Most people get into backpacking via quick overnighters and weekend getaways: short-but-sweet trips in easy-to-reach backcountry for testing the waters and learning the ropes.
If you haven’t yet given backpacking a shot this way, here’s a big hearty round of encouragement to do so! This can be a lifelong source of adventure, exercise, camaraderie, and across-the-board pleasure.
But let’s say you have a few one- or two-night backpacking forays under your belt, and are keen to try some longer outings. Well, we don’t blame you one bit, and the good news is you already have most everything you need. For the most part the main difference supply-wise between short and long backpacks is simply the quantity of food and fuel you’re lugging.
Here we’ll cover the essentials for multi day backpacks of some duration: from three or four days to one or two weeks. Again, most of what we’ll be covering an occasional backpacker already owns, but in case you’re diving headfirst into a longer adventure and need to fully outfit yourself, this should help you organize your supply list.
We’ll discuss a few of the basic details, then boil things down to a go-to checklist.
For one or two nights out on the trail, you can get away with hauling some culinary luxuries along if you so choose: canned goods, raw eggs—heck, leftover pizza if you’ve got it. When you’re out camping for a week in the backcountry, though, weight and space considerations dictate a specialized, efficient on-the-go larder.
Not to say you can’t bring along a few indulgences for the first night out, but ultimately you might not want to bulk up your pack with them given the increased amount of grub you’re hauling around for subsequent days.
You also of course want to think about the nutritional and caloric content of your backpacking menu: 5 day backpacking food has to keep you powered over many more miles than a weekend jaunt’s fodder. How much food you need depends on the season (and the weather), your physical size, and the distance and elevation gain you’re dealing with, but as a rough rule reckon anywhere between 2,500 and 4,000 calories (or in the vicinity of two pounds of food) per person per day.
Backpackers can’t overdo it on any supply, but it is smart to have extra food on hand in case of emergencies. Furthermore, you should have backup food you can eat raw in case of stove or cookware contingencies.
Speaking of actual cooking, you’ll want to consider the time and fuss required for a given meal. Maybe your wilderness plans involve establishing a base camp and then kicking back: some day hikes here and there, but also a whole lot of soaking in the lake, napping in the shade, and lazily studying cloud formations. (This is a highly acceptable approach, by the way, and a refreshing change every once in awhile from pounding out the miles on a huge loop or thru-hike.) In that case, campsite gourmets may enjoy leisurely and elaborate meal prep.
Otherwise, more likely than not you’re going to be stumbling into camp weary, footsore, and famished, tasked with setting up the tent before nightfall and—if you don't have a canister with you—scouting out a suitable bear tree as well.
You can’t beat Mountain House freeze-dried meals for multi day backpacks: Our balanced, delicious, just-add-water meals make lightweight, packable entrees that are delightfully quick and simple to whip up while giving you the energy you need to cover some ground. Combine our handy meals with high-quality snacks—dried fruit, nuts, jerky, etc.—and you’ll be good to go!
For really extended backpacking trips—certainly for thru-hikes on long-distance trails—you’ll want to re-up food along the way, which obviously takes some advance planning. You may be able to hike down to a grocery store along your route, or you might ship yourself provisions to designated resupply points.
What else do you need in the sustenance department for a 5 day backpacking trip? Well, you'll need cookware and dinnerware (unless you're going entirely granola bars and pita sandwiches), with some backpackers still preferring the old-fashioned mess kit and others opting for more compact and lightweight backpacker-friendly nested implements.
Traditional backpacking stoves include both canister stoves (using butane, isobutane, propane, or gas blends) and refillable liquid-fuel stoves (using white gas or kerosene). You can also find stoves these days fueled by twigs or specialized pellets. Each kind of stove and fuel has its own advantages and disadvantages in terms of weight, availability, ease-of-use, and maintenance.
Some highly portable and packable pantry basics can be a backpacker’s best friend at the campsite. Bring along seasonings and spices in reusable mini-bottles or sealable bags to enhance your outback cuisine: from salt and pepper to garlic powder, crushed red pepper, or cinnamon. You might consider putting a small amount of cooking oil in a small reusable bottle; you can also pack in a hunk of butter to be used in early days for boosting the caloric oomph or the flavor of all sorts of dishes.
Multi-day backpackers aren’t looking to show off their full outdoor-wear wardrobes: In the interest of weight, space, and overall efficiency, you’re going to be wearing a lot of the same stuff throughout your trip. But you need enough duds to properly layer, to respond to daily temperature swings and other weather, and to account for soaked or otherwise temporarily out-of-commission garments.
Among your outerwear, it’s always a good idea to have a warm hat and gloves along; even in high summer, nights and mornings can be nippy when you’re at higher elevations.
Footwear is of paramount importance on a backpacking trip of any length, of course. You’ll want several pairs of socks along you can shuffle through, always keeping at least one dry backup pair. Liner socks are great for cutting down on foot friction and moisture and sparing you those nasty blisters that can derail long-distance hiking trips.
For a 3 day backpack or longer, you’re looking at a backpack of at least 50-liter capacity; someone putting in a week or more on the trail may well want a 70- or 80-liter pack.
Don’t neglect the backpack cover, which is a lifesaver during a drenching deluge or an unexpected snowfall. (Remember: The longer you’re out on the trail, the greater your chances of encountering bad—and sometimes unseasonable—weather. Lean hard on that “Be prepared” Boy Scout motto.)
Consider bringing down a daypack. Many manufacturers now offer large-capacity backpacks with incorporated and detachable daypacks, a great innovation. It’s sheer joy after a few days muscling all your gear over passes and down canyons to jog up a summit or go rustling up a water source with nothing but a light pack on.
You'll need the means to purify water for drinking, cooking, and washing on the trail, as it's utterly impractical to lug enough over multiple days. (If you're trekking through country without natural water sources, you'll have to carry more and probably stash water caches.) We recently covered the filter/purifier subject here on the Mountain House blog.