The basic elements for maintaining human life in comfort are all carried while backpacking: a sleep system (sleeping bag and perhaps a pad), specialized clothing (although typical urban gear can suffice), and perhaps a shelter, depending on precipitation expected. Proper clothing for the weather is required, as are proper footwear, food and means to prepare it, and other smaller miscellany, some critical and some not. Almost all backpackers seek to minimize the weight and bulk of gear carried. A lighter pack causes less fatigue, injury, and soreness and allows the backpacker to travel longer distances. Every piece of equipment is evaluated for a balance of utility versus weight. Significant reductions in weight can usually be achieved with little sacrifice in equipment utility, though very lightweight equipment can cost significantly more.
A large industry has developed to provide lightweight gear and food for backpackers. The gear includes the backpacks themselves, as well as ordinary camping equipment modified to reduce the weight, by either reducing the size, reducing the durability, or using lighter materials such as special plastics, alloys of aluminium, titanium, composite materials, impregnated fabrics, and carbon fiber. Designers of portable stoves and tents have been particularly ingenious. Homemade gear is common too, such as the beverage-can stove.
Some backpackers use lighter and more compact gear than others. The most radical is known as ultralight backpacking.
Water – Backpackers often carry some water from the lb).
Backpackers may carry one to four litres of water, depending on conditions and availability. Although some backpacking camps in heavily-used areas provide potable water, it must usually be obtained from lakes and streams or preferably springs.
In most areas, drinking water needs treatment before consumption to protect against bacteria and protozoa. Some treatment methods include:
- fire, stove, or other heat producing device)
- treatment with chemical tablets (such as chlorine or iodine)
- passing through a filter (in conjunction with chemical treatments)
- ultraviolet light-based systems
Ultimately, it is important to research water conditions and sources in prospective backpacking locations in order to prepare appropriate gear. If water is unavailable (or if available water is rare except for desert zones), backpackers may need to carry large amounts of water for long distances.
Water may be stored in bottles or in soft, collapsible hydration packs (bladders). Some backpackers store water in ordinary plastic beverage bottles, while others use specially designed Lexan bottles or little and are collapsible. A water bladders may be equipped with a drinking hose to allow use without requiring the bladder be removed from the pack. In spite of this convenience, bladders are more prone to leaking than bottles, particularly at the hose connections. Hoses also allow the hiker to lose track of the water supply in the bladder and to deplete it prematurely. Bladders are also unsuitable for freezing temperatures due to the formation of ice in their tubing and valves.
Food – Some backpackers enjoy cooking elaborate meals with fresh ingredients, particularly on short trips, and others carry the gear and take the time to catch fish or hunt small game for food. However, especially for long expeditions, most backpackers’ food criteria are roughly the same: high food energy content, with long shelf life and low mass and volume. An additional concern is the mass and volume of any equipment required to cook the food; while Dutch oven and campfire cookery are historically popular, small liquid-fuel cooking heat source where wood is available.
Food items with low mass and volume typically will be those with a low water content. Water (as part of food) is generally considered an unnecessarily weighty item in a backpack. The assumption is that water will be added to dry food to prepare it for consumption or that water drunk by the backpacker can provide the necessary physiological hydration when mainly dry food is consumed. One further (critical) assumption is that the backpacker will be able to obtain this needed water from lakes, streams, springs, or melted snow.
While most backpackers consume at least some specially prepared backpacking food items, many backpackers mainly rely on ordinary household foods with a low water content, such as cold cereal, powdered milk, cheese, crackers, bread, sausage, salami, raisins or other dried fruit, peanut butter, pasta, rice, and commercially packaged dinner entrees. Popular snack foods include trail mix, easily prepared at home; nuts, convenient and nutritious energy bars, chocolate, and other forms of candy, which provide quick energy and flavor. Traditional outdoor food includes dried foodstuffs such as jerky or pemmican, and also products like oatmeal (which can also be consumed raw in emergency situations). Coffee, tea, and popcorn are common items on backpacking menus. Household food items are typically repackaged in zippered plastic bags.
One can also purchase and use a commercial food dehydrator to remove the majority of water from raw food items or from a precooked meal. Many backpackers make their own dried fruit, jerky, and dried stew for consumption in the wilderness.
