Backpacking Gear Guide

Selecting backpacking gear is all about weight. k The classic mistake of the new backpacker is to try and prepare for every eventuality. They end up with giant, back-breaking packs that would be cruel to force on a mule. An experienced backpacker knows exactly what they need and that is all they bring. This means they get less tired on the trail. They can travel faster. And they probably have a better time.

The absolute extreme are the ultra-lightweight backpackers who believe in sacrificing a lot of comfort (sleeping bags, tents, clean water, you name it) for the sake of travelling much lighter.

What follows is a complete gear list for a beginner. Use your own discretion and judgement about what you need. Plan ahead. And remember that you have to carry every gram of equipment you bring with you.

The Master List

The Pack

When John Muir stepped out into the wilderness he took nothing but an old coat with some oats in the pocket. You are not John Muir. You will want to take all kinds of stuff with you. Unless you rent a burro, you will need a backpack.

A Backpack in the Wild

You want a pack with an internal frame. They offers the support you need to carry a lot of weight. Backpacks range in size from 30 litres to over 100 litres. For short (2-4 day) trips, most beginners start out with packs in the 40 to 60-liter range. The important trade-off here is that a bigger pack can hold more things, but that will make it heavier.

Modern packs have a huge variety of pockets, mesh things, straps, zippers and flaps. Of all these fancy extras, the most important is the slot inside that allows you to hold a water bladder. This allows you to sip water from a tube at any moment while you’re walking. (Stay hydrated!) When selecting a water bladder for your bag (they’re sold separately), get a 3-litre or maybe a 2-litre. Don’t go smaller. I carry a 3-litre bladder and a 1-litre bottle.

Use a CamelBak bladder while hiking

The fit is also really important. Try on your backpack in person, with weight in it, and wander around the store before you buy it. Adjusting a modern pack is easy once you get used to it, but is not immediately obvious. The most important thing to know is that the weight should be resting on your hips and not your shoulders.

There is a nice description of how to adjust your new backpack here.

  • TIP: Get a pack with little pockets on the waist strap. This is a great place to stash things you want easy access to, like snacks.
  • TIP: Get a pack with an air mesh, that way your back can breathe and you won’t get all sweaty and gross under your pack.
  • TIP: You can hang your sleeping bag or tent off the bottom of your pack. This will save you a lot of room inside.
  • TIP: Your pack will have a lot of straps on it. Learn what all of them are for. Most of them are useful.

Water Purification

You need a lot of clean drinking water to live.

Getting water from a stream

If you lost access to drinking water right now, you would die in three to five days. If you are stuck outside hiking around with a heavy pack on, it might only be two days.

THE official information on water purification can be found on the CDC webpage.

The CDC defines the problem in terms of what you’re trying to kill: Protozoa, Bacteria, or Viruses. They address each of those in terms of water treatment methods: Boiling, Filtering, Chemical Disinfection, (or now-a-days UV Treatment).

Please read what they have to say before you head into the wilderness. It is short and authoritative.

What does each method kill?

  • Boiling: kills practically everything.
  • A good filter (here and here): will clean your water of everything except viruses.
  • Iodine and Chlorine Dioxide: mostly great, but doesn’t work well against Giardia.
  • UV Treatment: kills practically everything.

Here is my personal experience with each method:

  • Boiling: This works great, but it takes a long time and so almost no one does this by choice. If you wanted to do this exclusively, you would want to get a Jetboil. (These are also a great way to cook while backpacking.)
  • Filtering: This is a great option. I do my backpacking with a doctor and she thinks a lot of people get lazy and these can be prone to operator errors. Read your manual.
  • Iodine and Chlorine Dioxide: This is the cheapest and lightest solution. But (as the CDC page points out) most people don’t know this is not highly effective against Giardia. And Giardia is usually your biggest concern.
  • UV Treatment: Yeah, SteriPens are great. But I warn you, they are just another electronic toy. I have seen these fail due to battery problems three times in the wild. Would you trust your life to a cell phone?

Final Thoughts

  • TIP: Even when we take a water filter with us, we bring chlorine tabs as a light-weight backup.
  • TIP: Iodine serves two functions, because you can also use it to sterilize a wound.
  • TIP: Iodine makes your water taste bad, be prepared.
  • TIP: Water filters also remove particulates, which are neither tasty nor good for you.

Trekking Poles

Wrist straps are your friend.

Hiking poles are only necessary because you’re carrying so much weight. They help you go up and down steep terrain carrying a heavy load. And they spread your weight over 4 points on the ground, which reduces the chance you’ll roll an ankle.

