I often get asked about my camping gear - what's in my pack, what brands I prefer, how much should I spend, etc. Obviously there's a lot to each answer and much depends on budget, trip length/difficulty and personal fit and preference. That being said, here is what I have found works well for me in twenty-some years of trial and error.
Let's start with the big stuff:
Pack – Probably the most important purchase. Pack fit is critical, so I highly recommend trying a number of brands and models (loaded up) before making your decision. You'll want a pack that fits your body type properly. For example, I have a long torso and a narrow waist so what fits me well will be different than someone else. The key is to avoid gaps between your shoulders and the straps and in the waist belt and then ensure that when the shoulder straps are fitting properly the waist belt is at the proper height/position on your body. Proper fit will ensure a comfortable carry, even with heavier loads.
Capacity is also a big factor. Make sure you have a pack that can accommodate the gear you will need for your journey. Obviously weekend trips require less than those lasting longer. Pack capacity is typically measured in Liters. Packs in the 40-60 Liter range are more appropriate for weekend outings, whereas packs in the 60+ Liter range are better suited to longer trips, depending on the amount of gear you bring.
Other features that I typically look for include:
Gear Access - I prefer a pack with multiple access points.
External pockets - I prefer to have a few handy external pockets for water bottles and/or other items requiring easy or frequent access.
Separate sleeping bag compartment with divider.
Hydration reservoir - not something I typically use but a handy feature.
Ability to "cinch down" the pack when carrying smaller loads typically with compression straps.
External attachment options - a pack that provides the ability to attach items to the exterior - sleeping pads, trekking poles, ice axes, etc.
For me that perfect pack is the Osprey Xenith 75 – which provides plenty of capacity for a week-long trip but can be cinched down with smaller loads so it's not overly clunky and cumbersome. Osprey also provides sizing options from medium to extra large and interchangeable pieces for all body types, ensuring the best fit. And they will repair any damage or defect for any reason free of charge. Find it here: https://www.osprey.com/us/en/product/xenith-75-XENITH75S18_564.html
Also make sure you invest in a quality pack cover to keep the rain out while hiking and protect your pack from the elements when at camp.
Tent – A few things I have learned over the years. First, being wet while backpacking sucks. Second, being cramped for space in a tent while backpacking sucks. Third, having two doors on a tent is much nicer than having one.
Taking these all into account here are a few of my recommendations:
Invest in a quality tent with a good fly and take care of it – consider using a tent footprint to lessen wear on your tent.
If you plan to have two people in the tent, buy a three-person tent, unless your travel companion is someone you want to get real cozy with. Sure a three-man tent is heavier, but you can split the weight between two people and it’s not too bad. It’s worth it. Trust me. If you have three people – use more than one tent.
Get a tent with two doors. There is nothing worse than a tent-mate needing to get up in the middle of the night to relieve themselves (sometimes, more than once) and having to crawl over or around you to make their escape. Get a tent with two exits.
A 3-season tent should suffice, unless you intend to do any winter camping or plan to travel where heavy snow is a possibility – then you will want to invest in a 4-season.
I am more about comfort than weight so I don’t typically go minimal, but look for a tent in the 4-6 lb range (for a 3 man) anything heavier than that starts to be a burden.
My go-to is the Big Agnes Copper Spur HV UL3. This 3-season, 3-person tent sets up quick and easy, provides two doors, ample headroom and weighs in at around 4lbs. (https://www.bigagnes.com/Copper-Spur-HV-UL3-2020)
Sleeping bag. Another important choice. You’ll want one that provides the warmth you need at the lightest weight you can afford. Down is always the lightest but can present some problems if/when it gets wet. For that reason I typically have gone with synthetic insulations. This year I made a change to a Dri Down bag, which offered more warmth at a lighter weight than my synthetic. I also like to purchase my bags in a “long”. I’m almost 6’ 2” and it’s nice to have that little extra room. You can find affordable bags in the 2.5-4 lb. range with either down or synthetic fill. I also recommend a good waterproof compression sack for packing your bag. I have a Sea to Summit E-vent in small and love it. Just be sure not to store your bag for long periods of time in the compressed state, it takes away from the warmth.
Sleeping pad – a must have. A proper sleeping pad makes sleeping more comfortable, insulates you from the ground and keeps you drier. I have an older Thermarest that I have used and abused for years and I love it. It also doubles as a nice dinner or campfire seat when propped against a log, rock or tree.
