Backpacking is a thrilling and adventurous way to explore the great outdoors. However, to make the most of your journey, you need to have the right gear. The right gear can make all the difference for an enjoyable and memorable trip. Essential backpacking gear is not only important for comfort and convenience, but also for safety.
In this article, we discuss the must-have gear that every backpacker should consider before heading out on their next adventure. As long as you’re willing to get there on your own two feet, with a pack full of gear, you can get to places vehicles cannot go. You’ll be able to see beautiful mountain lakes, watch gorgeous sunsets, and sleep under the stars.
- Backpacking Basics
- Essential Backpacking Gear
- Backpack – An Essential Backpacking Item
- Our Backpack Pick
- Sleeping Bag – An Essential Backpacking Item
- Our Sleeping Bag Pick
- Tent – An Essential Backpacking Item
- Our Tent Pick
- Cook Stove – An Essential Backpacking Item
- Our Backpacking Cook Stove Pick
- Water Purifier – An Essential Backpacking Item
- Our Water Purifier Pick
- Final Thoughts: Essential Backpacking Gear
For the uninitiated, backpacking means carrying a backpack filled with your camping gear and hiking somewhere to camp overnight. It’s different from car camping because you will physically carry everything you need with you on your back.
You’ll hear people talk about lightweight backpacking or ultra-lightweight backpacking. The basic concepts of all backpacking are the same; the difference is people try to see how light they can make their load. Gear has evolved over the years to be better quality and lighter weight. You will, of course, pay for this high-quality gear, but in some instances, it may very well be worth it. In other cases, it may not matter, and a little extra weight may be okay.
As you go along and become more experienced, you’ll find yourself getting rid of things from your pack you don’t need or don’t use and replacing them with things that bring a little extra comfort. Items that you deem part of your essential backpacking gear list.
Many people who aren’t concerned about lightweight or ultra-lightweight backpacking will aim for a pack weighing anywhere from 30-45 pounds. Of course, the heavier your pack, the more uncomfortable it will likely become the longer you go. But with the right pack loaded correctly, you should have a reasonably comfortable trip, and the views and silence are always worth it.
Essential Backpacking Gear
- Cook Stove
- Water Purifier
- Sleeping Bag
Backpack – An Essential Backpacking Item
A quality, comfortable backpack does not have to cost an arm and a leg. But it is essential to find one that fits correctly and has enough space to fit all your gear. For those new to hiking and backpacking, there are many different size packs, all for different uses. For example, the capacity you’ll need for a short half-day hike will differ from what you’ll need for an all-day trek, which will also be different from an overnight or multi-night trip.
Backpack capacity is sized in liters or cubic inches, and understanding what size works for each activity will be helpful. However, for the sake of this article, we’ll stick to the capacity you’ll need for backpacking:
- 1-3 nights: 30-50 liters or 1830-3050 cubic inches
- 3-5 nights: 50-80 liters or 3050-4880 cubic inches
- 5+ nights: 70 liters or larger or 4270+ cubic inches
While the larger packs will add a bit of weight, remember you don’t have to fill it. If you think you’ll be making more extended trips, it’s best to error on the side of caution and go for a slightly larger capacity.
Once you know how large of a backpack you need, make sure you find the correct size for your build.
Backpack Frame Type
You’ll also need to determine if you want an internal backpack frame, external backpack frame, or a frameless backpack.
External Frame: With external frames, the frame is as it sounds: on the outside. These are typically used for carrying large or irregular loads, like a kayak or even packing out wild game if you’re a hunter. You can attach gear more easily to the outside as well.
Internal Frame: Internal frames are also as they sound: the frame is on the inside. These fit closer to the body and are the most commonly used backpack frame these days.
Frameless Backpack: A third, less common option is a backpack without a frame to save weight. However, these tend to be much more uncomfortable the more weight you have loaded and are best for those who want to move light and fast.
Our Backpack Pick
We recommend the Osprey Rook 65 Men’s Backpacking Backpack or the Osprey Renn 65 Women’s Backpacking Backpack for an excellent all-around pack that won’t break the bank. At 65 liters each, they are plenty big for multi-night trips, and the load weight is 30-40 pounds. There are more expensive Osprey packs, but these will give you all the necessary features you need if you’re just getting started.
