In our first post about backpacking, Tom and I successfully slapped together a short one-night trek to try things out for size in early 2019. We really enjoyed ourselves, and decided that we wanted to venture out farther and for longer. Naturally, that necessitated purchasing some additional gear. This post focuses on that gear, specifically the big stuff – the core of our system that we use. As of this writing, we have put about 100 miles on this outfit, and it hasn’t skipped a beat!
If you’re already a camper and are just getting into backpacking, you’ll find you’re buying a lot of stuff again (dedicated tent, new stove, etc.). Specialized backpacking gear is not cheap, but the good news is that you don’t need to spend the equivalent of a used Volkswagen to get started. In choosing any piece of gear, Tom and I have the goal of achieving a reasonable balance of light weight, functionality, durability, and cost. If you try to go too far in one direction, you will most likely compromise at least one of the other factors. For example, purchasing a true “ultralight” tent might save a pound or two in each of our packs, but would be hundreds of dollars more expensive, and the material would be a little less durable. That is just fine and perhaps even ideal for some trekkers, but not for us.
On an additional note, most people who are just getting into this would do well to start in the milder months, and that’s exactly what Tom and I did. Backpacking gear designed for moderate conditions is less expensive, and packs can be lighter when temperatures are warmer. Interestingly, the summer of 2020 gave us a lot of opportunities to go backpacking, since with Covid19 we were not inclined to be camping in a possibly crowded state park campground. Thankfully, we live smack in the middle of a valley between two beautiful state forests offering an abundance of trails.
Before we run down the gear list, I must stress that although there are a lot of links in this post, we are not professional gear reviewers or experts by any stretch. We just do a little research based on what we think will work for us, we read reviews, and we try to make wise purchases (and Christmas list requests!) accordingly. So far we’ve done fairly well. But there are plenty of other options out there, some of which may be better for your particular style than what we are outlining below. Anyhow, so much for my disclaimer. Here we go…
The Pack – High Sierra Pathway 70. Why this pack? Well, it fits us well, is fairly inexpensive at Bass Pro (where we had those Christmas gift cards), has lots of useful pockets and straps, and is adjustable for torso length as Tom grows. And for those of you who, like our family, are members of that insidious cult known as “Kohl’s,” I have since found that this pack is available on their site, or at least it was as of this post. And if you know anything about that coveted 30% discount, you know why I am mentioning this. EDIT: As of March 2021, somehow the price of this backpack had more than doubled on the Kohl’s web site – I have to think this was a mistake, as it was still showing as $110 in most other places, give or take. It since has settled down to a more normal level.
Note that the “70” refers to pack size in liters. A 70-liter pack is on the larger side for the 3-4 day trips Tom and I generally take (most trekkers would probably suggest 55 liters or so), but we know we can never own sleeping bags or other insulated gear containing down fill because of allergies in our family, and synthetic-fill gear is heavier and bulkier than down. Also, we’re tent people for the time being, and tents take up more space than hammocks. Regardless, these were a great entry-level investment for us to get started. If at all possible, you will want to try out any pack you’re considering to ensure it fits you well and can carry the size load you expect.
The Tent – Eureka Midori 3. This is not the lightest tent on the market by any means, but is thoughtfully-designed and sturdy, and is inexpensive for a backpacking tent. As a bonus, it’s the easiest-pitching tent I’ve ever owned. When including the footprint and splitting the load between our two packs, we end up carrying about 3-4 lbs. each, which is a very moderate weight. We love the dual doors and twin pack/gear vestibules, as well as the vaulted ceiling. We could have spent upwards of $500 to save a couple more pounds each, but IMO this just wasn’t worth it for us – our Midori was $150 on sale (at the time, the list price was $180) and does the job quite well. Why the 3-person? Well, one of the first things you will find out if you’re new to camping of any sort is that unless you are under the age of ten or have a culturally inappropriate perception of personal space, tent manufacturers’ capacity ratings are wildly optimistic. But as long as you’re not a pair of lumberjacks and one of you isn’t Sasquatch (in which case, you have far bigger issues than which tent to buy…), a 3-person will sleep two comfortably, and only weighs a little more than the 2-person version. For our first-ever trip together, Tom and I had borrowed a coworker’s Eureka Sunriver 3 (a no-longer-made Dick’s Sporting Goods version of basically the same tent) and loved it, so when we wanted to get our own backpacking tent, we were a bit predisposed towards Eureka. The Midori adds an extra pole sideways across the roof for more room, which also vaults the doors and rain fly a bit higher and more vertically, keeping water from dripping into the tent when you unzip a vestibule in the rain. This feature is clearly visible in the picture above. I asked my wife to get me the footprint to go with the tent for Christmas last year, but one could just as easily cut a piece of 2 mil plastic sheeting or Tyvek to put underneath the floor to protect it from forest floor abrasion.
The Sleeping Bags – Marmot Nanowave 45. These are good, lightweight synthetic-fill summer bags. We pair them up with lightweight washable liners (Sea to Summit Thermolite Reactor) to add a few degrees of warmth and keep the bags clean. This is a good system down into the 50s temp-wise; maybe a bit colder if we’re wearing a base layer. If nighttime temps are forecast to be about 65 or warmer, we go even simpler and just bring our ultra-inexpensive Coleman fleece bags/liners, and just chuck them in the wash when we get home. Side tip – I would definitely recommend getting a liner of some sort, if only to keep the bag clean. It’s so much easier to launder a liner at home than to have to make frequent trips to the laundromat to wash the main bag, plus your bag will then last longer.
