If you’re new to the world of backcountry camping, the thought of having to carry just the bare essentials on your back and spending the night outdoors might be a bit intimidating. However, backcountry camping shouldn’t be something to fear and is something that everyone can do with a bit of preparation. So where do you even start? I’ve put together a guide with all the essentials you need to prepare you for your first backcountry camping trip, including what gear you need as well as how to properly research and plan the perfect trip.
Plan your trip and do your research
For the sake of your safety and to also ensure you have the best experience possible, it’s always important to plan your trip ahead of time and do your research about where you’re going. Here are some tips to help you plan your first (or 100th) backcountry camping trip:
1. Make sure you know where you’re going
Before venturing off into the outdoors, it’s important to be familiar with your route to avoid getting lost. I always check local hiking guides and google maps to properly plan out the route I’ll be taking and approximately how long I’ll need to get to my final destination. For extra safety, I suggest bringing a compass or map in case you get lost or stray from your intended trail. You can also bring a GPS emergency device if you’re going to be hiking somewhere more remote.
2. Always tell someone where you’re going
Before hitting the trails, I always tell someone where I’m going and for how long I plan to be gone. Whether it’s texting a family member or friend or leaving a note in your house or car, someone should always be able to figure out where you are in case you go missing and need help.
3. Be prepared with the essentials
There are plenty of optional items that you can bring camping, but there are some that you cannot skip out on known as the “10 essentials.” These include navigation, a headlamp, sun protection, first aid kit, knife, fire, shelter, extra food, extra water, and extra clothes. If you want to read more about the “10 essentials” you can check out this great article by REI here.
4. Know the rules and respect nature
To help protect the places you visit, it’s important to have respect for nature and know the rules of the outdoors. I highly suggest you familiarize yourself with the 7 Leave No Trace Principles which are outlined here.
5. Plan your first trip with more experienced friends
One thing that helped me a lot when going on my first backpacking trip was to go with other friends who were more experienced with backcountry camping than me. I learned a lot just by observing what they packed and wore during the trip, and it helped me feel a lot more comfortable and safe.
Pack the right gear
One of the most important things you need to consider before heading out on your first backcountry camping trip is packing the right gear. While the recommended list of items may seem lengthy, I feel that the more prepared I am, the more enjoyable my camping experience is.
If weight is a concern for you, then I suggest going on your first backcountry camping trip with a few friends so that you can share the weight of some items like a tent, bug spray, cooking stove/gas, first aid kit, sunscreen, etc. I’ve personally invested in more lightweight gear to keep my pack as light as possible. However, these items are generally more expensive but worth it, in my opinion, to make hiking more comfortable.
Below you can find the items that I personally recommend and use on my backcountry camping trips. It’s important to note that the items I’ve listed are just my recommendations and you might find that some aren’t necessary for yourself.
Finding the right backpack for your trek can be overwhelming especially because there are so many different options. You should consider the overall size, function, and fit of the backpack based on your personal preferences and the type of trips you’ll be going on.
I just recently purchased the Osprey Kyte 46L Backpack (made specifically for women) and absolutely love it. This pack is super lightweight, fits well for females, and has handy compartments for separating my gear. It’s available in three sizes: 36L, 46L, and 66L. I’ve also heard great things about the Osprey Eja Pack 48L, which is another lightweight pack option for females.
If you’re planning a backcountry trip longer than 3 days or a winter trip, I suggest the Osprey Xena 85L pack since it’s big to hold enough gear that you might need to bring.
Since I usually go camping with my boyfriend, we share the MSR 2 person Hubba Hubba NX tent. It’s lightweight, durable, and perfect for 3 season camping. Since it is quite thin, we also purchased the Universal Footprint to go under the tent to protect the floor from sharp or rocky surfaces. Other lightweight, durable tent options include the Big Agnes Copper Spur HV UL 3 and the Big Agnes Tiger Wall UL 3.
To ensure you get a proper night’s sleep I highly recommend investing in a good quality sleeping bag that can tolerate cold temperatures. There are two types of sleeping bags you can choose from; Down and Synthetic. Down sleeping bags tend to be the lightest and warmest, but do not fare well in damp conditions and are generally more expensive. Synthetic sleeping bags are bulkier and heavier, but usually more affordable and durable in wet conditions.
I generally sleep cold, especially when camping in the mountains, which is why I love my Highlight Electric 850 sleeping bag (only available in Europe). It’s super lightweight and is made for temps as low as -9C. For my American readers, I suggest the Thermarest Hyperion: 20 Degree Down sleeping bag or the Western Mountaineering Alpinlite sleeping bag.
