Must-Have Backpacking Gear

Looking for a comprehensive list of gear to take to the backcountry? I’ve compiled a post on all of my backpacking must-have’s to make it easy to get outdoors!

Packing for the Trans Catalina Trail was stressful but absolutely worth it for these views!
This post may contain affiliate links, which means I earn from qualifying purchases at no additional cost to you. I only recommend things I've tried myself or that a trusted peer has recommended and all additional income goes into keeping this site running smoothly! 

Must Have Backpacking Gear

One of the biggest barriers to getting into backpacking is the gear! I was so stressed and hesitant to try backpacking because I didn’t want to spend a ton of money to try something I wasn’t sure I would like.

What if I spent a ton of money and the gear wasn’t right for me?

Or I spent a ton of money and I didn’t actually like backpacking?

What if I bought the wrong gear and got into a bad situation outdoors?

These limiting thoughts kept me from trying backpacking for YEARS until I finally borrowed enough gear to try it for the first time in late 2022. And I loved it!

Since then, I’ve gone on multiple backpacking trips, ranging from short one night trips to a full thru-hike of the 70 mile Laurel Highlands Trail. Through these trips, I’ve done a lot of discovery on gear – what works, what doesn’t, and what I needed to change for me.

Dropped my pack on my first backpacking trip for this picture of a scenic overlook

Tips for Picking Backpacking Gear

As you’re reading through this, remember that gear is very personal. Something I absolutely love may not be right for you. I highly recommend borrowing, renting, or otherwise getting gear at low cost. Try it before you buy it to make sure you’re spending your hard earned money wisely! There are multiple options for not paying full price or trying gear buy before you buy it. Check out my post about How to Get Gear on a Budget for more info.

Using Your Backpacking Gear

Test literally everything yourself before you head out on trail. Even if you’ve used it before. Nothing is worse than getting out on trail and not having something work and having to turn around (or worse, putting you in an unsafe situation in the backcountry). Test your water filter, make sure you know how to put up your tent, light your stove, and triple check that you’ve packed everything.

How to Use this Guide

I’ve divided up this guide into different sections by type of gear. If you’re totally new to backpacking, I recommend reading through the whole guide first to get a sense of what may be important or not important to you. If you’re just looking for one specific item, feel free to jump around.

I’ve included affiliate links from REI, Amazon, Backcountry, and others where available so that you can price check and purchase from the retailer that works best for you. Some important things to keep in mind when shopping are return policies, reward programs, cost of shipping, etc.

Happy hiking!

As always, follow the principles of leave no trace when you're out exploring! Pack out all trash, leave wildlife alone, and generally leave it better than you found it - for more information visit the Leave No Trace Center.

Backpacking Must Haves – Sleep System

The sleep system plays one of the biggest parts in backpacking comfort. This is the area where I would recommend more than all others – TRY BEFORE YOU BUY. A good sleep system can be the difference between feeling rested and refreshed or dead on your feet. If you’re working to stretch your gear budget, here is where I would spend more money.

My sleep system in process of getting set up on the one night on the LHHT we weren’t able to snag a shelter permit

Sleeping Bag

This is probably one of the easiest piece of gear to borrow. Even my parents, who are the least outdoorsy people ever, owned a sleeping bag when I was growing up. I actually currently am long term borrowing a bag from my friend Dave (thanks Dave!) while figuring out exactly what bag I want. Personally, I need something that can go down to 25 degrees (Western PA spring and fall nights can be COLD), pack down small, and be on the lighter side.

When researching what sleeping bag to buy, make sure to account for the seasons you will be camping and the R-value (or warmth) of the sleeping bag. (For more advice on how to buy a sleeping bag, check out REI’s blog post!)

REI | Amazon | Backcountry (links are to all types of sleeping bags, because this is super subjective!)

Sleeping Pad

In my opinion, a sleeping pad that works for you is the number one key to comfort in the backcountry. I’ve tried multiple sleeping pads before I found my favorite – the Thermarest NeoAir XLite NXT sleeping pad. This inflatable pad is inflated via a sack. This is great for me, because I get dizzy if I have to even blow up a balloon! It takes about 5 minutes to blow up once you get the hang of it. As a side, front, and back sleeper, I find it comfy for all types of sleeping.

