A Beginners Guide to Backpacking

By Melia Shumate, Girls Who Hike Orange County Ambassador

Making the jump from day hiking to backpacking can be daunting. There's tons of new things to buy, there are so many brands and options, and it's hard to know exactly what you'll need. It can be intimidating, financially scary, and it can cause a huge sense of imposter syndrome: am I capable enough? Do I belong out here? Can I do this? I'm here to tell you: YES, you absolutely can. I'm also here to tell you making the jump from simply day hiking to backpacking was one of the most worthwhile things I ever did for myself.

I've been backpacking for the better part of the last three years. There have been tons of trips between me and my very first backpacking trip, including short weekenders, several thru-hikes (including the HST and JMT), and all sorts of terrain and weather trips. I slowly bought gear over the first year of really getting interested in the activity- I searched for sales, borrowed gear until I could afford it, and read a lot about different products to ensure I was buying the right ones. I've field tested a ton of gear and it took me a while to really figure out what worked and what didn't. It also took a few trips of missing items to really nail down my list of "must haves". It's going to be the same way for you- learning to backpack is a process of trial and error and the only way you learn is if you push your comfort zone and get out there.

This blog post covers everything you need to know to get started, including a comprehensive gear and clothing list, the items I personally carry, and recommendations for what you should look for when you're buying. I know you’re here to talk gear, but let’s talk about a few general backpacking things first:

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Leave no trace!
This is probably the most important part of backpacking in my opinion. Leave no trace details the code of ethics utilized by the hiking and backpacking community that promotes the conservation of our wilderness. Leave no trace is simple: have as little impact as possible. This means packing out EVERYTHING that you brought in with you. Even if it is “natural”, like orange peels, apple cores, banana peels, etc., it is foreign to that land and will effect the environment. It’s about much more than not leaving trash though. Leave no trace essentially means leave as little evidence of human impact as possible. So, this also means sticking to the trail, not moving rocks and tree branches or at least moving them back after, camping in already designated camp spots, disposing of your waste properly, learning to interact with wildlife properly, and much more. Before you go on any backpacking trip, PLEASE check out the leave no trace website.

Less is more (unless it’s a first aid kit).
If you’re questioning whether or not you will use it, you probably won’t. You do not need a makeup kit. You do not need three books to entertain you. You do not need excessive clothing. Planning is the only way you can cut excess. Pack your bag. Then, assess what you need. Take something out you can’t justify. Pack it again. Take note on your trips of unused items and make adjustments for your next trip. Also, you should pay specific attention to how much things weigh when you buy them! You want to be carrying the least amount of weight possible. Trust me!

Sharing is caring.
Since your ultimate goal is to be as light as possible, one way to eliminate some weight is to share group gear items. Stoves, tents, and water filters are all great sharable items. 

However, some items are NOT optional
However, do not cut weight on items that are valuable and necessary. This includes cutting your first aid supplies, 10 essentials, or trying to use your Iphone as a replacement for literally everything. If you lose your phone or if it turns off due to cold weather you could get yourself into a very unsafe situation. Plus, learning to read paper maps is a beautiful thing!

Everyone is different.
While this backpacking gear list and manner of organizing my gear in my pack has worked well for me, play around with it. Build from it or take away from it. Go to REI and ask them a million questions. Talk about it in your local GWH chapter. Ask other friends that backpack what gear they use. Read other gear reviews. I can only tell you what has worked well for me, not necessarily what will work well for you. Also, know that it’s a learning process. The more you backpack, the more you will learn what gear works and what gear doesn’t.

Shop around!!
I know the items on this list are pricey. With backpacking gear I honestly believe you get what you pay for and the investment is completely worth it for higher quality products that you can use over and over again. Plus, it’s normally a one time purchase for literally years of some of the best memories you can make (I have yet to replace any of my big items out of necessity in 3 years). That being said, there are a lot of options for saving money. Go to REI used gear sales. Use sites like Backcountry or Campmor. Check out used gear sales in Facebook groups. Ask friends if they have extra gear. Slowly buy the most important items and go with groups that can share gear! Save in any way you can; the wild is worth it.

The length of your trip, wilderness you are experiencing, and weather will influence or change the requirements of your backpacking gear list.
Please note: this is just a general guide for backpacking during expected nice weather (protecting from elements, but not expecting extreme rain or snow). This guide is also geared at backpacking during traditional season (summer and early fall months).

Backpack: Osprey Aura 65 L

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When choosing a backpack, the first step should be a trip to REI. They will fit you into a few packs they recommend and add weighted bags to simulate the weight you’d carry on the trail. Walk around with the pack on for at least 30 minutes and pay attention to how your back, shoulders, and hips feel. The pack should sit low on your hips and you should feel the weight in your legs, NOT your back or shoulders.

