How should I pack for a trek? What should I pack for a multi-day hike? What is too much? And what is too little? How am I going to carry it all? Which gear and trekking supplies should I buy in advance and which can I buy on the ground?
After receiving numerous emails, queries and comments asking about trekking gear and how to pack for treks, especially when the trek is incorporated into a longer trip, we decided to assemble our packing advice for treks, short and long.
By way of background, during the first six years of our journey we carried all that we needed in our backpacks so as to be prepared for just about any kind of climate or activity, from beach to glacier. In retrospect, we made some silly decisions in those early days. As a result, we schlepped a few bits we never used. But through experience and experimentation and after about a dozen multi-day treks across all continents, we got smart not only as to what gear to carry with us, but also what to buy locally or rent.
And we figured out how to do all this while on a budget.
We’ve created two pieces of content for you. The first is below and includes thorough explanations of what to bring and why. We realize it’s extensive. That’s why we’ve also created a simple one-page downloadable trekking packing checklist to help make your next packing experience smooth and easy.
Note: The following advice applies mainly to multi-day treks where your sleeping and eating arrangements are taking care of already (think guest houses, lodges, huts, tea houses, or home stays). If you are camping, then you’ll need to add food, camping, and cooking gear to everything below.
- Trekking Packing Myths
- Packing for Your Trek: First Principles
- Backpacks and Bags
- Trekking Clothes, Jackets and Shoes
- Electronics and Other Trekking Gear
1. You must purchase the latest and greatest trekking gear.
It’s true that some trekking clothing technology is especially useful for lightness, wind-resistance, waterproofing and wicking (GoreTex, fleece, Polartec, etc., come to mind). However, we suggest focusing on the trekking basics: clothing that is comfortable, breathable, light, easily layered. You’re not climbing to the peak of Mount Everest here. (If you are, that’s for a future article.) For a little perspective, watching locals breeze by you in flip-flops might make all your pre-purchased fancy gear seem a little unnecessary.
So there’s no need to overspend. Go for good quality, but resist the shiny bleeding-edge trekking toys. I know it’s hard. Outdoor stores are dangerous shopping vortexes for us, too.
2. You need to bring EVERYTHING with you.
For every trek we’ve undertaken, there’s been ample opportunity to rent or buy gear to supplement our trekking kit. For example, it’s just not practical for us to carry around bulky waterproof pants in our backpacks when we only need them a tiny fraction of the time. Same goes for walking sticks and sleeping bags. Do your research and find out what is available on the ground and at what cost. Ask the tour company you’re going with or reach out to other independent travelers who’ve experienced the same trek. When you land on the ground, shop around for the best price.
Before climbing Mount Kilimanjaro, we’d traveled through Bali, Malaysia, Bangladesh, Jordan and Thailand — all from the same gear in our backpacks throughout. So it was more than worth the $65 I spent in Moshi, Tanzania to rent a sleeping bag, waterproof pants, waterproof jacket, walking stick, gaiters and more to get me to the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro. Dan even rented hiking shoes for $15 which offered a little more ankle support and stability than the ones he’d been wearing. When we departed for our safari just after the Kilimanjaro trek I could just drop all that stuff off at the trekking shop and continue with my regular light backpack.
3. Real treks require camping.
This is all subjective. It’s true that camping and carrying all your own gear may give you a greater sense of independence and accomplishment and allow you to dive deeper into nature. However, we take issue with the assertion that camping equals a better trekking experience. In fact, some of our most memorable treks (e.g., Annapurna Circuit, Markha Valley Trek, Svaneti, Peaks of the Balkans, Kalaw to Inle Lake in Burma, etc.) have been memorable precisely because of the local culture and human interaction dimensions surrounding our accommodation and food arrangements.
It’s the combined experience of nature and people (and the human nature that responds to the surrounding environment) that we find truly soul nourishing.
1. It’s all about the layers.
This is true in all types of travel, long-term and short, but especially for trekking into high altitudes. Temperatures can change very drastically during the course of a day. I always prefer to have an extra layer in my bag than to go cold.
