My Favorite Backpacking Best Kept Secrets

My tried and true essential backpacking items that I take on every trip

“The old school of thought would have you believe that you'd be a fool to take on nature without arming yourself with every conceivable measure of safety and comfort under the sun. But that isn't what being in nature is all about. Rather, it's about feeling free, unbounded, shedding the distractions and barriers of our civilization—not bringing them with us.” 
― Ryel Kestenbaum

Big Pine Lakes 10,200 feet with my pup. 

Big Pine Lakes 10,200 feet with my pup. 

"I am going on my first backpacking trip! What should I bring?"

I am asked this question literally all the time. I receive emails, facebook messages, texts, and this always seems to come up on the trails. Backpacking can be totally overwhelming as carrying too much weight can be painful, having the wrong gear can be a disaster and not bringing an essential item can have a huge impact on your backpacking experience. By now, after many many years of backpacking in the wild, I have my packing skills down to a science. I bring the exact same items every single time and I can practically pack my backpack in my sleep. Every so often I splurge on some new backpacking gear that becomes part of my backpacking essentials (my most recent splurges are my Katadyn BeFree water filter and Sea to Summit sleeping bag liner). Backpacking is trial and error, overtime you will figure out what works and what doesn't work, what is worth carrying and what should be left at home. Hopefully this post will be a good starter guide to what you need for your first backpacking trip. My friend and GirlsWhoHike co-leader, Melia, wrote a great comprehensive piece on backpacking gear.  Check it out here!

The most important rule of thumb is to test out your gear before you hit the trails. Set up your tent in your backyard, learn how to use your stove, filter water in your bathtub, and make sure your sleeping mat does not have a leaky valve. 


Below is a list of the gear that I have:

This is what my pack looks like...every single trip. 

This is what my pack looks like...every single trip. 

Now for the secrets (beyond the 10 essentials) 

Storing your gear

Always take your tent, sleeping bag, sleeping mat and other gear out of their stuff sacks at home since laying your gear out increases their lifespan. 

Face wipes vs body wipes

Face wipes are used for your face and baby wipes or body wipes are used to clean your body. Using face wipes to clean your girl parts can cause a urinary tract infection due to the difference in pH between these areas. These are the face wipes I use:

Philosophy Purity made simple one step cleansing cloths


Alcohol makes backpacking more fun. Although I am mostly a beer and wine gal, hard alcohol in a flask does the trick for backpacking because of the higher alcohol content for the same amount of weight. The only time you will see me drink out of a flask is on a trail! 

Vodka and soda water in a can...who knew? 

Vodka and soda water in a can...who knew? 

10 essentials

I just had to include these. Need I say more? I wrote a fantastic series breaking down each of the ten essentials. 

(check out my extensive guide to each of these important essentials) 

A good book

There is nothing better than reading in my tent at night! I love to backpack solo with my dog so a good book is all I need to keep me entertained. Even if I am backpacking with friends, you can guarantee I have a good book stashed away in my pack. I enjoy the physical feeling of the pages in a book so I don't own a tablet or a kindle. I prefer to carry one book in my pack even though it adds a bit of weight. I also do not have to worry about charging a paperback book as I would a tablet or a kindle. 

(check out my blog post on women's inspired adventure books)

Massage ball

This is a game changer for sore feet, knees and hips after a long hike to camp. Rub some Deep Blue or Panaway essential oils into your muscles and joints and massage away with the ball. I actually keep a ball in my first aid kit at all times. 


Sometimes I need some Justin Bieber to get me through a tough couple of miles. Make sure to download music onto your phone in case you don't have service (it also saves the battery). I use Pandora and pay for the monthly subscription to download 4 of my favorite stations. Don't forget your headphones as blasting music on the trail is EXTREMELY ANNOYING TO OTHERS AKA NOISE POLLUTION. 

External battery charger

This is a GAME CHANGER. Always bring this and make sure it is fully charged. 

 Goal Zero Flip 30 Power Bank


I like to be comfortable and Sea to Summit makes the best compact and lightweight backpacking pillows.

Paper and pen

I come up with my best writing ideas when I am out in nature. 

Mt. Baldy at sunrise on our 31 mile, 4 peak hike in 24 hours, #sufferfest

Mt. Baldy at sunrise on our 31 mile, 4 peak hike in 24 hours, #sufferfest

Stuff sacks

 I always pack all my gear in stuff sacks. One for clothes, one for socks/underwear/gloves, one for toiletries and don't forget an extra one for your dirty garments. 

Shovel/toilet paper

According to Leave No Trace principles you must pack out all your toilet paper (this is where extra ziplock baggies come in handy). Additionally you must dig a 6-8 inch deep hole, 200 feet away from a water source to do your business. 

Trash bag 

I can probably write a separate blog post on the uses of trash bags (other than trash) during a backpacking trip. I use a trash bag to cover my pack when I store it in my tent vestibule at night so it does not get wet from condensation or rain. I also keep my dirty boots in a trash bag in my tent if it is raining. You can also line the inside of your pack with a trash bag during the rain to help keep everything dry. It can also be used as a cheap rain cover for your pack while on the trail (or a poncho). 

Rain poncho

This should be in your emergency kit. Having this over your rain gear can be extremely helpful especially in torrential downpours. 

Extra ziplock baggies

These can be used for food storage, trash, toilet paper...always always bring extras. 

Camp shoes

Sandals, crocs or anything light weight to put on once you get to camp to give your feet a break. 

Extra pair of socks

Need I say more? 

Insulated coffee mug

I love my hot tea in the morning and I prefer it to stay hot so I always have a mug with a lid and a handle. 

Trekking poles

These will save your knees, I promise. 

Fanny pack

This is probably my best kept secret and here is why: NO backpack has easy to reach pockets that fit your phone, snacks, sunscreen, lip gloss and whatever else that you want easily accessible. Taking your pack on and off or asking your friend to grab this or that, gets old really fast. A fanny pack allows you easy access to all of your favorite things without having to constantly stop on the trails. This is game changer. 

Whistle (noise maker)

To ward off scary humans and animals (and to call for help on the trail) 

These butterflies on the trail matched by fantastic Keen boots. Salkantay Trek, Peru. 

These butterflies on the trail matched by fantastic Keen boots. Salkantay Trek, Peru. 

Tips and tricks to take off weight

How much should your pack weigh?

This is a pretty loaded question since it depends on your length of travel, how comfortable you want to be and how much water you are carrying. My rule of thumb is somewhere between 26-32 pounds total. Here are some easy ways to reduce your weight.

  • One eating utensil (instead of spoon, fork AND knife)
  • Dry out your face and body wipes beforehand and add a drop of water when you are ready to use them on the trail.  
  • Ditch the bowls (eat out of the bag) or if you must Sea to Summit makes great lightweight bowls. 
  • Take all food out of original packages and put in ziplock freezer bags. You can add boiling water to FREEZER bags and can eat straight out of the bag. 
  • Ditch the makeup, deodorant, lotion (except sunscreen), mouthwash and other toiletries. Confession, I do take some travel size Philosophy skin cream with me. 
  • Sit pad instead of camp chair. Even lightweight camp chairs weight at least 1 or 2 pounds. 
  • Smart water bottles instead of Nalgene/Bladder. 
  • Make sure all your toiletries are travel size or if you really want to get technical, squeeze you toothpaste and lotion in contact cases. Even bring a travel size toothbrush. 
Sometimes a good IPA is worth the extra weight. Death Valley National Park. 

Sometimes a good IPA is worth the extra weight. Death Valley National Park. 

Thanks so much for reading and see you the trails