Important features to look for in a pack include: an adjustable hip belt, side water bottle pockets, multiple exterior pockets (including hip belt pockets and a top pocket), and solid zippers and seams. Also, backpacks vary by liter capacity. That’s what the 65 L means that’s attached to the backpack name. I recommend that you get a 50 L or 65 L, but remember more space should not mean more weight! However, the larger bag will give you more flexibility to fit a bear canister if you plan on backpacking through bear country! Also, don’t forget your pack cover to cover your pack when it rains!

Why buy the Osprey Aura: This pack has a lot of great features, but my favorite feature is the Anti-Gravity suspension back system. It takes the all the weight off your back and is made of breathable mesh, making your back less sweaty after those intense uphill climbs! It features 9 external pockets, a large main cavity pocket, and a sectioned off internal lower cavity pocket. The pack also has a lot of adjustable straps, making it an extremely versatile pack for anything from overnighters to lengthy thru-hikes. This was also the first pack I put on where I felt the weight in my legs and butt rather than in my back. I also appreciate that the pack has a divider in the main compartment, giving you a bottom pocket and a main cavity. I normally stuff all my sleeping gear and cook gear into the bottom and place my bear canister and clothing in the top. Further, the very top compartment can be taken off to wear as a daypack! Osprey makes extremely durable packs that are well worth the investment due to their longevity!
Price: $230
Weight: XS 3 lb 11 oz / S 3 lb 12 oz / M 3 lb 13 oz

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Other great backpacks worth checking out: Gregory Deva

Tent: Big Agnes Copper Spur

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A tent is your home on the trail. The best thing is home is wherever you choose to end for the day! This is one item I truly believe spending the money on. There are lots of great tents on the market, and your purchase is dependent on several things. 

Things to look for and consider when buying a tent include: the amount of doors on the tent (two is desirable), whether or not it has collapsible windows, a matching footprint, good ventilation, and plenty of guy line attachments.  Also, always check to make sure you have tent stakes, your footprint, and the rainfly before leaving on your trip. When buying a tent, ask to set up the tent in store or set it up immediately when you get home. Check to make sure the zippers are functioning and well sewn and make sure the tent is easy to set up. Another idea function of a tent is that it is free standing. This means that you can set the tent up and it will stand on it’s own without having to be tied or staked down completely. This feature makes it easy to set up your tent when you don’t have a lot of options for staking down or when high winds prevent you from really using the guy lines to secure your tent.

How to tell if a tent has good ventilation: A tent with more mesh material will be more breathable and is better for summer months. Collapsable windows also give more ventilation. Further, you want a tent with a lot of guy lines so you can tightly secure the tent and rain fly. Guy lines are cords that attach the tent to the ground. You pull the guy lines out and stake each one to the ground to secure your tent in case of wind! A tent with good ventilation will maximize the space between the tent and the the rain fly. Everything should securely attach.

Why buy the Big Agnes Copper Spur: The Big Agnes is a great tent because of it’s ease of use, small packing size, and light weight. It can also be used as a minimalist shelter during mid day heat or sudden downpours by simply setting up the poles and attaching the rainfly. It has collapsable windows, a lot of guy lines, and dries extremely fast. This tent also has a great shape that fits two people comfortably. It has two doors, giving easy access on either side. Additionally, when the rain fly is attached to the tent, there is enough space outside of the tent to store your pack and shoes under the rain fly vestibule.
Price: $390
Weight: 2 lb 5 ounces
Capacity: 2 people

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Other great tents to check out: Kelty Grand MesaMSR Hubba Hubba 

Women’s Sleeping Bag: Sierra Designs Cloud 800

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A good sleeping bag is a staple item in any backpackers gear list. There’s lots of criteria that go into what makes a sleeping bag worthwhile, including some analysis of the following:

Down vs. Synthetic: There are two types of sleeping bags: down and synthetic. Down sleeping bags are slightly warmer, pack a little smaller, and weigh a little less. However, these bags cannot handle water as well as synthetic bags can. Down bags are generally going to be a little more expensive than synthetic, but down will generally last longer if you take good care of it. I’d recommend looking for a down/synthetic blend if possible, but would lean towards a down bag if not.

Sleeping bag hoods: Further, sleeping bags come equipped with or without hoods. A hood is an extension of the sleeping bag at the top where your head goes. I recommend buying a sleeping bag with a hood because it keeps your head warmer and keeps your pillow in place.
Where does it open: You also want to consider which side the sleeping bag opens on. Generally, you want the sleeping bag to open on the side of your dominant arm.