Packing the right sleeping pad is not only critical for comfort, but also for warmth since it keeps your body off the cold ground. I personally use the Exped Synmat sleeping pad (made here in Switzerland!) and love how small and compact it is, as well as how quickly it inflates. Some other options include the Therm-a-Rest NeoAir Uberlite sleeping mat and the Sea to Summit Ultralite sleeping mat.
A pillow isn’t necessarily an item you have to pack with you, but personally, I find I sleep much more comfortable with one. I just recently purchased the Cocoon Ultralight AirCore Travel Pillow and it’s significantly improved my sleep. It compresses down to the size of a small can and is super lightweight! Some other great pillow options include Sea to Summit Aeros pillow or the Exped Air camping pillow.
A great hack if you don’t want to spend the extra money on a pillow is to take some clothes and stuff them into the hood of a jacket to create a makeshift pillow. It doesn’t work as great as an actual pillow but it is a convenient and resourceful way to give yourself a bit more comfort with what you have.
To be honest, I’ve never wanted to use trekking poles while hiking until recently when we started hiking in more unstable terrain and doing hikes with greater elevation gain. I’ve just purchased the Black Diamond Alpine Carbon Trekking Poles and have yet to test them out on the trails, but the reviews seem promising. A more affordable option is the Black Diamond Distance Z trekking poles or the REI Co-op Traverse Lock Cork trekking poles.
A headlamp is vital when it comes to being safe in the backcountry. You need to be able to navigate your way in the dark without getting lost and it’s helpful for doing things around camp. The headlamp I’ve been using is the Black Diamond Spot 325, but other great options are the Petzl Actik Core headlamp and the Petzl Tikka (a more affordable option).
Cooking Stove and Utensils
Our go-to setup for a camping stove is the MSR Pocket Rocket Deluxe Stove combined with the Sea to Summit X-Pot. Together it’s the perfect ultra-lightweight, compact stove option, however, it does take longer to boil water than the Jetboil Flash Stove would.
When it comes to utensils and dinnerware, I prefer to eat with a titanium spork since it’s lightweight and versatile for eating things like pasta or porridge. For a bowl, we sometimes eat together out of the Sea to Summit X-Pot that we cook in to reduce our dishes or we use the Sea to Summit X-Bowl, which is collapsible and fits perfectly into our X-Pot.
For a mug, I recently purchased the Sea to Summit X-Mug which also collapses into our pot and bowl and we have the GSI Infinity Backpacker Mug which keeps things warm for a longer period of time and has a handle. I’ve tried using lightweight titanium mugs in the past, however, I found that the mug became too hot to drink out of and often burnt my lip.
When it comes to food, we try to keep it simple and usually pack something like pasta and pesto for dinner and add cheese or canned tuna if we need some extra protein. Some other good dinner options include couscous, curried rice, or quinoa. We haven’t really ventured into the world of dehydrated food because there are limited options here in Switzerland and they usually upset my stomach because of the additives.
For breakfast, we usually nibble on granola bars or take instant oatmeal satchels with us. We also take instant coffee and hot chocolate packets for a delicious warm drink after dinner or with breakfast. For snacks, we usually pack trail mix, granola bars, crackers, dried fruit, apples, and dark chocolate for a sweet treat.
Water Bottle and Water Filtration
Alongside shelter and food, water is essential when going backcountry camping to avoid dehydration. You can never have enough water, and it’s important to pack extra when you are camping away from a water source like a lake or river. While some people prefer to pack a water bladder, I personally like my Hydroflask which keeps my water cool. Another great, lightweight option is a Nalgene bottle.
It’s important to ensure that the water source you’re drinking from is clean, and doesn’t contain any nasty bacteria or parasites such giardia. To filter your drinking water properly, there are plenty of options to choose from. You can either choose between using Chlorine Dioxide pills/droplets, pump, gravity, or UV filtration systems. Some great and durable purification options include the Katadyn Hiker Microfilter, the Steripen Ultra, and the Katadyn BeFree.
First Aid and Survival Kit
Safety should always be something to consider when you’re in the backcountry, which is why it’s important to have a first aid kit with you at all times. You might never know when you’ll end up needing it, so it’s better to be overprepared for worst-case scenarios. I like the Adventure Medical Ultralight Kits because they can stay at the bottom of your pack and require little space or weight. Some other things that I find are essential are some extra band-aids, ibuprofen, medical tape and blister pads since it’s not uncommon to start getting blisters while out on the trail.
When it comes to a survival kit, items that I like to keep with me are a swiss army knife, waterproof matches, a whistle, a compass, and an emergency blanket.
After a long day of hiking and working up a sweat, I love freshening up a bit. Some optional items that I usually bring with me are a travel toothbrush, toothpaste, face/body wipes, face lotion, lip balm, hand wipes, extra hair ties, deodorant, and toilet paper.
