What You Need to (Comfortably) Survive in the Woods

As Renee and I plan for our trip to Shenandoah I thought it would be a good time to go through my pack and make sure I have everything I need. We are only planning to go backpacking for three days so I can get by without some amenities but it’s better to prepare and find out I’m missing something now when there’s time to still go buy it rather than the first night we set up our tent in Virginia (we did remember the tent, right?). I am not an ultra-light backpacker — someone who tries to bring as little with them as possible — but I am also lazy and don’t like carrying extra weight unless it is going to significantly make my life in the woods better. I’m also fortunate to have Renee go with me so we can split the weight (Regardless if I go alone or with someone, I’m stuck taking shared use items like a tent, cooking gear, etc… so going with a friend means weight savings!) With that said, I’ve organized my list by how essential each item is. All loaded up, we have about 70 lbs of gear (minus water) to take between two of us.

Tent — 6 lbs 6 oz

Having a good tent is probably the most important thing in my bag. This is what is going to keep me dry and to some extent warm. Renee and I have a small two person tent and it has served us well through Yellowstone National Park, WY, Allegheny, PA, Ohiopyle, PA, and Mohican, OH. This is actually my favorite tent that I’ve ever owned — it is thin and light weight, but it has also been extremely durable. Plus, it was a fraction of the price as other backpacking tents ($120 I believe compared to the $400-$600 you can easily spend).

Food — 11 lbs

Our trips are usually short enough to where we can plan each meal out in advance without getting exhausted. We prep as much as we can at home and portion food out into baggies to make it easier to cook when the time comes. We also try to plan meals and alter recipes to make cleanup as easy as possible because 1)no one likes cleaning up after cooking to begin with but 2) it’s a lot more difficult to do if you are following Leave No Trace practices (swilling pasta water…yum). Meals don’t have to be bland and tasteless though. We love using the NOLS Cookery book to plan meals. During this time of year we plan for 1.75 lbs/person/day, but in the summers we drop down to 1.5 lbs.

Water Purifier — 12 oz

When hiking I easily drink more than a gallon of water per day plus I need water for cooking food. There is no way Renee and I are going to carry in all the water we need for three days so we plan on replenishing our supplies from springs and streams along the way. Although people have lived in Shenandoah for hundreds of years have been drinking unfiltered water from springs and wells, contracting an infection from giardia or some other parasite is not something that I want to risk. Some people like using tablets, drops, or UV light, but personally I like using a filter. A filter protects against anything we would encounter in a pristine wilderness setting with good water sources and it produces the best tasting water.

Water Carriers — 8 oz

Water carriers are still something I am figuring out. Up to this point I’ve always used a 3 liter hydration bladder to carry around a larger quantity of water and then a couple hard plastic Nalgene bottles for water that’s easier to access. The issue I have with the bladder is that the water always tastes funny; that’s not a huge deal if we are talking about survival, but I believe backpacking can be fun and comfortable without having to sacrifice all of life’s conveniences. The hard Nalgene bottles I struggle with because they are too big to fit in any of the water bottle holders for my bag. Additionally, once they are empty, I have to make a conscious effort to fill them with something so they aren’t just taking up wasted space in my bag. For this trip I think I’m still going to use the water bladder (going to give it a good cleaning beforehand) but also I’m going to try a collapsible water bottle since it will hopefully save space once empty and be easier to shove into any bottle carrier/pocket/wherever there is space.

Fire Starter + Tinder — 3 oz

Although camp fires are not allowed in Shenandoah, that doesn’t mean I won’t bring fire starting sticks, a lighter, and tinder (dryer lint). Although I don’t plan on using any of this stuff, it’s a nice safety measure to have in case we get stuck somewhere or need to get warm.

Clothes — 5 lbs

Packing clothes is what I struggle most with when backpacking. I have the tendency to over pack, causing me to carry around extra weight and then never end up wearing the clothes. It’s a fine line between making sure you always have dry, warm clothes and packing way too many clothes that you never use them. Regardless of trip length, I basically pack two of most things — two pairs of socks, two pairs of underwear, two pairs of zip-off pants/shorts, and two shirts. Those clothes basically get me through the daytime’s hiking. I also pack an extra shirt and shorts to sleep in, a pair of camp shoes, and a water proof jacket. If it’s supposed to be a wet trip, I’ll pack a third pair of everything so I always have something dry to wear, but I really hate doing this since clothes take up a ton of space in my pack. This time of year, Shenandoah is in the low thirties in the mornings, so I’ll be taking a down jacket and some extra layers to keep me warm in the mornings.

Sleeping Bag — 3 lbs 10 oz

This one is critical because it’s what keeps me warm at night. We usually backpack somewhere in the mountains, meaning cool nights. I’m a fan of down filled bags because of their warmth and compressibility and I don’t mind having to protect them from getting wet.

Sleeping Pad — 2 lbs 5 oz

Sleeping on the ground doesn’t have to be uncomfortable. For the first few years that I camped I didn’t know this though and every morning I would wake up sore. Then at some point I learned that a thin foam sleeping pad could be put under a sleeping bag to make laying on the ground more enjoyable. After this discovery I sleep like a baby and wake up rested every single time. I would even argue that I get better sleep on my sleeping pad out in nature than I do on my bed at home.