REI | Amazon | Backcountry

When I first started backpacking, I tried to use the Nemo foam pad that I saw ALL OVER social media. I got approximately one hour of sleep on my first trip so I knew this didn’t work for me. However, this is a great budget option and could be right for you.

REI | Amazon | Backcountry

Tent

A tent purchase is where it is easy to get very overwhelmed with options. How light do you want it to be? How many people does it need to fit? Does it have freestanding poles or do you use trekking poles to stand it up? Does it need a vestibule or more than one door?

I chose the Big Agnes HV UL2 tent. This tent is the right size for what I needed. It’s a 2 person tent that is light enough for me to carry even if it’s just me using it (2.1 lbs all in!). I wanted something I could put together by myself and not struggle if I was ever backpacking solo. And it was on sale for $200 off when I purchased it (and really, isn’t that everything we need in a tent?)

Note: If you don’t have a tent and can’t borrow or rent one but still want to backpack, check out trails that have lean-tos where a tent isn’t needed (such as the Laurel Highlands Trail or the Glacier Ridge/NCT section through Moraine State Park).

REI | Amazon | Backcountry

My Big Agnes UL2 HV tent living its best life in Quebec Run Wild Area

Sleeping Bag Liner

Some people might call this a luxury item, but I highly recommend a sleeping bag liner. It’s great for both warm and cold weather. In warm weather it can function on its own, saving you from waking up in the middle of the night drenched in your own sweat, and in cold weather, it will keep you warmer than just your bag. However, my favorite thing is that it helps keep your sleeping bag cleaner than if you were just using the bag. I will always bring my liner on trips and feel that it is totally worth the weight!

REI | Amazon | Backcountry

Camp Pillow

Again, this is something that some people say is a luxury item. I personally do not sleep well at ALL without a pillow. On my Laurel Highlands Thru hike, I forgot the pillow and slept like crap until we met up with friends who brought me my pillow. It’s just so much more comfortable than laying your head on a bag of lumpy clothes!

While they are lighter and pack down smaller, I’m not a huge fan of the inflatable pillows. I want something soft AND supportive. This technically isn’t a camping pillow, but this travel pillow from HappyLuxe will be coming on all of my backpacking trips. It’s a little pricier than a normal travel pillow, but that’s because it is the best. It’s super comfy AND the pillowcase is machine washable to make it easier to get clean. (FYI – Readers get 15% off using this link!). I’ve also included some options for true camp pillows in the links below if you’re not sold on my recommendation.

REI | Amazon | Backcountry

Looking for the best places to backpack in Pennsylvania? Check out my post of Best Backpacking in Western Pennsylvania!

Backpacking Must Haves – Hygiene

There’s a certain level of dirt that is expected when backpacking. However it’s important to pack hygiene supplies to make sure that your trip runs smoothly. These are some of the most important items in my pack!

PStyle

Women, keep reading because this product will change your life. I will evangelize this product forever. The PStyle changed my backpacking experience and comfort levels. It’s a super light piece of equipment that allows you to pee without taking off your backpack or having to totally disrobe and squat down. I cannot recommend this enough if you squat when you pee. It also makes the 4am pee way less scary! (I highly recommend also purchasing the carrying case, as it clips onto the outside of your pack, making it super easy to grab and go!)

Amazon (I cannot believe REI and Backcountry don’t carry this absolutely essential piece of gear)

Kula Cloth

The Kula Cloth is another super helpful piece of gear for backpacking hygiene. It is an anti-microbial pee cloth that can be used multiple times in a trip to cut down on all the TP you have to pack out. It comes with a snap to attach to the back of your pack and folds in half to stay sanitary. They come in the coolest designs so you can show off your style!

