I have been asked over the past few years about what gear is needed to start backpacking. Instead of writing it out individually, person by person, I decided to make a nice list of what is truly 'needed.' Granted, every individual's needs vary greatly but for the majority, this list serves as a basic list. Hopefully this can be of some use to those new to the experience. So what do you "need" to start backpacking? Well - nothing really if you want the dry, sarcastic answer that actually has some truth behind it. But in all honesty every hiker has a different definition of "necessity." If you are looking to survive and be COMFORTABLE while hiking deep in the back-country there are a few key essentials that no backpacker leaves home without (unless you're ultralight - but thats for another topic).
1. A Backpack - Wait really? Yes - a backpack is nice if you prefer not to carry everything with your hands. There's a lot that goes into a backpack and they vary widely in terms of functionality, size, gender, and fit. Some of the most well known brands are Osprey, Blackdiamond, Northface, Arc'teryx, Gregory, and of course the good ol' REI brand. For a comparison of some of the best packs, their price, where to buy, etc click here. I personally have been using the Blackdiamond Mercury 75 for the last 3 years and love it (although mine is a moss green and not brown/tan shown in the link). The pack has lots of pockets and compartments but my favorite feature is the fact that you can lay the pack down and open it like a suitcase to access anything you need. Some overly priced Ospreys don't even do that. One thing to consider is size - a 75 liter pack is very large but great for multi day hikes and trips ranging from 3-7 days. You can get away with a 50 - 60 liter pack for shorter trips. I highly recommend heading to REI to get fitted since not all packs fit an individual correctly.
2. A Sleeping Bag - Yep, you're going to need to sleep at some point and unless you want to run the risk of freezing or rolling around all night uncomfortably, its a necessity. Sleeping bags, like backpacks, range widely and you may need to invest in two or three different types sometime in the future if you broaden your backpacking horizons. For general 3-season backpacking (spring, summer, fall) you are going to want a moderately insulated down sleeping bag rated for 20F to 40F degrees. The degree rating (or 'EN rating') is usually based off of a warm male sleeper. Since women tend to sleep cooler, a good rule of thumb is to add 10F degrees to your bag's lower temperature limit. For example, a 20F degree bag would not provide adequate warmth for a woman in 20F degree weather. It will provide that for a warm sleeper, but for the cold sleeper, the bag will provide warmth at or above 30F degrees. For materials, you have the choice of choosing "down" or "synthetic"material for your bag. Down is more expensive and takes greater care but usually is warmer, higher quality, and packs down smaller (for fitting into your pack). Synthetic is not made of of goose or duck down but rather "synthetic materials." Synthetic bags are usually cheaper, more durable, but less compact and heavier. I personally own the Kelty Ignite 20 degree down bag. This bag is great, light, relatively inexpensive and is waterproofed. I've had it for 3 years now and love it for general backpacking and cooler nights. For more information on the best 3 season sleeping bags, click here.
3. A Tent - I consider this a necessity but some will disagree with me. I personally like sleeping in a tent compared to a hammock or on the dirt (cowboy). A hammock cannot protect you from a random rain shower up in the mountains at 2 am or pesky bug bites throughout the night. Just like backpacks and sleeping bags, tents vary widely for your purpose but for general 3-season backpacking, a 1 or 2 person tent will work fine. I highly recommend a 2 person tent since it provides adequate room for yourself and gear when backpacking solo. If you are going with another person, you both can share the tent and split the weight rather than you each bringing a 1 person tent. I personally use the simple, yet hardy REI Passage 2. This tent has served me great - in rain, wind, and sunshine. It is lightweight and very simple and quick to setup. It has room for 2 people with room to spare for gear. To compare more tents click here.
4. A Sleeping Pad - This is pretty self explanatory as most people do not like sleeping on the cold, hard ground. Sleeping pads serve two purposes - comfort and insulation. There are many different types of pads from lightweight yet bulky foam pads to insulated blow up pads to self inflating pads. I own all three types and they each have their pros and cons. The foam pad by Therm-a-rest Z Lite is extremely lightweight and durable but lacks compact-ability and comfort. The Big Agnes Q-Core is heavier but is nicely insulated and thick for cold nights and comfort - including snow. The Q Core also compacts very nicely. The only downside with inflatable air pads is that they can puncture and leak - so be careful when placing your pad down at camp and make sure that is is free of small, sharp rocks and thorns. I had an air pad leak on me on a 5 day trip and it was not comfortable.The Alps Mountaineering self inflating pad is quite nice as well. It's thinner than the Q core but thicker and warmer than the Therm-a-rest. For any new backpacker who does not know which to choose, I recommend the inflatable. More sleeping pads here.
