Ask Me: An Essentials-Only Backpacking Gear Checklist

Hi Michael,

Can you provide a good, basic gear list for three-season backpacking? Thanks.

Cibolo, TX
[Originally sent as a message to]

Backpacking Coyote Gulch, Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, Utah.
Backpacking Coyote Gulch, Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, Utah.

Hi Jody,

I’ve pasted below the checklist I use for just about every three-season backpacking trip I take in the U.S. or around the world (including Washington’s Glacier Peak Wilderness, lead photo at top of story); the list is preceded by some insights on how I make gear choices. The links below will take you to reviews of those products.

I pare my checklist for any specific trip down to just essentials, and items on my list vary depending on the trip. I may carry a warmer down jacket on some trips, a lighter one on others, or perhaps 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 because, if it’s cool in the morning, I’ll hike in my long-sleeve jersey over my T-shirt, with my rain jacket on for a little extra warmth if needed, and then typically for no more than an hour until it’s warm enough to hike in a T-shirt.

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Backpacking the Rockwall Trail in Kootenay National Park, Canada.
Backpacking the Rockwall Trail in Kootenay National Park, Canada.

I bring a tent when I expect bugs, but a tarp for late summer or early fall, when I only need protection from possible rain. For example, I prefer going to the High Sierra (including Yosemite or Sequoia national parks and any of the numerous wilderness areas, like the John Muir Wilderness) after Labor Day, when you don’t have to worry about mosquitoes and there are fewer people and cooler afternoons.

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, of course. I don’t always carry a tripod, but 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 the Tonto Trail in the Grand Canyon.

For base layers, for trips of under a week, 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 four days, and max three pairs of socks for trips of five days or more.

I allow myself a few lightweight luxuries on many backpacking trips, including a comfortable air mattress (you can get compact, lightweight air mats that are super comfortable), sometimes an ultralight chair kit or camp chair, and a small, inflatable pillow.

See my review of backpacking gear accessories for my favorite picks for many items on this checklist:

___ Regional road map/atlas (for the car)
___ First-aid kit
___ Trail map(s)
___ Permit and passport if needed
___ Camera, batteries, camera pack
___ Book
___ Backpack, pack cover
___ Daypack
___ Sleeping bag, inflatable pillow
___ Air mattress/sleeping pad, chair kit
___ Tent/tarp
___ Toiletries, toothbrush, toothpaste
___ Double-bagged TP
___ Stove, fuel
___ Cooking kit
___ Utensils
___ Mug/bowl/plate
___ Water bottle, bladder
___ Water treatment
___ Trekking poles
___ Headlamp, batteries
___ Compass/GPS/altimeter
___ Matches/lighter
___ Multi-tool/knife, tape, cord
___ Stuff sacks
___ Lashing straps, mini-biners
___ Sunglasses, eyeglasses, case
___ Bug repellent/bug nets
___ Sunscreen, lip balm
___ Boots/shoes, camp footwear
___ Gaiters/low gaiters
___ Gloves/mittens
___ Warm hat, earband, sun hat, rain hat
___ Rain shell
___ T-shirt, long-sleeve shirt
___ Shorts, pants
___ Long underwear
___ Underwear
___ Fleece/vest/insulation/puffy jacket
___ Socks

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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 “12 Expert Tips for Planning a Wilderness Backpacking Trip” 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.

You might also like my tips in my blog post “Ask Me: How Do We Begin Lightening Up Our Backpacking Gear?

I hope that’s helpful. Good luck.

—Michael Lanza


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