Essential Backpacking Tips & Packing Lists for Women

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Women have been inspiring the backpacking long before Cheryl Strayed wrote “Wild,” which is an inspiring memoir in both print and film form. Take Grandma Gatewood who was the first woman to hike the entire Appalachian Trail. We also have Isabella Bird, a 19th-century travel writer, and photographer who ascended Longs Peak in the Rocky Mountain National Park. She was also the first female member of the Royal Geographical Society. As you join the women backpacking community in your upcoming adventures, whether you are in the Cascades or the Appalachians, start here.

We have compiled backpacking tips for women. Our recommendation is to take this backpacking list for women and use it for your baseline list. That’s because every outdoor adventure will require its own particulars. From the weather conditions and the season to the terrain and your personal needs, you will need to edit your backpacking list for every trip. However, once you have these basics down and packed, you will be 75 percent done before you even start every single time. Now, let’s get going with this essential backpacking packing list for women.

Meeting the Mental and Physical Challenge Head On

Photo: Dan Gold

One of the major benefits of hiking is the way it improves you physically. The exercise of backpacking involves walking at a moderate pace often over rugged terrain with hills. Couple this with carrying a backpack weighing 30 pounds over 10 miles a day. It is a workout that creates a mental challenge that is worth overcoming.

Prepare With Day Walks

In order to prepare fully, Backpacker recommends you start by walking two to three times a week. By trekking around your neighborhood for 30 minutes at a speed of 4 to 5 miles per hour, you are getting your cardiovascular system in gear for the actual hike. When walking, wear the actual hiking boots and socks you are going to wear when backpacking. This breaks the boots in and determines how well your socks will hold up for the duration of the trip.

If you have new boots and discover they are rubbing you in the wrong place when walking, consider using moleskin. Moleskin is a generic term for a heavy-duty but thin and flexible fabric that is sold in first aid sections and used to protect against blisters. You can also use moleskin for covering existing blisters in the instance you have problems on the trail.

As for the day walks, you also want to wear some sort of weight in a daypack. You do not want to carry your full backpack ready to go. Instead, start off lighter and work your way up to the full weight. For example, if you are taking a backpack and gear that weighs 40 total pounds, start by carrying a day pack with 10 pounds of bagged rice or dried beans inside. Add bags as you increase the weight each day according to your preferences.

Legs, Lungs, & Lumbar

Backcountry hiking is a full body workout. In order to meet this physical challenge head-on, your legs and lower back or lumbar region need an extra workout. In addition, your lungs should be getting plenty of oxygen flowing through them with aerobic exercise. Here are some suggested workouts to help stimulate air and blood flow while getting your body in shape for backpacking.

Suggested Workouts

A good all-in-one workout that can cover all of the bases is burpees. A burpee is a strength and cardio exercise you can do without any weights. Burpees are common among the Spartan racing world, but if that is new to you, we have you covered. Here are the steps for a burpee:

  1. Stand upright with your hands down by your side. Your legs should be shoulder width apart.
  2. Do a squat and put your hands on the floor.
  3. Extend your feet back until you are in full plank position with your arms locked straight under your shoulders.
  4. Jump back up to the squat position.
  5. Stand and repeat.

Do as many as you can without stopping. You will most likely get out of breath faster than anticipated. Try to outperform your record each day.

Strengthening Your Legs

Squats are one of the best exercises for legs you can do to get ready for your backpacking and hiking adventure. Lunges are another easy exercise requiring zero equipment. If you do have access to exercise equipment, build up your leg muscles with a StairMaster, rowing, or Elliptical machine.

Increasing Lung Capacity

Cardio workouts are essential for building up your lung capacity so you can literally climb those mountains. Try cycling, swimming, or team sports like basketball or squash at your local gym or YMCA. Anything that you can do to increase that breathing ability will benefit you. Active recommends you get between three 30-minute to four 60-minute cardio sessions a week. You can also just slip outside and go for a jog to get some cardiovascular activity into your exercise plan.

Building Up Your Back

For shouldering heavy backpacks, you need to have a strong back. To get a stronger back, choose exercises that strengthen your core muscles. Exercises recommended by Backpacker for building your core include crunches, squats, lunges, and push-ups. Planking is another great exercise for building core strength.

