How to Prepare for an Overnight Hike

Beyond the backpacking gear list, an overnight hike requires many considerations to be properly planned and effectively executed for maximum return on investment to the hikers involved, which will usually come in the form of backcountry vistas and an often much-needed morale boost from time spent in the tranquil solitude of a backpacking trip.

A day hike can provide some of these advantages, but the only way to prolong your time in the backcountry for a long enough time to get significantly closer to nature than you typically would on a standard backpacking trip is to stay out in the wild on an overnight hiking trip. Perhaps you’ll want to set up a campsite or maybe you’ll prefer to go out on a night hike and sleep during the day. Either way, the nocturnal world is sure to impress hikers on their first trip that’s multi-day or just a single overnight.


Body of water during night with stars in the sky.

The backcountry transforms into a natural star-studded wonderland that hikers on a day hike miss out on.


Frequent readers know how much we extoll the Leave No Trace principles and the 10 Essentials. If you’re adept at following both of these guidelines, then you already have a feeling for what you need to do to prepare for an overnight hike. There are some training programs that can help you prepare for the physical toll of a multi-day backpacking trip and the backpacking gear you’ll need should be familiar to anyone who has ever camped before.

To prepare for an overnight hiking trip, all you need to do is plan and try to anticipate anything the backcountry will throw at you to make sure you have the proper backpacking gear with you to handle surprise situations. If you’re going to try a night hike, make sure you have the right headlamp with you. Everything in your pack and all your apparel should be as waterproof as you can possibly get it.

If you’re trying to reduce your pack weight to make it under the threshold for ultralight backpacking, some of the backpacking gear we discuss can be replaced with ultralight variants. A tent can be subbed for a waterproof tarp and a heavier, larger water bottle can be replaced with a smaller water bottle and a solid water filter as long as you know you’re going on a backpacking trip near a viable water source. Some essentials such as a bear canister and a first aid kit can’t really be replaced or left out completely, but there are enough ways to get your pack weight down without stripping it of all the things an overnight hike requires to be fulfilling.

Read on the find out how to apply the Leave No Trace principles and the 10 Essentials to plan sufficiently and keep the backcountry just the way you found it. You’ll be able to formulate your own gear list and strike out into the nighttime backcountry for your first overnight hike once you know exactly how to prepare for an overnight hike.  


Backpacking gear for your first overnight hike

Hikers who have been on enough day hikes will already be familiar with what they need to have in their backpacking pack to get through a backcountry backpacking trip. If you’re unconcerned about your pack weight, then the tent and a comfortable sleeping bag are must-haves. Extra comfort gear like a sleeping pad and some kind of rain protection like a rainfly or a tarp will all help hikers stay warm and dry. We’ve already written about what you should bring on a day hike, so hopefully, it makes sense that we’re concentrating on the backpacking gear that you’ll need to get you through the night. 

In accordance with the Leave No Trace principles, make sure you’re hiking and setting up your campsite(s) on a flat, durable surface. If you’re out on an overnight hike in the rain or snow, a tent footprint will keep water from seeping in through the bottom of your tent. Some hikers say the tent footprint isn’t completely necessary, but since tarps are suitable even for ultralight hikers, we’d say it’s advisable to give a tent footprint along if you’re out on an overnight hike for the first time.

Even though you’re preparing for an overnight hike, some form of sun protection will still come in handy. Hikers with a pale complexion can get a sunburn after just 20 minutes of direct exposure to sunlight, so make sure you bring a sun hat, sunscreen, and lip balm with a high enough SPF to protect you against the sun’s rays. Every hiker should also pack some kind of water filter so they can always refill their water bottles from any water source you happen to pass on your overnight hiking trip. If thirst builds on a day hike it’s usually tolerable until you get back to the trailhead and can procure drinking water on the road back home, but on a multi-day overnight hiking trip you’ll be in the backcountry for a long stretch of time and ensuring the water bottle is always full is essential for every hiker.


Person on skis in the snow at night.

From snowy ski-aided cross-country hiking trips to desert rock scrambling, an overnight hike allows you to take in more of the backcountry than a day hike would.

