California Backpack Equipment and Clothing Selection: Basic Considerations

The following guide to backpack equipment and clothing selection was prepared by Gordon Peterson and Andy Johnson, leaders for the Knapsack Subcommittee. Between them, they have over 50 years experience leading backpack trips for the Sierra Club. The first section is a distillation of our essential philosophies on equipment. The following section can be used as a checklist when examining or purchasing gear for your intended outing.

The criteria for selecting backpack equipment in order of importance are as follows:

1: Need
Only plan to carry the necessary essentials for comfort and safety.

As an example, most backpackers need a pillow, but many do not carry one. They use items of clothing as a pillow. Another example: Do you need that beach towel, or can you manage by rinsing and drying off with one small wash cloth. One leader does, he wrings out the wash cloth and blots his body to remove most of the water. Sun and air very soon remove all remaining moisture.

2: Function
Will the piece of equipment do its job?

Will the sleeping bag keep you warm? Will the raingear keep you dry? Do not put too much faith in manufacturers claims. As an example, Gore-Tex has had several improvements over the years it has been available, yet logic implies that Gore-Tex could not have been improved upon if it had met its original advertising hype.

3: Lightweight
Weight is almost as important as function. An ounce here and there and soon you have extra pounds to carry. As pack weight goes up, each additional pound of weight becomes increasingly difficult to carry. The difference between a five pound and a ten pound day pack is insignificant; however, the difference between a forty five pound and a fifty pound backpack is very significant even for a person in excellent physical condition.

4: Low Bulk
You have a very limited capacity for bulky items. The weight you carry must be close to the body. Backpack weight that is too high, or too far away from the body center line is very difficult to carry.

5: Cost
The best equipment you can buy is frequently not the most expensive. If expense is a concern, careful selection of personal gear can save many dollars; but if you are to enjoy backpacking, need, function, weight and bulk should be the overriding considerations when selecting gear.

6: Style
If it looks attractive, fine! But we backpack to enjoy the Sierra, not to look fashionable.
Study the following list of items that the above leaders carry and wear, and give careful consideration to everything you think you may need but is not on our list.


Pack weight must be kept within limits if you are to enjoy the trip! One measure of the proper amount of personal gear is that your pack should be less than half full when you arrive at roadhead. Remember, you'll be given 13 - 18 pounds of commissary gear and food (varies depending on trip length) and you must have the room and strength to carry it.

Remember that you will carry some gear in your pack and wear other items on your body. The weight on your back should not exceed 24 pounds. We are routinely able to get our "carry weight" down to 21 or 22 pounds, and you can easily do the same. Talk to your leader if you need help reaching this target.


California Backpack Equipment and Clothing List

Something to remember when preparing your backpack is this quote from Thoreau:

"A man is rich in proportion to what he can do without."

Pack Cover
Plastic Ground Cover
Sleeping Pad
Sleeping Bag
Shelter from possible rain (tent or tarp)
Eating Utensils (Sierra Cup & Spoon)
Small Knife
Water Container(s), minimum 1 liter capacity
Flashlight (lightweight)

The clothing you bring should layer one item on top of the other for warmth and minimal weight.

Boots (well broken-in)
Socks (at least one change)
Underwear (" " ")
Long underwear (lightweight)
T shirt
Lightweight shirt, long-sleeved (65% poly/35% cotton for easy care)
Medium weight warm shirt
Hiking shorts, pants, or skirt
Thin gloves or mittens
Warm Head Cover
Hat with wide brim
Jacket (Insulating Down or Fleece)
Parka (Uninsulated windproof)
Rain Protection (Poncho or Rain Jacket, Rain/Wind pants)

Note: some backpackers think that long underwear and a warm shirt are necessities, others do very well without.

Sunglasses (with UV protection)
Sunscreen (SPF 15 or better)
Lip Ice (" " ")
Insect Repellant
Hand Lotion
Adhesive Tape (1" or 1 1/2 " Athletic)
Personal Medications

Liquid soap, such as "Camp Suds" (small amount)
Toothpaste & toothbrush
Dental Floss
Wash Cloth
Handkerchiefs or Bandana

All items should be very light weight

Camera & Film
Camp shoes
Reading material
Pen & Paper (Notebook)
Large plastic garbage bag (to keep things dry, but flimsy in high winds)
Thin Utility cord
Lightweight day pack
Walking pole
Swimsuit (many leave this at home...)

Your personal experience, needs, and particular trip location and difficulty will also influence the items listed above. Late-Season trips (mid September and on) often require an extra insulating layer.

Further, your trip leader will have specific equipment requirements for his or her trip, usually noted in follow-up letters to participants after they apply for the outing. The purpose of this sheet is to get you thinking NOW about the items you are likely to need for an outing that may be six or more months away. Proper attention paid to equipment planning early on will reward you with trouble-free backpacking and a lighter load to carry.