Beginner Wilderness Camping and 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. This beginner backpacking gear guide aims to get you organized for your backpacking adventures.
Prioritize Your Gear Using this Backpacking Gear Guide Updated for 2019
If you don’t own a single thing for backpacking, the list of stuff you “need” feels overwhelming. Where do you even start? First, write a list. Decide what’s essential and what you can get away with substituting something you already own. This beginner backpacking gear guide gives you up-to-date information on what is worth investing in first, and what you can get away with renting, borrowing or improvising. 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 backpacking gear. If you don’t have everything on the list, consider renting backpacking gear from a local gear shop or asking to borrow from a friend in exchange for a pizza or case of beer. If you’re traveling with a more seasoned backpacker, then you’ll likely be able to use their gear, just always offer to carry the heavier items in exchange for sharing.
Over the years I’ve taken the budget approach to backpacking gear 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. So let’s get into the ins-and-outs of backpacking equipment with this buyer’s guide.
Let’s Start with the Basics of Backpacking Gear, what You’ll be Wearing
Before we dive into packs, tents, stoves, and sleeping bags, let’s make sure you’re outfitted properly for the job. I’ll be the first to admit that when I started backpacking, I didn’t follow the no-cotton rule. John would typically backpack in jeans and we weren’t always prepared for the weather. I’m not saying that it isn’t possible, but I certainly wouldn’t recommend that you follow my lead. For starters, use what you have. After you’ve been out a few times and actually enjoy backpacking, consider picking up the right gear for the job.
Fancy Footwear. How to Select the Perfect Pair for Your First Backpacking Trip
When it comes to beginner backpacking gear, 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. 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. John 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 (non-cotton!) 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.
For Your First Backpacking Trip, You Don’t Need the Latest Technology in Clothing
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. As I mentioned before, John 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 reckless, dress for the weather you’re expecting and always bring rain gear, a warm hat, and pants. But you don’t need the latest ultra-wicking technology for your first trip out there.
Looking for more recommendations on clothing and footwear? Check out these two posts:
- The best outdoor clothing for any budget
- How to choose women’s hiking footwear (coming soon)
What Size Pack do I Need for an Overnight Backpacking Trip?
Another beginner backpacking gear item to invest in is your backpacking pack. My first backpacking pack lasted 18 years. It traveled to 32 countries and spent over 500 miles on trails. Eventually the padding wore out and the pack was no longer comfortable. However, it served multiple purposes and lasted a long time. Invest in a backpacking pack once you’ve done a couple of trips and you know that this is something you’ll continue to pursue. It is one of the more important backpacking gear essentials, so don’t skimp out when you do decide to buy.
Always make sure your bag fits well. Try one on in person prior to purchasing. Be sure that the pack follows your spine and the shoulder straps fit snugly around your shoulders (including the back). Get properly fitted at a store. They should measure your back, weight the pack and select a pack size that fits you best. Try on multiple packs and if possible, hike up and down the stairs with the bag loaded. Consider the following when choosing a backpacking pack:
- Capacity. Will it fit your belongings? Typical backpacking packs start at around 45L. If you don’t have ultra-lightweight backpacking equipment or compression sacks, you may want to start with a slightly larger pack.
- Think about ease of access on the go. Does the storage serve you well? Are there places to stash items quickly?
- Are there any pressure points? How does the bag feel on your hips and shoulders. Can you move your head?
- Does the pack offer any options for trimming down? Does the brain (top part) come off? Is there a rainfly?
- Are straps fully adjustable to accommodate for extra layers, heavy loads or bigger days?
The Perfect Day hiking Bag: 10-30L
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. It will be tough to fit backpacking gear into a day hiking bag. You want something a bit larger and more robust to handle heavy loads.
Backpacking Packs Start in the 45L Range.
If you’re particularly good at packing and don’t have bulky stuff, a 45L pack should be able to fit everything with a few key items hanging from your pack (always be sure that they are tied down well, swinging items will cause you discomfort over long miles). What I love about the 40-50L backpacking pack range is that they offer enough space for the weekend warrior, fit well on airplanes (a plus if you also backpack while you travel), and they aren’t as expensive as larger packs.
