Some backpackers who don’t mind lugging the extra weight bring everything but the kitchen sink (and, hey, there are portable backcountry sinks on the market, don’t you know) with them into the wilds. At the other end of the spectrum are the ultralighters with their minimalist gear.
There’s no rulebook dictating the contents (or weight) of your pack, but there are certain essentials all backpackers ought to have on hand to cover their bases. After all, only you know what special gadgets and creature comforts will make a backcountry trek most enjoyable for you, but no matter what you need the basic wherewithal to deal with an emergency if it arises—and simply to adjust to changing conditions in order to stay happy and comfortable out there.
Let’s review the things to have in your backpack as defined by one of the most widely referenced lists of backpacking must-haves: the Ten Essentials espoused by the venerable climbing organization The Mountaineers. Originally a list of specific tools, the Ten Essentials now refer more to “functional systems,” as the group puts it. Make sure you’ve got the equipment necessary to account for these systems in your pack anytime you hit the trail!
These days, many outdoor enthusiasts’ minds jump to GPS receivers and smartphone apps when they hear the word “navigation” (and speaking of: check out our recent overview of some of our fave offline navigation apps right here). But such digital tech, practical and fun as it is, only supplements—doesn’t replace—old-school map-and-compass skills. If the screen fails, you’ll be very thankful you brought along the hard-copy topo map to reference and a ruggedly housed compass for getting your bearings.
Other pieces of navigational equipment might include an altimeter as well as the associated chargers/backup batteries for any navigation-related electronics.
It’s all too easy to focus on rain, snow, or frigid cold and forget that life-sustaining, seemingly friendly sunshine can be its own unpleasant and dangerous element. Spending days outdoors, often at high elevations, backpackers are inherently vulnerable to sun exposure, which can induce negative effects in both the short term (sunstroke, sunburn, snow blindness) and the long term (melanoma).
So be sure you’ve got a good sun hat in your pack as well as sunscreen of appropriate SPF rating and sunglasses with UV protection. A bandanna also comes in handy in this department.
This Essential refers to those extra layers of clothing besides your basic backpacking wardrobe that you need in order to to stay comfy in a cold camp, or to stay alive in threateningly inclement weather. Examples might include a set of long underwear, an extra wool hat or a balaclava, a pair of overmitts, and an additional pair of wool socks.
Have at least a couple of sources of artificial light in your pack, headlamps being by far the most useful for backpackers. You’ll also want extra batteries (and a solar charger, depending on the model). Some backpackers sacrifice a little extra weight to carry a small hand-crank flashlight, such as you might also keep in your household emergency kit, which provides good back-up illumination if your primary lamp malfunctions or bites the bullet.
Among the absolute fundamental things to have in your backpack is a fully stocked first-aid kit. It's not just about carrying those ointments, bandages, and swabs, either: You need to familiarize yourself with the contents and their use before striking off into the boonies. Ahead of every outing, inventory the kit and replenish any supplies that are low or tapped out.
Even if you don’t usually make campfires (perhaps out of Leave No Trace principle), you should have the means to do so in case getting a flame going becomes a matter of life or death. In a waterproof container, carry a lighter, matches, and a flint along with tinder: which could be dryer lint, fatwood, rolled-up newspaper strips, petroleum-jelly-soaked cotton balls, or char cloth, to name some common examples.
Practice using these materials to start a fire at home or in a front-country campsite in a variety of weather situations so you’re proficient: If you actually need to start an emergency fire in the backwoods, conditions aren’t likely going to be optimal. (We’ve got a primer on the basics of lighting emergency fires here at the Mountain House blog you might take a look at…)
This part of the original Mountaineers Ten Essentials list simply went by “knife,” and that should still definitely be part of your backcountry gear list: A well-made knife is one of the most useful and versatile tools you can carry in the outdoors, a truth that hasn’t changed much in literally thousands of years. A multipurpose tool is a handy substitute or supplement.
Other examples of repair implements you might carry among your backwoods survival gear to patch or mend gear and clothing include a needle and thread, duct tape, webbing, and safety pins.
Carry at minimum a one-day reserve supply of food in case your backpacking trip is extended unexpectedly—by a bad storm, for example. An extra packet or two of Mountain House is a great thing to have among these backup provisions, as are high-energy, snack-type items that don’t require cooking: jerky, trail mix, chocolate, dried fruit, and the like.
Have at least one water bottle’s worth of water on your person and also (of course) the means to safety treat backcountry water sources for more: a purifier or filter, for example.
Presumably, you have a tent or bivy on hand when you’re backpacking, but members of the party who aren’t carrying the primary sleeping shelters should have emergency versions on hand in case they become separated: bivy sacks, tarps, ponchos, or emergency blankets, for example.
Winter backpackers could count their snow shovels and snow saw in this category, as such tools allow them to construct snow caves, igloos, and other emergency snow shelters if the elements really get nasty.