Sunday, July 13, 2014

The Beginner's Guide To Backpacking, Part 2 - Getting The Gear

Unfortunately, getting out into the wilderness and spending a night or more involves acquiring a fair amount of stuff. Worse yet, that stuff can get fairly expensive. Like most things in our consumer culture, it can get extravagantly expensive if you let it, but it doesn’t have to. It is important to acquire gear that does its intended job and doesn’t weigh you down so much that you can’t enjoy your trip due to the feeling that you’re carrying a small RV on your back. Qualities you will learn to appreciate as you begin to use backpacking gear are simplicity, light weight, and multipurpose. Below is a list of the essential items you will need to buy, borrow, or rent before heading out on your first trip. These items are very similar to the 10 Essentials of Hiking, but that list is designed to provide precautions and preparations for day hikes. Specifically heading out for backpacking involves a bit more depth and specificity in some areas.

(As you go through this list and begin to consider building your kit, you might check out my guide to acquiring affordable gear.)


  • Backpack. I guess this is pretty damn obvious; to go “backpacking” you need a backpack. Countless sizes, designs, and manufacturers exist. Ironically, this might be the last piece of gear you acquire because your other items, along with the length of the trips you plan to take, will determine the size, weight, and design best suited to your needs. (Here's a review of my current favorite pack.)
  • Proper Clothing. I often joke that most of my wardrobe is comprised of “plastic” clothes. By “plastic” I mean synthetic materials such as polyester, nylon, or fleece. In short, you need clothes that insulate when wet, dry quickly, and provide enough warmth to keep you comfortable in the worst-case-scenario weather of the environment you’ll be inhabiting. In addition to synthetics, wool is also an excellent fabric. You will also need proper shoes and boots that can handle the terrain (and, potentially, water) you’ll be traversing as well as wool or synthetic socks.
  • Shelter. While a tent is the most popular option for backpacking (here’s a current favorite), other shelter options exist. These include a tarp, bivvy, or hammock/tarp combination. 
  • Sleep System. Sleep “system” might seem a bit technical. It basically means a sleeping bag, quilt, or blanket(s) and a way to stay a bit more comfortable including a sleeping pad (options include foam or air pads) and/or hammock. 
  • Water & Treatment. You will need proper water containers and a system for treating or filtering water in the backcountry. Given water is vital to staying alive, this area should not be considered lightly. 
  • Food/Nutrition. You’re gonna need plenty of calories to sustain you as you hike with a substantial bag of gear on your back. You will want to bring at least one extra meal in case of emergencies or unexpected delays. 
  • Cookware & Stove. You can get away without cooking in the backcountry by bringing foods that don’t require cooking or heating. However, most people choose to use some sort of stove and some sort of pot, pan, or mug to cook or simply heat up dehydrated foods (and coffees, teas, and cocoas can be an easy/lightweight backcountry “luxury.”) I’ll provide some specific ideas for this topic later, but you might check out my $22 Ultralight Cookset post in the meantime.
  • Map & Compass. You will need to get a decent starter compass and ALWAYS bring a map of the area you’ll be hiking into the backcountry. Learning basic navigation skills is very important, especially as you begin hiking trails that are less familiar. Don’t simply assume you can always depend on designated signs and trail markers to keep you on track – these are not always reliable, obvious, or visible for a multitude of reasons.
  • Light/Illumination. I strongly suggest a quality headlamp for backpacking. The convenience of hands-free use combined with durability and packability simply can’t be beat. Other options and supplemental/backup light sources include flashlights and lanterns. 
  • First Aid. Accidents can happen in the backcountry, just like anywhere else. A decent first aid kit with treatment and cleaning options for blisters, cuts, scrapes, wounds, and common maladies is imperative to prevent pain, discomfort, infection, or worse.
  • Fire Starter. The ability to reliably start a fire in the backcountry has multiple uses. Fire can keep you warm, allow you to cook food, purify water, and provide light. 
This is simply a quick list of the essential items you will need before heading into the backcountry for a night or more. Knowing how to use them properly is as important as acquiring them. Don’t just assume you’ll know how to use your water filter or fire starter without practicing before getting into the wilderness without backup. 

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