Backpacking into the mountains is a great joy of mine. It feels adventurous and liberating to venture into the wilderness with everything you need to survive (and even stay comfortable) on your back. By backpacking you have the means to “live” – albeit briefly – in paradisiacal locations that boggle the mind and soothe the soul. But, first you need to have all the proper gear to do it.
As Terence McKenna observed, humans are probably better categorized as crustaceans, since we basically live our lives moving from one shell to another, whether it’s a house, car, office, or a tent. Which is to say, we can’t just wander off naked into the woods and expect to be one with nature! Fortunately for the modern adventurous crustacean we have an almost endless array of high tech, lightweight clothes, sleeping bags, shelters, and tools to keep us alive and happy while walking in the wilderness.
Recently I’ve received a bunch of emails asking me about my backpacking gear. I realize that it can be a bit daunting for someone who is interested – but not experienced – in backpacking to figure out what equipment they need to bring into the mountains for an overnight or multi-day camping trip. You need to travel light, but you also need all the stuff to keep you warm and dry. In this post, I’m going to list and explain all the gear that I use on backpacking treks. I will also include some helpful tips along the way.
I’ve been backpacking for many years now, and I’ve learned several valuable lessons about gear. Firstly, you will never stop buying gear! It is a constant cycle – just when you think you have everything perfected, something wears out and you have to buy another. Secondly, it definitely pays to buy the BEST stuff that you can, especially with the big-ticket items like the backpack, sleeping bag, and tent. Believe me, if you skimp on cheapo gear, you will eventually buy more replacements and upgrades, and will end up spending far more money in the long run. If you buy the good stuff from the start, it will last longer and you’ll get better performance and have a better time.
Please keep in mind that all the gear I’m listing below is for backpacking in the mountains of Colorado. In the summer here we have warm days, frequent thunderstorms with rain, and chilly nights. In the winter it’s often sunny but also it can be windy and bitterly cold. The consistent variety of Colorado’s weather means that the gear I use here will be similarly suitable for many of the world’s mountains.
MY SUMMER BACKPACKING SETUP
From top to bottom and left to right, generally, we have:
• Black Diamond Distance Trekking Z-Poles: ultralight aluminum trekking poles. Collapsible, which is good for traveling. I tried the even lighter carbon fiber version of these, but they snapped on their first outing. I recommend the aluminum instead, which I think are a bit stronger. Trekking poles save your knees, give you extra hiking power from your arms, and aid in balance.
• In the black Sea-to-Summit dry bag is all my clothes. More details on clothes below.
• The white bag is my food bag, an Ursack Bear Bag. This super strong Spectra fabric food bag is much lighter than a normal bear canister. You put your food into an odor-proof plastic bag inside, then tie the bag to the base of a tree away from your tent. Bears cannot tear the bag or the rope, so they can’t steal your food. Remember: NEVER STORE ANY FOOD IN YOUR TENT! Do not give bears a reason to come knocking. As for backpacking food, that is a whole ‘nother topic that I will try to tackle some other time in another post.
• Big Agnes Seedhouse SL1 Tent. This is my one-man tent. I’ve used a variety of one-man tents but this is my favorite so far. Nowadays I mostly backpack with my wife Claudia, and we bring a Big Agnes Fly Creek UL3 tent, which is very spacious for its weight. You can potentially go even lighter with a floorless tarp style tent or pyramid style tent that uses a trekking pole for support. But, we think the comfort of having a sealed-up mosquito-proof tent is worth the little extra weight. Plus, with these tents you can take the rainfly off in hot weather, or to enjoy the stars on a clear night. Or, with the matching footprint you can leave the inner tent behind and just use the poles and rainfly for an ultralight setup.
• In the orange stuff sack is my Western Mountaineering Apache MF 15º down sleeping bag. Western Mountaineering and Feathered Friends are two companies that make the lightest, warmest sleeping bags available, using top quality down fill. The 15º temperature rating is perfect to stay cozy on chilly alpine nights. Claudia and I both have these bags, with left and right side zippers so that we can zip them together – romantic, huh? Note that a single bag would compress smaller than what is shown in the picture above, which is both bags packed together.
