When I was writing last weeks post, it was impossible to ignore just how much experience I’ve compacted into a short time. In terms of outdoor activities, I had a lot of catching up to do as a young bright-eye geology major–I didn’t own a single hiking, backpacking or camping item and certainly had no idea where to begin. However, over the past few years, I’ve compiled quite the collection. And for this week’s post, I wanted to share some of my favorites including some of the stories behind what makes them so important to me.
My top ten backpacking items (and some honorable mentions):
(1) Patagonia Super Cell Gore-Tex Jacket
Why is a rain jacket at the top of my backpacking list? Let me tell you… It doesn’t take long being cold, wet and miserable (and pissed off) in daily torrential downpour on a certain giant mountain in East Africa to learn that not all rain jackets are created equal. I (and quite a few others on the trip) learned the hard way that non-Gore-Tex rain jackets are really, in fact, NOT WATERPROOF. You think I would have learned my lesson hiking the Inka Trail to Machu Picchu (because it rained on us every day then), but nope. I didn’t want to spend the money. I was an idiot.
Don’t be an idiot. If you are planning on going anywhere with the likely chance of rain (i.e. the side, top, bottom of a mountain; the rainforest; anywhere with a rainy season), do yourself a favor and BUY A GORE-TEX JACKET. I’m a Patagonia girl, so it’s always my first go to for anything I put on my body for hiking, backpacking and camping, but you can buy GORE-TEX jackets from any of the big outdoor gear brands. They’re a pretty penny, so be prepared to fork over the cash. However, if you plan ahead, you can almost always find a great jacket on sale somewhere.
Like the rain jacket above, it doesn’t take long backpacking in the wrong boots to make you go a little crazy on the trail. I hiked (carrying most of my own gear) the Inka Trail in a pair of Keen’s that seemed the comfiest and best choice in REI a few months prior, but turned out to be absolute hell on the trail. Not only did I end up with a gnarly infected blister on one ankle (to be fair, I had a little incident a few weeks prior where I managed to drop a keg on my foot, but that scab was almost completely healed) and multiple blisters on my other foot from constant uncomfortable rubbing on my feet, but also these boots were not designed to carry heavy loads and were not manufactured with Gore-Tex (they were listed as “waterproof” however). So before my next mountain adventure (Mt. Kilimanjaro), I threw down some more serious dollar bills on a fantastic pair of Asolo boots. I haven’t had a single blister since (I also haven’t dropped a keg on my foot), I don’t have to worry about carrying heavy loads and feeling every stone or crevasse below my feet, and my feet always stay dry (even in torrential downpour and adventures through snow covered swamp lands).
If I didn’t make my feelings explicitly clear above, GORE-TEX IS THE MOST AMAZING INVENTION EVER. If you’re going to be doing a lot of hiking or backpacking, do not cheap out on this–get yourself some boots that are totally and completely waterproof. You also need a pair of boots that your feet love. I love Asolos for their durability and construction, but you don’t need to buy the exact brand I love. Everyone is different. There are other great brands out there that have really wonderful backpacking boots (my mom, my sister and many of my friends really love these Vasque boots).
This number is a bit of wildcard as it is a fairly new purchase that hasn’t been tested out-and-about like my other items on this list. However, I put it here for a very important reason: it was purchased after a very thorough and detailed fitting with VERY competent employees at REI.
Prior to purchasing my new Osprey pack, I had been using a Gregory Jade 60 that I was never properly fitted in. I was a backpacking newb and didn’t know any better, but this was an expensive mistake for me. I lived with it for a few years, but decided this year that it was time to find my right pack. When I finally went back to REI and explained what had been going wrong, two employees immediately went to work dissecting the problem. They put me in a variety of Gregory packs and quickly concluded that despite having a torso and hip size that should fit in the specific pack I had, the pack was not sitting right on my body. Both of the employees then started putting me in other brands and quickly found that the Osprey backpacking packs were fitting me much better than anything else. From my preliminary tests on the pack, it feels absolutely amazing. I had no idea a pack could feel so comfortable on your back.
Like the two items above, a backpacking pack is not something you should cheap out on (and honestly, this might be the most expensive item you buy for backpacking). I would also advise strongly against bargain hunting for a backpacking pack. You need a pack that fits you right not one that is the cheapest, and if you don’t have the knowledge to fit yourself in a pack, seriously go to an REI or an Eastern Mountain Sports or any knowledgeable outdoor store and have someone who does know what they are doing fit you into a pack. Also, be aware of return policies. Many outdoor stores, like REI, let you try and return, so there is no need to suffer unnecessarily like I did for so long.