Even if the days are warm at low altitude, nights may still be chilly. On summit days you’ll often need to pile on everything you have to get to the top, only to peel it off layer by layer as you descend.
2. Rest and sleeping clothes.
I learned this from the folks at Erratic Rock in Puerto Natales near Torres del Paine National Park in Chile. They called the yucky, stinky clothes you’ll find yourself wearing every day until the very end your uniform. In light of this — and even if you are going minimalist — try to include an extra set of night clothes to change into at the end of the day. These clothes will be dry (quite important if you’ve hit snow or rain that day), comfortable and relatively clean. I usually pack an extra t-shirt, pajama pants and socks. I’ll further layer other clothes on top to stay warm at night. Regardless, the layer closest to my skin is dry and relatively fresh.
Oh, the little joys while on the trekking trail.
This technique also gives your wet and stinky clothes a chance to dry and air out overnight. The next morning you can slip back into your trekking clothes — yes, your uniform — and you’ll be ready to go.
3. Never skimp on sun protection.
As you advance higher in elevation, the sun becomes scary strong. So even if you tan beautifully on the beach without any sunscreen, be sure to pack ample and strong sunscreen. Carry a hat that will protect your face from the sun (think rollable foldable sun or jungle hat — we don’t need to look pretty while trekking). Trekking with sunburn — head, face or hands — is miserable. And if your sunburn is bad enough, you’ll almost feel flu-like. Not good for peak performance.
Also be sure to have sunglasses with quality lenses that protect your eyes. Otherwise, they too will become burned and sore.
Trekking gear: Bags and Clothes to bring on a multi-day trek
Small backpack: You’ll be carrying all your stuff on your back up and down mountain passes so the size, fit and comfort of your pack is important. Aim to carry a pack that is big enough to hold the essentials, yet not too big that it will weigh you down. The size will depend on how many days your trek is and whether or not you will camp. Don’t forget to bring a rain cover to protect your backpack in storms.
We’ve often repurposed our Crumpler laptop bag and rented backpacks from trekking agencies. They usually did the trick, but they were not always entirely appropriate and thus kind to our back and shoulders. This may be something you want to invest in before your trek.
Update August 2016: We upgraded our trekking backpacks in order to walk the Camino de Santiago (960 km). Here are the backpacks we’re now using:
– Audrey: Deuter ACT Trail Pro 32 SL Backpack: Very light with all sorts of great functionality like a built-in rain cover, water bladder compatibility, wide waist belt for stability, and more. Still love this backpack even after walking almost 1,000 km with it on my back.
– Daniel: Osprey Packs Exos 38 Backpack: This backpack comes in several sizes, so the Large version is well-suited for tall trekkers. Light, comfortable, and durable. The main complaint about this backpack is the walking stick holder as it’s a little janky.
Camera bag: If you’re carrying a DSLR camera and multiple lenses consider packing a separate camera bag to protect your gear and to allow you easy access to it. We use a camera bag with a waist belt that allows the bag’s weight to rest on the hips rather than on the shoulders. We can still wear a backpack or daypack on top.
Dry Sack: You never know when it’s going to rain or snow, so prepare for the worst — particularly if you have gear that must remain dry. We carry a dry sack with us in order to protect our gear against freak storms or inadvertent submersions while fording rivers.
For a seven day trek we each carry:
- 1 pair of trekking pants: We’re both been using Clothing Arts Travel Pants (his and hers) as our go-to trekking pants these last few years. We find the additional secure pockets useful on treks for keeping phones, money, tissues and other things handy.
- Thermal underwear (top/bottom): I love my silk long johns as they are warm, comfy and take up almost no room at all. Dan is still keen on his Patagonia zipper top and bottoms that he’s been using for a decade.
- 3 short-sleeved t-shirts: Preferably quick-dry or regular cotton.
- 1 long-sleeved travel/trekking shirt (his and hers)
- :Pajama/sleeping pants: I find that cotton yoga pants work quite well.
- Underwear: However many pairs that you’re comfortable with carrying. Recommended his and hers
- 3 pairs of socks: I love SmartWool hiking socks as my first pairs lasted me almost seven years of heavy usage. If you prefer a thinner sock check out their ultra-light line.