Osprey packs are known for their quality and are used by many expert backpackers. Both of these packs have room for a hydration reservoir. In addition, they come with a ventilated back panel that allows for adequate airflow to keep you cool.
The waist belt has pouches for keeping your accessories such as a headlamp, snacks, or GPS. Another nice feature of these packs is the compartment divider. This allows you to stow your sleeping bag or other things in the bottom of the pack and access them without reaching in from the top.
Sleeping Bag – An Essential Backpacking Item
The next thing you’ll need is a sleeping bag. A good sleeping bag that is warm enough yet still light enough will likely make or break how enjoyable your experience is. There is nothing worse than being cold while you’re trying to sleep on the ground.
For that reason, you may choose to spend a bit more money on a quality bag. But, of course, the ever-present issue when backpacking is making sure you’re not packing too much weight or bulk. Therefore, you’ll want to go with a sleeping back that is light enough to keep the backpack weight low and also a sleeping back that rolls up and compresses enough to not take up the full carrying capacity of your pack.
Sleeping bags are rated for their warmth, typically by degrees. You’ll want to choose one that is rated slightly lower than the temperatures you intend to be sleeping in.
There are two types of backpacking sleeping bags. Each type affects weight, warmth, compressibility, water resistance, and price.
Down Sleeping Bag: Down comes from the layer underneath a bird’s feathers. It’s lofty and light, creating a heat-trapping barrier. It compresses easily and is suitable for dry, cold conditions. It’s excellent for when weight and space-saving are priorities. However, if it gets wet, it clumps up and loses its loft, thus its heat-retention ability.
Synthetic Sleeping Bag: Cheaper than down, synthetic bags are typically filled with polyester material. It dries quickly and even insulates when wet. The downside to synthetic bags is they don’t compress down as well and are typically heavier.
Our Sleeping Bag Pick
While there are many great brands out there and a lot of choices, Big Agnes makes an interesting sleep system that we’ll talk about more in a minute. The Big Agnes Lost Dog comes in men’s and women’s versions and multiple warmth ratings. This particular bag is large enough for taller people, with plenty of shoulder room. It is also available in regular-sized options. At four pounds, it’s relatively lightweight for a synthetic bag.
The caveat to this bag is it requires a Big Agnes 0 degree rated sleeping pad that fits in the sleeve on the bottom of the bag. However, a sleeping pad is something you will need anyway. The Big Agnes Air Core Ultra Sleeping Pad is an excellent companion pad to go with this sleeping bag.
We recommend a bag and pad system because you will often find yourself sleeping in areas that are not perfectly flat. If you are on even the slightest incline and are not “attached” to your sleeping pad, you will find yourself slipping and sliding off your pad throughout the night. This can make for a miserable night’s sleep.
This particular pad is rated for 3-seasons, meaning unless you intend to winter camp, it should work well for most needs. Its design also helps keep you in the middle of the pad. Overall, this system is an excellent choice that will last you for many years with the proper care.
Tent – An Essential Backpacking Item
It is true, you do not have to have a tent, and some people go without, especially if they know the weather will be good. However, it’s best not to count on a good weather forecast since a rain shower (or even snow, depending on where you are) is always possible. A tent however is definitely high on the list of essential backpacking gear. Especially if you don’t have rain gear or some other type of protection from the weather.
Others will take a bivvy bag, which is basically like a cocoon to crawl in to help keep heat in and the elements out. People backpacking and traveling hard and fast may use these, but a tent will be much more comfortable.
If you are backpacking, you will likely be looking at packing a 1-, 2-, or 3-person tent. A good rule of thumb is to go one person up from the number of individuals sleeping in it. This is to account for all of your gear that you’ll want to keep covered as well as a dog if you have one.
A good tent will have a rain fly and at least one vestibule for keeping gear protected. Many tent designs are similar. Therefore, there is no need to spend a bunch of money when a middle-of-the-pack tent will do. Of course, if you want to go ultra-lightweight or start adding features, more expensive options are available. You could also choose to pack a hammock and hammock rain fly instead of a tent.
Our Tent Pick
The 2-person MARMOT Crane Creek Ultra Lightweight Backpacking and Camping Tent has a pretty standard setup, room for two, and is reasonably lightweight at just under five pounds. With side pockets, lantern loops, and vestibule space, it has all the bells and whistles. Additionally, the floor seams are taped, which is good for keeping out moisture.
