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14 Backpacking Essentials – Spare Your Back, Don’t Overpack!

Camping is something many of us are eager to jump up and do. It’s so easy to visualize ourselves leaving the busyness of life and escaping to the great outdoors for a weekend. You’ve eliminated all the clutter, pared it down to just the few necessary items in your pack, and all you can hear is the hooting of the loons on the lake as you watch the sunset from your campsite.

Yes, it’s easy to imagine, but when it comes time to actually fit everything you think you need in to a small backpack, many people find the packing process more stressful than the weekend getaway is worth. So, here’s a reference for you, put together through years of experience, that will hopefully be helpful when that time comes.

Less is more

This list was put together after years of backpacking trips with my dear husband, who literally does an overview after each trip of what he used and didn’t use.

A few things Ryan’s removed over the years: Teeth floss, a tube of toothpaste (which was substituted for one of those really mini ones… then we ran out), and half his sleeping pad (he cut it in half because he said his legs didn’t need a sleeping pad, only his upper body).

He’s the world’s lightest packer. I even get teased if I check a bag for a two-week long trip when we fly places. Basically, he’s made me an expert in paring it down.

Safety first!

We always carry a map! It helps us find the best spots to explore (and not get lost!) Then we have a compass in our GPS watches, which we always wear. You can change the settings in the watches so that the battery lasts longer or shorter, so we’ll make sure it’s on a setting that will last our whole trip.

If it’s a super long trip, like when we hiked to Everest Base Camp, we brought a tiny solar panel charger. I carry a mini medical kit, too, which you can buy at most pharmacies. We altered it a bit and took out some excess things (there’s always a ridiculous amount of gauze), then added other things (like there’s never enough sterilization wipes) and a bit of duct tape, which is handy for putting over blisters or quick patch jobs.

Everything you need for camping

Note: This list doesn’t include your food or clothes. However, the same rules apply when it comes to packing those items; Pare it down! Not having to carry that extra ten pounds will make you so grateful.

When it comes to clothes, bring a clean set to sleep in at night and then a set for during the day. Yes, they’ll get smelly and you’ll re-wear them, but you’re camping! You won’t have had a proper shower in days, the wildlife doesn’t care what you smell like, and if you’re with other people they’ll smell too and you’ll find no one really cares. Sometimes I’ll bring an extra shirt if I’m out for longer than three days, but don’t forget you can wash things in your pot with your camp suds.

  1. Water treatment system: My favourite is Aquatabs. I’ve tried everything, including a Steri-pen, but battery life can become an issue. Aquatabs do a great job, they’re super light, and take up virtually no space.
  2. Water bottle: My favourite is a plain old Nalgene. I tried soft-sided bottles that can collapse and take up less space, but after they got holes on me mid-way through a 5-day trail, I gave up on them. I’ll take an insulated Nalgene in the winter to keep liquids from freezing.
  3. Sleeping bag
  4. Thermarest/inflatable mattress
  5. Headlamp:Make sure the batteries are fresh!
  6. Spork: I used to bring a Swiss Army Knife too, but found I rarely used it.
  7. Cup: This can function as your coffee/tea cup, as well as your bowl to eat food out of. If you buy the dehydrated food bags from MEC or REI, you can eat straight from the bag.
  8. Pot: You won’t need a pan. You’ll only have one stove anyways, so you can only cook one thing at a time. Anything you can cook in a pan you can just cook in a pot instead.
  9. Stove + gas: My favourite stove is the SnowPeak. It folds up really small in your pack. Then when you use it, it screws right on to the top of your gas canister.
  10. Fire starter: I find waterproof matches to work better than a lighter, since I’ve had my lighter get wet before and stop working or run out of fuel. My favourite, though, is a flint and steel, which you can purchase at MEC or REI. It’s cheap to buy, lasts years, and will never run out on you or stop working when wet.
  11. Biodegradable camp suds: You can use these for multiple purposes, like washing dishes, bathing, or as shampoo.
  12. Toilet paper
  13. One novelty item: Mine is usually a book or down slippers. My husband’s is a toothbrush, but I count that as part of the “clothing” section.
  14. Tent: Keep in mind this is weather dependent. Sometimes I won’t bring one at all if the weather is going to be nice. If the weather isn’t calling for rain, but there will be bugs, I’ll just bring the tent but no fly. If there isn’t going to be wind, I won’t even bring tent pegs because my body weight will be plenty to hold it down.

Bonus Tip: Shoes/Boots

If it’s summertime, I always wear a pair of supportive running shoes. I’ve tried hiking boots, but my feet just get so hot and sweaty, which is a recipe for blisters. The Merrell Agility Peak or Merrell MQM Flex are my two favourites, and lots of people like hiking in Salomon SpeedCross shoes.

For boots, I’ve been wearing Merrell’s pretty much since I was born. They’re so comfortable and supportive. Really though, I only wear boots in the winter time, because they keep my feet warmer (my feet always get too cold in just runners), and if you have to strap on traction devices, like Micro Spikes if you’re walking on ice, the boots fill them out better and they don’t dig in to your feet like traction devices can do over runners.

Get out of your comfort zone!

Something I’ve found surprisingly unnecessary is a pillow. Stuff your sleeping bag case with clothes instead! Camping is all about problem solving… you’ll find you come up with all sorts of clever ways to solve for items you don’t have. For example, on one trip our coffee press broke, and we ended up using someone’s buff to strain the coffee straight from our camp pot in to cups (Since then I’ve figured that Starbucks Vias are the way to go!). You may be a little less snug for a few days, but that’s basically what camping is about anyways. Escape the ordinary and get out of your comfort zone. It’ll just make you happier to get back to civilization and more deserving of your hot bath!

The reality is, people pack way too much, and return home realizing they haven’t used half of what they carried on their back for the past few days. Of course, if you’re car camping or canoeing straight to your destination, feel free to bring a few more novelty items. But don’t forget, a big part of what makes camping “camping,” is eliminating those luxuries. If you’re thinking, “but I might use this,” or, “it would be nice to have,” you can live without it for a few days.

Embrace the experience!

Author Lindsay Webster

Lindsay Webster, Competitive OCR, Mountain biker, xc skiier & runner.

Lindsay is a pioneer in the female OCR world, and her own life. She left the stability of a regular income to take a chance on something she wasn’t even sure she would be good at. The result? She’s the happiest she’s ever been.

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