It seems the internet is awash in packing lists. Lightweight packing lists, beginner packing lists, gear lists for a specific trail… I’m guilty of writing a few myself!
Backpacking gear lists are helpful, but reading too many can lead you toward a combined mega-list that is definitely NOT ultralight. If you’re just starting out, it’s important to understand that while most gear lists do share the basic essentials (shelter, sleeping bag or quilt, hydration, etc) we each approach the details and extras a little differently.
To illustrate how gear preferences can evolve with experience and to help you drop a few pounds from your pack, I thought it would be fun to post an “anti packing list” for backpacking. Everything in this list is an item I once packed for a backpacking trip but no longer carry.
Some turned out to be too heavy, some I never used, and some I replaced with lighter or better alternatives. Far too many, I realize as I write this, are still languishing in my garage! I should really do something about that…
I hope this “do not pack” list inspires you to take a closer look at your own backpacking gear list and weed out a few items you no longer need. Your feet, knees, and shoulders will thank you for it!
In my early days of backpacking, I actually thought I needed a fresh shirt for each day of a several-day trip! That was before I discovered lightweight backpacking, and long before working from home normalized wearing the same shirt for days in a row even in regular life. (Right? Anyone else?)
It was also before I discovered the magic of merino wool. A single lightweight, wicking, and naturally stink-resistant shirt is all I need now, whether I’m on the trail for a weekend or several months. My favorites are the various models of Tech Lite T-shirts from Icebreaker: Tech Lite Tee Women (Amazon) and Tech Lite Tee Men (Amazon).
Washing with soap – body, clothes, and dishes – just seems like necessary civilized behavior. I do it at home, so why wouldn’t I do it on the trail? It took some experience to realize there’s no real danger* in going without soap, but now my trail washing routines are simpler and more Leave No Trace compliant.
You may already know you should use biodegradable soap. Hopefully you also know that you should carry water at least 200 feet from the source and do your washing there, letting the runoff filter through the ground before rejoining the water supply. This makes for quite an involved camp routine.
Turns out you can get the job done without soap entirely. Here’s how:
- Dishes: Rinse with warm water, drink the water (yum, extra calories), wipe with bandana. More on washing backpacking dishes here.
- Body: Splash with water from your water bottle, scrub a bit, air dry.
- Clothes: Rinse smelly parts with water only, either away from the source or directly in a large and/or flowing source like a recreational lake or river. More tips here.
Granted, all of these techniques work best when you can give everything a good deep clean every few days. If you’re thru hiking, usually this means stopping by a town every 3-7 days and doing laundry, washing dishes, and taking a real shower.
*Ok, there are a couple actual dangers to watch out for. 1) Bring some hand sanitizer for after you poop so you don’t get or spread Giardia. 2) Keep your nether regions clean enough to avoid rash and infection. No soap needed for either of those, but that doesn’t mean we can ignore hygiene completely.
Those mini camp towels are so cute and absorbent, but I find them totally unnecessary for backpacking. I do still carry one while bikepacking, where the weight-to-effort calculation is a little different and I’m more likely to take actual showers at campgrounds, RV parks, and hostels. But for backpacking, it’s permanently off the gear list.
For splashing down behind a bush in the backcountry, a tiny towel solves a very temporary problem that evaporation also solves pretty well. If I can’t air dry in a minute or two, I’ll do a quick pass with a spare item of clothing and I’m good to go.
Sawyer Squeeze Bags
If you use a Sawyer water filter, you probably know that the included squeeze bags are awful. They’re hard to fill, a pain to squeeze, and have a bad habit of bursting at the seams. A few years ago I swapped mine for a CNOC Vecto and never looked back. It doesn’t save weight, it just makes life better.
Hopefully we can all agree that it’s important to dig a hole (at least 8″ deep) and bury your poop when doing business in the backcountry. If you’re not already aware, let me also take this opportunity to tell you that it’s proper form to pack out your used TP. A ziplock baggie is all you need.
The question of how to dig the hole, however, is open for debate. Some backpackers carry an aluminum (or even titanium – how fancy!) trowel specifically for this purpose. I’ve used one in the past, specifically for the Arizona Trail with its abundance of hard and rocky soil. I was glad to have it there! But on forested trails lined with soft soil, a hiking pole, tent stake, rock, or sturdy stick works almost as well.
This is a classic example of the lightweight backpacking mantra: pack multiuse gear. Why bring a separate digging implement when another item you’re already carrying can serve the same purpose?
On my first backpacking trip ever, I carried a heavy tarp to spread beneath my heavy tent. I’m sure I saw “ground sheet” on some backpacking gear list and just assumed it was essential.
After one or two trips I realized the floor of my tent was already rather tarp-like. What was the point of the ground sheet anyway? It still sits in my garage, ready for some future car camping expedition but never to be carried on my back again.
