How to Pack a Hiking Backpack for a Multi-Day Hike [+Checklist]
Packing for a multi-day hiking trip brings many more problems and concerns than preparing for a day hike. The right equipment can make the difference between a trip you want to repeat and a nightmare that will make you shudder every time you see a hiking backpack. In extreme circumstances, the inadequate gear could even be life-threatening.
This article is for all those who would like to know what to bring on their next hiking trip and how to pack their gear efficiently so that they could travel light and enjoy their hiking or camping trip more. There's also a packing checklist with essential and extra stuff necessary for most multi-day hikes in the backcountry.
Three major factors govern the choice of gear: performance, durability, and weight. You need to pick your gear carefully and pack it efficiently because the heavier your load, the more often you need to stop and rest, the slower you walk, and the sooner you are likely to stop and make camp. As a rule, the lighter your pack, the more comfortable you’ll feel on the trail.
What do you need to pack for a multi-day hike?
Hiking shoes and boots
You will need appropriate and comfortable hiking footwear. Good hiking shoes or boots should: fit well; protect your feet; provide good traction; be durable, light, and breathable. Of course, sometimes you have to sacrifice speed for stability or comfort for durability, for example. A lot of hikers prefer using trail-running shoes or hiking shoes because they’re light, breathable, and don't need to be broken in. Moreover, they dry faster than standard hiking boots. Hiking sandals are preferred by many not only for low-intensity summer trips but for three-season conditions as well. This type of hiking footwear is especially suitable for well-maintained trails, fording streams, and warm weather because hiking sandals are multifunctional and provide out-of-the-box comfort and unmatched breathability.
Wearing the right hiking footwear is very important as your choice of footwear is perhaps most critical when it comes to comfort and stability on uneven, slippery terrain. Hiking through mud and swamps as well as thrashing through thick brush (the so-called bushwhacking) and crossing rocky slopes require excellent traction and balance. Some models of hiking boots (those with stiff cuffs) offer extra support and stability, which makes them suitable for off-trail hikes and rough terrain. Don’t get me wrong, traveling over difficult terrain is a skill that can be learned and mastered, but wearing the right footwear can make the whole experience less painful. Warm hiking boots are suitable for cold conditions, though bear in mind that in winter conditions, stiff soled boots are much more stable than soft-soled boots and shoes. Your foot will work harder but such kind of boots will provide more stability and ankle support to help you keep balance. See our post about hiking footwear for more in-depth information about the different types of hiking footwear.
Wear layers of clothes to match the forecast and season. Avoid cotton except for backpacking in hot and dry climates. Cotton fiber and cotton clothes absorb a lot of moisture, cling to your body, and are slow to dry, which increases the risk of hypothermia in cool-to-cold and/or windy weather. Natural materials like merino wool and various synthetic fabrics - such as polyester - are best for base layers and mid layers. Man-made materials are preferred for outer layers. If wondering what to wear on the trail, here’s sample clothing for changing weather:
- Two pairs of socks (merino, synthetics or blend of merino and man-made fabrics such as polyester, nylon, and acrylic). Choose moisture-wicking socks that will protect the feet and reduce friction lowering the chance to cause hot spots and blisters. Merino socks will keep your feet warm in winter and cool in summer. Synthetic materials are cheaper, more durable, wick moisture faster, and are easy and fast to dry. Some of them like Thermolite and Hollofil are used for cold conditions because of their superior insulative abilities while others like COOLMAX are engineered to transport moisture away from the body to keep the wearer cool and dry in warm conditions (though COOLMAX can also provide insulation on colder days).
- Base layer set and two pairs of polyester underpants - you need moisture-wicking, quick-drying, and breathable first layer capable of wicking moisture away from your body and transporting it effectively to the outer side (the second layer) of the garment. The material (usually merino wool or polyester) is important but no less important is the design of the garment, its fit, weight, and the density of the fabric. Merino wool base layers are soft, comfortable, antimicrobial, and the material feels warm even when wet. Polyester base layers are cheaper and more durable. Their biggest disadvantages – not very breathable, retain odors, and they aren’t very comfortable to wear close to the skin.
