Packing Guide
Megan Elizabeth (Senior Wilderness Expert)
Mar 7, 2019
What to Pack for an Outdoor Adventure

If those Instagram photos have you feeling some serious wilderness wanderlust and you’re craving some time in the wild, you’ve come to the right place. Maybe you used to camp when you were little, or perhaps you’ve never actually spent quality time with the great outdoors. Either way, this article will dive into the basics of hiking and backpacking gear and discuss what is known as the Ten Essentials, putting the details in easy-to-understand terms so you'll be properly outfitted and prepared for your next adventure. You'll soon discover that the wild is way more important than just capturing the perfect photograph. 

What's the difference between hiking and backpacking? 

The simple answer is that hiking is like taking a walk in the woods for a few hours. Backpacking is like taking a walk in the woods for a duration of more than one day without using a car or bike to store your gear or sleep. Backpacking is always hiking, but hiking isn't always backpacking. Make sense?

The good news is that the gear is interchangeable between the two activities, so you don't need to worry about getting hiking gear and backpacking gear. Below are examples of what to bring hiking and what to bring backpacking. Notice how many of the items overlap? The purpose of explaining the difference between the two activities is so you are aptly prepared for each one. You don't want to be unprepared and stuck in the middle of nowhere without cell service and without the proper gear. 

What to Bring Hiking: 

  • Backpack
  • Weather-appropriate clothing (moisture-wicking, warm layers, no cotton)
  • Hiking boots
  • Food and water
  • First-aid kit
  • Knife
  • Ten Essentials, as necessary for your trip

What to Bring Backpacking:

  • Backpack
  • Weather-appropriate clothing (moisture-wicking, warm layers, no cotton)
  • Hiking boots
  • Food and water
  • First-aid kit
  • Knife
  • Tent
  • Sleeping bag and pad
  • Ten Essentials, as necessary for your trip

Why Ten Essentials? 

This list of exploration gear was developed sometime in the 1930’s by a Seattle-based group of outdoor enthusiasts called The Mountaineers. The goal was to promote backcountry safety with a standard list of gear that could allow a person to safely spend an unexpected one night or more outside and give that person the ability to respond appropriately to an accident or emergency on the trail. At its core, the list has remained the same over the years, with varying degrees of changes thanks to advances in technology.

The Ten Essentials is a completely comprehensive list of everything you would need to be self-sufficient in the wilderness and can be modified according to how remote your hiking location, the longevity of your trip, exposure on the trail, and trail difficulty. For example, a simple hike that is two miles from civilization may not require a GPS device or fire-starter. But an overnight hike of 20+ miles would absolutely require those items.

Use your best judgment. As with all things non-rev, you have to pack for the worst case scenario so you are prepared for any situation. Packing for the outdoors takes that exact same mentality and foresight.


What are the Ten Essentials? 

