Overnight Backpacking Checklist

So, your gearing up for your first, fifth or tenth night out on the trail and want a handy checklist to make sure you've got everything you need for an overnight?  Here you go.

Let's start with the easy stuff and move on from there.  Note that not everything is an absolute essential, but the more of this stuff you have the more 'comfortable' your experience will be.  If you're a minimalist then all you need is a bivy sack, water, food and a campfire but we're going to dive in to some of the more common essentials that will fuel your fire for a lifelong pursuit of fun.

If you're just looking for a simple overnight backpacking checklist, scroll right down to the bottom where I condense everything into one short list.  Otherwise, read on to dive into each item.

Sleep System and Components - Before you step out the door, check the weather forecast and make any last minute adjustments or perhaps even bail on the trip altogether.  If the temps are going to drop below the rating on your sleeping system then you'll be much better off postponing than being too cold.  Trust me.  I've been there and done that.

Sleeping Bag - It wouldn't be much of a comfortable overnight if you were absent a sleeping bag so you'll have to score one.  Gear Tip: Although the manufacturer's temperature rate their bags with a bit of conservatism, the temp rating is the bottom temperature that the bag will keep you "comfortable."  Note, some people sleep warmer than others so it's best not to test the limits of your sleeping bag rating on the first night.  It is also very important to take into consideration your overall exposure.  There is a major difference in how warm you will sleep in the same bag when in a lean to versus a one person tent.  Keep that in mind.

Tent or Lean To? - Back when I was getting into backpacking for the first time, I immediately purchased a one person tent thinking it would be with me on every trip.  And since I discovered Lean To's on my first trip, I have yet to bring it with me again.  Tents are non-essential if there are abundant Lean To's or cabins on the trail.  And I've been out in November-December-January-February in Upstate NY.  When you're equipped with an adequate sleep system then the amount of cover or exposure you have can be accommodated.  So, figure out where you want to spend your dollars.  Had I known then what I know now, I would have dumped the extra cash I spent on my tent into an even better sleeping bag.

And when you're shopping around for a sleeping bag, grab up a compression sack too.  Many backpacking sleeping bags already come with one but in case they don't make sure that's on your list too.  The sleeping bag is one of the bulkiest things you'll carry and a compression sack keeps the volume down to a much more manageable size.

Note: The one issue with the Lean To to take into consideration is that you might happen upon someone else using it.  If it makes you uncomfortable to sleep 'next' to a stranger then a tent might be a better move.

Sleeping Pad - Foam Pads and Blow Up Mattresses can make the difference between a great night's sleep and misery.  I've found that the older I get, the more cushion I need to keep me slumbering through the night.

I've got a Cabella's blow up mattress that inflates/deflates easily, provides about one inch worth of loft off the ground/floor and packs light.  Don't overlook the importance of having a decent sleeping pad and a $5 Yoga Mat, although easy on the wallet, might not be the best choice.  The more loft you get off the ground, the more insulation value you get.  That means warmer nights and better, more comfortable sleep.

Hammock? - Hammock camping is also a popular option for the overnight backpacker.  For one, it gets you up off the ground and is amazingly comfortable in the right conditions.  As with anything you can dump a bundle full of money here too so shop around.  I found my Hennessey Ultralight Backpacker Hammock on Craigslist for $50 [a $250 value].  It was a 130 mile round trip but was time well spent.  It's got a built in mosquito net and rain tarp.

The thing about hammock camping is that it can get super expensive [two to three times as much as tent camping] if you're a 3 to 4 season backpacker.  From late spring to early fall when overnight lows don't fall below 50F, the hammock is plenty warm when paired with an appropriate sleeping bag.  But if you want to get out for an overnight when temps are dropping into the 30s and below, then you'll need to pickup an underquilt and top quilt for about a $700-$1000 investment.  That exposure to your back and bottom makes it very hard to insulate against without having the quilts.

Important Note: Hammock setup really deserves it's own blog and be sure to read up on all that before choosing a hammock or setting up for the first time.  But of utmost importance that I'd like to point out is to be watchful for "Widow Makers".

