The backpacker's travel checklist

May 10, 2012 at 5:38 a.m. ET

Backpacking: The ultimate hiking adventure! Every woman should strap on a pack and take to the hills at least once in her life, but preparation is the key to enjoyment. Use this backpacker's travel checklist to get you on the fast track to the best time of your life!

woman backpacking

Before you go

Backpacking requires more than just a backpack and a good pair of shoes -- it actually takes some prep work and planning. Don't be put off by the extra work, though. The more you do to ensure your safety, the safer and more secure you'll feel when out in the wild.

  • Plan your route and study your map. Mountain guide and avid backpacker James A. Brown explains, "Don't just study where the trail goes, but also study the things around it. Having a firm grasp on the geographic features around you will help you from getting lost. And, in the event that you do get lost, knowing your surroundings beforehand will help you get 'found' faster. There's no place in the lower 48 that is more than 25 miles from a road. You just need to know where the road is."
  • Tell someone where you're going, give them a map of your route and tell him or her when you'll be checking in or returning. Robert Richardson of Off Grid Survival puts it this way: "This one simple thing can mean the difference between being found alive, or never being found at all. Leave a detailed map of the exact routes you plan on taking and agree on a set time that your contact should call for help, should you fail to return. Another helpful way of being found is to
    EXPERT ADVICE: If you're backpacking overseas, check in with the U.S. Embassy and fill out forms detailing your itinerary. -James A. Brown
    leave a detailed map of your route in your car with the time you intend to return. Search and Rescue teams will often look in your vehicle to find clues to your whereabouts."
  • Consider taking a class. Noelle Thurlow, the Tri-State REI Outdoor Programs and Outreach Manager suggests that if you're unfamiliar with updated, lighter weight camping or backpacking equipment, consider taking a class or guided hike.
  • Have your backpack properly fitted. Carrying 20 or more pounds of supplies on your back can really take its toll if you don't take the time to have your pack property fit. Outdoor stores can help you find the right pack, but you may still need to make adjustments. Check out this quick guide from REI on adjusting the fit.
  • Practice carrying your pack. Whether you're planning a half-day trip or a several week adventure, it's not easy carrying around a lot of extra weight on your back. You'll be better prepared for the physical challenge if you practice hiking around your neighborhood while wearing your pack and boots. Be sure to pack it with the same supplies you plan to carry during your trip to help acclimate your body to the extra weight.
  • Treat your gear. Particularly for longer trips that will involve camping, you will want to treat your gear to help prevent sun and rain damage. Products like Nikwax's Tent & Gear SolarProof will help extend the life of your equipment.
  • Check your first aid kit. A well-stocked first aid kit is an absolute must for a backpacking trip, but you don't want to throw your old kit into your pack without double-checking supplies. Jon Wilkinson, a major outdoor enthusiast and a Field Services Coordinator at Ahnu Footwear points out that it's important to "Make sure it's still full and that nothing has expired, dried out or been damaged."

Expert Tip

"If you're going into the mountains, consider joining the American Alpine Club. The AAC provides its members with up to $10,000 of rescue insurance. Also, their library is one of the best resources in the world for finding new places to go hike and climb. They will mail you guide books free of charge for almost any place in the world." - James A. Brown

Must-have gear

In addition to your backpack and the clothes you wear on, well, your back, there's certain gear that you should never leave home without. Check these purchases off your list before your big trip:

  • GPS locating device. Whether you choose to purchase an app for your smartphone, or you decide to invest in a device like the SPOT, GPS location is key to navigating in the wild. Not only will you be able to get back on track if you get lost, many devices can be programmed to send texts to family members when you arrive at your destination or send out emergency messages if you become hurt or lost.
  • Trail-appropriate shoes. Don't throw on a pair of your old Chucks and expect them to last out on the trail. Go ahead and invest in trail-appropriate shoes like those by Vasque, Teva or The North Face.
  • Good socks. Nothing slows a backpacker down faster than a gnarly blister caused by loose, rubbing socks. Take the time to invest in socks made of antimicrobial wool, like those by Darn Tough Vermont.
  • ID bracelet or tag. Chances are you'll enjoy your trip without much more than a scratch, but if you find yourself in an emergency situation where you can't speak for yourself, it's important to have your emergency contact and pertinent medical information easily accessible to rescuers. While you could just print it on a piece of paper and stick it in your bag, I.D. tags and bracelets don't cost very much and are more immediately obvious to rescuers. You can get one from retailers like Road ID for as little as $16.
  • Camera, video camera and journal. As they say, if you don't have proof, it didn't happen! Jaime Eschette, outdoor enthusiast and marketing manager at Teva says, "Be sure to bring something along to document your story. You'll want to share it around the water cooler come Monday!"
  • Emergency clothing. You never know when the weather might turn on you and render your clothing insufficient or soaked-through. Thurlow notes that extra layers and raingear are part of the Ten REI Essentials for every hike.

Food and water

Even if you're only planning on a short day hike, it's vitally important that you travel with food and water. Plan on packing a little more than you expect to need -- and when it comes to food, look for lightweight, easy-to-prepare, nutrient-dense options. Here are a few suggestions:

  • Granola bars
  • Protein bars
  • Trail mix
  • Packets of oatmeal
  • Pouches of tuna
  • Mozzarella sticks
  • Ramen or cup noodles
  • Whole wheat crackers
  • Dried fruit
  • Potato flakes
  • Peanut butter
  • Tortillas

When it comes to water, it's important to keep in mind that water itself is heavy and can be taxing to carry around. You may want to invest in a backpack water dispenser with an internal water reservoir, like the Hydrapak Big Sur. If you're hiking with your dog, don't be afraid to make Fido help with the load! There are special hiking packs made especially for dogs, like Ruffwear's Palisades Pack, which includes two, one-liter collapsible hydration bottles.

If you've tried hydration packs and they're not your thing, there are other options available that aren't as bulky or awkward to carry as a traditional water bottle. Look for collapsible, reusable water bottles like the Vapur Anti-Bottle, which can be rolled up and attached to your pack with a carabiner when empty.

Supplies for your pack

Now that you're prepped, well-dressed and sufficiently nourished, you need to have a few key items stored in your pack. You can always add more supplies (like tents, sleeping bags and cookware) if you're planning on a long trip, but be sure to carry these items even on shorter hikes:

  • Cell phone or communication equipment
  • Water filters -- if you get stranded or lost, you can clarify water from streams until help arrives
  • Sunscreen and sunglasses
  • Lightweight tarp -- makes a great makeshift tent or shelter
  • First aid kit -- make sure it's stocked with bandages, ice packs, bee sting and poison ivy treatments, at the minimum
  • Flint striker and backup waterproof matches -- you never know when you'll need to start a fire
  • Ziplock bags -- make for great short-term waterproofing for electronics if you're caught in a storm
  • Compass
  • Pocket knife or multi-tool
  • Insect repellant
  • Flashlight or headlamp
  • Survival horn

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