Are you new to camping, backpacking, or even hiking? Find yourself getting lost and overwhelmed with the variety of gear that exists out there? There seem to be way too many products for way too many situations–a type of sleeping bag for every season, a type of shoe for every terrain, a backpack size/style for every possible situation out there… Who knew there would be so many things to buy and pack just to spend some time outdoors?
Even if you’re only planning to be out for a few hours on a day hike, it’s important to pack your outdoor essentials. You never know what’ll happen out there, and with deliberate packing, you’ll be ready for whatever comes your way. You might even have something with you that can save help someone else or even save their life! In this guide, I’ll drill it down to 15 hiking, backpacking, and camping must-haves. I’ll also provide you with my top recommendations for what I, and many other outdoor enthusiasts, consider backpacking / camping essentials.
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THE TOP FOUR BACKPACKING/HIKING AND CAMPING ESSENTIALS
Now, the exact items you take for your trip should be tailored based on considerations such as weather, trip duration, and distance. The most important items for any hiking, backpacking, and camping trip are going to be your hiking boots, backpack, shelter, and sleeping bag—whichever may apply in your situation. There are many, many options out there for these items ranging from cheaply made and easy on your wallet to impeccably high quality yet way too expensive. Finding the right gear for you really comes down to three main factors: comfort, quality, and price.
This sounds like a lot of money.
Well, these top 4 hiking essentials should be seen as an investment. My recommendation here if you’re on a budget? Try to avoid skimping on your hiking boots, backpack, shelter, and sleeping bag. These items will contribute the most to your level of comfort when you’re on your outdoor adventure, so it’s worth making sure they stand up to the task. The last thing you want is to be sleeping in the cold with a cheap sleeping bag that doesn’t keep you warm at all. The extra dollars is worth it, trust me.
You can go with cheaper options for a lot of the other gear, but invest your money on these four items over everything else for your camping or backpacking trip. These high-quality one-time purchases (with the exception of the hiking boots which will need to be replaced depending on the frequency of use) will last you at least 10 years and truly stand up to the test of time.
Footwear should be selected according to the terrain, expected weather conditions and the characteristics of the individual hiker. Here’s the deal–if you plan to hike on unstable or rocky trails or carry a heavy load, hiking boots are the obvious choice. If rocky trails and heavy backpacks aren’t your thing and you plan to mostly hike on paved or forest trails, buy a pair of lightweight hiking shoes instead. Hiking shoes are lighter and more comfortable for more even trails, but they do provide less ankle support than the hiking boot. Lastly, if you are mostly into paved nature trails or want to give trail running a go, stick with trail running shoes.
Want to learn more? Check out my post on how to select your perfect hiking shoe.
Best overall mid-cut hiking boots for WOMEN: Lowa Renegade GTX Mid Hiking Boot
My all-time favorites are the Lowa Renegade GTX Mid Boots. They’re one of the lightest boots in its class, very durable, and provide out-of-the-box comfort (which is extremely important for those of us who want to prevent blisters from the start). I personally love that they come in toned-down, earthy colors such as black and taupe/sepia. This is a popular hiking boot for many reasons–its high collar provides wraparound ankle support and excellent stability, not to mention its water resistance allows you to depend on them in all seasons and on varying types of terrain. Overall, the Lowa Renegade GTX Mid Hiking Boot is a timeless choice for thru-hiking and day-tripping alike.
Best overall mid-cut hiking boots for MEN: Salomon X Ultra 3 Mid
Salomon has ingeniously crafted a mid-weight hiking boot built off of their extremely popular trail runners but with added support and protection, providing the ankle stability that backpackers and hikers expect. The Salomon X Ultra 3 Mid has become one of the most talked about hiking boots for men recently, and for good reason. These boots offer so much comfort, great traction/grip, and comes in at a very low weight (under 2 pounds). More importantly, you’re getting a Salomon quality shoe, which tends to last longer with use than other boots in this weight and price range. For day hikers looking to go fast, lightweight backpackers, and even thru-hikers, you really can’t go wrong.
