Backpacker Packing Checklist: Ultimate list for hiking the John Muir Trail, or other long walks.

I have had quite the internet silence lately, with no blog posts, facebook, or emails. It’s because I was on a nice long walk. I went with a friend to hike the John Muir Trail (I did half, he did the whole thing.) This is a packing list for my recommended items and brands and where to get them. The list can be applied to the JMT specifically (for things like weather and bugs,) but really it can be applied to any through hiking, long-distance backpacking trip or shorter backpacking trails.
I approached my friend who had hiked the Appalachian trail, and when I asked him for advice, he simply said: “WEIGHT, WEIGHT, and WEIGHT.” I didn’t think weight would be all that important, but once you strap that backpack on and go up two hours of switchbacks, you’ll be begging for a lighter pack. Don’t forget important items, but be very conscious what your bringing.

Do a practice hike with your gear!
I went on a 3-day camping trip with the gear I wanted to bring. I also took a 14 mile hike with a weighted pack, to see how everything would work. I learned some very valuable things (that my pants were really uncomfortable, that my hat didn’t cover my temples so I needed extra sunscreen, and that sock liners were key to avoid blisters and sore toes.) I would have gone with some unnecessary items, some uncomfortable gear, and missed some things. I felt much more confidant taking a practice trip and knowing my gear.

Where to buy/rent gear:
Purchasing: If you want to buy new, and see it first-hand, the two main outdoor stores are REI and A16 (A16 is just in SoCal). I like A16 more. There’s usually more people on staff, and they’re REALLY knowledgeable. If you have a local outdoor store, it’s great to support them as well.
Auctions/Army Surplus Stores: Both these resources often have the most cost-effective options, although they’re not always light-weight, so be careful.
Craigslist/Online: There’s some great stuff, like trekking poles, stoves and tents on Craigslist. It can be a bit time-consuming, but could save you money. There’s also a ton of discount outdoor websites: www.altrec.com/, www.sierratradingpost.com/, http://www.backcountry.com/,  http://www.campmor.com/, www.rei.com/outlet
Renting: If you don’t want to dish out the cash for new gear, A16 and other stores rent A LOT of items. (Backpacks, sleeping bags, trekking poles, stoves, etc.) If you go to school, many colleges rent out gear as well, and your local gear shop might do the same. Yosemite park actually rents bear canisters for cheap ($5 a week). But you do have to put a deposit down, and make sure to mail/give it back to them.

The List:
Here is my list, complete with a picture of the items. For my clothes, I took a picture of everything “non-compressed” (out of their stuff sacks.) The second picture is the same items, but compressed, (except for the outfit I actually wore.) You can see what a difference in space the compressible items make. Feel free to leave a comment if you think I’ve left something out, or you have a favorite brand/item you want to rave about.
Clothes: 

