Backpacking Essentials: Gear, Skills, and More

Backpacker looks over a mountain lakeContinuing the celebration of National Get Outdoors Month, today we’re covering some essential backpacking gear, skills, and preparations that will help ensure you return from your adventure happy, healthy, and in one piece.

Preparing for a backpacking trip can be intimidating—there’s so much to think about! What will you eat? How much water do you need? What animals might you encounter? Should you go into your local REI and grab one of everything, or can you get away with just a shower curtain for shelter and a change of clothes like the famed Appalachian Trail hiker Grandma Gatewood?

Really, all these questions boil down to: What might kill you out in nature, and how can you successfully avoid those things?

First and foremost, the work you do ahead of time is aimed at staying alive. Beyond that, you want to pack smart and carry no more weight than necessary. Comfort is a consideration, too. Given a choice, even the heartiest among us would prefer not to be too hot, cold, hungry, thirsty, tired, itchy, sunburned, chafed, or blistered. Backpacking is plenty strenuous enough without extra discomforts.

This isn’t meant to scare you off! Backpacking can be truly transformative—a chance to disconnect from the rigors of everyday modern life, explore places you can’t get to by car, test your physical and mental mettle, and reconnect with nature on a soul-deep level. Backpacking is all the more rewarding because it’s challenging. The right groundwork prevents unnecessary suffering.

Backpacking Checklist: What Gear to Bring

You can (and probably will) spend months researching the best ultralight gear, drooling over the priciest options, and overthinking everything. It’s terrifically fun and often overwhelming. The following is an overview of what you need.

Protection from the elements

  • Shelter and sleeping arrangements
  • A way to make fire
  • Sun protection
  • Clothing for all possible weather (Opt for breathable, wicking fabrics. Wool is a great option. It comes in different weights for hot and cold temps, and you can wear it for multiple days before it gets smelly.)

Protection from wildlife

  • Bug spray
  • Whistle
  • Bear spray, bear canister

Food and hydration

  • Water and ways to make potable water (filter, iodine tablets)
  • Food
  • Cooking gear (stove, pan, utensils)
  • Electrolytes


  • Physical map of area (not just on your phone)
  • Compass
  • GPS unit (optional but recommended, especially in the deep wilderness)

Injury and illness


  • Toiletries (soap, toothbrush, etc.)
  • Bathroom accommodations (shovel, toilet paper, wag bags if required)


  • Headlamp
  • Knife, multitool
  • Duct tape, repair kits
  • Batteries, chargers
  • Cash, credit card (in case you need to pop back into civilization and buy food, gear, or a ride back to your car)

Tips for Backpacking

There’s much more to backpacking than dropping mega-bucks on gear, lacing up your boots, and heading out.

First, give yourself plenty of time to train. As I said in last week’s training post, backpacking is an endurance event. As with any kind of endurance feat, you need to ready your body (and mind) to tackle the physical (and mental) challenge. Tailor your training to the conditions you are going to face.

Learn how to use your gear. Practice putting up and taking down your tent. Make campfires. Try out your water filter, and learn how to take it apart and clean it. Figure out which of your gear has batteries or requires a charge, and make sure you’ll have enough power for the trip.

Start small and work your way up. Go out for two or three nights before attempting an epic 10-day through hike on the Pacific Crest Trail. If possible, buddy up with a more experienced backpacker who can help troubleshoot these first outings.

Essential Outdoor Skills to Master

Don’t set out without a working knowledge of these skills that can save your life on the trail:

  • Survival skills: How to build a fire (more than one way, ideally), how to construct a basic shelter.
  • Wildlife encounters: Might you run into snakes, bears, mountain lions, scorpions, moose? Know what to do.
  • Navigation: Be able to read an old school paper map and use a compass. Don’t rely solely on GPS.
  • First aid: Know how to deal with cuts, sprains, burns, broken bones, and stings until you can get to a doctor or hospital if necessary.

Plan Your Camping Meals and Trail Food

Bringing the right amount of food takes a fair deal of planning, plus some trial and error (another good reason to start with shorter outings). The goal is to bring enough to sustain yourself without carrying more than you need. The typical recommendation is 25 calories per pound of body weight per day, plus or minus 5 calories depending on how strenuous your trip will be.

Of course, if you’re dedicated to a low-carb Primal and keto way of eating, the conventional fueling advice doesn’t exactly apply to you. Whether you hope to stick to your typical foods or add carbs strategically to provide extra oomph, it’s a good idea to practice fueling during your training hikes and shorter backpacking trips. Endurance athletes have a saying: “Nothing new on race day.” In other words, don’t eat anything during a race that you haven’t used in training. That applies here, too. Remember, your favorite at-home snacks won’t necessarily sit well when you’re eight miles into a hot uphill hike with a heavy pack. Experiment with hydration and electrolytes while you’re at it.

Try out a few meal options before you go, too. It’s such a bummer to sit down to a much-anticipated dinner at the end of a long day only to discover that you absolutely detest the dehydrated meals you brought.

Here are some backpacking meal and snack ideas to get you started.

Get Excited!

Adventure awaits! And yes, there are a lot of details to nail down before you go, but the planning can be fun. Enlist the help of more seasoned backpackers. Avail yourself of their wisdom. Learn from their mistakes. Maybe you can even borrow some gear to try before you buy.

Be prepared, but try to not overthink every decision. Don’t get so bogged down in the minutia (“Should I get the trekking poles that weigh one ounce less but are only rated 3.5 stars?”) that you’re a hot mess of stress by the time your trip rolls around. Remember, this is supposed to be fun.

Anyway, overthinking won’t help. Every trip will be a learning experience. You’ll discover things you like and things you wish you had done differently. No matter how prepared you are, there will be surprises. Expecting the unexpected is part of the adventure. Resolve here and now to roll with the punches, and you’ll have a much better experience.

Now get out there and do something epic!

Backpacking newbies – what are your most burning questions?
Backpacking veterans – what’s your best piece of advice?

TAGS:  camping, nature

About the Author

Lindsay Taylor headshot

Lindsay Taylor, Ph.D., is a senior writer and community manager for Primal Nutrition, a certified Primal Health Coach, and the co-author of three keto cookbooks.

As a writer for Mark’s Daily Apple and the leader of the thriving Keto Reset and Primal Endurance communities, Lindsay’s job is to help people learn the whats, whys, and hows of leading a health-focused life. Before joining the Primal team, she earned her master’s and Ph.D. in Social and Personality Psychology from the University of California, Berkeley, where she also worked as a researcher and instructor.

Lindsay lives in Northern California with her husband and two sports-obsessed sons. In her free time, she enjoys ultra running, triathlon, camping, and game nights. Follow along on Instagram @theusefuldish as Lindsay attempts to juggle work, family, and endurance training, all while maintaining a healthy balance and, most of all, having fun in life.

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