- Fleece lined trousers or softshell hiking pants, waterproof breathable pants, polyester convertible pants or shorts (the last two if hiking in the summer). Your pants should keep you cool and dry from the inside and from the outside; they should be rugged, functional, comfortable, and as light as possible. Main materials used for quality hiking pants are polyester and nylon, though there are also various blends engineered to optimize the best qualities of two or more fibers such as poly cotton, nylon/cotton, wool/polyester, etc.
- Polyester T-shirt and polyester hiking shirt are best for warm weather.
- Fleece top made either from polyester fleece or merino wool. Fleece fabric has similar properties to wool - it traps still air between its fibers, which results in extra insulation and warmth for the wearer. Fleece is also moisture-wicking, quick-drying, light, durable, highly breathable, doesn’t shrink, and remains warm even when wet. Choose close-fitting fleece and avoid mid layers with hoods and too many pockets that may add more weight and/or compromise the performance of the garment. The thickness of the fleece depends on the weather and the wearer’s personal choice. Lightweight fleeces are for those who like to travel light, midweight and heavyweight fleeces are more efficient in winter and cold.
- Insulation jacket and/or rain jacket are expected to keep you dry and protected from the elements. Windproof and waterproof breathable materials are quite popular. They are often touted as something they are not - fully waterproof and extremely breathable. Well… that’s nearly impossible as there’s inevitably a tradeoff between weight and functionality as well as between thickness and breathability. Polyester and nylon are the main shell fabrics. The lining is usually made of down or man-made fabrics like Primaloft, Thinsulate, and polyester (fleece).
- Sun hat, warm beanie, and gloves depending on the season and expected weather (especially if it’s cold or you’re planning a mountain hike).
It's worth reminding that if you have more clothes, you can always take off some of them in case it becomes too hot, however, you can’t put on layers that you didn't bring along.
Some basics while planning
When planning and organizing your hiking trip, follow these basic principles:
- Plan and organize your hike carefully - it takes time and energy to plan a multi-day hike, however, the planning phase can be crucial for the overall outcome of your hike.
- Avoid excess weight and travel as light as possible. However, don’t go too far unless you are stoic enough to endure minimum comfort in camp in bad weather.
- There are huge price ranges - especially in clothing, where high prices often just mean the latest style, color, or fabric rather than better performance. The simplest, lightest designs - not the most expensive - are often best.
- Don’t forget to let someone know where you are going and your route.
In addition to the pack, footwear, and clothing, you will need and some other essentials for your multi-day hike.
What to pack for hikingIf you are a seasoned backpacker, you probably have enough experience to know what to bring on a hiking trip in different environments and conditions. But if you don’t have so much experience, the following list is aimed at giving you some insight about what to bring on your next multi-day hike.
Essential hiking gear:
- Sleeping bag - select one according to the season, weather conditions, and temperatures. It's among the most important tools that will keep you warm at camp at night together with your sleeping pad and shelter. Lightweight sleeping bags are usually filled with down as it is light, very warm, and durable material that recovers well from compression (and quite expensive too). Other widespread materials include various synthetics. Sleeping bag shells can be made from waterproof breathable fabric for maximum protection from cold, wind, and water or non-waterproof but more breathable material. Keep in mind that seams are rarely properly sealed so even waterproof breathable shells will eventually leak through the seams.
- Sleeping pad - the primary function of a sleeping pad is to minimize conductive heat loss. It's very important to have a sleeping pad, especially when it's cold outside because neither the shelter nor the sleeping bag will help you feel warm enough if the shelter floor is cold or covered with snow. Additionally, sleeping pads also increase nighttime comfort with cushioning.
- Shelter - must protect you from precipitation, wind, and insects. Depending on various factors but mainly on the weather, location, and your hiking style, you may choose to carry a tent (recommended for most backpackers), a tarp system or a hammock.