Sleeping bag shape: Sleeping bags come in different shapes. Mummy bags are tight where your toes go and generally warmer. Straight bags leave more room in the bag where your legs are. This means the bag will not be as warm as a mummy style bag, but it gives more wiggle room when your sleeping and gives the ability to change into your clothes while still in the sleeping bag on cold mornings.

Temperature rating: Finally, sleeping bags are given a temperature rating. This indicates the lowest temperature you can comfortably sleep in with that sleeping bag. Normally, sleeping bags are rated within the range of 0 degrees, 32 degrees, and 45 degrees. I recommend buying a 32 degree bag as you can always layer clothing on cold nights (or add a sleeping bag liner) or unzip the bag on warmer nights.

Why buy the Sierra Designs Cloud 800: So, I personally do not use the Sierra Designs bag. Unfortunately, they discontinued the Mountain Hardware sleeping bag I have used for the last 3 years, so I am borrowing a suggestion from our friends over at Outdoor Gear Lab (PS Outdoor Gear Lab is a great resource for comparing all sorts of gear!). The Sierra Designs bag is currently their top rated sleeping bag for several reasons, including its light weight, comfort, and reasonable price considering its ultralight status. The bag is 800+ fill down and will definitely keep you warm and comfortable at night. Plus the bag is super lightweight, weighing in at only 27.4 ounces! You can also buy a stuff sack for this sleeping bag and get it to pack down extremely small!
Price: $300
Weight: 27.4 ounces

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Other sleeping bags I'd recommend: Rab Neutrino 400Kelty Cosmic Down

Sleeping Pad: Therm-A-Rest Zlite and Sea-To-Summit Ultralight Insulated

Okay, so we all know that sleeping in a tent isn’t always the most comfortable thing. It’s no California King Size mattress after all. In all honesty, most of the time after a long day of hiking, you won’t really mind sleeping on the ground because you’re so exhausted. However, there’s still a few things you can do to make yourself more comfortable at night. Sleep is super important to me and I am admittedly grumpy when I don’t get good sleep, hence my opting for the double sleeping pad system. I have one foam pad (the Therm-a-rest) and one insulated blow up pad (the Sea-to-Summit).

Things to look for in a sleeping pad: Ideally, you want to look for a sleeping pad that is insulated. The sleeping pad is the only thing that separates you from the cold ground at night, so an insulated sleeping pad will offer a little more warmth and comfort. A sleeping pad's ability to insulate is measured using an R-value. This is the measurement of a materials thermal resistance. The higher the R-value, the warmer it will be. (An R value of 4.9 would be warmer than an R value of 1.8). You should also consider how you sleep when buying your pad. Are you a side sleeper? Do you sleep on your back? Normally, an inflatable pad will give you more flexibility in sleeping positions, but if you only sleep on your back you might be able to get away with just a foam pad. Sleeping on your side on a non inflatable pad is not fun. Another thing to consider is how much noise the pad makes when you move around on it. You may hear a lot of hikers complaining about their pad sounding like a bag of chips when they sleep, so blow it up in REI and lay on it!

Why buy the Therm-A-Rest Zlite: The Therm-A-Rest Zlite acts as another layer of insulation between me and the ground. It is extremely light weight and can be folded and strapped to the outside of my pack for easy carrying. It offers great insulation for it’s weight. The egg carton patterning combined with it’s aluminized surface traps in up to 20% more heat. It’s honestly very comfortable on it’s own, but makes for a great additional layer when coupled with an inflatable pad. Also, it is one of the pads that I most frequently see used by other backpacker’s on the trail, which always makes me feel a little better about my purchase. The Therm-A-Rest comes in two sizes: S and Regular. I purchased the S cause I’m 5 ft flat. For reference, when I lay on top of it, everything but my feet fits on the mat. If you are taller, or are using just the Therm-A-Rest, I would recommend buying the regular size. The other great thing about the Therm-A-Rest is its versatility. You can pull it out and use it as a seat or it can double as a yoga mat! It’s pretty indestructible from what I’ve seen.
Price: $34.95 (S); $44.95 (R)
Weight: 10 oz (S); 14 oz (R)

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Why buy the Sea-To-Summit Ultralight: First and foremost, the Sea-To-Summit is a great purchase because of it’s light weight and small packing size. I’d also highly recommend this pad because of it’s ability to withstand a lot of wear and tear. I’ve used this pad for 3 years now, and it still holds air throughout the night and has never punctured or ripped. I also appreciate that they put a dual air valve, so you can take a breath between blowing air into it to blow it up without losing any of the air you’ve already put in it. I find that this pad offers the ability to sleep on your back, side, or stomach comfortably which is another important feature since I’m constantly rollin around in my sleep! Also, I’ve never personally popped my sea-to-summit, but when a good friend popped his, we found that the patch system actually works super well!
Price: $100 (S); $120 (R)
Weight: 11.5 oz (S); 12.5 oz (R)

