The beginner’s guide to backpacking gear

Say goodbye to the grid: Here’s what you need for your first backpacking trip

osprey exos eja backpacks backpacking  white mountains new hampshire
Courtesy of Osprey Packs

Summer has arrived and with it, the inevitable urge to get out into the wilderness. One of the burning questions many weekend warriors tend to ask themselves every summer is, “Will I finally try backpacking this year?” Living with only what you have on your back may seem a daunting task, especially to beginners. How do you know what gear to take? How much does it cost? Although some items are essential, it’s possible to embark on your first backpacking trip for less than you think.

To help, we’ve put together this starter backpacking gear guide to get you into the woods without spending so much that you’d need to live there permanently. While it’s possible to borrow many of these items from friends or acquaintances — allowing you to test out a particular mattress pad or stove before spending your hard-earned cash on it — we understand the desire to own your own gear. With that in mind, here are our picks for the essentials every amateur backpacker should load up on before heading out on their first overnighter.

Backpack

Osprey Talon 22 Outdoor Awards Digital Trends hero

A good backpacking pack distributes the load on your hips, as opposed to hanging off your shoulders. Packs come in multiple sizes and checking each bag’s specifications is essential for finding the right fit. Better yet, actually trying a few on is a good place to start. The size (and shape) of the pack seriously impact the outcome of your trip — both positively and negatively.

A 40 to 50-liter pack is a good size for beginners, as it will fit everything you need for a weekend trip but help you avoid overpacking. Used backpacks are for sale at anywhere from REI garage sales to BackpackingLight.com and other online e-commerce sites. Unless you plan on tackling an extremely difficult route on your first outing, a quality used pack should work fine (and saves you some dough). There’s also nothing wrong with splurging on a new pack if you’re dead set on that.

We don’t need to get too deep into the nitty-gritty but there are a few basic guidelines to know before purchasing a pack. First, there are three primary types of packs: Internal-frame packs, external-frame packs, and frameless packs.

Internal-frame packs, designed to help hikers maintain balance on uneven trails and terrain, are the most popular and generally the best suited for new backpackers. When wearing an internal-frame backpack, the load is largely transferred to your hips to preserve your shoulders and back. Most internal-frame backpacks feature top-loading capabilities and offer few opportunities for attaching tools to the outside.

External-frame packs are generally bulkier, made to carry irregular objects (like kayaks or canoes), and are more difficult to lug through heavy foliage or difficult terrain. An external-frame pack is a good choice if you’re hiking in cold weather (and need space for warmer garb), or if your trip is long but you plan on sticking mostly to the trail. External-frame backpacks aren’t as effective at transferring weight from the shoulders to the hips, though they usually offer more customization and spots to hook tools.

Frameless backpacks are smaller, lighter, and better suited for quick trips. You’ll need to pack wisely, as space is scarce with these packs.

Our top pick for beginning backpackers:

Patagonia Ascensionist 40 ($179)
Patagonia Ascensionist 40

This versatile 40-liter pack features a removable foam back panel that gives the backpack structure when it’s overstuffed but can be taken out for lighter adventures. Its load-lifting shoulder straps make it easier to carry for longer trips and the padded, anti-chafe hip belt offers comfort to last all weekend. We wouldn’t recommend this for those who pack heavy but if you’re intent on keeping your gear ultralightweight, this is the pack for you.

Patagonia

Sleeping bag and pad

Nemo Cloudview Hammock best outdoor gear

If there’s a piece of gear worthy of spending more than the bare minimum, it’s a sleeping bag. One chilly night in the backcountry quickly ruins a trip for unprepared travelers. Sleeping bags feature a filling of either synthetic or down insulation. Down is lighter and easier to pack, however, it loses its insulative properties whenever it gets wet.

In three-season camping (fall, spring, or summer), down fill is the most popular choice and there exist plenty of options on the market in many different styles. Synthetic fill (usually polyester) isn’t as soft, warm, or light but it’s cheaper, and it’s generally more water-resistant than down.

You’ll also want to note the temperature rating tagged to most sleeping bags and plan accordingly. The numbers are more guidelines than hard-and-fast rules — some people are naturally warm sleepers, some aren’t — but you’ll generally want a bag rated at 10 degrees Fahrenheit or below for winter backpacking. Fill ratings indicate a bag’s ratio of weight-to-warmth (dependent upon the type and age of bird from which the down was sourced), so a bag with a 600 fill rating at the same temperature rating will be lighter than a bag with 500 fill rating.