You may also want to bring a multi-tool. Check out our list of the Best Multi-Tools for Backpacking and Hiking.

Preventing blisters on an overnight hike

Your feet are going to take a beating on a multi-day overnight hike and unlike on a day hike, they’re going to have to take that same beating immediately upon waking for as long as you’ve decided to stay out hiking in the backcountry. Make sure you’ve got the right hiking boots or hiking shoes with you. They should fit snugly but not be too tight. Always remember the boot lacing methods you can use in case you feel some kind of heel slippage and need a quick fix out on the trail. Blisters can form much more quickly than many hikers think, so it’s really important to pay attention to the way your feet feel on your first backpacking trip that’s multi-day. If you feel any pressure points or hot spots developing, take a break as soon as feasibly possible to rest your feet, air them out, and apply moleskin from your first aid kit if you see any redness. 

Blisters commonly develop on hikers’ ankles and the pads of their feet. The big toe supports a lot of bodyweight when humans take a step, so pay attention to whether you feel any pain there during your overnight hike. Some backpacking gear manufacturers have also developed hiking socks that help prevent blisters by keeping moisture away from the foot. Even with these, it’s important to take regular breaks to air your feet out and wash them in a water source such as a river or creek if there is one nearby. 

Change your hiking socks as often as possible. They’re designed to draw moisture like sweat or rainwater away from your foot, but they can get waterlogged and if they do it’s much more likely a blister will develop. Depending on how long your multi-day overnight hike will be, we suggest packing two or three extra pairs of hiking socks. Two pairs of hiking socks is the bare minimum number you should have on an overnight hike. That way, you can change into a dry pair after a rest stop and hang the old ones from your pack to let them dry while you hike and always have a dry pair when you need it.


Choosing the right sleeping bag for an overnight hike

If you’re preparing for your first backpacking trip that’ll involve sleeping at a campsite, then it’s likely you’re underestimating how critical the right sleeping bag is for hikers on an overnight hiking trip. This goes double for an overnight hike in cold weather because hikers tend to spend much more time at the campsite, wrapped up in their sleeping bag when the weather is too bad to keep hiking or the sun has set early as it does in the winter months.

A good night’s sleep is going to keep you going through to the end of your multi-day overnight hike. If you aren’t equipped with the right sleeping bag and can’t get restorative sleep at the campsite after a long day hiking, you could wind up too fatigued to go on. Worse still, you could make it to the end of your multi-day backpacking trip so exhausted that your first time on an overnight trip will be your last time. 

For heat retention, which is equally important in warmer climates as it is at a backcountry winter campsite, hikers should pack a sleeping pad. Most of the heat loss that occurs while sleeping in a tent is through the floor of the tent. The ground saps up most of the heat in a tent and a sleeping pad will elevate hikers off the ground, allowing them additional comfort as well as heat retention.

A tarp used as a tent footprint like we mentioned earlier in this guide will also help prevent heat loss through the bottom of the tent. If you’re an ultralight hiker concerned about the additional pack weight from a tent, you can use the tarp as an overhead covering. In this case, the sleeping pad and a properly cushioned sleeping bag are really crucial to stay warm and get enough rest to keep going on your overnight hike.


Silhouette of people walking outside at night.

Group overnight hikes will build a strong sense of camaraderie and self-reliance.


Backpacking meals for an overnight hiking trip

Eating right on a backpacking trip is every bit as important as getting a good night’s sleep. Important nutrients that hikers expend while they’re trekking through the backcountry like carbs and protein to help rebuild muscles are vital for hikers to ensure they can keep trekking to the best of their ability. Luckily, there’s a huge market of freeze-dried and ready-made backpacking meals that cater to meat-eaters and hikers who need gluten-free, vegetarian, and vegan alternatives. Hikers trekking on a day hike too often subsist on trail mix and energy bars, but on an overnight hike, those snacks aren’t going to provide enough energy to keep hikers moving. 