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Other great sleeping pads: Therm-A-Rest NeoAir

Pillow: Nemo Fillo

A pillow is another way to take your sleeping on the trail from good to great. A lot of people skip packing a pillow and simply stuff their jacket with clothing. However, with so many new light weight options, I feel like this is a worthwhile piece of gear to bring. Pillows are generally either air filled or open up to stuff with clothing. I’d recommend going to REI and checking out the pillows they have in stock in order to find the one that really works best for you. I’d recommend keeping the packing size and weight in mind when you’re comparing options, and to try pillows that you just blow up or you just stuff with clothing to see which version works best for you!

Why buy the Nemo Fillo: I had a really hard time finding a pillow I really liked. I’d tried sleeping with just my down jacket as a pillow, then tried a larger sea-to-summit blow up pillow, and eventually fell in love with with the Nemo Fillo. The great thing about this pillow is you can use air to blow it up and you can stuff clothing into it to make it a little firmer than a traditional blow up pillow. I normally stuff my beanie or down jacket inside the pillow and then add air until I’m comfortable. This pillow offered enough support without being too big to fit in my sleeping bag hood like some of its competitors.
Price: $40
Weight: 10.8 oz

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Other great pillows: Sea-to-Summit Aeros

Water Filtration System: Platypus GravityWorks Water Filter System- 4 L

Filtration systems are needed for any overnight backpacking trip. Try to filter from moving water sources or large water sources, such as rivers or lakes. Do not drink directly from the streams, even if they look clean! It’s also very important that you carry more than one means of filtering water. I normally carry the Platypus GravityWorks and iodine tablets in my emergency supply kit. If something goes wrong with your filter, it’s always good to have a back up! I’d stay away from any filtration system that requires pumping, because they’re exhausting and time consuming.

Things to consider when buying a filter: The biggest thing you should consider when buying a filter is what your source of water will be like. Will you have a solid lake or river to filter from? Will you be barely scraping water from a muddy source? The type of water source you have access to will largely determine what kind of filter you can use. For beginning backpacking, I highly recommend starting with places with ample water sources. You may also want to consider how many people you'll be backpacking with as filters are a great shareable item. It made more sense for our group of 6, for example, to filter several bags out of our platypus rather than all having Sawyer squeezes.

Why buy the Platypus GravityWorks: This filtration system can filter 4 L of water in just two and a half minutes!! The filtration system runs for $120 and includes a clean water sack, a dirty water sack, and the filtration hose. Simply gather your water in the dirty sack, hang it from a tree, trail sign, or high rock, connect the filtration hose to the clean sack, and let gravity do it’s thing! No pumping, no squeezing! Plus, the gravity feature allows you to complete other camp duties, such as setting up your tent, setting up for dinner, or packing your gear in the mornings. It’s quick, easy, and zero work!
Price: $120
Weight: 11.5 ounces

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Other great filtration systems: Sawyer Squeeze

Hydration Bladder: CamelBak 3 L

When you’re hiking or backpacking, it’s incredibly important that you stay hydrated throughout the hike. However, stopping to drink water from a bottle can eat up a lot of stopping time on the trail. Thankfully, hydration bladders are a great solution. These reservoirs store water in your pack and attach to a hose, making it possible to drink on the go. Hydration bladders come in different liter capacity. Typically, you want to drink a liter of water for every 3 miles you hike. However, you want to drink more water if you’re experiencing any increases in altitude or direct sunlight. Remember that water weighs 2 lbs per liter, so packing just enough water is a good idea. This also stresses the importance of a water filter, which gives you the ability to carry less water and filter along the trail.

Why buy the CamelBak 3 L: CamelBak is a trusted brand that can withstand a significant amount of use! I recommend buying the 3 L rather than the 1 or 2 L options because it gives you the ability to carry the most water when water sources are scarce. You can always only fill the 3 L with 1 L of water if you’re tying to save on weight and have ample water sources for filtration along the trail. The hose is the other nice feature on the Camelbak that you don’t get from a traditional water bottle. This allows you to drink while you’re still moving and doesn’t require asking someone else to get your water out for you. I found that especially in the beginning of my backpacking experiences, having a Camelbak made me drink significantly more water because it was convenient and accessible.
Price: $35
Weight: 8 oz

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Other great water systems: Smart Water Bottles (they're pretty durable compared to other bottles and come in 1L variations)

Stove: JetBoil or MSR Pocket Rocket and GSI Halite Boiler Pot

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The type of stove you need will depend on how you plan on cooking your food. Do you plan on doing already prepared freeze dried meals, such as Mountain House or Backpacker’s pantry? Or, do you plan on making meals that require more cooking, such as Knorr’s pasta sides? The type of food you want to cook will determine what type of stove you need. If you plan on eating freeze dried foods, which require only boiling water, the Jet Boil is a great option. However, if you plan on cooking foods, like rices or soups, you may require a stove and pot combination as cooking in a Jet Boil tends to lead to burning food to the bottom. With your cookware, also don’t forget to pack a sponge and biodegradable soap and an eating utensil!

