Photo by Lola Akinmade.

Your actual packing list will vary based on the time of year and terrain you will be crossing — [Don’t pack snowshoes to cross Death Valley] — but there are essentials every trekker should bring.

Classic treks such as the Annapurna Circuit, John Muir Trail, or Torres Del Paine Circuit fall within the 2-3 week range. On the longer end , the Continental Divide Trail which stretches over 3100 miles across the center of the United States, can take half a year to complete.

First, a few words on nonessential items:

Items You Can Do Without

Trekking poles

Photo by alpiniste.

They admittedly can help if your knees are bad or over dangerous stream crossings. However, most people who buy poles use them on well-maintained rocky trails where they are more cumbersome than useful.

They are expensive, loud, and usually end up tied to the back of your pack.

Stoves

Systems like the Jetboil can be seductive, but fuel, pots, pans, plates, sporks, and the stove itself add a lot of weight.

Living off “cold” rations is an underrated way to operate—especially if your trek takes you through towns.

You can fill up on whatever it is you like there, and then go back to sandwiches, bars, fruit, or other items that require no cooking.

GPS

GPS units are dangerous for many beginners who treat them like a “get out of jail free” card. They aren’t. A good Topo map and compass will help just as much and are less prone to malfunctions.

Backpack Covers

You can use a plain black trash bag and get the same results. Better yet, cover important items with plastic bags inside your pack.

Sleeping Pads

Most trekkers have some kind of Thermorest, but they are unnecessary most of the time. They help if you are camping somewhere cold, but needed in the summertime. Your sleeping bag and tent should provide enough protection from the cold. Sleeping pads, while light, take up a lot of room.

Tents

I personally love sleeping in a tent, but many long-distance hikers have switched to hammocks, ground tarps, and bivvy bags. Depending on where your trek takes you, one of these options may be better for you.

10 Items You Should Pack

Backpack
  

This is obvious but the most fundamental choice of all. Osprey, Macpac, and Gregory make highly acclaimed packs. Lightweight enthusiasts rave about the GoLite series.

Whatever your choice, make sure you load it in the store and walk around with it while weighted down before you invest in yours.

Food

Unless you are really good at hunting or identifying edible plants, you will need to bring some food.

Bringing a stove is up to you, but whatever you bring, take an extra day’s worth. If you get lost or delayed, this food can be vital.

Even if you never eat it, other hikers will appreciate you leaving it in a shelter. You can use a dehydrator to pack some nutritious bars or soups as well.

Sleeping Bag

Down is lighter and packs up smaller than synthetic, but it’s vastly more expensive. It’s better to get the lowest degree ranked one you can afford—better to unzip your bag or sleep on top of it in the summer than to freeze in the cold. Mountain Hardware makes some good mid-range bags.

Water Bottle
  

A water bladder with a valve is important, but you’ll need an old-fashioned water bottle as well, for adding drink mixes and refilling without emptying half your pack. (Conventional wisdom recommends drinking half-a-liter per mile whilst hiking).

You can spend upwards of $30 on a Sigg or Klean Kanteen. But some of the sturdiest, lightest-weight bottles are recycled Gatorade bottles. You’ll have to replace them once every month or two, but they do well.

Small First Aid Kit

The key word here is “small.” It’s a natural inclination to want to prepare for everything, but many people bring far too large first aid kits. A good rule of thumb—if you don’t know what it is, don’t bring it. Most of the time, all you’ll need are some antiseptic wipes, bandages, and maybe something for indigestion. If you add Tiger Balm as well, your muscles will be happy; but this is definitely not an essential.

Add a few packets of salt if you are hiking though anywhere with leeches. I also recommend packing wet wipes. They are the next best thing to a shower. Using them to wipe your hands before eating helps prevent nasties like Giardia and washing yourself off after a long day hiking is a nice treat for your co-hikers.

Duct Tape

The old joke about duct tape holding the universe together has some truth. It can repair tent poles, holes in the tent itself, hold your shoes together, and makes for a cheap alternative to moleskin.

Tip – Add duct tupe to foot hotspots before they become blisters.

Headlamps
  

Leaving your hands free while hiking at night can quickly change from a luxury to a necessity with surprising speed. Headlamps are a staple for most backpackers.

You can get a decent headlamp from companies like Princeton Tech for around $20. Variable brightness settings can be adjusted to suit most lowlight situations.

Water Filter

If you are bringing a stove, just boil your water. If you are hiking somewhere like the Annapurna Circuit, water will be available along the way.

Otherwise, you’d better have a filter such as a SteriPEN or at the very least, iodine tablets. The MSR SweetWater is one purification systems a lot of hikers like. Drinking untreated water is a good way to end your trip quickly.

Map and Compass

Depending on your trek, this might not be needed. If you are on one of New Zealand’s Great Hikes or hiking to Everest Base Camp, they will simply be extra weight. If you are on Canada’s West Coast Trail, or somewhere else without lodges and teahouses, they are as vital to your survival as anything you can bring. Look for classes at places like REI or hiking groups on meetup.com in your city if you need to improve your orientation skills.

Nylon Rope/Bungee Cords

Unless you’re trekking in regions without predators such as bears, using ropes and bungee cords to hang your food/toiletries a couple feet up in a tree or off the edge of a cliff is very important to keep away wildlife from making a buffet of your rations. It can also replace broken straps on your pack, compress your sleeping bag or tent, or be used as a makeshift clothesline.

Community Connection

Looking for more packing lists? Check out Matador’s Packing Tips focus page on packing for various travel scenarios.