To be clear: the point of a ground sheet is to protect the bottom of your tent, and that’s still a worthwhile consideration. Especially with today’s lightweight tents, the floor will eventually become worn if not treated carefully. It’s always a good habit to be mindful about where you pitch and remove any sharp pebbles or sticks first. In many cases, this is enough!
If you camp often in rough and rocky areas, you may still want a little something to protect your tent. I suggest a lightweight sheet of Tyvek or Polycryo, or even a painter’s drop cloth cut to size. With some experience you may develop your own preferences about where and when to use a minimalist ground sheet, or not.
I still have a pale blue and slightly fuzzy inflatable pillow in my garage from early backpacking trips. I haven’t used it in years, ever since I left it home by accident and realized that my 8L stuff sack, filled with spare layers and lined with a buff, makes an even better pillow.
Not everyone will agree with me here; in fact my husband swears by his ultralight inflatable pillow. But I actually prefer my makeshift stuff sack to his fancy design (yes, I borrowed it once). I like the way I can customize the firmness by choosing what I put in it and how far I roll up the closure. And it hits the “multiuse gear” nail squarely on the head.
A pair of sports sandals made a brief appearance in my pack during the early days. What a relief to slip sore feet out of ill-fitting hiking shoes at the end of a long day!
Eventually I discovered Altra Lone Peak shoes and switched to hiking in trail runners. Not coincidentally, I lost my desire for camp sandals. When my hiking shoes are comfy enough that I don’t even think about them, there’s little reason to carry a second pair to change into.
I will admit that camp sandals still have a place, especially if they’re very lightweight. If water crossings will be frequent and rough, or you’ll be using public showers at RV parks or campgrounds, sandals might be worth the weight. I still carry them bikepacking for these reasons, and because bike shoes are less comfy than trail running shoes.
During my first mini-thru hike, the John Muir Trail, I carried both a fleece half-zip and a lightweight down puffy. The reasoning: more flexibility in layering options, and a more wet-resistant layer for worst-case scenarios. (Fleece insulates better than down if wet, but you still want to keep them both dry.)
I have nothing against fleece, to be clear. It’s a good tool in the outdoor layering toolkit, and I do occasionally still use it for very rainy hikes. But usually I just carry a single mid-weight down puffy jacket (Arc’teryx Cerium), which is warm enough for almost any 3 season adventure and much less bulky.
Separate Pot + Bowl
For the solo backpackers out there, combining your pot and eating container is a great way to save weight and especially space. I do this in one of two ways depending on which stove setup I’m using:
JetBoil MicroMo: Eat out of the JetBoil container.
Regular backpacking stove: Cook directly in my titanium mug.
Granted, I usually also carry a collapsible mug so I can enjoy a beverage while I eat my food – what luxury! And if I’m hiking with my husband or otherwise sharing a stove with someone, we’ll each bring our own separate bowls.
Stock First Aid Kit
To be clear, I absolutely still carry a first aid kit when I backpack, and I suggest you do too! My approach to the details, however, has changed.
In the early days I packed a stock kit without hardly even checking what was inside. It’s better than nothing, but are 85 Band-Aids and a packet of Advil really going to save your butt in the backcountry?
These days I build a custom kit for each major trip, and I think of the items in two categories:
- Things I might actually use, based on experience. Examples: Tums, Imodium, New Skin liquid bandage (for small cuts). Your list might be different, but the point is to carry enough of these items that you’ll have what you need.
- Things I hope to not need, but if I did need them they might make a difference in my outcome. Examples: large gauze pads, clotting powder, Benadryl for allergic reactions, tick remover in high-risk areas.
This isn’t a full list by any means, and I’m not qualified to make detailed first aid recommendations. My point is that I don’t waste space on items that aren’t in one of those two categories. If I don’t have a decent chance of using it and it won’t make a meaningful difference in a bad situation, I leave it out.
Feminine Products / Extra TP
Ladies, I cannot overstate what a difference these two changes have made in my quality of life on the trail: learn to pee in the woods without using toilet paper, and try a menstrual cup when hiking during your period.
Total game changers! Less to pack in, and more importantly, less to pack out.
Hopefully this “unpacking list” gives you a sense of how backpacking experience can change your gear preferences. Not every experienced hiker makes the same changes I have, but they aren’t uncommon.
In the spirit of “pack what you need and need what you pack,” I hope you’ll enjoy thinking a little more carefully about your backpacking gear list. Maybe you have some of your own changes you’ve been meaning to make. There’s no better time than before your next adventure.
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More Backpacking Resources
If you found this article helpful, you might also like these:
- Desert Backpacking: Essential Skills and Gear
- 5 Ways to Carry Water While Backpacking
- Thru Hiking vs. Backpacking: What’s the Difference?
There’s even more where those came from, over at the hiking and backpacking resources page.
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