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How To Build A Beginner Backpacking Kit

Author: Hilary Oliver

July 16, 2019

One of the best things about backpacking is its simplicity. You can get as fancy or go as basic as you want with the gear you carry. If you want to try backpacking for the first time, you don’t necessarily have to go out and buy a paycheck’s worth of new gear to do it. You can save money by buying used gear, but many outdoor retailers also rent out gear, so you can try things like backpacks and tents before buying those pricier items. Here is a beginner’s backpacking gear list, with notes about what to borrow or rentt and what to buy.

Backpack—RENT or BORROW

A backpack that fits your body well and helps properly distribute weight can make a huge difference in how pleasant or unpleasant a trip feels. If you’re new to backpacking, I recommend renting a pack for the first trip or two. Of course you could borrow one if you have a friend who is similar to your size. But if you rent one, you can get an expert opinion about fit without buying one right away. Then, if you decide the backpacking life is for you, you can do more research and even shop sales.

Tent—RENT or BORROW

A great backpacking tent is lightweight and easy to assemble—but can sometimes be pricey. If you’re planning your first backpacking trip, borrowing or renting one is a great idea. By trying out a couple of different options, you’ll have a better idea of what features you like when it comes to buying your own.

Sleeping Pad—RENT or BORROW

A sleeping pad is another thing you can easily borrow or rent. Quality options exist for as low as $35-40, but if you decide you really enjoy backpacking, you may find it’s worth saving for a more comfy, slightly more expensive air pad in the long run. As I’ve gotten older, a comfy sleeping pad has become more important to me. I’ve also splurged on an inflatable pillow, which I love, though you can certainly get away with using your pack or spare clothes as a pillow.

Sleeping Bag—BORROW or BUY

A sleeping bag is the first larger gear item I’d suggest is worth buying for yourself sooner rather than later. A warm, lightweight sleeping bag can be used not only for backpacking, but also for car camping and hut trips. And while down sleeping bags are more expensive than ones with synthetic insulation, they’re usually lighter and higher quality. Just make sure to nab a bag rated for 10 degrees lower than the coldest temperatures you expect to encounter. Rental options are usually available, but because a sleeping bag is something you can use in many situations, having your own is a pleasure.

Four people kneel and stand around three small campstoves in evening light with a tent, a glacier and mountaintop in the background.

Moisture-wicking Shirt, Pants and Underwear—BUY

I’m going to go out on a limb here and say you’ll probably want to buy these items instead of borrowing. People have been backpacking in jeans and T-shirts for ages, and we certainly don’t judge your fashion choices. But wearing clothes made of moisture-wicking material, like the Outdoor Research Staff favorite Ferrosi Pants and an Echo Shirt, is a good way to stay comfortable in changing temperatures. Whereas cotton may absorb sweat and leave you clammy, wicking options will help you dry quickly.

Depending on the weather, choose between shorts, pants—or zip-off pants—and short and long-sleeved shirts. Keep in mind that long sleeves can provide great coverage from sun and bugs. It’s also pleasant to pack something lightweight and comfortable to sleep in, if you don’t mind carrying it.

Insulating Layers—BORROW or BUY

Depending on what temperature you’ll be camping in, you’ll want a warmer layer like a fleece and puffy jacket for the evening. It doesn’t have to be super technical, and borrowing something if you don’t have one is a good way to decide what you’d like to spend your money on.

Keep in mind that insulation like down and fleece—in items like the Deviator Hoody and Illuminate Down Hoody—are more lightweight so you stay warmer but carry less weight in your pack.

READ MORE: Want to learn more about the difference between Down and Synthetic?

Shoes and Socks—USE WHAT YOU HAVE or BUY

Opinions run the gamut on what type of shoes are best for backpacking. Some folks swear by high-top leather hiking boots, others by lightweight low-top hikers, and still others by running shoes or even sports sandals. (I backpacked the Four Pass Loop near Aspen, Colo. in Bedrock sandals, for the record.) Since many heavy-duty hiking shoes may take a little while to break in, the most important thing is to make sure whatever you choose are super comfortable and won’t give you blisters. It’s smart to choose a pair you’ve already worn around town or on the trail.

