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backpacks
Other parts of this site tell you about footwear, clothing, rain protection, etc. Here you will find out about what you carry on your back!

Packs

Probably the first big decision you will make is buying a pack. A comfortable pack will make walking so much more enjoyable than one which does not quite fit right or has poor padding. This is much more important for overnight backpacking trips where there will be more weight and you will be carrying it for many hours.

On a daywalk, you will usually be carrying:

  • Water
  • Lunch and snacks
  • Camera
  • Clothing for different weather conditions
  • Items like first aid kit, sunscreen, insect repellent, binoculars, personal medications, toilet paper and trowel, etc

Daypacks range in size from 15 to 40 litres. Some have waist belts which aid stability.

For ideas on what to bring and how to pack a daypack, watch the video.

For more information, see What to Pack for a Day Hike by lotsafreshair.

For an overnight trip or longer, you will also be carrying:

  • Sleeping bag
  • Mat to sleep on
  • Tent
  • Cooking and eating gear
  • More food
  • Torch
  • Toothbrush, etc
  • More (warmer) clothing
  • Items like water purifiers, etc

Overnight packs range in size from 40 to 95 litres, depending on how long a trip is. They also often have adjustable harnesses to allow you to fine tune for your body size.

Opinions vary, but it is generally recommended that your pack and its contents not weigh more than 25% of your body weight. This means that everyone, and especially smaller people, need to carefully assess everything they take with them. Carrying too much can increase the risk of ankle, leg or back problems, increase fatigue, and slow down the group. The lighter your pack is, the more you will enjoy the trip.

Overnight trips require a lot more planning, and usually a bit more gear.

For more information, see Packing for an overnight bushwalk by lotsafreshair.

It is important to adjust the straps of your pack to minimise back strain.

For more information, see How to Adjust a Backpack by lotsafreshair.

Waterproofing your pack is essential for some conditions, such as crossing or floating down a river. It is also a good idea just in case it rains. Pack liners can be very effective. A large garbage bag will do or waterproof nylon bags can be obtained from suppliers.

Tips for buying

Talk to other bushwalkers about their packs. Find out what they like and what they don’t.

Try on a number of packs to see how they feel before settling on one.

Focus on function rather than appearance. A nicely-coloured pack might look good but may be excruciating after a day’s walking.

When buying, ask yourself these questions:

  • Is it big enough to carry my stuff? (Too small means it is likely to be uncomfortable and you will have to carry things in your hands or attached to the outside – not a good idea in the Australian bush.)
  • Is it too big? (Too big means extra weight, and the temptation to put unnecessary stuff in, especially for overnight packs.)
  • Does it fit? (Check your trunk length to make sure the waist belt is in the right place.)
  • Is it comfortable? (Try with realistic weight inside. Screwed up newspaper or air bags give wrong impressions. Women should look at packs designed for them as they are a different shape.)
  • How heavy is the pack itself? Do I really need feature xxxx? (Every feature has a weight penalty, and weight is your enemy.)

More information on what to look for in a pack is available from REI and Backpacker Magazine. Just remember that everyone is an individual and has their own opinion. You will be the one carrying the pack so make sure it fits your needs.

Water containers

Water (or other drinks) are one of the most critical things when bushwalking, especially in hot weather. At least 2 litres of water should be carried on all trips; more in hot weather.

Most people carry water in plastic or metal bottles inside their packs. Some packs have provision for bottles to be on the outside, but beware of them falling out.

Several smaller bottles is often better than one big one, in case it leaks or breaks, eg, two 1 litre bottles rather than one 2 litre bottle.

Metal and some plastic bottles can hold hot water, so can be used if water is sterilised by boiling. They make a great hot water bottle on cold nights too.

Another option is a hydration bladder, a plastic bag that lives inside your pack with a tube carrying water to near your mouth. An advantage of these is that you can have a sip at any time. A disadvantage is that they need to be cleaned thoroughly after use to prevent mildew forming inside.

Torches

Even on a day walk, a torch is useful to carry. In an emergency, you may be caught out after dark and a torch can allow you to see what you are doing, or to signal rescuers.

The most popular type of torch used by bushwalkers is the head torch. This is a small unit fitted to an elastic strap that goes around your head. With a head torch, your hands are free to do other things like preparing food or carrying things.

Most head torches nowadays use bright LEDs rather than bulbs. This makes them very light (typically under 100g), and the batteries can last for over 100 hours (although they do get dim after about 15 hours). Some have an external battery pack for extended use.

Many head torches have several LEDs, one for long distances and one or more for lighting the area in front of you.

Conventional long torches are also used. These also use LEDs, and straps can be purchased to fit them to helmets or your head.