• The grey thing on the right is my sleeping pad, a Therm-a-Rest NeoAir XTherm. For many years I used a regular old RidgeRest foam pad, but I would have to find a perfectly flat spot for the tent, and would still sleep uncomfortably on my side. Last year I tried the NeoAir air mattress (which is just as light), and I love it! Now I have no problems with bumpy ground, and can sleep comfortably on my side. It’s also very warm. Yes, there is always the danger that it could leak or pop; I carry the patch kit just in case of emergency.
• One Nalgene water bottle. A Gatorade bottle would work just fine too.
Katadyn Hiker Water Filter. Some of my friends never filter water around here at all, but I’d rather be safe than sorry. There are lighter water purification tools, but I prefer filters because they keep the fresh mountain water taste, and can also remove some of the funky tastes that some streams have. *UPDATE: I’m now using a Sawyer Squeeze Filter System – it’s lighter, cheaper, and has a longer filter lifespan than the Katadyn. Plus, the water bags used with the Sawyer can double as dromedary bags to haul extra water when necessary. (Thanks Jackson for the Sawyer tip!)
• MSR aluminum pot. This pot is great; better than other ultra-lightweight camping pots I’ve owned before.
• Soto OD-1R Micro Regulator Stove, with 4 oz. isobutane fuel canister. Super compact and lightweight, boils water fast, simmers well, and has a reliable auto-ignition. This is a new addition to my kit, and I love it!
• Waterproof rain cover for the pack.
• Plastic camping spoon and fork. BIC lighters.
• Basic first aid kit, sunblock, toothbrush/toothpaste, hand sanitizer.
• Petzl MYO RXP Headlamp. This thing is super bright and essential for my pre-dawn and post-sunset hikes. I bring 3 extra AA lithium batteries as backup.
• Basic Swiss Army knife for cutting up salami, and multi-tool mini knife in case I need to fix anything with pliers.
• Watch. Very important for the early morning wake up calls!
• Compass and map. Don’t leave home without them.
• ACR ResQLink 406 Personal Locator Beacon. These things have gotten so light, compact, and cheap, that there’s really no reason to not have one with you at all times in the backcountry. I’ve written about personal locator beacons before on this blog; but this new model is tiny compared to the old one I had! *UPDATE: I’m now using a DeLorme InReach SE; a similar product, slightly heavier and a subscription fee is necessary, but with the extra bonus of being able to send text messages via satellite. The ability to text could provide a huge advantage in an emergency situation, or just to send updates to a loved one back home.
• Oh, and don’t forget what I forgot to include in the photo – toilet paper! And just a quick note about this: NEVER leave your toilet paper lying around after you’re done! This is the most common offense of careless and disrespectful backpackers. After finding a private place a long distance from camp or trail, you should first dig a hole at least six inches deep, then bury everything when you’re done. Sometimes it’s easier to find a big rock, roll it over, poop in the hole, then roll it back in place. If the weather is damp and wet you can burn your TP, but of course never attempt this if there is any chance whatsoever of sparking a wildfire.
Here’s my current camera gear list, though this is subject to change!
Canon 5DII (I use a Sony A7R with Canon lens adapter now).
• Canon 24mm TS-E II tilt/shift lens
• Canon 17mm TS-E tilt/shift lens (Sometimes I will leave this one behind if it’s a long trek and I don’t anticipate much need for ultra-wide shooting).
• Contax/Zeiss 35-70mm lens
• Marumi circular polarizer, 82mm size to fit the biggest lens, with step-up ring for smaller lens
• Hoya 10-stop neutral density filter.
• Remote trigger (for longer exposures)
• Two extra batteries. Usually 3 batteries will last me for a 7-day trek, if I’m careful.
Gitzo GT-1541T Traveler Really Right Stuff TQC-14 Carbon Fiber Tripod with a Gitzo short center column.
• Really Right Stuff BH-25 Ultra-light ballhead with lever-release clamp.
All my camera gear (except the tripod) fits nicely into a
Tamrac 3350 Aero 50 Photo Bag F-Stop Small Shallow ICU case, which then gets put into the top of my backpack. The tripod gets strapped to the side.
Here are some things that we may or may not bring, depending on the trek and/or how much we’re willing to carry:
• Bear spray. A must in places with grizzlies like Montana, but not really necessary in Colorado. Claudia brings it anyways.
