The 10 Backpacking Essentials

A solid understanding of backpacking essentials will go a long way toward fun and fantastic wilderness adventures.  You'll want these 10 essentials to be second nature.  Don't leave home without them.

Wilderness Essentials

This is wilderness backpacking after all, and if you’re like me, you’ll be wanting to come back from your backpacking trip alive.  Actually, backpacking is generally very safe.  You likely won’t die if you forget one of these survival essentials, but you very well may have to turn around and hike out early.

Here are the six wilderness essentials you’ll need to have a safe and fantastic wilderness adventure:

1. Common Sense

That’s right, this is number one.  Don’t leave home without it.  The brain is an awesome thing.  It’s capable of coming up with novel solutions to unexpected situations.  

You might run into unexpected situations.  Remember that ultimately you are responsible for keeping yourself safe.  The most important thing in an an unexpected situation is a clear head and a good dose of common sense.

Generally you’ll be able to survive only about 3 seconds without common sense.

2. Necessary Medications

If you have any known medical conditions that require, or may require, medications to ensure that you keep breathing then you’ll definitely want to bring those.

If you have Asthma, bring your inhaler.  If you have any severe allergies, bring Benadryl and an Epi Pen.  You know yourself, bring what you need.

Generally you’ll be able to survive only about 3 minutes without breathing.

3. Sufficient Clothing and Shelter

You’ll need to have a way to protect yourself from the elements.  You’ll need a good way to stay warm at night.  Generally this will be a good sleeping bag, an insulated sleeping pad and a tent though there are other ways to do it.  You’ll want to be able to keep yourself dry.  If you’re backpacking in the desert you’ll need to protect yourself from heat and possible sunstroke.

Generally you’ll be able to survive only about 3 hours in really adverse weather without adequate clothing and shelter.

4. Water Bottles and Purification Method

Hydration is key.  You’re not going to carry a couple days worth of water with you so you’ll need to know where there will be water on your route.  Many backcountry waters contain, or may contain, bacteria and/or parasites that can give you diarrhea and cause life-threatening dehydration so you’ll want to bring some kind of water purification method.

Generally you’ll be able to survive about 3 days without water.

5. Food and a Stove

In addition to being delicious, food will provide you with the energy you’ll need make it over the big mountain pass.  On short trips you can actually survive without it (I’ve done a couple 3-4 day trips without food) but getting into camp and cooking up a hot meal for a hungry belly is frequently my favorite part of the day.

Generally you’ll be able to survive about 3 weeks without food.

6. Friends!

Good times are best when shared.  Sometimes you’ll want to do a solo trip and that can be a great experience (in which case your friend will be yourself!).  But backpacking can be one of the best ways to strengthen your relationships and just enjoy the simple pleasure of connecting with your fellow humans.  It’s also quite nice to have someone to carry the other half of the tent.

Generally you’ll be able to last about 3 months without friends before you really lose your marbles.

Backpacking Essentials

For wilderness backpacking you’ll need to take the above list of wilderness essentials and put it into the backpacking context.

What is the backpacking context?  It means you’ll be traveling by foot and it means you’ll need to be able to carry everything on your back.  So there’s a few more things you’ll need to add to round out our list of essentials.

7. Adequate Footwear

If you’re one to take your amazing feet for granted you won’t after a couple days on the trail.  You will probably either love them or hate them.  What you put on your feet can be the difference between days of fun and days of agony.  The specific shoes or boots you choose will likely be very personal preference.  The important thing is that your feet like them a lot.

8. Adequate Backpack

One might say that the backpack is what makes backpacking what it is.  It’s actually right there in the name.  You’ll want to make sure you have one that matches your body, has a comfortable hip belt, fits what you need it to, and won’t fall apart on the trail.

9. Map & Compass

You’re going to need to know where you’re going, how to get there, and how to get back.  You’ll probably use the map in planning your route but don’t forget to take it with you also.  Nine times out of ten you won’t need a compass unless you are going off trail but it’s one of those things you just need to bring anyway.

10. First Aid Kit

You don’t have to bring a huge first aid kit.  You’ll want to rely first and foremost on your common sense to keep you out of trouble.  But you’ll definitely want to bring one, and you’ll want to know what’s in it and why.


Well, there ya go.  There are certainly a lot more things you could bring.  And some that you’ll likely want to bring.  But these here are the essentials.  It is completely possible to consistently have safe and fantastic backpacking trips with just those essentials.