Gear Buying for New Backpackers
This is a guide for adults who are new to backpacking and want to get gear for this fun sport. This advice comes from me having started backpacking in 1967, been active in mountain rescue, nordic ski patrol, peak climbing, backpacking and mountaineering, and teaching college classes in backpacking for 12 years. I don’t do much climbing anymore, but have 48 continuous years of backpacking, and I still love to get out.
The typical way that long time backpackers buy gear is by upgrading their old gear with newer, lighter, better equipment. This is why I have several old packs, stoves, cooksets, and sleeping bags. After many cycles of upgrading and replacing, I have a setup that I really like, and its not always the most expensive stuff. A huge advantage to adults who are new to backpacking is that you can buy the right gear the first time. That doesn’t necessarily mean buying the super expensive gear, but it definitely means not buying the wrong gear, which would just have to upgraded to get to a product that works for you. This will save you a lot of money. The goals of this instructional post are to:
- buy the right equipment the first time, so that you don’t have to turn around and buy another piece of equipment unnecessarily.
- buy light and compact equipment, in order to keep an adult’s pack light, making it easier to keep up with strong teenage scouts, to allow more miles to be covered, and to enjoy the experience all the more
- buying only the necessary equipment, and not buying stuff you don’t need.
One thing I found out when teaching college students, many of whom were middle age folks, was that very few men learn by listening. Women on the other hand are fine with learning by listening. I had one guy who just bought all the gear on my gear list, and he was unusually ego free. Most men have to study, analyze, buy, field test, buy again, have a few disastrous experiences, buy again, and years later will end up with a similar version of my gear list. You could do far worse than to just buy the gear on my gear list. My gear list is here :
|REI Flash 62 pack||49|
|EE Rev. Quilt||14|
|Exped sleeping pad||16.4|
|STS inflatable Pillow||2.4|
|WM down coat||13.5|
|OD rain coat||6.7|
|MLD rain pants||1.7|
|900 ml Snowpeak pot, TD cone and stove, access.||9|
|Suntastics solar panel||7.2|
|Ankar 6700 ma battery||4.8|
|Petzl eLite headlamp||0.9|
|Vivo Barefoot camp shoes||12.9|
|stuff sac with dry bag closure||3.2|
|Cup, bowl, spoon||5.7|
|Golite wool hat||1.8|
|Aqua mira water treatment||3.2|
|iphone 6 and charging cable||7|
|Extra pair underwear||2.4|
|Extra 2 pair socks||7.4|
|Long underwear for sleeping||21.2|
|2 oz bug juice||2|
|2 oz sun block||2|
|Chap stick 40 spf||0.4|
|Mosquito head net||0.8|
|Extra bic lighters||1.4|
|Sony extra lens 16-50mm||4.7|
|2 spare camera batteries||3|
|Toiletries: Wet wipes, camp soap, toothbrush, toothpaste, hair brush, deodorant, earplugs, nail trimmers, sanding board, hand sanitizer, face cloth||5.5|
|First aid: scissors, tweezers, bandaids, moleskin, 4×4 pads, tape, ace bandage, Advil, motrin, needle||5|
|Smart water bottle||1.5|
|Repair stuff: air mattress repair kit, ripstop nylon repair tape, duct tape||1.9|
|Bearikade bear canister||34|
|Total base weight:||279.4|
|Worn or Carried|
|Nylon zip off pants|
|Long sleeve nylon shirt|
|1 pr socks|
|Columbia hat with neck cover|
|Sirui T-025x camera tripod||1 lb 14 oz|
|Lock back knife|
|1 pair underwear|
|Sony a6000 camera plus 10-18mm lens||1 lb 5 oz|
|Group stuff Jim carried|
|MoTro tent (tarptent.com)||2 lb 4 oz|
|Katadyn gravity filter||8.7 oz|
|Camera slider||1 lb 5 oz|
|Leki Micro Vario Hiking poles||1 lb 4 oz|
What to Buy First:
Equipment discussed below is ordered by what equipment you should buy first, and is most important. As a central theme is the need to keep the big three items (tent, sleeping bag, and backpack) to a weight below 3 pounds each, and preferably closer to 2 lbs each.
If there is one piece of equipment that a new adult backpacker should get right the first time, that is your sleeping bag. It can either bring you great joy, or cause you much fear and uncertainty. It is a great joy when you know that at the end of the day you are going to be warm and you won’t be waking up cold in the night. It is a great uncertainty if you wonder if you are going to be cold all night, and knowing that you have to buy a better bag than the piece of crap that you have.
To make a long story short, I would recommend that you buy a either a 20° quilt or a 25-30° sleeping bag with down insulation, the sleeping bag in a mummy shape. This is for 3 season use in the mountains of the Western U.S. It should weigh less than three pounds, or even less than 2.5 pounds. My quilt weighs 14 oz.!!! The quilt costs $250 and is worth it.