Stove – If you are like me, many of your meals (and morning coffee) while backpacking require boiled water. Having a reliable backpacking stove is a necessity. There are a number of great options out there. For me the choice is the Optimus Crux with the Elektra FE Cook System (https://www.optimusstoves.com/us/us/16999-8019748-optimus-elektra-fe) The Crux is ridiculously tiny when folded up and weighs only 3.3oz. It will accept butane or propane, burn for 90 minutes going full blast with a 220g canister, and boil a liter of water in only three minutes. While I have no personal experience with them, I have also heard good things about the Jetboil products.
Water filter – Clean, drinkable water while backpacking is a must. There are a few safe ways to achieve this: Boiling, tablets or filtering. Even though it adds a little weight I have always been a fan of the pump-style water filters. I have used products from PUR, MSR and Katadyn. My current model – and favorite – is the Katadyn Hiker Pro (https://www.katadyn.com/us/us/432-8018273-katadyn-hiker-pro-microfilter). This small filter physically removes particles, protozoa and bacteria down to 0.2 microns in size, including giardia, salmonella, and cryptosporidia plus the activated-carbon core absorbs chemicals and pesticides to improve taste of water. The double-action pump can filter 1 liter of water in a minute.
Mess kit – basically a way to prepare and eat your food. There are a number of options here and most any will work. My kit includes a small pot with foldable handles for boiling water, a small pan with foldable handles that can be used to fry up small items as well serving as a plate for eating. I also bring a small knife/fork/spoon set and a small plastic cup for measuring water and drinking coffee. My pan fits under my pot and then I am able to put my cup, silverware, stove and fuel all into the pot and close the lid. The entire kit fits in a smallish carry bag.
Boots – This is really a personal preference, but I can tell you good footwear makes a big difference. I know folks that backpack in something as simple as trail runners and do fine. I prefer boots. Heavy duty, waterproof (Gore-tex lined) backpacking boots. There are a number of great boot manufacturers out there, but for me the choice is the Asolo Power Matic 200 GV (https://www.asolo.com/en/products/backpacking/mountain-trekking/pw-matic-200-evo-gv-graphite.html). These boots are heavy but take a beating, keep out water and provide a ton of stability and shock absorption. Plus they fit me like a glove - which is probably the most important factor when selecting footwear. That being said, always try on boots before you purchase them and make sure you give your boots a break-in period pre-hike. Nothing says blisters like out-of-the-box boots on long trails. Sometimes I will pack a pair of runners or sandals to wear around camp – after a long hike sometimes it feels good to get the boots off.
Clothes – This again comes down to personal preference and fit but for the time of year I typically hike (Fall) and the places I go, the key is layers. You’ll want a good base layer, an insulation layer and an outer layer that can withstand the elements. Wicking and breathability are key to ensure comfort and safety so be sure to avoid cotton products.
When packing for a week-long excursion I typically pack underwear and fresh socks for each day (somehow clean, dry underwear and socks every day is a morale booster), one thin pair of wicking base layer long johns and, if expecting colder weather, one heavier pair, 2-3 pairs of pants, a pair of light shorts, three-long sleeve wicking base layer shirts and three short-sleeve wicking base-layer shirts, a ¼ zip pull over, a camp shirt (optional), my nano-puff jacket and a rain/wind proof outer shell.
Here are some of the products I use and recommend:
Base Bottoms: I highly recommend the Patagonia Capilene Series (https://www.patagonia.com/capilene-polyester-baselayer.html) or the Firstlite Merino products (https://www.firstlite.com/products/mens-fuse-long-john)
For tough but non-water repelling pants I am a big fan of the Kuhl Revolver (https://www.kuhl.com/kuhl/mens/pants/revolvr/) or the Sitka Back Forty (https://www.sitkagear.com/products/back-forty-pant/olive-brown) For weather I prefer my Patagonia Guidewater II pants (https://www.patagonia.com/product/mens-guidewater-ii-pants-regular/82102.html). Being nearly 6’ 2” I require a 34” inseam, which not all brands make. Stio’s Pinedale Pant (https://www.stio.com/products/mens-pinedale-pant?variant=31280262316097) are high-quality products that run just a little short for me – but are highly recommended by folks I hike with.
Shorts: I like one light pair. Simple and tough and either water resistant or quick drying. I like the prAna Stretch Zion Shorts (http://www.prana.com/stretch-zion-short.html) and the Mountain Khakis Commuter if you can still find them.
Base tops: I am a huge fan of the Stio Divide Tech Tee (http://www.stio.com/mens-divide-tech-tee-ls), the Heat Gear series from Under Armour (https://www.underarmour.com/en-us/technology/heatgear?iid=CGW) and the Merino products from Firstlite (https://www.firstlite.com/products/mens-wick-ls-crew)
Insulation: I prefer ¼ zip pull-overs from Patagonia (https://www.patagonia.com/product/mens-r1-regulator-fleece-pullover/40110.html?dwvar_40110_color=FGE&cgid=mens-fleece-technical#tile-3=&start=1&sz=24) and Voormi (https://voormi.com/collections/midlayers/products/mens-special-edition-access-pullover). I always bring my Patagonia Nano Puff Jacket as well (http://www.patagonia.com/product/mens-nano-puff-jacket/84211.html) - it doubles as a good pillow.
