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The beginner’s guide to backpacking gear

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By Rick Stella


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Summer has arrived and with it, the inevitableurge to get out into thewilderness. One of the burning questions many weekend warriors tend to ask themselves every summer is, “Will I finally try backpacking this year?” Living with only what you have on your back may seem a daunting task, especially to beginners. How do you know what gear to take? How much does it cost? Although some items are essential, it’s possible to embark on your first backpacking trip for less than you think.

To help, we’ve put together this starter backpacking gear guide to get you into the woods without spending so much that you’d need to live there permanently. While it’s possible to borrow many of these items from friends or acquaintances — allowing you to test out a particular mattress pad or stove before spending your hard-earned cash on it — we understand the desire to own your own gear. With that in mind, hereare our picks for the essentials every amateur backpacker should load up on before heading out on their first overnighter.

Backpack

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A good backpacking pack distributes the load on your hips, as opposed to hanging off your shoulders. Packs come in multiple sizes and checking each bag’sspecifications is essential for finding the right fit. Better yet, actually trying a few on is a good place to start. The size (and shape) of the pack seriously impact the outcome of your trip — both positively and negatively.

A 40 to 50-liter pack is a good size for beginners, as it will fit everything you need for a weekend trip but help you avoid overpacking. Used backpacks are for sale at anywhere from REI garage sales to BackpackingLight.com and other online e-commerce sites. Unless you plan on tackling an extremely difficult route on your first outing, a qualityused pack should work fine (and saves you some dough). There’s also nothing wrong with splurging on a new pack if you’re dead set on that.

We don’t need to get too deep into the nitty-gritty but there are a few basic guidelines to know before purchasing a pack. First, there are three primary types of packs:Internal-frame packs,external-frame packs, andframelesspacks.

Internal-frame packs, designed to help hikers maintain balance on uneven trails and terrain, are the most popular and generally the best suited for new backpackers. When wearing an internal-frame backpack, the load is largely transferred to your hips to preserve your shoulders and back. Most internal-frame backpacks feature top-loading capabilities and offer few opportunities for attaching tools to the outside.

External-frame packs are generally bulkier, made to carry irregular objects (like kayaks or canoes), and are more difficult to lug through heavy foliage or difficult terrain. An external-frame pack is a good choice if you’re hiking in cold weather (and need space for warmer garb), or if your trip is long but you plan on sticking mostlyto the trail. External-frame backpacks aren’t as effective at transferring weight from the shoulders to the hips, though they usually offer more customization and spots to hook tools.

Frameless backpacks are smaller, lighter, and better suited for quick trips. You’ll need to pack wisely, as space is scarce with these packs.

Our top pickfor beginning backpackers:

Patagonia Ascensionist 40 ($179)
Patagonia Ascensionist 40

This versatile 40-liter pack features a removablefoam back panel that gives the backpack structure when it’s overstuffed but can be taken out for lighter adventures. Its load-lifting shoulder straps make it easier to carry for longer trips and the padded, anti-chafe hip belt offers comfort to last all weekend. We wouldn’t recommend this for those who pack heavy but if you’re intent on keeping your gear ultralightweight, this is the pack for you.

Buy it now from:

Patagonia

Sleeping bag and pad

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If there’s a piece of gear worthy of spending more than the bare minimum, it’s a sleeping bag. One chillynight in the backcountry quickly ruins a trip for unprepared travelers. Sleeping bags feature a filling of either synthetic or down insulation. Down is lighter and easier to pack, however, it loses its insulative properties whenever it gets wet.

In three-season camping (fall, spring, or summer), down fill is the most popular choice and there exist plenty of options on the market in many different styles. Synthetic fill (usually polyester) isn’t as soft, warm, or light but it’s cheaper, and it’s generally more water-resistant than down.

