Backpacking Gear I Wish I Had Packed (& others better left behind)

Essential Backpacking Gear 101

About a week ago, I returned from backpacking in Montana‘s Yellowstone National Park. This was my first backpacking experience ever, so I had a lot to learn! While I was on the trail, I wrote a list in my field notebook of the backpacking gear I wish I had packed, and the gear I could have afforded to leave at home. This list will come in handy when I prepare for my next trip, and hopefully, it helps you too!


Not going to lie, the image I have of handkerchiefs in my head is tucked in the jeans butt pocket of a kind, old man who uses them to wipe his nose or cover a sneeze. But I wish I had one of my own each time I see someone whip out a handkerchief for these reasons:

  • To dry off after a creek bath
  • To wick the sweat from your brow, face, everywhere
  • To soak in cold creek water and wrap around your neck when you’re walking in the hot sun
  • Even as a nice, wait for it…pee towel. Yeah, you read that right. Drip drying is cool and all, but dabbing is faster, feels cleaner, and swipes up collateral spray from your legs–let’s not pretend this doesn’t happen.

Bonus: Handkerchiefs are the lightest version of a towel you could probably bring with you on a backpacking trip.

Duct Tape

Besides the fact that you can use duct tape for anything and everything (Once, I used it to patch a tear in my ThermaRest sleeping pad), duct tape is an incredible tool to have in your first aid kit. Most people use moleskin to help treat inevitable backpacking blisters on your feet, but duct tape works just as well, if not better! Rather than treating blisters when they appear, it’s better to prevent them by taping sore spots–places where you can feel a blister forming–with duct tape. The duct tape creates a friction barrier between your skin and your boot so that it’s not chafing and provides support.

Lavender or Rosemary Herbal Oil

Okay, I know, you’re on the trail, you’re dirty, you smell, there’s no point in fighting it, and besides, you kind of like it. I left my deodorant at home too. BUT. There are other essential uses for this herbal perfume on the trail.

  • Alleviate muscle and joint pain with its analgesic and anti-inflammatory magic properties
  • Increase circulation to your throbbing feet, cramping muscles, and swollen hands
  • Treat tension and stress headaches by dabbing a bit on your temples
  • Calm mental stress and anxiety from a long day’s journey

I actually brought a tiny tin of Tiger Balm to rub on my sore back and shoulders in the evenings, but rosemary oil does the work of Tiger Balm and more, so I might try it instead next time!

Base Layer Pants

July days in Montana are hot. Sweat-salt-lines-in-the creases-of-your-arms-kinda-hot. The heat seems to radiate from the ground up, especially if, like me, you’re hiking a decent amount of miles through devastated, barren burn areas with no shade or sun protection. The nights though are lovely, an occasional thunderstorm cools down the air.

So, I packed for summer. I packed for July. Makes sense, right? I didn’t expect the first night to drop into the 30s, and even though my sweet Marmot sleeping bag can keep my body pretty toasty at those temps, I was hurting for some comfy base layer pants around camp. This goes without saying but: be familiar with the weather patterns for your trip’s wilderness area, and be sure your backpacking gear is for all conditions because you never know!

Gear I Could Have Done Without

Okay, now for the embarrassing part of this post. Warning, backpacking newb status, right here.

NEW Boots

Yupp, I committed the cardinal sin of backpacking gear. I wore boots that I had never worn before  – on a hiking trip.

Why did I do this to myself?

Simple answer: I ran out of time to test them out before I left for the trip. I bought my Merrell GoreTex hiking boots, used, at a consignment gear store in Denver that I love. The boots that I’ve been using for eight years have no ankle support, are not waterproof, not even water-resistant, and well, they’re Cabela’s brand (no offense Cabela’s, but I think we all know that brands like Merrell make better boots). I hadn’t invested in a hiking boot upgrade because I’m broke, so I thought a used pair of boots, already broken in, was a decent compromise.


I didn’t give myself enough time to test them out, and on the second day of my backpacking trip, I was that person, limping on the trail with swollen, bruised ankles. Take my lesson well learned, and know your boots before your journey.

Non-Adjustable Sports Bra

Without even thinking, I packed my favorite sports bra, just one, you know, for my trip. It’s an UnderArmour top with adjustable shoulder straps. I had no idea that the weight of my pack on the tiny plastic adjustable clasps would dig into my shoulders while I hiked. This one is easy. Next time, I’ll wear a sports bra that is well-fitted and seamless–no adjustments needed.

DSLR Camera & Tripod

Yeah, I actually hauled a full DSLR setup, my Canon Mark II and 35mm L-series lens, plus two batteries, and a tripod–about 10lbs of extra weight!–on my back for a week through the wilderness. Believe it or not, I actually don’t regret this decision. I was able to capture the most amazing moments of my first backpacking experience that I can’t wait to share with you! But maybe next time, I’ll stick with a GoPro.


Surprisingly, this second list is shorter than I anticipated. For a newbie in the world of backpacking, I didn’t do a terrible job of packing. I actually used all the gear I packed!

I’d love to hear the backpacking gear you can’t leave at home. Your Chacos? Ultralight camp chair? Sarong? I’m so glad I took my Kindle!

Help a newbie out in the comments below!

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