My Big Agnes Grouse Mountain 15 Sleeping Bag was one of my first purchases in my newb days of hiking/backpacking/camping, and I still absolutely love it. As with all Big Agnes sleep system sleeping bags, it has a pocket on its underside to place and tie down a sleeping pad. This might be the most amazing thing about the bag; I never ever slip of my sleeping pad! And while the temperature rating (15-degrees) is for men (it is a men’s bag–I wanted the room in the bag to sleep on my side), I’ve never been cold in my bag.
Now for the sleeping pad. I used a Therm-a-Rest ProLite for a few years. It’s a well designed pad especially for those who want to cut weight on the trail, but it just wasn’t for me. The pad is supposed to be self-inflating, but I almost always had to inflate it myself. The main downside of this pad for me was it’s thickness. I’m a side sleeper, so even when I force myself to fall asleep on my back, I usually wake up laying on one shoulder or another. This pad was just too thin: my arms would constantly fall asleep during the night and I could almost always feel the ground below me. After a few years with the Therm-a-Rest pad, I decided to cash in some REI dividend to get a new pad: the Big Agnes Q-Core. This pad does require quite a bit of inflating (you can buy a foot pump, but on the trail this is really unnecessary weight) and does pack slightly larger than the Therm-a-Rest ProLite; however, it’s thickness, comfort and insulation capabilities were a huge improvement for me above my previous pad. Plus, it was designed to work with my sleeping bag.
There are lots of wonderful sleeping bags and pads out there, but I recommend Big Agnes to anyone that will listen. No matter what brand you buy, the most important thing is to make sure you are buying a bag and pad with the right specs for you (check the REI Sleeping Bag Advice for a really great detailed explanation on sleeping bags).
My purchase of this Big Agnes tent was made possible through a very large REI dividend I received after my barrage of purchases for my semester abroad in East Africa (as well as my mothers purchases for Kilimanjaro) and a very awesome REI sale. I already owned a Big Agnes three man tent, so didn’t really need another tent; however, I wanted something much smaller and lighter that I could easily carry myself on the trail without hogging all the space in my pack. I settled on this two-man ultra-light weight tent because I wanted to be able to fit my gear inside the tent (rather than under the rain fly) when I was alone, but also wanted to be able to fit a second person in the tent. It’s been amazing. I haven’t, however, tried to fit Mike in it yet… so we’ll see if it’s still amazing after that.
I’m plugging Big Agnes because I love their products (I mean come on… they make tents with built in LEDs now!). Eureka, REI, Marmot, North Face (and many, many others) make great tents as well. Tents are pricey, but you can usually get them on sale if you are patient. Just do your research on what you need before buying.
These items are absolutely essential for me. I never go hiking anywhere without wool socks AND liners. I wear wool socks even in the blazing heat of summer (and no, my feet don’t sweat an ocean)–they actually dry much faster than anything made out of cotton and don’t stink as bad (well at least for normal people… just pray to whatever god that you don’t ever have to smell Mike’s feet after a day of hiking). In the winter, my thickest wool socks keep my toes nice and un-frozen. Liners are a god-send for anyone who has problems with blisters like I do. I have bumps on my ankles that can blister in two minutes if I don’t have liners on, but with liners I never have that issue. Another upside to wearing liners I’ve discovered is that your wool socks don’t break down as fast (the liners do, but those are much cheaper to replace).
SmartWool is my favorite brand of wool sock. REI does make a slightly cheaper pair, but I found that those wear down a bit faster than SmartWools. I hike a lot, so I invested in a good bunch of SmartWools which I’ve had since I went to Tanzania and Kenya in 2012. As for the liners; I haven’t found a brand that treats my feet as nicely as the REI silk liners.
I don’t think I need to elaborate much on this item. It gets dark when you camp. You will need light. You can stick a headlamp on your head and not have to worry about carrying it around all night. You also might need said headlamp to summit a giant mountain because you had to set off from base camp at 11pm the night before. This Black Diamond headlamp is cool because it has different light settings (so you don’t blind the guy sitting across from you while playing an epic game of Euchre), but there are definitely other headlamps out there with similar or better features.
While I have done plenty of hiking, backpacking and camping in the past few years, it wasn’t until my trip to Nepal this spring that I actually had to worry about water treatment. Seems strange, I know, but I’ve always either (a) had water boild safe or been able to boil my own water safe or (b) had safe drinking water readily available. I decided to buy the SteriPEN Ultra because it’s small, lightweight and really easy to use (it tells you when your water is ready with a smiley face). This magnificent tool treats water through UV rays. While it obviously doesn’t remove large chunks of matter in your drinking water (you would need a whole other filtration system for that), it does kill off all the bad things in the water that might make you sick. Mike tells me it’s the same process water treatment facilities use on their own waters–so that’s pretty cool. The only major downside of the SteriPEN Ultra is that you have to charge it via a USB. However, the charge on my SteriPEN lasted the whole 10-day Annapurna Base Camp trek (with lots of battery to spare), and you can always carry a portable charger with you on a trek. For an extended trek, you would likely need to think of secondary options as well (like tablets or filters).