Why buy the JetBoil: The jetboil can boil 2 cups of water in under 2 minutes, making it a quick and efficient stove for cooking freeze dried meals. The Jetboil is small, lightweight and user friendly. Plus, a small can of fuel can fit right in the jet boil! I normally go through about a can of fuel per week of meals. I only heat up water to reheat dehydrated meals I pre-make. I also heat up water in the evening or morning for tea or hot chocolate as a warm treat along the trail. The downside of the JetBoil as a cooking system is that you cannot cook food directly in the JetBoil. It will burn the bottom of the pot every time and it’s seriously annoying to attempt to clean. If you think you’ll be cooking more in the backcountry, I would opt for a stove/pot combo instead of the JetBoil. The JetBoil is a great option if you’re planning on eating Mountain House meals or any other dehydrated meals. Another great feature of the JetBoil is that you can fit a small canister of fuel inside of the JetBoil and the bottom can be detached and used as a cup. This makes it a compact, one item feel to encompass your entire cooking system.
Price: $99.95
Weight: 15.25 oz

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Why buy the MSR Pocket Rocket: The MSR Pocket Rocket is great due to its extremely light weight and packing size. It’s really easy to set up and take down, and gives you the ability to cook directly in your pot without as much concern about burning as the JetBoil. You can easily adjust the amount of gas being released to change the power of the Pocket Rocket, giving you flexibility to quickly boil water, simmer, or cook at a medium temperature. The Pocket Rocket is also very reasonably priced.
Price: $45
Weight: 2.6 oz

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Why buy the GSI Outdoors Boiler Pot: If you’re only cooking for yourself, the 1.1 L GSI Pot is the perfect size. This is one of the most lightweight pots I’ve been able to find and it is rather inexpensive. I also like the GSI Boiler Pot because you can put the Pocket Rocket, a kitchen towel, soap and sponge, and a canister of fuel inside of it in your backpack, so it really maximizes packing space. The handle also doesn’t get super hot like some other pots I’ve tried and the lid is a nice feature when you want to boil water quickly or keep bugs out of your food! I normally cook and eat out of the pot, so it’s a one pot clean up. The pot is also made of aluminum, so it won’t rust easily and will last you a long time!
Price: $30
Weight: 8.6 oz

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Other great stoves: MSR Whisperlite

Trekking Poles: Black Diamond Trail Trekking Poles

Trekking Poles can make a huge difference in your backpacking experience. The point of trekking poles is to shift the weight from two points of contact (your legs) to four points. This increases your stability, decreased the pressure on your knees, and takes some of the weight off your legs. I’ve found that the added weight of a backpack makes trekking poles even more necessary. They can also be used to help make a shelter in rain or high winds, are crucial for balance during river crossings, and catch you when you trip on rocks along the trail (maybe I’m just a major klutz). When I first started backpacking, I was under the impression that trekking poles were only for old people, but when I really started using them, I realized what a huge difference they can make.

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Why buy the Black Diamond Trail Trekkers: I honestly didn’t try out too many other trekking poles because these Black Diamonds got such good reviews. I can say that they’ve been through two years of backpacking trips with me, including a 10 day trek across the Sierra’s last year and a 23 day traverse of the John Muir Trail this year. The shock absorbing grips have never given me blisters on my hands and they definitely lessen the impact of utilizing the poles. I also really appreciate that the locking system is easy to undo and adjust your height. When trekking poles, it’s important that your poles are at a height that creates a 90 degree bend in your arm. This means your poles should also be shorter when you’re going uphill and longer when you’re going downhill. This makes the locking mechanism crucial. These Black Diamonds are easily adjusted and they actually stay locked in place when you lock them. These poles never collapse on me.
Price: $100
Weight: 15.6 oz

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Ten Essentials

The Ten Essentials are items you should carry with you on every single hike or backpacking trip. These are essential and emergency survival items that can make your experience significantly better, especially if something goes wrong. Please click on the link above to check out the full list of essentials, and keep reading below for the highlights.

