The Essentials

“Backpacking: An extended form of hiking in which people carry double the amount of gear they need for half the distance they planned to go in twice the time it should take.”

~ Unknown

Admittedly it’s not always easy to distinguish the essentials from the non-essentials. There is no secret formula. Basically it comes down to experience, individual preference and the dictates of the environment in which you are hiking.


Non-essential item for backpacking trips; handy for long train trips across Russia.

Just as each individual is different, similarly your packing list may vary according to the nature of the hike you are doing. For example, what you take on a weekend outing with friends (e.g. alcohol, comfier sleeping mat, fresh food, something to read) will most probably differ from what you pack for a multi-week excursion into the backcountry.

Irrespective of trip length or character, many of us (myself included) are guilty of taking gear that we neither need nor use. Going Lighter means putting more thought into your choices. The payoff is a simpler, less encumbered wilderness experience.

Items to leave behind or downsize include:

  • The Big Three: Shelter, backpack, sleeping bag. When it comes to downsizing, this is where the big weight savings can usually be found. If you find that you’re increasingly heading out in a variety of different conditions, it’s probably worth investing in multiple models of each. This “horses for courses” approach particularly holds true for sleeping bags, due to the potentially large discrepancy in seasonal temperatures that you may encounter.
  • Extra Bowl or cup:  Use your pot instead.
  • Towel:  Use a bandana or lightweight camping towel.
  • Guide Book:  Either take an electronic version on your phone or photocopy only the pages that are necessary for the hike that you are doing.
  • Camp Shoes: Lightweight flip-flops are OK, but extra shoes or heavy sport sandals are excessive.
  • Utility Tool: Do you really need something with a corkscrew, fishhook, magnifying glass, etc.? Nine times out of ten, all you require is a tool with knife, scissors and tweezers.
  • Water Treatment: Leave the bulky and heavy (i.e. 1 lb plus) water filter behind and go with chlorine dioxide drops (Aquamira) or a lightweight filter option, such as those on offer from Sawyer or SteriPen.
  • First Aid Kit:  I have met overnight hikers carrying first aid kits that would put your average paramedic to shame (see photo below). At the other end of the spectrum, I have encountered walkers on longer treks, armed with nothing but duct tape and a “I’ll be ok, nothing ever happens to me” attitude. For most of us, the answer lies somewhere in between. Find a balance that meets both your individual needs and the dictates of the environment into which you will be venturing.

First Aid Kit – How many types of bandage/dressing do you need?

  • Perishables: For items such as fuel, sunscreen, insect repellent, toothpaste and antiseptic ointment, calculate how long you will be hiking for and then bring appropriately sized tubes/containers. It all adds up.
  • Clothing: Think practicality over fashion. Learn about the layering System. Adjust your clothing list according to the conditions in which you will be hiking. Always choose clothing that compliments, rather than duplicates other items in your kit. Avoid redundancies.

Tips for Distinguishing the Essentials

  • Make a packing list: Write up a packing list and review it after each and every hike. See what you did and didn’t use. Cull redundant or duplicate items. It can be quite a fun exercise to watch your list evolve over time. Experience will be your best teacher. You may have multiple lists according to the seasons and/or conditions in which you will be hiking.
  • Avoid overcompensating: Before setting out on your hike, ask yourself what types of conditions you are likely to encounter. Next, figure out what you need to be safe and relatively comfortable whilst hiking in those conditions For example, if you are hiking in an arid environment in which the chances of heavy rain are practically zero, there is no need to bring along heavy duty waterproof clothing.
  • Detachment:  Try not to get attached to certain items. Familiarity can sometimes cloud objectivity when it comes to deciding what to take and what to leave behind.
  • An Open Mind: Be amenable to change. No matter how much experience you may or may not have, there is always something still to learn.