Backpacking Gear for Beginners
So you’ve thought a lot about hiking and backpacking, and you’ve decided it’s a hobby you’re willing to pursue.
Congratulations! You’ve made an excellent choice!
Escaping the stresses of modern-day life has never been more needed, especially post-COVID. Hiking has both mental and physical benefits, and is the perfect way to unplug and destress. And just think, today you may be hiking near home, but in a year or two you could be anywhere — like Iceland or Chile!
Of course, a good backpacking trip starts with good gear. This page gives a rundown of the best backpacking gear for beginners.
Many people are intimidated because gear looks expensive. And really, quality gear for truly epic trips IS expensive. However, that shouldn’t deter you. Why? Because you’re a beginner, and you don’t need all the fanciest gear right away. Even the simplest trails can be rewarding with their beauty and tranquility.
That financial barrier is why I made this site. While there are many articles online for novices, it’s difficult to find pages that simplify things for those just starting to understand backpacking. They always have good information, but inundate you with an overwhelming amount of information.
Therefore, this site is about simplicity: actionable steps, best practices, and backpacking gear for beginners that will make your budget decision-making easier. Rather than going down rabbit holes of information, I stick to the absolute basics you need for your first (easy) trip, explaining as I go.
Below, I list essential backpacking gear for beginners that I have honed for a budget equal to, or less than $475. Not only is it budget-friendly, but it is still excellent quality. I have used the majority of this gear on several backpacking trips, so I can personally vouch for its use. For the gear I have not used, I researched it thoroughly via experts and hobbyists alike. Additionally, I have gotten personal advice from coworkers with more experience whose opinions are valid and trusted.
What is “backpacking” anyway, and how involved are you talking?
I’m glad you asked! “Backpacking” refers to a trip where you hike and camp at the same time. It’s more than a casual hike in the woods, but it’s not normal camping either. It requires a specific type of gear that is both functional and portable, easily packable for hiking long distances. It goes without saying that when I go normal camping with friends, we pack more gear in a car than a backpack. While both require planning, backpacking will usually involve more critical thinking.
Now I know what you’re thinking: “but I’m just a beginner! I don’t know where to begin!”
That is why I suggest you start small and simple, and work up from there. It’s like anything else in life — there’s no shame in being an absolute beginner because we’ve all been there.
I grew up barely passing French class, and now speak three languages on a conversational level. I’ve written a 200-page novel. It’s far from perfect, but you know how I did it? I wrote one word, then another, then another. I’m not special, I just start simple. The Beatles sang covers before writing their own songs, and Stanley Kubrick wanted to burn every copy of his first movie!
What kind of backpacking trip are we planning for?
First, I must clarify what kind of trip this gear is for and is not for.
It is NOT for a long, difficult trip. It is not for a trip WAY out of your comfort zone.
I do not include gear for a super involved trip, because you’re not ready for it yet — and that’s okay.
It IS for your first trip, when you’re not sure if backpacking is for you, but still want to give it a try.
It IS for trips with minimum risk.
It IS for a trip where you spend as little as possible so you don’t feel overwhelmed, scared, or uncertain.
That way, when you go on your first trip, you can focus on troubleshooting problems and building essential skills for future trips.
So here’s your first step: Google backpacking trails within your area, maintained by your state, with “free primitive camping.” This means they will have all the necessary information regarding navigation and laws, will be free, and will allow camping anywhere along the trail. Find an easy trail you can hike for a mile or two, then you will have a destination to work towards! When in doubt, always pick the easier option (for now 🙂 ).
Let’s talk backpacking gear categories
Alrighty, down to business! REI, a major outdoors supplier, breaks backpacking gear down into “Ten Essentials,” listed below:
1. Navigation – so you know where the heck you’re going and don’t waste supplies getting “un lost”
2. Headlamp – darkness is scary, not to mention unsafe
3. Sun protection – we’re not fried steak here
4. First aid – so you don’t die
5. Knife – for bushcraft, or the art of creatively getting yourself out of wilderness jams
6. Fire – heat, food, deep thoughts . . . Man’s first great discovery!
7. Shelter – rain, rain, go away . . .
8. Food – fuel bruh
9. Water – it is 80% of our body mass after all!
10. Clothes – the most useful protection from the elements and so you don’t get arrested
This is all absolutely essential — for an involved, multiple-day hike.
For a novice trip, we can pare this down even more.
DISCLAIMER: Please remember that I am not saying to skimp on supplies, since that’s not safe. What I am saying is that we are focusing our research, energy, and budget to the absolute minimum needed to test if backpacking is something you really enjoy doing.