Trekking Poles at Rest

Don’t buy your hiking poles online. Try them out in person. You want something that feels comfortable in your hand and is the right height for you. When you hold your trekking pole, your arm should be at a comfortable 90 degrees.

One thing you’ll notice about about a modern trekking pole is the strap on the handle is big and strange. If properly used, these straps mean you barely have to hold on to the handle at all. Which is one less thing to distract you from the view. Here is a nice drawing showing how to use the trekking pole straps.

An important feature of your hiking poles is the locking mechanism used to keep them at the right length. Some poles have clips, some have clamps, and some just screw down tight to fix the pole at a certain length. My advice is to not get the poles that twist. These do not seem to be as reliable; I have seen them fail multiple times.

Tent

Assuming you’re not camping in snow, all you need is a light-weight tent. There are hundreds of really great options out there. There are tents with carbon fibre supports wrapped in exotic materials. There are tents designed to be easy to set up in a thunderstorm. There are tents for areas where mosquitos and malaria are the concern. There are ultra-lightweight tents that are little more than a tarp help up by your trekking poles.

As it turns out, I know half-a-dozen backpackers who just went to REI and bought The Half Dome. It’s the cheapest backpacking tent on the market, it’s small, and it easily fits two people and gear. Is it as big and roomy as that tent your parents had when you were a kid? No. Is it light enough to suit an ultra-lightweighter? Hell no.

  • TIP: You can separate the tent poles from the rest of the bag. This will make it easier to fit in your pack while walking, or allow two people to share the load.

Sleeping Bags

There are two types of sleeping bag materials: synthetic and down. The standard wisdom is that synthetic bags are cheaper but down bags are lighter. You should also know that down sleeping bags are worse than useless when they’re wet.

Modern sleeping bags have hoods that cover your head. They are also fairly snug and should fit your body height well.

When selecting a sleeping bag pay careful attention to its ‘temperature rating’. Each sleeping bag has an approximate minimum rating for how cold it can be for you to sleep comfortably. And it is important to know that these temperature ratings assume you are wearing a hat and gloves while you sleep.

  • TIP: Your sleeping bag will be much warmer if you use a sleeping pad underneath it.
  • TIP: If you get stuck out in the cold, put on every stitch of clothing you have and pack anything soft inside your sleeping bag with you.
  • TIP: Don’t bring a pillow. Just wad up a sweater under your head or get used to using your pack as a pillow.

Sleeping Pads

In backpacking you quickly learn when is essential to life and what is a luxury. Well, if sleeping pads are a luxury they are the #1 best luxury and the first one you should add to your pack.

A sleeping pad is a foam or inflatable miniature mattress that you put underneath your sleeping bag. They make the ground a lot softer and almost everyone says they help you sleep. They also serve the important function of insulating you from the cold ground at night. The inflatable matresses are a lot more expensive than the foam matresses, but they also pack down a much smaller and are a lot more comfortable.

Aside from price and weight, the most important feature in an inflatable sleeping pad is how it is inflated. Some pads have to be inflated like a large balloon, with your mouth. Which is easy enough at home. But if you’ve been hiking for 12 hours and you’re tired, it’s a loathsome task. And if you are trying to set up camp at elevation, the exertion needed to fill the pad can be a dizzying pain. More modern pads have hand pumps built right in. These are much easier to fill. But, honestly, either will be fine.

  • TIP: They make some sleeping pads specifically for women. This is not a gimmick, they actually do make a difference in comfort.

Food

There are a few major theories on the food you need to bring with you. Ultra-lightweight backpackers bring only freeze-dried food, to save weight. They buy pre-made meals or make their own at home. All of their cooking is done with a Jetboil stove and water.

Some campers prefer to bring lots of real, fresh food. This is heavier, but healthy and delicious after a long, hard day of walking.

Either way, make sure you plan all your meals long before you get out on the trail. And bring snacks. Eating a huge meal will slow you down and make you tired. But if you’re eating small, nutritious snacks while you’re walking it will be easier to keep up your energy. The same goes for drinking water. Don’t wait until you need a whole bottle; sip a little bit constantly throughout the day.

  • TIP: If you’re a coffee/tea drinker the trail is not the time to go into caffeine withdrawal. Instant coffee and tea are light and super quick to make in the morning. Bring a metal cup or Thermos.

