This article has information that I share with first time backpackers for 2-day or 3-day trips in California. Our destination is Sykes Hot Springs or Lost Coast Trail or somewhere in the Sierras. We typically walk 6 to 9 miles per day.
Where to buy? My favorite shops are REI ($20 membership fees but they give you 10% off everything you purchase full price and they have regular sales), Sierra Trading Post (lots of deals, slightly older gear, cheaper than latest gear) and Amazon (some items are on sale, cheaper than REI). Sometimes, the best deal is available by direct purchase from the manufacturer. There are many other online shops: see this article and this article.
Rent or Borrow: Expensive items like tent and sleeping bag can be rented at REI or borrowed from friends who backpack.
The lighter your backpack, the brighter you will feel on the trail! Lighter backpacks are costlier. To a beginner, savings of 1 pound may not mean much. However, seasoned backpackers try to shave off every ounce that they possibly can. For ultra-light backpacks (more $$ than regular backpacks), check out OurdoorGearLab: The Best Ultralight Backpacks for 2017.
The 'fitting' of a backpack to the shape of your torso is very important. If the backpack doesn't fit you, your posture when walking will be improper. Typically, you will be stooping forward instead of walking upright, leading to discomfort in the lower back and the shoulders.
For good fitting, modern backpack allow for many adjustments which an REI sales rep can show you. Make sure that your sales rep has backpacking experience; not all of them do. The sales rep who helped me spent almost 30 minutes finding the best backpack for me, adjusting the straps, filling it with weights and asking me to walk around. All along, he kept giving me backpacking related tips. That was awesome!
I'd suggest buying a large sized backpack: 55L or 65L. This should suffice for 6-day trips. In future, if you will do multi-day snow trips, a large backpack will be helpful in carrying extra winter gear.
Many parks in California (especially the popular ones) require a bear canister. So make sure that BearVault BV-450 (small-sized) or BearVault BV-500 (large-sized) fits in your backpack. The choice of bear canister (small vs large) depends on the number of days in the trip and the number of people sharing that bear canister. For example, for a 2-day trip, 2-person trip, a single BV-450 may suffice.
3-season tent will suffice for summer backpacking trips. The same tent will suffice for winter snowshoeing trips as well. 4-season tents are heavier and more durable. They are needed for mountaineering trips where weather could become nasty.
The lighter the tent, the more $$ you'll spend.
Most of my friends have 1-person or 2-person tents. There is no industy standard for the dimensions of a 2-person tent. Generally speaking, an ultra-light 2-person tent will be quite snug for 2 persons. See (REI) How To Choose a Tent.
Practice setting up your tent at home before you start the trip. That way, you'll make sure that you have all the parts of the tent with you. And you won't have to read instructions or struggle with set up and potentially damage the tent on the first night of your trip.
2) Tent Rainfly: All tents come with a tent rainfly (the 'tent cover') for protection from rain.
Weather is unpredictable in the Sierras. So even if the forecast predicts 'chances of rain: 0%', we still carry the tent rainfly with ourselves.
A tent cover makes the tent warmer at night.
Condensation is a non-obvious phenomena: water droplets form inside the tent rainfly at night making our gear wet. A wet sleeping bag is definitely not helpful. What causes condensation? is a good video that explains the physics behind the phenomenon. How to minimize condensation by choosing a good campsite. When setting up a tent, make sure that the rainfly has sufficient tension in every direction. Otherwise, the rainfly will be in contact with the tent, resulting in condensation.
If 2 persons will share a tent, the weight of the tent may be distributed among them. One person may carry the bottom and the stakes. The other person may carry the tent rainfly.
3) Tent Footprint: A tent footprint is spread on the ground before setting up a tent. It protects the bottom of the tent from abrasion caused by dirt, rocks and vegetation. Many of my friends do not get a tent footprint with themselves. They believe that the material in modern tents is strong enough to withstand abrasion. I always carry a footprint with myself.
Tent footprints are sold separately for additional $$. A cheaper alternative is to build your own footprint:
Tyvek Fabric 1443r 43 GSM is a lightweight, strong sheet that's popular for use as tent footprints (read the reviews on Amazon). With a pair of scissors, cut this sheet so that both the length and width are a few inches shorter than the bottom of the tent. Otherwise, water will collect between the footprint and the bottom of the tent if it rains at night.
Make sure that the sleeping bag is rated 20F or less. This way, you can also use it for snowshoeing and skiing trips in cold weather.