- Food for several days - your body will burn a lot of calories during hiking. A 70 kg person usually burns between 430 and 440 calories per hour of hiking while a 90 kg person burns approximately 550 calories. Therefore, you need some source of energy and the best one is food rich in carbs, fats, and sugar. In a highly active lifestyle, such kind of a diet provides much-needed energy that few other foods can match. For your backpacking trip, you can prepare a food list according to your taste. Choose food that you want to eat because it tastes good and not because someone else has recommended it. Before planning your backcountry menu, it’s important to think also about the weight and volume of the food, the duration of your trip, your destination, the access of water and fuel on the trail (for food preparation), etc. Then, it is time to think about particular food choices. You need to focus on the weight, nutritional value, and perishability of different foods as well as your food preferences, special dietary need (if any), and pack space. Take into account and the environmental conditions and whether you will be hiking alone or in a group. Remember that your energy levels, strength, health, ability to think clearly and focus even mood and attitude towards others depend heavily on what you eat. In general, try to balance your nutritional needs with what’s practical for your trip. Well, still wondering what to eat on the trail? Here’s a list (to give you some ideas for your own meal plan) of foods that you can bring on your next backpacking trip: cereals, raisins, oatmeal, nuts (walnuts, almonds, hazelnuts, peanuts, cashews, etc.), bagels, cheese, tuna, chicken, salami, pasta, rice, bulgur, beans, sun-dried tomatoes, olive oil, peanut butter, crackers, energy bars, cookies, and candies. You can also take and something else to drink other than water - cocoa, tea, drink mix, powdered milk, hot chocolate, etc. It’s best to estimate the number of calories you need to fuel your trip in the backcountry and divide it into ration periods. Always take some extra meals to be able to fuel properly in case something unexpected happens. You can check out this five-day backpacking meal plan. It provides around 3500 calories per day from 900-1000g of food.
- Cookware - cook stove (and enough fuel), cook pot, food jar, and a spoon. Eating hot food can be a great psychological boost to most backpackers especially in cold and wet weather. So, carrying some extra weight in the form of a stove, fuel, and cookware is often worth it.
- Good amount of water - depending on the location, water can go from an insignificant concern during the planning stages to the most important factor. So sometimes you might have to carry ten or more liters of water, while on other occasions the amount of water may not exceed a liter or two. Water is the most important nutrient in the backcountry because you can survive no more than a few days without water. It’s needed for: maintaining your body temperature, transportation of nutrients throughout your body, and disposal of metabolic waste product. Not getting enough water can cause lethargy, headaches, cramps, stomach pain, disorientation, tiredness even exhaustion. In general, the amount of water you need varies with the physical activity, environmental conditions, the amount of food you eat, and the quantity of water you lose through perspiration and urination. Normally, a person who eats 2000 calories a day needs at least 2-3 liters of water so for an intake of 4000 calories per day he or she will need 4-6 liters of water. Keep in mind that adequate hydration is even more important at high altitude and in the desert. There you will need 5-7 or more liters of water to avoid altitude sickness and to compensate for the excessive water losses from sweat and urination. Drink often and don’t wait to get thirsty to drink fluids. Feeling thirsty means that the process of dehydration has already started. You are more prone to dehydration when hiking in winter and at elevation. The fluid loss occurs almost imperceptibly mainly because in cold weather people tend to drink less than they should. Not eating properly can also contribute to dehydration because food contains water.
- A portable water filter is an indispensable tool for ensuring that you have clean drinking water during your hike into the backcountry. No matter how clean water from a backcountry stream seems, it may be contaminated with pathogens such as bacteria, viruses, and protozoa. So you can't just fill up your water bottle with water from a nearby stream. Bringing water to a boil is another effective method for purifying water, though not a very practical one because of the quantity of fuel you need to provide enough clean water for your backpacking trip.
- Trekking poles will reduce the strain and force of gravity on your legs when hiking. Most serious hikers consider them a critical piece of equipment. The main function of hiking sticks is to provide traction, stability, and additional support on slippery and uneven surfaces (such as snow, ice, wet grass, mud, and scree) when crossing streams and rivers or for canyon hikes. Besides, trekking poles are multifunctional as they can be used for pitching tents, defense against wild animals, retrieving bear bags or as medical splints in emergencies. Using trekking poles properly is highly recommended if you want to take full advantage of having them.