Widow Makers - No, this isn't something you bring along, but something rather that you need to look out for before setting up camp.  If you're scouting out an area with some overhead cover, which is smart by the way, just keep a look out overhead in your immediate area for dead trees and tree limbs that are ready to fall.  You don't want your campsite near them.  At some point that old dead wood will fall and probably during a stiff breeze in the middle of the night when you are sleeping.  Thus the name...Widow Maker.

Tarp - If rain is in the forecast and that's not stopping you, cool.  Rain happens.  It's part of being out there.  And you should prepare for it to rain even it the forecast isn't calling for it.  But bringing along a good sized tarp is a convenient necessity [can I say that??] rain or shine.  The Lean To makes a great shelter obviously but if you've got nothing to keep you dry when or if rain comes then you'll either be getting wet or you'll be crouched inside your tent reading a book.  Bring along a tarp and set it up as soon as you make camp.  You'll be glad you did.

Fire Making Equipment - For me, the absolute best part of the backpacking experience is the time I spend around the campfire.  The sight, sound and smell are super relaxing to me and even the worst work week can melt away with a great night in front of a campfire.  So here's the deal.  Before you set out on the trail, practice making a fire at least a half-dozen times.  And then, bring two means by which to make fire until you are completely skilled at making fire.

Here's what I bring every time - a handful of dryer lint [this stuff ignites easily every time] and flint and steel.  I keep the dryer lint in a ziploc bag.  You can go with a separate flint and steel [picture top left] or there are even camp knives out there that have flint that nests in the handle.  [Thanks to my buddy John for gifting me the knife - completely cool]  Gear Tip: If you don't happen to have dryer lint around then cotton balls work great too.  And adding a few drops of vaseline or hand sanitizer will light up even damp wood.

Making fire is pretty straightforward and I'll shoot some video on my techniques that anyone can do.  But seriously - - practice at home before you go out the first time.

Camp Saw - For about $15 you can land a foldable, lightweight camp saw.  And they are indispensable for fire making.  Mine is made in Utica, NY that I picked up at Dick's Sporting Goods and I couldn't be happier with it.  Having one of these is just good practice.  Finding dead wood near your campsite won't be the issue but how to cut it all into fire feeding pieces?  The Camp Saw.  Enough said.

Food - Here's another super fun part about the whole backpacking experience.  Who doesn't enjoy a good meal, a glass of wine or beer at the end of the day?  Just because you're on the trail doesn't mean you have to sacrifice here.  And that's especially true for single overnight backpacking outings.  I've hiked in some pretty heavy foodstuffs when I knew the distance was short and I was only out for one night.  Take into consideration your expected arrival at the campsite when it comes to how elaborate your meal plan is.  You've got to allow time for laying out your gear, setting up camp, gathering wood and water perhaps and building a fire.  All that stuff can take a good hour.

And if you're fairly new to outdoor cooking, make it easy on yourself by picking up a few Mountain House dehydrated meals to bring along.  They are super easy and fast to prepare [most take just 1-2 cups of boiling water] and they taste great and clean up with ease.  My suggestion is to start there for your main course then if you want to add smores cooked over the open campfire that's a perfect end to the day.

Here's another important rule:  Do all your cooking and eating at least 1-2 hours before dark.  That will leave you plenty of time to cook, enjoy your meal and clean up with enough daylight left to hang whatever food you have left up in a tree at least 100 yds away from your campsite.  Get any and all food away from your campsite sleep area when it's time for lights out.  You don't need any visitors during the night.

Cookware - If you're going to cook, you'll need something to cook with and there's no shortage of options.  Keeping it simple at first is easier.  The Mountain House dehydrated meals only require boiling water so grab a stainless steel cookset [I'm partial to the Stanley Adventure Camp Cookset] and a heat source.

Alcohol Stoves are cheap, easy to make on your own and they do a great job.  I started out with a MSR Pocket Rocket with a propane/butane fuel canister [$50 investment] but now find myself carrying my Alcohol Stove on every trip [about $10 with fuel]

Here's my thoughts on the Alcohol Stove versus MSR Pocket Rocket type stove.  If I had to do it all over again, the alcohol stove would have been my first stove because of their low cost and ease of operating.

