Where will your next adventure take you? Is it to the snow-capped mountains of the Rockies? Is it on a multi-month jaunt through Europe? Is it on a photo driven journey along the Appalachin Trail or the Pacific Coast Highway?
Some people will never understand backpacking. To them, the thought of carrying a pack on a trail is like the Bataan Death March. But for those of us appreciate the thrill of human-powered slow travel, our next trip is always a cause for excitement. The freedom of being outdoors. The leisure of setting the schedule and pace according to your whim. And the knowledge that for at least a brief moment, our entire lives rest squarely on our shoulders.
The Ideal Setup
The best backpacking gear is simple, lightweight, and impossibly durable. Most of us plan to be out on the trail for at least a few days at a time, so the weight of our packs is critically important. Any ounce we can save in our equipment means less pain at the end of the long days.
Likewise, being out for several days at a time away from civilization, necessitates that we can depend on our gear. There are no “quick trips to Walmart” if something breaks. We are literally on our own, and in some cases, in life-threatening conditions.
Like most things in life, the best quality gear ain’t cheap. And since we aren’t made of money, it’s important to find the sweet spot of the highest quality that we can afford.
So there it is–compressible, ultralight, and yet still affordable. It’s a tall order, but we’re up to it. It’s worth it, because having good equipment quite literally opens up a world of possibilities.
For starters, here are some foundational staples of your backpacking gear:
This is your portable house–don’t scrimp! Your backpacking tent will protect you from bugs, critters, and the elements. As mentioned above, the foremost virtue here is weight.
However, behind weight considerations, a close second with tents is the ease of setting up. There are some poor designs out there that take entirely too much time to set up. The last thing that you want is to have to fiddle with a complicated tent at the end of a long hard day (this holds true also for cots, hammocks, and stoves!).
It also needs to be sized appropriately. Make sure that your tent will fit you (and your gear if you so desire), give you the ceiling clearance that you want, and doesn’t have an awkward shape, that results in wasted space and weight. You should also consider if you just need a solo tent, of if you need a 2 person, 3 person, or even 4 person backpacking tent.
To get our complete recommendations on tents (as well as our personal favorites), check out the guide we put together on backpacking tents here.
The world of backpacking stoves is slightly factioned by a difference of opinion. One of most important things about a backpacking stove is the ability to set it up and get it going quickly and easily.
Think about it–you will be using your little stove when:
- It’s pitch black
- You’re dog tired
- You are freezing cold (and your hands are shaking)
So in general, most people maintain that the best backpacking stove is the easiest one to set up. There are some really good butane stoves available on the market that make for really easy stoves. Jetboil, MSR, and a handful of other brands have some really great stuff.
On the other hand though, there are other people that think that depending on a stove that only works on butane is a dicey proposition, and instead prefer to use multi fuel stoves. There are also size considerations, although our recommendation is that you don’t dismiss a stove that you love, strictly because it’s a little bigger than some of the ones you hate.
Backpacking Sleeping Pads
A backpacking sleeping pad is probably the simplest, lightest, most portable solution to make your night’s rest more comfortable.
Unlike cots and hammocks, backpacking pads can compress to extremely small dimensions (the inflatable ones that is), allowing you to easily tuck away your “mattress” in the corner of your pack. They are also extremely easy to set up….. as in…. unroll it and open a valve.
There are obviously pros and cons to everything, but it’s pretty hard to go wrong with a quality sleeping pad at a decent price (pro tip: people with kids may find themselves using their backpacking pads on many a living room “campout” as well).
If interested, we share a handful of tips and a few of our favorite sleeping pads in this guide.
Backpacking pillows can go a long way to helping you have a better night’s sleep. They are relatively inexpensive, and when compacted, can be uber portable (like smaller than a soda can). Incredibly strong “no-leak” valves, and easy, push-button deflation now come standard in many of these pillows.
Will you die without a backpacking pillow? Of course not! For thousands of years people have been doing without them. Unlike tents and stoves, a backpacking pillow definitely isn’t a “core” part of your gear. And if you want to get clever, you can always bunch up clothing and sleep on that.
But hey, for a few extra dollars and a little bit of pack space, you can have a really comfortable night’s sleep. Not a bad trade in our book.