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Backpacking - Essentials while carrying light

Hey all!

I've recently finally got started on some real backpacking trips.

I am looking for tips on how to pack light when you have a multiday trip. Food? Layers for when it gets pretty cold at night? I have quite a bit of gear, including but not limited to; rain fly, hammock, ground cloth, inflatable sleeping pad, compactable cooking utensils/cookware, trekking poles, compactable down jacket, pack rain cover, poncho, hatchet, multipurpose knife, mylar blankets, water filter, knee braces,etc . I've done hours among hours of research for quality items that are also lightweight.

I went on my first backpacking trip this past weekend, leaving quite a few items behind, and my pack was unbelievably heavy. I didn't have room for a sleeping bag and I only brought essentials. I brought dehydrated foods and light snacks. I was miserable with how heavy my pack was. I do need to invest in a better bag that distributes weight more evenly (I got a free bag in a points exchange program through a previous employer, which I only recently discovered to be of terrible quality), but even then, it still is quite heavy.

I would really appreciate any tips you could give on gear that maybe combines several items into one, thermal gear to cut down on packing extra layers, and any other tips, hacks, or tricks you can think of that you do to keep your load light but still carry everything you need with you! I ended up having to leave my ground cloth, hatchet, and a camping blanket behind because it was too heavy and there wasn't enough room, even though I only had essentials and the bag was decently big.

Thanks a million in advance!!! 🙂 


20 Replies


I think one thing that should be a game changer is a good backpack that has support and attachments to your chest and waist. Also having the down jacket and a light rain cover is enough. Depending on the season you might not need the sleeping bag and I only bring a blanket when I'm not planning on hiking for days, it becomes unnecessary and is very heavy. I personally don't carry knee braces, ground cloth (i do bring an inflatable pad) poles and i have one thermal layer that i wear under all the time, if there's a river i just try to wash it a bit every night. Hope that helps at all

At night in the Rockies, even while it's 90 during the day, gets down to 50. In a hammock, that's quite cold. I'd have a down jacket on with a rain fly put up over my hammock, several layers on, two blankets and two mylar blankets (one below and one above). I still got quite cold. Not sure how people do it! My boyfriend had thermal under clothing, shirt and pants, and a sleeping bag for 50 degree weather, and he still got quite cold.

I would love to not bring any blankets or sleeping bags and just thermal clothing, but I have yet to find something that truly keeps me warm enough on windy, 50 degree or below nights in the Rockies, while it still being 90 during the day. A ground cloth for myself is important because if there aren't any trees around, I have to pitch my hammock into a tote of bivy and the hammock should never touch the ground. So unfortunately, that one has to stay with me. I think where I am lacking (besides getting a new backpack - it has front support and a flat back, but it was lower quality and broke!) Is thermal clothing. If I can get advice on great selections for cold nights, I can cut down the amount of clothing I bring, as well as not having to bring with blankets or sleeping bags. That would cut down on a ton of weight! What do you do for cold nights in a hammock? An underquilt would be a game changer, but if imagine they can get quite heavy and possibly take up quite a bit of room? The wind going beneath the hammock makes it even colder. 


I am not overly experienced with backpacking, but have done a variety of trips over the last several years and grew up doing lots of camping/other outdoor activities. One thing that might be helpful is to make a list of bare essentials--and bare essentials for normal living vs backpacking will be very different. You want light layers so you're comfortable as the weather shifts, and I would plan to re-wear the same clothes during your trip. I always keep my clothes in a stuff sack and then use that as my pillow. 

Quite fine advice. Along with multi-use pieces of equipment / clothes: synthetic, long underwear, layering with both 'fluffy' articles combined with water resistant layers cannot be over-stressed.


@ALTKey the best piece of advice I have ever read was asking yourself what is the absolute worst case scenario you could be in if you don't bring a piece of gear. If it isn't that bad, then don't bring it. We tend to pack our fears (I bring a very large medical kit), but if a situation isn't that bad then don't pack it. Ounces = pounds = pain. Beyond that, the question is how much do you want to spend for lighter gear?

@ALTKey this is a great post. I have a lot of backpacking experience, from various regions in the U.S. (Arizona, the Pacific Northwest, Colorado, the Midwest) and South America (particularly in Patagonia and the Andes), which have caused me to have to deal with a wide range of temperatures and climates.

I want to tell you that a lot of the items you bring will depend a lot on the particular season and climate of your trip, as well as your trip's length, and if you are traveling with anyone else. 

If you have a particular location/trip in mind, don't be afraid to reach out if you want more specific packing advice. However, I am going to try to give you some tips that I have learned/items that I bring that others have yet to mention.


First, I want to address the last two questions you posed to @BlueRidge.

