Finding the right backpacking gear is a daunting task. Not only is it time consuming, but it can get very expensive, very quickly. Do not lose hope, I bring good news. Over the last year, I have built up my arsenal of backpacking gear from virtually nothing to being fully equipped. And by no means am I rich, but quite the contrary. I have spent days frugally sorting through equipment in stores and online, diligently reading through countless reviews, and buying the best gear, all with a low budget. I did not break the bank and my equipment has held up as well. I am finally ready to report back!
In this article, I outline the best gear your Washingtons can buy you, including:
- Sleeping bag & Sleeping pad
- Stove & Fuel Canister
- Bowl, Mug, & Utensil
- Water Purification System
- Water Bottle & Water Blatter
- Tarp & Rope
The most important piece of the puzzle. Since you’ll be hauling anywhere from 20 to 40 pounds for multiple days, you need a pack that is large, durable but also comfortable. You need a pack that rests on your hips with strong zippers and lots of compartments. Your pack should never give you blisters or give you significant back pain. My pick: The Osprey Atmos 50.
This pack is perfect. I have used it on numerous adventures, including a month long trip to Peru. It has completely shattered my expectations. To date, there are no signs of wear and tear – no broken zippers; no ripped fabric. It is compact, lightweight, but large enough for multi-day trips. There are multiple compartments and weight is distributed comfortably to your hips. The extra accessories – zippered pockets on the hip belt and an internal sleeve for a water bladder – make the Osprey Atmos 50 stand out. For a retail price of $200, it’s a steal for this high quality backpack. However, be sure to lookout for online closeout deals as I bought mine for a meager $119.
Note: If you buy any pack online, take time to visit an outdoors store before your purchase. Try out different models and sizes to find a good fit. Steer clear of Dick’s Sporting Goods. Dick’s carries Jansport, Kelty, and High Sierra – brands that produce much less durable and less comfortable packs than similarly priced Osprey and Gregory brands.
A backpacking tent needs to be waterproof, lightweight, and packable. It also needs to be large enough to fit you comfortably, and the rain-fly should stretch out to provide space for your backpack and gear underneath. Low budget tents are often prone to tearing, ripping, and leaking, but the Eureka Apex 2XT two-person tent, for only $100 on Amazon, is durable, lightweight, and waterproof.
The Eureka Apex 2XT packs a punch for the price. If the look alone doesn’t sell it for you, the unanimously positive reviews online will. When I took it outdoors recently, neither the rain-fly nor the floor leaked a drop of water during an all-night storm. The tent is very roomy as I am 6’1” and I fit fine next to my girlfriend. It also has two doors on opposite sides – perfect for two people, especially when accessing gear stored in the extra space under the rain-fly. The Apex 2XT packs very small and is very easy to set up.
Along with weight, durability, and pack-ability, take note of temperature ratings when purchasing a sleeping bag. A temperature rating theoretically tells you the lowest temperature (F°) you will stay warm at inside your bag; theoretically, because companies are notorious for overestimating their ratings. To be safe, I add an extra 10 to 20 degrees to the rating when shopping for my bag. Temperature ratings become very important if you decide to use your sleeping bag outside of summer high season. The price of a sleeping bag often correlates with the type of insulating down filling, where synthetic usually runs cheapest, followed by goose down. My recommendation: The High Peak Alpine Pak 20°F Mummy Bag.
With a $65 price tag and great reviews, High Sierra’s Alpine Pak Sleeping Bag is a solid product for new backpackers. I’ve used it many times now, away and at home. It is very light and packs extremely small. Elastic strings allow you to pull the bag tight around your shoulders and head. The large version is long enough for my 6’1” frame. The bag stays warm. I would not, however, use this sleeping bag at its advertised 20 degree rating, and wouldn’t push it below 35°F.
[Backpacking in Peru: Hypothermia and Walking 40 Miles of Strike Blockades]
Sleeping pads are a tough item to sort through; there are endless varieties and models, none of which seem worth the price. Keep in mind that sleeping in the backcountry without a sleeping pad is a bad idea: you will be very cold and uncomfortable. For low cost and low weight but high quality and durability, pick Therm-a-Rest.
At $35 for a large, the Therm-a-Rest Ridge Rest is the classic sleeping pad among campers and backpackers. It is relatively inexpensive but insulates effectively against the cold ground. It is lightweight but provides enough comfort to give you a good night of rest.
