How To Prepare For An Overnight Backcountry Hike

Updated: Jun 11


I looooove reading hiking articles and watching backcountry camping videos on YouTube. I’ve lived in the Canadian Rockies for 18 years and despite being a fairly experienced hiker, I still very much enjoy listening to other hikers’ advice concerning all things wilderness.


Backpacking is probably the deepest way for us humans to appreciate the outdoors. Everything you need for your survival and comfort is stashed on your back, and then it’s just you against the elements. You can take whatever time you need to admire the scenery and revel in the grandeur, and you’re doing it all under your own muscle power.


Now, over-packing (or under-packing) is probably the biggest blunder we all make on our first few trips. Whether you’re an occasional day hiker or an experienced backpacker, here’s my humble take on how to prepare for an overnight hike in the backcountry.

* All photos set up and edited by lotzacurls

*****

- Backcountry camping requires hiking to your destination with everything in your backpack, including all your food, water, clothes, tent and sleeping accommodations. They do usually provide compostable outhouses, however.

- Reservations at backcountry campgrounds are usually required and are strongly recommended (unless it’s a first-come, first-served campground).

- Good preparation is needed; there’s no going back to grab your stove, extra jacket or sleeping bag if they have been left behind.

- I personally love to hike into camp early in the day (to set up my tent and overnight gear in daylight), then either explore my surroundings or kick back with a splash of wine and a book.

- Check out online forums that discuss your chosen trail; people post all kinds of useful info about water sources, camping sites with the best views, wildlife sightings, availability of firewood, etc.

- Most importantly, you must carry absolutely everything out with you, including dirty wet wipes, used toilet paper (if the backcountry toilet can’t accept it), used Kleenex, dirty feminine products, etc. Nothing but your footprints should be left behind.


HOW TO PREPARE

1. FOOD

You’ll need low-maintenance munchies that are light to carry, that don’t generate much garbage and that are easy to prepare (dishes can be a pain in the backcountry). Food that needs to be cooked or warmed up will demand a bit more equipment but, for me, the benefits far outweigh the extra weight. One of my favourite things to enjoy in the evening is a steaming hot cup of mint or lemon tea, and coffee in the morning is considered a non-negotiable luxury. Not to mention that a hot meal after a cold and rainy hike can work wonders on one’s morale. Having a backcountry stove also provides a back-up way of treating your water. That being said, you could always cook over a fire pit. It’s your choice.

Three Isle Lake Kananaskis Alberta Canadian Rockies
Enjoying my morning cup of java at Three Isle Lake in Kananaskis Country, Alberta (backcountry hike rated as difficult).

One of the hardest things to decide is how much food to bring. Too much food and you’ll be dragging your feet under the weight. Not enough food and you’ll be hungry and weak. It's the sort of thing you get better at managing with experience and besides, I tend to pack food as though I’ll never see it again. Frankly, I’d rather have a bit too much food in case of an injury or navigation error, where I might find myself in the wilderness longer than planned.

Illustration courtesy of pc.gc.ca

Most backcountry campgrounds either have bear bins or hanging ropes to store or haul food; pack food in a dry bag to protect it from the elements in case it needs to hang overnight. Remember that any toiletries that smell (toothpaste, lip balm, deodorant) need to hang in the dry bag with your food.




Here’s food I like to enjoy on an overnight hike in the backcountry:


Day One

Breakfast: Eaten at home or in the car on the way to the trailhead

Lunch: Peanut butter and jelly sandwiches (made the night before), stored in a light silicone bag like Stasher (which can also collect garbage to bring back home the next day)

Snacks: Fruit bars, trail mix, mini Babybel cheese wheels

Supper: Pasta with homemade tomato sauce and a mug of hot tea (pasta is prepared the night before, stored in Stasher bag and reheated in pot at campground)

Extra: A splash or two of wine, carried in a roll-up Platypus stasher


Day 2

Breakfast: Coffee with Stevia, 1 cup of large-flake oats with dried cranberries and a dash of brown sugar (just add boiling water in collapsible silicone bowl)

Lunch: Flavoured tuna (in easy-open cans) and crackers

Snacks: Fruit bars, trail mix, mini Babybel cheese wheels

Supper: Enjoyed at home after an amazing backcountry trip!


2. ESSENTIAL GEAR

  • Navigation

  • Topographical map of your hike

  • Headlamps (with extra batteries), as opposed to a flashlight. An absolute must, a headlamp will give you much greater flexibility with BOTH hands while setting up your tent, rummaging through your bag, building a fire, cooking your food, packing things up before going to bed, reading in the tent, etc.

