Backpacking Gear 101
What's not to love about backpacking? Freedom, independence, being immersed in nature... Switch that phone on airplane mode and get going! But, like any sport, having the right gear is critical. Here's my list of backpacking must-haves to get you set-up for your next adventure.
Backpacking Gear Considerations
When you're carrying everything on your back, every ounce counts, so opt for ultra-light gear. Some of the most important items to optimize for weight are your tent, sleeping bag, and backpack (as they tend to be the bulkiest). Spending more to get better and lighter gear is definitely worth it.
Generally, when it comes to backpacking, cotton is not your friend. Wool and synthetic fibers provide more warmth and moisture wicking (i.e. moving sweat to the surface of the fabric so it can evaporate and you can stay dry).
Think about how to use one item for different purposes to save on weight and maximize function. For example, a bandana can be used to keep your hair out of your eyes, filter debris from dirty water, hold something hot, mark the trail, and create a splint after you hurt yourself.
Michelle's Backpacking Gear List
For quick links...
When it comes to tents, I'd aim for 2-3 pounds (0.9-1.3 kg) to go ultralight. I'd highly recommend my tent: the Big Agnes Tiger Wall UL 2 (2 lbs 8 oz / 1.13 kg) for two people or its slightly heavier, but fully free-standing cousin, the Big Agnes Copper Spur HV UL2 (3 lbs 2 oz / 1.3 kg) They're both three-season tents, meaning that they're able to withstand typical backpacking conditions (rain, wind, light hail, and some cold weather), but you'd need a four-season tent for more serious winter camping with snow and high winds. My tent is surprisingly spacious with two vestibules, two doors, indoor mesh pockets (so you don't lose your valuables), and enough space to comfortably sit up. It also takes 5 minutes to set-up! Pro tip: don't forget to buy the accompanying footprint to protect the bottom of the tent.
Sleeping bags vary enormously in terms of price and quality. However, I'd always recommend getting real down filling (at least 800-fill down) as it's warmer and easier to compress. Also, having a hood with a drawstring means that you can always pull it tightly around your face on a particularly chilly night (see left). Some great options to consider here.
The Thermarest Z-Lite SOL is only 14 oz / 0.4 kg and traps heat in its egg-shell design. It's much easier to pack than traditional pads that need to be rolled up and can easily be pulled out to serve as a yoga mat or butt pad during a picnic lunch on the trail.
For people who want a bit more padding, the inflatable Therm-a-Rest ProLite Plus (1 lb 7 oz / 0.7 kg) is easy to blow up and durable without compromising too much weight. It also doesn't make that annoying squeaky sound that many other blow up pads make.
Backpack + rain cover
Ultralight backpacks are designed to minimize weight, which involves making compromises, i.e. less rigid frames or fewer zippered pockets. That said, I've loved the lighter feel and have had a great experience with Granite Gear, a popular budget backpack brand. I'd recommend getting at least 60L for a multi-day trip and am a particularly big fan of roll-tops because they allow you to go bigger or smaller, depending on the trip.
Also, don't forget to bring a rain cover (they sometimes come with the backpack).
Store your bulky sleeping bag, down jacket, and other clothes in a compression sack, which has straps on its sides to reduce volume in your backpack.
I like to organize all my clothes and toiletries into different mesh or ziplock bags because they're light and help keep your pack organized.
I also recommend bringing a couple large trash bags so you can line the inside of your pack to keep everything dry in a downpour.
Stove + fuel canister
A lot of people swear by the Jetboil, which can boil water in 100 seconds with its modern Flash stove. But at over $100, I don't think it's worth the price tag. The MSR Pocket Rocket is half the price and is also a favorite. However, recently I have been using this BRS outdoor stove. Yes, it's from a random Chinese company, but it's only $16 on Amazon and is incredibly light and powerful.
All of these stoves take standard isobutane/propane fuel canisters that you can find at any camping store. Keep in mind: you can't bring these on a plane!
I think you can get by with a simple stove, as long as it's light and has a handle. Lids with holes for draining water are particularly useful for making pasta. I bought my first pot from Walmart and my second pot from Decathlon, each for under $30, so no need to overthink the technicalities here.
Get aluminum (light and durable, unlike plastic ones which are prone to snapping). I like this Sea to Summit Long Spork because you can scrape to the bottom of dehydrated meals without getting your hand covered in sauce.
Matches + lighter
I like to have both, just in case. Put them in a zip-lock bag, so they stay dry.
Swiss Army Knives are awesome because they come with so many great tools, but make sure the knife is big enough. I usually just carry a serrated pocket knife, which helps with all things meal-prep, but is more robust if you need to cut rope or branches.
