How to Pack Light on Your Next Backpacking Trip
There are two types of backpackers, travelers who are often young and independent that like to travel the world inexpensively and those that are keen to embark on multi-day treks into the wilderness. What both types of backpackers have in common is that they carry on their back much of what they’ll need for their journey.
Planning a backpacking trip across Europe is a lot easier than planning a backpacking trip deep into the wilderness somewhere. You don’t need to worry about setting up shelter, packing days’ worth of food, or packing a bunch of safety gear since you will most likely be able to restock goods like food and water during your trip and services will be readily available to you throughout your travels.
Packing for a backpacking wilderness trekking adventure requires a lot of careful planning. Whether you’re a first-timer or an enthusiast, the goal is to pack as lightly as possible without forgoing the essentials you’ll need to stay safe and comfortable throughout your journey, something known as ultralight backpacking.
What and how you pack for a trekking adventure will depend on the destination and season, but there are a few general guidelines that can help you decide what and how to pack. To assist you, we’ve come up with our most helpful tips on how to pack light on your next backpacking trip in the wild.
Food and Water
Let’s start with the essentials first. You’re going to require plenty of food and water whether you’re planning a multi-day or multi-week outdoor backpacking trip, most likely more than you can carry all at once. Making sure you will have access to enough food and water to stay healthy for the length of your adventure is paramount, keeping in mind your body will require a lot more energy and fluids hiking than you normally would simply sitting at home.
While you may be able to get away with simply packing dry snacks and fruit for backpacking trips lasting a day or two, you will want to research mess kits when thinking about trekking for several days or weeks at a time. A mess kit consists of the cooking and eating utensils you’ll need to make much needed meals and potentially boil water to ensure safe drinking water. The key is to start off with a decent preassembled starter mess kit and then add or remove items you think you may or may not need.
Your mess kit should contain either a camp stove that uses fuel, or if you wish to save some weight, a way of starting a wood fire utilizing materials you come across in the wild and cooking over a flame. You’ll need a set of lightweight dishes and cutlery that clean up easy and a way of cleaning up to reduce the chance of harmful bacteria growing, making sure to use biodegradable dish detergent that it safe for the environment.
When it comes to what types of food items to pack, it comes down to choosing foods that will provide the highest amount of energy and nutrition while taking up the least amount of space and weight in your pack. A backpacker’s diet should be high in carbs, sugar, and fats. Environmental conditions may limit your ability to pack perishable foods, or at least force you to consume these items first if you do decide to pack such items like meat and dairy which usually require some sort of refrigeration. Great foods for hiking include beef jerky, which provides protein and sodium which can help regulate your body’s hydration, as well as nuts or energy bars and canned goods.
When it comes to safe drinking water, you may be able to pack a few liters of bottled water to start you out but it won’t be possible to carry all the water you’ll require for longer backpacking trips, especially if you will require water for cooking. Therefore, you’ll need to boil water sourced from natural sources or treat it with purification tablets or some kind of water filter/purification device to minimize your chances of getting sick from a waterborne illness. You may also want to pack a few tea bags, coffee or hot chocolate powder, or water flavoring to give you a bit of variety. Packing electrolyte powder or tablets you can add to your water is also a good idea.
Making sure you get enough food and water will allow all of your organs and body functions to operate normally. Not maintaining proper hydration and nutrition can lead to exhaustion, headaches, and disorientation which can prove deadly in some instances.
Clothing and Footwear
Wearing the right clothing is also important for any backpacking adventure. While you want to be prepared for all types of weather that you may encounter, you won’t be able to fit or carry your entire wardrobe in your pack. The key is to pack lightweight clothing that is easy to wash and can be layered to provide warmth when needed.
Staying both warm and dry will keep you from getting hypothermia just as staying hydrated and cool will prevent heatstroke. Weather is often unpredictable so it’s important to be able to easily add or remove clothing layers as needed to always remain comfortable. We recommend utilizing a three-layer dressing system that will include a base layer, mid layer, and outer layer. The goal is to find a base layer that will wick moisture away from your skin. Avoid cotton and stick with materials like polyester or wool. When hiking in colder climates, you’ll then want a nice warm insulating mid layer that can be covered by a waterproof outer shell layer.
Don’t forget to pack a dedicated set of clothes that you can sleep in. This will assure you can sleep in dry comfortable clothes each night. And because keeping your feet dry is extra important, make sure to pack at least one spare pair of socks.
