Simply put, backpacking gear can be hard to get right! In the world of backpacking, there is this triangle often referred to with regards to gear. The three sides of the triangle are cost, comfort and weight. Here’s how it works: things that are cheap tend to be either uncomfortable or heavy/bulky (or both!), while things that are very comfortable and/or very light tend to be very expensive!
Only you know the gear strategy that will work best for you. If you can afford it, get the very lightest, most comfortable gear you can find. Assuming you are like most people and can’t shell out that kind of dough all at once, you’ll need to strategize. If sleeping in comfort is of utmost importance to you, invest in a better, thicker sleeping pad and perhaps go cheap on a tent. If having an incredibly lightweight tent is important to you, perhaps your sleeping bag can be a bit bulkier and heavier. Does anyone really need a sub-3lb backpack for just weekend trips? And do you really need 850-fill down or will the cheaper 600-fill work just fine?
Bottom line is that most “wrong” gear decisions will not ruin your trip (unless you let them). Most people get what gear they can afford and upgrade over time. Of course, buying used and on clearance is always an option, too. Please see my “recommendations” page for more information on where to research and buy gear.
As someone who’s devoted more time to researching backpacking gear than I care to admit, part of the “problem” with backpacking gear information is that there is just SO much out there! It’s hard to know where to start or who to trust. Sometimes we need to take things down to their most basic parts, and then go from there.
Here is a (very) lengthy list of essential gear items you need to experience successful backpacking trips. I’ve included some of my favorite gear as a starting point, and only if I truly love it, but what works for me is not necessarily right for you! There are huge variations on all of the below, but I’m sticking with the mainstream basics here.
- Backpack: First things first – go to REI or a similar store and get sized and fitted for free! This is crucial. A poor-fitting pack will ruin your trip, and there is a science to correctly adjusting all those straps. While there, try on a bunch of brands and see what you like, even if you don’t buy it there. TIP: Most regular backpackers (i.e., not ultralight thru-hikers) opt for the versatility of a 60-70 liter pack.
- Rain Cover for Your Pack: Some packs come with this as an integrated attachment. I would cut that off as the cover might be heavy and it definitely wont work well. This doesn’t mean you need to buy a fancy rain cover; in fact, definitely don’t buy a fancy one. TIP: Instead, buy either a trash compactor liner bag OR a heavy-duty landscaping trash bag (Gorilla Glue Company makes the best ones and this is what I use). Use the bag to line the inside of your pack (a bag inside a bag!). Sure, your actual pack will get wet on the outside, but everything inside is going to stay dry.
- Shelter: I recommend a regular tent. Go for a 2-person tent for a bit of extra space or if you will backpack with others. I LOVE, LOVE, LOVE my Henry Shires Double Rainbow Tarptent, but you have to pay him extra to waterproof the seams or learn how to do it yourself from info online. TIP: Do add in the extra condensation barrier for a few extra $$.
- Tent Footprint: This goes under your tent and protects it from damage from little rocks or sticks. In some situations, it may not be necessary, but why risk it? It also helps during rain. But do not get suckered into buying one of those expensive footprints that is matched to your specific tent! TIP: Instead, for just a few bucks, buy a piece of Tyvek from Amazon and cut it to size (a footprint should always be slightly SMALLER than your tent’s dimensions). Tyvek is amazing and has multiple uses in the event of an emergency on the trail.
- Sleep System: This includes a sleeping bag or quilt (research the difference) and a sleeping pad (commonly inflatable). There are a zillion options out there. Know that the temperature rating of a bag is never going to be accurate. If the sleeping bag claims it is warm down to 30° F, don’t count on it! I hate sleeping bags and will be upgrading to a quilt. I really like my Therm-A-Rest NeoAir inflatable pad, though, because it’s super thick and very light (admittedly, it’s also expensive and a tad noisy, but still worth it). Camping pads and backpacking pads are very different. Camping pads are way too big and bulky for backpacking. TIP: Need a pillow? You can just use your down puffy jacket or other clothes. Or buy a pillow designed for backpacking. I splurged in cost and got a heavenly, but bulky Nemo.
- Cooking system: This includes a backpacking stove, gas canister, cooking pot, lighter and spork. I also carry a tiny, plastic, liquid measuring cup (1/4 cup) and a lighter. The main consideration here is: do you want to be able to simmer, or only boil? Most backpacking food simply requires boiling water and pouring it into the bag. I usually dehydrate my own food and like to simmer sometimes, so pay attention to what you’re buying as many cooking systems don’t allow for a simmer. I use the MSR Micro Pocket Rocket stove (cheap and reliable) and I love it. TIP: For pots, some finishes stick, some don’t. If you are boiling water, who cares, but if you are cooking food in the pot then a non-stick finish is critical!
