Packing for Backpacking

This weekend I’m going backpacking in Colorado’s Weminuche Wilderness! I’ve driven through the Weminuche a couple of times in the winter and I’m super stoked to explore those mountains on foot now that the summer hiking season is here!

Weminuche Mountains, CO

When packing for a backpacking trip less is always more: The less you carry the more you’ll enjoy your trip. In theory, I aim to keep my pack under 25 pounds (without extra water), but since I don’t have a luggage scale (or any other kind of scale for that matter) my actual goal is to be able to lift my backpack easily and swing it onto my back without help.

On the first backpacking trip I ever took – a 4-day jaunt on the Appalachian Trail in Virginia – I could barely lift my pack and I needed help from a rock or a tree or another person to leverage it onto my back. I suffered on that trip and it’s a wonder I fell in love with backpacking anyway.

Bowie on our very first backpacking trip. Now that's a happy dog!

Packing for backpacking is like packing for any other trip in that you have to constantly fight the urge to throw in extras: extra clothes, extra food, extra bug spray. But when you have to carry your suitcase on your back for days on end, up and over mountains and across fast rivers, every ounce counts.

Here’s my basic gear list for this weekend: 2-person backpacking tent with footprint, synthetic 20° sleeping bag, z-lite sleeping pad, headlamp, bear bag to hang food & 30 feet of cord,  3-liter platypus water bladder and a 1.5-liter water bottle, waterproof pack cover, topo map, first aid/ survival kit (more on this later), bug spray, sunscreen, travel toothbrush and tooth paste and travel deodorant.

As for clothing the forecast is calling for scattered thunder showers this weekend so I’ll be wearing long synthetic pants and a synthetic t-shirt (no cotton! in wet weather cotton kills!) and bringing a light jacket, a rain jacket, rain pants, a warm hat, a down jacket, (also doubles as a pillow) and one pair of socks per day, plus an extra pair. Always always always pack extra socks! For footwear I’m going with my beefy Asolo boots instead of my trusty Salomons, since the terrain is likely to be on the rough side and the Asolos are more waterproof. And, of course, I’ll be bringing my camera.

Backpacking campsite in Savage Gulf, Tennessee

For a three day, 20-mile trip (hike in Friday, hike out Sunday) that’s really all I need. Since this hike follows a river to a lake, I don’t need to carry a ton of extra water, especially since they’ll be plenty of water sources for the dogs. Also, note that I’m not bringing a stove. For 3 days in relatively warm summer temps, I can make due with granola, snacks and sandwiches. That saves me not only the weight of the stove, but also all the cookware.

As for the first aid/ survival kit: back when I was living in Oregon I took a wilderness survival course and as part of our final exam we had to assemble a first aid/ survival kit that would fit in a ziploc bag. I carry this kit on every hike, even on short jaunts around my backyard.

Survival/ First Aid Kit Contents

Clockwise, starting from the lower left:

• Warmth- hand warmers, magnesium fire starter and waterproof matches. All the fire starting materials in the world won’t help you unless you actually know how to start a fire. It’s not as easy as you might think. If you’ve never done it- practice! You don’t want to have to learn in an emergency.

• Light- extra batteries. My headlamp takes 3 AAA batteries, so that’s exactly what I carry.

• ID- I carry a photocopy of my insurance information as well as a few of my business cards, one of which has my emergency contact numbers written on the back.

• Water- Back east I often carry a MSR SweetWater water filter, but out west in the mountains I usually only carry AquaMira water treatment drops. I’ve been using these for years and have yet to get sick (knock on wood).

• Basic First Aid- hand sanitizer, Benadryl, OTC pain killers, bee sting and alcohol swabs, tweezers, blister/ wound kit: bandaids, gauze, moleskin, Neosporin and duct tape. I also pack vetwrap for the dogs and a handkerchief.

• Playing cards- Ok, so these aren’t strictly for survival but they come in handy.

• Real knife- you’ve seen 127 Hours, right? Pack a real knife.

• Whistle- carries much farther than your own voice.

• Compass- this thing is useless if you don’t know how to use it. Navigating by compass isn’t intuitive. Sign up for a compass navigation course through your local REI. Also, pack a topo map. This dinky thing is really just my back up because I also carry a Timex Expedition watch, which functions as a compass, altimeter and barometric pressure gauge.

So that’s about it. I spent the morning re-waterproofing my tent and my rain gear. The dogs know something is up and both are laying out by the car so I can’t forget about them. I’m undecided whether the dogs will carry their own packs this weekend. I prefer for them to be able to run around, unburdened by a pack and 3 days of dog food isn’t too bad on my back. Plus, we’re hiking in along a river to a lake and both dogs will be in and out of the water all day. So we’ll see, they might get to slack pack!

Bowie & Dio on the AT in VT

If you have any questions about gear or want advice just ask! A lot of my gear (tent, pack, sleeping bag) is a few years old and somewhat outdated – I prefer to use my gear until it’s done – so I haven’t posted links to everything I own. I’m happy to give insight and advice if you’re looking to buy new gear.

Anybody have any other backpacking packing tips? Stuff on my list you’ve learned to live without or things I’ve skipped that you can’t bear to leave behind? Remember, minimalism is awesome, but don’t forget the 10 Hiking Essentials. Don’t hit the trail without them!

Me & my pack at the end of the Inca Trail

About theblondecoyote

Mary Caperton Morton is a freelance science and travel writer with degrees in biology and geology and a master’s in science writing. A regular contributor to EARTH magazine, where her favorite beat is the Travels in Geology column, she has also written for the anthologies Best Women's Travel Writing 2010 and Best Travel Writing 2011. Mary is currently based in western Colorado. When she’s not at the computer she can usually be found outside -- hiking, skiing, climbing mountains and taking photographs. Visit her website at
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12 Responses to Packing for Backpacking

  1. Rip's Mom says:

    The only items you forgot are the ingredients needed to make ‘trail sangria’! It doesn’t count towards your base weight, it’s a consumable! ;o)

  2. Great and useful post. I have never taken a backpacking trip of this caliber, but when I do, I’ll definitely reference this list!

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