When it comes to footwear, it may not be wise to choose big heavy duty hiking boots for long treks. Although they may be durable they are also often very heavy and will cause you to fatigue quickly. They will also need breaking in long before your trip to avoid blisters and foot pain. Instead of heavy hiking boots, you may want to opt for trail running shoes that provide ankle support and are waterproof. These will be much lighter and will dry much quicker of you do end up hiking through water.
Don’t forget to carry a lightweight pair of sandals for comfort around camp. This will give your feet a chance to breathe and dry out.
Unless you’re planning on building a shelter from logs and palm fronds, you’ll most likely need to carry a tent and sleeping bag. Thankfully, many of today’s tents weigh as little as a few pounds and can fit inside a trekking backpack. While it may be tempting to purchase the smallest tent possible to save on space and weight, keep in mind a lightweight two-person tent which may not weigh that much more may give you extra room to store your pack and gear comfortably and safely inside with you each night.
Besides your tent, you may also need a sleeping mat and sleeping bag. The type of sleeping bag you will require will depend on the temperature. You need to make sure your sleeping bag is rated for the temperatures you will be facing. Settling for a lighter weight sleeping bag that won’t keep you comfortable at night is simply not worth it since you need quality sleep to maintain your strength and overall health during your trek. When it comes to a pillow, save precious space by opting for an inflatable pillow or simply use rolled up clothing.
There are also a number of safety items you will need to save space in your pack for. These include things like sunscreen, insect repellent, flashlight or head torch, and a small first-aid kit. Your first aid kit should contain all the items you may need to treat common outdoor injuries and ailments. Important items that should be on the list include bandages, antiseptic wipes, tweezers, eye drops or eye wash, diarrhea medication, hydrocortisone cream, and an insect/snake bite kit. You of course should also pack all necessary medications you are currently taking as well as an EpiPen if you know you are highly allergic to stings from insects like bees or ants.
You may also want to carry an extra pair of glasses or several pairs of disposable contacts if your require them. It’s never a great idea to sleep in contacts, so make sure to pack a contact lens case and lens solution or simply opt for glasses. Hand sanitizer is also a great idea to pack and use so you aren’t introducing harmful bacteria into your eyes when inserting/removing contacts.
It’s not a bad idea to also take a first-aid training class or take a refresher course before your backpacking journey, especially when traveling with other hikers. A first-aid course will teach you life saving skills like CPR, how to treat snake bites, and how to deal with cuts, sprains, and broken bones.
Other items you will want to pack include a mobile phone, GPS, and personal locator beacon if you know cell reception will be limited when hiking in remote areas. You may also need to pack bear spray or snake-proof gaiters depending on your hiking location.
Hiking trips are no time for packing loads of grooming and makeup supplies. The goal is to pack toiletries that will keep you clean and healthy and not focus too much on appearance. Leave the eye shadow, lipstick, and shaving items at home.
What you do want to pack is a toothbrush and toothpaste, biodegradable toilet paper, wet wipes, a quick drying towel, and any necessary feminine hygiene products. The key is to stick with the essentials and be mindful about not introducing any harmful chemicals into the environment through items like shampoos and soaps. Stick with biodegradable soap for showering and washing hands.
Backpack Size and Packing Tips
Of course your pack itself is equally as important as what you put in it. In this case, bigger isn’t necessarily better since with a bigger backpack you are much more likely to overpack and carry a lot of extra weight you simply don’t need. A good backpack size for trekking ranges in the 40-60 liter size and is the variety known as an internal-frame pack that can carry heavier loads quite comfortably.
A waterproof or at least water resistant pack is best, or you can opt for a waterproof backpack cover to keep your pack dry during rain. Keep any electronics or items that simply cannot get wet in sealed plastic bags or better yet specialized dry bags that can be placed within you main pack.
Always place the heaviest items in the bottom of your back and closer towards your back. Items that you may regularly need while hiking should be kept in exterior pockets like those located on your pack’s hipbelt. You don’t want to continually be rummaging and reorganizing your gear during your days of hiking.
Lastly, always pack your backpack several days before your trip and make a list of the contents. This will give you time to think about whether you are missing any essential items or can remove any items you decide you actually won’t need.
We hope our backpacking packing tips make your next trekking adventure safe and comfortable. In addition to packing effectively, we also recommend you thoroughly research your chosen hiking destination to be aware of any challenges you may face along the way. We also encourage you to stick with routes that are matched to your individual fitness and skill level. And always make sure to not leave purchasing gear to the last minute. It is wise to test out your gear beforehand so that you can detect any defects and learn how to accurately use everything in your pack.