Well, we just officially cancelled our Memorial Day plans, and I know I’m not the only one who’s had to do that. So for now, I’ll be desperately clinging to the hope that things will open up enough in the next month that we can hang onto the rest of our summer camping reservations and backpacking permits.
Either way, it’s going to be a summer of local adventures rather than extensive roadtrips or overseas travel. In preparation, I thought it might be useful to put together some info about backpacking for anyone who might be looking to take up a new close-to-home hobby. We’ll talk about necessary and optional gear, safety, trip planning, and tips and tricks for a successful backcountry adventure.
I’ve also linked to some of the gear we own in case you’re interested in learning more about these items. I’m not being paid to do so; this is just me putting in a good word for some of the gear that has worked really well for us.
Let’s start with the basics:
• Backpack: I’m a member of a couple hiking groups on Facebook and people will periodically ask for recommendations on the best backpack. My answer is always the same: whichever one fits you the best. Backpacks are never a one-size-fits-all item.
To find the best backpack, go to an outdoor gear store and try some on. Even better, go to a gear store where the workers will discuss the different packs with you and show you how to adjust them correctly. REI will put sandbags in packs and let you walk around the store with them weighted down to ensure proper fit and comfort. (I’m sure other stores do that too, I just happen to live really close to an REI so I mostly shop there.)
Just ask Pat; nothing will put a damper on your trip as quickly as having an uncomfortable pack.
It’s also also necessary to consider the size and features of the backpack. Most backpacking packs range from 45-80 liters. For trips requiring minimal gear or in warm weather places, 45L might be enough. For more gear or longer trips, more space will be needed. Here in Colorado, we have to pack lots of layers and warmer sleeping bags, so that takes up more room. More and more places are now requiring hard-sided bear canisters (more on this shortly), which also take up quite a bit of space. My pack is a 60L and Pat’s is a 65L and they’ve been sufficient for 3 day/2 night trips in summer and fall.
Long story short, choose a backpack size based on the gear you’ll be carrying.
• Shoes: The other thing that will quickly turn a backpacking trip into a sufferfest is bad footwear. Bear in mind that you’ll have a lot of extra weight on your back so shoes/boots that work great for day hikes might not be adequate for backpacking. More ankle support might be necessary to help with the extra weight. Whatever type of footwear you prefer, this is in the same category as backpacks: find the ones that fit you best. Try them on with the socks you’ll be wearing, walk around the store in them, put some weight on your back and walk around in them… make sure they really, truly fit your feet.
Pat can vouch for this one too; bad shoes = miserable hike.
(Can you tell we’ve learned a lot of this by trial and error?)
• Sleeping: Bare minimum, a tent, sleeping bag, and sleeping pad are the necessities (unless you prefer to sleep in a hammock or bivy sack). Which specific items to purchase is largely dependent on climate and budget. Off-brand items can be purchased fairly inexpensively online, while the kind of high quality gear necessary for outings in colder weather can cost many hundreds of dollars.
How much each item weighs is an important consideration for backpacking. In general, you want your pack to be no more than 20% of your body weight… so every pound counts. Since Pat and I share the gear-carrying burden, we are a little less restricted here. A typical, mid-range tent (in terms of quality and price) will likely weigh about 4-5 lbs (1.8-2.3 kg). A comparable sleeping bag will be 2-3 lbs (1-1.4 kg), and a sleeping pad probably around 1 lb (0.5 kg).
We also have small, inexpensive inflatable pillows, but to save a few ounces of weight you can fold up your extra clothing beneath your head as a pillow instead.
In terms of space, a down sleeping bag will compress much more than a synthetic one, while inflatable sleeping pads roll down much smaller than foam ones (and are, in my opinion, more comfortable). In terms of temperature rating, the higher the R-value of an item (this is especially relevant for sleeping pads) the more insulated it will be. All of these factors will be important considerations when choosing the right gear to suit your needs.
• Clothing: This is another category that isn’t one-size-fits-all, and what to pack is highly weather dependent. Since I mostly backpack in the Colorado Rockies where it can cool down into the 40s (4-9°C) overnight even in the summer, here’s what I typically wear/bring.
(NOTE: none of this should be cotton; cotton gets wet very easily and doesn’t dry quickly, which is a recipe for hypothermia)
- Tank top
- Quarter zip workout top
- Packable down vest
- Packable down jacket
- Wind jacket
- Rain jacket and pants
- Base layer pants (fleece-lined for cooler weather, non-lined otherwise)
- Hiking pants and/or shorts
- Warm hat, fleece ear band, and buff
- Extra socks and underwear
Pro tip: I keep most of this in a dry bag, just in case; wet clothes won’t warm you up
• Food: To be honest, I’m still not 100% confident in our food packing. I’m always afraid of running out so we end up overpacking, which adds unnecessary weight to our packs. It’s a work in progress. And what I like to eat while hiking probably isn’t what other people like to eat while hiking.