- Backpack rain cover, pack liner, and dry sacks (sleep bag sack, food sack, clothing sack, ditty sack) will keep your stuff dry when hiking in the rain.
- Raincoat or a loose-fitting poncho depending on the weather forecast and the hiking location. Ponchos allow lots of air circulation and are more convenient than raincoats in most cases. Moreover, they are lightweight, compact, and much cheaper and are perfect for hiking in the fog and drizzle. Ponchos can be used for various things such as backpack rain cover and to keep sleeping bags protected from driving rain (as a tarp shelter). You can also use an umbrella as it has many advantages in addition to the excellent protection against rain it provides. For example, it offers superior ventilation in comparison to rain jackets, ponchos, and other waterproofs. Umbrellas can also be used in sunny weather when sitting/walking in the shade is highly valued.
- First aid kit and repair kit - among the essentials in your first aid kit, you should include some analgesics/antibiotics/anaphylaxis (Ibuprofen, Acetaminophen or Aspirin, Sting relief pad, etc.) to treat headache, pain, bacterial infections, inflammations, and severe allergic reactions. Bandages, antiseptic towelettes, blister care pads, 2"x2" and 3"x3" gauze sponges are used to cover small and larger wounds, to absorb and control bleeding, to cleanse skin, and to cover abrasions and burns. Some other important items include a safety whistle, water-purifying tablets, and a fire starter. Your repair kit should include at least extra shoelaces, duct tape, and a multi-purpose tool.
- Map and compass to orient yourself. Among the worst-case scenarios when in the outdoors is getting lost and not having means to orient, especially if the place is totally unfamiliar to you.
- Toilet paper, hand sanitizer, wet wipes, toothbrush and toothpaste, quick-drying towel, and handkerchiefs for good personal hygiene.
- Sunglasses, sunscreen with UPF, lip balm will help you prevent sunburn. Taking some precautions in hot conditions is reasonable but don’t underestimate the sun when hiking at altitude either. As a matter of fact, the UV radiation at 1000m above the sea level is up to 20% higher than the radiation at sea level. Generally, the UV radiation increases with up to 20% for every 1000m above the sea. Overexposure to UV radiation leads to burns, and conditions like heat exhaustion, heat stroke, and snow blindness.
- Flashlight or headlamp is a must when being outdoors at night.
- Bear spray is a must for self-defense in bear country. Hiking and camping in bear country can be exciting but also very dangerous unless you hike responsibly without underestimating the risks and dangers of sharing the same territory with bears. Just follow some basic rules for safe hiking in bear country and you’ll drastically decrease the chances for a close encounter with bears.
- Mobile phone in a shock and waterproof case. It will keep your mobile phone safe and secure especially when walking up steep terrain or crossing a river.
- Wallet and documents
You can download Packing for a Multi-Day Hike: Cheat Sheet, a packing checklist of the essential and extra stuff in PDF format.
In addition to the basic stuff, you may wish to carry with you some extra items. Depending on the season, location, and personal preferences, some of the enumerated extra items might turn into essential packing items.
- Gaiters can be of good use depending on the season and terrain. Depending on the season and weather conditions, gaiters might be part of your list with essentials.
- Signal mirror
- Insect repellents offer long-lasting protection against buzzy and bloodsucking insects. Be aware that some repellents like DEET can have a harmful effect on plastic and synthetic gear components so be careful.
- Book or a Kindle (and a charger) – especially useful if you prefer solo hiking.
- Headphones/earphones (avoid using them when in the mountain because you won’t be able to hear if there's a landslide or an avalanche and this might be deadly).
- Notebook and pen
- Multi-function watch with altimeter
- Toilet trowel
- Bear canister is very important for hiking and camping in bear country. Proper storage of food, toiletries, and medications is essential for your safety when traveling in bear country. Here come bear-resistant containers.
How to pack a hiking backpack?
