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When you’re backpacking, it really is worth having good gear. But what is good gear? As a general rule, it is usually high quality, light, reliable and lasts a long time. As this will require a serious investment to get completely kitted out, we recommend renting or borrowing gear for your first trip. In addition, make sure you know how to use all the gear. We share a backpacking gear list in this post.
Everyone’s packing list will be different and change with each hike and season. Importantly your gear should be lightweight, and ideally multi-functional. Here are a few cheap, light and downright genius items I always bring along.
Invest in a good backpack, it will make backpacking more pleasant if your backpack fits you well. You will need one of roughly 60L in size. It will be expensive, but likely last you 10+ years.
Try to avoid bags with unnecessary compartments and zippers (These add weight and zippers especially can be troublesome as they can break.
To find a good backpack, go to a good outdoors shop and try on a range of backpacks. When you try them on, make sure you add weight and then walk around to see which one fits best. Ask the salesperson to ensure the pack fits you correctly.
If you’re in the mountains, you want to make sure the place you sleep at night protects you from the elements. You probably will want an ultra-light tent to start, especially if you are in the mountains, where weather and bugs mean a tent really helps.
We’ve shared our favourite types of shelter for backpacking in a recent blog post.
We shared our tips to stay warm while hiking in an early article in this series.
Outside of basic clothing some of the more specialized, but incredibly useful items we take include: a Gore-Tex raincoat, Gore-Tex rain pants, down coat, toque, mitts, running tights and spare socks.
A Pot Scraper little tool is so useful when washing dishes that I now keep one by my kitchen sink at home. With one hard plastic end, and one rubber end, you can safely scrape out the remainder of that sticky oatmeal, or the slightly burned mac & cheese. Pack out the scrapings with your garbage, and your pot or bowl will just need a tiny bit of soap and water to be squeaky clean again. It’s a great way of preventing food scraps (rice is a big culprit) ending up in the creek where everyone gets their water.
The humble bandana can have dozens of functions on any trip. The uses of a bandana include:
- Headband to keep hair out of your face.
- Dunk it in the river and wash or cool your face.
- Soak in water (or roll snow into it) and wear it around your neck to keep you cool on hot days.
- Face mask for sun protection – especially if near water or snow at high altitude.
- Use it as an eye mask for that bright early morning sun when you want to sleep a few more minutes.
- Dry the dishes – even wash the dishes.
- Toilet paper in an emergency (but then don’t use it as a handkerchief later).
- Use it to filter silt out of water before you purify it.
- Use it as a bandage, or to tie a splint on.
- Tie the corners together and use as a small bag.
- Clean your sunglasses.
- Tear off strips for cordage or twist the whole thing for stronger cordage.
- Pot holder.
- Trying to get your tarp line over a high branch? Tie a rock into the bandana with the line and toss it over.
If it gets dirty (or the emergency toilet paper function is used), it can easily be rinsed out, and hung on your backpack to dry during the day while you hike. If used as toilet paper, it may be worthwhile buying a new one though.
Coming in sizes as small as 3L, (and as large as some backpacks), these can help compress your gear, so it takes up less volume in your pack, and keep it organized.
Looking for your warm socks in the middle of the night? No need to unpack your whole pack, just grab the green stuff sack. Keep your smelly socks and dirty clothes away from the rest of your gear.
Storing your food in a strong, waterproof stuff sack (we actually use a waterproof canoeing drybag) makes it easy to transport from the bear locker to the picnic table, and easy to hang up if using a bear hang.
I tend to have two small ones (one for socks and underwear, one for warm accessories like beanie, gloves, neck warmer etc.), a larger one for clothing, and one for food.
After a hard day hiking, taking off your boots and letting your feet breathe is one of the joys of the trail. You can wear them around camp (looking cool with a pair of socks if it’s chilly), and they’re a lot easier to slip on quickly for that 3am call of nature. If a bridge is out, or you need to cross a creek, put them on and keep your socks dry. Buy a cheap pair and stash them in an outside pocket.
Recently Birkenstock released rubber sandals. These are more expensive, but super comfortable and lightweight. They’re great.
These don’t necessarily have to be climbing rated, even ones from the dollar store will do. They are indispensable when hanging up items to dry, attaching guy ropes to tree branches, clipping random items to your pack, or even to use as a temporary fix for broken pack straps.
Thinking of buying a $30 pack cover. Consider a $0.25 industrial garbage bag. We never travel anywhere without an XL industrial garbage bag in our pack. We put it inside our bag to keep everything dry, for example if we fall off a dead tree while crossing a river and our pack gets wet.
An industrial garbage bag is also part of our safety preparation, as the garbage bag can be used as a mini bivi, back-up rain coat or another layer to use around your sleeping bag. You can even cut pieces off to use to repair gear.
Packing your backpack well can mean a comfortable and efficient day hiking, but an unbalanced pack can leave you in pain from sore muscles and blisters. If you’re hiking with others, share the load – stove in one pack, fuel in the other.
If your pack has a sleeping bag compartment on the bottom, use it – but make sure it’s in a waterproof stuff sack. I keep my first aid kit here too, so I don’t have to dig through my whole pack when it’s needed.
Put your bulky, light stuff at the bottom of your pack. This would be your sleeping bag and down coat and anything else that is super light.
Put your heaviest gear – usually food & tent – in the centre of your pack, closest to your back. Stuff your clothes and cooking gear around it to keep it in place.
Rain coat and pants should be on the top for quick access in a sudden downpour. Use the lid for items you’ll need throughout the day – snacks, lunch, sunscreen, toilet paper.
Not all packs have them, but hip belt pockets are excellent for items you want even quicker access to such as your camera or small snacks like trail mix, so you can graze as you hike.
This article is part of a series of articles for beginner backpackers. You can see other articles here:
- Where should I go?
- How can I stay safe while backpacking?
- How do I stay warm while backpacking?
- What do I drink?
- Do you have a packing list?
Next up is our article on Backpacking Packing List.