  • Personal locator beacon (Garmin seems to be the reigning champion in satellite messengers)

  • Camping permits and passes. To avoid tickets, make sure your Park Pass is visible in your car.

  • Bear spray Know how to use it and have it readily-accessible. How To Use Bear Spray

  • Fire starters: Lots of dryer lint (trust me on this one) and waterproof matches

  • First Aid kit:

  • Blister prevention: Moleskin, gel bandages (for budding blisters), waterproof bandages, toe sleeves

  • Cuts and abrasions: Antibacterial cream, gauze (individually wrapped or in a roll), medical tape, tensor bandage, Coban wrap (sticks only to itself)

  • Tools: Multi-tool knife, rolled-up duct tape (finger-sized), mini Super Glue, tweezers, safety pins, tent and mattress repair kit

  • Pain control: Ibuprofen, acetaminophen, antihistamines, After Bite (all travel sizes)

  • General: Emergency space blanket (2 person) and insect repellant

  • For longer backcountry trips, I carry water purification tablets and-or a LifeStraw.

  • Backcountry tent Light and compact, backcountry tents are meant to be carried for long distances, so they usually weigh only a few kilograms and they squish into a small compression sack to fit snugly into your backpack. This is your temporary shelter against the elements, so don’t take its purchase lightly.

ribbon falls kananaskis alberta canadian rockies
Ribbon Falls in Kananaskis Country is an excellent and relatively easy beginner backcountry hike.

I own an older version of Black Diamond’s Vista 3 backcountry tent (3 seasons, 3 persons, 2 vestibules). I use this tent for 2-person backpacking; it is so functional and versatile that it was named Best All-Around Tent in 2008 by Backpacker Magazine. I am considering buying the North Face Stormbreaker 2 for solo trips, which has high ratings on OutdoorGearLab.com.

  • Sleeping bag A backcountry sleeping bag will be much lighter than typical sleeping bags and will compress into a much smaller stuff sack. Your sleeping bag shouldn’t weigh more than 2 pounds. Here’s a thorough review of several models.

  • Camping mattress Backcountry pads have really come a long way in the last two decades. Unlike your usual bulky and heavy camping mattress, backcountry pads roll into tight little burritos that are surprisingly comfortable once they’re inflated. They are usually mummy-shaped to lessen bulk and weight. I like the ThermaRest ProLite WV (0.8 lbs to 1.12 lbs depending on size).

  • Cookware and kitchenware


Backcountry camping stove (lighter and gas canister) I love my little Primus Yellowstone Classic Trail Stove; it’s tiny, light, and fuel-efficient. Make sure you also bring along the proper gas canister (my car camping stove pairs with a different one than my Primus backpacking stove). Photo of tiny stove on its own (in hand, with pouch) and another photo of it heating water in a pan.

  • Kitchenware One cooking pot with lid (for straining) will usually do, as well as one bowl and an all-in-one utensil per person. I like SeaTo Summits collection of kitchenware and collapsible silicone bowls. I find UCO sporks to be the most durable. I also found fun and light silicone wine goblets by www.wine2go.co that squish down for space (good for water and coffee as well). Don’t forget a teeny tiny sample of dish soap and a few paper towels for drying (alternatively, use toilet paper or your travel towel).

  • Hydration bladder with hose The amount of water you take with you will depend on the water source available at the campground. Some people like bringing two days’ worth of water (in a 3L bladder, for instance) but that means carrying a heavy load on the hike in. If camping near a river or lake, I’d suggest using that water (although make sure you have enough gas to boil all that liquid). All wilderness water should be brought to a «rolling boil» for at least 3 minutes before cooking or drinking (let it cool before refilling your bladder for next day’s hike). Hydration bladders are incredibly practical compared to water bottles; all backpacks are fitted with inner pockets in which to fit them, a hole through which to pass the tube, as well as a clip on the shoulder strap to keep it in place. When purchasing a water bladder, make sure the mouth valve has a locking feature, to prevent leaks. I like the Platypus Big Zip EVO; I have one in 1.5 litres and 3 litres.