1)For cold nights in a hammock, I actually put a lightweight insulated inflatable sleeping pad in the bottom of my hammock. It might seem a little odd, but it's actually helped A LOT. If sleeping in a hammock and it's cold, I'll also either sleep in a lightweight thermal sleeping bag (one that is meant for backpacking)(you can remove the sleeping pad if you use the thermal sleeping bag in the hammock), or I pack a compactable lightweight insulated/thermal blanket + beanie + warm clothes, sometimes even adding a tarp/rain fly of sorts over the top of the hammock to keep away moisture and to trap in your body heat.

2)For sleeping bags, make sure to look for one that's meant for backpacking, as this will be more lightweight than your typical sleeping bag (Unless I am staying somewhere colder than 20 degrees Fahrenheit, I use the REI Co-Op Joule 21 sleeping bag, which is also built for 3 seasons and does great in damp conditions. I believe the men's version of this bag is the REI Co-Op Igneo 17). Regardless of where I am camping, I always go for an inflatable insulated sleeping pad (Personally, I use the REI Co-op Flash 3-Season pad)... I also always bring an inflatable pillow with me (Sea to Summit has awesome ones, and they are available at REI) (I use their Aeros Ultralight pillow). All of these items are light, don't take up a lot of space, and are designed for various climates.

Unfortunately, due to the lighter weight and added durability of backpacking equipment, it tends to be more expensive than their heavier, bulkier counterparts. When buying backpacking gear I try to buy items that are meant for 3-4 seasons, so I don't have to spend extra money to buy special equipment for just a single season (the exception to this rule is when I am in alpine, sub-zero temperatures). However, this is a great way to use your REI dividend, or to wait for these items to go on sale!


Second, I tend to use a lightweight single-person insulated/thermal backpacking tent instead of a hammock, because then I don't have to rely on having trees at certain distances from each other in order to have a place to sleep. On cold nights these tents are great, too, because I can literally spend my entire evening/night inside the tent, keeping me warm (as my body heat remains inside the insulated tent) and unexposed to the elements. ALPS Mountaineering has some amazing tents to choose from. My go-to single-person tent that I use more than anything is their Lunx 1-Person tent. REI Co-Op also has the Half Dome tent series which I love to use.


Third, here are some items that I consider to be essentials no matter where I am backpacking:

-first aid kit that, besides the typical components such as pads and bandaids, includes a blister kit, an advanced wound care kit, alcohol wipes, emergency blanket, triangle bandage, antibacterial ointment, Ibuprofen, Tylenol, Aspirin, Benadryl, sugar gel, electrolyte tablets, athletic tape, trauma shears, disposable gloves, a couple of ziploc bags (to dispose of contaminated items such as gloves, if need be), and an ACE bandage (I might also recommend throwing in a mask if you backpack during the COVID-19 pandemic). NOLS has some great pre-made first-aid kits.

-toilet paper, duh, a large ziploc for your TP, and a female disposable period pad (even if you aren't female, this can be handy if you have an injury that requires an absorbent pad... it might seem kind of odd, but it's actually helped me in the past)

-plastic rain poncho - this is a great, tiny tool that helps if you get stuck in a downpour, but can also double as a first aid supply or plastic if you need to seal anything

-Medical History Information Card - Keep this card on your person (in a pocket, for example), at all times. This is important because if you have a medical problem and are unable to communicate with someone who finds you or who is already with you, this medical history card will provide a lot of useful information, especially once the First Responders or other medically trained individuals arrive. On this card I would typically include age, gender, known allergies, any current medications (even something as simple as Claritin or Ibuprofen) pertinent medical history (chronic illnesses, history of cardiovascular issues, diabetes, history of seizures, etc.), and if you have had any abnormal intakes (abnormal food/liquid consumption) or outputs (diarrhea, vomiting, abnormal pee color, etc.). This is also a good time to note that you should always make sure at least 2 people (that aren't backpacking with you) have a detailed plan of your backpacking plans. I also recommend informing your fellow backpacking buddies of any important medical history (for example, I always make sure my companions know about my chronic left kneecap dislocation issue). Furthermore, I recommend leaving a detailed plan of your trip in the dashboard of your vehicle. If something happens and you go missing, but someone finds your vehicle, that plan can help rescuers locate you.

-SAT (satellite) phone + extra batteries (keep this somewhere water-proof!) - this, again, is important in case you have an issue in the backcountry and can't hike out

-physical trail maps (again, keep these in a ziploc or somewhere else water proof!) if you are on a trail you are unfamiliar with

-electrolyte tablets and back-up water-purification tablets

-talcum powder - all you need is a small amount, and this is a great item to place on your feet to prevent blisters (I apply it in the morning before I hike for the day, and then throughout as I deem fit) and to put in your armpits to reduce some of those funny smells

-extra socks and underwear - nothing feels worse than having to wear wet socks or 3-day-old underwear. Using wet socks can also cause blisters, and using soiled underwear can result in rashes and other nasty things. These are the few items that I tend to pack extras of, for those very reasons.