I bought this puppy while at field camp in Park City, Utah in the middle the summer. My uninsulated CamelBak just wasn’t staying cold enough in the heat even when filling it with ice to start the day. Not really sure why I didn’t think of getting one sooner, but alas, you live and you learn (and spend more money at REI). This insulated CamelBak not only keeps things cool in heat, but also keeps things from freezing when super cold (my CamelBak froze while summiting Kilimanjaro and those who had the insulated CamelBaks did not have that problem).
I started my list with a Patagonia jacket, so it’s only right that I finish with another one. The Patagonia Down Sweater Hoody is probably my favorite purchase from Patagonia ever. Not only does it keep me unbelievably warm, but it also packs down into a teeny tiny little pocket located on the inside of the jacket. If hoods aren’t your thing, Patagonia also makes a Down Sweater without the hoody (but I freaking love me some hoods). I bought Mike the down sweater without a hood for his birthday so that he didn’t drag around his giant winter coat in Nepal, and boy was he happy he had it (told you so Mike).
If you plan on doing any type of trekking in colder regions, I highly recommend you get some sort of packable down jacket. You don’t want to be lugging around a heavy parka or ski jacket on the side of the mountain (or really any trail for that matter), but you do want something that will keep you warm. Like the Patagonia rain jacket I had at number 1, every outdoor company makes their own packable down–just try stuff on and find what you like best.
Quick dry clothes: Don’t pull a Mike and go to Nepal without a single quick-dry shirt. His cotton shirts were so sad and wet (and stinky) but the end of the trek he almost couldn’t find anything to wear home on the plane. I could do a whole separate post on my favorite outdoor clothing (and likely will sometime in the future, so I didn’t link anything here). But I’ll just say this one more time: PATAGONIA.
Camp kitchen: this probably should be on my top ten list–you do need to eat on the trail, but I’ve somehow managed to survive most of my backpacking and camping experiences with very limited camp kitchen gear (I’m not including the few “fancier” treks I’ve been on when food has been prepared for me by a group chef or tea house cook… that was almost cheating). JetBoils are wonderful, I have one that I’m dying to get out and use, so if you’re looking for something that’s compact and easy to carry and also a way for you to cook some grub, a JetBoil is a great place to start.
Chacos: for those of you that have a pair, I don’t need to explain. These babies come EVERYWHERE with me. They are perfect when you make camp and want to get out of your hiking boots. They are perfect for light day hikes and explorations. They are even perfect for every sort of summer festival you could imagine.
Buffs: if you’ve hiked with me, you’ve seen me in these. They keep my hair out of my face. They keep my ears warm in surprise cold winds. They also keep my most sunburn prone area from getting burnt (i.e. my forehead). Plus they come in pretty fun colors and patterns.
Trekking poles: these didn’t make my official list because they usually just get in my way. I find one pole useful in some steep, rugged uphills and downhills, but usually these stay collapsed on the side of my pack. However, for those who have knee issues or who have issues with balance on the trail, these are an absolute necessity!
Quick-dry packable towel: you likely won’t be doing much bathing while out on a trail, but these towels are great to have on hand for un-foreseen cleaning or swimming opportunities or even just quick wipe-downs.
Hammock: this was left off the list mainly because it’s not a necessity for me. I love my brand new Eno Hammock SingleNest (I’ve drooled over everyone else’s for years), but if I was worried about weight, this would probably be left behind.
…and obviously don’t forget a first aid kit (common sense people) and a decent camera.
If you looked at any of the links I’ve provided or if you’re an avid backpacker yourself, you’ve obviously already discovered that backpacking items can be extremely expensive. My best advice is to always plan ahead. If you have future trek planned, don’t wait until the last minute to buy what you need. With the exception of my pack, all of the items on my top ten list were purchased on-sale or with an REI dividend. When I know I need something, I usually shop around to make sure I’m getting the best price. REI, Backcountry and Moosejaw are some of my favorite online shops, but also be sure to check out the manufacturers website or local shops as well.
And if you’re like I was a few years ago and have a long way to go before you’re fully “equipped” to hike/backpack/camp on your own, remember to start with the most important items. I put a Gore-Tex rain coat as my number 1 item because I refuse to go anywhere without it, but it’s probably not essential to get started. If you already have a rain jacket (even if it’s not Gore-Tex), start with the boots or the pack. If you can’t afford a tent or sleeping bag right off the bat, borrow from a friend or rent (lots of outdoor stores actually rent all the items you would need for any trek), and if you’re going abroad on a trek check with your trekking company–both my Kilimanjaro and Nepal trek groups provided sleeping bags, shelter and other expensive trekking items in the trek cost!.