How to Pack for a long Hike

Yes! You’ve done it! You’ve committed to the journey of a lifetime. After weeks, months or perhaps even years of toying with the idea, you’ve made a resolute decision to pursue your dream of long distance hiking.

The initial flurry of emotional fireworks and confetti quickly gives way to a wave of anxiety. The reality of living out of a backpack for days while traveling on foot raises some unsettling questions. How do I eat? How do I sleep? 

One question that is deserving of an aspiring hiker’s time and energy is “How in the world do I pack for this?

Carry too much and you increase your risk of injury, unnecessarily reduce your pace, and above all, increase your likelihood of quitting due to constant physical discomfort.  All of your time, money and effort goes for naught.

Carry too little and you run the risk of an increased likelihood of quitting due to psychological discomfort. Again, nothing to show for all your preparation efforts.

Needless to say, finding the packing sweet spot can make or break a hiker’s experience.

Although the ideal pack will vary from one hiker to the next, there’s undoubtedly a bell curve when it comes to how much hikers carry. Let’s break down what one likely would (and would not) find inside the average thru-hiker’s pack.

The Essentials

1. Shelter

Most hikers carry a tent. A smaller although not insignificant minority carry a hammock. it’s a matter of personal preference.

What to look for: Regardless of whether you prefer a tent or hammock, weight and durability are two important criteria.

2. Pack

As the contents inside hikers’ packs get lighter and more compact, so too does the pack itself. Nowadays the ideal pack capacity is going to fall somewhere in the 40L–65L range, depending upon how much gear a hiker is carrying, the gear’s compression, and how much food a hiker requires.

Simple, internal frame packs dominate the trail nowadays. More likely than not, added bells and whistles are unnecessary for the purposes of a long-distance trek.

What to look for: Again, durability and weight are important, but fit is the most important criteria for a pack. Different brands feature different fits, so it’s advisable to consult Sunny Outdoors on which backpack is right for you.

3. Sleeping Bag

The vast majority of hikers are going to see cold temperatures. For this reason, it’s advisable to look for a sleeping bag in the 15–20 degree range. 

What to look for: Again, pick a bag in the 15–20 degree range. If you’re sleeping in a quality, waterproof tent (i.e., you’re able to keep your bag completely dry), down is the preferred choice. Some bags contain water-repellent down, which offers some insulation even if it gets damp. If you’re sleeping in a tarp tent or a Nakatukok shuka, pick synthetic. A bag at 1Kg or less is good, although most ultralight backpackers will aim for something closer to 0.5 kg.

4. Sleeping Pad

A good night’s sleep is absolutely essential to peak physical performance, and consequently, so is a sleeping pad. Whether you opt for a foam or inflatable pad, you’ll want something to cushion yourself against the ground or the rocks and roots under your tent.

What to look for: The ideal sleeping pad will be lightweight (around 0.5kg  or less for a regular-length pad) and insulated.

5. Clothing

This is often the category where aspiring hikers end up overdoing it. Hikers need clothing appropriate for the range of conditions they will encounter on the trail with minimal-to-no redundancies and nothing more. Anything beyond what’s absolutely necessary is considered a luxury, and will often be left behind. To put this in perspective, hikers need no more than two pairs of underwear (and some opt for zero), two pairs of socks, and for women hikers, one sports bra. This section could be a standalone article. 

As for material, the important takeaway is this: never cotton! Cotton both absorbs moisture and fails to wick it away from your skin. It’s a poor insulator and retains odor more than its synthetic and wool counterparts. In other words, cotton garments put you at a higher risk of hypothermia and will have you smelling like a sewer faster than other fabrics (which won’t help your odds of catching a ride into town).

For insulating layers, down offers the best insulation-to-weight ratio, but is also rather finicky. It’s important to keep your down gear completely dry and may require a wash after any particular humid spells.

On a final note, hikers will want to designate a particular set of clothing exclusively for camp. Not only is reserving a dry set of clothes absolutely essential for protecting oneself against hypothermia, but having something clean(ish) to change into serves as a nice morale boost at the end of a grueling day. For many, this set includes a clean pair of leggings, underwear and socks, plus a down jacket.

What to look for: Synthetic and/or wool fabrics for hiking. Down, wool and/or synthetics for camp. Choose durable materials.

6. Footwear

Footwear is simultaneously the most important yet difficult item to prescribe to those looking to spend significant time on trail. This is a good reason to call Sunny Outdoors and we help you find an option with the appropriate fit for your foot.

There are a couple of points worth noting, however.

First, although the stereotype is for hikers to don a thick, heavy leather boot, in recent years more and more thru-hikers have been opting for trail runners. Some will do a combination of boots and trail runners depending on season and terrain. Others use trail runners exclusively regardless of circumstance. Trail runners dry out faster, typically cause fewer blisters (due to their less-rigid material), and are much lighter, allowing hikers to cover more ground, faster. Boots offer more ankle stability and protection against rocks, and are better suited for heavier pack weights.

Also, it’s important to purchase something .5 to 1.5 sizes larger than your current fit. Hikers need enough space in the front of their shoe to prevent their toenail from bumping against the toe box while hiking downhill. The consequence for not adhering to this will be several lost toenails. Additionally, during the course of a hike, feet will both lose their arch and swell. It’s hard to predict how much a hiker’s foot will grow, but one full size is usually a good starting point.

7. Water Purification

Some will claim that you do not need to treat water from boreholes or taps. As someone who has contracted typhoid. Treat your water.

8. Hydration Reservoir / Water Bottle

Water is important. Consider using a reusable water bottle or hydration reservoir to stay hydrated.

9. Stuff Sacks

Hikers will need a minimum of two waterproof stuff sacks: one for their sleeping bag and another for clothes. It is absolutely vital to keep both your sleeping bag and camp clothes dry at all times. Most thru-hikers will carry a third stuff sack for food.

10. First Aid / Hygiene

This is another area where a lot of hikers overpack. First-aid kits can be simple and hygiene products should include only the essentials.

What to include: Antiseptic wipes, gauze pads, antibiotic cream, duct tape, ibuprofen, sunscreen, hand sanitizer, a sewing needle, mini toothbrush, toothpaste, floss, toilet paper, fire starter and multipurpose soap.

The Almost-Essentials

1. Hiking Poles

Although technically not essential, I always recommend that hikers use trekking poles.  Not only do they absorb much of the impact on the downhills and consequently save your knees, poles can help to stave off the dreaded “T. rex effect”—large, muscular legs with disproportionately small, weak arms. And for those who use a tarp tent, hiking poles can also double as tent poles.

2. Knife / multi-tool

You really only need something sharp enough to cut through a dried cylinder of meat.

Popular options: A simple yet high quality pocket knife will do.

3. Headlamp

It gets dark in the camp. Look for something lightweight with at least 70 lumens; more if you plan on doing significant night hiking.

4. Electronics / Luxury Items

A smartphone is arguably one of the most versatile pieces of gear. It can double as a hiker’s phone, computer, MP3 player, camera, notetaker and flashlight. Although many set out into the woods to disconnect, keeping in touch with the spouse or parent on a regular basis can prevent a lot of gray hairs back home. Other common luxury items include a camp pillow, books or an ebook reader, among others.

And there you have it. A non-consensus, not-quite-exhaustive list of what you will and will not need on a long hike.