Cooking and eating

This is usually only important for overnight trips.

Stoves

While it is nice to cook on a campfire, there are times when fires are not permitted, or you need more control than a fire can provide. Stoves fall into two main categories: gas and liquid fuel.

Gas stoves are lightweight, easy to use and quite safe. Usually, the stove part will screw on to a gas canister and be ready to use. For most, you use matches or a cigarette lighter to light them, but some have a piezo mechanism that creates a spark when you press the button. The temperature can be controlled from a low simmer to high heat.

Drawbacks of gas are that it does not work well when the air temperature is very low, and that canisters cannot be refilled, meaning extras have to be taken even if only a little more gas is required for a trip. Empty canisters have to be carried out with you.

Liquid stoves usually operate with metho or white spirit (officially called lighter fuel in NSW), but some will operate with kerosene and petrol (illegal to use in stoves in NSW).

The most famous metho stove is the Trangia. It comes as a self-pressurising burner unit with a wind shield, pots, a frypan and a lifter for hot pots. Metho stoves are very safe to use, although a little slow to heat up. Fuel is carried in a (usually) metal bottle, and poured into the burner before lighting. Temperature control is achieved by adjusting the opening on the burner.

While very efficient, Trangia-style metho stoves are relatively heavy. There are alternate designs which omit the wind shield and are therefore lighter, but more susceptible to breezes.

The other type of liquid stove is the pressurised kind. Usually, there is a burner connected by a hose to a bottle containing a hand pump, but some incorporate the stove and fuel container in one unit. The pump is operated enough to pressurise the fuel tank so that fuel is forced along the hose to the burner.

These stoves depend on heat to vaporise the fuel so it will burn hotly. As such, a little fuel must be released into a cup below the stove and set alight to heat up the fuel tube. Once the tube is hot enough, the valve is opened and the stove lit.

Pressurised stoves are the most efficient at heating things up quickly. They are poor however at low heat uses, such as simmering, as the pump needs to be used regularly to keep the pressure constant.

Unlike gas, liquid fuel stoves will continue to work at temperatures well below zero. The pressurised stoves can also be quite dangerous if not used with care.

No stove should be used inside a tent at any time. Apart from the risk of burning the tent down, poisonous gases can accumulate inside the tent.

Pots and pans

The traditional pot used in Australia for generations is a billy or billycan. This is a cylindrical pot with a lid and a wire handle going over the top. They can be made of steel, aluminium, stainless steel or titanium. Each has its advantages and disadvantages: steel is cheap but rusts; aluminium is light weight and relatively cheap; stainless steel is very robust, but is heavy, a poor conductor of heat and relatively expensive; titanium is very light, but very expensive.

To lift these pots out of a fire, a pair of billy-lifters or grips is required. These are like a pair of pliers which surround the lip of the pot and hold it firm while it is lifted.

The military and many bushwalkers use a dixie, a shallow rectangular pot with a folding handle.

Any of these can be used in a fire or on a stove, although in a fire will get very black on the outside. Bring a good plastic or fabric bag to put them in after use.

There are a number of frypans available too.

Do not forget that you can use the inside of the pot for storage in your pack. Soft or fragile items like raw eggs can be carried securely inside a billy for several days.

Cutlery and crockery

The minimum you need is usually a spoon if you are prepared to eat out of your cooking pot. A standard domestic dessert spoon is fine, but there are lighter weight plastic and titanium spoons available too.

What else you need depends on what you are planning to eat. If you will need to open containers or cut up ingredients, then a sharp knife should be carried. Maybe even something to cut them on, such as a light plastic plate.

If you are sharing food, unless you are both prepared to eat out of the same pot, an extra bowl would be required.

What you bring for convenience is limited only by how much weight you want to carry.

Washing up

It goes without saying that bushwalkers do not put soap or detergent into creeks or lakes. So how do they wash up after eating?

To some extent, it depends on what you cooked. Non-greasy items can often just be rinsed out, or rubbed with leaves or sand to remove any residue.

Greasy items can sometimes be cleaned with sand, but often require detergent of some kind. Warm water works best, with a plastic scourer for the stubborn bits.

Do not tip used water back into creeks – pour it onto the ground some distance from the creek so it has a chance to break down before it gets to the creek again.

Fire starters

Good fire lighters rarely need fire starters, but most of us struggle in very wet conditions. In an emergency situation, getting a fire going can save lives or at least make people more comfortable.

Some of the things that have been used to get a fire going include:

  • paper
  • hexamine tablets
  • wax-impregnated sawdust blocks
  • tampons fluffed up like cotton wool

Storing food

Most bushwalkers measure out individual serves of their meals before they leave home, and put them in plastic bags ready for immediate use. This means you never bring too much, and you never have to worry about measuring out specific quantities while in the bush.