With that said, for the sake of beginner’s simplicity, I am going to simplify the Essential 10 into more basic categories:
1. Health & Safety – everything needed to keep you in working order (food, knife, first aid, cooking gear)
4. Navigation – practical things like lights, not just maps
5. Backpack – cuz you know, they call it “backpacking” for a reason 😛
Now we can assign practical purposes to our gear and create a well-informed beginner’s gear for a first trip. Let’s dive in!
Let’s start with the obvious one!
Backpacking backpacks (yes, that’s not a typo!) are very different from a school bag. They have more zippers, compartments, and adjustment straps.
The “lid” is called the “brain,” and has a small zipped pocket for items you want easy access to, like snacks and knives.
The main compartment is measured in liters, with 35L being on the low end and 70+L on the top end. Furthermore, there are straps on the outside for externally attaching tents and similar items. Interestingly, the main compartment doesn’t zip shut; rather, it scrunches shut with a cinch. Why? So you can cram extra junk under the brain and buckle it in, essentially creating another exterior attachment system. Personally, I drape extra coats there, but I’ve seen others use it for sitting pads and mats.
Because the backpack is crucial to carrying everything else, it is worth spending a good amount on. I went ahead and got a 70L pack, opting to go big right away so I wouldn’t need to replace it. 70 liters allows plenty of space for multiple-day treks — a nice way to prepare for future trips without splurging (smaller ones can cost the same amount).
I got the TETON trekker, a comfortable budget pack at $75 *(at the time of my purchase). The brain has two pockets, one on either side of the flap, which are useful for organizing accessible items. I put snacks on the outside one and extra batteries and my headlamp in the inner one, since I could need them in a pinch but not as often as food. The entire shoulder strap system can be moved up and down the back of the pack, which allows for maximum physical adjustment. Also, in a discreet pocket underneath there is a rain poncho you can use to protect it in bad weather — a nice feature!
Pro tips: Feel free to pack your tent and other items in separate sections so you can compress them better. For example, put your tent poles in your bag so you can cinch the fabric tent as tightly as possible on the outside.
How to pack a backpack
Put heaviest/bulkiest items (sleeping bags) on the bottom closest to your core.
Less-heavier items can stack on top against your back, and lightest items can be stuffed on top and everywhere else.
Also, put items you use least often on the bottom, and most often on top.
Once packed, cinch the buckles as tight as reasonably possible. This preparation will optimize your gear distribution to compliment your gravity and balance, rather than strain your back and shoulders.
Lastly, I like to loosen my shoulder straps a bit so the pack rests on your lumbar rather than pulling on your shoulders. This will all take a while to figure out, but once you got it you’ll be very happy you went through the work.
Health and Safety
First aid might not be the most exciting item to buy, but it’s better to be safe than sorry. Here’s what I recommend. Make sure you have an idea of what’s in it before you begin hiking!
(My next page goes into more detail, but this section is a brief summary)
On to more interesting things: food! How the heck do you cook on the go??
Easy! You buy a portable stove, weird dishes, and weird food.
So the stoves are pretty straightforward. You get a small burner that screws right on top of a propane tank. JetBoil is perhaps the most popular stove out there. Things can get confusing when you try to decide what dishes and stoves to get, and whether you want them separately or in a single pack. In light of that, I recommend a specific course of action explained below.
I use the Rlrueyel mess kit because it is a minimalist combo of stove, silverware, and cookware for a reasonable price.
A JetBoil is worth it down the road, but can cost the same amount as this pack for just a burner and thermos. Why not pay the same amount and get portable silverware while you’re at it! Other packs have plates and bowls, but practically speaking you can just eat your food out of the pot you cook with.
Additionally, you don’t need a lighter for it. The little orange button on the burner acts as a built-in flint stone. Nifty!
On to weird food. With some creativity, breakfast isn’t hard. Buy a $2 condensed/evaporated milk can from the grocery store and you have unrefrigerated milk. Pack cereal or grits in baggies. Bacon could be tricky, so just get beef jerky. Get some granola and fruits and you’re good.
Lunch and supper are trickier. You can get “dehydrated meals” at the supermarket. This is easily packable, non-perishable and nutritious food intended for backpacking. You can get both single and double serving packs for under $10. Here are some Amazon options as well.
Rather than eating a full lunch, you can snack throughout the day. High-protein bars like Clif Bars are great. Chex mix is a personal favorite. When you’re in a pinch and need a quick energy boost (or need to get warm before bed), Snickers are an excellent option.
Just remember, cram it all in small spaces and put snacks in the brain.
You can look up more details on food planning on my page dedicated to backpacking food ideas!
Lastly, we have water. Water can make me nervous because of potential scarcity. That’s why I always bring two leakproof water bottles.