Prepare for Getting Lost

Avoid getting lost in the woods with preparation from the experts. The US National Park Service has a list of the Ten Essentials that all hikers should take—no matter how short or long the outdoor adventure. As a woman backpacker, here are the items you should have in your backpack to help protect against getting lost and to help find your way back out:

  • Topographical map of the area that you have studied prior and understood and/or a handheld GPS system
  • Sunglasses, a hat, sunscreen lotion, and other methods of sun protection
  • An extra layer of clothing, i.e., long sleeve wool shirt, long wool socks, pants, gloves, and a stocking hat
  • Lighting via flashlights, headlamps, or other light sources
  • First aid kit
  • Matches, lighter, and/or a fire starting kit
  • Food for at least one day on the trail
  • Water for at least three days of hydration depending on the weather, season, etc.
  • Knife or multi-tool and scissors
  • Emergency shelter, i.e., tarp or tent

Keep these items in a smaller daypack that you carry with you at all times. This includes during the evening when you have set up camp while backpacking. If you leave your campsite to gather wood, use the toilet, or explore the wilderness, you are at risk of getting lost. Having the Ten Essentials with you will be your best protection against the worst case scenario.

Dealing with Injuries

In order to deal with injuries successfully, examine your first aid kit to make sure all items are not expired and you know how to use them. Read and have on hand a small first aid manual, such as “The Ultimate Hiker First-Aid Manual.”

Coping with Loneliness

To cope with loneliness and homesickness, carry a few personal items. Have photographs in hand rather than on a mobile device. Pack a small stuffed animal or blanket that offers comfort. Carry a blank journal and colored markers or have another small activity, such as a book of crosswords or your favorite novel. Have a plan for encouraging yourself to enjoy this time alone rather than being lonely.

Animal Encounters

Plan accordingly by researching the types of animals that are common to the area. Research the best methods for protecting against those predators, such as bears, cougars, or snakes that you might encounter.

People Encounters

As a woman, unfortunately, there may be times when you feel uncomfortable especially if backpacking solo. Cultural differences around the world, i.e., the machismo culture, can also cause distressful encounters with people when you are a female backpacker. However, this should be the least of your worries. The hiking community is there to support you on your backpacking journey. Look out for likeminded hikers and backpackers along the trail and meet and greet them confidently rather than being timid and terrified at each passerby.

Backpacking Tips Just for Women

Photo: Lionello DelPiccolo

As a woman, we have certain needs that differ from the other side of the trail. Our physique requires different types of clothing along with a unique requirement for nutrition. Prepare for the expected by having everything you need with these backpacking tips for women. Then put these tips to work as you create your personal backpacking packing list for women.

1. Quick Dry All the Things

Sweat, rain, and the occasional splash in the river will leave you soaked, which is the last thing you want to be when hiking for hours. Avoid blisters and burning by keeping your skin dry and protected. Go with quick-dry materials on your clothing, shoes, undergarments, and hat. Look for wool-based materials, such as socks or shirts for layering, to help absorb the wetness from sweat so it doesn’t soak you from the inside-out.

2. Find the Perfect Backpacking Bra

To find the best bra for backpacking, focus on mid-support. According to Best Hiking, medium support hiking bras offer the optimal situation for women backpackers. These bras feature support for low to medium impact activities. As a result, these aren’t too stiff or confining, which is beneficial for backpacking when you already have the pressure of the pack around your chest. You also want a bra that is breathable and wicking. This will keep the sweat off of your body so you avoid breakouts and rashes.

3. Know Your Calories

A woman hiker who weighs 160 pounds will burn approximately 430 to 440 calories an hour according to Livestrong. The more you weigh, the more calories you burn per hour, and fewer if you weigh less than 160 pounds.
However, you also need to take into account the amount of metabolism boost you gain from hiking. After you hike your metabolism increases, allowing your body to burn an extra 190 calories throughout the rest of the 24 hour period. Therefore, you are actually burning 630 calories from just 45 minutes of hiking.

Livestrong explains how carrying a backpack also adds to this weight loss. For a one to a two-day backpacking trip, you can anticipate carrying 25 to 35 pounds. This leaves you to burn 50 to 100 calories an hour according to the site. If you are going on a longer backpacking trip of a week or longer, you will be hauling 200 or more calories an hour. Hiking for eight hours a day will leave you with a calorie deficit of 400 to 1,600 calories—just from your pack.

To sum it up, when considering your caloric intake as a woman backpacker, you need to look at:

  • Your starting weight
  • Weight of your backpack
  • How many miles and hours you anticipate hiking per day
  • Types of terrain to be traversed
  • Weather conditions anticipated based on the season

Any additional activities, i.e., bouldering, swimming, etc., that you will enjoy
Each of these factors will determine the calories you will burn. You need to have enough calories to cover this deficit with more to give yourself a safe buffer.

4. Check Iron Levels

While you may not be anemic, you may suffer from a condition among athletes related to iron deficiency. As discussed in Trail Runner, pseudo-anemia is the result of a low blood volume of red blood cells. This can leave you feeling the effects of anemia including weakness and fatigue but only temporarily due to the strenuousness of your fitness regime.
Visit with your physician to get your iron levels checked before backpacking. You may also want to carry iron pills along with you if you are someone who may be susceptible to an iron deficiency, i.e., you eat a vegan or vegetarian diet.

