So You Want to Spend a Weekend in the Woods? – Beginner Backpacking Gear Guide.
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.
Note: This post contains affiliate linking. That means if you click on a link and buy a product, I get a small kickback at no added cost to you. This means I can keep giving you awesome gear reqs and you can enjoy some sweet deals. It’s a win-win.
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.
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. In all honesty, footwear deserves its own post or even its own blog. 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 of what is best.
Personally, I have four 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 two 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 eighth of an 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 mileage days backpacking/hiking over easier terrain. Great shoe for at camp.
- Price: $$
- I wish I would have bought a size up in these, but I still love them, they are great for summer.
Keen Voyageur Hiking Shoes
- Pros: Breathable, yet water resistant. Good traction. I recently retired these in favor of my Lowas.
- cons: heavy. Keen makes a very heavy shoe in general
- Best Uses: non-technical day hikes in the summer, summer backpacking trips.
- Price: $$
Lowa Lady Light GTX Trekking Boots
- Pros: Amazing traction. Durable. Waterproof. Warm. 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: $$$$
La Sportiva Trango S EVO GTX Mountaineering Boot
- Pros: Great traction. Lightweight. Waterproof. Can hold a hybrid crampon
- Cons: Hot in mild winter weather. Stiff shank means they are not great for approaches (albeit better than most mountaineering boots). If you are traveling in extreme cold (below 10deg F) then they tend to make your feet cold.
- Best Uses: Anything where you might need a crampon. Winter mountaineering.
- Price: $$ as far as mountaineering boots go
To be honest I waited to invest in outdoor-specific clothing. 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 time, 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 recently retired my backpack after a whopping 12 years. It’s an 80L blue Jansport. It’s been to 32 countries and every 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 got away with an 80L back for an overnight all the time, because that’s what I have and my old bag compressed like 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 to 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.
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 worthwhile 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.
Great for several day treks and awesome for travel. You’re also getting to the point where you can haul ropes, anchors, harnesses, ect. If you’re starting out you probably don’t need something this big unless you’re doing multi-day winter treks.
The first time I went backpacking with Squirrel we borrowed a buddy’s $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?
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.
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.
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, effective, and 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.
A 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 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. I 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, it makes one darn comfy backpacking pillow.
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.
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 nowadays 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.
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.
Clear as mud? I thought so. If you have any questions or comments please feel free to contact me or comment below!