Best overall hiking shoe for WOMEN: Merrell Women’s Moab 2 Vent Hiking Shoe
This super-affordable hiking boot is a great choice for day hikers and casual backpackers who will be traveling through mostly warm and dry climates. Their superior breathability makes them perfect for summer hikes as your feet will remain a lot cooler than with other pairs of boots. If you’re looking for something for wetter terrain, there’s also a waterproof version, the Merrell Moab 2 Ventilator Waterproof Hiking Shoe. I can totally attest to the fact that they will provide you with a comfortable, “walking on clouds”-like experience on day hikes and casual backpacking (though they may not be the best for longer backpacking trips with heavier loads).
Best overall lightweight hiking shoe for MEN: Salomon Men’s X Ultra 3 GTX Hiking Boot
The Salomon Men’s X Ultra 3 GTX Hiking Shoe is a well-known hiker favorite. The shoe’s grip and tread is impressive (much like other Salomon boots) and the cushioned interior provides good support for those longer hiking days. It’s also super lightweight, coming in at about 1 pound 10 ounces. The X Ultra 3 is the only boot you’ll need if you’re planning on mostly doing day hikes, quick summits, and lightweight backpacking. This shoe comes highly, highly recommend by a lot of my hiker friends!
Trail Running Shoes
Top trail running shoe for WOMEN: Altra Women’s Lone Peak 4
The Altra Lone Peak 4’s are incredibly popular trail runners among the lightweight backpacking and trail running community. They’re lightweight, comfortable, quick-drying, and have great traction for rugged mountain terrain. Specific to shoes made by Altra, they are built with a “zero-drop” build, meaning the heel and ball of your foot will be the same distance from the ground. Essentially, this can make it easier to run with ultimately more efficient form. The Altra Lone Peak 4 has a different look and fit due to their wide toe box, but in terms of functionality, they’re trail runner best-sellers.
Top trail running shoe for MEN: Altra Men’s Lone Peak 4
It’s the same story here for men as it is for women. Highly recommended!
The type of outdoor activity you plan on doing will determine what kind of backpack you need to buy. If you’re just going on day hikes, it’s safe to say that day packs will do the deed here. If you plan on going backpacking, then you’ll need to consider some sort of backpacking pack. Things like the trip duration, climate, and additional gear you plan on bringing will all play a part in what pack will best fit your needs.
What Size Backpack Do You Need?
Backpacking packs are often measured in liters and cubic inches. When you’ve decided on a backpack model, you’ll then need to pick a size. For reference, take a look at the below ranges to determine what size you’ll need:
- Daypack = Less than 2,500 cubic inches | 35 liters
- Weekend Pack = 2,500 to 3,999 cubic inches | 40 to 65 liters
- Weeklong Pack = 4,000 to 5,999 cubic inches | 65 to 85 liters
- Expedition Pack = 6,000+ cubic inches | 85+ liters
My experience and advice on backpack sizes
On my 10-day Tour du Mont Blanc “backpacking” trip in 2018, I used a 65-liter pack. This was a great size for that guided trek, though I didn’t have to carry my own shelter or food (we stayed in mountain huts that provided lodging with breakfast and dinner). For shorter 3-4 day treks where I did need to carry my own stove, food, and shelter, I was also able to use my 65-liter pack.
As you can see, choosing the perfect sized backpack really depends on what you’ll need to carry on you. One thing to note is that bigger is not always better. Don’t just assume that the biggest bag will fit all of your current and future needs. By choosing a smaller pack and having size constraints, you will be forced to think about each and every item you choose to bring. This is a really good thing because the end goal is to have as light of a pack as possible on the trail while still bringing all of your essentials.
What About Torso Length?
You’ll want to purchase a pack that meets your torso length. Why? A properly-fitting backpack means even weight distribution, comfort and greater functionality overall. Backpacking packs come with a molded hip belt that wraps around and clip at the front of the pelvis. This serves to distribute the weight from being exclusively on your shoulders/back to your hips as well.