Camp shirt – I love my Stio Eddy snap shirt (http://www.stio.com/mens-eddy-shirt-ls). It’s water resistant and quick drying, has a UPF 50+ rating and it’s comfortable as hell.
Socks – For me it’s Smartwool (http://www.smartwool.com/shop/men-socks-hike). Period. Pick your weight based on the weather, but I have yet to find a brand of socks that I think are better.
Rainwear/shell – I use the basic Marmot Precip (https://www.marmot.com/mens-precip-eco-jacket-41500.html?dwvar_41500_size=000025L&dwvar_41500_color=2707&cgid=men_jackets_waterproof-and-rain#start=1) Waterproof, windproof, breathable with a good hood, good pockets and pit zips, all for an affordable price.
Other: I always bring a ball cap, a beanie cap and a pair of gloves - I have taken to bringing my Kastgear Steelhead gloves (https://www.kastgear.com/collections/waterproof) They are waterproof, warm and still provide good dexterity.
The Smaller stuff:
• Sunglasses – Always important to have along, especially if there will be fishing along the way. Since fishing is always a possibility for me I pack polarized glasses. For lighter and a little less fussy but with great clarity I love the Native Sidecar with the green reflex lenses (https://nativeyewear.com/shop/sunglasses/sidecar/sidecar-matte-black-pol-n3-green-reflex). If fishing is going to be a serious part of the trip, I always bring my Costa Caballito’s with the 580G lenses (https://www.costadelmar.com/us/en/sunglasses/beach-lifestyle/caballito/CL.html?).
• Headlamp – Important for navigating the trail, stumbling around camp in the dark and late-night reading or games, a good headlamp is a must-have on a backpacking trip. Here are a few things I look for in a headlamp:
Brightness – I want something very bright especially when I am navigating trails in the dark.
Multiple settings – I don’t always want to run on full brightness so I like 2-3 settings that draw less juice. I also prefer a red light setting.
Some level of water resistance – I don’t want my only source of light conking out on me because it got a little damp.
I have used a number of different brand headlamps from Petzl, Black Diamond and Princeton Tec. My newest purchase and current favorite is the Princeton Tec Vizz (http://www.princetontec.com/vizz). It is insanely bright on the highest setting (420 Lumen), offers 4 settings including red LED and is waterproof. My only complaint about this headlamp is that it burns batteries pretty quick at the highest setting (which is expected) and it has a battery indicator that blinks red when low. Also check out their Helix Backcountry rechargeable lantern which is small and light enough to pack but throws great light and really nice to have around camp or in the tent (http://www.princetontec.com/helix-backcountry-rechargeable).
• GPS – Phone apps like Gaia and others have really reduced the number of people that carry a GPS anymore. I still like to. I prefer to keep my phone in Airplane Mode to conserve battery while hiking and I like the assurance of having a dedicated unit with its own power source. You can use it as a compass, track elevation gain and miles trekked, mark waypoints and map routes all in a small handheld unit. I use an older Garmin, but there are a number of great products on the market.
• Knife – Protection, cutting, digging. whittling, and even tightening the screws on your glasses, a good knife is a must have in the backcountry. My go-to is the SOG Seal Pup Elite (http://www.sogknives.com/seal-pup-elite-black-tini.html) - a little on the bigger side, I find this knife well-suited for all camp chores. For a smaller option, I am a big fan of White River Knives’ Firecraft series with para-cord handle wrap (https://www.whiteriverknives.com/collections/firecraft/products/fc35)
• Camera – obviously you’ll want to capture all of your amazing moments from your trip. Many of my friends bring very nice DSLR cameras to capture high-quality images. I opt to just use my Iphone for picture taking – not the same quality but pretty darn good. I will switch my phone to Airplane Mode to save battery and then I bring a portable charger along to ensure I don’t run out of juice. Goal Zero offers a number of great charging options (http://www.goalzero.com/compact).
• Water bottles – an obvious necessity. I always bring two. I tend to use a basic BPA free 32 oz. Nalgene Wide Mouth (http://www.nalgene.com/product/2178-2024/) or a 25 oz. Mizu M8 (https://mizulife.com/collections/all-products/products/m8).
