20 Backpacking Gear Essentials for Beginners

Backpacking gear for beginners

If you’re interested in getting started with backpacking, this list of beginner backpacking gear is for you! Backpacking, hiking and camping have become a lifeline for me since COVID-19 basically ground international travel to a halt. Instead of traveling to South America or Europe for the weekend—or even jetting to a US city—I’m exploring new trails, mountain summits and alpine lakes.

Getting started with backpacking, I definitely made a few gear mistakes that ended up costing me (this stuff ain’t cheap!). So, I thought I’d put together a list of beginner backpacking gear to save you from doing the same.

NOTE: This post contains affiliate links, meaning I earn a small commission if you purchase my recommended beginner backpacking gear. Regardless, these items have all been purchased, used and recommended by me.

1. Hiking Boots

Let’s start with the basics: while many people might say your backpack is your most important piece of gear, I believe your boots are the real item that will make or break your trip. If you end up rolling your ankle due to a lack of support or get some horrifying blisters, that’s not exactly a good time.

Which boot is right for you is a super personal choice dependent on your feet and preferences, but I am a huge fan of the Oboz Sapphire Mid B-Dry Waterproof Hiking Boot. The boots aren’t too heavy, but offer great support (including ankle support) and are waterproof – clutch for creek crossing or hiking on a muddy day.

2. Backpack

backpacking, backpack, backpacking gear

Your backpack is another deeply personal choice. I can’t recommend enough going to your local REI to get properly fitted. For your first trip, the most important thing to consider is the size. I suggest you pack as light as possible since you are probably not in great backpacking shape quite yet. If it’s summer, and you’re only going for one night, a 45L pack should suffice. But if you’re planning on bringing multiple days’ worth of food and clothing, or it’s winter and you need to pack more warm gear, you can go up to 75L.

I personally own the Ascend Bellcanyon 45L Backpack which works well for a one-night trip, and the slightly heavier Osprey Aura 50L Backpack for two-night trips. The Ascend is a great option for a beginner because of its accessible price point ($119). But you can also always borrow or rent a bag for your first trip. After all, you don’t want to waste hundreds on backpacking gear you’ll use once!

3. Sleeping Bag

I’m not messing around when I say a good sleeping bag is worth the investment. Temperature ratings and weight are the most important factors. I highly suggest choosing a bag on the warmer side, especially if you will be camping at an elevation above 8,000 ft – even in the summer. You can always unzip if you get warm but waking up with numb toes is no fun! My go-to after trying four sleeping bags is the Kielty Cosmic Down 20 Degree Down Sleeping Bag which is ultra-lightweight, easily stuffs into a stuff sack and has a hood that cinches around my head for extra warmth.

4. Sleeping Pad

A sleeping pad is a must for comfort, but it also keeps you warm by preventing your body warmth from transferring to the cold ground while you sleep. And while there are plenty of luxury versions out there on the market for car camping, when you’re backpacking, you want to go with an inflatable that can easily be stashed in your pack. Many sleeping pads have an “R-Value” ranging from 1-7, with higher ratings offering more warmth. A “3” rated pad like the Sea to Summit Ultralight Insulated pad is a good pick for backpacking in spring, summer and fall. If you’re looking for something more wallet-friendly, I use the Ascend Ultralight Air Pad – it’s a PIA to blow up, but it’s super comfy!

5. Inflatable Pillow

Some people consider a pillow a luxury piece of backpacking gear. But it’s seriously so tiny and small, it’s like, why suffer to save that tiny speck of weight? I love my Sea to Summit Aeros Premium pillow, but there are plenty of less costly options that will do just fine.

6. Tent

The three things to think about when picking a backpacking tent are: weight, ease of assembly, and size (in terms of number of people it sleeps). The Ascend Orion 2-Person Backpacking Tent is what I have. It’s pretty affordable, easy to assemble and it works great for me and my boyfriend. There are certainly lighter options out there (e.g., this one is only 2.8 lbs) that I might consider upgrading to if I were to start backpacking alone, but for now, splitting up the weight (I carry our food and stove, he carries the 5 lb tent) isn’t bad.

7. Moisture-Wicking Clothing

One of the mistakes I made on my first backpacking trip was bringing a change of clothes for the next day. This was totally unnecessary in terms of weight in my pack. After all, you’re backpacking so hopefully no one is judging you for being slightly dirty on day two!

I recommend bringing only a change of clothes for sleeping and an extra pair of underwear for a one-night trip, and perhaps an 2nd pair of pants for a two-night trip. I swear by my Prana hiking pants, which are lightweight, moisture-wicking and have pockets for keeping my phone accessible for taking photos on the go. But honestly, workout leggings are totally fine, too! For a top, I wear the REI Co-op Midweight Base Layer and usually have a tank on underneath in case I get warm. Just avoid cotton for backpacking clothes. If you sweat or it rains, it doesn’t dry quickly meaning you risk getting too cold.

8. First Aid Kit & Band-Aids

I like to have a first aid kit with me wherever I go, whether it’s for a short hike or in the trunk of a car. You never know when you—or someone you come across—will get hurt. The Adventure Medical Kits Ultralight option is great for backpacking because it’s tiny! I usually slot in a few extra bandages for my heels in case of blisters, too.