Camping Stove

What camping stove you bring backpacking depends entirely on your food plans. If all you’re going to do is boil water to rehydrate food, then you should get a Jetboil. If you plan on cooking meals, you will need a small propane stove. Many companies make these, but the smallest and lightest sit right on top of the propane tank:

smallest backpacking stove

  • TIP: At elevations above 2500 meters (8500 feet) the lack of oxygen in the atmosphere will mean your cooking fuel is less combustible and create flame that is far less hot. You need to buy high-altitude cooking fuel.
  • TIP: The MSR Pocket Rocket and Snow Peak Giga Power are both great mini stoves. The Giga Power has the benefit of not needing a lighter or matches to start it.
  • TIP: Don’t forget, you will need cookware and silverware to eat. Titanium pots and sporks are pricey, but they clean easy and are very light.

Fire

In a real emergency, fire is key.

Bring a lighter or matches.

You can bring a flint, but make sure you have practised with it at home a lot. And most people consider flint a back-up option only.

  • TIP: Some backpacking knives have flints built in.

Bear Can

Keep the wildlife wild.

When you’re camping you need to put all of your food and toiletries (anything with a smell) in a container to keep it out of reach of animals. In some places it is sufficient to hang your food (and toiletries) from a tree in a sturdy food bag. However, if you camping anywhere with bears, wolves, or coyotes, you need to use a Bear Can.

A bear can adds some weight, but bring it anyway. Put it 100 yards from your camp site and it will prevent curious bears from eating all your food.

A bear can in a pile of gera

  • TIP: The transparent bear cans seem like an awesome idea. But the screw-top lids are a huge pain. And bears in Yosemite have learned to open them. Just get the black bear can shown above.

Headlamp

Headlamps don’t weigh that much, just get one. Make sure it is a modern LED lamp, the batteries will last longer.

  • TIP: Some headlamps have a dimmer setting for the main light and a little red light. Both of these are helpful in conserving battery and saving your night vision.
  • TIP: If it is dark out and you look at someone with your headlamp on, they are now blind. Try to be courteous.

Boots

The heavier your pack, the stiffer your boots need to be.

If you’re an ultra-lightweight backpacker and your pack weighs 4 pounds, you can wear regular sneakers. But most of us need boots with stiff soles. The theory is that your body is not meant to support the extra weight, and it’s hard on your feet and ankles to carry it over rough terrain.

The heaviest soled boots are called “backpacking boots” and you can find them at REI or any similar store.

Clothes

By the end of a long backpacking trip you will stink. Bringing more clothes won’t help.

The average backpacker might bring some spare underwear or socks on the trail. But don’t worry about changing your shirt or pants. Bring clothes that are light enough to keep you cool during a hot stretch of hike, but long enough to protect you from a chill wind. This is why REI sells all those synthetic pants that zip off at the knees: they’re really practical outdoors. Also look for long-sleeve shirts that have a button so you can roll them up and they’ll stay in place during the hot weather.

Coats

Obviously, the coat you need depends on the weather. But remember that while you are hiking your body will stay very warm and when you lay down to sleep at night it will get very cold. Layers are your friend.

One option popular with backpackers are puffy coats. They will act as a good warm layer, but they weigh almost nothing and ball up into something the size of grapefruit.

  • TIP: A puffy coat makes a great pillow.

Clothes for Sleeping

Sleeping outdoors is not like at home. If it gets cold, put on every single stitch of clothing you have when you get into your sleeping bag: hats, gloves, all three pairs of socks, regular underwear, long underwear, and pants. All of it.

An easy way to stay warm at night is to bring one set of long underwear that you put on before bed.

  • TIP: If you’re worried about rain, a spare garbage bag in your pack will make a quick rain poncho.

Socks

You can wear wool socks, or you can get athlete’s foot. It’s your choice.

The Final List

  • one set of hiking pants
  • one good hiking shirt
  • one or two sets of underwear
  • two to three sets of wool socks
  • one big hiking hat
  • one set of sunglasses
  • PROBABLY one emergency rain coat/poncho or some protection
  • PROBABLY one coat; wind breaker or puffy depending on the weather
  • PROBABLY one set of warm gloves
  • MAYBE one set of long underwear, depending on the weather
  • MAYBE one garbage bag for an emergency rain poncho

Toiletries

This is one of the places where beginners get into trouble. Sure, you probably need sunblock. But do you need bug spray? Can you go two days without dental floss? How many headache drugs do you REALLY need to take with you?

