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.


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 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.

Buy it now from:


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.

Buy it now from:

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.

Buy it now from:

Big Agnes

Emerging Tech

Buying on a budget? Here’s all the best tech you can snag for $25 or less

We live in a world where you can get a cheeseburger for $1, a functioning computer for $5, and thousands of HD movies for $10 -- so it stands to reason that you should be able to pick up some pretty sweet gear for $25.
Social Media

Spice up your Instagram videos by adding your top tunes to the soundtrack

Have you ever taken a beautiful video, only to have it ruined by some jerk in the background yelling curse words? Here's a list of apps you can use to add your own music to Instagram posts.
Home Theater

Put your home theater to the test with these spectacular Blu-ray releases

What's the point of having all of that awesome home theater gear if you can't breed a little jealousy in your friends and family? We've put together this list of fantastic Blu-rays that have the goods to drop a few jaws.
Emerging Tech

Bright idea: Keep your gadgets juiced up with these stellar solar chargers

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.

Sleep comfortably under the stars in one of the best tents

An essential piece of gear whether you're camping in your backyard or on a multi-day backpacking trip, here are our picks of the best tents currently on the market from car camping varieties to the best three-person option.
Emerging Tech

This high-tech water gun makes your old Super Soaker look like a fossil

The Spyra One is a next-generation water cannon that shoots single rounds up to 30 feet. It features a sleek design, bright colors, and digital display to show how much ammo is remaining.
Emerging Tech

The Trident scooter promises to propel you through the waves like a boss

Trident is an 'underwater scooter' which lets scuba divers or snorkelers power themselves through the waves at speed of up to 4.3 miles per hour. Here's how you can get your hands on one.
Emerging Tech

Awake’s stunning new electric surfboard promises good surfing even on flat water

Awake Rävik is a stunning new electric carbon surfboard that promises to let you get in a scintillating surf session even when the water is flat and free of waves. We totally want one, like, now.

Take on the forces of nature with one of the best backpacking tents you can buy

Whether you're headed out for the weekend or a thru-hike, these are the best backpacking tents you can buy. A proper backpacking tent allows you to stay comfortable and cozy on beautiful days or when the forces of nature seem to be…

REI slashes prices on tents, backpacks, and gear for its Outlet sale

As we reach some of the last hurrahs on summer, REI is offering steep discounts on its entire REI Outlet inventory. From now until August 13, you can save up to 70 percent on backpacks, tents, jackets and more.

The Mate X folding ebike carries a 55-mile range with an affordable price tag

The Mate X folding ebike promises to deliver a range of up to 55 miles, speeds of 20 mph, and an affordable price point. The bike is already a success on Indiegogo, raising $2.4 million in just a few weeks time.

This waterproof case turns your iPhone into an underwater camera system

The AquaTech AxisGo iPhone case turns Apple's smartphone into an underwater camera system complete with grip handle and an interchangeable lens system, making it easy for divers and snorkelers to capture photos and video.

BioLite's FirePit gives you a smokeless campfire, and it's available now

The new BioLite FirePit uses an innovative design and a built-in fan to create a smoke-free environment for cooking and enjoying a backyard bonfire. The device makes sitting around a fire a much more enjoyable experience.
Emerging Tech

This underwater camera drone can auto-follow and film while you dive

Youcan Robot's BW-Space hails itself as the world's first underwater photography drone that can recognize images and intelligently follow a target, while broadcasting live 4K video.
1 of 3