So You Want to Spend a Weekend in the Woods? – Beginner Backpacking Gear Guide.

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Backpacking gear. It’s intimidating, complicated, and expensive. I’ve had a lot of people ask me about gear and getting started. People think that you need to have everything and anything in order to be successful in the backcountry. That’s definitely false. Don’t go running to REI and spend thousands of dollars just yet.

The best piece of advice I can give is to write a list. Decide what’s essential and what you can get away with substituting something you already own. Through experience you’ll decide if you really need that $300 Patagonia jacket or a brand new camping stove. Keep in mind, if you’re just getting started, you don’t need the lightest, latest, or greatest. Over the years I’ve taken the budget approach and found out what is really worth spending some coin on upfront, and what you can get away with for a while and upgrade later. Here’s my gear guide of backpacking essentials and some inspiration on where to start.


It’s evenings like these that make hard miles worth the effort

The Ten Essentials

Here is a list of the ten essentials.  I’ll default to REI here – they do a great job at explaining things. At this point I don’t even leave for a day hike without them (in the winter you better believe I will have an emergency bivy on me). Some may say this is extreme, but the extra weight is a small price to pay should something happen. Don’t leave home without them and know how to use what you have.


Get out and stay out!


If you can only splurge on one item and one item alone start with investing in your feet. You’ll be on them a lot and if you are uncomfortable or wearing a poor fit, you’re not going to enjoy yourself. Footwear deserves its own post. The options are endless. Here’s the thing to remember about footwear – it’s personal. No shoe fits anyone the same and everyone has a different theory on what is best.

Personally, I have three different sets of footwear depending on what I’m doing, but keep in mind I started with steel toed shoes I used for work. Squirrel spent the first 2 seasons of his backpacking career wearing crappy $40 tennis shoes from Target – and he loved it.

Ask yourself the following questions: what kind of terrain do I want to focus on? How many miles do I plan on doing? Do I get hot easily? Do I have any special foot needs (pinched nerves, etc?). Now take those answers, a pair of socks you plan to hike in and go to an outdoors store. Get professionally fitted. Go up and down stairs, jump around, try to jamb your toes around, and move your heal. Your foot shouldn’t move more than an 1/8th of a inch. You don’t have to buy it there, but purchasing shoes you’ve never tried on before over the internet is a terrible idea.

What I wear:

Merrell All Out Blaze Sieve


  • Pros: very breathable. Waterproof. Decent traction
  • Cons: To hike you need to wear them with socks.
  • Best Uses:  Anything at a lake/river/beach. Lower milage days backpacking/hiking over easier terrian. Great shoe for at camp
  • Price: $$
  • I wish I would have bought a size up in these, but I still love them, they are great for summer

Keen Voyageur Hiking Shoes


  • Pros: Breathable, yet water resistant. Good traction.
  • cons: heavy. Keen makes a very heavy shoe in general
  • Best Uses: non-technical day hikes in the summer, summer backpacking trips
  • Price: $$

Lowa Lady Light GTX Trekking Boots


  • Pros: Amazing traction. Durable. Waterproof. Warm. Can hold a strap on crampon. Great ankle support.
  • Cons: Not very breathable (boots tend not to be, but I didn’t buy them to breathe great). The laces also tend to be annoying if not tied correctly.
  • Best Uses: I rely on these bad boys to summit mountains, scramble, trek long distances, and snowshoe. They are truly incredible and were well worth the price.
  • Price: $$$$


To be honest I have not been that into outdoor-specific clothing until recently. I frequently just used what I had on hand. Sure I had a lightweight jacket, wool socks, a rain jacket, fleece, long underwear, and some non cotton, but I was known to hike in a cotton tee and cotton shorts. Squirrel wore jeans for several trips.

However, over the past year I’ve hit up the sales and picked up several high quality pieces of outdoor-specific clothing. The difference is night and day. I wouldn’t recommend jeans, but you can definitely successfully backpack in athletic clothes and not break the bank quite yet. Obviously don’t be stupid, dress for the weather you’re expecting and always bring rain gear, a warm hat, and pants. But I wouldn’t recommend investing in all the latest swag until you find yourself in nature nearly every weekend. I’ll save my clothing favorites for another post.

backpacking gear includes the clothes you wear

Me and my coveted Patagonia Onion System. The wind is cold and your body is hot. Having things on you that allow you to breath and absorb the breeze while retaining heat is essential


I’ve had my backpacking bag for a whopping 12 years. It’s an 80L blue Jansport. It’s been to 29 countries and ever single camping trip since I was 18. The point here is that buying a bag that lasts will serve you quite well. Size does matter. I get away with an 80L back for an overnight all the time, because that’s what I have and my bag compresses like a a champion. Below is a rough guide to bag sizing and what it’s good for. Always make sure your bag fits well, and really think about access when purchasing one. I like to have multiple points of access into my bag and a hip pocket is a MUST.