Water bottles (2L)
I usually bring 2 1L Nalgene water bottles because they're highly durable and can handle hot water.
On the John Muir Trail in 2019, I brought 2 1L Smartwater bottles. These are lighter than a traditional water bottle, but also more durable than other disposable ones. This is only relevant on a long-distance trail when you're really trying to weight optimize.
A rule of thumb is that you should be drinking about half a liter of water every hour when doing moderate exercise at moderate temperatures.
I have only drunk unpurified water a handful of times in the backcountry and you have to be very careful. If it's close to the source, moving, crystal clear, and far, far away from animals or humans, then it *might* be fine. But better safe than sorry to avoid unpleasant water-borne viruses and parasites, like giardia.
Sawyer filters were very popular on the John Muir Trail. The pros are that you get to taste fresh mountain water. The cons are that squeezing water through the filter is a bit time consuming and doesn't allow for big chugs when you're really thirsty.
It's important to bring enough protein and energy rich foods as you'll be hunnnnnngry. Also, think about variety variety variety, so you don't get sick of having the same thing day after day when on longer trails. Here's what I like to bring:
For breakfast, I typically eat trail bars (of many different flavors!) or oatmeal, which I premix in ziplock bags with raisins, cinnamon, and brown sugar.
For lunch: peanut or almond butter on a fajita wrap or, for a hot lunch, couscous or ramen noodles with bouillon for flavoring. For shorter trips, hard cheeses are a great source of protein, as are canned tuna and beef jerky.
For snacks: homemade trail mix with granola, nuts, dried cranberries, and a generous serving of M&Ms (note: M&Ms are better than loose chocolate because they have a sugar coating, which avoids them melting everywhere).
For dinner: In REI, the glorious mecca for outdoors people, there's a huge array of dehydrated meal options (less variety in European outdoors stores). Some of my favorites include: Backpacker Pantry's pad thai, Good To-Go's Mexican quinoa, and Patagonia Provision's organic savory grains. These cost between $7-$15 per meal.
Look for a rain jacket with high breathability (pit zips are a big plus!) and a waterproof rating between 5,000 and 10,000 mm to protect you against medium to heavy rain. Anything more than 10,000 mm is better for activities in very heavy rain and snow, like skiing or mountaineering. For reference, my jacket is the Marmot Precip Eco, which is a leader in its mid-range price category (~$100). Note: you can always re-waterproof a jacket after heavy use.
This is one of the most important gear investments. The key consideration here is the warmth-to-weight ratio, for which I'd recommend at least 800-fill down. It's also helpful to have a hood as keeping your head warm is key when weather starts to turn in the mountains. Despite the high price tag, I love my Patagonia Down Sweater Hoody, which is warm, durable, and packable. Patagonia's guarantee policy also means they'll do repairs for free, which will increase the jacket's longevity.
Go for pockets and a hood! Mesh pockets on the inside are a plus for extra storage.
Get dri-fit: a microfiber polyester fabric that is light, moisture wicking, and comfortable.
I used to think these were lame, but have since come to realize that they're amazing: light, quick-drying, and can be both pants AND shorts. Look for zip-off pants with an adjustable waist belt and that allow you to take the bottom half off WITHOUT removing your hiking boots. In these amazing REI pants, the zipper color even matches, so you know which goes on the left or right pant leg—product design at its finest!
Best if they're merino wool (more expensive, but far warmer) or synthetic fabrics, like polyester and spandex (also good for moisture wicking and quick drying).
Bring one thinner and one thicker pair.
Also, if you're prone to blisters, like me, then look no further than Injini socks— performance toe socks. They might look goofy, but, seriously, they're awesome.
Once again, dri-fit for the win!
Uses: headband, wash cloth, bandage, rope, trail marker, water filtration device, fire starter... so much potential!
Go for cotton (because it's more absorbent) and a bright color (in case you need to use it as a marker or to get attention in an emergency).
Pro tip: when pulled down over your eyes while sleeping, it can double down as an eye mask so the sun doesn't wake you at the crack of dawn!
Could be a simple baseball cap or, for longer trails, I would invest in an Indiana Jones style hat with a wide brim, ventilation, and chin strap for when it's windy.
Protecting your eyes is critical! Key considerations: durability of frames, wrap-around fit, UV protection, and polarized lenses (for increased contrast).
If you're spending a lot of time at high altitudes or in the snow, consider glacier goggles with a 5-7% VLT (Visual Light Transmission), meaning that they let less light in.
Get ones that are touch screen enabled, so you can use your phone without having to take your gloves off on chilly days.