• Toiletries – Getting cleaned up while on the trail can be a chore, but always feels good at the end of a long day. I typically pack a travel toothbrush and toothpaste, a small stick of deodorant, camp suds soap, a pack towel, toilet paper, Wet Wipes and hand sanitizer. These items get me by until I can grab a real shower after I pack out. And always be sure to leave no trace
Food – I love to eat but I hate messing with complicated preparations. I typically keep it pretty simple.
Breakfast: My breakfast usually consists of two packs of Instant Oatmeal.
Lunch: For lunch I usually consume snacks heavy in carbs and protein. Dried fruit/fruit bars, nuts, beef jerky, cliff bars and maybe a couple pieces of candy provide my standard lunch fare.
Dinner: Again, I like to keep it simple. I enjoy most of the Mountain House options (http://www.mountainhouse.com/m/category/entrees.html) that simply require boiling water and 10 minutes to prepare in pouch. I find most of their entrees tasty and satisfying and fuss free (I especially recommend the Beef Stroganoff). I find the 2.5 serving size can satisfy two people although I could certainly consume it own my own.
Beverages: I get sick of just plain water after a while, so I like to bring some type of mix to add. Breakfast always includes coffee and Starbucks has improved the quality of instant coffee with their VIA line (https://athome.starbucks.com/coffees-by-format/starbucks-via-instant/). During the day I will typically keep one bottle just plain water and in the other I will mix in some flavoring such as Mio or Propel. At the end of the trail or around the campfire it’s always nice to enjoy a nip of Single Malt (although virtually any whiskey hits the spot on the trail) – so I always bring a small flask of something that is measured in “proof”.
Survival/day pack – Whenever I head away from base-camp for a day hike adventure I always bring a small survival pack in case of emergency.
My pack always has para-cord, fire starters (cotton balls soaked in Petroleum Jelly work well), waterproof matches, flint and steel and a lighter – which I wrap in duct tape just to have some in a pinch, a Lifestraw water filter (https://www.lifestraw.com/products/lifestraw), a SOL brand Thermal Bivvy (http://www.surviveoutdoorslonger.com/survive-outdoors-longer-thermal-bivvy.html), a hefty garbage bag, a small reflective survival blanket, a backpacking med kit, a few zip ties, a pair of shoestrings, a whistle, a pack of hand warmers, an extra set of batteries and a tube of super glue.
Additionally I always add at least one full bottle of water, 2-3 Cliff bars, My GPS unit, my Knife and some TP. And I always bring a beanie hat and gloves as well as a rain jacket – no matter how nice the weather looks. With these items and with a little ingenuity you should be able to find your way free of most bad encounters. Thankfully I’ve never had to.
The Extras: here are some small items that can often be overlooked but that are nice to have:
Chapstick – my lips tend to dry out pretty bad when hiking in elevation and being outside all day.
Suntan lotion – important to have, especially when hiking in the summer months.
Bug Spray – in spring and summer, bugs can be pretty annoying (that's why I typically hike in September) so don’t forget some good bug spray.
Bear Spray - if traveling in bear country, bear spray is a wise purchase. Make sure it is handy and that you know how to properly deploy it - bear spray loaded in the bottom of your pack, inaccessible, defeats the purpose.
Hand Warmers – I like to pack a couple of Grabber Bio Warmers (https://grabberwarmers.com/warmer-products/) on each trip. It’s surprising how handy these can come in sometimes and how much warmth they can add to a sleeping bag on the colder nights.
Pillow – for years I used a small pack pillow that worked ok, but was a little clunky. On my last trip I just brought a pillow case and chucked my Nano-puff and rain jacket inside and called it good. Took up less space and worked just as well.
Dri Bag – I like to pack my food in a dry bag inside my pack. It makes a nice container, and then it makes it super easy to hang at night when traveling in bear country.
Games – Rainy days in a tent can suck. It’s nice to have some game options if you have a companion along for the journey. Three favorites of mine are: 2 man euchre (Google it if you're not from the Midwest), Uno, and Pass the Pigs - a hilariously fun game that packs small but does require a relatively flat surface.
Book/Journal – it's always nice to have a book along in case of rainy days or trouble falling asleep. If you’ve never read Endurance: Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage, I’d start there - it will put any suffering into perspective. A journal to capture your thoughts while they are fresh in your mind is always nice too.
Fishing gear – if you are anywhere near alpine lakes or streams, I highly encourage you to bring along a packable fly or spinner rod and the accompanying gear.
To hear more about my packing list, some common mistakes to avoid and combining backpacking and fly fishing, take a listen to this podcast with my friend Landon Dekeyser: https://www.stitcher.com/podcast/landon-dekeyser/the-fishing-podcast/e/57461061