9. Portable Camping Stove + Fuel + Utensils

Before I started backpacking, I always thought I could just pack some granola bars and be fine. But there’s nothing like a hot meal after an exhausting day of hiking and setting up camp. Especially when it’s cold! The Jetboil MiniMo Stove weighs just over 1 lb and boils water in about two minutes—perfect for heating up dehydrated meals while backpacking. This stove also lets you simmer and has a pot support, which I like to use while I’m car camping to make scrambled eggs. Oh, and don’t forget the fuel and utensils!

10. Backpacking Food & Snacks

If dehydrated food sounds gross, it’s surprisingly… not. I sometimes actually crave the Mountain House Pad Thai that’s sitting in my pantry when I’m at home. These meals are expensive ($10 each) and pretty high in sodium. But they are easy to pack, offer a very decent number of calories, taste good and leave you with minimal clean up. I usually bring two meals per day (breakfast + dinner) and protein bars, almonds, peanut butter and dried fruit for trail snacks. You can also split meals between two people and bring tortillas to wrap them in for extra calories. Pro tip: bring a piece of tin foil and warm your tortillas up by the fire!

Favorite backpacking meals besides paid thai? Creamy Mac & Cheese, Breakfast Skillet, Spicy Southwest Style Skillet, Yellow Curry, Rice & Chicken.

11. Headlamp

While there’s really no need for anything fancy here, a headlamp with multiple settings will serve you well. For example, the red light setting is good for sitting around other people without blinding them. I have the PETZL Tikka Outdoor Headlamp which offers three lighting levels, a red light mode and 120 hours of battery life.  

12. Wool Socks

Repeat after me: no cotton socks! I’m a big fan of merino wool, and always bring at least two pairs of Darn Tough socks with me on every trip. I resisted investing in these raved-about socks for a long time because it’s hard to imagine one pair of socks can be worth $20+. But after finally biting the bullet, I can vouch that they are worth it. I never get blisters anymore, and the socks are guaranteed for life. If they develop holes, Darn Tough replaces them with no strings attached!

13. Water Filter & Water Bottle(s)

Hopefully this is an obvious one since you need to stay hydrated! I like to bring collapsible water bottles that take up less space the more I drink, and the Katadyn BeFree filter because I can hang it from a tree for easy access. If you’re going to need to refill your water in the wild, a filter is a must so you don’t get sick.

14. Bear-Proof Food Storage

If you’re camping in bear country, this is another safety must. Improper food storage puts not only you, but wildlife at risk. When you condition wildlife to associate humans with food, you increase the likelihood of an attack which always ends with the animal being euthanized. A bear bag or canister (some areas require a canister) will keep your food safe. Make sure to store it at least 100 ft from your tent. And put anything scented (including toiletries, garbage and used utensils) in there.

15. Trowel, TP & Trash Bag

OK, time to get gross… but if you need to poop in the woods, you have to bury it. Even if you don’t think you’ll have to go, better safe than sorry. Pack some toilet paper and/or wipes, a trash bag, and a lightweight trowel for digging the hole. And yes, you must pack out your trash. So bring something sealable that won’t stink up your pack.

16. Hand & Foot Warmers

I always have a couple of toe warmers in my pack in case it’s colder than expected. They are also great if you are backpacking during a fire ban and need to stay warm outside your sleeping bag at night. Just don’t apply them directly to your skin (stick them to the outside of your socks) for safety reasons.  

17. Warm Hat & Gloves

If you’re camping at high elevations, it can get really cold even in the middle of August. So I always have a hat and gloves. I usually sleep in my hat!

18. Backpacking Chair

Many hardcore, ultralight backpackers will tell you that a chair is unnecessary, but I strongly disagree. After hiking for many miles and setting up camp, the last thing you’re going to enjoy is sitting on the ground or a cold hard rock. You can find affordable, light backpacking chairs that weigh just 2 lbs on Amazon.

19. Hiking Poles

Backpacking gear, beginners backpacking

I love to bring hiking poles when I’m backpacking. They help more evenly distribute your weight between your arms and legs, especially when going up or down a steep hill. I have a minor knee injury that acts up when I’m carrying a heavy pack, making these even more critical.

20. A Flask and/or Good Book

So, you made it to camp, cooked dinner. Now what? In reality, backpacking can be pretty boring at night. It’s not like car camping where you can cook an elaborate meal over a fire that lasts for hours and hours, and bring a bottle of wine. I usually bring a flask to share after dinner for some “liquid warmth,” a playlist downloaded on my phone, or a good book to cozy up and read in the tent. The magic of backpacking is being able to reach remote locations that can’t be accessed by car. So one option is to simply go to bed so you can wake up and enjoy the sunrise!

2 Comments on "20 Backpacking Gear Essentials for Beginners"

  1. Peter Charles | October 9, 2021 at 1:14 pm |

    So many campers in recent news stories wished they’d brought a lot of these things along with them. Great advice!

  2. A very comprehensive post for backpack beginners guide. I’m a big fan now. But when I look at those pictures in the wood, I wonder about safety from bears, etc. You did not talk much about safety from wild animals. Do you carry a weapon with you? if you come across one, what do you do? Have you encountered any wild animals before? Will love to hear about it.
    Thanks for the guide.
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