You want metal ones that are well insulated because they can function as more than just containers. For example, boiling water, putting it in a metal bottle, and putting it in your sleeping bag can keep you warm during a chilly night.
What if you run out? A portable filter is a non-negotiable, and a Sawyer filter are an excellent choice and worthy investment (or you can get the filter-bottle combo listed above! It’s more expensive, but it’s essentially two products in one.) They can screw onto custom plastic bags or right onto a plastic bottle. You put “dirty” water in the containers, and it filters when you suck. The filters last for 1000 liters, so you don’t have to worry about them pooping out on ya.
One more thing worth considering: a water bladder. These are highly malleable containers that store extra water that you can squeeze into your pack. Not absolutely essential, but definitely worth considering.
Pro tip: You ALWAYS want to plan to bring more food and water than you think you need, even for a beginner trip.
Sometimes you might want to sleep under the stars, but tents are still a necessary item in case of weather. Like the backpack, the tent will be one of the pricier items on your list. I recommend the Lynx solo tent, which I have used on multiple trips. It is actually very reasonably priced, and I first heard about it from a video of a solo hiker in Iceland above the Arctic Circle. I figured if he could use it on the edge of the world, I’d probably be fine in Ohio. I wasn’t wrong.
On to some really neat gear made specifically for backpacking. Inflatable sleeping pads are like ultralight, portable mattresses. They have a “two-seal” valve. The first one lets you breath air in without any rushing back out. The second bigger one lets the air out. Some have a built in pillow, which personally annoys me, but other folks like that. They can also be insulated for colder weather. I prefer the POWERLIX Sleeping Pad, which is a simple inflatable mat. If you are interested in the pillow and/or insulation, I listed two more with good reviews you can consider as an alternative.
Inflatable pillows are the next thing. They’re cheap and simple to use, so there’s not much to say here. I love how compact and simple they are!
Sleeping bags are the last sheltering item. They can be very diverse and overwhelming, especially with beginner ones priced at $200! Here’s a quality one that’s far cheaper. I like it because it is geared towards colder weather and can cinch around your head if needed. The “stuff bag” (the bag you pack it in) can be a bit finicky, so here’s my suggestion: don’t use it! Just wrap up the bag as tightly as possible and jam it down to the bottom of your pack. Easier to pack up, and easier to set up too — win win! If you want, you can buy a luggage strap to cinch it if you want.
Pro-tips for sleeping bags: First, always dress lightly before getting into your sleeping bag, even in cold weather. Sweat and moisture significantly lower your body temperature, and when it’s stuck in a sleeping bag it constantly affects your body all night. Second, if it’s cold outside, move your body around a bit (without sweating!) before getting in your bag. This will make your body warm before it gets in the bag, meaning you’ll conserve more warmth inside. Lastly, never breath into your bag because . . . You guessed it, that also gets moisture inside! Moisture is bad. Lesson learned.
One more brief but important item; I promise. If you are hiking in the cold season, you should pack extra insulation for your tent. Since most cold seeps in from the frozen ground, even with good bags and pads you can still get cold. It is possible to get light, packable insulation as added security. I once slept overnight on 25 degree F ground and had ice cube feet keeping me up all night. Not fun.
First is a “tent footprint.” This is a custom tarp that goes between your tent floor and the ground. It isn’t thick, but keeps moisture from getting everywhere. The second is a portable foam pad with a reflective surface. You know those silver things people put in their windshields during the summer? This pad takes whatever heat you do produce during the night and reflects it back into your face. I did the math, and if you wrap it around the Lynx tent and strap it to the outside of your bag it will only add 2 extra inches to the overall bulk. Right on! Between moisture control and heat reflection and best practices, these should help keep you warmer overnight.
If you end up going on epic trips in the future, you’ll want top-notch gear like a GPS for the same reason you need first-aid — for safety. For now though, I have some good news. Your smartphone should work great for two reasons. First is your maps app (just make sure you download any important info beforehand in case you don’t have data). Second is your camera. Believe it or not, for every trip I’ve done I’ve snapped a picture of the trail map at the trailhead and that worked great! Printing a paper copy beforehand isn’t a bad idea though.
But what if your phone dies? That would be bad! So you should invest in a portable battery bank. Yes, it’s another $30, but now you won’t get lost and can get help if needed. Safety is our first priority!
Headlamps are a great thing too. Safety, safety, safety my friends. I’ve gone on trips where I didn’t have a headlamp. I just used my phone flashlight or handheld lamps. They were okay, but it’s much easier and effective to have a light slapped on your head. With one less thing to worry about (like holding a silly light) you can focus on important things like starting your stove or going to the bathroom. They are well worth the investment.
Clothes are very important because they keep your body healthy during the majority of each trip. However, they can be another scary thing for beginners because of price tags.