A down sleeping bag rated at 25-30°can be found for not much more than $100, but some good brands like REI or North Face might run $200. As of this writing, a great deal is a Big Agnes Boot Jack 24, rated at 24 degrees and I’ve slept in it down to 17. It weighs 2 lbs 4 oz, and costs $190. It compares well to my $350 Western Mountaineering bag. Any bag you get, make sure it is down, and weighs less than 2.5 lbs. Having it rated at 30 degrees and down filled means it will weigh less and stuff to a smaller size than a sleeping bag rated at lower temperatures. When its colder than 30 degrees, you just have to wear a hat and socks and maybe throw a down coat over the bag.
What I have is a 20° quilt and two sleeping bags, one sleeping bag which is very light and compact and rated at 30 degrees, and a winter bag rated at 0° degrees for winter use. I tend to sleep a little cold in the summer bag, because temperatures in the mountains of Idaho can get down to the mid 20s. When that happens, I put on a hat, possibly long underwear, socks, and my down coat either inside or outside the sleeping bag.
Bags filled with synthetic insulation are definitely cheaper, costing less then $80, but they don’t last as long, and they don’t stuff as compactly. If you do think of a synthetic filled sleeping bag, get a good brand like North Face, Marmot, or REI.
Bags well rated in Backpacker Magazines 2012 ratings:
Sierra Designs Cloud 15, 15 degree $499, 1 lb 13 oz
REI Igneo/Joule, 22 degree, $339, 2 lbs 2 oz
Marmot Cloudbreak 20, 20 degrees, synthetic fill, 2 lb 14 oz
REI Habanera, 1 degree, $299, 3 lbs 9 oz
Types of Bags to Avoid:
The best way to pick up good value in sleeping bags is to buy them on sale, such as the REI garage sales, or in certain cases used bags through eBay or craigslist.com if you know what you’re buying. If in doubt about a bag on ebay or craigslist, ask an experienced person about the brand and price.
The REI garage sales are particularly promising but you still have to know the brands of bags that you want to look at, and you have to check the temperature ratings of the bags that you find. The REI garage sales are for REI members only, and it is worth buying the $15 membership just to go to the garage sales. In the garage sales items which have been returned from customers are resold at 50% or more discount. Often they have been returned because they have a hole in them or some other minor defect. A hole in a down bag is inevitable in the life of the bag, and can easily be fixed with duct tape, or a special tape for rip stop nylon, which is very similar to scotch tape.
This is #2 of the big three items, one which you want to keep under 3 pounds, and closer to 2 pounds. Theoretically you should get this item last, because all your other stuff has to fit in it. But you also have to have a pack in order to go backpacking. Borrowing or renting one is a good option at first. When you buy your pack, if possible take all your stuff in a box to the store when you try on packs, and put all your stuff in the packs for fitting. If your stuff is compact, a 60-65 L pack will work. To use a bear cannister you need at least a 62L pack.
I use an REI Flash 62 pack, and its predecessor the Flash 65 was Backpacking Magazine Editors choice in 2009, but has since been discontinued. You might find a used one on ebay and I would recommend it. REI now makes a 65 L Flash, and it weighs just over 3 lbs. . There is a review of it here: http://trailslap.com/packs/the-rei-flash-65-a-product-review/
Packs are a compromise between weight and support. A very light pack might not have enough support for use carrying 40 lbs. The REI Flash 62 has sufficient support for 35 lbs for me. That was the maximum weight of my pack and food on the John Muir Trail in 2016 and 2017. If your gear totals more like 12 lbs a lighter pack would work for you.
The next major piece of equipment for adults is boots. You can get low top, over the ankle, light weight or heavy weight. After DECADES of using heavy leather mountaineering boots, I switched to light weight hiking shoes and have never gone back. I have had great luck with my current boots, Keen hiking boots, and I could recommend them to anyone. A pound on your feet has a huge effect on your level of tiredness. The lighter the boots, the further you can hike before you are exhausted, but if you clock your ankle on a rock, or turn you ankle you will wish you had heavier boots.
I think low tops are fine, such as these models.
What is needed in hiking shoes for adults is a sole that is stiff enough that rocks don’t poke through. Soft soled shoes like flipflops or moccasins or deck shoes can hurt a person so much that they can barely walk after a day of rocky trails. Keen sandals however, have a pretty stiff sole and can serve for hiking in a pinch.
