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




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 then 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 with the socks I plan to hike using. 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 warm synthetic sleeping bag in a small stuff-sack and rated to 20 F.
__ 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 when the temperature drops.
__ Ground Pad – A ground pad is important for both comfort and to insulate your body against ground induced heat-loss. I use an inexpensive and lightweight 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. 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.  I pack two pair of thick wool socks - one to wear and one to wash and dry.
__ 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.
__ 1 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.
__ 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.
__Soap - Pack a small plastic bottle of liquid biodegradable soap. This is useful for washing your mess kit, socks, or your body.
__ Permits - Pack whatever permits you will need for your backpacking and parking.
__ Pocket knife - Each person has their own idea about knives. I pack a folding pocket knife with several blades. All knife blades are sharpened prior to the trip.
__ 100 ft of 550 paracord - Paracord is very useful and can be a lifesaver. For example, paracord is an excellent good way 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. Mine is made of wool which works well in rain.
__Insect repellent - Pack a small bottle of insect repellent to help keep away those maddening flies, ticks, and mosquitoes.
__Mosquito Headnet - This 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 (1 days’ 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 typically toss my bear can under a tree in bushes away from where I am sleeping and away from any cliffs or rivers. Bear cans are heavy so pack wisely. I pack day-1 food in my pack and the remainder of my food in my bear can. I trim the food packaging carefully to cut-away excess to reduce weight and volume to 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 2.25-cup pot. The pot allows me to heat 2 cups of water for use with dehydrated meals. I choose this minimalist kit to save weight.
__Canteen - I use an inexpensive 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.
__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 - I prefer Aquamira drops for water treatment.
__Knit hat - Great way to retain body heat.
__Whistle - Very 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 - I use a pair of inexpensive lightweight hiking poles for downhill trekking to save my knees. I also use them as tent poles to make an improvised shelter with 550 cord and a small tarp.
__5ft x 6ft tarp - I use a small tarp to construct a small ultralight shelter over my head in inclement weather using 550 cord, four metal stakes, and my hiking poles. I have used this in all weather with excellent results.
__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.

Alternative Items

__Backpacking Tent - If using a lightweight tarp shelter doesn't provide enough comfort, then you will need to pack a lightweight backpacking tent.


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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