- Water: The essence of life! There are lots of great options for filtering or purifying water and I still haven’t found the perfect one for me. I have an MSR gravity filter (best for groups but bulky and heavy) and a Sawyer Mini filter (not good for filtering a bunch of water at once). I also have used just Aquamira purifying drops or tablets in the Sierras since the water isn’t gritty. My next purchase will be a UV purifier – super simple for one liter of water, not so good for a big bladder of water. TIP: I ALWAYS carry water purifying drops or tablets as a backup and insist you do the same! Safety first.
- Rain Clothing: This is a tough one. Do NOT believe the hype – nothing is waterproof AND breathable. Not even Gore-Tex’s latest creations that claim otherwise. And rain gear is insanely expensive. I use Frogg Toggs. Crazy cheap, and they work (though it ain’t pretty). They aren’t very durable, however, but at this price, oh well! Fact is, you’re going to get wet if it’s pouring, there’s no way around it. TIP: Many thru-hikers wear rain skirts. Yes – skirts. The skirt allows the air in from underneath and can, therefore, be impenetrably waterproof without making you sweaty. I’ll move to this one day or perhaps make my own!
- Footwear: I recommend you only shop at a place like REI with a very forgiving return policy. Footwear is a very personal, very subjective choice and, if you haven’t backpacked before, you’re liable to get it wrong! Many thru-hikers hike in trail runners. Great for them. They also carry tiny packs and very little gear. And if they hike the PCT, trail runners work great for the soft desert and then many hikers make the switch to something more durable/stable in the Sierras. I tried nine – literally nine – pairs of shoes and boots before I found the right ones for me (sorry, REI!). I ended up with a pair of Oboz and they’re the best (for me). Contrary to what you might think, you do NOT want to feel the trail beneath your feet when you are carrying 35+ lbs over long distances and rough terrain. My feet rarely hurt at the end of a day of backpacking. TIP THAT I CAN’T EMPHASIZE ENOUGH: Always buy your backpacking shoes at least one full size bigger than you normally wear! This will prevent your toenails from falling off when hiking downhill and as your feet swell – trust me.
- Camp/River Shoes: You will likely have to cross streams and you don’t want to do that in your hiking shoes or boots. Going barefoot is sometimes too dangerous or slippery. Some people wear just socks for extra grip and it washes your socks at the same time! But depending on the stream bed, this could cause a twisted ankle. I carry Keen’s for water crossings. As for comfort, I love my Oboz so much I rarely feel a need to take them off around the campfire. TIP: Most people carry a pair of hiking sandals for water crossings and/or comfy camp shoes for the end of a long day.
- Socks: I recommend you always wear two – a liner and a hiking sock made of a wool blend. The liner prevents blisters in two ways: 1) the liner wicks all that sweat out to the outer sock, keeping your feet dry(er) and 2) the liner creates a barrier between all that friction going on between the shoe and the outer sock. My absolute favorite liners are the Injinji toe sock liners. Can’t say enough about these weird socks. It’s all I wear anymore. Wool blended, outer hiking socks rock! Wool really inhibits bacterial growth, so they don’t smell (or don’t smell as bad). Wool also dries very quickly so washing them is a cinch. Never wear cotton or cotton blend socks because cotton doesn’t dry easily and doesn’t wick away sweat. TIP: I always bring three pairs of socks and two pairs of liners. One pair of socks is dedicated for sleeping. I wash a pair of socks and liners each night.
- Sun protection: Always important, but especially if you hike at higher altitudes where the sun’s rays are stronger. This could consist only of sunblock, but I’m not a fan of slathering that goo on day-after-day with no shower! I generally opt for protective clothing, and I most frequently wear an SPF, long sleeve, wicking button down. It really doesn’t make me any hotter than I would be. I also have one of those caps with side and rear flaps. Again, none of this is pretty, but who cares? TIP: I recommend sunglasses with polarized lenses because they’re better for appreciating nature’s impressive array of colors and seeing deep into alpine lakes!
- Hiking poles: I honestly don’t know how or why anyone would backpack without poles! Even with a perfectly-adjusted pack, your center of gravity is a bit off. Poles are an essential piece of safety gear for me as they have saved me from rolling an ankle more times than I can count. And when I have actually fallen, they allowed me to break my own fall and fall slowly (elegantly, if you will). Also, poles help immensely on strenuous uphills and prevent knee pain on steep downhills. TIP: There is a very specific way to hold and use poles, and it’s not intuitive. Ask someone at REI or look on YouTube. Improper use renders them useless and makes you look goofy! (By the way, hiking poles also double as a weapon and add versatility to some tents, including my aforementioned Double Rainbow.)
- First aid kit: YES! Consider the basics plus any medication you need. I also bring an antibiotic, Diamox (altitude medication) and Hydrocodone (or a similar narcotic). Next time you see your doctor, tell your doc what you are doing and ask what type of prescription he or she recommends, and then request a prescription. TIP: Start taking the Diamox two days before you reach elevation – do not wait for symptoms to start!