My number one suggestion: after checking for good deals on Amazon, go to your nearest outlet store! There are discount online shops, but they still tend to mark down super expensive stuff which ends up being more expensive than gear for beginners.
For warm weather, you’re in luck. Just dress comfortable, don’t get sunburnt, and watch for bugs. I would still suggest long pants to protect you from ticks and keep you warm at night. Also bring a nice jacket and wear sleeved shirts (tank tops leave your shoulders open to chaffing against your backpack.)
For colder weather, things get a bit trickier. The most important thing is to dress in LAYERS. But not randomly. Here’s how it works:
1. Synthetic underwear and wool socks first
2. Base layer
3. Mid layers
4. Outer layer
You will want synthetic long johns underneath everything. Synthetic material like polyester, spandex, and merino wool is important: it keeps moisture away from your skin, and the underwear provides a base layer of warmth that will be there all trip long. Wool socks keep your feet warm and moisture out.
The base layer is a simple, no-nonsense synthetic jacket or shirt that also keeps moisture out. It is NOT thick and insulated because that’s what the next layers are for. If we have too much stuff too soon we’ll sweat too much and won’t have a way to stop it.
We’re gonna skip the mid layers for a second and hop to the outer layer. The outer layer is typically poofy down, acting as the primary “insulation shield” against wind, weather, and cold. It is thicker and more robust, but still not the main source of warmth.
The mid layers are where the warmth comes in. Notice it’s plural, because this is where you go ham with your warm gear. Even then, each jacket you bring shouldn’t be thick. The warmth comes as a result of two or more mid layers sandwiched between your outer-shield and inner moisture resistance.
You should invest in a good underwear choice, base layer, and outer layer. The mid layers need to be nice, but can be whatever stuff you have lying around. They should be easily packable, or at least sandwich-able into the brain-flap of your backpack.
One more important detail: NEVER WEAR COTTON!! Cotton, like moisture, is death! Why? You guessed it — cotton absorbs and retains sweat and moisture, turning you into one giant mess of wet death 😛
Because hiking clothes and layering are a pretty in-depth topic, I’m not posting many links on this page. I have them all in my page dedicated to backpacking clothes. Check that out for specific suggestions!
Lastly, we have boots. This might be a bit controversial to say, but I’ll say it anyway: you WILL need boots eventually and NEED TO INVEST IN QUALITY ONES. However, if your first trail is short, flat, simple, and not demanding, you can probably get away with nice tennis shoes. Remember, we are trying to spend as little money as possible while we test out if we like backpacking. As long as you are smart about what trail you pick, you might be fine on your very first trip. I’ve hiked in Yellowstone, the Tetons, the Badlands, the Rockies, and Black Hills in my normal tennis shoes. Just be smart, and make safety your priority.
However, if you do decide to buy boots now, you can’t go wrong with KEEN boots. These boots are mid-tops, meaning they go higher than your ankles but don’t go to your knees like kids’ rubber rain boots. They are designed like shoes, so they feel more like comfortable shoes than bulky boots. They can be used in all weather. I spent a month looking for these models everywhere, and actually found them at their cheapest on Amazon.
Important tip: Boots are made differently from normal shoes. Buy a pair that’s HALF A SIZE SMALLER than you usually wear. They will actually fit better, and with thicker socks they’ll fit quite snuggly!
Just make sure they are dry before you start your trip. You don’t wanna hike through cold weather with wet, miserable, sweating feet. Been there done that 😛
Junk to bring that you didn’t know you already had
There are always those random things you don’t think about until you’re walking out the door. Here are some things to grab from your house.
Several zip-loc bags: for food and storage
A trash bag or plastic bag: for trash. NEVER leave trash behind. We call this the “leave no trace” policy.
A rag or two for cleaning stuff.
Extra plastic bottles if you want them for water storage
Dish soap: not a big deal, but it’s always nice not having to pack food-crusted dishes in your bag
Knife: a pocketknife is best
Lighter: if your stove needs one
Junk to buy before you leave
I never liked having to do “one more chore” before fun, but that’s just life right? Before I drive off for my trips, here are the things I buy at the store.
Propane tank: always very cheap, and I get the smaller ones for short trips
Dry foods for supper
Clif bars and snacks for lunch
Toe warmers and/or boot warmers: good for sleeping in cold weather. Cold feet all night are miserable!! Here are a few things to remember though. NEVER put them right against your skin, cuz they can get hotter than 150 degrees F! I put a thin wool sock on my foot, then put the warmer on after that, then put a sock or two on after that. With the warmer sandwiched in between the socks, that’ll keep your foot from being burned and keep your sleeping bag from getting burned too. Be smart of course. This is a common practice among winter campers, just be careful.