5. Cooking Stove, Fuel, and Utensils - Unless you just want to eat cliff bars and trail mix the whole time you're backpacking, you are going to want a portable and lightweight stove or cooking system. There are several different variations all having a little perk or two but the overall result is the same - hot water and cooked food. One of the most popular is the Jetboil system. This advanced system has all the bells and whistles from a neoprene cover for insulation and a meter that turns red when your water is hot. The Jetboil is great for boiling water quickly - but in my opinion, that's about it. It is also larger, bulkier, heavier, and more expensive than a lot of systems. I prefer simplicity so I went with the MSR PocketRocket. This system is bullet proof, cheap, simple, and very lightweight. Since this system doesn't come with any cookware, you need to buy ad ons such as a pot or two, fork, spoon, and maybe a knife. I really love the GSI cook set. Along with your stove and cook set, you are going to need fuel. There are different fuel mixes for different altitudes and cold weather conditions but all gas type fuels work with the MSR minus the green Coleman propanes. I usually grab a few of these cans.
6. Water Filter - In the backcountry, there is usually access to many streams, rivers, and lakes. Although the water may look clean, it can be unsafe to drink from without purifying first. There are several ways to purify including purification tablets, boiling, and water filters. I personally use the Squeeze water filtration system by Sawyer. This filter is easy to use, lightweight, no batteries, and is cheap.
7. Headlamp - Where I am from, it gets dark at night so I bring a headlamp. Headlamps are great for early morning or night hiking as well as walking around camp while keeping your hands free. There are hundreds of different styles out there ranging in quality, functions, and brightness. Of all headlamps I have used, I found Black-diamond to be the best and most versatile brand with many options. I personally own the Black-diamond Icon Polar which is a fancy and very bright setup for cold temperatures. Usually a 150 lumens is adequate for brightness. (Tip - buy rechargeable batteries for these guys and charge them after every trip to ensure a working headlamp)
8. Appropriate Clothing - I cannot go into detail for this section, however, I can explain what materials need to be worn in the backcountry and what materials to avoid. DO NOT head out wearing jeans or cotton materials. There is the saying, "Cotton Kills" which can be very true in the backcountry. Cotton absorbs water and does not dry quickly which can lead to hypothermia if you are not prepared. Use any of the following materials when purchasing your clothing:
- Polyester Durable, affordable, and warm fabric. Good for most types of clothing.
- Fleece - Fleece is an excellent insulating layer, it is very warm, dries very quickly, help repel water, and is fairly durable.
- Nylon- Very durable. Usually used as a shell layer blended with other materials. Dries well, not very warm.
- Wool - Durable and warm but looses warmth if soaked through - great base layer
- Gore-Tex - This is added to clothing and is a very breathable and waterproof material. If you see a label with Gore-Tex, you know it's good - and pricey.
Along with clothing, make sure your socks and boots are adequate for the terrain you will be hiking. Do not be like the many people I come across hiking in the snow with Nike Airs on - your asking for frostbite. Wool socks are great as well as a sturdy hiking boot - insulated and waterproof for snow.
9. Food - Many first time backpackers make the mistake of bringing heavy food such as cans of soup or items that have a water base or are packaged in glass or metal containers. This weight adds up quickly. Try to bring VERY HIGH calorie food that has a low amount of weight. Many people talk about the calorie/weight ratio and it comes in handy. When I want an easy meal - I buy the delicious Mountain House dehydrated meals. These meals contain 10-25 grams of protein and usually close to 1000 calories while weighing only a few ounces. Other good options are powdered oatmeal, pancake mix, trail-mix, almonds, peanut butter and jelly on a flour tortilla, and boxed mac and cheese just to name a few. The more experienced you become in the backcountry , the more creative you become with your meals.
10. Additional Needs - There are definitely more items needed for backpacking but going into details about each and everyone would be redundant due to variables between individuals. Further items that should not be left at home or in the car are the following:
- First Aid Kit
- Map of region traveling
- Compass or GPS
- Hat / Beanie
- Insect repellant
- Spare batteries
- Lighter / Waterproof Matches
11. Additional Wants - This list will become custom to what you find necessary in the backcountry after some trial and error as well as experience. I never leave home without the following:
- Trekking Poles
- French coffee press
- Goal Zero Nomad Solar Panel and Battery to charge electronics
- Twine or Cord for hanging backpacks and cloths off ground
- Insulated coffee mug