• Bug spray and/or head net. Depends on the location and time of year. During the summer months we usually bring bug spray, but not the head net, which is only needed in places where the mosquitos are horrendous; usually it’s not that bad in Colorado.
• A dromedary bag. This is useful for hauling water, allowing you to camp in awesome locations that aren’t necessarily near a lake or stream, like high ridges. We don’t use this much in Colorado, but it’s great for the desert.
• Entertainment! Cards, Sudoku, a lightweight book (I wrote about backpacking books here), and maybe a lightweight journal or sketchbook. I have these great knot-tying playing cards, so when we’re not playing Rummy I can brush up on my bowlines, bends, and hitches!
• And, the vices. Whiskey is always a treat when backpacking with friends. I met some guys in the wilderness once who were proponents of packing Everclear instead, because as they claimed, “it’s half the weight!” I just can’t go there, though.
The main rule of camping clothes: NO COTTON! When cotton gets wet, it does not keep you warm, it is heavy, and it takes forever to dry. It’s better to use wool or high-tech hiking fabrics, which are lighter, will breathe better, keep you warmer, and dry faster. Here is the essential summertime backpacking clothes list:
• Lightweight, breathable hiking shirt. This will get sweaty!
• A warmer, long-sleeved layer for hanging out at camp, and at night.
• A sweater. I’m a big fan of down sweaters, like Patagonia’s, which pack light and compact, but provide LOTS of warmth, especially when layered under a shell jacket. This also doubles as my pillow when I stuff it in the tent sack at night.
• A shell jacket to protect from rain and wind. I am a HUGE fan of the Outdoor Research Foray Jacket, one of the most perfect pieces of equipment I’ve ever used. Why? Because it shields you well from wind and heavy rain, yet it is very lightweight and breathable, so you can wear it while hiking without sweating to death. Also, it has full length pit/side zips that can zip all the way apart, turning the jacket into a poncho when it’s really hot and wet outside. Plus, the pockets are positioned up higher than usual so that you can still use them while you’ve got your backpack’s waist belt strapped on. This is the perfectly designed backpacking jacket.
• Shell pants, with full side zips so you can pull them on and off over your boots, and have plenty of ventilation while hiking. I like the Outdoor Research Foray Pants, and the Marmot PreCip Full Zip Pants.
• Long underwear. Smartwool makes some nice ones.
• Lightweight running shorts. Running shorts are very light and fast drying. I also take nylon/spandex boxers, which dry out quickly after a sweaty day of hiking, along with a spare so that I don’t stink too badly after a week of trekking.
• Socks. Wool socks are more durable and will keep your feet warmer when they’re wet. I try to find the lightest-weight possible wool socks, which can be a challenge since most wool “hiking” socks are far too thick and warm for comfortable hiking. On longer treks, I’ll take three pairs of socks, one of which I keep for camp and sleeping.
• Gloves and a warm beanie for when it gets cold.
• A sun hat
• I sweat a lot so a sweat band is a must for me to keep my sweat out of my eyes; I don’t care that it looks totally dorky! Check out the Halo Headband which has a much thinner profile than usual sweatbands, so it fits nicely under a hat. It also works great – the sweat evaporates so the headband doesn’t get all soaked like normal ones.
• Sturdy boots. When I was younger I used to wear skate shoes when backpacking – because they were comfortable. That is, until I had to go to a physical therapist for my damaged knees. Now I wear leather boots with good insole inserts that provide better arch support.
A backpack is probably the #1 item where you should really be careful what you buy, and buy the best available. A good backpack will last a long time, and will make the difference between an enjoyable trek and a grueling death march.
When you’re shopping for a backpack, make sure that you load it up with lots of heavy stuff in the shop, so you can feel how it really holds a heavy load. A good pack will put most of the weight comfortably on your hips, not your shoulders, and it will sit straight without pulling backwards on your shoulders. Don’t pay much attention to all the bells and whistles, like a bunch of cool pockets or whatever, but rather the main priority should be how well it carries a heavy load on your body.
Here’s a tip: a sign of a good backpack is one where the shoulder straps and the top of the internal pack frame rise up above the shoulder pads at least a couple inches – this keeps the pack straight on your back without pulling backwards.
