A Ham's Complete Backpacking Checklist for Northern California

So what do you pack for a backpacking adventure in Northern California?  Here is a tried and true checklist we have used on past adventures with good results.  A big thank you to my backpacking partners for sharing their knowledge with me over the years.  Their combined experience along with my own are reflected in this list.

There are several guiding principles to consider when choosing what to bring on a backpacking adventure:
  • Be prepared
  • Be safe
  • Pack the ten essentials
  • Pack as lightly as possible and no more than you can manage

NJ2X with his pack on the trail in the John Muir Wilderness in Northern California



NJ2X's Backpacking Checklist
__Good hiking shoes/boots – Footwear is critical gear to a backpacker. Buy quality. I recommend breathable shoes or boots that fit. I avoid waterproof or Goretex boots as these tend to trap moisture inside which can result in “trench foot” and serious discomfort on a long trek. Guess what happens when your waterproof boot goes fully underwater - it fills up and stays wet. Happy feet make for a happy hiker. Shoes and boots are one of those items that I prefer to try on at a store wearing my hiking socks. When testing footwear, look for heel rubbing or toes pushing into the front of the shoe.
__ Quality backpack – External frame packs are less expensive, very durable, adjustable, and easy to pack. Internal frame packs are more expensive, comfortable, less adjustable. Before plunking down your hard earned cash, do yourself a favor and get a proper fitting at a reputable outdoor store before buying. If cost is a consideration, you can find good used packs on craigslist and eBay. I prefer my external frame pack to my internal frame pack. Each person will have their own opinion.
__ Sleeping bag – For the type of backpacking we do here in Northern California, a good choice is a lightweight warm synthetic sleeping bag in a small stuff-sack and rated to 20 F. Beware of down filled sleeping bags as they become unusable and heavy went wet. Down filled sleeping bags also take a long time to dry.
__ Bivy Sack – A bivy keeps you and your sleeping gear warm and dry in all weather. A bivy also adds an additional layer of insulation which is nice in cold weather.
__ Ground Pad – A ground pad is important for both comfort and to insulate your body against ground induced heat-loss. I use an inexpensive, lightweight, and reliable closed-cell foam pad. My hiking friends rave about their Therm-A-Rest inflatable pad. Pack a patch kit if you use an inflatable pad.
__Rain shell – A waist-length GORE-TEX or a similar waterproof/breathable fabric is a great choice for a rain jacket. A hood is a must for hiking in heavy rain since it keeps the rain off your neck and back. Vents in the armpits help you stay cool while hiking in the rain in warm weather. Be wary of "water resistant" jackets - they won't cut it when the clouds really open up - even when treated with waterproofing.
__ Clothing. Synthetic and wool backpacking clothing works best. Avoid cotton as "cotton kills" and is weighs too much - especially when wet. Three layers are helpful: 1) a base thermal layer; 2) a middle insulation layer (fleece, pants), and 3) an outer waterproof/breathable rain shell layer.  Pack at least two pair of thick wool socks. With two pair, you can wash and dry a pair while wearing the other.
__ First aid kit - This can be a lifesaver. Moleskin in your kit can save your feet from much discomfort. Several feet of duct tape is useful too for protecting abrasions or emergency repairs.