  • Toiletries

  • Biodegradable or compostable wipes (you’ll still carry them back home in a small Ziploc once used)

  • Half roll of toilet paper (in a medium Ziploc bag)

  • Ziplocs or silicone bags (2 or 3 extras)

  • SPF cream (sun block)

  • Toothbrush and toothpaste (travel size)

  • Deodorant (travel size)

  • Hair elastics

  • Any other toiletries you can justify bringing (such as a travel towel)


3. CLOTHING All clothing should be synthetic or wool, no cotton. Your goal is to stay warm and dry (not to warm up once you’re already cold). I either roll clothing into a packing cube to minimize space or stuff various articles into empty crevices of the backpack.

  • Sunglasses and hat Sun protection is just as important when you’re travelling on snow; radiation burns to the eyes happen more easily than you'd think.

  • Base layer clothing On Day One, I wear fast-drying shorts or pants, Merino wool t-shirt, bra, undies, socks and either hiking boots or trail runners (depending on the terrain). After setting up camp, I change into a 2nd shirt, bra, undies and fresh leggings (all of which I’ll also wear as PJs). For Day Two, I hike in my slept-in shirt, bra, socks and underwear, but I’ll usually wear the same shorts or pants as Day One.

  • Insulation clothing I bring a long-sleeved Merino wool top, a packable down jacket, a waterproof-windproof jacket and-or rain poncho (absolutely essential), a neck gaiter like Buff or Icebreaker, light tuque and gloves, and the final touch… my MEC down booties for down time at the campground. I sometimes also bring a pair of very light flip-flops. PHOTO


4. EXTRA GEAR Over-and-above stuff that you may not need, but that may make your trip more comfortable

  • Hiking poles All the more important when you’re carrying a large load or crossing over slippery rocks. I’ve always been a fan of Black Diamond trekking poles.

  • Inflatable pillow Some people prefer to bring a pillowcase and stuff it with their extra clothes (or even just roll up a puffy jacket), but on cold nights where you’ll want to wear all your clothes, you’ll find yourself without a pillow. This Sea To Summit Premium Traveller Pillow doubles as my camping pillow.

  • Travel towel A travel towel should be light and compact enough for your trip, but large enough to lay out on or wrap around your body. I like Sea to Summit’s DryLite Towel; it’s soft but it’s thirsty (so it absorbs well), light and dries quickly. Best of all, sand doesn’t stick to it. Invest in a L or an XL and you’ll have all you need (they weigh under 7 ounces).

  • Sleep stuff Eye mask and earplugs

  • Any technology you deem important enough to bring.

McArthur Lake, Lake O'Hara, Yoho National Park British Columbia Canadian Rockies
McArthur Lake, in the Lake O'Hara region of Yoho National Park, British Columbia

Aside from what you’ll be wearing for the hike in, all of this gear should easily fit into a 60L backpack. Last but certainly not least, your backpack is probably the most important piece of equipment you’ll be bringing (along with your tent, I would say). This is another purchase that should be taken seriously, as a poorly-designed or poorly-fitted backpack can easily ruin a hike, and your back!


Backpacks are designed for the differences between the sexes, taking into account shoulder width, chest and back width and torso length. The harness and hip belt are, IMHO, the most important aspect of the bag, as most of the weight will be carried around your hip bones (not your shoulders, chest or upper back). In a high-quality backpack, harnesses and hip belts will be adjustable, ventilated and heavily-padded.

Laugavegur Iceland Landmannalaugar Thorsmork
Laugavegur, a four-day backpacker's delight in Iceland. Here we are at the end of our trek, approaching Landmannalaugar

Also, you want a mesh backing that rests all along your back while allowing for air to circulate between the mesh and the actual bag (this prevents your back from sweating and chafing). Backpacks that allow access from both the top and either the bottom or the front are most convenient. Also, make sure that it comes with a rain cover (or purchase one). Personally, I like the sturdy and comfortable Osprey Aura AG 65; I usually tend to recommend either Osprey or Gregory bags.


Once I’m nearly done packing, I stuff my sleeping bag into all the extra little spaces at the bottom of my backpack (as opposed to keeping it in its round sack), as it conveniently fills up any random spaces. (Be careful if you do this, as items already packed into the backpack could easily rip your sleeping bag as you’re shoving it inside).


So there you have it, my backpack is ready for my trip.


Thanks for reading, stay safe out there!

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Other fun articles:

My Favourite Hikes in Kananaskis (So Far!)

Icefields Parkway: Canada's Must-Do Roadtrip

My Favourite Hikes in Yoho National Park (So Far!)

Walk This Way: Camino de Santiago, Part 1

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