To provide added insulation, a sleeping pad is also necessary. A simple foam pad protects you from rough ground and helps you stay warm in cold weather. Companies like Therm-A-Rest sell lightweight, low-budget foam pads of choice for many hikers — though army surplus stores also tend to offer suitable foam pads on the cheap, as well. If you have the means to spend a little more, self-inflating sleeping pads typically offer more cushioning and insulation. They also tend to be lighter and take up less room.

Our top picks for beginning backpackers:

Sierra Designs Cloud 800 20-degree ($299)
Sierra Designs Cloud 800 20-degree 

This ultralight sleeping bag features 800-fill DriDown that offers hyper-compressibility and supreme heat-trapping capabilities while still remaining ventilated and breathable. Its completely unique zipperless design offers the sensation of being in your own bed — with a cozy comforter, no less — without sacrificing the innovative bag’s inferno-like warmth.

Sierra Designs

Big Agnes Insulated AXL Air ($159-249)

The feather-light weight of this Big Agnes sleeping pad and its ultra-compact, minimalist design makes it one of the best options for anyone, whether you’re a beginner backpacker or seasoned pro. The pad’s PrimaLoft Silver insulation and heat reflective barrier trap body heat while its nylon rip-stop adds softness and comfort.

Big Agnes

Emerging Tech

Where are they now? A look back at last year’s Top Tech of CES winners

What happened to the 14 prize-winning products we singled out as the coolest things we saw at last year's CES 2018? Join us as we take a look at what the past 12 months has meant for them.
Outdoors

The best battery packs and power stations for use in the outdoors

If you want to keep your smartphones, tablets, and other devices charged while camping int he backcountry these battery packs and portable power stations are rugged enough to survive while providing plenty of power too.
Outdoors

Snooze soundly anywhere you lay your head with the best sleeping bags

A proper sleeping bag has the ability to make or break a camping or backpacking trip. Here are our picks for the best sleeping bags on the market to help you choose the correct bag for any type of outdoor adventure.
Deals

Here are 20 portable tech gadgets you’ll want to use every day

If you're looking for portable tech to keep you charged up while on the go (or for some great small gift ideas), we've rounded up 20 must-have gadgets. You'll find everything from a mini gaming controller to a folding Bluetooth keyboard.
Outdoors

Drink what nature provides with the best water purifiers

Looking for reliable water purification? Staying hydrated is important, especially when you are hiking or camping far from civilization. Check out our picks of the best water purifiers for your camp, backpack, or pocket.
Emerging Tech

You may soon be able to summon an autonomous wheelchair like an Uber

At CES 2019, autonomous wheelchair company Whill unveiled its vision for a world in which people can summon its wheelchairs by app, in locations such as museums, airports, and city centers.
Emerging Tech

Yamaha’s new app lets you tune your motorcycle with a smartphone

It used to be that if you wanted to tune your motorcycle’s engine and tweak its performance, you needed specialized tools and even more specialized knowledge. Yamaha’s new Power Tuner app changes that.
Emerging Tech

Furrion’s luxurious smart yacht looks like the perfect vessel for a Bond villain

Forget smart watches and the like: when it comes to the biggest smart technology at CES 2019, the literal answer can be nothing other than the 78-foot, high-tech luxury smart yacht, Adonis.
Emerging Tech

Look forward to your morning commute with one of the best ebikes available

A proper ebike is perfect for commuting or a trek along the trailhead, with most offering pedal assistance and a long-range battery. As more brands offer their own take on this innovative way to get around, it's hard to distinguish the…
Outdoors

Here are all the best rain jackets on the market right now

From high-tech, lightweight shells to modern-looking, waterproof trench coats, check out our list of the best rain jackets built to keep you dry and looking stylish in any season.
Emerging Tech

The best solar chargers for your phone, tablet, and other battery-powered gear

Looking for a gizmo that can help you charge your phone while on the go? Here, we've outlined the best solar chargers on the market, whether you're looking to charge your phone once, twice, or three times over.
Outdoors

Nike’s Adapt BB shoes let you tighten your laces with an iPhone

The new Nike Adapt BB shoe comes with smartphone connectivity that allows the user to tighten the laces using a smartphone while providing the ability to adjust tension throughout the game.
Deals

REI drops prices on North Face and Columbia during its winter sale

Looking to shop top brands like North Face, Columbia, and more? REI is offering up to 50 percent off during a winter sale so you can save big on new jackets and hoodies. This deal will last until January 22, so take advantage on this huge…
Deals

The 10 best windproof umbrellas to help you weather the storm

The rains have come and they have no mercy. Can your current umbrella handle everything nature can throw at it? Here are 10 of the best windproof umbrella deals available now to help keep you safe and dry.
1 of 3