Generally, all backpacking packs will come in Small, Medium, and Large (referring to torso length). While you’ll want to choose the right size to start with, many backpacks have adjustable torsos which allow you to make adjustments to the torso length. Just get a bag as close to your natural torso length as possible, but remember you can make adjustments to it still.
At first, I thought women-specific packs were just a marketing ploy (creating the same backpacks in nicer more girly colors). However, upon talking to a few REI associates and doing extensive research on my own backpacking pack, there are valid reasons for women’s backpacks. These packs are specifically designed to fit a woman’s anatomy, with differences such as narrower shoulder straps that contour a woman’s chest as well as more slanted hip straps that wrap around the female pelvis better. If you’re a female and you’re finding that the typical bags just don’t feel as comfortable on you, consider getting a women’s specific pack.
Because of the variable backpack fits and sizes, I highly recommend trying on a pack before you purchase (or even purchasing from a seller that allows free returns so you can try it on for comfort for a few hours).
Most daypacks range from 20 liters to 35 liters. While a smaller sized backpack is usually sufficient for shorter half-day hikes, you may find yourself wanting a larger daypack in the 35-liter range for all-day hikes so you can carry extra water, food, clothing, and other safety essentials. If you also plan on hiking in the wintertime, size up so that you’ll have adequate space to fit bulkier clothing as well as snowshoes, hats, gloves, scarves, etc.
Top recommendation: Deuter ACT Trail 30 Hiking Backpack
Affordable recommendation: Teton Sports Ultralight Plus 30L
Backpacking Pack: Weekend Backpack
Weekend or weeklong backpacking trips require a lot more space due to the fact that you’ll need to bring a lot more gear, such as a sleeping bag, sleeping pad, shelter, food, and a cooking system at the very minimum. For a 1-3 night weekend trip, the sweet spot is going to be a backpack with 40 to 55 liters of volume.
Top recommendation: Osprey Fairview 40 (for women) and Osprey Farpoint 55 (for men)
Affordable recommendation: Mardingtop 50L Molle Backpack with Rain Cover
Backpacking Pack: Weeklong Backpack
For multi-day or weeklong backpacking trips, you’re going to want to go with something ranging from 50 to 80 liters. The biggest difference between a shorter weekend trip and a multi-day trip is the need to carry more food and possibly more clothing or gear, depending on the type of activities you plan on doing as well as the climate you’ll be hiking in.
Top recommendation: Osprey Aura 65 Pack (for women) and Osprey Atmos 65 Pack (for men).
I am a huge fan of these Osprey bags due to their genius design and high quality (they are my personal favorites)! One great thing about the Osprey Aura and the Osprey Atmos is that you can remove the top lid for shorter hikes, thereby turning them into a smaller, less bulky packs. Absolutely the best thing about these Osprey packs is that they’re built with a ventilated frame that creates space between the pack and your back. Say goodbye to your sweaty and uncomfortably wet back!
Affordable recommendation: Teton Sports Hiker
Backpacking Pack: Expedition Backpack
Expedition backpacks are the largest of the backpack series, ranging in size from 85 liters and above. They’re designed to hold a huge amount of food and gear, usually used on weeklong backpacking trips with activities that require a lot of technical gear, as well as on professionally guided mountaineering trips.
Top recommendation: Osprey Packs Aether AG 85 Men
Affordable recommendation: MOUNTAINTOP 80L Hiking Backpack with Rain Cover
Rain Cover for Backpack
Not a lot of backpacks in the market are fully waterproof, so most will require a rain cover if you plan on being caught in the rain during your trek. Unless you’re absolutely certain that there will be zero chance of rain, a rain cover is a good thing to just have and to keep in your pack. I’m sure at one point or another during your future hiking/backpacking endeavors, you will encounter some form of rain!
The next camping/backpacking essential we’ll discuss is the tent. A tent is one of the biggest investments you’ll make when committing to a life of camping and backpacking. While sleeping bags and sleeping pads are arguably as important to a good night’s sleep, a tent really sets the scene for your night and early morning experiences.
