An opportunity to hit the trail and explore the world is a blessing, and you want to get the most out of it. Whether you're spending a few nights on a local hiking trail or backpacking across Europe, planning is everything.
All great backpacking trips start with smart packing, and this handy guide shows you how to prepare for an outdoor adventure — whether it's for a week, month, six months or a year.
Packing for a One-Week Trip
A one-week backpacking trip is a great way to introduce yourself to the thrills of long-distance hiking. Packing is a challenge, but the great thing about a one-week trip is that the stakes aren't too high. If you overpack, at least you only have to carry that weight around for a week — and the lessons you learn on a shorter trip make it much easier to pack for a longer trip.
Choosing Your Pack
Your backpack is your trusted companion on any long hiking trip, so choose wisely. For any trip lasting a week or longer, choose a pack with a capacity of at least 4,500 cubic inches, or 75 liters, according to BackCountry.com. Sometimes called extended trip packs or expedition packs, a good one typically costs between $200 and $400. Buy your pack in person rather than online so you can choose one that has a comfortable fit and the storage features you want.
Some backpackers obsess over the weight of their packs, and there are numerous opinions on the ideal pack weight. But as a general rule, for trips lasting a week or longer, it's a good idea to keep your pack weight at 30 pounds or less, including water. If you have a hard time getting your pack that light, take a harder look at what you're bringing, and eliminate anything that isn't absolutely essential.
Every trip is different, but in a lot of ways, your needs are the same no matter where you're going and how long you'll be gone. There are some major exceptions, but for the most part, one-week backpacking trips require much the same gear and supplies as six-month trips. Here's a basic look at the essentials:
- Shelter: A tent is an essential item for most backpackers, although some rely on a tarp or hammock system instead. You can get a one-person backpacking tent for under $200.
- Sleep system: A warm, lightweight sleeping bag can cost anywhere from $100 to over $500, but it's worth it on cold nights in the woods. Camping pillows and sleeping pads are optional. If you can sleep comfortably without them, leave them behind.
- Footwear: Your shoes should be durable, comfortable and lightweight. But above all, they need to fit right. You can get a good pair of hiking shoes for under $150.
- Clothing: Some hikers pack only the clothes they are wearing, but that's pushing it. Consider packing an additional shirt, pair of pants and pair of socks in case you get wet, as well as a lightweight waterproof jacket and an insulating layer to ward off the cold.
- Food: For a one-week trip — assuming you won't be cooking — bring nutritious and calorie-packed things like granola bars, cereals, dried fruit, nuts, trail mixes and jerky. About 1.5 pounds of food per day is a good general rule, depending on your weight and exertion level.
- Water: Expect to drink 3 quarts of water per day, and always carry at least 1 quart with you at all times in case water gets scarce. That means packing one or two water bottles, along with some method for treating your water, like purification tablets or a filtration system.
- Navigation: GPS and mapping apps on your phone are nice, but don't rely on them alone. Bring a compass and a detailed physical trail map or guidebook.
- Toiletries: Bring a toothbrush, small roll of toilet paper, some toothpaste and biodegradable soap in small travel-sized containers. Include anything else you consider essential based on your needs — just remember not to overpack.
- Emergency supplies: At a minimum, bring a lighter, waterproof matches, a basic first aid kit, flashlight or headlamp, extra batteries, a knife or multi-tool, whistle, signal mirror and a tiny roll of duct tape for emergency repairs.
- Storage: Choose a selection of dry bags in various sizes to keep your clothes, food and supplies dry and organized within your backpack. If you're hiking in an area where bears have been seen, bring a waterproof bear bag and a 50-foot cord to hang it from a tree overnight.
If that seems like a lot to you, don't panic. There are plenty of things you can do to cut back on the weight you're carrying, including streamlining the amount of food, water and clothing you have to carry.
Packing for a One-Month Trip
To a certain extent, the gear you packed for a one-week trip will also get you through a one-month trip, but with a few changes. The biggest difference is that a longer time on the trail means planning meals more carefully.
To Cook or Not to Cook
You can get through a weeklong backpacking trip without cooking, but a month is pushing it. At some point, you might need a cup of coffee in the morning or a hot meal to help you keep your sanity. That means bringing a whole new set of food options — and the tools to prepare them.
Backpackers commonly save money on food costs by packing inexpensive items like oatmeal, ramen noodles, instant mashed potatoes and prepackaged pasta and rice dishes. Freeze-dried options include meals like Thai curry or lasagna with meat sauce, and can be had simply by adding boiling water. These meals can get pricey — about $8 to $10 apiece — so you might want to limit yourself to one per day.
Cooking tools are some of the biggest additions you'll need to make to your assortment of camping supplies. A small backpacking stove like the Jetboil or PocketRocket typically costs less than $50, and you can get fuel canisters for around $5 to $10. You can also get a complete backpacking cookset, including the stove, a lightweight pot, utensils and serving dishes, for about $100.
Packing Your Food
Here's the real problem with longer backpacking trips — there's no way to fit all the food you need for a monthlong hike into your backpack. Instead, you need to resupply as you go, which requires careful planning. Luckily, major hiking trails occasionally pass through or near populated areas where you can resupply, allowing you to carry about a week's worth of food, and plan to buy more as you go.
