Woman Backpacking in the mountains

10 Essentials For The First-Time Backpacker

By Taylor A Ritz

The first time I walked into an REI, I wore hiking pants and boots. I wasn’t going hiking anywhere, but I was afraid that just one look from other customers would indicate I had no idea what I was doing when it came to outdoor recreation. So I “dressed the part.” 

Now, I’ve hiked hundreds of miles in all seasons, but I still remember what it was like to be a backpacking newbie. 

My point? Starting a new hobby can seem intimidating, but we all start somewhere. There’s no shame in doing the research and asking any question that comes to mind. Don’t let any “expert” backpacker shame you into thinking you have no place in the outdoors.

What Is Backpacking?

Let’s start with the absolute basics. We’ve all seen Instagram hashtags like #backpacker or #backpacking, but what exactly is backpacking?

Backpacking is an outdoor activity where you carry everything you need on your back. It can also refer to a method of traveling abroad where you bring your toiletries and clothes in one bag on your back. For our purposes, however, we will focus on the kind of backpacking you do while hiking in the wilderness.

Essential Gear For A Beginner Backpacker

Whether you’re going on a single overnight or a multi-day trek, there are essential items you should absolutely have with you. If you peruse the shelves in your local REI or camping goods store, the number of gear options available can be quite overwhelming. Have no fear though, we’re going to discuss the essential items you should consider for your first backpacking trip.

The Big 4

When it comes to backpacking, there are 4 “big items:” your pack, shelter, sleeping bag, and sleeping pad. These items are arguably the most critical pieces of gear you will have. Even if you’re on a budget, make sure these 4 items are of the highest quality you can afford.


Backpacks are undoubtedly one of your most important items. They carry the rest of your gear, and if your pack fails, you are in for a very uncomfortable trip. Try on several in a store to see what feels best. They come in all sorts of shapes and sizes, and it needs to fit you well. Packs size is measured by liters. The longer the trip you plan to take or the more gear you have, the larger the pack you will likely need. Having as much ultra lightweight gear as possible will help your back free from aches and pains. 


We say shelter, instead of a tent, because there are multiple options when it comes to backpacking shelters. Some people prefer a camping hammock, such as an ENO, with a rain cover instead of a traditional tent. There are also ultralight set-ups that are more like a tarp than a tent. Bivvies are basically a sleeping bag with a rain cover over the top. This all comes down to preference. 

Sleeping Bag

Sleeping bags come made with down or synthetic materials and are rated for different temperatures. When choosing a temperature rating, be realistic about what seasons you are willing to camp in.

Sleeping Pad

Anyone who’s done any backpacking can tell you how important your sleep is. Sleep helps your muscles recover from your previous day’s exertions, and being well-rested is vital to your enjoyment of your trip. One of the best ways to ensure you sleep well in the backcountry is to invest in a comfortable sleeping pad. There are several kinds of sleeping pads, and the only way to figure out which kind works best for you is to try them out. The two most common types of sleeping pads are inflatable and foam pads.

Other Essentials

Once you’ve got your Big 4 gear items sorted out, there are probably a few more pieces of gear you’re going to want for your first backpacking trip.

Water Treatment

It’s best to treat any water in the backcountry before drinking it, even if it looks perfectly clean. The most popular method for treating water is a filter, but you can also use chemical tablets or drops.


Hiker Hunger is a real thing, so you’re going to want to make sure you have a way to cook a hot meal at the end of the day. Many beginners choose a gas-canister stove or “pocket rocket” because they’re affordable and relatively simple to use.

Kitchen Supplies

Along with your stove, you’ll need items to cook with. At a minimum, you’ll want a cooking pot, eating utensils, and maybe a cup if you enjoy a morning cup of coffee or tea. You can eat straight out of the pot, so you don’t need a plate. 

You’ll also probably want a water bottle to keep filtered water in. This can be an expensive platypus-type flexible container or simply a large, lightweight, plastic water bottle.

Rain Gear

No matter what season you hike in, it’s always a good idea to bring lightweight rain gear, but it’s especially important when it gets even slightly chilly. Sure, being wet is uncomfortable, but being cold and wet can be life-threatening. Plan to bring a rain jacket just in case and consider packing rain pants as well. In addition to providing coverage from the rain, wearing rain gear can also save you from hungry bugs. A weatherproof wallet is also smart for keeping your essentials dry. It should hold your cash, cards, id, and phone should a downpour hit. 


While a lot can be said about hiking clothes, the essential information you need is that they should be comfortable, breathable, and quick-drying. Find comfortable clothing made from synthetic materials. While you don’t need an entire wardrobe for a backpacking trip, you should plan on having one set of hiking clothes and another set of sleep clothes.


Your feet are your mode of transportation when you head out on a backpacking trip. Just like you would take care of your car on a cross-country drive, you need to make sure you take excellent care of your feet. One way to do this is by purchasing high-quality shoes that fit well. Popular hiking shoes include hiking boots and trail runners. What works for you really depends on fit, so make sure to try several kinds in a store with knowledgeable staff to help you.

Becoming a Backpacker

This information is only a brief overview. The best way to ensure a successful first backpacking trip is through research and practice. Figure out what options work best for you in terms of backpacking gear then try them out. Once you’ve purchased your equipment, load it all into your pack and take a day-hike. Plan your first overnight trip and see what works and what doesn’t, as well as what you like and dislike. Becoming an experienced backpacker doesn’t happen overnight, but with a little practice, you’ll be a proficient trailblazer in no time. 

Photos via Unsplash: Yuriy Rzhemovskiy, Lonello Delpiccolo, Julian Bialowas

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