My picks for great backpacking packs for beginners:
The Osprey Kyte 46 is my go-to for quick weekends away. It’s a workhorse pack that can take a beating, but isn’t super heavy. The unique ventilation and support system keep me strong mile after mile. Downside: At $180 it isn’t the cheapest pack (but certainly not the priciest) and if you’re carrying a bear canister, you won’t have a lot of extra space to spare.
Expedition Packs are 60L+
Great for several day treks and awesome for travel. You’re also getting to the point where you can haul ropes, slings, pro, harnesses, ect. If you’re starting out you probably don’t need something this big unless you’re doing multi-day treks or hauling gear. However, if you have a lot of bulky gear or tend to be a heavy packer, you may want a bit more room to start. However, consider investing in a pack that allows you to downsize if you need to.
My Pick for great expedition packs
I rock the Osprey Aura 65L. Yes, another Osprey. No, all of my backpacks aren’t Osprey packs, but they have backpacking on lock down. The Aura 65L is great for setting up basecamps for mountaineering, carrying extra gear for my elderly dog or for longer trips where I have a lot of food. This is essentially the larger version of the Kyte. Downsides: this bag is pricey and it weighs quite a bit more in order to be more durable.
New to backpacking? Start here with my comprehensive guide to backpacking for beginners.
Psst…Are you a woman who is new to backpacking? Want to learn how to plan, execute and THRIVE outside? Check out my ebook, it’s packed with TONS of useful tips, tricks and hacks to up your wilderness game.
How to Select a Tent for Your First Backpacking Trip
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 worthwhile 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? Invest in a backpacking tent after purchasing footwear, a backpacking pack, and a sleep system.
Pro Tip: RENT your backpacking tent!
Several local gear shops in outdoorsy areas offer gear rentals. You can get an entire kit for a reasonable price. The stuff they rent is typically high-quality gear, so try before you buy! Support your local shop, score a good deal on some rental gear and have some fun!
Choosing a backpacking tent is relatively straight forward (phew). First, decide how much room you want. If you’re backpacking with a partner and a fury friend, you’ll want a backpacking tent that will accommodate the three of you. A two-person plus tent would be an excellent choice. Single beginner backpackers still may want to invest in a smaller, two-person tent. Single person tents often feel claustrophobic and coffin-like. Obviously, a bigger tent will weigh more.
Next, think about the vestibule. This is likely where you will store some of your gear. Bigger vestibules weigh slightly more, but they can create a roomier feel to the tent. Lastly, think about the mesh to solid material ratio. More mesh means you’ll have more air circulation, which helps with pesky condensation build-up. However, these tents won’t keep you as warm. For three-season backpacking, mesh is great, however if you primarily camp in winter, you’ll want a four season tent to do the job.
Go to an outdoor retailer and get active with tent buying. Set up the tent you plan to buy and get inside. How easy is it to put together? Does it pack down well? Is there enough room inside? Keep in mind that with room and extra bells and whistles often comes higher weights. Ultra-lightweight technology often isn’t as durable and it costs quite a bit more.
Backpacking Tent Recommendations for Beginners
John 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. It’s also extremely durable, unlike some of its lighter cousins. We’ve been using it for five years and I still love the thing. It’s survived snow, sleet, wind and rain. My two favorite features are that it has doors on both sides, and it’s mainly mesh (with a fly of course). We have never had a condensation problem because of this feature. The only drawback is that it’s heavy.
If you’re based in the UK, the Vango Banshee 200 gets rave reviews. Check out the full review here.
Choosing the Right Sleeping Bag and Sleeping Pad
Alright, so choosing a sleeping bag is an actual science. First things first, decide if you want down or synthetic fill. Down is warmer, lighter, lasts longer and is pricier. Synthetic offers a good budget-friendly option. I’d highly recommend reading REI’s article on how to chose a sleeping bag. This article gives you more in-depth information that I have room for here. After you’ve decided on a fill, now you’ll need to choose a temperature rating. Think about when and where you will be backpacking. If you plan on backpacking in the mountains, you’ll want a bag that can handle cooler temperatures, even in summer. If you’re a popsicle like me, then having a bag rated to 20 degrees or lower is going to save you a lot of uncomfortable nights.