- Poop: Shit happens. And when on the trail, you must handle it properly. In most places, poop and TP can be buried. In some places, TP must be carried out. You need a device for digging a hole, but instead of buying a poop shovel (yes, there is such a thing), just buy a single tent stake designed for snow camping. Snow stakes are very durable and much cheaper than a special shovel. And lighter, too! Bring biodegradable TP and scent-free sanitizer (you don’t want to attract bears!). If packing out your TP, like I do, bring good quality Ziploc bags. TIP: Sanitizer hack: buy 70% isopropyl alcohol. Regular alcohol evaporates too quickly to kill germs, but 70% is perfect. No scent. Super cheap. Buy a tiny spray bottle to put it in.
- Headlamp: Nothing fancy needed here. TIP: Do buy one with a red lamp, though – much better for night vision and it won’t kill your fellow campers’ eyes!
- Clothing: Less is more! You can really save weight here. TIP: For a three-day weekend, I only have one main outfit, two pairs of underwear and two sports bras. And my socks as above.
- Jackets: This depends on the weather where you are going. Lightweight, puffy down jackets are all the rage for a reason – they provide exceptional warmth at a very low weight, and they’re compressible. But they are useless in wet weather. Fleece jackets are also wonderful for trapping heat and keeping you warm. TIP: As mentioned before, both types of jackets can double as pillows at night (unless it’s so cold that you need to wear them!).
- Long underwear/base layers: Most backpackers pack base layers for both sleeping and for layering on cold days. Go for a wool blend set! They aren’t itchy, don’t smell, wash and dry easily and are versatile. They aren’t cheap but are worth it and can easily be found on clearance online and in stores. TIP: I like a 250 weight layer so I can be sure I’m warm when I want to be.
- Duct tape: You have to have this. Duct tape is good for blister prevention, but it’s also great for repairing holes in everything from your inflatable sleeping pad to your down jacket to your rain gear. Also a zillion other uses. TIP: Wrap plenty around your hiking pole or a water bottle instead of carrying a roll.
- Mosquito “stuff”: In addition to repellent, consider a head net (requires a brimmed cap underneath) and/or mosquito repellent clothing. TIP: You can actually buy Permethrin to treat your clothing at home!
- Map and compass: Always. TIP: A compass only helps if you actually know how to use it (in other words, take a class).
- Essential/Desirable miscellaneous items: Safety pins, waterproof matches, cotton balls with Vaseline on them (best fire starter), emergency blanket, KT tape, etc. TIP: Search online for something called a “ten essentials” kit for ideas.
- Bear “stuff”: Depends on where you are going. There are specific regulations for certain areas prone to bears. Bear canisters are required for lots of places. There are different types, the most popular (and my favorite) being the Bear Vault BV500 or BV450. You can usually rent bear canisters, too. There are also bear-proof sacks for hanging made by Ursack, but they aren’t allowed in some areas (usually because hanging food isn’t allowed). Bear spray is not permitted in many places, including the Sierra Nevadas, but bear spray is usually used in grizzly country, not black bear country. TIP: Some hikers wear bells while in bear country but, again, it’s more of a concern in grizzly areas than black bear areas and the sound can really be a buzz-kill.
- Knife/Multipurpose tool: Take your pick. Make it a folding knife so as to not violate certain states’ laws. TIP: I carry a multipurpose tool so that I have little scissors, a knife, a toothpick, tweezers, etc., all in one.
- Pack towels: I carry a small, microfiber towel for scrubbing myself at the end of each day. I also carry compressed, coin-shaped, reusable towels made by Liteload that expand in water. I carry at least one Liteload towel on every trip and use it for when I pee. This is a topic that could take up an entire blog post, but suffice it to say, I like to wipe so I don’t get an infection. I buy the hand towel-sized Liteloads and dab throughout the day and then wash the towel each night. TIP: I fold the towel in on itself after each use to keep it “fresh” for the next pee session, or attach the towel to the outside of my pack to let the UV rays sanitize it. Kinda’ gross, I know, but very common and it’s worked for me and many of my friends. (I once tried a ShePee device with VERY EMBARRASSING results, which is a story that I’ll tell another time!)
- Whistle: Why not?
This is a long list, but it’s by no means definitive and I’ve likely forgotten something. You’ll find variations all over the internet and people debating vehemently about this piece of gear or that piece of gear. It’s a lot to consider and a significant number of things to purchase, which is why some people make their own gear! But think of the cost of a one-week vacation, with flights and hotels and all that comes with traditional trips. Once you buy your gear, the world is your playground and every trip you take is incredibly cheap compared to traditional vacations.
Questions? Use the comments section below to ask and I’ll answer as best I can or point you in the right direction. Want to ask something private? Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
“The old school of thought would have you believe that you’d be a fool to take on nature without arming yourself with every conceivable measure of safety and comfort under the sun. But that isn’t what being in nature is all about. Rather, it’s about feeling free, unbounded, shedding the distractions and barriers of our civilization—not bringing them with us.” – Ryel Kestenbaum,