Packing Your Hiking Backpack for a Multi-Day Hike
Preparing 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 pack. In extreme circumstances, the inadequate gear could even be life-threatening.
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.
What do you need to pack for a multi-day hike?
On longer trips, or when an extra gear is required, a large internal-frame pack carries heavier loads comfortably. A frameless pack is also an option and although lighter, it is highly improbable that it will be as comfortable as a framed pack.
Pack needs to be well balanced: place the heaviest items (such as food, water, stove fuel) against your back and tighten the pack’s compression straps. 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. Put your sleeping bag on the bottom. This provides a soft cushion for your other gear to ride on top of. It works like a shock absorber to reduce the impact on your shoulders and hips. Keep spare clothes near the top of your pack for easy access without having to unpack other gear. Keep items you’ll use often during the day (such as snacks, maps, camera, water bottles) where you can grab them without taking off your pack, like in hipbelt pockets or side pockets.
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. However, if you decide to put on boots, make sure they are broken in, otherwise, your hike might not be very enjoyable. Your choice of footwear is perhaps most critical when it comes to comfort and stability on uneven, slippery terrain. You can also check our post about hiking footwear.
Wear layers of clothes to match the forecast and season. Avoid cotton; bet on synthetics - preferable polyester or merino wool. For changing weather get: two pairs of socks, polyester convertible pants, waterproof and breathable pants, polyester T-shirt, polyester hiking shirt, fleece top, insulation jacket, rain jacket, two pairs of polyester underpants, base layer set, sun hat, warm beanie, and gloves (if it’s cold). 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 trip, 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.
- 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 night together with your sleeping pad and shelter.
- 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. In general, a 70 kg person burns between 430 and 440 calories per hour of hiking. A 90 kg person burns approximately 550 calories per hour of hiking. 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 a five day trip, you can prepare a food list according to your taste or check this one.
- Cookware - cook stove (and enough fuel), cook pot, food jar, and a spoon.
- 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 4-5 or more liters of water, while on other occasions the amount of water may not exceed a liter or two.
- A portable water filter is an indispensable tool for ensuring that you have clean drinking water during your hike into the backcountry.
- 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.
- Backpack rain cover, pack liner, and dry sacks (sleep bag sack, food sack, clothing sack, ditty sack) will keep your stuff dry.
- Raincoat or a loose-fitting poncho depending on the weather forecast and the hiking location.
- First aid kit and repair kit - among the essentials in your first aid kit, you should include some analgesics/antibiotics/anaphylaxis (Ibuprofen, Acetaminophen, Sting relief pad etc.), bandages, antiseptic towelettes, blister care pads, 2"x2" and 3"x3" gauze sponges, safety whistle, water-purifying tablets, 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, and handkerchiefs for good personal hygiene.
- Sunglasses, sunscreen with UPF, lip balm are very important because you may get scorched if you underestimate the sun.
- Flashlight or headlamp is a must when being outdoors at night.
- Bear spray for self-defense.
- Mobile phone in a shock and waterproof case so that it stays safe and secure.
- Wallet and documents
- Toothbrush and toothpaste
- Quick-drying towel
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.
- Signal mirror
- Insect repellent
- Book or a Kindle – especially useful if you prefer solo hiking.
- Notebook and pen
- Multi-function watch with altimeter
- Toilet trowel
- Bear canister
Pack weight and terrain features
In general, 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 as 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.