Aside from not giving you blisters, make sure the shoes are rugged enough to survive a rocky trail, and supportive enough to keep you comfortable while carrying a heavy pack. If you’re not sure how many backpacking trips you’ll do, you’ll probably be fine in whatever athletic shoes you already have instead of investing in an expensive pair of boots right away.

No matter what type of shoe you decide on, buying a pair or two of wicking socks is definitely worth the money. Cotton socks get soaked with sweat easily, and synthetic or wool socks will help you avoid hot spots and blisters. I particularly like dual-layer pairs, which help reduce friction even more.

Rain Layers—BUY

A good rain jacket is certainly something you can borrow. But since it’s such a versatile piece of gear—you can use it for just about any sport—this is a great one to invest in. If it looks like you’ll definitely be hiking in rain, waterproof pants are also wonderful for keeping you comfortable. Outdoor Research offers a range of options, from super lightweight to more heavy duty. The Award Winning Apollo Jacket is a high-quality affordable option that’s perfect for first-time backpackers on a budget.

A woman in a stocking cap and sunglasses smiles as she sits on a sleeping pad on a rock outcrop with a tent, a glacier and a mountaintop in the background.

Other Clothing Accessories—BUY or PACK WHAT YOU HAVE

Again, this will depend on the season and temperatures you’re heading out in, but I always pack a lightweight stocking cap and gloves. Often in the summer they go unused, but in an emergency they can go a long way toward keeping you comfortable.

Stove and Cookset—BORROW or RENT

If you’re backpacking for the first time, let me take a little pressure off: You don’t have to cook. Packing, navigating and setting up camp can seem overwhelming enough. If you want to make it super easy, especially if you’re heading out for a single night—you can simply pack prepared food that doesn’t need to be heated, like burritos, bars, prepackaged meals or leftovers. That means you can avoid spending money and pack weight on 1) a stove, 2) pots and pans, and 3) stove fuel.

If cold food and drinks sounds like a morale buster, another option is borrowing, renting or buying a stove that’s simply designed to boil water, like a JetBoil. That way, you can just screw on the fuel canister and the pot is part of the deal. You can use the hot water for dehydrated meals—which are designed to be eaten straight from their packaging—and tea or coffee, without having to carry anything aside from a coffee cup and a spork. Other lightweight foods like ramen and couscous that can be cooked simply by boiling water are more affordable than dehydrated meals and work well, too.

If you want to cook a more elaborate meal, you’ll need a stove, fuel, at least one pot, and possibly a plate or bowl to eat out of, if you don’t intend to eat from the pot itself. You can rent or borrow cooksets, but my advice would be to start simple at first. By streamlining your first few backpacking trips, you’ll set yourself up for success. You can always build on your experience and get fancy later on. And, of course, if you’re going with one or more other people, a stove and cookset is something you can disperse amongst your packs. You may only need one for your group—just don’t forget a utensil to eat with.

Other items:

Bear canister or hang bag with cord (Borrow or rent)

Headlamp (You can buy these pretty cheaply and you’ll probably use it often—so buy)

Map (Borrow, if you can)

First aid kit (Buy, or assemble yourself)

Lighter or waterproof matches (Buy)

Knife or multitool (Borrow or buy)

Trekking poles (Rent or borrow)

Water filter or treatment

Hilary Oliver

​Hilary Oliver is a freelance writer and creator of TheGription.com. She loves climbing, biking and writing about climbing and biking. Her work has appeared on Adventure Journal, The Dirtbag Diaries, Freehub Magazine, Women’s Adventure, The Clymb, Women’s Movement and several other publications and web sites. If she’s not on the trail or up a rock, you can probably find her typing away on her laptop, hopefully within close proximity to strong coffee and hot breakfast burritos.