There are two choices for sleeping bag material: synthetic or down. Synthetic sleeping bags are slighly heavier but cheaper. More importantly, they continue to provide warmth even if the sleeping bag gets wet. Practically speaking, when would a sleeping bag get wet? Due to condensation or due to spillage inside the backpack or when it's raining and we are not careful when opening our backpack and setting up tent.
I have a down sleeping bag. I have been caught in drizzle a few times and I haven't had any problems.
2) Sleeping Bag Storage:
Stuff Sack: This is a small-sized sack into which the sleeping bag gets stuffed for carrying inside a backpack. This sack should be lined with a cheap polythene bag or a garbage bag or a trash compactor bag. This lining protects the sleeping bag from getting wet accidentally. See this article for details.
Storage Sack: This is a large-sized sack in which the sleeping bag is kept uncompressed at home. When not in use, sleeping bags (especially down sleeping bags) should be kept uncompressed.
3) (Optional) Sleeping Bag Liner: Serve two purposes:
If you borrow somebody else's sleeping bag or if you have an expensive sleeping bag, the liner protects the interior of the backpack from getting dirty. Also see How To Wash a Down Sleeping Bag.
For snow trips, an experienced friend recommends getting two sleeping pads! In my snow trips, I have carried only one sleeping pad (Therm-A-Rest NeoAir XTherm) which has a high R-Value. However, if you're carrying a sleeping pad with a low R-Value, maybe you should get two such pads or upgrade to something with high R-Value.
Hiking poles are highly recommended! They provide additional support, especially when going downhill and carrying a heavy backpack . Hiking poles are also helpful in stream crossings (a large sized tree branch suffices in lieu of hiking poles).
1) One Nalgene Bottle: The 32oz Wide-Mouth Nalgene Bottle is the most popular water bottle among outdoor enthusiasts. Make sure that you buy a 'wide-mouth' Nalgene bottle. The Nalgene bottle is so popular that many other backpacking items are made to fit its size. For example, water filters by manufacturers like Katadyn and MSR will fit its wide-mouth and steel mugs will fit the bottom. If you're not convinced that you should buy a Nalgene bottle, read What's so good about a Nalgene bottle?
2) Two 16oz Lightweight Water bottles: In addition to the 32oz Wide-Mouth Nalgene Bottle, I carry two 16oz lightweight plastic bottles like those by Arrowhead. Such lightweight bottles are flimsy. They may puncture or crack.
Instead of carrying the 32-oz Nalgene Bottle and two 16oz Lightweight Water Bottles, it is possible to go light with Platypus bottles. These bottles are lightweight, stronger than regular lightweight water bottles but weaker than Nalgene bottles. I personally feel safer with Nalgene bottles because they are really sturdy. Also, Platypus bottles don't come in wide mouth; it is major convenience to hook up the Katadyn / MSR water filter to a wide mouth Nalgene bottle.
3) Purifier vs Filter: The differences between the two are explained in two excellent articles by REI: here and here. Basically, a water filter removes large sized particles and organisms like bacteria. For removing tiny-sized viruses, chemical treatment is necessary. Such treatment is done by water purifiers.
Microscopic particles, bacteria and viruses are all around us, including the water we drink. So the question is: where exactly do we encounter bad particles, bad bacteria and bad viruses along hiking trails that we should avoid consuming? My understanding is that water available high up in icy mountains, close to its origin, is pristine. Even if such water is muddy, it is full of minerals and it need not be filtered or purified. As water trickles down and comes in touch with human waste and animals, it becomes important to remove tiny viruses, not just large sized bacteria.
I always carry a 'water purification' system, not just a 'water filter'. I have tried both of the options below with success:
4) Electrolytes: Helpful when walking in the sun. Not really necessary if we get salts via foods like energy bars. Electrolytes come in various forms like pills, powders and gels. My favorite electrolyte is Nuun Lemon & Lime which has to be mixed in water. The resulting drink tastes like 'shikanjwi' (Indian homemade lemonade) — pretty awesome!
5) Hydration Pack? No: Some people prefer to carry hydration packs which enable continuous sipping of water. A good one is CamelBak Hydration Bladder (7.6 oz). An experienced friend suggests that we should always carry a Nalgene bottle as a backup in case the hydration pack gets punctured. He has actually seen punctured hydration packs. Also, electrolytes cannot be mixed in hydration packs.
