A Quick Guide to Basic Backpacking Gear

My first “backpacking” experience was a few years ago in Yosemite National Park.

My friend and I packed our camping gear into my car, and drove to one of the most remote places in the park. Neither of us had any of the right gear. I had a daypack that would barely hold my hydration bladder, and he had an old book bag from college. The only tent we had was too big and too heavy to drag into the wilderness so we opted to sleep on a sheet of plastic instead. We strapped our sleeping bags to our packs using bungee cords, and we disappeared into the Yosemite backcountry.

We had no idea what the hell we were doing.

That experience taught me an important lesson: Mother Nature is indifferent to your joy, comfort, distress, and pain. You’re on your own. But having the proper gear will ensure you have a safe, enjoyable trip. You’ll be able to reflect on your journey with a sense of pride and accomplishment, rather than remembering the time you almost died.

In July I’ll be climbing Mount Whitney, the highest peak in the continental United States.

And this time I’m better prepared. I’ve been acquiring the gear I need to spend a few days on the mountain, and to make a successful bid for the summit. I’m hoping to keep the base weight of my gear under twenty pounds, but I’ll probably end up being a touch over. I’m only taking what I need to be safe and comfortable. I’m not interested in hauling sixty pounds of shit up the side of a mountain. That’s not my idea of a good time.

Here’s a quick overview of the basic backpacking gear you’ll need to get started:

The Ten Essentials – These are the things you should never leave home without: map, compass, sun protection (sunglasses and sunscreen), extra food, extra water, extra clothes, headlight, first aid kit, fire starter, and a knife.

Backpack – Choosing a backpack requires a lot of research. You have to decide how much storage you’ll need, what features you’re looking for, and the price you’re willing to pay. A lot of research can be done online, but don’t buy a backpack without first trying it on. Your comfort in the backcountry depends on how well your pack fits, so be sure to have a professional help you chose one that fits properly.

Shelter – What you carry for shelter will depend on your desired level of comfort. The more fancy the tent, the heavier it will be. The tent I chose is the REI Half Dome 2 Plus. I decided to go with this tent because I’m traveling with another person, and I’m a tall guy. I wouldn’t carry this tent if I were going solo. It’s too heavy. If I were heading into the backcountry by myself, I’d want a tent that doesn’t weigh more than two and a half pounds, something like the NEMO Obi Tent.

Sleeping Bag – You want a bag that’s lightweight, but will keep you warm. Use the EN temperature rating as a guide to help you select the right bag. I have the Mountain Hardwear Ultralamina +0 Sleeping Bag, which is more than I need for Mount Whitney, but I bought it anyways because I’ll be doing some more “extreme” hikes in the future.

Sleeping Pad – A sleeping pad isn’t only to make the night more enjoyable, it also insulates you from the ground. When you lay on your sleeping bag, you crush the insulation. Crushed insulation doesn’t insulate. And the ground is cold. You can pick up a closed-cell foam pad for cheap, or you can go with an inflatable pad. I chose the Exped DownMat UL 7 for its added R-Value. A major drawback to this pad is that it requires an external pumping system to inflate (one more thing to carry.) Exped designed a Pillow Pump that doubles as a pillow, and an air pump. Clever!

Water Purification System – And boiling river water over a campfire in tin ravioli cans doesn’t count! Yes, I’ve done it. No, I don’t suggest you do it. Buy a filter. Even though you’re in the middle of pristine wilderness and the water is crystal clear, you never know if a marmot (or another hiker) took a shit in the river just out of your view. Mmm, tasty! I use the Katadyn Base Camp Water Filter because it has a large volume and because gravity does all the work.

Camp Stove – You can pick up a burner that screws into a fuel canister for around $30 or you can spend almost $200 for a Jetboil Sumo Titanium Cooking System. I decided to meet in the middle with the Jetboil Flash. You’re able to cook in, and eat out of, a single container. And when you’re done, everything packs neatly inside.

Headlight – For early morning summit bids, or in case of an emergency. A headlight is a must in the backcountry. You want a light that is durable, reliable, and bright. I went with the Black Diamond Icon. At 200 lumens, it can throw a beam of light up to 100 meters. That’s bright!

First Aid Kit – Shit happens. Be ready. It’s one piece of gear you never hope you’ll need, but is absolutely essential to have. You might not be able to do a heart transplant with it, but it can really help you out with less severe maladies like cuts, scrapes, and blisters. I picked up the REI Backpacker Plus Multiday First-Aid Kit.

Since I’m trying to keep my pack weight to a minimum, I’m not dragging along much more than what’s listed above. I’ll have the odd toiletry items, and things like insect repellent, a toothbrush and toothpaste, and my camera. But not much more than that. Backpacking is supposed to be fun and enjoyable…not punishing. And I can’t think of anything worse than hauling a heavy backpack up a mountain…

Read Also: Preparing for a Successful Adventure

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4 thoughts on “A Quick Guide to Basic Backpacking Gear

  1. If you have a cheap synthetic sleeping bag and you try sleeping out in any camping tent with it, the chances are very high you’re going to spend a sleepless night with your teeth chattering from cold. You might just get away with it using a poor quality sleeping bag on some hot summer night (just maybe), or on a mild night sleeping in an RV or camper. But in a tent you need extra insulation from the cold damp earth that is underneath you. It acts like a heatsink, and sucks the warmth out of your body, even through most sleeping bags.

    • That’s why I recommend buying a sleeping pad or inflatable mattress. Laying on a sleeping bag crushes the insulation beneath your body and does nothing to insulate you from the ground. That’s where a sleeping pad comes in.

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