Shown in the pictures here is my previous backpack — a custom made McHale panel loader backpack. I now use and highly recommend the Seek Outside Unaweep-Exposure panel loader backpack, which I actually helped to design specifically for us backpacking photographers. You can read my full review of the Seek Outside Exposure backpack here.
I am a big fan of panel loader packs, which means that the whole pack unzips like a suitcase, instead of just having a top pull-tie opening. It’s so much easier to access your stuff when you can unzip the whole pack, instead of having to dig through from the top.
Above, you can see from bottom to top (left to right), the sleeping bag, clothes bag, food bag, and finally the camera bag on top and quickly accessible.
The tripod gets strapped to the side.
MY WINTER CAMPING GEAR
Winter camping is a whole ‘nother ballgame. It’s more of a suffer-fest than anything, and I don’t really recommend it to anybody. However, during the winter I still get that urge to go out and backpack in the wild and take photos. Typically I don’t go winter camping more than once a month, because it takes at least a month after each trip to forget how brutal it was!
In any case, here’s what I take on winter backpacking trips:
Instead of listing every single thing again, I’ll just list the main differences from the summer setup.
• Winter poles. You need to have the big snow baskets on them, which the summer trekking poles don’t have.
• Since the bears are probably hibernating, I leave the bear bag behind (I could be wrong about this!). I also take less food, since I typically don’t go out for more than two nights at a time in the winter.
• The MSR Twin Sisters Tent is a great winter tent. It can fit two people, but in practical use, it can fit one person and their gear (you probably don’t want to leave your stuff outside in the winter). Using the ski poles for support, this floorless tent only weighs 2 pounds! When camping on deep snow, I use snow anchors instead of stakes (which are useless in snow). You just fill up the fabric panels with snow, then bury them. Also, I shovel lots of snow over the tent’s snow flaps, which creates a bomber, windproof setup. A couple advantages of the floorless tent are that you can dig down lower below the tent for more space to sit, and the tent doesn’t fill with snow which could melt and get everything wet.
• My winter bag is a Sherpa Adventure Gear Tenzing -40º down sleeping bag, which fortunately I was able to pick up from SteepAndCheap.com for less than half off! Good thing, since winter down bags are dreadfully expensive. I used to use a Mountain Hardwear Lamina -30º synthetic bag; although much cheaper, this was very bulky and heavy, and not nearly as warm as down.
• In addition to the Therm-a-Rest XTherm air mattress that I mentioned above, I also bring a short RidgeRest foam mattress, just for extra insulation and as an emergency backup in case the air mattress pops.
• 2-3 Nalgene bottles. In this case, they must be Nalgene bottles, or similar sturdy thick plastic bottles. The reason for this is because you can fill up the bottles with hot water and put them in your sleeping bag to keep warm at night! Also, by having multiple bottles, you can fill them all up with melted snow water in one sitting, then have water for the day.
• MSR pump stove. (I forget the model of mine, but you can see the latest MSR stoves here). The key here is to have a pump stove, not a fuel canister stove. The reason is because at very cold temperatures, the fuel canisters can lose all their gas pressure, rendering the stove useless. With a normal MSR fuel bottle, this is not an issue since the pressure is created by the manual pump. Also, much of your time winter camping is spent melting snow for water, so it’s nice to have a big bottle full of fuel. If your stove breaks or you run out of fuel, you have no water, and with no water, you must leave immediately!
• Whether you’re digging out a snow cave, building an igloo, or simply carving out a flat spot for your tent, a shovel is a must for winter camping. You can also use the blade as a platform for the stove. Ski/snowboard avalanche shovels are perfect for this; just make sure that it’s a metal one, not plastic. If you are building an igloo, you’re going to want an oversized shovel to move lots of snow around quicker and more efficiently.
• Remember to keep your spare batteries inside your down jacket at all times to keep them warm (cold batteries die sooner). Some people recommend keeping your boots inside your sleeping bag at night, but I don’t do this.
• What’s not shown here are skis or splitboard, and all that entails, or their mobility-challenged little cousins, snowshoes. One way or another, you’ll need a way to get through all that deep snow!
• I also have not included avalanche beacons or probes – here’s why: I do not know anybody else who enjoys winter camping, so I always just go out alone; thus, beacons or probes are useless to me. I do, however, only go winter backpacking on routes that are safe from avalanches – no steep slopes whatsoever. This severely limits my options, especially in the San Juans where the mountains are mostly all steep. But I would rather return home safe!