__ Map and compass - Make sure you pack and know how to use these lifesavers.
__ One-gallon Zip-Lock bag - Fold your map and read it securely inside of a one-gallon zip-lock bag. This will protect your map from the elements without hindering it use. An additional gallon zip-lock bag is handy for carrying pack-in-pack-out trash.
__ Headlamp with extra batteries - I pack a headlamp with adjustable brightness to preserve battery instead of a flashlight. A headlamp is lighter and more convenient to use than a flashlight.
__Trowel - A small durable lightweight trowel is needed for digging six-inch cat holes for burying backcountry bowel movements. I pack "The Duece #2" which weighs only 0.6oz/17g.
__Soap - Pack a small plastic bottle of liquid biodegradable soap. This is useful for washing your mess kit, socks, or your body. A little goes a long way.
__ Permits - Pack whatever permits you will need for backpacking and parking.
__ Pocket knife - Pack a folding pocket knife with several blades. Sharpen all knife blades prior to the trip.
__ 100 ft of 550 paracord - Paracord is very useful and can be a lifesaver. For example, paracord makes it easy to hoist food up into the trees and away from bears.
__Sunscreen stick - Lightweight and small sunscreen stick is the way to go to prevent sunburn. Can also be used to ease chaffing.
__Broad brimmed hat - A broad brimmed hat helps protect your head, face, and ears from the sun and rain. Wool hats work well even when wet.
__Insect repellent - Pack a small bottle of insect repellent to help keep away those maddening flies, ticks, and mosquitoes.
__Mosquito head-net - A mosquito head-net keeps the insects off your face at night when sleeping under the stars.
__Matches or lighter - Pack both matches and a lighter. Stow high quality waterproof matches in a waterproof container. Fire can be a lifesaver in the backcountry.
__Emergency blanket - Emergency blankets are inexpensive, lightweight, and small. They are a handy backup if your sleeping gear is soaked. Can also be used to increase warmth in freezing conditions.
__Extra food (one day's worth) - An extra day's ration of food can help if you are delayed or someone in your party loses their food.
__Bear Can - This can be a lifesaver. Protect your food and keep the bears out of your camp and backpack. I toss my Bear Vault under a tree in bushes or in large rocks away from where I am sleeping and away from any cliffs or rivers. I pack day-1 food in my pack and the remainder of my food in my bear can. Trimming food packaging carefully to cut-away excess can reduce weight and volume helping you squeeze as much as possible into the can.
__Emergency signaling device – mirror or smoke bomb.
__Garbage bags (3) - Large black garbage bags are versatile and useful. For example, a large garbage bag can be fashioned into a emergency poncho, pack cover, filled with food and hoisted into a tree, or be used to collect trash left behind by others.
__Toiletries - With creativity and practice you can reduce the size and weight yet bring just enough for your trip. The basics include toothpaste, toothbrush, a few feet of dental floss, deodorant, mouthwash, and toilet paper.
__Medication - Remember to pack your medication. Pack what you need in waterproof containers with extra just in case your return is delayed.
__Baby wipes - A small package of baby wipes is helpful for cleaning your body when you are unable to bathe. This is a luxury item and totally worth it.
__Mess kit - I pack lightweight small utensils and a 550 ml/2.3-cup pot. The small pot is great for heating two cups of water needed for typical dehydrated meals. It also is just right for cooking a package of ramen. A minimalist kit saves weight.
__Canteen - I use an inexpensive, lightweight, and durable 1 liter military surplus canteen that fits on my belt. I find that wearing a canteen helps prevent setting it down and leaving it behind. It is also more convenient to access while trekking than a water bottle and weighs less.
__Extra Water Storage - I pack a 1.5 liter Platypus water bag. Extra water is a must. It is also helpful to be able to treat water in one container (Platypus) while drinking from another (canteen).
__Bandanna - A large bandanna has multiple uses.
__Water treatment - Water treatment in the form of Iodine tablet or Aquamira drops are a must.
__Knit hat - A knit hat is an effective way to retain body heat.
__Whistle - A whistle is a useful way to signal in an emergency. I keep my whistle on a loop I wear around my neck.
__Small towel - I pack a small ultra-absorbent towel. There are multiple uses for this.
__Pencil/paper - Keep a journal, leave a note, make a map.... so many uses. Pens leak or dry up, pencils don't. You can sharpen your pencil with your knife.
__Hiking poles - A pair of inexpensive lightweight hiking poles for downhill trekking helps reduce stress on knees. They also double as tent poles to make an improvised shelter with 550 cord and a lightweight tarp.
__Lightweight tarp - A tarp is used to construct a shelter against sun and inclement weather using a small tarp, 550 cord, metal stakes, and trekking poles.
__Amateur Radio - I pack a small multi-band HT (handi-talkie) for potential emergency communication with the battery fully charged. Before I leave home, I program my tri-band Kenwood TH-F6A with all the closest amateur radio repeaters in the area where I will be backpacking. An HT with wide-band receive will enable you to monitor NOAA weather radio for hazards.

Alternative Items

__Backpacking Tent - If using a lightweight tarp shelter doesn't provide sufficient comfort for your liking, then you may want to consider packing a backpacking tent.
__Sunglasses - Sunglasses protect your eyes from ultraviolet (UV) light. UV light can have harmful effects on the eyelid, cornea, lens and retina.
__Backpacking Solar Panel - A small solar panel is handy for keeping devices charged during a trek. I use the Nomad 7 Solar Panel.

Do you have something to add or improve?  Please leave a comment.

Happy backpacking and 73, 

Michael (NJ2X)






© Michael W. Maher and NJ2X.COM, 2020. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Michael W. Maher and NJ2X.COM with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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