The rewards of heading out for a backpacking trip are huge: the satisfaction of covering some serious mileage on your own two feet, for instance, or setting up a tent in the middle of nowhere with a private beach all to yourself. But these rewards can be seriously quashed if your backpack is too heavy, over-packed with unnecessary items, or, worse, missing vital items that you’ll need on the trail.
Before you head out on your next excursion, plan ahead with this budget to pack the perfect camping backpack.
A good backpack will set the foundation for everything else, so this is definitely an item you want to invest in.
First, the pack’s capacity, which is measured in liters, will determine how much stuff you can fit inside. Bigger is not necessarily better—the more room you have, the more stuff you’ll cram in, and the heavier your pack will be. Choose the size based on the length of your trip: 30 to 50 liters is generally good for a weekend trip; 50 to 70 liters will see you through an extended trip; and anything larger is suited toward mega treks.
The pack’s fit is another important detail. Go to a physical store to try on different brands and styles. Have a salesperson help you adjust the pack—most come with several different straps that help fit the backpack to your body. Even with these adjustments, some packs will simply be too big, too small, too narrow, too tall, etc.—there’s no sense in wasting money on a bag that just isn’t right for you.
Finally, check out the bag’s features. Some come with a rain fly (though you can often buy these separately), and they all have different pocket and compartment setups that can help you organize your gear and pack it perfectly.
The tent will probably be the most awkward item to fit into your bag. Tents tend to be large and bulky, so for your backpacking trips, you want to look for one that is light and packs down small. The tent is most often the first thing you pack into your backpack, and everything else gets packed around it.
Think no frills for backpacking trips: Choose the smallest tent size possible and just say no to fancy extras. Look for backpacker-specific tents, which are constructed to be light and easy to pack up.
You’ll notice that the lighter the tent, the higher the price; you’ll need to decide for yourself how much saving a few ounces in weight is worth. Remember, if you’re sharing your tent with others, only one person will actually need to carry the tent in their backpack. Those without the tent can compensate by carrying extra items, like food.
Sleeping bag and mat
Your sleeping bag and sleeping mat will be two other large, bulky items that you’ll need to fit in your pack. As with the tent, you’re looking for items that are light and pack down easily. Unlike the tent, each person will be carrying their own bag and mat, so make sure your pack can accommodate them.
As a general rule of thumb, the warmer the sleeping bag, the heavier it is, so aim to choose the lowest temperature rating that you’re comfortable with. Down bags are lighter and easier to pack down than synthetic bags—they’re also more expensive, but they tend to last longer.
Self-inflating sleeping pads are comfy, but bulky. If you’re using one, expect to have to strap it to the outside of your bag—look for a backpack with straps that allows you to do so, or risk having it bash against your legs with every step you take. Whatever you do, don’t take along a huge air mattress—these are for car camping, not backcountry camping!
Though not necessarily heavy, cookware can be a total pain to pack because it’s so awkwardly sized. The key is to look for pieces that fit nicely into one another, and to leave some pieces of the kit behind; trust us, you won’t need it all. One medium to large pot (depending on how many people are on your trip) and one frying pan should be plenty, and look for plates with high enough sides to double as bowls. Cups or mugs are annoying, so try to find some that are stackable, or else fit something inside of them (socks, bathing suit) to avoid wasting space in your pack.
One item worth taking along: a tiny camp stove. Look for a lightweight, compact camping stove to keep you happy and fed on nights where you can’t rely on a campfire to cook your food.
Compression stuff sacks
Compression sacks (also called stuff sacks, ditty sacks, etc.) will help you manage your packing in two ways: One, they keep things organized (no need to unpack everything to locate a fresh pair of underwear), and two, they squeeze things down as small as possible, maximizing precious pack real estate.
Pick up compression sacks in a variety of sizes. You can use them to stuff clothes (don’t forget a bag for dirty clothes), electronic gear (spare batteries for your camera, for instance), and random supplies that tend to get lost if not organized properly (rope, matches, that sort of thing).
One last hack to help you manage space within your backpack: Skip the water bottle and opt for a hydration reservoir (also called a bladder or a dromedary). Reservoirs can fit a lot of water, but best of all: They shrink down as you drink, whereas a bottle will stay big and bulky even if it’s empty. Reservoirs are awesome because you can sip easily from a hose; you don’t have to stop, take out a bottle, and unscrew the cap for a swig of water on the go. Look for a backpack that specifically has a hydration reservoir holder with a hole for the hose and, ideally, a clip for the hose on the backpack strap.
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