  1. Navigation. You need to know where you’re going one way or another. Most beginners will stick to clearly marked trails in well-trafficked areas, but there are millions of miles of trail with little to no markers. Always be prepared and know which direction you’re heading. Pro tip: read other hiker’s reviews of the trails you intend to hike. Their trip tips can provide helpful insight to a trail’s condition and the possibility of poorly or mis-marked directions. I recommend doing all of your research before ever leaving your home so you know exactly where to find the trailhead and exactly where the trail will lead you. Navigation supplies can include: map, compass, GPS, personal locator beacon (PLB), or altimeter watch.  
  2. Illumination. The details of your itinerary can help you in selecting a light source for your travels. Flashlights are great, but they hinder your ability to use both of your hands while walking in the dark. A headlamp is like a hands-free flashlight that is stylishly strapped to elastic that you place around your head. If you regularly spend time outdoors, a headlamp is highly recommended. Solar-powered camp lights are also available at outdoor retailers. Pro tip: bring extra batteries! A headlamp without actual light is just a heavy, expensive headband. Illumination supplies can include: solar-powered light, flashlight, or headlamp with at least two sets of backup batteries.  
  3. Sun protection. Whether the sky is clear and sunny or grey and gloomy, you’re being exposed to UV rays that can be harmful to your skin. Always check weather reports for the area you’ll be exploring, but never forget that weather patterns in the mountains change frequently and with little notice. Sun protection can include: sunglasses, hat, and/or sunscreen.  
  4. First aid. Listen, no one wants to have an “Oopsy” while taking a selfie on the ledge of a mountain, but that doesn’t mean accidents don’t happen. Safety always comes first in aviation, and it should always come first when playing outside. First aid supplies can include: a full kit that is purchased at the store, or a decent amount of sterile gloves, bandages, gauze, adhesive tape, and disinfecting ointment. Don’t forget about foot care items (like blister band aids) and insect repellant.  
  5. Knife. I’m not referring to a steak knife, folks. Think more along the lines of a pocket knife or something Crocodile Dundee would carry. A knife serves multiple purposes outside, as it can be used to repair gear, prepare food, administer first aid, or make kindling. For obvious reasons, you can’t fly with a knife. Hello. You can always purchase one upon landing by checking local outdoor retailers if you plan on spending one or more nights on the trail. For the simplicity of single-day hikes on marked routes, a knife isn’t necessarily essential.  
  6. Fire starter. Again, not an item that is easy to fly with, but this is an item that is necessary if you’ll be exposed to the elements for one full day or more, especially if your itinerary includes an overnight camp trip. Will rubbing two sticks together or hitting rocks together until they spark a flame work? Eventually. But you’d probably freeze to death before you came close to starting a real fire. You can fly with disposable lighters in your carry-on bag, but I recommend purchasing strike-anywhere matches if you intend to camp overnight for any length of time. They are affordable and will literally strike anywhere. You can also purchase matches that are water and windproof at outdoor gear shops if you’re worried about element exposure while you’re adventuring. Fire starter can include: a lighter, matches, strike-anywhere matches, windproof matches, waterproof matches, tinder, and/or a stove.  
  7. Shelter. This is a good recommendation for lengthy day-hikes and definitely a necessity for overnight hikes. Wind and rain are common elements that you’ll be exposed to with very little notice when you’re exploring mountainous terrain. Hiding in a cave is certainly a good backup plan, but it’s best to just come prepared. You don’t want to be miles from the trailhead and too fatigued to move without the supplies to make a camp. A shelter can be as simplistic as a large tarp and paracord or as complex as bringing a whole tent. This essential also includes having an emergency space blanket if conditions get chilly.  
  8. Food. The general rule of thumb here is to bring one extra full day of food in addition to your standard food supplies. Proper nourishment is essential to being physically capable of completing your hike in addition to being able to think clearly. Plus, no one likes a hangry hiker. Think high-protein foods to keep you full longer. Beef jerky, nuts, and dried fruit are staple go-to's for wanderers.   
  9. Water. This one should be a no-brainer, but water made it on the list because enough people forgot to pack enough water. Rule of thumb for water is one liter per hour of hiking, or one liter per every two miles depending on elevation gain. Depending on the length and duration of your trip, you may want to invest in a water filtration system so you can drink from the natural water supplies in the wilderness without fear of drinking its natural contaminants.  
  10. Clothes. Always pack one extra day’s worth of clothes. Unpredictable weather can strike at anytime. When packing clothing for the trail, consider moisture-wicking garments, lightweight layers, a waterproof jacket, and a warm jacket for the ever-changing weather at altitude, in addition to fresh socks and underwear.

How do I know what I'll really need?

You never want to take an excursion outdoors without doing your homework first. Follow these simple steps to create an itinerary and packing list that is just right for you and your adventure buddies.

  • How far is the hike and how long will it take me to complete? How is my overall physical health? If you've never taken a hike before, you should try to stick to hikes that are five miles or less on a well-trafficked trail until you get comfortable being exposed to the elements and knowing how altitude affects your body. Also keep in my mind what time of day you would like to start your adventure. If you're in average or better physical shape and you've wandered beyond pavement before, you can start testing your limits by gradually adding longer, less-trafficked trails to your list.   
  • What are the trail conditions and what are the directions once I hit the trail? You need to know how to reach the trailhead and where the trail will go once you're beyond the parking lot. Trail systems usually have one starting point, with multiple trails branching off as you continue down the main path. Think of them like the interstate system: one main road with multiple exits. For hiking in National Parks, check out the free Chimani app for Android and iOS, with trail maps that are accessible even if your network isn't. Make handwritten notes about what landmarks and trail markers you'll see on the way that you can keep in your pack, just in case you get lost, don't have cell signal, or your phone's battery dies. You can also check All Trails for up-to-date trail conditions from real people who have recently completed the hike.   
  • What is the predicted weather forecast? Weather in the mountains can change within minutes, but the forecast is a good indicator of what you may expect. While it may seem cumbersome to pack the weight of extra layers that you may not need, you should always consider worst case scenario when preparing for the weather. Check the hourly forecasts, check the temperates and chances of precipitation, and prepare by expecting the weather to take a turn for the worst. Temperatures can drop or rise instantly and thunderstorms can roll in without any notice. If you do find yourself caught in a thunderstorm, get below treeline as quickly as you can. 

Additional resources: 

Spending time outside in remote places is like free medicine for the soul, but it can be daunting and overwhelming if you've never attempted an adventure like this before. Below are some additional reading resources to help you prepare for your trip from our friends at REI Co-Op:

REI Hiking for Beginners

REI Backpacking Gear List

REI Day Hiking Gear List

REI Expert Advice - Hiking Articles

If you have additional questions or would like to share your own outdoor adventure tips, be sure to leave a comment below to get the discussion started! 

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