Essential Backpacking Gear Guide

Essential Backpacking Gear Checklist

The following list is extensive. Not every person will bring every item. When you head into the backcountry, you are responsible for assessing the terrain, current conditions, your abilities and those of your group, and what items you should have in your pack to survive if you encounter a mishap or sustain an injury.

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Backpacking: 3-Season gear checklist

The following list is excerpted from AMC's Best Backpacking in New England, 2nd edition , by Matt Heid.

No checklist is infallible. Before you head out on an adventure, it is important to check the weather, prepare for the worse possible conditions and make a plan based upon your personal and/or your group's abilities. Plan an alternate route in case of bad weather, injury, illness or slower than expected travel time. Before departing, make sure someone at home knows your plan: where you are going, with whom, and when you plan to return. And make sure you know how to use the gear you carry.

Essential Gear

Always have the following essentials with you:

Water

Carry at least one liter of water (preferably two), drink frequently, and have some means of purifying backcountry sources (chemical treatment or filter).

Fire and Light

Bring waterproof matches, Vaseline-coated cotton balls, or other easy-to-ignite kindling for starting an emergency fire, and a headlamp or flashlight in case you are still hiking at night.

Survival Gear

Pack heavy-duty garbage bags to use for emergency rain protection, shelter, and warmth, and a whistle to signal for help.

First Aid Kit

At a minimum this should include an over-the-counter painkiller/swelling reducer such as ibuprofen; a 2- to 4-inch wide elastic (ACE) bandage for wrapping sprained joints; and the basics for treating a bleeding wound: antibiotic ointment, sterile gauze, small bandages, medical tape, and large Band-Aids.

Map and Compass

These will help you find your way home. Even the simplest compass is useful.

Knife

A good knife or all-in-one tool can be invaluable in the event of a disaster.

Extra Clothes and Food

Warm clothing can be critical in the event of an unexpected night out or a developing fog. A few extra energy bars can make a huge difference in morale and energy level if you are out longer than expected.

Sun Protection

Carry sunscreen and sunglasses for protection from the blazing sun.

For Your Feet

Your feet are your most important piece of gear. Keep them happy, and you will be even more so. Appreciate them. Care for them.

Footwear

The appropriate hiking footwear stabilizes and supports your feet and ankles while protecting them from the abuses of the environment. Most trails in New England are rough, rocky, and root-crossed. A pair of lightweight boots or trail-running shoes may be adequate for hikers with strong ankles, but most people will want to opt for stiffer midweight hiking boots.

When selecting footwear, keep in mind that the most important feature is a good fit-your toes should not hit the front while going downhill, your heel should be locked in place inside the boot to prevent blister-causing friction, and there should be minimal extra space around your foot (although you should be able to wiggle your toes freely). When lacing, leave the laces over the top of your foot (instep) loose, but tie them tightly across the ankle to lock the heel down. Stability over uneven ground is enhanced by a stiffer sole and higher ankle collar.

All-leather boots last longer, have a good deal of natural water resistance, and will mold to your feet over time. Footwear made from synthetic materials or a combination of fabric and leather are lighter and cheaper, but less durable. Many boots include Gore-Tex, a waterproof-breathable layer, recommended for the wet conditions found on many New England trails. Be sure to break in new boots before taking them on an extended hike.

Socks

After armpits, feet are the sweatiest part of the human body. Unfortunately, wet feet are much more prone to blisters. Good hiking socks wick moisture away from your skin and provide padding for your feet. Avoid cotton socks, as these become quickly saturated, stay wet inside your shoes, and take a long time to dry.
Most outdoor socks are a confusing mix of natural and synthetic fibers. Wool provides warmth and padding and, although it does absorb roughly 30 percent of its weight in water, is effective at keeping your feet dry. If regular wool makes your feet itch, try softer merino wool. Nylon, polyester, acrylic, and polypropylene (also called olefin) are synthetic fibers that absorb very little water, dry quickly, and add durability. Liner socks are a thin pair of socks worn underneath the principal sock and are designed to wick moisture away more effectively than thicker socks-good for really sweaty feet.