Headlamp: Black Diamond Storm

I never realized how important a headlamp was on a trip until I forgot to pack it. If you’re hiking a lot of miles each day, you normally spend the majority of the day on the trail, set up before dinner, and before you know it, it’s dark. A headlamp is great for use in camp and is a vital tool for night hiking and emergency situations. Lumens are basically the rating system for headlamps that determines how bright the headlamp will shine. Your headlamp should be a 150 lumens or above in order to give you enough light to see the trail. I generally like the headlamp to be easy to use, have multiple light settings, and have a single strap around the head rather than a cross strap. The single strap actually gives me less headaches. I also recommend looking for a headlamp with more than one setting. I love being able to dim my headlamp when I’m in my tent and brighten it when I’m searching for animals while I’m going to the bathroom at night.

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Why buy the Black Diamond Storm: The storm is, in my opinion, one of the best headlamps on the market, including other Black Diamond competitors. I love the storm because of it’s reasonable price, ease of use, and variety of settings. It took me a second to get a hang of the one button feature, but once you use it a few times, you’ll appreciate the multiple settings such as a dimming feature, red light for less light disturbance at night in camp, and very obnoxious strobe feature in the case of an emergency. The light is bright enough for safe night hiking. I felt very comfortable and aware of my surroundings while on the trail in the dark, while other headlamps I’ve used failed to shine far enough to ease my concerns about what the trail around me looked like. I also really appreciate that I can dim at night, as to not blind my campmates, or I can switch to the red light to truly minimize my light while still being able to complete tasks in the tent at night.
Price: $49.95
Weight: 3.9 oz

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Other good headlampsPetzl Tikka

First Aid Kit: Adventure Medical Kits Mountain Series

I absolutely recommend buying a backpackers first-aid kit and personalizing it. This kit has a lot of the necessary gear and can be personalized to create the perfect first aid kit. I know the first aid kit can feel a little heavy, but the items in my first aid-kit have significantly improved mine or a fellow hiker’s experience when something went wrong. This is also an item I believe every single person should have on them on every single hike. 

The following is a list of items I think are vital in a first-aid and emergency kit:
Bandaids of various shapes/sizes
Neosporin
Antiseptic Wipes
Mole Skin
Nonstick Gauze Pads
Advil/Ibuprofen
Antihistamine
Tweezers
Nail clippers
Needle and thread
Duct Tape
Electrolyte chews
Tums
Cold Medicine
Fire Starter
(I put vaseline on cotton balls!)
Tampons
(they can be used to absorb large amounts of blood from open wounds, can be pulled apart for extra string, used as fire starters, or the practical typical application for that time of the month or an unexpected period which may happen at altitude or with strenuous activity)

Navigation: a paper map, compass, and GPS (optional)
Please, always carry a paper map of the area you are visiting and learn to use a compass for navigation. This is the most dependable, life saving method when you are in an emergency situation. Plus, this can save you if something goes wrong with a GPS and you find yourself off path. Remember that the essential item here isn’t just the map- it’s also the ability to navigate using said map. Practice your skills every chance you get. Start by buying maps of the area you day hike. Learn to read it. Ask friends who also backpack to help you. Take a class. This is a crucial backpacking skill. I also recommend that you buy maps that are waterproof. Tom Harrison is normally my go-to for all things maps!

Sun Protection: sunglasses, hat, and sunscreen

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Sun protection is extremely important any time you are outdoors, but if you are increasing in altitude it is even more crucial that you utilize sun protection. As altitude increases, the atmosphere gets thinner, allowing for greater UV exposure. Sun burns are not fun. Skin cancer is even less fun.

I recommend bringing a pair of sunglasses that still have proper UV protection, but are inexpensive. I’ve definitely beat up my sunglasses and was very glad I had a cheap pair rather than my expensive ray bans. Even if you don’t normally wear sunglasses, trust me that you’ll want them on your trips.

Hats also offer necessary protection from the sun. They also give you a little extra warmth on cold nights and can protect from burning your scalp! (Super not fun) I normally wear a Nike baseball cap, but a lot of hikers choose to go with a hat with a wider brim. 

Sunscreen is really a personal preference, but I would highly recommend a mineral based sunscreen for your face. The worst feeling is when sweat and sunscreen mix and get in your eyes.

Beyond gear: What do I wear?

it’s generally important to remember to buy clothes that are comfortable, lightweight, and multi-functional. It’s great to have designated trail clothes and camp clothes, though at times they may cross over. You also don’t need to pack too much clothing. I typically pack one or two of each of the following items. I promise you’ll be pretty dirty and you won’t mind that your clothes are too. Finally, it’s important to test drive your clothing before hitting the trail to ensure that everything fits well and is comfortable while being active and wearing your pack!