  • Hiking Shoes/Boots: This is not something you want to skimp on. If you have cheap, crappy hiking boots, you will be in pain, get blisters, and maybe slip on wet rocks. I have Vasque brand hiking boots, which can be on the pricey side. But, I got them at an awesome sale at REI, and paid $40 instead of $120. So it is possible to find deals, just don’t skimp on quality. If you already have a pair, just make sure they still have good treading on the bottom, and haven’t worn through by the heal.
  • Convertible pants to shorts/capris: You will get cold sometimes, and warm sometimes, and may have to cross rivers other times. But you should only bring 1-2 pairs of pants/shorts, so make it count by making them convertible. And they must be COMFORTABLE. Nothing makes a hike worse than having pain in uncomfortable places, or having too long/too tight pants.
  • Shorts: Just brought a small, lightweight pair to wear while my main pair were drying (from rain or washing.)
  • Polyester shirt: YOU DO NOT WANT COTTON. You will probably wear this every day for weeks, and it needs to dry quickly after you’ve washed it in a river. So synthetic fiber, or any quick-dry material is a must. I got a silver-threaded shirt from Lululemon, it was supposed to make me stink less. If want to save on money, Ross or TJ Maxx often have polyester shirts as well. Bamboo is also a good choice.
  • SPV shirt: It’s smart to have one back-up shirt, so that you have something to wear when you’re washing the other. (Or if it gets torn or sprayed with mud). I got a UV-protected long sleeve for chillier weather. And when you spend 12 hours a day in the sun on a hike, you have to remember sun exposure.
  • Thermal pants/shirt (Patagonia Midweight Capalene): Do your research on weather, the highs and lows. If you’re doing the JMT, the lows will sometimes be below freezing. I did not regret bringing my long underwear to wear to bed. My synthetic Patagonia Capalene are great. Just get the mid-weight, the thinner ones may not be enough.
  • 2 pairs ExOfficio underwear:  Yes, I really brought only 2 pairs of underwear for two weeks. But ExOfficio are supposed to be quick-drying, anti-microbial, and so on. They look a little like granny panties, but they do the trick. You can wash them in the stream, and wear the other pair. Just check out the portion below on “feminine hiking health” if you want to learn some extra tricks for long-term underwear use.
  • 3 pairs thick wool hiking socks: Socks will be one of your most important purchases. They must be comfortable, quick-drying (NO COTTON!!), thick for cushioning and blister prevention. I went with the heavyweight REI brand. Most of the time go for Merino wool. It won’t smell as bad, and it’s not itchy. Ask your A16 or REI person, they can help you make a choice, and don’t skimp on cost for this one. Pain can make hiking miserable.
  • 3 pairs Sock Liners: People have different opinions about sock liners, but they worked great for me. They’re a thin under-layer you wear under socks to prevent friction (i.e. blisters). They can also be quick-drying, and can be easier to clean than your actual socks, so they lengthen the time you have clean outer socks. I tried a few brands, all worked. Here’s a great article on picking socks/liners from REI.
  • Winter Jacket: Do your homework on weather, but I needed a full-on winter Patagonia jacket. Me and my hiking partner were ecstatic that we decided against the fleece and went for a jacket, since it gets cold. Just make sure your jacket keeps you comfy in below-freezing temperatures.
  • Rain shell jacket/pants (Sierra Designs): This could easily be heavy and bulky, or small and light. You want a compressible pair that fits into a little stuff sack (or its own pocket), and weighs very little. These can be really pricey, but Sierra Designs makes some decently affordable ones. You can see mine in the picture, they start out full jacket/pants, and compress down to small bags that weighed very little. Surprisingly, they made a great stuffer for my pillow case.
  • Wide-brim Hat: This served two purposes…protection from the sun (extremely necessary) and a holder for the mosquito headnet, to keep it away from my face. Whatever is comfortable and provides good protection should work, Colombia makes some affordable ones that are nicely ventilated.
  • Sandals: I needed these for river crossings, and to wear at the end of the day when I wanted to get out of my shoes! I just brought some light flip-flops, but my partner’s foam Crocs proved a little better (since I lost mine in a river halfway through.) He found some off-brand for $5 at a drug store, so no splurge needed. Just remember you’ll be carrying them on your back (usually strapped to the outside with a carabiner), so light-weight is important.
  • Mosquito Head-Net: I didn’t believe everyone that California could have such bad mosquitoes…but by day two I crying for mercy, apologizing for being a non-believer. The pristine meadows of the trail prove a haven for mosquito breading, and I used my head-net almost every night. Sea to Summit makes a great light-weight one, but any small, light one should do.
  • Light gloves: Nothing special, just brought a light pair of fleece gloves for cold nights.

Toiletries

  • Sunscreen: You HAVE to wear it. Make sure yours works, I like the aloe-based ones.
  • Mosquito repellent: I hate the stuff, and swore I wouldn’t use it, but ended up slathering it on every hour. Lemon-eucalyptus won’t cut it, get the serious stuff.
  • Toilet paper: Guys brought just a regular role. Being a woman, and needing it more often, I used about 2.5 roles a week. For weight/space, I bought Coghlan’s role-less biodegradable paper. For two weeks I brought 6 rolls, and had one left over.
  • Chapstick (non-petroleum): Necessary for sun and dry weather. Petroleum-based chapstick will actually dry out your lips, so try for the Burt’s Bees, or an Aloe-based.
  • Toothbrush/paste (mini): I had more tiny tubes at each re-supply.
  • Spiral notepad / pencil: Proved useful for writing email addresses of hikers, suggestions for the trail, and journaling.
  • Camp soap: I brought the Sea to Summit concentrated camp soap, which can be used for laundry, body, hair, etc.
  • Waterless Hand Sanitizer: The next time I hike, I’m going to bring less soap, and more hand-sanitizer. Your hands will get filthy, but you need to be near water to use soap. Plus, we’re not supposed to be using any soap within 200 feet of a water source. (To keep water pristine.) This makes hand-washing complicated, so waterless sanitizer is an easier choice.