Camp shoes are a wonderful thing. Crocs are very light, and Keen sandals are heavier but also more protective of feet if you have to hike out in them, like if your boots fall apart or are burned in a fire (it happens) . Even flip flops will be appreciated at camp. I am using the Vivo Barefoot shoes, and love them
Hiking Poles: These can be a lifesaver, or a knee saver. They can ease strain on ankles and knees, aid in crossing streams, greatly protect the knees when going downhill, help boost your body weight up a steep hill, and can serve as tent poles for some tents.
After boots, the next urgent thing to buy is appropriate clothing, including rain gear. Hiking and backpacking clothing has a common theme, and that is NO COTTON. Wet cotton dries very slowly if at all, and it sucks the heat out of the wearer. Loss of body heat is what kills people lost in the mountains, and cotton clothing is a great contributor to that statistic. The clothing that is needed is listed below, and this is the same for a weekend trip as for a week long backpack.
|Article of Clothing||Description||Good source or brand|
|Long pants, nylon||Zip off legs preferred, must be nylon||REI, Columbia|
|Long sleeve shirt||Must be nylon, I like button up shirts,||REI, Columbia, Mountain Hardwear|
|1 T shirt||Nylon, can be soccer shirts||Underarmour|
|2 pr underwear||Nylon or merino wool. preferred. one worn, one carried||REI, Columbia, etc|
|Sun hat||Baseball type, or some prefer a broad brimmed vented synthetic hat||if you have a broad brinned hat, a rain cover can be obtained from a Western Wear store.|
|Fleece hat for warmth||it gets cold at night, and a fleece hat worn at night extends the comfort range of a sleeping bag||has to cover the ears|
|down sweater or Fleece pullover (one of the other)||Or a down sweater or light down coat (no ski coats)||REI, Montbelle, Columbia, Patagonia, Mtn Hardware|
|Light fleece gloves||light ones|
|2 pr wool blend socks, 3 pair for a week long trip||Wool blend, a great one is Point 6, also Smartwool.||REI, 6 Point online|
|Rain Coat||This should be an unlined shell with Goretex or similar coating, not a ski coat, should be totally waterproof, have a hood, cover the butt, have pockets, and should stuff into a sack the size of a large coffee cup||This is likely to cost $100. A cheaper alternative is a coated nylon one. It should be loose enough to cover the fleece pullover or down sweater. See Frogg Toggs.|
Surprisingly, that is all the clothes a person should ever have on a backpack. Anything added to that list is just adding weight to the pack. On a cold night you will be wearing all of that gear. On a longer backpack you can wash a set of socks, underwear and t shirt every day, and hang if off the pack to dry. Washing is by swishing in soap and water in a zip lock bag.
Fleece pullover, OR down coat (you don’t need both)
This is another absolutely necessary piece of gear, right up there with clothing and sleeping bag. While a 90 pound scout can do fine with a cheap blue foam sleeping pad, an adult needs a pad thick enough that hips and shoulders don’t bottom out when laying on your side. Fortunately, such pads exist and provide sufficient padding for a good nights sleep, while being fairly compact and not too expensive.
Options are Big Agnes Air Core inflatable for around $80, or the more expensive NeoAire by Thermerest for $120 and up. Sometimes the Neoaire can be had at REI garage sales for less than $40. Those often have holes in them, which are easily patched.
Shown below is the Neoair inflated and stuffed. There are other brands which are a little lighter and cheaper than this popular model.
Sleeping pads rated well in the Backpacker Magazine 2012 ratings issue:
Exped Downmat UL7, $209, 1 lb 4 oz
Therm-a-Rest NeoAire XLite, $180, 13 oz
Therm-a-Rest Z lite Sol, $45, 14 oz
Nemo Cosmo Air XL, $160, 2 lbs 1 oz
Big Agnes Insulated Q-Core, $140, 1 lb 11 oz
Therm-a-Rest All Season, $140, 19 oz
Little is needed for eating utensils: a plastic cup, a plastic bowl, and a plastic spoon. Mark the cup with indicators for portions of a cup, and make it a measuring cup. For a water container, a Smart water bottle is great, being tall and narrow. Some like an insulated cup for keeping hot drinks hot longer. For that reason metal cups are disfavored by some.
For carrying water, cheap (and lightweight) drink bottle, like Coke, Gatoraid, or water, and collapsible 4 L nalgene bottle. Some use a bike water bottle and squirt water out the nozzle for measuring. Nalgene bottles are heavy! Take Smart water bottles instead. When it gets dirty, toss it.
Knife: A smallish lockback is the safest and most versatile. The tiny Swiss Army Classic is also good, because it has scissors. A big survival or hunting knife is totally not needed on any backpack.
The smaller the flashlight, the better. All one needs is enough light to find a piece of gear in the pack or tent, or find your way along a dark trail for a short distance. An LED flashlight that takes one AAA battery is perfect for the task, and highly recommended. If there is a possibility of hiking at night, an LED headlamp is recommended. A photon LED light would also work, but it needs to be checked for battery life before a trip. LED hats work out well, but you have to be sure there is battery life. Some bring an extra battery for insurance.