Bug and Sun Protection
When spending hours out in the sun, it’s important to protect your skin from sun damage and from a painful sunburn. While not always possible, I try to wear long-sleeve clothes and pants to keep my skin protected. I recommend the All Good Sport Sunscreen which is non-greasy, natural, and even coral reef friendly. It’s also a good idea to pack a hat, lip balm, and sunglasses to give yourself extra protection.
I like to play it on the safe side, and always bring bug spray with me, especially when I know I’ll be camping near a lake or wet, marshy area. Mosquitos and other bugs can carry lots of harmful diseases so it’s important to protect yourself by layering up and using bug spray. I like the Adventure Medical Natrapel Pump Spray because it’s natural and doesn’t contain Deet. It’s also a good idea to pack a bug headnet.
I’ll write about this in a longer form blog post later on, but it’s important to choose hiking clothes that you feel comfortable in and won’t irritate you or weigh you down too much. I opt for materials that are breathable, lightweight, and durable. I love layering because I can easily take off layers if it’s too hot or put extra on if I’m too cold.
I tend to get really hot (and sweaty) while hiking so I like to wear things that feel as lightweight as possible and breathe well. Some of my go-to items are the Lululemon Fast and Free tights which feel like you’re practically wearing nothing, the Lululemon Swiftly Relaxed Short Sleeve, and the Swiftly Relaxed Long Sleeve if I need a long-sleeve option.
If I need pants that are a bit warmer for winter, I like the Haglofs Fleece Leggings. If it’s raining, I like the Haglofs Vandra Pants, which are waterproof, windproof, and good for more harsh conditions, as well as the Fjallraven Abisko Shade Trousers.
There are three types of jackets you can choose when it comes to outerwear: a rain jacket, wind jacket, or down jacket. My go-to jacket is the Patagonia Women’s Nano Puff Jacket since it’s highly compressible, light as a feather and keeps me super warm. Another great option is the Patagonia Women’s Down Sweater Hoody if you need some extra warmth.
For a rainjacket, I like the North Face Allproof Stretch Jacket which is packable, lightweight and doesn’t make that annoying crinkle sound like most rain jackets. Another good option is the Patagonia Torrentshell.
I always bring a windbreaker with me as well because they usually don’t add too much weight and it can get pretty windy when you’re high up on a mountain. My favorites are the North Face Venture 2 Jacket and the Patagonia Houdini Jacket.
After getting drenched from hiking, it’s important to change your clothes otherwise you’ll have a pretty cold and uncomfortable night in your tent. I always wear my Icebreaker thermal pants and long sleeve top to sleep in. If it’s extra cold I’ll wear my Haglofs fleece leggings mentioned above on top of my thermals for extra insulation.
For layering on the top, I like the Patagonia Crosstrek 1/4 zip fleece as well as the Eddie Bauer Enliven Ultrasoft Hoodie, which is pretty much the coziest thing on earth! I also like to pack some warm, fuzzy socks to change into and a beanie to keep my head warm.
Gloves are a great additional item to bring to make sure you stay warm when temperatures start to dip. Some lightweight options I recommend are The North Face ETip Glove, Marmot Power Stretch Glove, and the Icebreaker Sierra Gloves.
Having the right boots is important to make sure you stay comfortable while hiking and protected from the elements. My go-to hiking boots are the Danner Mountain Light Boots, which are durable and waterproof, but run on the heavier side. Other options include the Keen Leather Terradoras and the Keen Targhee iii.
Getting a blister while out on the trail can be painful and can totally ruin your experience. That’s why having the right socks is just as important as having the right boots to prevent blisters. I prefer to pack socks that are made out of merino wool because they reduce odors, are comfortable, and durable. My favorite socks include Smartwool, Darn Tough, and Wigwam. I always make sure to bring an extra pair too, in case mine get wet or too dirty to wear again.
Some additional items I usually carry with me in my pack are the WANDRD camera cube bag to protect my camera, lenses, and drone. I also like to bring backup batteries for my headlamp and a power pack to charge my phone. Sometimes I’ll bring a journal, book, Ipad, or cards if I want something to do before going to sleep.
It’s time to hit the trail!
Now that you’re all prepared, it’s time to hit the trail! Sometimes the scariest part can be committing to spending a night outdoors. However, I promise sleeping under the stars and having everything you need to survive with you is one of the most magical and memorable experiences you’ll ever have. So get out there and have fun!
I hope you can find this backcountry camping guide helpful when planning your very own trip outdoors. If you have any backcountry camping tips or fun ideas you’d like to share, let me know in the comments below!
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