Last, but certainly not least, think about fit. Finding the right fitting bag depends on what kind of sleeper you are, your body shape, and your height. Women’s specific sleeping bags are often rated to lower temperatures, but if you’re a tall woman, you might find that men’s bags fit better (and you won’t have to pay extra for a tall woman’s size). For men that sleep cold, a taller women’s bag might be your coziest night’s rest. The point is, don’t be married to gender-specific bags and keep an open mind when shopping around.
My Pick: The Best Sleeping Bag for Beginner Backpackers
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.
A few years back I snagged REI Joule sleeping bag. I’ve tested this bag well into the teens range and was nothing but toasty warm all night. My only complaint is that the baffle around the zipper doesn’t feel as warm as the rest of the bag.
For four-season activities and winter camping, I use my Therm-a-Rest Oberon. This bad boy is WARM down to zero degrees. However, be prepared to fork over nearly $480 for that luxury.
Choosing a sleeping pad
As far as sleeping pads go, you typically get what you pay for – to a point. I’ve found that the more expensive sleeping pads aren’t always better, unless you’re looking to save on weight. Pay attention the R-value, or insulation value of the pad. Even if you only plan on backpacking in summer, the ground does act as a heat sink, making you feel colder.
A simple, self-inflating Therm-A-Rest gives you the most bang for your buck when you start out. There’s an added level of comfort and insulation that’s worth the extra weight and bulk. Once you’ve got some experience under your belt, consider upgrading your pad to a more light-weight and compact option like the Big Agnes Q Core SLX Insulated. This pad stays relatively warm, but it’s light and cozy. My big complaint aside from the price tag is that it is rather delicate and takes forever to inflate. Trust me, when you’re at altitude and you need to spend 10 minutes blowing up your sleep system, you’ll feel it.
The Best Water Filters for Backpacking
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 and pump filters can be a bit of a pain with so many moving parts. Stick to something simple.
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 $30 for this bad boy. I was broke and wanted to backpack. 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.
The Best Backpacking Stove for Beginners
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 and a bit heavy. The MSR PocketRocket is a cheaper and lighter alternative, but it requires a little bit more skill to cook with due to its lack of stability.
Important Extras: Other Handy Backpacking Essentials
There are a few items that are a must-carry on any backpacking trip. These are essential items that you’ll want to have on hand for backpacking.
- Sun protection such as sunglasses, sunscreen, and a hat
- A knife. A simple switch blade will serve you just fine.
- Map and compass as well as a GPS. This can be an app on your phone or a specific GPS device such as a DeLorme InReach
- Odor Proof Bags for food. I love these bags since they are cost-effective. If you’re traveling in an area that requires bear proof containers, consider getting a bear canister (buy used or borrow one – these are insanely expensive new). Ursacks are also handy if they are allowed.
- Hang bag. I use a lightweight dry bag to hang my food.
- 4 meters of cord to hang your bag. You can pick this up for cheap at a hardware store like Home Depot
- An oh shit kit consisting of duct tape, safety pins, super glue, and a needle and thread (can also use fishing wire). Comes in handy in a pinch.
- A whistle – lots of packs have a whistle built-in.
- Cook set. This will depend on your stove setup. We have the JetBoil Pot for our Jetboil, but you can use just about anything that’s heat-safe for the MSR stove.
- Tent repair kit
- First aid kit
- Mess kit. This can be split between two people to save weight. Just be sure to have your own sporks!
- Headlamp with extra batteries.
- Bathroom kit. A plastic shovel with some TP, hand sanitizer, and a waste bag for your toilet paper.
- lighter and magnesium fire starter.
Optional Backpacking Gear
There are a few other backpacking essentials I never leave home without, but you don’t need all of them.
The Ever-Handy, Always Helpful BUFF
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.
Stay High and Dry with Waterproof Stuff Sacks and Compression Sacks
I love my Sea-to-Summit compression sack for my sleeping bag. It’s water proof and it makes my sleep system nice and small while on the go. An extra stuff sack is also handy for clothing and little extras.
Stabilize Knees with a Pair of Trekking Poles
Not required, but total knee savers. These Black Diamond poles are my absolute favorite. 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.
Little luxuries are nice on the trail and my Sea to Summit Aeros Pillow is my favorite luxury item. I like to wrap it in a fleecy mid-layer for a cozy spot to rest my head.
Now you’ve got the pro advice on the beginner backpacking gear you need for your first outdoor adventure. Remember: you can always borrow from your buddies before you buy! Happy trails!