The Beginner’s Guide to Backpacking: Buying Backpacking Gear & Supplies
The Benefits of Backpacking
Whether doing a week-long trek through the Grand Canyon, or a two night weekend hike at a nearby state park, backpacking has a number of great benefits and is relatively cheap in comparison to typical hotel-based vacations. I started backpacking four years ago and have enjoyed the physical challenge, natural beauty, relationship building opportunities, sense of adventure, and financial savings.
Each backpacking trip I make has resulted in hundreds of dollars worth of savings – and I’ve never looked back on those trips and said “boy, I wish I had stayed in a hotel and laid around instead”. Interested in learning more about this rewarding hobby, the lessons I’ve learned, and what gear to buy? Read on!
Before you Commit to Backpacking
I won’t lie, getting all the right equipment for backpacking is certainly not cheap – and this is one time where you’ll be thankful that you spent a little more for the high quality stuff. Before you make that big commitment, I’d recommend doing a trial run (or two) with an experienced backpacker who has all the pre-requisite equipment to share.
Backpacking is not for everyone. Some personalities just don’t jibe well with the trail. There’s nothing wrong with that. Don’t force it if you’re hating every minute of it. There will most likely be bugs, sore feet and knees, a few blisters, body odor, and let’s not forget the hole digging. You may even want to simply try a few nights out in a tent in your back yard. Not scared off yet?
By this point, you’ve already done a trial run or two with some friends. You’ve decided you want to commit to this rewarding hobby and get your own gear. There are some hardcore backpacking minimalists out there who daydream about ways to lower their total load weight by 2 ounces. Let’s hit on the essentials first, and then get more into the optional stuff. These are truly all items that I have used personally.
Three General Rules of Thumb when Buying Backpacking Gear
- When comparing items to buy: lighter is almost always better unless you’re sacrificing necessity.
- Opt for high quality stuff. Your life might be at stake, after all.
- Get stuff that packs nicely. Avoid anything that is boxy or has exposed sharp edges.
- You WILL end up buying new gear if you take a liking to backpacking. Don’t fret about every item in the beginning.
- Look for things around the house you can re-purpose vs. buying everything.
Backpacking Supplies List – the Essentials
- Backpack: it would be hard to backpack without one of these. You need a backpack, you need a good one. Packs with a internal frame molded back panel are the standard these days vs. those with an external frame. I have an internal frame, which are known for more flexibility and a closer to the body feel and can’t testify to what, if any, benefit an external frame pack has. I would definitely recommend getting a backpack that has a waist and chest belt. Another nice feature to have is a pack that holds a water bladder in a special compartment.
- Sleeping Bag: A necessity, even if you think it might not be in the climates you plan on hiking in. It can get unexpectedly cold at night, and when you’re out on the trail in the dark, miles from anywhere, your life may depend on keeping warm. Mummy bags trail rated for 0 degrees F are recommended for nights that get down to freezing, while a quilt or 40 degree F bag are fine for most warm environments. I prefer down to synthetic bags because they are much easier to pack and much lighter. They are not cheap.
- Tent: You’ll want to keep critters away from you. Spiders, mosqitoes, mice, raccoons, bears, it doesn’t matter. A thin sheet of nylon in between you and them is a necessity. You’ll want to get a very light tent specifically made for backpacking. Many gram counters have made the move to tarps, however, for a beginner, start with a tent.
- Tent Pad: You will also want a tent pad that is made of a waterproof material to keep ground moisture and sharp objects away from the bottom of your tent. Many tents will come with one. You’ll want one that fits at a size just smaller than your tent so that water doesn’t seep between the two if it rains.
- Water filtration: Forget the iodine tablets. I’ve never gotten sick from water that I’ve filtered through my Katadyn Hiker PRO Water Microfilter. When filtering your water, make sure you are getting it from moving water that hasn’t been stagnate or just downstream from a source that would cause it to be potentially impure (dead animal, etc.). It doesn’t matter how clear the water source is, you need to treat it properly and a micro-filter is the best method.
- Water storage: I use a CamelBak bladder that fits conveniently into a storage compartment in my backpack. Platypus also makes good water storage devices. Some are fans of the Gatorade bottle, but I prefer more storage so I can spend less time re-filling.
- Knife: Knives have so many expected and unexpected uses when backpacking that they definitely make the necessity list. Something small and lightweight is all you need. You won’t be killing any large game after all (I hope).
- Fire: There are a number of ways to make a fire – matches, a lighter, a flint, or some ole’ fashion knowledge and elbow grease. Just make sure you have at least one of those methods covered so that you can cook, stay warm, and make smoke signals in a rescue situation, if need be. A Bic mini lighter is a classic staple in the lightweight backpackers arsenal.
- Boots: Shoes may suffice on short flat trips, but when you’re carrying 30 lbs. and over, trekking over rocky terrain, or encountering wet/muddy conditions, you’ll probably want a good pair of waterproof boots.
- Compass: I’d recommend getting a good ole’ fashion high quality magnetic vs. a digital version. I’m sure the digitals are efficient (when they work).
- First Aid Kit: Essentials for backpacking include band aids, antiseptic, pain reliever, rubber bands, sewing kit, blister pads, and a snakebite kit.
The Nearly Essential Backpacking Gear:
Some of these things are considered to be essentials by many people and just extra weight by others. They become more or less essential based on on the terrain, weather conditions, experience level, and length of hike – so it’s often a judgement call by the hiker.
- Head lamp: you don’t want to get caught out on the trail in the dark (or get up in the middle of the night to tinkle) without a headlamp. They are very efficient and light. I’d argue essential.
- TP: make sure to get the biodegradable kind. You’re truly hardcore if you don’t want to carry the extra weight of TP.
- Stove & Fuel: A light stove is essential if you want to eat anything warm. Cooking anything on a wild fire is not easy, especially for a beginner. I’ve moved to a lightweight alcohol burning stove.
- Watch: I think a watch is essential so that you can scout out where you are and where you need to get to by certain times if you are in between campsites. Also essential for determining when you need to start setting up camp.
- Soap: You can get dirty now and then on the trail. You can find special environmentally friendly soap for hand washing and dish washing. Dr. Bronner’s is great for this.
- Bug Spray: Not a necessity if you are backpacking at the right times. Essential if you’re not.
- Sun Block: Sun block is definitely essential in certain geographies. Not so much if you’re in the forest for the majority of your trek.
- Toiletries: Toothbrush, and toothpaste.
- Bandana: I don’t pack a towel (too heavy), but I do pack a few bandanas to dry things. They are extremely light, but do the job nicely and you can tie them to the outside of your bag to dry.
Next Steps for Aspiring Backpackers
That’s it! Well…. not quite. You may have noticed there are a few essentials missing from this list – clothing and food. Those two are worth of their own post (upcoming). We’ll also get into training and getting out on the trail. Stay tuned in!
- What backpacking gear would you add to or remove from these essential items lists?
- Any particular brands you highly recommend or have terrible experiences with?