Most backpackers avoid canned food, except for meats or small delicacies. Metal cans and glass jars and their contents are usually heavy and contribute significantly to trash which must be carried out.
For dinners, many hikers use specially manufactured, precooked food that can be eaten hot. It is often sold in large, stiff bags that double as preparation and serving vessels. One common variety of special backpacking food is freeze-dried food, which can be quickly reconstituted by adding hot water. This mixture is then left to re-hydrate (and cool somewhat) for a few minutes before eating.
Another kind of special backpacking food is ultra high temperature (UHT) processed food. It is prepared at full water content, has not been dehydrated, and need not be rehydrated. It can be reheated with a special, water-activated chemical heater. This technology originated with the U.S. most weight advantage versus dehydrated food. MREs can be useful to backpackers for several reasons:
- MREs do not need to be rehydrated or heated, which is useful in areas where flame is not allowed or water is scarce.
- They are very durably packaged
- A single MRE contains a full meal complete with snack and dessert
- They offer a great deal of variety in each meal, including condiments
- They are individually packaged inside a brown plastic wrapper, so individual components can be carried in various pockets and eaten on the move.
As more retail stores carry prepackaged freeze-dried foods however, it is becoming increasingly easier to buy packaged meals retail versus mail order. MREs can be difficult to find in retail stores, though a good selection is often available in a (U.S.) military surplus store.
There is a genre of cookbooks specializing in cookery, which has considerable historical cachet (especially in countries such as the United States with a long pioneer tradition), but is dependent on suitable locations for a campfire.
Although backpacking in the winter can be rewarding, it requires a higher level of skill and generally requires more gear. Backpackers may need skis or snowshoes to traverse deep snow, or crampons and an ice Water will quickly sap body heat and can lead to severe health problems like frostbite or hypothermia.
Skills and safety
- Survival skills are handy for peace of mind: In case the weather, terrain, or environment is more challenging than prepared for.
- Navigation and orienteering are useful to find the trailhead, then find and follow a route to a desired sequence of destinations, and then an exit. In case of disorientation, orienteering skills are important to determine the current location and formulate a route to somewhere more desirable. At their most basic, navigation skills allow one to choose the correct sequence of trails to follow. In situations where a trail or clear line-of-sight to the desired destination is not present, navigation and orienteering allow the backpacker to understand the terrain and wilderness around them and, using their tools and practices, select the appropriate direction to hike. Weather (rain, fog, snow), terrain (hilly, rock faces, dense forest), and hiker experience can all impact and increase the challenges to navigation in the wilderness.
- First aid: effectively dealing with minor injuries (splinters, punctures, sprains) is considered by many a fundamental skill. More subtle, but maybe even more important, is recognizing and promptly treating hypothermia, heat stroke, dehydration and hypoxia, as these are rarely encountered in daily life.
- Leave No Trace is the backpacker’s version of the golden rule: To have beautiful and pristine places to enjoy, help make them. At a minimum, don’t make them worse.
- Distress signaling is a skill of last resort.
- Hiking may or may not use backpacks.
- Canoe camping is similar to backpacking, but uses canoes or other boats for transportation.
- Ski touring and deeply in snow.
- In self-contained bicycle touring, cyclists carry their equipment in panniers or bicycle trailers during multi-day excursions, either on pavement, or on back-country fire roads and trails.
- In animal packing (“horse packing”, “mule packing”, etc.), travelers use pack animals (usually horses, mules, or llamas) to carry their equipment, and sometimes they will even ride the animals. Porters are sometimes hired for the same purpose.
- Backpacking (travel) focuses on cultural attractions, rather than natural ones, though it may also include wilderness side trips.
- Adventure travel is tourism in a region or environment that is, for one reason or another, highly unpredictable or hazardous.
- Thru-hiking is traversing a long-distance trail in a single, continuous journey.
- Ultralight backpacking is backpacking focused on minimizing the weight of the gear carried. It is often employed by long distance hikers.
- Wilderness survival is the practice of living in uninhabited or wilderness areas with the main goal being to survive off the land, etc.