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.
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)
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.
Sleeping bag and pad
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:
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.
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.