5. Pack Extra Warmth

If you are hiking for a few days or a week or more, you will most likely start to lose weight. Depending on your starting weight, as a woman, this may cause you to get cold much quicker. For backpacking when the nights are already cold, this can spell disaster.

Plan on having wool socks, a sleeping bag designed for the weather conditions, and hand warmers in your pack. These items will go a long way to keeping you cozy and helping you sleep through any windchill.

6. Consider Birth Control for Slowed Period

If you are expecting to be on your period during the backpacking trip, you might want to go with birth control. For women with heavier periods or cramping, birth control including the hormonal IUD, birth control pill, or Depo-Provera shot can reduce these symptoms. However, you want to consider this option well before your backpacking trip. That is because it can take months for birth control to be effective in slowing or stopping your period.

7. Practice for Periods

A solution for bypassing the waste associated with tampons and pads by getting a menstrual cup. Keep in mind, menstrual cups may not work for you if you have given birth depending on the location of your cervix. Menstrual cups come in different sizes. Try out the cup before choosing this method as your go-to period protection for the trail to ensure you have the right fit as it makes all the difference.

Reusable absorbent maxi pads and panty inserts made from cloth are other eco-friendly period protection methods. These work in place of pads, and you wash these out after each use. Again, practice before your backcountry trip to see what works for you.

8. Bring a Pee Rag

A pee rag is an antimicrobial cloth that you use in place of toilet paper. No waste and you stay fresh as a daisy while only carrying a single item for the job. It is a common item to see among all hikers and backpackers with colorful pee rags often tied to the outside of a hiker’s backpack.

Women’s Backpacking Gear List

Woman Backpacking in the Mountains

1. Backpack

Look for lightweight hiking backpacks that are designed specifically for hiking. Features to focus on include waterproofing, waist straps, carabiner access, and overall weight capacity. For minimal ultralight women backpackers, 36 liters is the smallest you want to go.

On average, you can fit everything in a 45-liter backpack. Anything over this is going to be too bulky for you to carry comfortably. Get a waterproofing pack cover to protect your gear if you are going to be hiking in wet conditions.

2. Shelter & Sleeping

A tent and a sleeping bag, or a hammock and a tarp, will serve you well for shelter when backpacking in most conditions. Prepare to be able to pack and carry your sleeping gear. Look for a compression sack to hold your sleeping bag and pillow so to minimize the space this takes up.

3. Clothing & Footwear

Quick-drying and lightweight clothing and footwear are the top of the list for hikers. You reduce blisters and rashes due to wearing wet clothes, which makes all the difference in your trip. Look for footwear and clothing designed especially for hiking to get the best results.

4. Headwear

Protect your head with proper headwear for women backpackers. Start with a sun hat in the day followed by a snug beanie at night to retain your body heat. You also want to look into proper sunglasses that are 100 percent UV protectant and shockproof in case you drop them. Add on a headlamp for hands-free lighting that will be a lifesaver especially if you need to make a mad dash to the woods in the middle of the night.

5. Hydration & Cooking

Stay hydrated and full of the right nutrients by packing a small stove and camp kitchen mess kit. You have the option of a single burner camp stove or two-burner fold-up stove for backpackers. Keep in mind you also need to purchase and haul propane for the stove. As for hydration, besides boiling water on your camp stove, you can also purchase a personal water filter. These are made using a straw system or bottle filtration system and are great accessories for backpackers.

6. Toiletries & First Aid

When backpacking, your goal is to make the least amount of impression on nature. Start with water-free toiletries that do not contain water and weigh much less as a result. You can purchase sheets of soap and shampoo that can be dissolved and used in the woods with zero waste. First aid kits for hikers will provide you with the medical supplies needed in case of emergencies.

7. Miscellaneous Gear

Sometimes you want somewhere to sit, which is where a portable hiking stool comes in to play. There is plenty of miscellaneous backpacking gear that you may want to include in your setup. Examples include water purification tablets, solar powered lanterns, and a portable battery pack for charging your phone.

8. Optional Accessories

Accessories for women backpackers who are hiking include hiking poles, slip-on ice cleats, and a face mask to protect against wind chill. You might want to pack a portable shower head, mosquito repellent, and an emergency bivvy.

These types of hiking items are based on the conditions and terrain where you are backpacking. For example, a woman hiking in the Pacific Northwest where there is plenty of rain will have completely different hydration needs from someone hiking in the deserts of Southern California.

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