If you are going on a shorter trek then you can cut back, but if your trek is longer you can still carry the same amount of clothes or even less. You’ll just need to “recycle” them more or find a way to wash them along the way. By recycle, I mean turn things inside-out, air them out, wash them. Whatever the best mechanism you have available to give it longer life and whatever your tolerance level might be. The most important thing is not whether you stink (there’s a good chance you just might), but that you are dry and comfortable.
As mentioned above, my approach is to carry and maintain separate trekking and sleeping (or relaxing at night) clothes. To be on the safe side to protect against things getting wet, put your sleeping clothes and whatever else you aren’t wearing at the time in Ziploc or another kind of plastic bag.
Outerwear (jackets and waterproof pants)
I always prefer to have the option to remove layers than to not have enough to put on when I’m beginning to chill as I head over a mountain pass or through a storm.
For jackets, we each usually bring a fleece jacket, thin windbreaker and waterproof outer jacket. We used to borrow or rent waterproof pants (and sometimes jackets) from a local trekking agency, but most recently we picked up a pair of light pull on biking waterproof/water resistant pants that fold up into a small bag, but keep you quite dry when the clouds open up.
Hiking Shoes: Shoes may be the most important thing you bring with you so if you invest in one thing in advance, invest in a solid comfortable pair of hiking shoes. And break them in. Your shoes can literally make or break a trip. Ask in advance whether you need mid- or high-cut hiking shoes for ankle support as this may influence your purchasing decision. We don’t find ourselves often needing high-cut boots. However, if your ankles are weak or susceptible to turns and sprains, more support is better than less.
We wore Vasque Scree Low Ultradry Hiking Shoes for over a year and really like them not only because they are supremely comfortable shoes, but also because they are waterproof and quick drying (which we tested hopping across and into streams on our Markha Valley Trek in Ladakh). Vasque stopped making these shoes for women last year so I’m now using the Mantra GTX Hiking Shoes.
Flip flops or river shoes: At the end of a long day of walking you may want to take off your hiking shoes and give your feet a rest. But you’ll still need something on your feet to go to and from the outhouse or nearest bush. That’s where flip flops or river shoes worn with socks (yes, ignore the fashion police) are perfect. Outside of these situations, you may find river sandals either useful or required for crossing or fording rivers. Depending on the bottom surface of the river and the depth, we’ve also just managed in bare feet or with our waterproof hiking boots, given some time to dry.
Headlamp: Lights the way and keeps your hands free. If you’re staying with families in guest houses or home stays, you may find they are without electricity at night or in the bathroom/outhouse, a most unfortunate place to trip in the dark. If you’re camping, headlamps are of course absolutely essential.
Quick-Drying Travel Towel: Always good to start and end your day by washing your hands and face. Don’t expect hot showers on treks, nor running water of any kind. But on a few occasions we’ve been able to get a couple of bucket baths that were really, really nice.
Silk sleep sack: Arguably non-essential, but nice to have. Whether staying in home stays with provided bedding or sleeping in a rented sleeping bag, you sometimes wonder when the last time anything was properly laundered. And you may also wonder about bed bugs and other critters. That’s where a sleep sack with a pillow wrap comes in to provide a clean layer between you and everything else. Prophylactic!
Note: We do not carry a sleeping bag with us usually. If we need one for a trek or camping, we try to rent one locally.
Reusable water bottle: We carry a reusable liter water bottle on us and refill along the way. A CamelBak type water bladder in the backpack also works really well. Even if the trek has bottled water to sell, resist the urge to buy bottled water, as plastic bottle waste is an enormous problem at elevation and in villages around the world.
Water Purification: Some treks will provide you with clean, boiled water as part of the service (e.g., Kilimanjaro, Markha Valley). Sometimes there will be a program of UV (ultraviolet) purified or pass-filter cleaned water services in villages where you can refill your bottle with clean water for a small fee. Hop on it, maybe even pay a little extra. It’s worth it to you, the village, and the environment.