Car Camping Tent
If you’re going to be car camping and weight/size is not an issue (meaning you can just pack the tent in your car and whip it out at your campsite), go with something more spacious. After all, you’ll be living in there for a few days so there’s no point in being cramped and uncomfortable.
Top recommendation: Sierra Designs Summer Moon 2 Tent
The Sierra Designs Summer Moon 2 is one of the lightest 2 person tents on the market under $200 at a mere 3 lbs. 7 oz. It’s a fantastic 3-season tent and a real steal at that price point. (It’s hard to find a tent this light at such a low price from a quality company like Sierra Designs.) My friends and I have used the tent on a couple of backpacking trips so far and it’s been great for a few reasons– it’s super easy to set up and break down, packs down well, and “breathes” a lot better than some other tents I’ve been in.
Affordable recommendation: Kelty Salida Tent
If price is your primary concern when buying a tent, but you still want something of pretty good quality, the Kelty Salida Tent is one of your best bets. At below $150, this is a reliable tent that will last for several seasons while staying within the budget of most people getting into camping.
Affordable recommendation: REI Camp Dome 2 Tent
REI notes this tent as being the “best tent for most people” and I would agree that REI tents really get the job done. I have the 2-person Half Dome Tent, and I don’t see a need to upgrade or replace it until it breaks, rips, or flies away somehow. Not only are they super reliable, but REI’s tents are also relatively affordable compared to other big brands out there such as Big Agnes, Kelty, etc.
If you are planning a backpacking trip with overnight camping involved, your best bet will be an ultralight backpacking tent. These tents are strategically designed with super lightweight metal poles and minimal fabric so that you’re able to live comfortably at night without carrying a bunch of extra weight on your back in the day. They’re feature-rich, east to set up, and often provide excellent storm and bug protection. The Big Agnes Tiger Wall tents (below) are likely the first choice for many backpackers.
Top recommendation: Big Agnes Tiger Wall UL Backpacking Tent
Affordable recommendation: MIER Ultralight 3-Season Backpacking Tent (1-person or 2-person options available)
For sleeping bags, I recommend down filling all the way. Seriously, don’t waste your time or money with those bulky sleeping bags stuffed with other fillings, because they simply won’t keep you as warm or pack down as efficiently. Investing in a mummy-style down sleeping bag kills two birds with one stone. You can go car camping with it as well as go backpacking with it. As an avid camper, I’ve gone through my fair share of sleeping bags and with trial and error, have found my tried-and-true favorites, listed below.
Top recommendation: Big Agnes Women’s Daisy Mae (650 DownTek) Sleeping Bag
The Big Agnes Daisy Mae is the bag that I’m currently using and I love it so much (I finally upgraded from a 32-degree bag to a 0-degree bag in 2019). I enjoy everything about it–the bold colors of the bag, the warmth, the roomy comfort, and the fact that it wraps around your sleeping pad to prevent movement and slippage throughout the night. Highly, highly recommended.
Affordable recommendation: Hyke & Byke Quandary 15 Degree Down Sleeping Bag
Again, invest in your sleeping pad. Not only does it add to your comfort when sleeping on the ground in a tent, but it will also provide you with insulation from the ground. It might not seem like it, but a cold ground will strip you of your body heat faster than you might expect. The sleeping pad acts as a barrier, ensuring that you retain your body heat throughout the night. I’ve provided a top-of-the-line multifunctional sleeping pad recommendation (good for ultralight backpacking, regular backpacking, and car camping), as well as a more affordable (but less warm) sleeping pad.
Top recommendation: Therm-a-Rest NeoAir Xlite Ultralight Air Mattress
The Therm-a-Rest NeoAir Xlite Ultralight Sleeping Pad clocks in at 12 ounces but provides the ultimate comfort for your camping nights. It’s ridiculous how comfortable this thing is– whenever I use it, I feel like I’m sleeping on a mattress. It inflates to a pretty thick width, meaning you won’t make contact with the floor at all, regardless of which position you sleep in (I’m a side sleeper, and my hips never get painful).