You’ll also want to note the temperature rating tagged to most sleeping bags and plan accordingly. The numbers are more guidelines than hard-and-fast rules — some people are naturally warm sleepers, some aren’t — but you’ll generally want a bag rated at 10 degrees Fahrenheit or below for winter backpacking. Fill ratings indicate a bag’sratio of weight-to-warmth (dependent upon the type and age of bird from which the down was sourced), so a bag with a 600fill rating at the same temperature rating will be lighter than a bag with 500 fill rating.

To provide added insulation, a sleeping pad is also necessary. A simple foam pad protects you from rough ground and helps you stay warm in cold weather. Companies like Therm-A-Restsell lightweight, low-budget foam pads of choice for many hikers — though army surplus stores also tend to offer suitable foam pads on the cheap, as well. If you have the means to spend a little more, self-inflating sleeping pads typically offer morecushioning andinsulation. They also tend to be lighter and take up less room.

Our top picksfor beginning backpackers:

Sierra Designs Cloud 800 20-degree($299)
Sierra Designs Cloud 800 20-degree

Thisultralight sleeping bag features800-fill DriDown that offers hyper-compressibility and supreme heat-trapping capabilities while still remaining ventilated and breathable. Its completely uniquezipperless design offers the sensation of being in your own bed — with a cozy comforter, no less — without sacrificing the innovative bag’s inferno-like warmth.

Buy it now from:

Sierra Designs

Big Agnes Insulated AXL Air($159-249)

The feather-light weight of this Big Agnes sleeping pad and its ultra-compact, minimalist design makes it one of the best options for anyone, whether you’re a beginner backpacker or seasoned pro. The pad’sPrimaLoft Silver insulation and heat reflective barrier trap body heat while itsnylon rip-stop adds softness and comfort.

Buy it now from:

Big Agnes

Tent

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A proper tent has the ability to serve as the most expensive piece of gear in your backpacking arsenal, but it certainly doesn’t have to. Tents and their prices differentiate by weight and the quality of its fabric. For brave souls, a simple tarp provides refuge from inclement weather. For those looking for a more comfortable stay on a limited budget, used tents pop up everywhere.

However, if you prefer purchasing a new tent, there are a sea of reasonable options. Tents come in many shapes and sizes (and prices, of course), though you don’t necessarily need the hardiest option if you’re simply collecting fireflies in warm climates. On the other hand, if you’re planning a trip to Antarctica, don’t try to be a hero and bring simple tarps. Put plainly: Pack accordingly.

To make things a bit simpler, we’ve broken backpacking tents into five general categories.

  • Tarp— Literally just a tarp. Only experienced hikers and those looking to minimize their load tend to brave the wilds with just a tarp tied down above them. Often, tarps are made of ultra-durable cuben fiber fabric, because if your tarp tears (or flies away), you’re in a bad way.
  • Summer/Screen— Summer/screen tents are generally lightweight with ventilation and lots of mesh to keep out bugs. Good for rain, bad for cold.
  • Winter/Mountaineering —Heavy-duty tents designed to survive the harshest conditions. Usually low and dome-shaped to avoid being battered by the wind and feature lots of storage space for your winter gear.
  • Convertible —Hybrid tents built for multi-season use, usually featuring removable parts which allow you to strip the tent down for summer use or bulk it up for use in colder conditions.
  • Three-season— Well-balanced tents designed to keep you warm and dry in most weather conditions.

If you’re just getting into backpacking, a three-season or convertible tent is going to be your best bet. Being prepared for all eventualities is better than finding yourself in a blizzard with just a tarp to keep you safe.

Our top pickfor beginning backpackers:

Cotopaxi Inti 2 Tent($349)

At $349, Cotopaxi’s Inti 2 Tent isbuilt for nearly any hike imaginable. The simple, three-pole design makes setup extremely simple, while the 15D water-resistant ripstop nylon and ultralight mesh body simultaneously provide ventilation and protection from the elements. A 20D ripstop nylon rain fly ensures even the heaviest of rainfalls won’t water down your excursion, and the bathtub floor provides ground-level protection. This tent also sleeps two comfortably.