Zip-lock plastic bags are very useful as they can be sealed to keep everything inside. Individual components of the meal can be in their own bag, or pre-mixed in one bag if convenient. For example, breakfast cereal, powdered milk and dried fruit suitable for one meal can all be put in one bag.

Having individual bits of your meals scattered throughout your pack is not a good idea. Many people prefer to group all the components of a meal together so they only have to find one bag, especially important after a hard day or in inclement weather. This can be a larger plastic bag or a lightweight fabric mesh bag. Larger mesh bags can also be used to contain several meals. (Mesh allows you to see what is inside.)

A cooking pot is also a good place to store food, especially fragile items like eggs.

A few spare plastic bags can be useful for carrying out rubbish, especially messy food remnants.

At camp, there are often small animals who would love to have your food. They will even eat their way through the tent to get to the food. There is no effective solution to this problem unfortunately, but sometimes hanging food off a branch can help. Above all, avoid food smells inside your tent by sealing bags and containers outside before bringing them inside the tent.

Sharing

Weight can be minimised by sharing with one or more other people, eg, only one stove and set of pots. Meals can also be shared which cuts cooking time and saves fuel.

Toiletries

Weight is always important for bushwalking, and no more important than the various liquids we may carry.

Instead of bringing a full bottle of sunscreen, tube of toothpaste or insect repellent, or even a jar of peanut butter, transfer some into a smaller container that will last only for the trip. Old medicine containers can be useful, as can special bottles and tubes available from camping stores. Do not use glass containers!

People have even been known to cut the handle off a toothbrush to reduce its weight.

Emergencies

We all hope this will never happen, but it is useful to be prepared.

Pen and paper is useful for writing down a variety of things. If someone is seriously injured, status reports should be recorded regularly until help is available. If someone has to go for help, details of location, size of party, and any injuries can be sent with them.

A torch can make a night in the bush much more comfortable than blundering around in the dark. It can also be used to signal rescuers.

A small mirror can help to attract attention in daylight by flashing sunlight towards rescuers. A piece of an old CD can do this job.

In some circumstances, it may be necessary to shelter someone from the elements, to keep them warm and dry. A space blanket or similar can do this job admirably. A very long plastic bag can substitute for a bivvy bag.

A good first aid kit can deal with most injuries to prevent infection and make the injured person more comfortable.

Always take money, Medicare card and your car keys. If the route cannot be completed as planned, you may end up in an unexpected location, and without money, you cannot buy food or drink, or get transport home. If you have a car, do not leave the keys in someone else’s car at the start when you are driving everyone back from the end.

It can be useful to have some emergency food, but more important is to have water. You can last for weeks without food, but only days or hours without water.

If you have serious allergies or other conditions, always have emergency medication with you. This may be antihistamine tablets, an Epipen or similar (emergency adrenalin injection), Ventolin inhaler, etc.

While many bushwalks take place where there is no mobile phone reception, it may be possible to get a signal by climbing to the top of a hill. In an emergency, this can shortcut the rescue process. Do remember to turn it off when you go into the bush as batteries go flat in as little as a couple of hours when out of range, which renders it useless in an emergency. Many bushwalkers also find it disturbing to have phones ringing out in the bush. Many have gone there to escape these signs of civilisation.

Miscellaneous

As described in the Navigation section, maps, compass and GPS are essential for travel in wilderness areas. While maps can be carried in ordinary plastic bags, they are awkward to use and can allow the map to get wet. Often the map is carried inside the pack where it is awkward to get to when needed. Specialist map cases can be bought which allow a folded map to be carried hanging around your neck. This means the map is always available and is protected from the weather and damage. Try to get one that will fit an A4 sheet of paper as maps can be folded to a useful size. Smaller cases mean you are forever taking the map out to rearrange it as you go off the edge. Cases that are clear on both sides allow you to see both sides of the folded map.

A small towel can be handy for drying feet after a creek crossing.

A small square of closed cell foam to sit on cam be more comfortable than bare rock or cold wet grass.

Sunglasses protect the eyes from sunburn and from stray branches that might flick back from the person in front of you. A cord that goes around the back of the neck can help prevent the glasses falling off without being noticed.

In thick scrub, bare hands can get scratched and cut, or full of prickles. Strong gardening gloves can prevent this sort of damages.

Running out of water is always a possibility. Since natural water is rarely safe to drink, some sort of purification method is desirable. Tablets are very convenient and light weight. Other systems exist which sterilise the water using ultra-violet light or ionisation, and filters can also be used although they tend to be relatively heavy.