This is a common strategy for backpackers on the Pacific Crest Trail, where many stores are close enough to the main trail that you can hike or hitchhike to them when it comes time to resupply. Another option is to mail supplies to the trail ahead of yourself.
Packing for a Six-Month Trip
Six months is a long time. When you're on the road or trail for that long, you rely even more heavily on your tent and sleeping system, and you'll have to make some hard choices with the clothing you pack. The ability to resupply also becomes more important on a trip of this length, which means in many cases your initial packing won't be much different than it would be if you were only going on a one-month hike.
The Clothing Problem
A lot can change in six months. To use the Appalachian Trail as an example — this 2,190-mile trail typically takes about six months to complete — a thru-hike exposes you to all kinds of weather conditions, which require all kinds of clothing. A warm insulating layer is essential when you start the trail in Georgia in April, but you'll want to ditch those warm clothes when you reach the mid-Atlantic states at the height of summer.
By the time you get to Maine in October, it's jacket season again. This presents a real problem, and long-distance hikers have devised an elegant solution.
Mailing to the Trail
Carrying all the clothes you need for a six-month backpacking trip is just about impossible, so consider mailing supplies to yourself in advance. Most post offices in trail towns are accustomed to this, and hold packages for 30 days or more if you mail your package general delivery. Add a note like "hold for Appalachian Trail hiker" to be safe.
This gives you the opportunity to send yourself season-appropriate clothes, a fresh supply of food and any other gear or goodies you might need. When you pick up your package, you can also box up supplies you don't need anymore and send them home. Consider enlisting somebody back home to box up your supplies and send them out as you go, to arrive at each stop right before you do.
You will most likely need a photo ID to claim your package. And yes, shipping can be expensive, so you must decide if it's worth it. The less you have to mail, the better, at least from a financial standpoint. USPS offers an online shipping calculator to help you in your planning.
Staying Warm and Dry
Your tent and sleeping bag are crucial items for a backpacking trip of any length, but you truly come to appreciate them over the course of six months. When choosing a tent, look for one that is lightweight, durable and easy to setup. Small one-person tents are ideal for backpacking.
A sleeping bag with a 10- to 32-degree temperature rating is good for three-season hiking, which you'll need for a six-month trip, according to REI. Down sleeping bags are lightweight and provide good insulation, yet bags with synthetic lining are quicker to dry and provide better insulation in wet conditions, so it's a bit of a trade-off.
The costs start to mount as the length of your hike increases. For example, the Appalachian Trail Conservancy reported that it typically costs around $1,000 per month to hike the trail. And that's on top of the $1,200 to $2,000 for all that brand-new camping equipment.
Of course, this figure represents the average hiker who likes to splurge on a hotel room, a meal in a restaurant and other niceties from time to time. You can significantly cut travel costs by being frugal and packing wisely so that you don't have to buy too much new gear as you go.
Packing for a One-Year Trip
Being able to spend a whole year exploring the wide world is quite an accomplishment in and of itself. Packing for such a long trip is no easy task, however. This is especially true if you, like many people who take such an extended trip, are backpacking across Europe or another area outside the U.S.
If your backpacking trip is not on a traditional hiking trail, you can probably cross one major item off your gear list: the tent. Unless you plan to hop between campgrounds, or you want to have it in case of an emergency, a tent isn't necessary when you're spending a year backpacking across Europe, frequently staying in cities and towns. That frees up a lot of space in your bag, but it also means you'll need to seek out more costly accommodations.
The average backpacking trip in Europe cost $40 to $100 per day, according to Euro-Backpacker.com, so your best bet for budget accommodations is to stay in a hostel whenever possible. A night in a hostel could cost you as little as $13 in London, $21 in Amsterdam or $14 in Dublin, according to rates listed on Booking.com.
There are many secrets to getting the most out of your hostel stay. HostelWorld suggested bringing a few extra items:
- Sleep aides, like earplugs and an eye mask
- Extra toiletries, including soap and shampoo in travel-sized containers, deodorant, hand sanitizer and a hand towel
- Flip-flops or sandals
- A small garbage bag to separate your dirty laundry
- A lock to keep your gear safe after-hours
- A slip sheet and travel pillow — sleeping bags are often not allowed in hostels.
Traveling With Technology
If you're backpacking for a year, it's tough to forgo the technology that often gets left behind on a hiking trip. Your phone, laptop, tablet — you'll probably want to take them all with you. And of course, you have to keep them charged.
In addition to your usual assortment of chargers, bring an outlet plug adapter so that you can adapt to the different types of outlets. Also, bring a power strip with USB ports to help you get the most out of the few and frequently in-demand wall outlets at hostels.
Including a Day Pack
Having a day pack in addition to your regular hiking pack is a great feature on a long trip, allowing you to pack just what you need for a day of exploring while you leave your larger pack locked up safe in your room. Backpacks with a removable day pack are a particularly handy option, saving you a lot of packing and unpacking, and can cost less than $300.