On other treks it’s up to you to somehow purify or clean the water you source from mountain streams or village taps. We suggest carrying a combination of a SteriPEN and sterilization tablets or drops. The SteriPEN uses ultraviolet (UV) light and technology to purify the water which does not affect the taste. The sterilization tablets or drops may make the water taste a little funny, but it won’t make you sick. We find water sterilization drops to be a little easier to abide and stomach than sterilization pills.
Sunscreen, hat and sunglasses: Bring the highest SPF sunscreen you can find and wear a hat at all times. The sun’s rays are exceptionally powerful at altitude and you’ll find yourself especially exposed when there isn’t a cloud in the sky.
Moisturizing skin cream and lip balm (with SPF): Creams and moisturizers may sound extraneous, but they can make a difference. Many mountain treks involve high desert where you will not only be exposed to lots of sun, but also arid conditions. Your skin and lips will dry and crack to discomfort if you don’t keep them moist. Treat them nicely: moisturize! And be sure to carry only a tiny lightweight container, not the original 32 oz. tube!
Walking stick: Highly recommended on most treks, especially for downhill sections. If you don’t bring a walking stick with you, then keep your eye out for a tree branch or limb that can be carved for the purpose. Two walking sticks or one, you ask? We’ll usually share one walking stick set between the two of us so each of us uses one stick.
Snacks: Even if your meals are provided to you on a trek, it’s sometimes nice to have a little something to nibble on between stops. We usually bring a small stash combination of Snickers bars, granola/power bars, a jar of peanut butter and crackers. You’ll want a little bit of both salty and sweet foods.
Hand sanitizer gel and soap: One of the best ways to avoid becoming ill: wash your hands thoroughly and often. If you feel a little obsessive compulsive with the hand cleaning, that’s a good thing.
Toilet paper: One roll, used sparingly. Better to be self-sufficient here. No explanation needed. I often also keep a pack of tissues in my pocket as well for such emergencies.
Medicines: You may be miles or days away from any doctor so be sure to have some basic medicines with you in case you (or others) fall ill. On our treks, we’ve picked up sinus infections and helped others who have picked up the wrong kind of gut bacteria. Having the basics with us allowed us to deal with medical issues immediately and to keep going.
We recommend packing: Band-Aids, aspirin/Tylenol, Cipro (or other stomach antibiotic), Amoxicillin (or other basic antibiotic to treat sinus infections), rehydration packets, anti-flu powder (a packet that dissolves in water that breaks fevers may work better than a pill if someone has been throwing up), duct tape (magic in preventing and managing blisters) and Compeed (magic when you already have blisters). For a full list of travel medicines and how to use them, check out these travel health tips.
Note: You can easily stock up on medicines at pharmacies in many developing countries. Basic medicines such as the ones listed here and in the article above will likely be astonishingly cheap and will often not require a prescription.
Earplugs: A good night’s sleep on the trekking trail is supremely important for your condition. And although you may be sleeping in the middle of nowhere, there are still noises from roosters, howler monkeys, birds, lions, and not least other trekkers that will all conspire to keep you up. That’s where earplugs come to the rescue and help shut it all down to silence.
Leatherman: A multi-tool device with a knife, bottle opener, screwdriver, and more comes in quite handy when on the trail. We use ours all the time for cutting cheese, vegetables, bread or other food items for picnic stops.
Batteries, memory cards: It’s usually better to assume that you won’t find electricity along your trekking route. If you do, consider it gravy. Be sure to ask your trekking guide or agency, or other route-experienced travelers (either in forums or once you are on the ground). Ask them all once, then again for good measure. Bring extra memory cards for your camera so you have ample space to snap away or record video.
This means you should try to bring extra batteries for your camera, headlamp, and anything else that’s battery-powered. If you’re carrying your smartphone with you consider bringing an extra battery pack and putting your phone on Airplane Mode to preserve battery life. If there’s electricity along your trek and you’d like to recharge, by all means bring rechargers. We do. But it’s just something else to pack — and something you must prioritize when the final bag stuff begins just prior to setting off.
What did we miss? What are your go-to items for trekking?