Backpacking Tips: How to Pack for Success Part 1

Now that you’ve completed your pre-planning, did your research and know where you are going, you can begin gathering your gear and supplies.

This is Part One of Two in a short series that can help the beginner backpacker get ready for a successful trip or reinforce what experienced adventurers may already know.

Please note that the following list should only be used as a starting point and as you gain experience you will naturally modify it to fit your own needs and preferences.

Bear Vault

As you read through this list and begin gathering items keep in the back of your mind the details that you sorted out during the planning stage of getting your trip organized. That will help guide you on specific equipment you might need such as a bear vault or how much water you need to pack in with you.

There is a lot of debate on how and what to pack but I have tried to assemble a list that, other than details cannot be argued. Of course there will be some die-hards out there that insist that to be a purist the only thing you need are the shoes on your feet and clothes on your back!

For me, I like to have a few comforts that will make my trip a little more enjoyable even if not as “pure” as some may like.

#1 : Map

The top item on our list is one that you will need to acquire long before hitting the trail. If you’ve done your pre-planning you will most likely already have a good quality topographical map. However if you have procrastinated purchasing one; it is time to get one now and begin your pile of equipment and supplies that you are about to acquire.

You absolutely must know where you are going and for safety, you must tell someone else where you are going and when you will be back!


Pro Tip: I like to leave a copy of the map I am using with someone and mark my route along with any backup routes I may take during my adventure. That way in case of emergency, Search and Rescue Teams at least have a starting point and area to begin looking for you.

On a side note here, I do not believe that a GPS is a replacement for a map, however it could prove a good addition to your supplies which I have listed elsewhere in this list.


#2 : Backpack

Where else are you going to pack the other items for your backpacking trip?

This one may seem obvious but you’d be surprised how many people do not plan this part of the trip. Also this is one area that I would not skimp on. Make sure to buy a good quality pack. If you don’t know what type or kind to buy ask at your local outdoor shop if you can rent one and try it out. This will give you an idea of the features you like and the ones that you can live without. For instance I never thought it was very important to have front accessible straps available to hold my walking sticks. Until I actually had a pack that had them. Now It is almost a necessity. I can easily access my walking sticks when I need them and when I don’t I can strap them to my pack without stopping or asking for assistance. Of course this isn’t a life or death consideration, but on the trail it’s the little comforts that you learn to appreciate the most.

Osprey Pack

Most outdoor shops have someone that can help get you properly fitted in a pack. This is another of those areas that a lot of people don’t think about. But until you have had and used a properly sized and adjusted pack you don’t realize how much difference it can actually make. It’s kind of like getting correctly sized for a bicycle. Sure you can probably ride just about any bike you can get on, but your life will be a lot more comfortable and efficient on one that is sized for you.

My opinion on packs for those interested; skip the “one size fits all” that can be adjusted a thousand ways. Once it is sized for you you’ll never adjust it again so just buy one that fits you properly from the start. The extra straps and buckles just end up getting in the way. Read reviews, and look for comments regarding buckles, seams and most importantly zippers. Nothing sucks worse than hiking 30 miles and having a buckle break and then spending the rest of your trip trying to figure out the best way to support your pack. Or worse having a zipper break and you can’t get into that one pocket that holds your last Cliff bar!

Get the right size pack to meet your needs. You might be surprised how much room your essentials take up, but also keep in mind that if you buy an over sized pack it’s amazing how easy it is to fill it. Unfortunately I am that guy that if I have the room, I will use it. So I try to use the smallest pack I think I can by with for the trip we are going on. One last thought on packs, I had a pack that I love but when packing into areas where i need a bear canister, I can’t figure out a good way to pack it other than to use the area where I usually strap my tent. That leaves my tent in an awkward place. Some of these things you won’t be able to answer right away and only experience will teach you what you need and what works for you so don’t stress too much other than to make sure you get a good quality backpack that will carry at minimum the essential items that you will need for your trip.

#3 : Shelter

Many top survival experts say that after clothing (which is your first defense), your shelter is the most important item to pack that will help fight hypothermia while traveling in the wilderness areas of the world. This may be arguable however there is no doubt that shelter becomes very important when the weather takes a turn for the worse.

A shelter is more a choice of personal preference than anything else. At it’s very basic, you simply want something that will protect you from wind, rain/snow, and insects. Some people believe that providing anything beyond the basic requirements simply takes up precious space in your pack.  