REI

Baby Wipes

I always use baby wipes on trail for my feet, armpits, and anywhere underwear or bra covers since that’s often extra sweaty. Not only do they help keep me from smelling bad, they also help me keep my feet clean (which helps them stay injury free). I personally look for baby wipes that don’t smell weird, don’t leave you feeling sticky, and are biodegradable.

Make sure the wipes you bring are appropriate for ALL body parts and remember to pack them out! The amount of used baby wipes I’ve seen on trails all around the world is very, very gross.

REI | Amazon | Backcountry

Reusable Washcloth or Towel

To help cut down on the number of wipes I use, I also bring a reusable washcloth or towel. My favorite is my washcloth from DryFoxCo (their prints are SO CUTE), but I also have a PackTowl that works well also. I will wet the washcloth, wipe my face with it, and then hang it in my tent or on the outside of my pack to dry overnight.

REI | Amazon | Backcountry

Poop Shovel or WAG Bag

Yes, you do need to prepare to poop outside when backpacking (even if it’s just one night!) I prefer bringing the poop shovel for digging a cathole (six inches deep and 200 feet away from trail, campsites or water sources). However, some trails don’t allow catholes and require you to pack it out. In those cases, bring a WAG (Waste Alleviation and Gelling) bag. This is basically a bag that you poop in that is puncture resistant and contains odor neutralizing chemicals for packing out your waste.

Poop ShovelREI | Amazon | Backcountry

WAG BagREI

Looking to take your gear for a test run on trail? I hiked the Trans Catalina Trail in 2024 and here are Ten Things to Know Before Hiking the Trans Catalina Trail.

Backpacking Must Haves – Cooking

One of the main reasons I go backpacking is because food just tastes better after putting in the miles! There would be nothing worse than getting to camp and not being able to chow down HARD. Here are my backcountry kitchen must haves!

Note: this section does not include any specific food items as I will have a whole other post covering food in the backcountry!

Long-Handled Spork

The long handled piece of this equipment is SO IMPORTANT – trust me on this. Most backpacking meals come in a bag that you eat out of. Anything other than a long-handled spork means your grubby little fingers are inside of the bag that you eat out of – gross! So do yourself a favor and buy the long handled spork. You’ll thank me later.

REI | Amazon | Backcountry

Pot

Waiting for water to boil with my pot and mug

I typically bring one pot on backpacking trips and use it only for breakfast (since I eat straight out of the bag when I eat camp meals). Since I only use it to eat my breakfast oatmeal out of, it’s easier to keep clean and I almost never bring the lid to save weight.

REI | Amazon | Backcountry (the REI link is the one I have and is the most cost efficient, but the other two are also good options!)

Stove and Fuel

Nothing beats a warm meal after a long day of hiking. I am not a particularly patient person (especially when I am hungry), so that’s why I love the JetBoil stove. It boils water SUPER quickly and is really easy to use. I like the JetBoil Flash more than any other camping stove setup I’ve tried and I highly recommend it.

Since stoves are on the more expensive side, this is another piece of gear that I would try to borrow to see what works for you. Make sure you have the right fuel for your stove and that you test it before you take it on trail!

REI | Amazon | Backcountry

Mug

This lightweight mug from GSI is an awesome addition to any backpacking kitchen. It only weighs 3.5 oz and is perfect for your morning coffee before hitting the trail. It’s also easy to clip to the outside of your pack and is easy to clean after. This also saves you from having to use your pot for coffee and food, meaning you can have both at the same time.

REI | Amazon

Looking for the best backpacking meals to take to the backcountry? Check out my list of top backpacking meals [COMING SOON]!

Backpacking Must Haves – Safety

Preparation is one of the key tenets of Leave No Trace and safety essentials can be the difference between being prepared or not. Like all gear, safety can be very personal to the individual. What I like to bring might be different than what you like to bring. These are my recommendations based on my experience but please do your own research!