For breakfast and dinner (not lunch), we typically attach a fuel canister to a stove and turn it on. Then place a mug filled with water on the flame. Cover the mug with a lid (otherwise, it takes much longer for water to boil). When water starts boiling, we take the mug off the flame. Then either (a) add freeze-dried food to the mug and cover it with a lid, or (b) transfer boiling water to the free-dried food pouch and seal the pouch. Freeze dried food + hot water in a sealed container cooks the food in about 10 minutes.
This video shows the entire sequence: how to assemble a typical backpacking stove, attach it to a fuel canister, how to boil water and so on.
Mug & lid:
Beginning backpackers may invest in a steel cup or any other lightweight container which can be placed on a flame for boiling water. Weight-conscious ultra-light backpackers usually invest in a titanium cup (you also need a lid). This mug should be large enough to hold one serving of oatmeal that you'll consume in the morning.
Spork: Some lightweight spoon or fork will suffice. A 'spork' is a combination of fork + spoon.
How much food do we carry in our backpack at the beginning of the trip? For 2-day trip: 1 breakfast, 2 lunches, 1 dinner per person. For 3-day trip: 2 breakfasts, 3 lunches, 2 dinners per person. For 4-day trip: 3 breakfasts, 4 lunches, 3 dinners per person. Basically, the breakfast for Day 1 and the dinner for the last day are not carried.
Trader Joe's has 'freeze dried fruits' (blueberries, strawberries, bananas, pineapple) — these are super-lightweight and swell when mixed with water. They add a lot of flavor to cereal.
I top my oatmeal with a homemade mixture of nuts, dates, cocoa powder, chia seeds and flax seeds. Sometimes, I carry Trader Joe's freeze dried fruits with me. On Day 1, I additionally consume a couple of bananas before starting to walk.
If you prefer Indian tea, check out Quik Tea Cardamom Chai (Quick Tea has other flavors too). Each pouch includes sugar, milk, tea and cardamom. Simply empty the contents into hot water and stir well.
For lunch, we don't use a burner to boil water and cook our food. We eat 'on the go'. Good options are energy bars, trail mixes and dried fruit. Good trail mixes are found in Trader Joe's — see this article. Dried fruits like dates and figs are also found in Trader Joe's. A large selection of energy bars is found in shops like Sports Basement.
Indian alternatives to trail mixes and energy bars are roasted chana or 'sattu' (ground & roasted garbanzo beans which can be made into a thick paste by mixing in water) and 'thepla' (whole wheat 'paranthas' with fenugreek and spices).
On Day 1, hummus and pita bread is also a great option. Hummus tends to go bad by Day 2.
For dinner, we first boil water, then add either freeze-dried food or dehydrated food and let it be for about 10 minutes.
For freeze-dried foods, Mary Jane Farms had good vegetarian and vegan options.
If you would like to enjoy something like home-cooked 'rajmah-chawal' (kidney beans + rice), you may buy a dehydrator like Nesco FD 75A. Home cooked food feels awesome at night. Most people do not use dehydrators because it takes time to cook food and then wait for the dehydrator for 7-12 hours to dehydrate.
On one trip, we tried pre-cooked Indian curries in sealed plastic pouches. These are 'instant dinners', commonly found in Indian stores. See images in this article: Boil in the Bag Technique. These curries taste like restaurant food, with a heavy dose of spices and preservatives. These were tasty but heavier than freeze-dried food because they have so much water. Also, the plastic pouches were oily and we had to face the challenge of packing them into ziplock containers without letting them leak into the rest of our backpack. Overall, I was not very pleased with instant Indian food. I don't recommend getting these for backpacking trips.
At night, we have to protect our food from bears in almost every park in California. Three options are available:
Bear canisters are mandatory in some parks in California, especially the popular ones. Otherwise, heavy fines are levied.
The counter-balance method for hanging food is acceptable in some parks. Bears have an excellent sense of smell and they are good at climbing trees. Therefore, finding a tree branch suitable for protection from bears followed by proper food hanging technique are important. Over time, bears have become cleverer and food hanging is slowly going out of fashion in popular parks: see Food Storage Options at Sequoia and Kings Canyon, for example.
What goes into a bear canister? Anything with odor: not only food but also soap, toothpaste, hand sanitizers and so on. To a bear, all of these smell like food.
How many bear canisters to carry for X days and Y individuals? Keep in mind that lunch and dinner for Day 1 need not be placed in a bear canister. Only the food for Day 2 onwards, and other things that smell (soap, toothpaste, hand sanitizers, and so on) have to be kept in a bear canister at night.
