Packing List for an Overnight Hike

Carry only what you need

Figuring out what essentials to carry on your first overnight hike can be difficult if you haven't done it before. And the requirements will vary greatly, depending on circumstances. Are you going alone, or will you have companions? Are you hiking near roads and other trappings of civilization, or are you in the true wild? Are there animals in the area that might be a threat, or are mosquitoes the most dangerous thing you're likely to encounter? Are you doing one night out in the open air, or is this a multiple-night hike?

A common mistake for first-timers is to overpack. Nothing ruins a hike more than carrying too much on your back. Yet you also need to cover the basics in order to make sure your hike is safe and comfortable enough to not sour you on the whole experience. 

The following list is loosely based on the ten essentials for a day hike, modified for overnight trekking. Use it as a starting point, then adapt the list as you gain more experience in the great outdoors.

 

Clothing

Justin/flickr/CC BY 2.0

Time of year and the climate of your region will dictate much of what you should pack in the way of clothing, but a good rule of thumb is to think in layers. Instead of packing one bulky coat or jacket, it's usually better to pack several thin but warm pieces that you can put on or take off as needed. Any store specializing in outdoor activities will have a number of different brands and price points from which you can choose. Here is what we recommend:

  • Base layer (top and bottom). Polypropylene long underwear is both lightweight and offers good warmth. 
  • Mid (insulating) layer. Here, too, thin but insulating fabrics are usually best for a hike. 
  • Outer (shell) layer, which in mild weather could be a thin windbreaker and whatever pants you feel comfortable hiking in. If temps are going to be 30 degrees and below, consider a heavier shell.
  • Extra socks. Wet feet will quickly ruin a hike. Make sure your socks are appropriate for hiking. Wool, or wool blends, are usually better than cotton. 
  • Hat and gloves. Your hat should protect you from the sun and also be thick enough to stop heat loss. Thin gloves made from Thinsulate are best. 
  • Sunglasses. 
  • Optional: Change of underwear (you can always go without or turn yesterday's inside-out).
  • Optional: For those in bear country or doing long hikes, an extra set of base layers to sleep in as pajamas. 

Shelter

Sleeping under the stars is great when it's practical, but more often you will need some form of protection from the elements and from insects. At a minimum, you should take:

  • A tent or a tarp that can be erected as shelter. A one-man mummy tent can be great for solo overnights. In areas where bugs are a problem, make sure your tent has good insect netting. 
  • Sleeping pad (and patch kit, if it's air-inflated).
  • Sleeping bag. 
  • Optional: Tent footprint. A ground tarp can be an important addition where ground is moist. 

Food

Steady hiking burns a lot of calories, and you'll need to replace those calories with nutritious, filling food. For some people, hot meals are essential, but for others, cold foods, such as nutrition bars, nuts and dried fruits, and beef or fish jerkies are just fine, especially for brief overnights. Plan carefully for each meal rather than simply pack a lot of random foods. You will eat more than you think. Many experienced hikers like to start and end the day with hot meals, but find that a cold lunch—or a series of snacks—will work just fine for midday. Here's a sample list that works for many: 

  • One cookable breakfast, one cold lunch, and one cookable dinner for each full day on the trail. Many outdoor supply stores carry a number of ready-to-eat meals that work great for long trips. Just add hot water in the bag, and you're good to go.
  • Snacks for in-between meals. Use your day hiking experience to help you gauge quantities. Estimate on the high side until you become more experienced. 
  • One cooking/eating dish.
  • Eating utensil (the "spork," which includes both fork and spoon in one utensil, is great).
  • Cup for hot drinks.
  • Camp stove and fuel.
  • Animal-proof food storage appropriate for your area: Bear-proof canister, rope, and bag for bear-bagging; or rodent-proof bag, can, and rope for mouse-bagging, etc.
  • Optional: Camp spices.
  • Optional: Stove repair kit (depending on your stove and trip length).

Water

Keeping hydrated is even more important than food on an overnight hike. There are two options: pack in all the water you are likely to need in some form of container, or bring along a water filter or purifier that allows you to drink available lake or stream water. The latter option is best provided there is plenty of water out on the trail, as it greatly reduces the weightload in your pack. 

If you must carry water, you can either pack bottles, or use some kind of Camelbak-style reservoir system. Either way, don't skimp—you will need a lot of water, not only for drinking, cooking, and washing up, but also for any emergencies, like getting lost or helping out other hikers on the trail.

Comfort Items

So-called comfort items may not be life-and-death necessities, but you will be surprised by how essential some of these things will seem out on the trail. If you're being assaulted by mosquitoes during stretches of hiking in the deep woods, bug spray will sure seem essential. As will:

  • Sunblock/sunscreen
  • Bandana
  • Biodegradable toilet paper
  • Optional but a really good idea: Hand sanitizer/biodegradable soap.
  • Optional: Wet wipes. 
  • Optional: Hand shovel for digging holes to bury feces.
  • Optional for women: Urine director, menstrual supplies.

Just in Case

There is no need to be paranoid about the dangers of the trail, but neither do you want to be naive about the hazards, especially when hiking alone or in remote country. These items will give you peace of mind:

  • Fully-charged cell phone (but never count on having cell service).
  • Headlamp and extra batteries.
  • Your hiking emergency kit—including, at a bare minimum, an emergency whistle, knife, duct tape, water purification tablets, map and compass, waterproof lighter/striker, firestarter, large garbage bag, space blanket.
  • First aid supplies.

Miscellaneous

As space allows, consider bringing these items, as well:

  • Lightweight stuff sacks to keep everything organized.
  • Copies of relevant guidebook pages. Make photocopies of the relevant pages, or just tear out the pages you'll need. 
  • Camera in a ziplock bag or waterproof case.
  • Bear spray (if appropriate in your area).
  • Hiking poles (optional).
  • Reading material like a book or magazine.

Trip Plan

Make a trip plan and stick to it. Even if you are hiking in relatively civilized territory, make sure other people know where you are going and when you are coming back. In addition to filing your plans with friends and family, tell a park ranger or the local sheriff/police department where you are going and when you plan to be back. This is especially important if you are hiking in a remote area.

Should you find it necessary to change your plans on the trail—such as if a trail is washed out or closed—try to contact someone to let them know that your trip plan has changed.