Headlamp

Having a light source is key to getting around camp in the dark and a phone flashlight is NOT enough. To me, a headlamp is an absolutely non-negotiable must have for backpacking. I’ve had this headlamp for over a year and it’s super lightweight so it’s always in my bag. It’s got a bunch of different settings, including strobe and red light, and is VERY bright at its brightest setting. It is rechargeable, which I love because I never have enough of the right batteries on hand for anything and it’s lighter than a headlamp with external batteries. However, you do need to make sure that it’s charged before adventure, which I learned the hard way on the Trans Catalina Trail when I went to set up my tent in the dark and it was dead!

REI | Amazon | Backcountry

Water Filter

I consider this a safety feature and not party of the backcountry kitchen because it is VITAL to have on any backpacking trip. Drinking an untreated water source could lead to some pretty gnarly consequences. My personal favorite filter is the Katydyn filter – it’s quick, easy to use, and can filter a lot of water.

I’ve heard a lot of people also love the Sawyer Squeeze or the Platypus Gravity filter. Whichever filter you choose for your trip, this is the number one piece of equipment you need to make sure you can use before you leave your house or you are going to be SOL.

REI | Amazon | Backcountry

First Aid Kit

A first aid kit is vital in the backcountry. I prefer to bring more first aid supplies than I think I need, so I generally throw in this Adventure Medical Kit for 2 people, 4 days. It’s got the basic stuff for things like blisters, tick removal, stopping infection but also more heavy duty items like snake bite treatment and large wound care. First aid is something where I would rather be overprepared than underprepared so I feel this kit is worth the weight!

PSA – you can use FSA dollars (from your health insurance account) to pay for a first aid kit. A great way to save some cash or use those dollars before you lose them. Adventure Medical has options for all types of adventurers – from the Day Tripper Lite for one person over two days or the Mountaineer for ten people over twenty-eight days.

REI (this is the exact one I have) | Amazon | Backcountry

Pepper Spray

This is an item that is very personal, but I always bring pepper spray on a hike (whether it’s an overnight or day hike). I would rather have it and not need it than need it and not have it. I have never used it and hope I never have to!

REI | Amazon

Personal Alarm

Mile marker 69 featuring my She’s Birdie & my pepper spray strapped on my pack

Again, this is a personal choice. I carry a She’s Birdie personal alarm on my pack that has an extremely loud alarm and bright light that goes off when pulled. It’s super light and, like the pepper spray, I’d rather have it than not have it.

She’s Birdie website

Wildlife Safety

Depending on where you’re hiking, you need to take wildlife habits into account. If you’re hiking somewhere where bears are common, I recommend bearspray and a bear can. If you’re hiking in Pennsylvania, you can generally get away with just a bear hang for your food. Check out this post from the Washington Trails Association on how to properly hang a bear bag. Whether you’re dealing with brown bears or black bears, remember to never cook near your tent, keep food in your bag or tent overnight, and always properly store your food!

BearsprayREI | Amazon | Backcountry (This was the brand we used when we camped in Teton National Forest – thankfully never saw a bear but definitely needed the spray.)

Bear canREI | Amazon | Backcountry (I’ve never hiked anywhere where I needed a bear can, but I’ve heard great things about Bear Vault and would absolutely use one in Shenendoah, the Smokies, or out West.)

If you're looking for advice on clothing for backpacking, check out my Backpacking Clothing Guide!

Backpacking Must Haves – Misc

None of these items fit neatly into any of my categories, but I felt that they were super important to add to the list because I take them on most of my trips.

Trekking Poles

The Ohiopyle section of the LHHT featuring my trekking poles

I was skeptical about trekking poles at first and didn’t try them until my thru-hike of the Laurel Highlands Trail in September 2023. Then I realized I probably wouldn’t have finished the trail without them! Trekking poles not only help with balance, they also help keep blood flowing to your hands to avoid sausage fingers from having them dangle at your sides the entire hike. I plan to use poles for any hike of higher difficulty and bring them on all my backpacking trips from now on.

REI | Amazon (these are the ones I have) | Backcountry

Lantern

While this may seem extra in addition to the headlamp, I like to have a lantern in my tent or shelter when it gets dark. This means I can relax with friends and play cards (like we did on our LHHT thru hike) or just chill in my tent without running down my headlamp battery. The lightweight lantern I linked below is so light you barely notice you’re carrying it! You can also get a lamp that doubles as a charge for your devices. While it’s significantly more expensive, I do love equipment with dual functionality!