Gear Tip: [And this one is super important] Don't cook any food directly over a fire created with denatured alcohol or isopropyl alcohol.  There are toxins that are released that can and will get into your food.  If you want to direct cook over an open flame, it's best to do it right over your wood campfire.  So, if smores and hotdogs are on your list, keep that in mind.

Water - Your number one 'survival' need is of course water.  I bring no less than 2 liters of water with me on my quick one-night overnighters [usually 6PM - 7AM] and I find that I'm just running out of water when I jump in my car to head home.  Perfect.

Your water needs vary based on weather conditions, length and difficulty level of your hike in/out and your cooking requirements [dehydrated meals, coffee, etc.]  I'd suggest bringing along one or two 1L Nalgenes [or equivalent in water bottles] and a simple water purification system like the Sawyer Mini.

Do some homework before you leave on your destination to see if there are available water sources.  If so, packing along a water purifier like the Sawyer Mini is a perfect supplement to carrying extra water.  I've got a few favorite spots that I frequent and I know where the water sources are so I pack a little lighter knowing that I can get water right on the trail.

Light Source - The campfire is a great alternative light source but don't count on it to provide enough light to search for firewood, water or something in your pack.  Carry along a minimum of two different light sources, one of which should be a headlamp.

The headlamp just couldn't be a more awesome piece of gear.  They give off an enormous amount of light for their compact, lightweight size, they shine the light wherever your eyes are looking and they operate hands free.  What could be better??  Seriously buy two of these and bring them along.

Gear Tip: If all the comments above haven't convinced you to get a headlamp, consider that you just might have to pack up and leave in the middle of the night in the event of an emergency.  Your headlamp will keep that option open.

So there you have it.  Pack up with all of this stuff and you're on your way to a comfortable and enjoyable night on the trail.  And finally, what to pack all this in?

The Backpack - Now here's where you can dump a pileful of money - don't.  No matter how much you might be drawn to a $200+ pack don't spend your hard earned cash here.  What about size?  Backpacks do come in a very wide range of sizes.  First off, with all the gear I listed above you will be more than comfortable out on the trail, especially if you find a lean to.  And all that gear above fits nicely into a 40 Liter [40L] backpack.  Don't worry about bringing along a change of clothes.  That takes up a ton of room and for a single night out it just isn't a necessity.  Socks yes. Other stuff, no.

My backpack is a 40L from REI.  It's loaded with interior space and has a zippered opening on the top and bottom.  That's a great feature since I load my sleeping bag in first.  I can unzip the bottom and get my bag out without having to take everything else out.  It's a Bonus yes, but not an absolute necessity.

The fit:  Most backpacks come with a pretty wide range of adjustment in the shoulder straps.  If at all possible, try it on before you buy and make sure the hip belt goes around your hips just below your hip bone.  You don't want the hip belt around your stomach.  That's uncomfortable and inefficient.  If it's riding too high, adjust those shoulder straps.

The Overnight Backpacking Checklist [Abridged Version]

Backpack [about 40 Liter volume for single overnight]
Sleeping Bag - rated about 20F below expected overnight temps
with Compression Sack
Sleeping Pad or Mattress Pad
Ground Cloth
Rain Gear - poncho
Fire Starter - Dryer Lint, cotton balls
Matches, Lighter or Flint & Steel
Camp Saw
Cook Pot
Drinking Cup
Quick No Cook Snack Food
Dehydrated Meals
Small Backpacking Stove
with Fuel Source [Butane/Propane]
Alcohol Stove
with Denatured Alcohol in Small Squeeze Bottles [store in ziploc]
Water Bottles [use Nalgenes if temps below freezing]
Portable Sterilizer or Iodine Tablets
Headlamps [preferably two]
Candle Lantern or Flashlight
First Aid Kit - aspirin, band aids, antiseptic
Travel Toothbrush/Toothpaste
Rope - paracord
Hat [one for day and knit cap for night]
Extra socks
Ziploc Bags
Book or Playing Cards

Thanks for reading!


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