The Rest:

  • Backpack: Use a good backpack! We met up with some guys using army surplus bags, and two of their bags broke mid-hike! They ended up duck-taping parts of the bag together, but there were some painful miles ahead. Go into A16 or REI and get fitted for one, because comfort and body-fit are very important. They also make different frames for women, I have a woman’s Gregory pack. You want a 60 gallon at the least, but not too big, 65 gallon seems to be the perfect size. The nicer packs will cost, but they usually come with a lifetime guarantee. (So you can ship them back for repairs instead of using duct tape.) You can also rent one.
  • Trekking poles: Absolutely NECESSARY for a long through-hike. You use them for balance jumping rocks, to keep for being swept away in river crossings, and to keep from sliding down a steep snow-crossing. They also take some work off your knees on the downhill, and give your shoulders a break on the uphill. And bring a pair, not a single.
  • Tent: Most people use a one-person backpacking tent. The dark blue pack in my picture is my Kelty. It’s only a couple of pounds and doesn’t take up much space. Some folks I met had a Eureka, which was almost as light and could fit two people. Most of these will not be free-standing, as poles weight a lot. Some hard-core folks made a tent out of their trekking poles and a rain fly, which is super light-weight, but doesn’t provide much protection from bugs and rain.
  • Sleeping bag (20º or better): I had many restless nights because of the cold, so you’re going to want a warm bag. Down is lightweight, compresses nicely, and is usually warmer than synthetic. The danger with down is that you cannot get it wet. This is something to consider. I went with a synthetic bag, although I wasn’t quite as warm, condensation and rain didn’t prove a problem. (Plus i have moral issues with down.) It needs to come with a compression sack, to reduce the amount of room it takes up in your pack.
  • Sleeping Pad: Many people had the Z-Lite foam Thermarest; it’s one of their lightest. That’s not comfortable enough for me (the foam isn’t thick enough, sleeping in a rocky area wouldn’t be fun.) I liked the self-inflating padded Theramrest; I use the Women’s Trail Lite. This is also something you should touch and test, so go into REI or A16 and try them out. Some compress smaller than others, and they all have different amounts of padding.
  • Backpacking Stove: It’s really popular to make homemade alcohol stoves out of soda cans, and many people do this. It’s the most cost-effective, lightweight option. (And there’s many online videos to show you how.) I don’t trust my engineering skills, so I bought a tiny Optimus Crux Lite stove. It ran me about $30 (not counting fuel) and it worked great. I also bought the whole unit (pot and pan), since the fuel, stove, and spork all fit inside as a single unit to save space.
  • Mini backpacking pot/pan: When I say mini, I mean mini. I was able to boil water in the pot for a dehydrated meal, and the little pan fit as a cover to boil faster. Loved the fit-together unit. A cozy isn’t a bad idea, either.
  • Fuel: What you use depends on your stove, I used the small canisters my stove screwed into. I brought 3 for two weeks, using it once to twice a day, but came home with one untouched. There’s also stoves that use gasoline, alcohol, and just about anything else you can think of.
  • Bear canister (Bear Vault BV500): Bear canisters are REQUIRED on the JMT. They add weight and take up space, but they are a necessary evil. There are two approved canisters, the Garcia and the Bear Vault. I like the latter, since the Bear Vault is a little lighter, and the larger one can fit more food. I also like its transparency, so you could get to the pesky protein bar at the bottom without dumping the whole thing. They are very easy to rent, which should save you money. Yosemite park rents them for $5 a week, or you can find them at your local outdoor store. (A16 has them for sure in SoCal.)
  • Water filter (Pump or Steripen): Out of all the things I thought would bother me, the two winners were mosquitoes and water pumping. You get your water from the mountain lakes and streams, but it’s best to filter it somehow, (intestinal upset is no fun on the trail.) Most people had water pumps, but they are not built alike. Our MSR filtered VERY slowly, and it often took 20-30 minutes for a water fill-up. I loved the Katadyn Vario Filter, it was super fast and easy to use. The Steripen is the easiest, but some people get nervous relying on a battery powered device. My suggestion…if you’re going with two people, bring one Steripen, and one pump-filter as a backup. Three people? One pump, one Steripen, and one bottle of Iodine as a double-backup.