Important Options

  • hand sanitizer
  • toilet paper
  • trowel
  • tooth brush
  • biodegradable tooth paste
  • biodegradable dish soap
  • sunblock
  • Chapstick with sunblock
  • condoms
  • trash bags
  • zip lock bags
  • first aid kit (cloth bandage roll, Bendryll, Iodine, and Advil/Asprin)

  • TIP: If you’re at elevation you will sunburn much more quickly. Don’t forget your lips.
  • TIP: Dish soap is not good for the environment, and doesn’t decompose. Bring biodegradable dish soap to wash your cookware.
  • TIP: Some biodegradable soaps, like Dr. Bronnor’s, can wash your dishware, your underwear, and yourself, all with one soap.
  • TIP: If you wear contacts, you may not want to bring them backpacking. And if you do, make sure your hands are clean before you touch your eyes. There is a risk of infection.

Maps

Bring good trail maps. Make sure you can read them. Put them in a water proof plastic bag.

Reading a map on the trail

The Backpacking Knife

A knife is an extremely versatile tool.

If you’ve ever watched Bear Grylls on TV, or taken a survival course, you’ll know that purists think the only piece of equipment you need to survive in the wild is a knife. Since you are backpacking, you can be a lot more prepared than that. Still, a good knife can be quite handy.

A lot of factors go into choosing a backpacking knife, but I will break it down into four categories:

  1. weight
  2. cost
  3. survival utility
  4. your surroundings

Weight

There are a lot of high-quality knives out there in the 1-3 ounce range. The most experienced “ultra-lightweight backpacker” I know recommends the Spyderco Dragonfly ($50). With only a 2-inch blade this knife won’t be much good at slashing your way through the jungle, but it will serve well for meals and light work.

Spyderco Dragonfly

Cost

It is what it is.

Survival Utility

If you are stranded in the wild, a good knife might mean the difference between life and death. As such, backpackers frequently use “survival knives”. Survival knives might come with a lot of extra features (a compass, bandages, you name it), but I think two features are the most important:

  1. The whistle. It might help scare away bears or coyotes, but this is primarily an emergency whistle. Imagine you have fallen and broken both your legs. Do you want to scream for help for hours on end? No. This will work better and be far less taxing.

  2. The flint. If you’re stranded in the wild, fire is key.

The survival blade I like best is the Tool Logic SL3 ($20). This only has a 3-inch blade, but it weighs 2-ounces and I find it to be the best compromise between utility and weight.

Tool Logic SL3

If your plans depends more heavily on your knife, you will have to accept a little extra weight for a longer blade. Your best bet there will be the Gerber Bear Grylls-model survival knife ($40 and 11 ounces). This even has a built-in sharpener.

Gerber Bear Grylls knife

Your Surroundings

In the end, the knife you need depends on where you are going and what your plan is. If you are going to be slugging through deep jungle, get a machete. If you’re going to be fishing, maybe you need a Swiss Army knife or a Leatherman. Maybe all you need is a small, light knife to cut open your dried food packages. A knife can be a useful tool if you plan ahead, but the most important thing is that you have a plan.

A final note on materials

You will probably get a stainless steel knife. A knife made of 440 steel will be lighter and sharper. But a knife made of 1080 (or higher) steel is meant for more heavy-duty work and will keep its edge longer. Whatever the material is, all knives need to be sharpened eventually.

Optional Extras

People are used to taking all sorts of things on vacation, and so people frequently bring unnecessary stuff backpacking just to make themselves more comfortable. Remember that carrying a heavier pack may also detract from your comfort.

Some of the most common “unnecessary weight” items that backpackers bring with them are:

  • a digital camera
  • a cell phone
  • a GPS device
  • car keys

Obviously, a GPS device or a cell phone might be an important piece of safety gear. And I like to bring a small camera along with me. Car keys might be unavoidable. But when selecting these items, try and remember that the weight adds up.

  • TIP: Don’t bring books. They get real heavy, real fast.
  • TIP: Don’t carry all your house keys on the trail. Take your one car key off the ring and put it somewhere safe in your pack.

Reviews

If you want information on a particular piece of gear, OutdoorGearLab is a great resource.

One Final Note

This is meant to be an introductory primer. I did not cover cold-weather camping. I did not cover elevation sickness. I did not cover how to deal with grizzly bears, lions, polar bears, or poisonous snakes. I did not cover wilderness navigation or medical emergencies. Before you go out into the wild, you need to research the place you are going. Talk to your local experts.

No one is responsible for your safety but you.

Hiking into the mountains

Published: May 23 2016