Seasoned outdoorsmen (and women) use a minimalist's mindset when it comes to packing for a backwoods camping excursion. But those less versed in this pastime may find it a little tricky to plan for. You might start out packing the basics (tent and sleeping bag), and then before you know it, the car is loaded with way more gear than you'll ever use. Remember—backcountry camping requires carrying out anything that you carry in. And in the event of an emergency, gear necessary for survival will come in handy. So before you load up on your favorite snacks, books, and pricey equipment, learn what items you simply cannot leave out.
Small and versatile, a knife is an important outdoor tool. Endless opportunities require the use of a knife for backwoods camping. Injured? Use it to cut clothing for bandaging. Cold? Use it to cut small kindling for a fire. Hungry? Use it to filet your catch of the day. You don't need a giant machete to get by in the woods. A simple pocketknife can do wonders; just make sure it is sharp.
A Sleeping Pad
Sure—your tent and sleeping bag will protect you from the elements. But without a sleeping pad, you may have a miserable night's sleep. If there is rain, snow or humidity expect to wake up to a pool underneath you without one. Sleeping pads are lightweight (and even inflatable), and you can roll them up tight to attach to the outside of your pack. This small, yet crucial, item dictates a pleasurable trip.
A Cigarette Lighter
Without fire on a backcountry trip, eating and staying warm is impossible. Long gone are the days of rubbing two sticks together (unless you're a contestant on Survivor). Lighters are small, durable, and highly effective at starting a fire or camp stove. And as long as you keep them dry, they work no matter what the weather throws your way. Keep one in your pack and one in your pocket if you plan on venturing away from your site for a long period of time.
Mother Nature can be finicky any time of year, especially in the high country. And hypothermia is the number one cause of death to people lost in the wilderness, as many forget about the severe temperature drops, once the sun sets. Should rain, snow, or cold weather strike when you're miles away, extra clothing will keep you warm, dry, and healthy. Be sure to pack clothing that layers, so you can add or remove them as the temperature fluctuates. Choose a material that wicks away sweat and dries quickly (synthetics and merino wool work well), and never forget your packable down jacket and extra socks.
A Hydration System
Many state and national parks offer backwoods camping hydration areas, but do your research before you leave. For a multi-day excursion, you'll need to pack a filter. But for a quick overnighter, a CamelBack will suffice. The larger capacity systems hold all the water you'll need for a few days of camping and they fit easily into backpacks. And then the hose and spout give you easy access to water when thirst hits. If you're planning a long hike, pack both your hydration system and an extra reusable water bottle. But remember to avoid buying waste-creating disposable water bottles for backpacking. There are no garbage cans in the backcountry
One of the most forgotten items to pack, garbage bags are imperative for any camping excursion. Sure—they can be used to dispose of waste, but garbage bags are unbelievably versatile, too. To save on room, pack your clothes in this almost weightless bag before placing them in your pack. This will provide extra protection from the elements. If you become separated from your campsite or lost in the woods, a garbage bag can also serve as a makeshift shelter or raincoat, should the weather move in.
Even seasoned campers who "know the area" can get lost if they take a wrong turn on the trail. Seasonal nuances can cause surroundings to look different from the last time you camped here and you can easily get disoriented. Being lost without a map—especially when there's no cell service—can be terrifying. So grab a map (preferably one that's waterproof) of the area you'll be exploring to assure a safe journey. Then fold it up to nothing and fit it inside your backpack's pocket.
A Flashlight or Headlamp
The only thing worse than getting lost is getting lost in the dark. Be sure to pack a flashlight or headlamp in your backpack, as light is crucial for completing tasks around an evening campsite. A hands-free headlamp serves as a second set of eyes while washing dishes or hanging your food out of animal's reach. Whether you find yourself lost at sunset or simply needing to relieve yourself in the middle of the night, you can find your way with the help of any light source.
A Mess Kit
It is easy to get carried away with backcountry food and cooking supplies, so avoid bulky pots, pans, and coolers. Instead, opt for one mess kit that does it all. Available at most outdoor shops, mess kits are lightweight, portable, and unbelievably useful. They fit together like a small jigsaw puzzle and they typically supply you with two pans, a pot, a spork, and a mesh bag for transport. With mess kits, less is more—the pots used to cook with may also be used to eat from.
A First Aid Kit
It only takes one small slip-up to become injured outdoors. Trails can be rocky, rocks can be slippery, and branches can be sharp. (Who knows? You may even cut yourself with your knife!) Be prepared for any injury with a portable first aid kit. You can purchase pre-packaged ones or make your own with bandages, antiseptic, pain relievers, and a splint. And if you have a severe allergy, don't forget your EpiPen!