This section is written with the assumption you are new to this game and just starting out, not an expert with miles already logged. It is the goal to share what has worked for the On A Dime gang and hopefully have you bypass some of our mistakes while taking advantage of what we’ve gleaned from other experienced backpackers.

**How To Correctly Pack A Backpack

1) TENT – I like my Quarter Dome tent from REI (purchased in 2009). It sleeps 3 and is pretty lightweight. That said, if you are solo, I know two people who swear by the Big Agnes. One of my fellow hikers has the single and the other has the “sleeps two”. A little weight here and there adds up to a gnarly heavy pack if you are not careful so consider your tent purchase carefully.

3 man tent

2) SLEEPING BAG – Ah yes, I suffered through cheap, mediocre bags before plunging in and buying what I now consider a time-share in heaven. I have slept toasty in the snow in this baby (Sierra bag). Do as I say and get a good bag immediately. Consider the temps you will most likely be camping in and make certain the bag is rated low enough. My bag is rated 20 degrees and yet still very lightweight. I did trade though in bulk as my bag is not nearly as compact as the cousin’s 30 degree rated bag. You know your body but there is nothing more miserable than shivering the night away in a cartoon character sleeping bag and yes, I have done that, no exaggeration.

3) SLEEP MAT – Again, do not put this off. If you do, you will suffer. Currently, I have a REI Trekker 1.75  but one of my compadres broke out her mat on a Tahoe backpacking trip and we all gathered round to offer envious murmurs. Her mat is very compact and not overly long, unlike the fault of mine, which could hold any member of the NBA.

Sleep mats

4) BACKPACK – This one is tricky. I have been through 3 or 4 and now have one I like. The shift? I got fitted at REI for this pack. Shop around and try them on. Look online for reviews. Can you buy used, you ask? Hmm…I never did and I think that depends on your pain threshold. I am category “crafty, whiner”. When previous packs cut into my shoulders and were loaded ridiculously, I would usually fall down (dramatically helps), incur a minor scrape, get lightheaded and have my cousin carry the pack. It is a wonder he did not kill me. Packs are a very subjective choice, try multiple packs and brands and find a good sales representative at your backpacking store to assist with this. A side note, do not embark on your first trip, 22 miles up Mt. Whitney, with borrowed packs, circa 1970 as they will shred your back and shoulders, do as I say…

5) TREKKING POLES – Maybe. I have never used them but so many people do that it is worth considering especially if your knees are vulnerable. One of the daughters swears by hers but the cousin owns a set and never uses them. My guy used his for a Yosemite trip and found them helpful but, friends, I talk with my hands and the amount I talk, well the poles could get me arrested for involuntary manslaughter.

6) STOVE ETC. – Single burner stove, pot set, mess kit and mug. Also the fuel canisters and waterproof matches. Love my stove, it was under $100 and you can get some versions for under $50. It packs so teeny, tiny and yet it boils up the Ramen post haste. And as for high-end pots and pans? They are lovely but I found an amazing Stanley brand pot and 2 plastic cups that pack inside (you can use one for oatmeal or soup) with a flip top/lock lid for $15 at Target. On the Stanley site, it lists for $25. It would be worth either price and proved impressive enough that two of my posse picked up their own.

7) WATER PURIFIER – YES, you need one to be on the safe side! This trekker has suffered from playing it wild and fast. I prefer an actual purifier rather than the UV variety however I would encourage also carrying tablets as a backup in case the filter clogs or breaks. If you have questions about which type to use, try this site. And how do you know if your guy really “gets” you? You receive this in the mail as beautiful token of his love.

Water purifier

And now for misc. – Here we go, trekkers, the fun part.

*Wipes and several Baggies for the unmentionables that we now mention. Translation, pack it out or bury it. Wipes should be unscented and biodegradable and still should be packed out. Doubling the Ziploc seems to keep odors in their place. You can also put a bit of baking soda in the Baggies before leaving home.

*Plastic shovel (backpackers and day hikers) for digging the “nature” hole (no explanation necessary). Camp stores carry them and they are cheap. A ranger gave us one ages ago in a welcome kit.

*First aid w/ bandages and Moleskin for blisters, Neosporin and pain relief as well as Benedryl for allergy. Ibuprofen reduces swelling and comes in handy for muscle strain relief.

*Firewood usually more expensive at the campground than if you bring from home, some burns really fast so bring additional cash in case you want to supplement at the campground. HOWEVER and a big HOWEVER, check the restrictions on wood as some areas have a huge concern about introducing critters/plant disease etc. from infested, out of the area, wood therefore they direct you to use local firewood.

*Fire starts and these can make or break you IF you are new to the fire-making game and doubt our fire-start instructions. I’ve personally made a fire every single time from our “how to” and this included once in a damp rain forest.

If you must use fire starts, they are only a couple of bucks at the grocery store, the waxy ones are best and you can usually break them in ½ as they really flame up. Beats the heck out of rubbing 2 sticks together, lighting up your entire roll of paper towels or splashing toxic lighter fluid everywhere.

*Gels, Goos, Gummies, Electrolytes and/or any other goodies that can give a quick energy boost if you are on the trail and fading. The electrolytes that are in tablet form and are added to a water bottle are tasty as are some of the gummies.

*Hand/foot/body warmers for cold weather and often sunrise as some areas offer up a chilly beginning to the day, no matter the season. And for sitting around the fire at night, go ahead and use your sleeping bag like a Snuggy but be very careful of errant sparks.

*Clothes and it is pretty hilarious that I am giving advice on this. In my daily life, I own very little clothing however some monster takes over when I pack for backpacking that requires either off loading clothes or getting a Sherpa. Folks, it has taken me years of enviously watching my cousin as he carries his 1.5 lbs on his back to learn that it’s because he rocks the exact same clothing whether it’s a two day trek or longer. Is it repugnant? Nope, not so much. Bring clean undergarments and you are set. 2 pairs of socks also can be a luxury as the clean pair on the final day is sublime.

*Photo below at the top of Mt. Whitney shows we are not joking. This motley crew is in jeans and sweater from Salvation Army and the two girls are in sweats and pajamas.

14,508 feet
14,508 feet

*One thing to note, you DO NOT and I repeat DO NOT have to buy all of the high-end clothing. My guy loves it and believes, like the fact that new sneakers make you run faster, the high-end hiking clothes make you a better hiker. I wear Salvation Army and… uhm, uh oh; I could stand some hiking improvement… hmm…

Seriously, relax and wear what is comfortable. If you hook into the clothing and can afford it, enjoy but do not let the financial challenge of high-priced clothing and boots keep you off the trail. As earlier noted, my girls generally hike in pajama bottoms or boxers, not that I am advocating that. Another side note, I have never paid more than $40 for a pair of hiking boots. I’m not encouraging this if you have feet issues. Also think about checking out discount department stores–my oldest daughter found an amazing pair of Timberland brand hiking boots for $40 at Marshall’s.

*Luxury yes, you are reading this correctly. Go ahead and choose something meaningful and within reason, and bring it along. A book, a natural toiletry, a camping percolator, travel binoculars, a camera. In other words, try and plan the weight in order to have room for a fun item.

For the first backpacking trip, starting with one night or teeny-tiny mileage (we did Tahoe and it was only 3 miles) is wonderful. It allows for a discovery of what you do and do not need so that future trips are as pared down as they can be. As a hiker who never ventured onto the trail for an overnight until past age 40, I am here to tell you, you can do it. But beware, you might just fall in love with it.

Happy trails.

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