  • Camelback/Playapus Bladder: I hate these things, (they don’t sit up, so I always drop it in the dirt, and the mouth piece gets gross, and they’re hard to clean…)  but having some kind of water bladder is pretty important. A lot of people like the Playtapus brand, they have one that can stand up on it’s end, and one that has a built-in filter. You need to drink A LOT of water a day, so a single water bottle isn’t going to do it. (Plus I met people with very heavy metal water containers, a water bladder will be a lot lighter, and will fit in the pack better.)
  • Nalgene bottle: Not an essential item, but proved useful for mixing protein drinks and electrolyte packets. (Wouldn’t want that clogging up your Camelback.)
  • Backpacking Towel: This may seem trivial, but a regular towel takes up A LOT of space (and it’s heavy.) Also, cotton towels take forever to dry. A nice synthetic backpacking towel will be tiny, light, and quick-drying. I like the texture and size of Sea to Summit large pocket towel.
  • Pillow Case (Thermarest Trekker): The idea of sleeping without a pillow took a little getting used to. But I had an idea about stuffing my clothes into a small pillow case, and luckily Therarest had the same idea. You could use any small, soft bag (my trekking partner brought a small cotton drawstring bag his sheets came in.) I liked the small size, weight, and feel of the Thermarest as well. Your comfy jacket should make a good stuffer, or any clothes you have with you. I was surprised at how well I slept using rain gear and shorts as my pillow.
  • Headlamp (4 extra batteries): Essential for hands-free light, (i.e. if you have to put up your tent in the dark.) Any decent one will do, as long as it’s not too heavy or large.
  • Squishy bowl: Your small pot can be doubled as a bowl to eat out of, but I often made two dishes for dinner, so having this extra bowl was good. The Squishy Bowls squash down for easy packing in the bear canister, and can be flipped inside-out to clean.
  • Spork: Mine has a knife, spoon and fork. It’s just a cheap plastic-like one, but it worked fine, nothing fancy needed.
  • Pocket Knife: Besides cooking, it’s always important to take a small knife.
  • Sponge/scouring pad: You can buy a tiny camping sponge, I just cut a regular one in half.
  • Plastic bag (for trash): If your food comes in ziplocks (like mine from http://www.outdoorherivore.com/), you can just use those for trash as you eat the food. If not, it’s good to bring an extra plastic bag.
  • Nylon cord: A thin, small nylon cord is useful for hanging clothes, tying things together, and whatever else you can think of.
  • Carabiner: Good for hanging things (like sandals) off your pack, and can always be handy.
  • First-Aid Kit: You can always make your own first-aid kit, but I found it easier to buy a light, waterproof one. I didn’t think I would touch it, but I found some use for it almost every night. (Anti-itch, moleskin for blisters, aspirin, etc.) I just added some extra Ibuprofen and cranberry. Someone in the group should also bring a snake-bite kit.
  • Extra Ibuprofen: I brought a tiny plastic travel tube and filled it with extra Ibuprofen and supplements. Not a lot, but enough to help my inflamed knee on difficult days.
  • Thermarest patch kit: It’s probably not essential that everyone in your party have their own patch kit, but at least one person should have one. (I can attest to this, one person we met used his three times!)
  • Camera: Some folks brought their digital, I brought my cheap GoPro waterproof camera with an extra roll of film. Was useful for days in the rain, and pictures while swimming.
  • Compass/Whistle: A little compass/whistle/thermometer combo is never a bad idea. Good for getting, lost, emergencies, etc.
  • Maps/JMT Atlas: Some foks roll without a map, but our JMT Atlas proved really useful. We were able to find our way in snowy areas by looking at elevation, river crossings, and direction. It saved us quite a bit…plus it lets you know where to expect “campgrounds,” water fill-up spots, and switchbacks.
  • Feminine Hiking Health: As a female hiker, I felt a bit safer bringing a few extra supplements and supplies. Instead of entire bottles, I got small pill bottle and put all the supplements inside. I brought cranberry extract, and some probiotics. Because of the not-so-clean, wet environment, and the weird food, it’s the perfect formula for UTI’s and yeast problems. A UTI on the trail would NOT be a fun experience, so don’t copy the guy’s tendency to wear unwashed underwear for a week straight. Having some cranberry extract might save you from some (literal) pain, and probiotics for yeast and stomach health isn’t a bad idea, either. The female underwear trick: Although you “wash” your underwear in a river every few days, it does not entirely eliminate bacteria. To solve this problem, I brought a pack of small, biodegradable feminine pads. I put on a new one every morning, and threw away the accumulated trash at every stop. Some may say this is wasteful, but they have probably never been stuck in the backcountry with a UTI. Putting a liner on can simulate clean underwear, and keep you safer from infections.

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