Buy it now from:

Moosejaw

Stove

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The two most popular types of stoves are canister stoves and alcohol stoves. Canister stoves run on white gas and boil water much faster than alcohol stoves. They run strictly on special canisters but are much easier to control and monitor.An alcohol stove, as its name suggests, consists of a beer or soda can. It then runs on denatured alcohol, hard alcohol, or even hand sanitizer. The trouble is, cooking with alcohol requires carefully measuring the fuel.

For those willing to purchase stove and canister fuel, white gas stoves are the easiest to use for the beginning backpacker. Many newer stoves actually run on denatured alcohol or even wood chips. These stoves preserve precious pounds of weight in your pack but they’re usually more expensive and less versatile (for example, wood chip stoves require you to camp in an area where you can find wood) than classic canister stoves.

Our top pickfor beginning backpackers:

Etekcity Ultralight Portable Stove ($13)

This durable, compact canister stove is compatible with 7/16 thread butane/butane-propane mixed fuel canisters and folds up to fit in your pocket.Featuring an adjustable heat control valve and the Piezo quick ignition system, few stoves provide so much power for so little money (and weight).

Buy it now from:

Amazon

Headlamp

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If you’re embarking on an overnight backpacking trip, it’s likely you’ll need some sort of light to navigate your way from the tent to the designated bathroom area (and other stuff, maybe). If you don’t think your cell phone flashlight is up to the task — it really does drain battery — you might want a dedicated headlamp instead.

If you’re legitimately night hiking, you’ll want to get a lamp featuring a red light mode (to avoid startling wildlife, or for entering shelters late at night), and with an adjustable beam — both in terms of angle and brightness. Other variables to consider include battery life, weight, and comfort.

Our top pickfor beginning backpackers:

Black Diamond Spot Headlamp ($35)

For just $30, the Spot headlamp from Black Diamond boasts almost every feature you’d want. The Spot’s red night vision mode offers proximity and strobe settings and the Power Tap technology allows for quick switching between brightness settings and modes. Plus, it’s IPX 4 water resistant.

Buy it now from:

Amazon

Food

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While backpacking, it’s recommended to base meal considerations upon your taste in food and your cookware. If you opt for the alcohol stove, a meal made by only boiling water remains the best option. If you choose to use white gas, there are a few other capable alternatives. To keep it simple, things which only require hot water (like noodles)are good substitutes for the $10 specialized backpacking meals. A box of wine or a packed-in frozen steak also make mealtime more enjoyable.

In general, a good rule of thumb is to pack around 2 pounds of food (or approximately 3,500 calories) per person, per day of your trip. If possible, you’ll want to pack a bit of extra food, just in case something goes wrong. Dried foods are the way to go, as perishables perish and canned food simply weighs too much. It’s important to bring some spices with you unless you’ve got the stomach for bland food every day. Powdered drinks and instant coffee are also recommended, though many people simply prefer water.

For breakfasts and dinners, full-on meals aren’t out of the ordinary (depending on the length of your trip and the size of your pack). Generally, hikers eschew traditional lunches (as they require setting up and breaking down gear) in favor of eating energy bars or trail mix on the go.

Water Treatment

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Water treatment methods consist of just two variations: Chemicals or filters. For a short first trip, a small filter works wonders. For example, the Sawyer Squeeze or Sawyer Squeeze mini remainpopular choices among many hikers. However, you don’t need to buy a special water treatment. Simply adding bleach or boiling water for one minute is the best way to treat water. Clorox or Purex bleach make water safe to drink by adding 5 drops (via a dropper) for every liter of water. After adding the Clorox or bleach, simply let the water sit for 60 minutes before drinking. You can alsomake use of automatic water filters like the LifeStraw.

Footwear

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Considering there areheaps of shoes and socks designed specifically for hiking, you’ll want to make sure to opt for a proper combination of these before heading out. For your first trip, there’s no need to spend a staggering amount of money, as a simple pair of running shoes and wool or synthetic socks work great. Nylon dress socks also do well in wet weather and tend to spare you the $20 per pair that hiking socks cost. If you’re hell-bent on getting the best gear, buy some merino wool socks — they’re excellent for wicking away sweat. We also recommend packing at least one pair of extra socks to avoid having to put on wet, soggy socks in the morning.