Blister Kit

Blisters are almost always caused by friction from foot movement (slippage) inside the shoe. Prevent them by buying properly fitting footwear, taking a minimum of one to two weeks to break them in, and wearing appropriate socks. If the heel is slipping and blistering is occurring, try tightening the laces across the ankle to keep the heel in place. If you notice a blister or hotspot developing, stop immediately and apply adhesive padding (such as moleskin) over the problem spot. Bring a lightweight pair of scissors to cut the moleskin.

Outdoor Clothing

The Fabrics

Cotton should be generally avoided for outdoor activities. It absorbs water quickly and takes a long time to dry, leaving a cold, wet layer next to your skin and increasing the risk of hypothermia. Jeans are the worst. Polyester and nylon are two commonly used, and recommended, fibers in outdoor clothing. They dry almost instantly, wick moisture effectively, and are lighter weight than natural fibers. Fleece clothing (made from polyester) provides good insulation and will keep you warm, even when wet. Synthetic materials melt quickly, however, if placed in contact with a heat source (camp stove, fire, sparks, etc.). Wool is a good natural fiber for hiking. Even though it retains up to 30 percent of its weight in water, it still insulates when wet.

Raingear/Windgear

Three types are available: water-resistant, waterproof/breathable, and waterproof/nonbreathable. Water-resistant shells are typically (very) lightweight nylon windbreakers with a water repellent coating that wears away with use. The seams will not be taped. They will often keep you dry for a short period but will quickly soak through in a heavy rain. Waterproof/breathable shells contain Gore-Tex or an equivalent layer or coating and effectively keep liquid water out while allowing water vapor (i.e., your sweat) to pass through. They breathe reasonably well until the outer fabric becomes saturated, at which point the breathability is lost and you will still get sticky and wet on the inside. Waterproof/nonbreathable shells are typically coated nylon or rubber and keep water out but hold all your sweat in. Seams must be taped for them to be completely waterproof. Although wearing these on a strenuous hike causes a hot and sticky experience, they are cheap and often very lightweight. All three options effectively block the wind.

Keeping Your Head and Neck Warm

Your body will strive to keep your torso, neck, and head a constant temperature at all times. Without any insulation, the heat coursing through your neck to your brain radiates into the air and is lost. Warmth that might have been directed to your extremities instead replaces the heat lost from your head. A thin balaclava or warm hat and neck gaiter are small items, weigh almost nothing, and are more effective at keeping you warm than an extra sweater.

Keeping Your Hands Warm

Hiking in cold and damp conditions will often chill your hands unpleasantly. A lightweight pair of synthetic liner gloves will do wonders.

Backpacking Equipment

Backpack

For overnight trips, a pack with 40 and 50 liters (roughly 2,500 to 3,000 cubic inches) capacity is generally necessary, though dedicated ultralight hikers with the most compact and lightweight gear can get away with less. For longer trips, a pack with 60 liters (approximately 3,700 cubic inches) or more is recommended.

Just like footwear, the most important feature of a pack is a good fit. A properly fitting backpack allows you to carry most of the weight on your hips and lower body, sparing the easily fatigued muscles of the shoulders and back. When trying on packs, loosen the shoulder straps, position the waist belt so that the top of your hips (the bony iliac crest) is in the middle of the belt, attach and cinch the waist belt, and then tighten the shoulder straps. The waist belt should fit snugly around your hips, with no gaps. The shoulder straps should rise slightly off your body before dipping back down to attach to the pack about an inch below your shoulders-no weight should be resting on the top of your shoulders, and you should be able to shrug them freely. Most packs will have load stabilizer straps that attach to the pack behind your ears and lift the shoulder straps upward, off your shoulders. A sternum strap links the two shoulder straps together across your chest and prevents them from slipping away from your body.

Keep your pack's center of gravity as close to your middle and lower back as possible. Heavy items should go against the back, becoming progressively lighter as you pack outward and upward. Do not place heavy items at or below the level of the hip belt-this precludes the ability to carry that weight on the lower body.

Sleeping Bag

Nighttime temperatures in New England vary dramatically depending on weather and seasons. In July and August, it is not uncommon to have overnight temperatures in the 50s or even 60s. In May, early June, mid- to late-September, and October, freezing temperatures can occur at any time, especially at higher elevations. A sleeping bag rated to 20 degrees is recommended for all-purpose use, though a model rated to 0 degrees is often a better option in the colder seasons or for people who are always cold at night. During the sweltering height of summer, a lightweight bag rated to 35 degrees or higher is often adequate and helps reduce pack weight.