WINTER CAMPING CLOTHES
Obviously you’re going to need more warm clothes in the winter! Again, NO COTTON. Here’s my list:
• Performance long-sleeve shirt. I use old Duofold ones which are nice.
• A winter weight long-sleeve shirt. These are heavyweight shirts that are not meant for hiking in, but just for sitting around in the winter. Very, very warm for the weight.
• Poofy down jacket with hoodie. The most important piece of clothing! A big, thick down jacket will keep you toasty warm on even the coldest days. Mine is a Patagonia Fitz Roy hooded down jacket (another lucky SteepAndCheap.com score!), but there are lots of alternatives. I do recommend one with a hood, since it keeps the drafts out and insulates your head.
• The down sweater comes in handy again, as an extra underlayer if it’s really getting cold out.
• Western Mountaineering Flight Down Pants. After years of lusting after down pants, this year I finally sprang for a pair. OMG, they are awesome! I can’t believe I’ve ever gone winter camping without them. You might even see me walking around Ouray with these things on like the Michelin man this winter. The nice things about these particular pants, aside from the usual excellent down that Western Mountaineering is known for, are the full length side zips for when it gets too hot, and reinforced butt and leg materials.
• Ski/snowboard pants. The summer shell pants won’t cut it in the snow. Make sure they have side zips for ventilation while hiking.
• Snowboard boots. (Unless you’re skiing). Whether you’re splitboarding or just snowshoeing, snowboard boots are comfortable and warm. I prefer very flexible boots; you don’t want to spend three days in stiff boots. For example, if you go to Burton.com, they show the flex ratings for their various boot models. I like the cheapest, most flexible boots.
• Down Booties. As opposed to down “slippers”, down booties have rubber soles so you can walk around in them on rocky terrain. They are very lightweight and easy to pack, and they are comfortable and warm for when you’re lounging around camp, melting snow.
• Gaiters keep the snow (and wind) out of your boots and pants. I like Outdoor Research’s Verglas Gaiters.
• Warm gloves, like ski/snowboarding gloves. Mittens are even warmer, but you lose dexterity.
• Hand warmers. Very important! Especially for photographers who must use thinner gloves when fiddling with the camera, hand warmers will keep your blood warm and your fingers from freezing.
• I forgot to include it in the photo, but a neck gaiter helps to keep heat below your neck, as well as keeping your face warm and shielded from wind. The Hoorag is a useful and versatile neck gaiter that is much lighter and more compact than a typical fleece neck gaiter (which is usually too hot and bulky anyways).
If it’s not entirely obvious by now, collecting all of this gear can be a very expensive endeavor! Here are a few ways that you can cut the costs:
• Make SteepAndCheap.com your homepage! Steep and Cheap is basically a fire-sale division of Backcountry.com, where they offer one deeply discounted item at a time, hour after hour, day after day. Discounts of 50-75% off are not unheard of. And they DO have good stuff on there quite often!
• Spring is probably the best time of year to find great deals on gear; many online retailers slash prices and have big sales to try to unload last season’s gear before the next year’s inventory comes in. This is an especially good time to buy winter gear, with down jackets and ski gear often on sale for 50% or even 75% off. Around Memorial Day time (late May) almost every shop has big sales.
• Go to local ski swaps. In many towns, at least here in Colorado, there are big annual ski swaps, where companies and stores unload all their old stock at cheap prices, or where people sell their used stuff.
• Do you have a friend in the biz? I’ve been fortunate to have had the opportunity a number of times to buy a batch of gear from friends who have the coveted “pro deal” – items direct from the warehouse for less than wholesale price. This is probably more likely to happen if you live in a mountain town, where mountain athletes live.
I hope that if you’ve read this far, you’ve found some helpful tips and suggestions for attaining and/or improving your backpacking gear collection.
Please remember that there are many different strategies for backpacking, and many great products on the market beyond the ones I listed here. My strategy for backpacking involves striking a balance between lightweight travel and basic comforts.
If you are discouraged by the sometimes outrageous prices of some of this gear, remember that people have been enjoying the mountains for hundreds of years, using gear that was probably worse than what you could compile from a thrift store nowadays! As long as you can get the basic essentials, you can make it happen.