In terms of boots, you’ll want a pair which matches your planned terrain. If you’re hiking in the Himalayas, you might want to opt for something warmer and more sturdy — in more temperate areas, lighter gear works perfectly fine. Comfort is paramount, so trying on boots before buying a pair online is a good idea.

Our top pickfor beginning backpackers:

Keen Targhee III Waterproof Mid ($145)

Available in both men’s and women’s versions, Keen’s waterproof Targhee III is the latest iteration of a time-tested design that offers one of the best hiking boots for nearly any circumstance.KeenDry technology provides a breathable membrane while its leather mud shield delivers rugged durability. These are built to last for days on end without sacrificing quality or comfort.

Buy it now from:

Keen

Clothing

As theold adage says, “cotton kills,” and backpacking is an excellent example. Simple synthetic, non-cotton workout gear translates well to a workout in the woods, too. Furthermore, an insulated jacket works wonders for use in the evening and doesn’t need to be the high end down found in many popular jackets. A fleece jacket provides good warmth and only tends to run marginally heavier.

Rain Gear

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Rain gear varies greatly in both quality and price. Anyone has the ability to make it at home with a simple rain skirt template combined with the waterproof jacket likely hanging in the closet. If you want to make your rain gear, a Tyvek painters suit and a bit of seam sealer create an extremely light and functional option. In the summer, a simple rain poncho also provides all thenecessary protection. If you’d prefer to simply purchase one, there are affordable shellsout there for the discerning hiker.

Weight, breathability, and rain protection are usually the most important factors when selecting a shell. Unless your trip promises to bring truly inclement weather, you’ll generally want a lightweight shell with nylon DWR (durable water repellent) ripstop fabric. This ensuresyour coat doesn’t snag on a branch and tear, and likely features armpit zippers which help to keep you cool, even in warm weather.

Our top pickfor beginning backpackers:

Patagonia Men’s Torrentshell Jacket ($129)

At just 12 ounces, this rain shell provides all the protection you need in temperate climates. Pit zippers provide breathability, while Patagonia constructed the 2.5-layer H2No performance shell of 100 percent ripstop nylon fabric to keep you dry no matter what. Zippered handwarmer pockets also work wonders to keep your hands warm in case the weather goes south.

Buy it now from:

Patagonia

Where to buy your gear?

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Used gear is the best place to start when jumping into backpacking for the first time. Used gears shows up across multiple online markets and forums focused on gear swaps, though (like anything) some work better than others. We recommend navigating to the “Gear Swap” forum on BackpackingLight.comfirst, as it consists of a community made up of gear junkies who often sell items used just one season or less. Otherwise, Craigslist is a good (albeit unreliable) option, or you can simply buy a set of new gear if you’ve got the green.

What else do you need?

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A map, compass, duct tape, and first aid kits are also incredibly necessary additions to a pack of gear when heading into the wild. Trekking poles and a battery pack tend to boast high value as well. Furthermore, knowing your terrain and being able to find your way out is paramount. Therefore, having a map and compass and knowing how to use them — even if you have a GPS device — is a good start in terms of extra essentials. After all, what if your phone gets wet or breaks?

Of course, duct tape is the one true fix-all. It repairs gear and bandagesinjuries while deftly withstanding the elements. A first aid kit should always include Benadryl (for allergic reactions), aspirin (for heart issues and pain), a needle (for blisters and numerous other reasons), and all other relevant medication or items, as well as a few other items based on personal need. A bug net and bug spray makes any trip more enjoyable, depending on the season of the hike, as well.

Many hikers use trekking poles to aid in their stability and balance while hiking — poles such as these tend to cost up to $200 but a simple set of ski poles substitutes well (if you’re really outdoorsy, you can probably just find a big stick). An external charger also helps keep your phone fully charged to capture the Instagram-worthy shots of your trip.


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