By Michael Lanza
What do you need to pack for a three-season backpacking trip? While the specific items depend in part on factors like the time of year, your companions and backpacking style, the trip’s length and the weather forecast, this story provides a core checklist of essential gear to help you organize and efficiently pack—and avoid overpacking—for virtually any backpacking trip.
I use the checklist below for just about every three-season backpacking trip I take in the U.S. and around the world. I’ve developed it over more than three decades of multi-day backcountry trips and more than a quarter-century of writing about backpacking trips and testing and reviewing backpacking gear and apparel, including the 10 years I spent as a lead gear reviewer and Northwest Editor of Backpacker magazine and even longer running this blog.
The list below is preceded by some insights on how I make gear choices. The links in this story and checklist will take you to menus of product reviews; photos link to stories about those trips.
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How to Decide What Gear to Pack
I pare my checklist for any specific trip down to just essentials, which vary from trip to trip. As examples, I will carry a warmer down jacket on some, a lighter one on others, or a synthetic puffy jacket if I expect wet weather. On most trips, it’s just one puffy jacket; I don’t need an extra fleece or a vest on most three-season trips because, if it’s cool in the morning, I’ll hike in my long-sleeve jersey over my T-shirt, with my shell jacket on to trap a little extra warmth if needed, and then typically for no more than an hour or two until it’s warm enough to shed one or two layers.
I bring a tent when I expect bugs or significant rainfall, but a tarp for late summer or early fall if I only need protection from possible rain—for instance, after Labor Day in Yosemite or Sequoia national parks and any of the numerous wilderness areas in the High Sierra, like the John Muir Wilderness, when you don’t have to worry about mosquitoes and rain is not common.
For base layers, I’ll bring one T-shirt and one midweight long-sleeve jersey, which I’ll usually only need hiking on cool mornings, so I can keep it dry for sleeping in when needed. I’ll bring two pairs of socks for trips of up to five days and at most three pairs of socks for trips of more than five days—and if I expect very dry conditions, two pairs may suffice even on long trips.
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I allow myself a few luxuries on many backpacking trips, including a comfortable, lightweight or ultralight air mattress augmented by a short, folding foam sleeping pad that I use for lying around camp, as a stretching/yoga mat (which helps me feel better), and under my air mat when sleeping; plus an inflatable pillow and often an ultralight camp chair.
Incidental items like permit, passport, bug nets, gaiters, type of hat (it’s usually one wool hat and one ball cap or wide-brim sun hat), and pack cover also depend on the trip’s circumstances. I virtually always carry one DSLR body and two lenses. I’ll often have just one eating utensil and one mug/bowl that pulls double duty, and one pot, and I may just eat out of the pot. (See my reviews of cooking systems for backpacking.)
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Backpacking Gear Checklist
See my review of backpacking gear accessories for my favorite picks for many items on this checklist and click on links in this list for menus of reviews at The Big Outside.
___ GPS or mapping app (like Gaia)
___ Trail map(s)
___ First-aid kit
___ Permit and passport if needed
___ Camera, batteries, camera pack
___ Book or e-reader
___ Backpack, pack cover optional
___ Daypack if needed
___ Sleeping bag, inflatable pillow
___ Air mattress/sleeping pad
___ Chair kit
___ Toiletries, toothbrush, toothpaste
___ Double-bagged toilet paper
___ Stove, fuel
___ Cooking kit
___ Water bottle, bladder
___ Water treatment
___ Trekking poles
___ Headlamp, batteries
___ Stuff sacks
___ Lashing straps, mini-biners
___ Sunglasses, eyeglasses, case
___ Bug repellent/bug nets if needed
___ Sunscreen, lip balm
___ Boots/shoes, camp footwear if needed
___ Gaiters/low gaiters
___ Warm hat, earband, sun hat, rain hat
___ Rain shell
___ T-shirt, long-sleeve shirt
___ Shorts, pants
___ Long underwear if needed
___ Insulation/puffy jacket
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Whether you’re a beginner or seasoned backpacker, you’ll learn new tricks for making all of your trips go better in my “How to Plan a Backpacking Trip—12 Expert Tips” and “A Practical Guide to Lightweight and Ultralight Backpacking.” If you don’t have a paid subscription to The Big Outside, you can read part of both stories for free, or download the e-guide versions of “12 Expert Tips for Planning a Wilderness Backpacking Trip” and the lightweight backpacking guide without having a paid membership.
NOTE: I tested gear for Backpacker magazine for 20 years. At The Big Outside, I review only what I consider the best outdoor gear and apparel. See The Big Outside’s Gear Reviews page for categorized menus of all my reviews and expert buying tips.