I love my Petzl Zipka, shown below left, which uses 3 AAA batteries. I took the Petzl elight on the right on the JMT.
First Aid Items:
Each hiker should have basic first aid gear, especially articles for treating blisters and small scrapes and cuts.
Moleskin, 3”x 6”
2 sterile gauze pads, 3”x3”
Small (1/2 motel size) bar of soap
small roll of adhesive tape
small tube antiseptic
Additional first Aid Items for Adults:
Adults can have some more items, such as meds in small (1” x 3’) zip lock bags, with a small paper label. For meds you don’t need a bottle of each, just 4-6 pills of each:
mouth barrier device
Ibuprofin (useful the morning of a tough day, to prevent tendon swelling around knees and ankles, and for use before bed time)
Extra Strength Tylenol
Tylenol PM for before bedtime (softens the ground)
Benadryl (for allergies)
Imodium (for diarrhea)
Alka seltzer Plus
Prescription meds as needed
Antibiotics (I take a round of antibiotics for possible infected blisters or cuts)
Packs may need to be outside the tent overnight, and might be subjected to rain. They also might be worn while hiking during rain. Being able to cover the packs for rain protection is thus essential. A purpose made sylnylon rain cover is one way to accomplish this, or a large plastic garbage bag also works.
Personal Hygiene Kit
Chapstick with Sunblock (this could be essential enough to bring an extra to loan)
Tooth paste (travel size tube)
Wet wipes, 2 per day, for cleanup at end of day (essential)
Toilet paper in zip lock bag (portable bidet works fine, for when you have to carry used TP out)
Camp Soap, liquid. in small container, for washing clothes and bathing
Plastic garbage bag big enough to cover pack
Small mirror for signalling (a compass with a mirror covers this need)
Whistle, attached to outside of pack for immediate access
Fire starting steel
Cigarette lighter (take multiple ones)
Mosquito repellant (in a small pump sprayer, like 3 oz) during the bug season. DEET works longest, but melts nylon and goretex. Non Deet products work fine, but don’t last as long.
Sun block (small quantity).
Head net for bugs in summer months
A tent is #3 of the big items which you want to be less than 3 pounds, and preferably less than 2.5 or even 2 pounds.
In many current designs of tents, lightness of weight is achieved by having a low profile and by using a single wall made of Sylnylon fabric. Look at tents that are available on the tarptent.com website. These single wall tents have floors, zip up mesh walls to keep bugs out, and do fine in rain, wind, and light snow. Generally, these tents are no more expensive than larger and heavier tents. I have a Tarptent MoTrail, which has plenty of room for 2, but is super roomy for one. It weighs 33.5 oz, or just over 2 pounds. A tent that is a light one man tent is the MSR Thru Hiker at 1.5 lbs.
Good brands of tents to buy include Tarptent, REI, Big Agnes and MSR. Another option is a hammock.
Below: the MSR Thru Hiker is 1.5 lbs!
The standard range of stoves include canister stoves, with Giga Power and MSR Pocket Rocket being popular, gasoline stoves, and alcohol stoves. If the plan is to just boil water, the JetBoil is fast and fuel efficient, but all these stoves can boil water. Being 2 minutes faster to boil water is not as important in the backcountry as being reliable and foolproof. I like alcohol stoves in general, and specifically one made by TrailDesigns, called the Caldera Ti Tri. It allows me to cook biscuits, pizza, and cornbread, when used with the Outback Oven. I mostly cook pasta, couscous, and rice dishes with a sauce and smoked salmon or freeze dried chicken or beef.
This stove burns alcohol fuel in a super lightweight stove made from pop cans, and also burns wood, and esbit solid fuel. I use this stove combined with the Outback Oven to do baking. I have an Evernew 1.9 L titanium pot. A smaller pot can be used for solo cooking. TrailDesigns has a pot made from a Heinekin can, which works with a support cone and stove. Its got to be the lightest stove out there. If the plan is to just boil water, a timy alcohol stove and a small simple pot will do fine, and a 1 L capacity is fine. A fry pan lid helps for cooking fish, but a piece of aluminum foil as a pot cover is lighter and works for boiling water. Shown below are common stoves of good quality.
PUR type water filters are a workhorse and durable filter.
I love the Katidyn Gravity filter we had on the JMT. Sawyer gravity filters seems to be very good. Alternatives that are much lighter include the MSR Hyperflow, and a chemical treatment called Aqua Mira. The only drawback to the Aqua Mira is that you have to wait about 20 minutes after treatment before you can drink the water, but you can treat a gallon or more of water at once.