact-ability, I LOVE the collapsible Sea to Summit bowl. The silicone is pretty durable, it’s really easy to cook with, and to clean with. And they’re incredibly lightweight. The only downside is that you have to be careful of creatures. We’ve had marmots chew right through one because there was still a little food left on it overnight. Overall, these are great – they were a huge hit among our bunk mates on the Milford Sound trek!

For weight and durability, I love the GSI Outdoor collection. They’re not quite as compact as the Sea to Summit bowls, but they do fit inside of each other which helps.

As far as eating utensils go, when I first started backpacking, I bought the plastic sporks from REI. Don’t do it. They break on me every time. I think I gave them 3 chances, and they broke each time. I finally stopped wasting my money and bought the titanium one. Worth it!

#9 Backpacking Essential – Backpack and Pack Cover

This is a rather important one for your backpacking essentials since it’s what you’ll be using to carry all your stuff for a few days. No backpack is perfect, and to be fair, I backpacked for the first 6 years with a total starter backpack that didn’t quite fit my frame or sit right on my body. It was an Alps Orizaba backpack that I think I got for about $80 on REI outlet. It was a great starter because again, it taught me what I wanted, and what didn’t matter.

But…after buying my Osprey Aura backpack…I see the difference between a good pack, and a starter pack for beginner backpackers. You’re still carrying weight on your back. Everyone is still going to complain about their shoulders and hips hurting from the straps. And it’s still going to be heavy. That being said, I DO love how nicely my Osprey sits on my hips. The waist straps are quite tight, so this could be a problem for some – definitely go try it before you buy it. But, that tightness on my waist helps take the pressure off my back – something the Alps pack didn’t do.

Another thing to consider is your torso size. I’m all legs, with a shorter torso, so it’s nice that you can choose your pack size vs. a one size fits all. The one size fits all packs tend to have a frame that comes all the way up to my head, whereas my new Osprey pack sits below my neck as it should. That definitely made a difference in carrying the weight, but again…how big of a difference? I still put many miles on with my old pack, it just felt a bit more difficult.

I like to have a separate compartment on the bottom of my pack for my sleeping bag, but for some this doesn’t matter. The Osprey also has a nice mesh pocket on the outside where you can fit a lot of things. I had tried a Gregory pack when I was shopping for my latest pack, and I preferred the Osprey pocket over the Gregory.

The only downside really of this pack is that the top does not detach into a day pack. Apparently Osprey found that a lot of the minimalist backpackers were cutting the straps for weight, so they removed the extra weight…and then everyone else was pissed. I’ve tried working with them for some pieces to help this be a day pack, but overall, it’s kind of annoying. If you’re doing a 3-4 day backpacking trip, it’s nice to have something that you can carry water and snacks in without having to bring a spare backpack, or carry your full pack.

Oh! And definitely don’t forget a pack cover! Your pack may come with one, but if it doesn’t – get one! You don’t want to be stuck with a garbage bag over your pack because believe me, those rip and your bag and gear will all end up soaked.

Assortment of backpacks on the way to the Milford Sound trek
Assortment of backpacks on the way to the Milford Sound trek

#10 Backpacking Essential – Compression Sacks

These things are amazing. Seriously. I think they’re a must have for your backpacking essentials.

They have waterproof compression sacks, which are great to compress your gear down to next to nothing, and keep it dry. They are such space savers! If you don’t need waterproof and want to save a few dollars, there are so many options. I like to have a few different sizes – I have a 15L, a 10L, and an 8L. This helps me organize things in my pack – for instance, undies vs day clothing vs heavy layers. The Outdoor Research ones are my favorite, but I have a few others as well.

#11 Backpacking Essential – Backpacking Tent

If you’ll be sharing with someone else bringing the tent, skip this. But, it’s always good to have your own tent. The biggest considerations for adding a tent to your backpacking essentials are:

  • Size
  • Weight
  • Seasonality

I’ve had my Alps Lynx tent since I started backpacking in about 2010. Although the price was great, what attracted me most was the size and weight. Mine is a 2 person, 3 season tent, but it only weighs about 5 pounds for the whole thing – tough to beat. I got this tent assuming I would always have someone to share it with (friend, bf, whoever). When I go backpacking, one person carries the tent, and one carries the rain fly, so the weight is perfect. If you’re looking for a 1 person tent, just try it out beforehand because a lot of them are incredibly cramped.

The rain fly leaves just a little bit of space outside the tent when staked down, but it’s enough. Inside is comfortable for 2 people, even sitting up. It’s a little big just for one, especially if it’s cold out. Remember – empty space = cold space.

I recently had this tent out in Joshua Tree, and it was windy enough that one of the poles finally gave. Mind you, I’ve had this through crazy weather for years – rain, snow, wind – all of it. And it’s lasted through it all…until this trip. The pole snapped and went right through the rain fly. Luckily I was able to patch the fly, but I ordered a new pole from Alps. The rep told me it would be $14.99 for a new pole, plus shipping.

What she didn’t tell me was that shipping would be another $15. That pissed me off a little as I didn’t find out until it hit my credit card, and had already shipped, so whatever. New pole for $30. Still cheaper than having to buy a new tent.

Setting up camp at Flower Lake
Setting up camp at Flower Lake

#12 Backpacking Essential – Sleeping Pad

Us backpackers don’t mind sleeping on the ground…as long as we have something cushy underneath us!

There are so many sleeping pads out there to consider for your backpacking essentials. I had a starter pad in the beginning – can’t even remember the name, but I got it on sale at REI. It lasted fine for about a year and then it got a hole and started a slow leak. I was luckily able to return it with their old return policy, and I got a Them-a-Rest pad. I’ve had this one for about 2 years now, and on my last backpacking trip the lining inside ended up coming loose causing the top of my pad to turn insa-pillow, but not in a good way.

Luckily, I contacted Therm-a-Rest and it’s covered under warranty! Other than that, I’ve had no issues with this pad and it’s great. It’s long, so my feet don’t hang off, and easy to blow up. I also have one from Big Agnes that is even easier to blow up with their fancy mechanism. Luckily, I’m not super picky when it comes to sleeping pads but some people may experience hip pain if they’re side sleepers. The Big Agnes seems to be better for that.

There is certainly more gear that you need – sunglasses, a hat, water bottle + water bladder, etc – but these I would say the list above is some of the big items to consider and shop around for. If you want to see more, head over to my complete backpacking checklist.

Backpacking can be very expensive, but if you’re smart and shop around, you can find some really great deals on essentials for your backpacking trips!

Happy Trekking!

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