So here’s what I will say: you probably want to bring food that minimizes the amount of dirty dishes produced. We try to bring things that just require adding hot water and eating out of the package, meaning we only end up having to clean a couple spoons. It’s also a good idea to try out any new-to-you food choices at home first… 1:00am in the backcountry is never an optimal time to learn that your digestive system really disliked your dinner.
(Fortunately, this is a lesson we didn’t have to learn by trial and error.)
• Water: On the other hand, I feel pretty comfortable with our water system. We have LifeStraw bottles for drinking water and a Sawyer Micro filter for cooking water and to refill our backup Nalgene bottles if necessary. We carry purification tablets just in case, but having these water filters has so far eliminated the need for drinking iodine-flavored water or expending fuel to boil water.
One thing to know about LifeStraws and water filters… if they freeze they’re no longer safe to use, though there won’t be any visual signs of this. To prevent freezing, we remove the filter portions from the bottles at night, shake them out as best we can, wrap them in bandanas, and keep them inside our sleeping bags.
• Backpacking stove and adequate fuel: Yes, you can cook over a fire. But we never plan to do that, for a few reasons: (1) stoves are much faster and easier, (2) fires aren’t allowed in many backcountry locations, (3) there may be seasonal fire bans, and (4) campfires have a very negative impact on the environment. Not only do they use resources that other animals rely on (for example, animals that use sticks to build a nest or rely on pine cones or lichen as a food source), but the high heat also causes permanent damage to the soil such that, even if you dismantle your fire ring before you leave, it’s likely that nothing will grow there again for 100s of years. I’m not saying never have a campfire, I’m just illustrating why a stove and fuel may be preferred or even necessary.
A tiny backpacking stove can be purchased for $20 or less and fuel canisters don’t add that much weight to a pack.
• Food storage bag + rope, or bear canister: I know plenty of people who are very anti-bear canister, and I get it. I do. They’re big and bulky, they add weight to your pack, and you do sometimes have to get creative to fit everything inside. They’re also expensive. But the reality is that they’re required in quite a few places already and that’s a trend that’s likely to continue. At this point, they’ve basically become a backpacking necessity.
Personally, I’m a fan. Despite the downsides, I see plenty of upsides… mainly that they’re so much easier than bear hangs. You just seal it up and go place it 200+ feet (60+ m) from your camp, and that’s it. The last 4 places I’ve backpacked, there haven’t been many – if any – suitable places for a bear hang. And when someone hangs their bear bag from a branch that’s “close enough” to meeting the requirements, an animal will inevitably eventually get into it, and not only do you now have no food, but also that animal becomes habituated to human food and starts approaching humans or lingering near places with lots of people and it becomes a problem animal and has to be put down. So yes, you have to add some extra weight to your pack… but ultimately it’s not about weight. It’s about the safety of wild animals and also the other humans using the backcountry.
So what goes in a bear canister? Everything scented except DEET. That means food, dishes (even when clean), pet food and dishes if you backpack with your dog(s), all toiletries, other small items like hand sanitizer, sunscreen, and chapstick, and all garbage. As with other items, purchase the size of bear canister that is compatible with your planned trip duration and the amount of food you’ll be bringing.
• Dishes: We typically pack a small pan, two cups, and silverware. If we will need to do some washing, there are biodegradable soaps specifically for this purpose. If your chosen meal will result in food pieces being left behind in the dishes or dish water, be sure to strain these pieces out with a square of mesh or a bandana and place them into the garbage before disposing of the dish water.
• Garbage bag(s): To store said garbage in your bear canister without making a mess. And also to pick up any garbage you might find along the trail. A couple of ziplocks or some dog poop bags work well for this.
• The Ten Essentials: First aid kit (pro tip: include supplies for treating blisters and burns, which are the most common backcountry injuries), navigation system, fire starter system, knife/multitool, light source + extra batteries, emergency blanket/shelter, sun protection, extra food, extra water or filtration system, and extra clothing.
• Trowel for digging cat holes, toilet paper, and bag(s) to carry out your toilet paper: The truth is that TP doesn’t biodegrade very quickly, especially in deserts or high elevation areas… it’s far more likely that an animal will dig it up before it decomposes. Feminine hygiene products don’t decompose at all and should NEVER be buried. Burning these items is also not an environmentally sound alternative. It all needs to be packed out.
When you do have to go in the woods, Leave No Trace principles state that you should be at least 200 feet (60 m) – which is about 70 adult steps – from water, trails, and your campsite. Solid waste should be deposited into a hole that’s 4-6 inches (10-15 cm) deep and buried… unless you’re camping in an area that requires a WAG bag (this is common in deserts, alpine zones, and canyons), in which case you’ll be packing out the solid waste too.
• Toiletries, medications, etc.
• Towel: Or bandana, or something similar.
• Map: Obviously you want to know where you’re going, how to get there, and what to expect on your hiking route. This is also part of the Ten Essentials (listed above).
• ID and copy of health insurance card
• Car keys: And a safe place to store them in your pack. If you’re backpacking with someone else, give them your spare key to carry, just in case.