Trail clothes:

Long Sleeve Sun Shirt

A long sleeve sun shirt is a great option to keep you protected from UV rays. These shirts are lightweight and breathable, so you won't overheat, but they're instrumental in protecting your skin. These shirts are also made of material that is fairly quick to dry and won't smell to bad when you've been hiking and working out in them. This sun shirt is comfortable, still cute, and pretty inexpensive at $22!

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Nike Tank Top

I like the dri-fit tops because they are easy to wash, pack down extremely small, are very lightweight, and obviously dry quickly. I’ve normally seen the dri-fit tank tops cost anywhere from $10-$30 depending on where you buy it and what styles are potentially on sale. I bought mine on Amazon last year for the High Sierra Trail, so it’s been on two thru-hikes with me. I honestly picked white because I was curious to see how disgusting I’d get (ha!) but I’d recommend buying a different color if you don’t want the dirt to be visible! Fair warning that you should try the racer-back tank and backpack combination before you take this on a backpacking trip. While I’ve never had any problems, I’ve had friends that got pack rub since there was no clothing under their backpack strap. I’d recommend getting a dri-fit t-shirt in replace of the tank if that’s the case for you! 

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Yoga Pants

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For pants, most women choose between traditional hiking pants or yoga pants of some sort. I definitely find myself on the yoga pants side. I love how lightweight yoga pants are. Plus, I’m always amazed that they somehow feel warm when it’s cold and not too warm when it’s hot. I love the comfort and flexibility of yoga pants, but make sure to field test your pants before you go out. Sometimes they do lose their elasticity in the waistband or the material they’re made with rips easily. I ended up taking a pair of 90 Degrees by Reflexology pants. I also really appreciate that their prices are still very reasonable. I spent $20 on my pair from Marshalls. I also personally feel comfortable wearing just yoga pants and forgoing underwear. So this was a plus for me to be able to ditch underwear in my packing list.

*After discussion with some of my GWH friends, I’ve also heard some solid recommendations for trying hiking pants over yoga pants: 1. mosquitos can’t bite through thicker pants or looser pants as easily and 2. hiking pants are generally tougher/less likely to rip. I can’t honestly recommend any hiking pants for you, but I will say that my solution to mosquitos was layering my pants in camp and applying deet. Also for the record, my friend in pants was getting eaten too so idk how much the “mosquitos can’t eat through hiking pants is true”. I also believe if you get a thicker pair of yoga pants, they aren’t super likely to rip.

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Nike Running Shorts

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Shorts are a great option for warmer summer hiking. My only warning with wearing shorts while hiking is to be mindful of chafing between your legs and to mindful of where you're hiking through for ticks/scraping your legs on terrain. For chafing on a backpacking trip, I simply used my deodorant to ease the chafing slightly. I’ve also heard wonderful things about Body Glide if chafing is an issue for you. My favorite trail combo was the Nike shorts and the long sleeve sun shirt. I purchased these shorts for $27 on amazon!

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Sports Bra

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Okay: I have to admit, sports bra’s aren’t really an important piece of gear for me. I’m pretty clearly a member of the itty bitty titty committee, so support was not the main motivation when I picked out a sports bra. In fact, I wanted to voice my opinion on the conversation for some girls about bra/no bra. As someone who has smaller breasts, I’ve felt more than comfortable going bra-less before on trips. However, for backpacking trips I opt for something lightweight and comfortable. Even though I actually hike some days without wearing it, I still found the sports bra to be a worthwhile piece of clothing, since it doubled as a swim suit when there was a lot of people around. Most importantly, it helped me in the freezing temperatures. Now, being from California I don’t experience this too often but freezing hard nipples are not fun, so having a sports bra was actually very protective for me, especially in the high altitude areas. So, if you’re debating on whether or not to bring the sports bra or drop the weight, I’d recommend keeping it. If you need an actual recommendation for a sports bra and this talk just made you angry that some girls can go braless (HA sorry), you should ask your local GWH chapter for recommendations.

Marmot Rain Jacket

I’ve had the Marmot Precip for a few years now and have been pretty happy with its performance and packing size. In particular, I like this rain jacket because it has armpit zippers under the sleeves, so you can unzip the area under your armpit for more ventilation when you start to overheat. This makes this jacket wearable even when you’re trekking hard and working up a sweat. Additionally, it has a movable hood so you can lower it for more protection during heavy rainstorms and raise it to see more clearly when rain is lighter. I actually found the Marmot on sale during Sports Chalet’s closing sales and frequently see it on sale in online stores, though full retail has this jacket at $70. Again, a good deal compared to most other rain jackets.