When carrying food and bear canisters in our backpacks, avoid food leakages. Try to keep clothes food-free — this is not always possible because we carry energy bars in our pockets.
Keep the bear-canister at least 30-40 feet away from tents. REI recommends 100 ft away.
If the ground is not flat where u are camping, then keep the bear-canister on the downward side of your tent, so that if a bear comes and plays with the canister and it starts rolling then it doesn't come into the tent. Baby bears enjoy recreational activities with these canisters :)
Backpacks may be kept inside the vestibule of our tents but not inside the sleeping compartments (for space reasons). There is no need to keep backpacks far away.
1) Base Layer / Thermals (1st Layer): These are figure hugging tops and bottoms that keep us warm. Required for snow trips in winters. Not needed for summer trips. Base layers are made of merino wool or synthetic material or a blend of both. Merino wool is warmer than synthetic but harder to care for and takes longer to dry. Also, these base layers come in various thicknesses for varying degrees of warmth. I bought the thinnest base layer made of merino wool — that has kept me sufficiently warm in snow trips. For more information, see Wool vs Synethetic.
2) T Shirts (2nd Layer): Wear something lightweight and sythetic that will dry quickly. Do not wear cotton! Read Why Cotton Will Kill You.
3) Sweatshirt (3rd Layer): Made of fleece. Keeps us warm when walking. Make sure that it can be packed into something small.
4) Down Jacket (4th Layer):
Much warmer than sweatshirts. Surprisingly compact and lightweight. Delicate and require care. Do not wear a backpack directly on top of a down jacket. A down jacket (just like a down sleeping bag) loses its ability to keep us warm if it gets wet. So don't get it wet under any circumstances.
I always carry a down jacket for backpacking trips in California. It gets cold at night, even in summers. And weather in the Sierras is unpredictable.
5) Rain Jacket (5th Layer):
We usually go on trips when the weather forecast is clear and chances of rain are minimal. So rain jackets are rarely used in practice. They are for emergency situations, when it actually rains.
Rain jackets have to keep water droplets out. At the same time, they have to be porous so that they are breathable and let our sweat dry out. These are conflicting requirements. So building a good rain jacket is tough. Look for rain jackets which use Gortex, a material which provides a good balance of waterproofing and breathability.
For short trips (2-day trips), a poncho may suffice. For longer trips, an alternative to heavy duty rain jackets + pants is Frog Toggs Ultr-Lite2 Rain Suit. The material of this suit is somewhat flimsy; it tears easily; so we have to be careful when walking in rain. One of my friends finished the JMT (220-mile John Muir Trail) with Frog Toggs; he had to wear it on a couple of days when it rained; his rain suit tore at a few places.
6) Hiking Pants:
For men, convertible pants with several pockets are best. Convertible pants can be converted into shorts (half-pants) when it's too hot. Full pants are useful in cool weather or when going through thick brush. They are typically made of quick drying material. Pockets are handy for keeping various items on person, readily accessible.
7) Rain Pants:
Just like rain jackets, these pants are used in emergency situations when it actually rains. Rain jackets come with full length zippers (from top to bottom, running along the length of our legs) which make it easy to wear them quickly (without taking off our shoes) if it rains.
8) Undergarments: As a beginner backpacker, you need not optimize the underwear you wear. However, as you start doing several trips, you may consider reading these articles: best underwear for hiking (both men & women).
9) Belt: If you would like to save some weight, you may invest in StrapWorks Sports Belt which is cheap and lightweight (only 0.7oz).
Shoes & Socks
1) Shoes: For summer backpacking trips, trail running shoes will suffice. In the Bay Area, two great shops are The Running Revolution in Campbell and Zombie Runner in Palo Alto. These shops have computer-aided machines to measure your gait and find the right shoe for you.
Shoes for backpacking trips should have more clearance than regular shoes that we wear daily. Why? Our feet swell by afternoon when backpacking.
I stay away from 'hiking boots' for two reasons. First, they are relatively inflexible when compared to trail running shoes. I find it difficult to walk in inflexible shoes. Additionally, I believe that various tiny muscles in my foot don't develop as much in such shoes; such muscles atrophy, making the overall foot weak. Second, hiking boots are heavier and military studies have shown that 1 pound on your foot equals 5 pounds on you back.