Affordable recommendation: Sleepingo Camping Sleeping Pad, Ultralight
When you’re backpacking, it might not make sense to carry a camping chair with you. Camping chairs are known to be bulky and more of a car camping luxury. But aside from sitting on the ground, on a rock or log, or hanging out in your tent, what can you do? Well, modern technology has allowed Helinox camping chairs to be born.
These are super lightweight (weighs less than a bottle of wine), collapsible camping chairs that are backpacking game-changers. The chair frames are made from proprietary aluminum alloy for a maximum strength-to-weight ratio and supports 300+ pounds. The Helinox Sunset Chair is the best option for you if you want something with more traditional back support similar to the support offered by heftier car camping chairs.
Great, we got the top four hiking essentials out of the way. Now let’s get into additional hiking gear, cooking gear, as well as safety and tools.
ADDITIONAL HIKING GEAR
Trekking poles are a hiking essential for many walkers, hikers, trekkers, and backpackers. Walking sticks and trekking poles contribute to your stability and will reduce the impact/stress on your knees while hiking and backpacking (especially when carrying a heavy load or hiking downhill). Some include internal springs that absorb shock to further reduce impact.
I can’t tell you how many mountains I’ve climbed without poles when I was younger—with all that downhill impact, my knees really paid for it over the years. I’ve since learned my lesson. For longer multi-day treks or hikes that have a ton of elevation change, I’ll always bring my trekking poles with me. If you’ve ever noticed any sort of knee discomfort from overuse, trekking poles will be your saving grace.
Top recommendation: Black Diamond Distance Carbon Z Trekking Poles
The Distance Carbon Z is built for through-hikers and trail runners who need a lightweight, durable pole that they can whip out when needed. If you’re looking for something that doesn’t take up too much room or weigh too much, well–this is one of the lightest set of carbon fiber poles on the market today. Well worth the money!
Affordable recommendation: TrailBuddy Trekking Poles
Worried about your hiking boots causing blisters, blackened toenails, sprained arches, and other foot-related problems? Start with the right socks. Not only will hiking socks provide the support you need while hiking, but they’ll also keep your feet warm when cold, and cool when warm. Smartwool is one of the best brands for merino wool hiking socks.
Weather-appropriate clothing is a must. Weather can change quickly and unpredictably, especially in the mountains, deserts, and canyons. You really never know when brisk weather, wind, or rain will hit. Not to mention if you happen to be out for longer than anticipated, the temperature can drop significantly from day to night.
A lightweight waterproof rain jacket is critical for any outdoor adventure. Since these weight virtually nothing and are so easily packable, I recommend you carry one with you whenever you head outdoors. Seriously, being wet or cold for long periods of time is no joke. Depending on the weather forecast and chance of precipitation, I’ll either go with a rain shell or a puffier windbreaker. Despite the options I have here, one thing is for sure— I’m never without some sort of outer layer.
Top recommendation: Marmot Men’s PreCip (for men) and The North Face Women’s Venture 2 Jacket (for women)
Other clothing gear you should consider packing – gloves, a hat, extra socks, and waterproof outer layers.
FOOD & COOKING GEAR
If you’re going car camping and weight is not an issue, you can afford to get a larger, more robust cooking system. This will allow you to comfortably cook all the pancakes, eggs, bacon, and other meats to your heart’s desire.
Top recommendation: Camp Chef Explorer Double Burner Stove
Camp Chef’s two-burner Explorer stove gives you the ability to prepare anything from bacon and eggs to grilled salmon or even Dutch oven dinners all on one stove. The best part is that it comes with two stoves, which is great for those of you who like to cook fast and efficiently. You can count on it whether you’re tailgating at the football stadium or camping with the family. Portability is no problem with the removable legs, and a three-sided windscreen makes outdoor cooking painless. You’ll be up for anything when you have the Explorer 2x Stove with you.