Hikers who want to surprise and delight their fellow overnight trip trekkers can prepare for meals at the campsite by learning a few simple recipes that don’t take many ingredients and certainly beat the artificial taste of freeze-dried alternatives. Solo hikers who want to keep their pack weight at a minimum can invest in a DIY backpacking stove that’s fueled by alcohol or wood that can be found in most of the North American backcountry. Give some of these recipes a test run at home or on a shorter day hike to make sure you have them perfected for use on an overnight hike. Pack reusable dishes and a spork that can be easily cleaned to adhere to the Leave No Trace principles. 


Keeping clean on an overnight hiking trip

Cleaning your reusable dishes, sporks, and cookware is handy on an overnight hike but keeping yourself clean is just as important. Multi-day trekking excursions often leave hikers sweaty and covered in dirt or mud from the trail. If you’re near a water source you can probably just take a quick bath in there, but hikers unconcerned with pack weight should consider bringing along a shower to wash the grime away after a long day spent trekking through the backcountry.

Of course, whatever shower or water source you use to get clean will be fairly ineffective unless you pack some soap with you. Hikers used to the trail fragrance worked up during strenuous backcountry trekking may be able to abide a few days going unwashed, but for multi-day or thru-hiking on a long overnight trip will definitely be more tolerable if you can take a shower every now and then. You won’t have to depend on trail angels for a shower if you have one of your own. 


Car camping on your first overnight hiking trip

For hikers who have never spent an extended and uninterrupted stretch out in the backcountry, striking out for the most remote and difficult campsites will do more to deter them from multi-day overnight hikes than it will enrich them if they haven’t got the requisite experience to properly navigate the trail and set up their campsite. In this case, it may be wise to plan on car camping.

It’s essentially the same as a normal overnight hike, but hikers reach their chosen campsite by car and either camp beside the vehicle or convert the back of a van or bed of a truck into their tent. Car camping is ideal for inexperienced hikers because electricity is available and there’s less of a hassle in setting up camp. If you aren’t sure about the sleeping bag and sleeping pad you plan to bring along being sufficient to keep you warm at night, car camping is a good way to put everything in your backpacking pack to the test so you know for a longer overnight hike. 


Four people beside a fire at night outside.

Any variety of car camping makes a great first trip to ease yourself into overnight hikes.


Final Verdict:

An overnight hiking trip allows hikers to find even more enrichment and practice long-term self-reliance out in the backcountry. Some of the backpacking gear you’ll need for an overnight hike is obvious, like a headlamp with long battery life, a sound tent, a sleeping bag, and a sleeping pad.

The majority of hikers leave some critical considerations out of their planning before their first time on an overnight hike. Blister prevention, a fully stocked first aid kit, tasty and replenishing backpacking meals, and bathing in the backcountry are just some of the things novice hikers who are used to day hikes frequently don’t know to plan for on an overnight hike. 

There are several helpful tools for planning a successful overnight hike and hikers can always test their plan on a day hike or on an overnight hike spent car camping rather than going out to a tent campsite right away. The Leave No Trace principles and the 10 Essentials are very instructive in terms of what backpacking gear to bring with you and how you can leave the backcountry as pristine as it was when you saw it for the first time.

Some preventative measures particular to specific parts of the backcountry like bear spray, a bear canister, and snow gear must be taken into consideration well before heading out for a multi-day overnight hike because they can be the difference between an enjoyable hiking trip and a serious emergency.

Hikers who have spent a brief time on a day hike in the backcountry will love the longer exposure an overnight hike gives them. There are some additional preparations required but in the end, the hiking trip will be that much more enriching and rewarding. Remember to leave no trace and pack the 10 essentials in your backpacking pack before you head out. You’ll be ready for just about anything the backcountry can throw at you now that you know how to prepare for an overnight hike. 


Bonus tip: Watch this log of a hiker’s ultralight overnight hiking trip for more information!


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Riley Draper

Riley Draper

Riley Draper is a writer and entrepreneur from Chattanooga, Tennessee. As a world traveler, he has been to more than fifty countries and hiked some of the most elusive trails in the world. He is the co-founder of WeCounsel Solutions and has published work in both national and global outlets, including the Times Free Press, Patch, and Healthcare Global. When he's not writing, he's probably on a hiking trip or climbing in the mountains.