-superglue (just a small bottle) - you have no idea how useful this is if your backpack or something else suddenly decides to tear while you're 5 days into the backcountry. Plus, this can be used as an emergency medical supply if you have nothing else.

-waterproof bags - I always pack my items in waterproof bags because I am paranoid of getting things wet and having some essential piece of equipment or clothing becoming unusable 

-hand sanitizer - especially if you are backpacking somewhere where it's difficult to wash your hands all the time (which is the majority of cases, especially if you're short on water), bringing a small bottle of hand sanitizer is a great way to disinfect your hands post-bathroom session or prior to eating

-waterproof matches/something to light a fire with

-headlamp + extra batteries - last thing you want is to be trying to navigate in the dark without light. I like to use a headlamp because I can go hands-free, and if I'm in my tent there's usually somewhere I can hang it from to provide light. My personal favorite for headlamps is the Petzl Actik Core Headlamp

-snickers bars!!! Also one of my favorite candies, but a great and quick way to get extra sugar/salt/calories without having to use up water. These are great for backpacking, and are even more valued in emergency scenarios where you run out of food, or don't have enough water to make a dried meal. 


Hope this helped! Don't be afraid to reach out with more questions, and enjoy backpacking through nature!

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Hi @ALTKey ,

You have already received a ton of good, valuable information, especially from @bryndsharp , so I will not try to expand on that, but I did want to chime in on the hatchet issue, which seems to be something you feel strongly about.

You asked about processing firewood that was too big to use as-is without your hatchet.  Personally, I carry a Morakniv Companion knife, and use a technique called batoning.  Unfortunately, REI does not carry Morakniv, but they are readily available and reasonably priced, and they are highly regarded by the bushcraft community.  There are multiple tutorials on on batoning available on YouTube. You may want to opt for a slightly longer blade in order to handle larger pieces of wood, but you definitely won't need a "Crocodile Dundee" knife.

While it is only one minor suggestion, I hope you find it helpful.

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@Rob6 I heartily second the opinion about Mora knives, but "batoning" escapes me.  I have built many campfires in many condition over the last sixty plus years, and I have never felt the need to baton anything, never, not once.

You can break down, dead wood into shorter pieces by propping them up and stepping smartly in their middle (or drop a heavy rock).  This will produce splinters as well, useful for your fire.

Actually, wood fires are obsolete - inefficient, environmentally scaring, and potentially wildly destructive (if they escape).  Go with a stove instead, preferably a canister type.  It will weigh less than your hatchet, and properly used, will leave no trace.  Other alternative fuels are also used- white gas, kerosene, and alcohol.  All have their place.

Brynsharp's post is excellent.  A tent is much more effective than a hammock, especially above timberline, in the desert, and in snow, all of which are some of my favorite places.  if you are dealing with low temps only in the 50s, there are many light weight sleeping bags which will keep you quite comfortable, especially if you are on an insulated pad lying on the ground.

Definitely invest in a good backpack.  It is one of the most important of the three B's - Boots, Backpack, and Bag (sleeping).  Shop wisely and it will be money well spent.

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@ALTKey  Good Lord my legs got cramped just reading your list in paragraph one 🙂  Just teasing...I did my first trip with a 55 pound pack on the peaks section of the Long Trail; never again.   First off, get rid of the hatchet; you will never need it.  Secondly,....well, you have had one bad trip with a heavy pack.  My experience is that with each successive trip you will go home and get more brutal with your assessment of what you will and won't need.  Be aggressive but not short-sighted.  For instance, you have a poncho and pack raincover; just use a poncho that covers you *and* the pack so you only have that.  Get rid of extra tent stakes, day pack, etc. etc.  And stay away from the mindset "heck this thing only weighs an ounce or 1/2 an ounce, just keep it."  Start purging your pack of the little things and before long you'll be down to a much more manageable weight.


@ALTKey  As others have opined, leave the hatchet at home. Why carry a ground cloth and sleeping pad if you are using a hammock? One Mylar blanket in case of an emergency, kept in your ten essential kit, is enough. How much water do you carry? Unless streams and springs are far between, one to two liters should be enough. Unless I am hiking/backpacking through a dry area, I never carry more than a liter but also carry a mini filter which I can use along the trail as well as once I make camp. My cook set is one spoon, one metal cup for boiling water, a plastic cup to drink out of, and an origami type bowl/plate that folds flat. I don't cook. I just boil water to rehydrate meals I have either bought or made at home from grocery store items.

aka "Boonerelli"

Superusers do not speak on behalf of REI and may have received
one or more gifts or other benefits from the co-op.