This is a daypack. It does well to hold water, some snacks, maybe a nice camera, extra layer or two and maybe a water filter. I’ve recently found out it is useless in the winter if you plan on being out all day.

21-60l range

You should be able to get away with a few days using a 35L pack. 30-40L is a perfect day touring pack for the winter. If you’re looking to backcountry ski or snowboard it’s definitely worth while to get a pack specific to that sport. Once you hit 45L you can definitely manage several days. Squirrel used a 35L for years and his only complaint was that access to his bag was a pain in the butt because in order to get in he had to unclip the tent.  He ended up trading up to a 60L.

you can get away with less backpacking gear than you think

Squirrel sporting at 35L pack, jeans, and tennis shoes.


Great for several day treks and awesome for travel. You’re also getting to the point where you can haul ropes, belays, harnesses, ect. If you’re starting out you probably don’t need something this big unless you’re doing multi day winter treks.

loaded with backpacking gear

Meet my pack. We go everywhere together. Despite its size my average pack weight for 1-2 nights is 28lbs – this includes dog food and water for the dog! Tip: If you have an over-sized bag don’t use a compression sack for your sleeping bag. It will help fill out the bag and provide a comfy seat or pillow when taking a mid-day break!


The first time I went backpacking with Squirrel we borrowed a buddies $20 two person tent from Target. The first night we camped at 11,000’+ and endured a violent sleet storm all night. Although there was no escaping the cold the tent held up very well. If you’re going to buy a two person backpacking tent that is worth while you’re looking at spending at least $200. If $20 sounds better than $200 for starting a new hobby you can definitely pull it off. Your pack may weigh more, but that’s just a better workout right?


The point is to be prepared and get out to places like these!

If you’re in the market for a tent my best advice is to read reviews. Go for something that is light yet durable and functions. I always recommend a two person minimum. Two person always has room for your bag.

Squirrel and I rock out with the REI Half Dome 2 Plus. It fits us, our dog and our packs perfectly. Is it the lightest tent, no. Is it a light tent, absolutely. I love the thing. It’s survived snow, sleet, wind and rain. My two favorite features are that it has door on both sides, and it’s mainly mesh (with a fly of course). We have never had a condensation problem because of this feature. It’s only drawback is that because of the mesh, it’s useless in the winter. This isn’t really that big of a problem because winter has its own set of rules and deserves a different style of tent.

Sleeping bag and sleeping pad

Little did I know that the world of sleeping bags is beyond complicated. Instead of going into the weeds with this one I’d highly recommend reading REI’s article on how to chose a sleeping bag. I ended up with an REI Joule bag, after the bag that I wanted had been discontinued. I’ve tested this bag well into the 20 degree range and was nothing but toasty warm all night.

Upgrading my sleeping bag was one of my better moves. To give you some perspective I had been using the same synthetic backpacking bag for nearly 15 years. It had a giant hole ripped in it and I would freeze when the temperatures dipped below 65 at night. If you sleep cold, invest in something warm. Next to shoes, this is the next best place to spend some cash.


Early morning and early evening are my favorite times on the trail. The light quality and cooler temps are an unbeatable combination.

As far as sleeping pads go, you typically get what you pay for. Squirrel and I both default to a self inflating Therm-a-Rest – the closest model out there today is the ProLite and Trail Pro. The extra weight is worth the insulation and comfort.

Water filtration and bladder

Water filtration is extremely important. Technically, if you have a stove, you’ve got a water filter, but let’s face it – not everyone wants to drink boiling water on the trail. I’ve seen all kinds of crazy devices that claim to filter water. 90% of them are a pain in the ass. Avoid anything gravity fed. I’ve heard more grumblings than good.

For travel – use a Steripen. Some people are pretty skeptical, but I’ve tested it both in the backcountry and in regions where tap water is unsafe to drink. I would NOT trust this as your only way to filter water in the backcountry. Batteries die or get lost. It also doesn’t perform well – if at all – if the water is exceptionally cloudy or muddy It’s a tool best used for travel.