The great debate between hiking boots and trail runners! The former are bulkier, but provide more durability and ankle support, while the latter are lighter, easier to break in, and dry faster. My personal opinion: when hiking for long distances on rocky terrain with a heavy pack, having that extra support is worth it. Go Team Hiking Boot!
The key is finding the right fit! Remember to walk around with thick hiking socks and keep 1 inch or 2.5 cm between your big toe and the end of the boot to account for your feet swelling when hiking.
I'm a big fan of the brands Vasque and LaSportiva. I currently wear LaSportiva Ultra Raptor II boots, which are mid-rise, only 1 lb 7 oz (0.7 grams), and very spacious for my toes. I also recommend getting custom inserts for more arch support (see Superfeet).
I highly recommend bringing sandals, despite the added weight, so you can switch out of your steamy hiking boots when you get to camp. During the John Muir Trail, I had six blisters on each foot after 10 days on the trail, so I ended up hiking some of the snowy passes in my Tevas, just to avoid having to squeeze back into my hiking boots.
Another debate in the backpacker community: Teva vs. Chacos! Basically, Tevas are lighter and Chacos have better arch support. But, clearly, I'm Team Teva.
Phone + power bank + charging cables
Compass + paper map
I've got to admit that because of how amazing today's navigation apps are, I don't practice orienteering as much as I should. Here's a little refresher on how to use a compass. You should always carry a compass and paper map (laminated to keep it water proof) in the backcountry because you never know if your phone will fail.
The Garmin Mini InReach allows you to send and receive messages when you're out of cell range and trigger an SOS for 24/7 search and rescue services. At $300 + subscription plan, this Garmin device is cheaper than alternatives, but is highly reliable and durable. Mine fell off of a 300-meter cliff in Nepal and survived (read about it here). It has 50 hours of battery life and can be paired with your smartphone, so you can track and share your journey online. Garmin also has amazing customer service. HIGHLY recommend!
Petzel all the way! To balance price and brightness, I'd get one between 250 and 300 lumens with a red light option, which is good for nighttime.
FOR HEALTH & SAFETY
Trekking poles help reduce the load on your back, knees, and feet, so you can keep backpacking for decades to come. Black Diamond poles are my favorite. In terms of material, carbon fiber is the lightest and stiffest, but is much more expensive, so I think aluminum is generally good enough. Make sure they're collapsible (the flicklock mechanism is the most durable) and have cork handles to avoid sweaty palms.
Rope & carabiners
Ropes are critical for safety and practicality, e.g. use it as a clothing line, to secure your tent in high winds, or to hang food to keep it away from animals. Here are some helpful knots to learn. Bring 2 carabiners along as well to make it easier to set up the rope.
First aid kit
Include: alcohol wipes, antiseptic cream, burn cream, gauze, band-aids (especially for blisters), bandages, medical tape, safety pin, sewing kit (critical for blister popping!), rubber-band, and pain killers. Full list here.
Toothbrush + toothpaste (get the minis since they're lighter!)
Sunscreen (at least 30 SPF)
Contacts + fluid + case (or glasses)
Hand sanitizer / biodegradable soap (especially important to avoid sticking dirty fingers in your eyes when putting in contacts)
Extra hair tie for you ladies!
Toilet paper + trowel
When nature calls, you must be prepared. Walk 200 feet / 60 meters / 70 big steps away from a trail, campsite, or water source. Use your trowel to dig a 6-inch / 15-cm deep hole and do your business. Make sure to keep your toilet paper in a zip-lock bag to keep it dry. Then, instead of leaving your used toilet paper out in nature, put it in a separate plastic waste bag (not transparent and add a dryer sheet to mask any smells) and throw it in a trash when you get back to civilization.
Note: toilet paper can take 5 weeks to decompose, depending on whether it's buried or not. Wet wipes contain plastic, so they can take up to 100 years!!! DO NOT LEAVE THEM OUT IN NATURE.
FOR PERSONAL TIME
Journal + pencil
Use this time off the grid to reflect and tap into your creative side!
No need to carry real paper books around the mountains, but a little reading time is wonderful while snuggled in your sleeping bag before bed. I recommend the Kindle Paperwhite, which is lighter and waterproof (be sure to get a case for protection). However, if you're feeling a bit anti-Bezos, download books for free on these sites.
Cards (if you're with a friend!)
For especially rainy weather: rain pants
For colder weather: extra base layers, thicker gloves, a thermos, and maybe micro-spikes if you expect to be walking on any frost or ice
For trips in certain parts of North America: bear canister
For trips to places with a lot of mosquitos: insect spray and head net
For (skinny) dips into lakes and rivers: a quick drying micro-fiber towel
For longer trips: solar charger
Now time to get out there and enjoy the great outdoors! Happy hiking :)