The beginner’s guide to backpacking

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

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

Spring has arrived and with it, the inevitable urge to get out into the wilderness. One of the burning questions a lot of weekend warriors tend to ask themselves around this time is, “is this the summer to try backpacking?” Living with only what you have on your back may seem like 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 take the first backpacking trip for less than you think. Here is your starter backpacking gear guide to get out into the woods without spending so much cash that you 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.


how to pack a backpack

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 here, but there are a few basic guidelines you should 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 both 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 of the pack.

External-frame packs are generally bulkier, made to carry irregular objects (like kayaks, canoes, and the like), and are more difficult to lug through heavy foliage or difficult terrain. An external-frame pack might be 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 on handy 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 ultra-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.

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Sleeping bag and pad

David Pereiras Villagrá/123RF

If there is a piece of gear worthy of spending more than the bare minimum on, 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 will protect you from rough ground and help 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 will typically offer more cushioning and insulation. On top of that, they tend to be lighter and will 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.

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Sierra Designs

Big Agnes Insulated AXL Air ($159-249)
backpacking gear guide big agnes insulated axl air lifestyle

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

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