Before packing a hiking backpack, plan carefully the contents of your pack. In doing so, you must take into account various factors such as:
- The duration of your trip
- The expected weather conditions
- The specific features of the terrain
- The potential dangers on the trail
- Your specific needs and preferences
You will need a good multi-day hiking backpack. On longer trips, or when an extra gear is required, a large internal-frame pack carries heavier loads comfortably. A day pack is also an option and although lighter, it is highly improbable that it will be as comfortable as a framed pack. Lighter gear and efficient packing are critical to having a more comfortable experience on the trail so it’s worth thinking about investing in some lighter equipment.
Organize your hiking clothes and gear into logical groups and separate them into stuff sacks. Make sure that when you start to unpack at camp, or on the track, items that you will need are grouped with other items and that there won’t be a ‘pack explosion’ as you try to find that one necessary just arrived at camp item that is now at the bottom or in the middle of your backpack. A neat well-organized hiking pack, where you have a good idea where everything is, is important.
Here’s how to pack a hiking backpack:
- Place the heaviest items (such as food, water, stove fuel) against your back and tighten the pack’s compression straps to balance the pack. You can place softer items like tents, between the heavier items to fill gaps and to prevent shifting.
- Put bulky items like sleeping bag, sleeping pad, and clothes you will sleep in on the bottom. This provides works like a shock absorber and provides a soft cushion for your other gear to ride on top of.
- Keep spare clothes near the top of your pack for easy access without having to unpack other gear. These include an insulation jacket, rain jacket, and pants. Your first aid kit, water filter, and personal items like toilet paper, hand sanitizer, and a bag to pack out used toilet paper should also be at hand.
- Keep items you’ll use often during the day (such as snacks, maps, camera, water bottles, sunglasses, etc.) where you can grab them without taking off your pack, like in hipbelt pockets or side pockets.
Pack weight and terrain features
In general, avoid heavy packs full of irrelevant things and aim to carry no more than 15-20 kg of gear including your food and water supplies added to the clothes on your back. On rare occasions, you’ll have to carry a heavier load. Bring enough water, especially when hiking in arid regions since water is, by far, the most important thing you’ll carry with you on a hike in an arid environment. If you’re traveling with a group, sharing camping and cooking equipment will reduce this a little; specialized and warmer gear for winter conditions will add to it. Remember that the way weight feels is subjective depending on such factors like terrain, weather conditions, physical condition, and even hiking experience.
Be conservative in planning your hike. There is no such thing as too much information. Just sort it out and figure out what’s really important and what’s not of value for your hike. You enter into a world in which planning and preparation, self-reliance, and good choices are crucial.
Mistakes to avoid
- Last minute packing
Do the packing the day(s) before the hike to avoid forgetting some important things like a raincoat, headlamp, fire starter, etc. Novice backpackers often make the mistake to do their packing in a rush the night before a hiking trip.
- Not packing properly for the occasion
It happens often to both beginner backpackers who don’t have much experience and to seasoned hikers with a lot of experience who had underestimated the sudden changes in mountain weather. Especially if you go up a mountain, pack a rain jacket, windbreaker, and some warm clothes even if you think you won’t need it.
- Not bringing an extra pair of socks
Especially if it’s cold /winter, bring at least one pair of thick woolen socks (it’s best if you have two or three). They’ll not only keep your feet warm but also wool blend socks don’t feel as clammy as synthetic or cotton socks when wet. Additionally, in order to warm your hands in very cold weather, you can use your extra pair of socks as mittens.
- Using untested gear such as a tent or sleeping bag
You risk staying wet, cold, and shivery for days. Always test your most essential gear items before a long hiking trip.
- Not keeping a dry set of clothes to sleep in
Staying warm and dry during your time for rest is good for both health and morale. Thus, bringing an extra set of clothes to sleep in is highly recommended.
The process of planning and packing for a multi-day hike is similar to what you should do before a day hike, though now it will take more time and efforts. Get some good hiking attire appropriate for the environment you'll be hiking in, pick up a pair of well-fitting hiking shoes, choose a comfortable hiking backpack, and you can start packing for your multi-day adventure. And finally, remember that good gear is not a substitute for skill - it’s far more important to have knowledge, skills, and experience than to buy only the latest high-tech designs. Even without the best gear, get outside and hike. Nature is not your rival. It's beautiful, authentic, and should be treated with respect.