There are some 'hiking socks' available at REI which allow our feet to breathe and wick moisture away. Such socks may not be necessary for a one-off trip. However, they are good to have if you spend a lot of time outdoors.
I carry two pairs of socks for backpacking trips. I wash one pair while wearing the other.
3) (Optional) Lightweight Flip Flops: For walking around in the campsite. Some people like to buy Njuta Slippers from Ikea which cost $3 and weigh 4oz. Such slippers are not necessary. Most people continue walking around in their hiking shoes in the evening because it gets cold at night in the Sierras.
1) Hat with Neck Flap: Must have to protect ourselves from the afternoon sun. I like hats with neck flaps like this one.
2) Warm Cap: Must have to protect ourselves from cold at night (even in summers). In case you have to get up at 2am to step out of your tent and pee, a warm cap will come in handy.
3) Warm Gloves: Optional for summer trips. Required for snow trips. Some people feel quite cold in their hands in early morning or late evening even in summers. Beginning backpackers should get gloves for their first trip, then gauge how cold they feel at night.
4) (Optional) Dry sacks for clothes: Dry sacks cost $$ and they are not essential for somebody doing their first trip. In my first few trips, I used ZipLock bags (small and large) to carry clothes. Later, I invested in dry sacks.
I find it convenient to divide my clothes into 2 or 3 different sets. I pack each set into a separate dry sack. The dry sack keeps clothes protected from accidental water spills (I have had my Nalgene bottle leak in two trips). And these sack reduce the volume taken up by clothes by squishing them into something small. Having multiple sacks helps because it gives me more flexibility in packing my backpack. See Budget Dry Sacks from Outdoor Products.
Headlamp & Spare Batteries
Headlamp (head mounted flashlight): Everybody must have a working headlamp, otherwise you cannot see in the evening when we cook food and set up tents. Sometimes, we get delayed and continue hiking beyond sunset to reach some campsite. Headlamps are important for night hiking.
Spare batteries: Important if the main batteries die or drain. I once had a poorly designed headlamp which drained batteries unintentionally by switching itself on when packed tightly in my backpack pocket.
1) Trail Map:
Waterproof and tearproof trail maps are awesome! In case you print the trail map yourself, consider protecting it from rain by laminating it or placing it inside a ziplock bag. Everybody in a group should have a copy of the trail map.
2) Backcountry Camping Permit: This is the permit that allows you to camp overnight in a park. Rangers sometimes check these permits in the backcountry. Every group member must have a copy of this permit.
Toothbrush, toothpaste & floss: If you would like to brush and floss your teeth in the backcountry. Recommended. Miniature sized toothpaste is available in the travel section in Walmart and Walgreens.
(Optional) Sunglasses: Many people use sunglasses when walking in the sun. I don't.
(Optional) Lip balm: If your lips tend to get dry.
(Optional) Comb: If you comb your hair in the morning or after taking a dip in a lake.
(Optional) Moisturizer: Get small quantities in lightweight plastic bottles
(Optional) Microtowel: If you would like to wipe yourself after dipping yourself in a lake. These towels are lightweight. Available for $1 in the kitchen section at Walmart. The Walmart microtowels are as effective as costlier towels available at REI or other outdoor supply shops.
Wipes: Useful for washing ourselves without taking a dip in a river or a lake. For example, I used Athletic Body Wipes by ShowerPill in my first two trips. I found them refreshing. Subsequently, I started taking a dip in rivers and lakes and never used these wipes.
Spare ziplock bags and trash bags: Useful for packing random items during the trip, for example, trash. These are lightweight - I usually carry 3-4 such bags on a trip.
Wallet: Minimize what you carry: Do you need anything other than your Driving License, Health Insurance cards and some money?
Cell phone: I carry it with myself for emergency.
(optional) Bungee cord: If we'll use the counter-balance technique for hanging our food.
Duct tape: Useful in emergency situations for repairing broken gear. See 15 Uses for Duct Tape. A popular method for carrying duct tape is to wrap it around hiking poles, just below the handles. Some people wrap it around Nalgene bottles.
Whistle: Useful for signaling when you need help!
Knife: There are many lightweight knives available online.
Supplies to light a fire:
First aid supplies: Bandaids, moleskin, crepe bandage, antiseptic cream, tweezers (to pull out ticks), ibuprofen (anti-inflammatory; to be used if experiencing significant pain due to an overuse injury).
Insect repellent / bug spray: Only if there will be bugs along our route.
Camera, extra batteries & extra memory cards: If you will click pics.