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Patagonia Down Puffy Jacket

A down jacket is a vital piece of clothing to have on backpacking trips! I chose the Patagonia down for it’s combination of price and performance. I formerly wore an REI Co-Op down jacket, but was pleasantly surprised by how much extra warmth came with upgrading to the Patagonia jacket. For comparison, I also tried the Ghost Whisperer down jacket, but found that it was not as breathable or comfortable while actually hiking. Ultimately, the Patagonia Down made my list. The jacket retails at $200. However, I used my REI member dividends and only paid $45. (Yes, you can do the math and realize how much money I give to REI each year. Hint: it’s a lot! Ha!)

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Solomon X Ultra Mid Calf Boot

From the moment I put on the Solomon X Ultra’s I was in love. I have rarely gotten blisters in them, the gortex material withstands water amazingly, and they offer great support for long distance hiking. I will note that the toe box can sometimes be too narrow, so I’ve opted to re-lace my shoelaces to open the toe box. These boots are also genuinely very waterproof. I accidentally stepped into a few streams, or opted to keep my boots on and power through minor crossings, and they barely felt wet, even when I’d basically submerged my foot. The Solomon X Ultras cost $165. My big recommendation with boots is to ensure that you train in your boots, with a weighted backpack on, before you begin hiking. The added weight of a pack will shift how your feet feel in shoes and can change if you get blisters or not. It also means your boots will be well broken in before the trail- I met a few people that wore their shoes for the first time on their first backpacking trip and they ended up with awful blisters.

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1 pair Darn Tough Socks

These socks are made from Merino Wool, which means they dry quickly and keep sweat out. As a result, I never got a single blister on the trail, a god-send for thru-hikers. Darn Tough socks cost approximately $20 a pair and can be bought at most outdoor retailers, like REI.

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Camp Clothing:

Long Sleeve Fleece Lined Shirt

This was another shirt I bought on amazon due to good reviews. I took this on a winter backpacking trip to San Jacinto, which included snow and desert heat, and was super pleased with its adaptation in cold or warm settings. I also took it with me on the JMT and was thrilled with its performance. I have a 32 degree sleeping bag, so sleeping in long sleeves and thermal pants was pretty comfortable. The Tesla long sleeve is technically a “mens” shirt, but I simply bought a size small and it worked perfectly. I purchased this for $16 on amazon.

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Thermal pants

 

Having thermal pants is important for me at night because I tend to run slightly cold. I love how lightweight and simultaneously warm these pants were. I also loved having thermals because they are easy to layer under yoga pants (or hiking pants if you prefer). I typically sleep in the same pair of thermal pants every night on trips, so I try to do a baby wipe down on my legs (or wash my legs in a lake or river) each night before I changed into my PJs. I personally purchased the midweight thermals from SmartWool, which retail full price at $95. If you’re a warm sleeper or you have a sleeping bag that’s rated lower (I have a 32 degree bag), I would potentially recommend a lighter base layer type of pant for your PJS. Similarly, if you run really cold, you may want to consider the heavier base layer.

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1 pair Darn Tough Socks for camp!

Honestly, few things felt better than washing my feet in a stream at night and putting on a fresh, clean pair of camp socks. I chose to bring two pairs of Darn Tough socks, so in case of an emergency I would have a backup pair of reliable hiking socks. However, I really made a concentrated effort to keep one pair for the trail and one pair for camp. While I never used my camp socks on the trail, I opted to bring a second pair of Darn Tough Socks versus a more plus camp sock so they could be used as multi-functional in the event that something happened my normal trail socks. Again, Darn Tough socks run for $20 a pair.

Here's a few more resources you should utilize + don't forget to check in with your local Girls Who Hike chapter for more advice about backpacking!

LighterPack- this is a tool you can use to input all of your backpacking gear and determine how your weight is dispersed. It makes it very visual on where you can cut weight + you can send others your link and they can do a "virtual shakedown" with you to tell you what you're missing or what you should cut.
Outdoor Gear Lab- this is a great website for field tested reviews of backpacking gear!
Become a member of Girls Who Hike- lots of our chapters talk about gear, organize introduction to backpacking courses and trips, and have tons of advice on how to jump in with both feet! + There's tons of opportunity to meet other women who are in the same boat as you & are trying to find new backpacking friends.

Well, there you have it! If you made it to the end of this long rant about backpacking, you definitely deserve an award... or maybe just a backpacking trip ;)

Happy trails!


Melia is the ambassador for our Orange County, California chapter. This blog was originally written for her website: Melia In The Mountains. You can follow her backpacking adventures @meliainthemountains. To join her local meetups and discussions through the GWHOC chapter by clicking here.