Marmot is a solid outdoor brand that makes quality products, and this particular tent falls in a very reasonable price range.
Cook Stove – An Essential Backpacking Item
The next piece of essential backpacking gear you will need is a cookstove. As with all backpacking gear, there are many excellent options out there.
Canister stoves are small, compact single-burner stoves that attach to a canister filled with Isobutane or its variants. The fuel creates a flame to boil water or cook food. The canisters come in three different sizes, and which you choose will depend on how many people you’re cooking for and how long your trip will be.
There are two designs:
Integrated canister stove: These have the stove and the pot integrated.
Standard canister stove: These do not have a cooking pot attached. They will require additional cookware such as pots and pans.
The type of food you want to cook will likely dictate the type of stove you choose. If you are going with lightweight, freeze-dried meals, an integrated canister stove is a way to go. However, if you want to heat things like hotdogs or anything not freeze-dried, you may opt for the pot and pan option.
Our Backpacking Cook Stove Pick
Since you are backpacking and trying to save weight, our pick is the Jetboil Flash Camping and Backpacking Stove Cooking System. It is an integrated canister stove and rapidly boils water in under two minutes.
This is our pick because we also advocate using freeze-dried meals. After all, they are weight-saving. While some people shy away from this, thinking they are like MREs, many innovative brands make nourishing and delicious meals.
With that said, JetBoil has many stove variations, and you can’t go wrong with any of them. Some are smaller (i.e., more lightweight) but have a smaller water capacity. This particular model will allow you to boil in one sitting the amount you need for a full freeze-dried meal, and while you’re waiting for your meal to soak and reconstitute (absorb water), you can quickly boil another round for a cup of coffee (or hot toddy).
Water Purifier – An Essential Backpacking Item
Water is heavy to carry. If you have to pack all that you need on your back, you’ll be regretting it if you’re also carrying water. But, of course, if you are backpacking in the desert or other arid places, you may not have a choice. For most areas and backpacking trips, there most likely will be a water source. It could be a stream, river, lake, or pond, but one thing is for sure: you will not want to drink from it without using a water purifier to kill any harmful bacteria.
There are two main options: tablets and filters. The tablet option is pretty straightforward. You drop it in your water for a set amount of time, shake it up and drink. But there is a multitude of filter options. Which you choose will again depend on weight, space, and what you are going to fill.
Gravity-fed bags: With this filter, you fill the gravity bag with water and then hang it from a tree. There is a filter which attaches between the bag and the hose, and when you open the hose, water slowly drains through the filter into your water bottle or cooking canister. These come in several different sizes, measured in liters.
Pump: There is a variety of pump water filters, but the concept is similar. You put a hose into your water source (i.e., river, pond, etc.), then you use a pump to push the water through the system, including the filter, through another hose, and into your container.
Attachment: These filters attach directly to a water bottle. You fill your water bottle from the source, then attach the filter to the spout. You then drink through the filter.
Our Water Purifier Pick
The Sawyer Products MINI Water Filtration System is our choice for a backpacking water purification system. This small filter attaches directly to the included water pouch, or you can attach it to a regular plastic water bottle as well. You can drink water through it directly or attach it to a straw. The best part of this filter is it’s straightforward to use and incredibly lightweight. It’s also far more cost-effective than some of the other options.
Final Thoughts: Essential Backpacking Gear
While all of this gear may require a significant financial investment upfront, rest assured that high-quality gear is meant to last for many years through many trips. All of these brands offer a warranty and stand behind their products. As we all know with so many things, you get what you pay for.
Of course, this is not the comprehensive list of all the essential backpacking gear you will need, but these are some of the most critical components. The essentials you will need for your adventure will depend on where you are going, how long you are planning on being there, and perhaps what the weather forecast is. Consider your backpacking essentials wisely as you may compromise your comfort levels and safety without them.
If you are new to backpacking, it can certainly be overwhelming to get into. However, there are many great resources available to help you supply yourself with essential backpacking gear. The reward of getting out into the backcountry and away from people makes the expense and effort well worth it.
When you’re lying around looking at the stars or sitting around a campfire, your efforts will be rewarded!