• Passes, permits, and/or other paperwork: Also any money you might need to pay for trailhead parking, permits, shuttles, etc. If you live in Colorado, consider also purchasing (and carrying) a CORSAR card to support Search & Rescue.
Now that we’ve covered the necessary items, let’s talk optional gear:
Things like tent and backpack and food are obvious, but it’s the little stuff that’s taken us the longest to acquire, either because we didn’t initially consider that we might want or need these items, or we didn’t know they existed.
• Kula cloth: As far as I’m concerned, this is one of the best hiking inventions ever! It’s basically antibacterial, reusable toilet paper for women. The fabric is infused with silver to kill bacteria and reduce odors, it snaps to your backpack and to itself for privacy and cleanliness, is easily washable, and eliminates the need for TP when peeing (yay for convenience and being eco-friendly!). I was skeptical at first but now I never go hiking without it.
• Microspikes: We’ve hiked through snow and ice in July and been snowed on in August. For me, spikes have become a year-round necessity and are worth the extra little bit of weight.
• Waterproof backpack cover and dry bags: I think I speak for most of us when I say that wet clothes and gear makes everything so much more miserable. And also raises the risk for hypothermia.
• Tent footprint: This will help protect your tent and I highly recommend it, but technically it’s an optional piece of gear. There are plenty of off-brand, inexpensive ones that work just as well as the name-brand ones.
• Sleeping bag liner or down throw: My mom is a cold sleeper, and no matter how many layers she wears or what her sleeping bag temperature rating is, she’s always cold at night. If this sounds like you, adding a liner or a packable down throw inside your sleeping bag might help keep you warm.
• Shoes for camp: The last thing I want to do when I get to camp is keep walking around in my sweaty hiking boots. We used to bring sandals but, after an unfortunate encounter with mosquitoes, we’ve switched to Crocs with socks underneath. Ugly? Kind of. Light weight and functional? Yes.
• Bug spray: Or some other anti-bug system. Some sort of anti-itch treatment isn’t a bad idea either.
• Vasoline: Or something similar to prevent or treat chafing. Long days of walking and sweating can result in chafing of the inner thighs… and other more sensitive areas. (Yet another unfortunate lesson we learned the hard way.)
• Giant garbage bag: One that’s large enough to fit your entire backpack, just in case you need some extra rain protection. I always put my pack in the bag and place it beneath the vestibule of the tent before heading to bed; if the ground gets wet, my pack stays dry.
• Collapsible backpack for day hiking: This is a recent addition to our gear list and it’s been great! This little backpack folds down into itself, weighs less than 1 lb (0.5 kg), and allows us to leave our big packs behind and carry just the few items we need if we want to day hike beyond camp.
• Hiking poles: I carry them, Pat doesn’t. It’s personal preference. They can be very useful on steep downhills and also to facilitate water crossings. Having your hands wrapped around them can also prevent the finger swelling that often occurs at high altitide.
• Bear spray: After growing up in grizzly country I feel weird hiking without it… but again, this is just personal preference.
• Alarm or noise maker: This was a recent addition to my gear list after reading about someone else’s experience of needing to scare a bear away from their bear canister in the middle of the night. I realized I never bring anything into my tent that’s capable of making noise, so I found myself a tiny rechargeable alarm button.
• Some type of satellite communication device: We don’t have one because they’re very expensive, but I know people who never go out without their Garmin or Spot device. It’s not a bad thing to have if you can afford it and/or you’ll be spending a lot of time in very remote areas.
• Battery pack and charging cord: All the battery packs in the world are useless without your phone cord. I actually just got a solar powered charger and I’m excited to try it out this summer!
Pro tip: if it’s cold, keep the battery pack and your devices as close to your body as possible during the day and in your sleeping bag at night.
• Tiny tripod: Because I’m really not into selfies
• Binoculars: Probably a small pair, for purposes of weight
• Entertainment: Deck of cards, a book, etc… in case it’s pouring rain and you get stuck in your tent all evening
• Miscellaneous items: Rubber bands, safety pins, paper clips, small bungee cords, some paracord or rope, tiny sewing kit, repair kit for sleeping pads and tent, hand and foot warmers, Kleenex, wet wipes, hand sanitizer, and chapstick.
Before You Go:
• Review all the rules and regulations for where you’ll be traveling to ensure you have the necessary permits and any required gear.
• Brush up on your Leave No Trace knowledge to ensure a minimal impact venture into the backcountry.
• Leave a copy of your itinerary with someone you trust. In addition to where you’ll be and when, let them know the route you plan to take and when you expect to return. Also include info about your car (make, model, color, and license plate #) and your gear and clothing (what color are your tent and backpack, what colors will you be wearing?)… if something should happen, this information helps Search & Rescue narrow down where to look and know what to look for.
Did I miss anything? Any tips, tricks or other things that you’ve learned? Any favorite gear items that you never leave home without? I’d love to hear about them!