Now we’re really getting into the meat and potatoes. It seems like MSR has created a monopoly around stoves and cookware; they must be just that good. On every camping, backpacking, or river trip I have been on, I have seen only one stove being used: The MSR WhisperLite Shaker Jet. It receives unanimously good reviews online and in the field for its durability, portability, and ease of use. It is retailed at $79.95, but you can find it at Amazon for $70 with free shipping.
A fuel canister is not provided with the stove. The MSR WhisperLite Shaker Jet Stove requires an MSR fuel canister, otherwise the cap and pump will not attach properly. The MSR fuel bottle costs around $20 and comes in 20 and 30 ounce varieties.
Note: A full 30oz fuel canister should last you on multiple backpacking trips.
White gas, otherwise known as Coleman fuel. A two gallon tank costs around $8.
One of my favorite camp activities is backcountry cooking. When a peanut butter, pepperoni, Chex-mix, mustard, hummus, cheddar cheese and grape jelly burrito doesn’t sound overly appetizing at dinner, I need cookware to make a hot feast. Again, cookware needs to be light and portable – that means it needs to be small. No need to haul a 4 gallon pot when you’re cooking for two or three people. I recently purchased the MSR BlackLite Gourmet Cookset and I absolutely love it.
It is very light and comes with two pots, a pan, a lid, a pot holder, and a towlie for cleaning. All the pans neatly stack into each other and pack into a small bag (roughly 8” by 6”). The BlackLite cookset is currently out of stock at REI but the Brunton Vapor Cookset is on sale for $30, so get on it!
Bowls, Utensils, Mugs and Cups
No need to get technical here, any old metal or silicone bowl will do; the lighter, the better. For a utensil, I like the 3-in-1 Light my Fire Spork. Since I do appreciate a nice, hot cup of coffee in the morning and a soothing cup of tea at night when I’m outdoors (one of life’s best pleasures!), I invested in an insulated mug, the REI Recycled Camp Mug, to keep my beverage warm.
Go with tablets. They are cheap, reliable, and portable. Iodine tablets kill bacteria, but do not work well against most viruses and leave a funny taste. I invested in Katadyn Micropur Purification Tablets – chlorine dioxide pills that kill off bacteria and viruses but leave little trace of taste. If you still feel some gustatory discomfort, I recommend packing Kool-Aid or Vita-C packets.
Buy a water bladder if you have space inside your pack. The Osprey Atmos 50 holds a 3L water pouch. You will find it incredibly convenient and accessible, and you can drink on the go. Three liters of water is enough for six hours of backpacking, which means you may not have to stop for extra water between camps. I also carry a one liter Nalgene water bottle. Nalgene bottles are incredibly durable; I frequently launch them many feet into the air when I throw a rope over a branch to set up a bear bag – haven’t had one break yet! My water bladder recommendation: CamelBak’s OMEGA Reservoirs or Platypus’ Hoser Reservoirs. My water bottle recommendation: Nalgene 32 oz.
Note: A good rule of thumb is to drink one liter of water for every two hours of hiking.
You will need tarps for several reasons. Most importantly, you need a dry space to cook if it is raining. It is never a good idea to cook inside your tent or under the rain-fly. I also use a tarp as a ground cover for my tent – it provides another waterproof layer of insulation and cuts down on wear and tear of the tent. I keep it simple with tarps – waterproof means it works. The Blue Polyethylene Tarps at REI go for around $10 and work great. I carry one that fits the dimensions of my tent (Eureka Apex 2XT – 8’x 6’) and another slightly bigger tarp. Don’t buy a tarp larger than 12’x10’ because you won’t find enough space in the backcountry to hang it.
Note: The Blue Poly tarps at REI do not always come in the size they are advertised in. Check your product! I was already on the trail when I learned my newly purchased 10’x 8’ tarp was actually closer to 14’x 12’ – so large that it was basically useless to hang.
In my experience, 3mm utility cords have worked fine, just check the strength rating. I recommend bringing at least 150 feet of rope for hanging a tarp and a bear bag. For your tarp, you will have to cut up some of your rope into varying lengths. I use PMI and New England brand.
Before you head out on any backpacking trip, make sure you bring solid literature – reputable and renowned guide books and trail maps. A first aid kit is always a must bring item. Invest in a quality carabiner. Bring a pocket knife and keep food in a bag. I keep my food in a backpack that I can hang over a tree branch with a carabiner.
I appreciate any comments!