Down sleeping bags offer the best warmth-to-weight ratio, are incredibly compressible, and will easily last 5 to 10 years without losing much of their warmth. However, untreated down loses all of its insulating ability when wet and takes forever to dry-a concern during long rainy spells. Some sleeping bags now offer water-resistant down, which helps reduce this risk considerably. Synthetic-fill sleeping bags retain their insulating abilities even when wet and are cheaper, but weigh more and are bulkier. Keep in mind that synthetic-fill bags lose some of their loft and warmth after a few seasons of use.

Sleeping Pad

Sleeping pads offer vital comfort and insulation from the cold ground. Inflatable, foam-filled pads are the most compact and comfortable to sleep on, but expensive and mildly time-consuming to inflate and deflate. Basic foam pads are lightweight, cheap, and virtually indestructible. For three-season hiking, virtually all versions provide adequate insulation from the ground. Comfort makes the call.

Tent/Shelter

Though you can get by without one during spells of good weather or by staying at shelters, a lightweight, three-season tent is usually recommended. These days, a two-person backpacking tent typically weighs between 3.5 and 5 pounds. As a general rule, the lighter they are, the less spacious they are.

A rainfly that extends to the ground on all sides is critically important for staying dry. Leaks are typically caused by water seeping through unsealed seams or contact between a wet rainfly and the tent body. Seal any untaped seams that are directly exposed to the rain or to water running off the fly, paying close attention to the floor corners of the tent body. Pitch the tent as tautly as possible to prevent a wet and saggy rainfly from touching the tent body.

Stability in wind is enhanced by pole intersections-the more poles and the more times they cross, the stronger the tent will be in blustery conditions. Placing a tarp between the tent floor and the ground will protect the floor from ground moisture, wear and tear, and will increase the lifespan of your tent. Most tents these days have an optional footprint with dimensions that exactly match the floor-a nice accessory.

Ultralight floorless shelters are a weight-saving option and often use trekking poles for support. They can save a pound or more of weight, but come with some sacrifices, including decreased bug resistance and the need to pitch them in an appropriate site that will not allow rainwater to run underneath.

Cooking Equipment

A stove is necessary if you want hot food on the trail. Three types are available. Canister stoves run on a pressurized butane/propane blend. Simply attach the stove burner to the fuel canister, turn the knob, and light. Such stoves are simple, safe, cheap, and have an adjustable flame. Their safety and simmer-ability make them a good choice for summer backpacking. However, the canisters can be hard to purchase outside of outdoor equipment stores, are more expensive, hard to recycle, do not work below freezing, and heat very slowly when less than a quarter full. Alcohol stoves are compact, extremely lightweight, and a popular choice for long-distance hikers. The fuel is readily available, but burns much less hot than butane/propane blends or white gas and takes much longer to boil water. Liquid fuel stoves run on white gas contained in a self-pressurized tank or bottle. White gas is inexpensive, burns hot, is widely available around the world, and works in extremely cold conditions. However, you must work directly with liquid fuel to prime the stove, adding an element of danger. Liquid fuel stoves are also more expensive and produce flames that are prone to flaring up and may not be adjustable. Liquid fuel stoves are a good choice for those interested in winter camping or international travel.

A simple 2- to 3-quart pot is all that is usually needed for backcountry cooking. A black, or blackened, pot will absorb heat more quickly and increase fuel efficiency. A windscreen for the stove is invaluable in breezy conditions. The only dish needed is a plate with upturned edges, which can double as a broad bowl-a Frisbee works particularly well. Don't forget the silverware! Lastly, bring an insulated mug to enjoy hot drinks. 

Other Good Stuff

Nylon cord is useful for hanging food, stringing clotheslines, and guying out tents. A simple repair kit should include needle, thread, and duct tape. A plastic trowel is nice for digging catholes. Insect repellent keeps bugs away. Sandals or running shoes are a great relief from hiking boots after reaching camp. A pen and waterproof notebook allow you to record outdoor epiphanies on the spot. Extra sealable plastic bags or garbage bags always come in handy. Compression stuff sacks will reduce the bulk of your sleeping bag and clothes by about a third.