Sawyer Squeeze System

My go-to in the backcountry is the Sawyer Squeeze Water Filtration System. I paid $15 for this bad boy at WalMart. I was broke and wanted to backpack. Sure I was a little apprehensive, but I gave it a go and it worked out well. It’s quick, it’s effective, and it’s cheap. And you can order parts should something break. Just be sure to backwash it after each trip and clean it out with a bleach solution annually.

As far as water containment I’m a huge fan of the bladder, but having a Nalgene or other water bottle is handy for routes where water is scarce. We like to carry one for dry campsites.


erezA backpacking stove is pretty essential, unless you have some special ability to eat goo for several days. If you’re clever it can be of use to you when you car camp as well. I’m a Jetboil girl through and through. I just love mine. It’s quick and fuel efficient. However, it’s pricey. The MSR PocketRocket is a pretty amazing, cheaper and lighter alternative

Misc and extras

There are a few other things I never leave home without, but you don’t need all of them.


Handy as hell. Honestly, this is the one purchase I made where I felt pretty gimmicky about it. I quickly discovered that this is one of the greatest simple inventions out there. It’s protects you against the sun, it’s surprisingly warm, it can hide ratty/dirty hair (sometimes you don’t want to feel gross), and, when stuffed with clothes, makes the most comfy backcountry pillow I’ve ever used.

Odor proof bags

Required. This is another necessary purchase. Do not skimp here – put ALL THINGS THAT SMELL (including chapstick, mess kit, trash, toothpaste, deodorant, etc) in this bag. The last thing you want is for an unwanted critter to show up. No, it’s not cool to take a selfie with a bear and nothing is more defeating than waking up to find your breakfast annihilated by chipmunks.

Waterproof stuff sack

Handy. Throw your food – stashed in those odor bags, in one of these bad boys and store away from camp.


Dry terrain like this demands a heavier pack when you need to carry more water.

Mess Kit

Required. It’s pretty great to have a mess kit. Squirrel and I split one to save some weight. We also have some cutlery. This is something you could find for very cheap at Army Surplus or Target.

An Oh-Shit Kit

Highly recommended – basically required. You can easily DIY this. Aside from a lighter, have a backup – like a small magnesium fire starter. Duct tape wrapped around a water bottle can also come in handy. A small tent repair kit is also helpful. Other handy things to include in your kit are a signaling mirror (sometimes attached to a compass), safety pins, super glue (useful for bad cuts – this should go in the first aid kit), needle and thread, a whistle (packs now a days have these incorporated into the chest strap clip), and a fishing hook with 10′ of fishing line – not just for fishing – think thread and needle.

Trekking poles

Not required, but helpful. This was the first year I have hiked with poles. I wouldn’t go back. They are definitely helpful for navigating tough terrain and take some of the stress off of your knees. Quick locks (not the twist type) are the most reliable and cork grips help avoid blistering. This is an item that can be replaced by a stick early on and sticks are free. You don’t need these up front, but if you’ve been at it a while and are thinking about snagging a pair I’d recommend it.

backpacking gear what it should look like

Proper layers, excellent footwear, a broken in pack and some hiking poles – it took me years to get here, but I had fun every step of the way!

Clear as mud? I thought so. If you have any questions or comments please feel free to contact me or comment below!

Happy Adventuring!



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5 thoughts on “So You Want to Spend a Weekend in the Woods? – Beginner Backpacking Gear Guide.

  1. Pingback: The Adventurer's Gift Guide • Adventures of Fox in the Forest

  2. Karin

    This post is super helpful! No idea what is REI though. I really like your idea about putting the food in odour bags for the night – we met a bear this summer and I wouldn´t want to have him getting in the tent at night.
    I also totally agree with you on the shoes- if the rest of the equipment is shitty, but the shoes are good, you´re good to go. Pinning and tweeting!

    1. foxintheforest Post author

      Thanks! Haha when I started out I had crappy everything and the first thing I did was get a comfy pair of shoes! REI is an outdoor store in the US. They have really helpful articles that explain what to look for in selecting gear. They offer great resources no matter where you are! Another good gear resource is
      As far as odor bags go they are definitely a necessity. Food should be stored away from your tent, preferably off the ground or hung from a tree. Keeps the critters away! Bear encounters are scary! Thanks for stopping by and sharing. 😊


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