Backpacking is one of those gear-intensive activities that lends itself to “GAS” (“Gear Acquisition Syndrome”). Any passionate hiker is bound to have a couple of tents, sleeping bags in a range of ratings, a few different stoves, and countless pairs of boots in various stages of disrepair.
Indeed, it’s hard not to shop when a hobby has so many different kinds of tools and toys. Just look at what’s available. Backpacker magazine’s annual gear issue lists literally thousands of models of backpacking equipment every year.
But the funny thing is that once you’re out on the trail, you quickly learn that the gear that may make you the happiest is the gear you left home — and don’t have to carry. What looked shiny, new, and functional in the outfitting store may look like nothing more than a painful burden on the trail, especially if you never actually need it.
Backpacker’s List of Major Gear Essentials
Bottom line: It’s not necessary to have the latest and greatest gear to get outside for an overnight, especially in the summer time in temperate and warm climates.
Let’s start with the basic list of the big- ticket essentials. These are the items necessary to transport your gear, sleep out of the weather, and eat.
- Tent, tarp, or bivvy sack. Even hikers who prefer sleeping under the stars or in trailside shelters need to carry some sort of shelter in case of rain or in case the lean-to is full. The smaller and lighter, the better. A tarp is the lightest choice, although perhaps not the best choice in areas with a lot of mosquitoes.
- Sleeping bag: The standard “one size all” bag is a three season bag, rated down to about 20 or 30 degrees Fahrenheit, but that’s a little much for the Appalachians in July or northern California in August. A 40- or 50- degree bag is much lighter. Use the heavier three-season bag for the shoulder seasons of early spring and late fall, as well as high mountains. For winter, an even warmer bag will be required.
- Sleeping Mat: For sleeping comfort and insulation from cold ground. Thickness depends on your comfort requirements. A Thermarest inflatable pad is a standard item for three season camping. Some lightweight backpackers choose an even lighter closed cell foam pad.
- Stove: A liquid fuel gas stove, a propane cartridge stove, or an alcohol stove. For beginners, a cartridge stove is inexpensive, easy to use, and lightweight. Note: The now common propane-butane blend stoves work well in most conditions, including cold and high altitudes, although liquid fuel is more efficient in very severe conditions. Alcohol stoves (which you can make yourself; Google it!) don’t work well at high altitudes, but they are a good choice for lower mountains. Brasslite makes them commercially.
- Backpacks: Backpacks should be selected after all other gear is bought or assembled for the simple reason that all the gear has to be able to fit. Backpacks come in two styles, internal or external frames; external frames are “traditional” but internal frames are by far the most common choice among long-distance hikers. The lighter the gear you are carrying, the flimsier your backpack can be. But comfort is also an issue. Those stays and straps add weight to your pack, but they DO help distribute the lod more ergonomically.
- Boots: Contrary to tradition, thick heavy hiking boots are not always required for backpacking, especially not on gentle well-maintained trails in the heat of summer! Trekking shoes do just fine for many overnight hikers. If conditions do require boots, buy them – don’t try to rent or borrow. Boots need to fit properly to prevent blisters.
- Accessories: For a list of other essential backpacking gear, check Gear and Accessories for Beginning Backpackers.