The Sleeping Pad – Klymit Static V. I lucked into this purchase at the Mechanicsburg Scout Shop. This is a comfy, lightweight pad that is made of durable material, inflates with around 20 breaths, and packs down to the size of a water bottle. It’s even comfortable for occasional side-sleepers like me. We pair ours up with a Klymit Pillow X (usually wrapped in a fleece) to make a complete system for each of us. If night temperatures are set to drop, we’ll throw a homemade Reflectix insulated pad underneath for some extra warmth.
The Water Filter – Sawyer Squeeze. This is a very effective, lightweight water system that will make backcountry water drinkable in most parts of the U.S. We opted for the full-size Sawyer because reviewers said the smaller/lighter versions don’t have as high of a flow rate, and this one is only a little bit heavier than the smaller versions. In addition to getting rid of bacteria, filters take out protozoans that can make you pretty sick. Iodine tablets only kill bacteria, so are better as a backup than as a primary water treatment – I do bring tabs with us just in case. Incidentally, we stopped at a popular water source on the AT this summer and found out that absolutely everyone seemed to be carrying one of these Sawyer outfits, so we are in good company. Ours came from Walmart with 2 water pouches and a couple of other attachments for around $30, but other packages are available.
The Flashlight – Fenix single-AAA. It’s amazing the power that can be packed into a tiny LED flashlight these days. This is not a “big” piece of gear, but I wanted to mention it because for a backpacking trip you don’t want to be lugging around your full-size, 4-D-battery-powered torch that looks like you could smack a medium-size bear unconscious with it. And while you may get by with a 99-cent light from Walmart, you’re better off in the long-term getting something that’s brighter and more reliable. That doesn’t come as cheaply, although mine was still only around $20. I have the Fenix E05 which is no longer made, but there are other options from Fenix and other manufacturers. One thing I wish mine had was a clip to secure it to my ball cap. I do have a cheap headlamp in my pack for hands-free lighting if I need it.
The Stove – AOTU Backpacking Stove. This thing is unbelievably cheap for what it does. While we fully expect to upgrade someday (this is not the lightest or sturdiest option on the market, nor is it particularly fuel-efficient), you can’t beat the cost for an entry-level backpacking stove. I think my wife got Tom and me each one online for about eight bucks on sale, which is pretty great! This same exact design is also made by a number of other manufacturers so you have a few from which to choose depending on price and shipping. Seriously, if you are just trying backpacking for the first time and don’t want to go all-in just yet, this is a good-performing and inexpensive option.
The Cooking Pot – GSI Outdoors Halulite 1.1L Pot. I love this pot. It’s made of hard-anodized aluminum, which is a bit more expensive than straight-up aluminum, but is non-stick, durable, safe and lightweight. Aluminum conducts heat better than titanium, which is even more lightweight but is also a lot more expensive. And you can actually cook food in an aluminum pot rather easily. By contrast, titanium gets hot spots, so it’s best for a menu of freeze-dried meals where you’re just heating water to a boil. This difference is important if you’re getting most of your meals from the grocery store, where you may actually need to simmer something for 5-7 minutes and you don’t want it to burn. Keep in mind the stainless steel Stanley Adventure Set option as well. It’s tall so is not quite as nicely-shaped for actual cooking, but it’s made of virtually bulletproof stainless steel. Sans the cups, it’s not much heavier than the GSI and can be had for as low as $11!
The Mug – GSI Outdoors Infinity Backpacker Mug. Wait, what? This is a “big” piece of gear? It sure is, if you know you won’t get your butt up the mountain the next day without your morning coffee. This was a total impulse purchase to use up the rest of our gift cards when we got our packs, but it turned out to be a really nice design. A lightweight plastic cup with a snap-on lid and measurements on the inside slides into an insulating sleeve with a soft handle that compresses in your pack. The whole assembled cup even stores in some cooking pots. It keeps my coffee hot, and Tom uses his for instant chocolate milk – he can close the lid and mix by shaking the contents to his heart’s content.
The Trekking Poles – Cascade Mountain Tech. Thanks to my broken leg last year (horsing around with the boy scout troop – don’t ask), I found myself wanting a bit of extra stability while my muscle strength built back up, and even now that I’m fine I don’t think I’d ever want to venture out on the trail without a pair of trekking poles. Useful for maintaining balance, easing pressure on the knees when hiking downhill, and fording streams, there are also upper body exercise benefits, and once you get into tarp camping they can be used to pitch a shelter. We opted for aluminum with cork grips. While slightly heavier than carbon fiber, they are a bit more rigid, and as a bonus are much less expensive.
The Lantern – Goal Zero Crush Light. Another totally-by-chance fave, this little lightweight solar lantern was a Christmas gift to Tom from my wife’s family and we really like it. Tom straps it to the outside of his pack to charge (see the pic at the top of this post) and it provides a soft, diffuse light for inside the tent. While not completely necessary, it’s a nice little luxury to bring along.
Everything Else – we’ll need to wait for the next installment. The above are the big pieces of gear, and there are so many small things you’ll want in your pack. They are not necessarily items you’ll need to purchase, and in time we’ll talk about them.
So here are some pointers on which to end.
- Do your research before purchasing any gear to ensure a particular item is going to work for you and is appropriate for the conditions you’re likely to encounter. For example, buying a true water “purifier” that kills water-borne viruses is not necessary in the U.S. and would be a waste of funds and pack weight unless you’re going to be trekking abroad.
- Strive for that balance among the goals of functionality, durability, light weight, and moderate cost. Pushing too far in one direction often results in significant sacrifices in another.
- Sometimes it’s better to have some duplication, rather than striving for a one-size-fits all solution. For example, we have several different stoves and pots depending on how long we’re going to be out, and what we’re cooking. We have multiple shelters and sleeping bags, too, for different conditions and temperatures.
- Once you have your gear, take good care of it!
Happy trekking! Remember, do what works for you. And watch this space for more.