Backpack(s) — 6 lbs

I need a container to carry all of my gear in. When car camping, it used to be boxes and rubber totes. With backpacking, it’s a large backpack to fit all of my stuff. On trips where we will be doing lots of day hikes and coming back to our same campsite at night I also like to bring a small daypack to carry essentials like water, food, and a jacket.

Compass and Maps — 5 oz

These get surprisingly little use since trails are usually so well marked, but they are helpful for identifying water sources and flat spots for campsites. I’ve always been aware of my surroundings enough to not get lost, but the compass is a nice extra safety measure.

Headlamp — 3 oz

This might be one of the best purchases I have ever made. Not only is it great for camping where you frequently need your hands for cooking a meal or setting up a tent, but I use this headlamp for everything outside of camping as well. Stargazing? Check. Working under my car? Check. Using it in a crawlspace or when the power is out? Check and check. Honestly, everyone should own a headlamp — they are way more functional than a flashlight.

Cooking Stove and Fuel — 2 lbs

I don’t follow the philosophy of camp food should taste bad. Some people are able to subsist on powdered meals and candy bars but I like to eat as well as I can when I’m out backpacking. Having a good stove helps cook everything from pad Thai to cinnamon rolls. Although temperature control has to be maintained by how much you pressurize the fuel bottle, this stove is versatile and easily repairable. It also doesn’t use a lot of fuel and is durable.

Pot and Mess Kit — 1 lb 10 oz

Having a light-weight pot with a multi-function lid is important. Not only can I boil liquids and fry foods in the pot, the lid doubles as a second frying pan as well as a lid to make water boil faster (important when trying to conserve fuel). A couple of water tight bowls with lids are great because not only can can they be used to eat/make a meal in, they act as great storage containers in the backpack (don’t want the oil or butter leaking all over your clothes!). The mess kit is pretty simple, mostly utensils for stirring/turning food and cleaning supplies. I like to do as much food prep work while at home before the trip so most meals can be made by just combining and cooking ingredients in the field — leave all of the chopping and cutting for the large chef’s knife and cutting board at home.

First Aid and Sewing Kits — 5.5 oz

This one needs little explanation; it’s important to be able to fix yourself if you are relying on yourself in the outdoors. Fortunately, the only thing I’ve had to use from our first aid kit is some headache medicine. Our sewing kit is basically a needle, thread, and extra buttons.

Bag Cover + Extra Bags — 12 oz

Rain is one of a backpacker’s biggest enemies. It is essential that all of your gear stays dry and the way I accomplish this is with a pack cover to water proof my whole bag when it’s raining. I also bring lots of extra bags to water proof individual items (camera, food) if it’s really wet. Having extra bags is always useful since they are so versatile as well — besides waterproofing they work great for carrying out trash, portioning out food, and compartmentalizing your pack.

We also use one of these bags to store our food in. Animals can easily break into it if they are able to reach it, so we have to do a good job of hanging this from a tree. The alternative of packing something like a bear canister seems like a pain because of the amount of space it takes up. I’m imaging at some point we will go camping somewhere that requires canisters so maybe once that happens my opinion of them will change. Until then, we’ve become pretty good at hanging bags from trees.

Nylon Cord — 2.5 oz

This one is pretty versatile. We always use it to hang up our food bag, but it also works great for a clothes line, tying items to your bag, replacement shoelaces, replacement guy lines for the tent, etc… Definitely don’t want to go anywhere without it.

Shovel and Toilet Paper — 4 oz

Not necessary, but is worth the weight. Using a shovel to dig a cat hole is much cleaner than having to get your hands dirty. The toilet paper is nice in case everything is wet and finding dry leaves to use isn’t a guarantee.

Hand Sanitizer — 3 oz

Much easier to use than soap and water.

Book — 5 oz

Whatever I’m currently reading. Usually now I try to bring a book for my Kindle app on my phone so that I have less to carry.

Camera, Single Lens, and Tripod — 4 lbs 8 oz

I like taking photos so taking a camera is extra weight worth taking. I only take a single fixed length lens to save on weight and I don’t bother with extra batteries or anything else. All other camera extras, with the exception of a cloth to wipe down the lens with, stay at home.

Camp Shoes — 1 lb

I like bringing these water shoes because they are great to wear after a long day of hiking. I also like them for crossing streams where I think I’ll get wet because they dry out really quick.

Personal Items: Toothbrush, Contact Solution, etc.. — 2 lbs

Just because I’m camping doesn’t mean I throw away all concepts of hygiene. Included in here are all of the regular items you’d put in your TSA quart size bag plus a pack of playing cards and bug spray.

Pillow — 13 oz

This is always an optional item. I always sleep better when I bring a collapsible pillow instead of just sleeping on a sweatshirt/bag of clothes, but I realize it is not essential and I only pack it if I still have lots of room in my bag.

Bear Spray — 13 oz

I used to be terrified of bears. After learning more about bears though, I am not scared anymore. Shenandoah has a large black bear population, however I would never go out and buy bear spray to take to an area that only has black bears. We already had this bear spray from previous trips though so I figured we might as well take it.

Espresso Machine — 8 lbs

Just kidding. Although it would be nice…

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