Affordable recommendation: Coleman Gas Stove
Even more affordable/minimalist recommendation: Coleman PowerPack Propane Stove
If you’re looking for a cooking system for a backpacking trip, do not go with a camp stove above. Those systems require propane tanks which would be a complete waste of space in your bag, not to mention it’ll add significantly to the weight of your pack. Instead, you should go with ___. These fuel canisters weigh nearly nothing compared to the propane tanks.
Top recommendation: Jetboil Flash Camping Stove Cooking System
Whenever backpacking food is required on my backpacking trips, I won’t go without my Jetboil. Quick to set up, quick to pack-up and super compact, the Jetboil owns the compact stove market. You won’t be disappointed— it weighs under 1 pound and impressively boils water in about a minute. The Jetboil is compatible with a lot of other cooking instruments such as a coffee press, hanging kit, pot support, skillet, cooking pots, and utensils, thereby making this a necessity for your next backpacking adventure.
Affordable/ultralight recommendation: MSR PocketRocket 2 Ultralight Backpacking, Camping, and Travel Stove
Top recommendation: GSI Cooking Sets
GSI Outdoors cooking sets are top-notch quality and regarded as the best of the best in the outdoor world. If you can swing it, go for one of their sets– they’re guaranteed to be super compact and super durable. They have ultralight backpacking/camping cook sets as well as more robust 4-person camping sets.
Affordable recommendation: Odoland Camping Cookware Set
TOOLS AND SAFETY
First Aid Kit
The size of the first-aid kit you bring depends on the number of people, length of the trip, how far you’re going, and the level of risk for your trip. Even if you are only going for a day hike, don’t forget to pack some simple first aid supplies. Items to always include in your first-aid kit are: nitrile gloves, bandages, scissors, blister bandaids, gauze pads, and disinfecting ointment/anti-bacterial wipes, and pain medication.
Pre-assembled first-aid kits take the guesswork out of building your own. Bug spray is also recommended. It’s also a good idea to carry some sort of compact survival guide to walk you through how to deal with medical emergencies (such as bee stings, poison ivy exposure, sprained ankles, snake bites, etc.).
Foldable Solar Charger
If you need battery life for any reason on your hiking or camping trip, this foldable portable solar charger is a powerhouse of a tool to have with you. It’s slim, lightweight, easy to pack, and is able to power up everything from a phone to even a laptop. The coolest feature is that it comes with carabiner hooks so you can clip it to the outside of your pack during your hike to get it powered up.
Gear Repair Kit
If you plan on backpacking or camping, this is useful to have (less useful if you’re just going on a day hike). Pack items like a multi-tool, scissors, knife, duct tape, zip ties, safety pins, screwdriver, and pliers. Even if you don’t end up with gear to repair, these tools may come in handy for something else (first-aid, minor repairs, building fires and shelters, etc).
Carrying an emergency whistle is always a good idea – if you need to call out for help, it is often louder and longer-lasting than your voice.
Being able to find your way through the wilderness at night is essential, so you always need to have a light source with you. An LED headlamp is a must if you’re camping or backpacking because it keeps your hands free for other tasks, whether it be cooking, using the bathroom, or holding trekking poles for stability. Even on a day hike, you might find that you’re out past sunset for unforeseen reasons.
Note: The flashlight on your smartphone is not an adequate substitute– the light is not bright enough, plus it’ll drain your battery life, which may be critical in an emergency. Always carry extra batteries.
If you’re backpacking, camping, or hiking in the backcountry (or even on secluded hikes), always carry some type of emergency shelter to protect you from wind and rain in case you get stranded or injured on the trail. Options include an ultralight tarp, a bivy sack, an emergency space blanket or even a large plastic trash bag. Even if you’re on a day hike, it’s still important to bring something for emergencies. The Survival Tent by Don’t Die In The Woods is one of the best options here. You can crawl inside to stay warm and dry, while the highly visible orange color attracts attention against all the green or gray surroundings of nature.
Includes sunglasses, sun-protective (UPF) clothing and sunscreen.