In no particular order and with no intent of being a complete resource some of your options for shelter are:

  • Tarp: The most basic of man made shelters will protect you from rain/snow and wind but provides no protection from insects. Without poles you will need to pack some type of cordage and rely on the environment to erect your tarp in a fashion that will protect you from the elements. Make sure you practice setting up a tarp however because it is not as easy as you might think!
    Pro tip: If you use trekking poles, they can prove to make a decent center or ridge pole!
    The tarp, besides the obvious weight and size advantage is simple to use and you can use one big enough to keep all of your belongings under it in wet weather. You can also keep a small fire going under a tarp,but remember to use a fire rated tarp. The last thing you want is your shelter to catch fire with you in it, but the added weight of a fire rated tarp should be something to take into consideration!
    Used with a bivy the combination definitely has very strong arguments over other shelter options available.
  • A bivy: which is just larger than a sleeping bag, is designed for one person and offers shelter from rain, wind and insects while you sleep. They are good for helping retain body heat due to their small size but other than yourself, a sleeping bag along with a few small personal items, everything else will be outside of the bivy. However, sizing the bivy up is a good way to store some extra gear, even if not all. Some people become claustrophobic while others love the comfort of being in the cocoon like shelter.
  • Hammock: Lately hammocks with rain flies and bug netting have become very trendy. Personally I haven’t tried sleeping in a hammock other than for an afternoon siesta, however I can understand the attraction because I do love my hammock. As with the tarp, hammocks are small and lightweight for packing purposes, however keep in mind that the air moving around you provides no insulation and you may find yourself getting cold through the night. Make sure you practice setting your hammock up so that you understand how your particular hanging system works. I would suggest some good cord and learning how to tie a clove hitch. That is how I hang my hammock and I can modify it easily to hang between just about any two objects that I can wrap a rope around! Don’t fall for the 2 person hammock gimmick!!!! Hammocks are very comfortable for one person but 2 is one to many.
ENO Hammock Sleep System
  • Tent: Of course I have to include the traditional tent. Tents come in hundreds, maybe thousands of shapes and sizes. When backpacking you have to consider how big the tent is when it is erected and how big it is when folded down. So how many people are sleeping it? Keep in mind that the tent manufactures often fudge the numbers here. A two person tent by one manufacturer may be considerably smaller than another. I personally will not buy a tent unless I can see it set up. Personally I use a three person tent for my wife and myself. That is because we often backpack with our four legged friends and they take up a lot more room than you might expect! Also try to imagine how you will pack the tent. Most likely it will strap to the outside of your pack but how long is the overall tent when broken down? Will it feel like you have a 4’ wingspan when trying to navigate narrow or cliff side trails? Not necessarily deal breakers but things to consider. Don’t forget to consider a footprint. Of course you don’t need one but the bottom of your $400 will thank you, or at minimum your bank account will thank you when you’re replacing a footprint instead of a new tent. Actually now that I think of a hole in the floor may be a good reason to try out that new tent you’ve been eyeballing the last few seasons!
    PRO TIP: A good tarp can make a decent footprint for a lot less money.

#4 : Water – Treatment

You will need to pack some water to get you started and if there is no access to water where you will be backpacking you will need to carry enough for your entire trip. Hopefully, you will have some form of natural water source  available to you but remember you should never drink untreated water. Without getting into too many details here there are basically three hazards in the water you may find in the backcountry:sawyersqueeze

  • Protozoa: Cryptosporidium and Giardia
  • Bacteria: Such as Salmonella and E. coli.
  • Viruses: For example; Hepititis A and rotavirus

The most common ways while backpacking to treat water before drinking it:

  • Boiling: Effective against Protozoa, Bacteria, and Viruses
  • Filtering: Effective against Protozoa and Bacteria
  • Chemically purifying: Effective against Bacteria and Viruses

The main thing you need to understand no matter what the sales pitch or propaganda tells you; according to the CDC BOILING WATER for at least 3 minutes at a full rolling boil is the only single way to remove all three of the stated hazards.

If you aren’t going to plan on boiling all your water prior to drinking it then you should consider filtering and using some sort of purification tablets from your local outdoor supplier. But also know that Iodine and some other chemical treatments leave the water tasting … well less than pleasant but you can be sure of it’s safety for consumption.

Regarding filters, there are a lot of different types and brands available for you to consider. My preference is a filter that does not rely on moving parts. The reason for this is simple. The more moving parts the more things to lose, break and maintain. Also typically I only filter my water and opt not to use a chemical purification. I understand that this leaves me susceptible to viruses to which the chances of picking up a virus in the backcountry in North america is slim. However, having said that know that Viruses can be the most deadly of all the dangers that can be found in water.

In short if you plan on boiling any water you consume than you can skip packing a filter but I would encourage you to pack one anyway in case you can’t get your stove going for any reason.

One final thought on water safety, good hygiene is one of the most important aspects to keeping yourself healthy. Keep containers that hold potentially contaminated water separate from clean containers. When filtering water make sure that you don’t inadvertently drip contaminated water into your filtered water. Also wash your hands after using the restroom, before treating water that you intend to use for drinking and before preparing or eating meals.

Well that’s all for part 1, now get out there and begin the never ending journey of gear collection! In part 2 we will finish off the list of what I believe to be the essential items every backpacker should at least think about before heading for the trail!

So until then, remember to stay safe and always use your Outside Voice!

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