Lightweight lanternREI | Amazon | Backcountry

Charging lanternREI | Amazon | Backcountry

Garmin Watch

For me, this isn;’t just a hiking must-have, it’s an EVERY DAY must-have. I wear my Garmin Forerunner 945 watch every single day. It tracks my workouts, steps, sleep quality, and more. When hiking, I like the map function where you can see where you walked in case you need to backtrack. I also love tracking my mileage, which is great for trails that don’t have mile markers.

Note that Garmin has newer models than the 945 out, but I love the 945 and it’s been going strong for three years! If you’re planning to be backpacking for multiple days, I’d recommend one that has solar charging capabilities which the 945 does not have.

REI | Amazon | Backcountry (The first two links are my watch, the last link is a more updated version.)

External Charger

Having charged devices on trail is super important. From navigating with offline maps to communicating between hikers (if hiking somewhere with service) to taking pictures and video, a phone only works if it’s charged. I carry a lightweight external charger to make sure my phone and headlamp are charged and don’t run out of juice. Because nothing is worse than waking up for the 3am pee and realizing your headlamp is out of battery…

REI | Amazon | Backcountry – this one is also a light! (ensure the external charger has battery life that makes sense for the length of your trip and is compatible with your devices)

Insect Repellent

Nothing ruins a hike like getting attacked by biting bugs. I always keep bug spray in my car and spray before every hike. I also make sure that at least one of our group brings spray on backpacking trips. Personally I use the DEET Deep Woods bug spray, but I recommend doing your own research and testing on insect repellent.

In addition to insect repellent, I like to spray my main hiking clothes, shoes, and bag with permethrin prior to heading out on trail. Pennsylvania is PRIME tick country and I will do whatever it takes to try to avoid getting bit. This does need to be reapplied to clothes every six weeks, depending on how often you wash your clothes.

PermethrinREI | Amazon

Sunscreen

Sunscreen is super personal for each person. I have to bring a lot of sunscreen on trail because I am very prone to sunburn. For longer trips, I will pack a half empty spray sunscreen, a lip sunscreen, and a small thing of face sunscreen. For shorter trips, I usually just pack the face and lip sunscreens. Make sure to bring sunscreen no matter the weather because the sun can still burn on a cloudy day! Sun Bum is my favorite brand of sunscreen. It smells great, doesn’t feel greasy, and has never failed me!

Lip SunscreenREI | Amazon

Face SunscreenREI | Amazon

Sunglasses

I’ve used my sunglasses for every single other backpacking trip I’ve been on. I LOVE Goodr sunglasses. They come in fun colors, they’re super durable and they don’t cost much so if you lose them, it’s not devastating.

REI | Amazon | Backcountry (I’ve included generic links to Goodr sunglasses here because there are so many options!)

Trash Bags/Plastic Bags

I ALWAYS bring some plastic bags or trash bags. These are great for a number of things – packing out trash (duh), picking up trash on trail, separating wear gear from the rest of your gear, storing wet/gross dishes – you will ALWAYS need more trash bags than you think you do. I’m not going to include links to this because you should have some at home.

Stuff Sacks

I love having stuff sacks to keep my gear separate. It feels so efficient and organized to have all of my gear in their own little bags. Stuff sacks also help me pack my backpack more efficiently. And I can use one for my bear hang!

REI | Backcountry

Want to take your gear backpacking but aren't sure how to plan a trip? Check of my Guide for Planning Your Best Backpacking Trip!

Final Thoughts on Backpacking Must-Haves

Phew! There you have it – my complete list of backpacking gear must haves! As I have mentioned many times in this post, gear is totally subjective. PLEASE make sure to try before you buy if you can to make sure your gear works well for YOU.

Did I forget anything that you think is vital? Do you have any questions about my approach to gear? Let me know in the comments and enjoy your adventures!

Updated February 13, 2024

Leave a Comment