My Backpacking Gear
Originally published October 2012. Last updated in June 2020 with the addition of the LighterPack spreadsheet; updated pictures, products, and info; and a section about backpacking food. Many of the product links are affiliate links, which means that if you purchase something after clicking one of my gear links, I will get a small cut of the payment and it won’t cost you anything more.
Backpacking into the mountains is a great joy of mine. It feels adventurous and liberating to venture into the wilderness with everything you need to survive (and even stay comfortable) on your back. By backpacking you have the means to “live” – albeit briefly – in paradisiacal locations that boggle the mind and soothe the soul. But, first you need to have the gear to do it.
As Terence McKenna observed, humans are probably better categorized as crustaceans, since we basically live our lives moving from one shell to another, whether it’s a house, car, office, or a tent. Which is to say, we can’t just wander off naked into the woods and expect to be one with nature! Fortunately for the modern adventurous crustacean we have an almost endless array of high tech, lightweight clothes, sleeping bags, shelters, and tools to keep us alive and happy while walking in the wilderness.
Recently I’ve received a bunch of emails asking me about my backpacking gear. I realize that it can be a bit daunting for someone who is interested – but not experienced – in backpacking to figure out what equipment they need to bring into the mountains for an overnight or multi-day camping trip. You need to travel light, but you also need all the stuff to keep you warm and dry. In this post, I’m going to list and explain all the gear that I use on backpacking treks. I will also include some helpful tips along the way.
The gear I’m listing below is based around backpacking in the mountains of Colorado. In the summer here we have warm days, frequent thunderstorms with rain, and chilly nights. In the winter it’s often sunny but also it can be windy and bitterly cold. The consistent variety of Colorado’s weather means that the gear I use here will be similarly suitable for many of the world’s mountains.
My strategy for backpacking involves striking a balance between lightweight travel and basic comforts. While I’ll never qualify as a true ultralight backpacker due to my camera gear, I do believe that opting for ultralight gear whenever possible can dramatically reduce your pack weight, allowing for more enjoyable hiking that’s easier on your body. In my gear list below you will see that weight is often a main priority.
Because I backpack so often and because backpacking is an integral part of my photography business, I am willing to spend extra money on expensive, premium, ultralight gear – for me this makes sense and is worth it. I often spend hours researching gear, scouring reviews and forums to discover niche products and to get a sense of the best ultralight gear options. Part of my intention with this article is to share my knowledge and experience of the very best backpacking gear available, and thus you will see that my gear list below is definitely aimed at the premium end of the spectrum. I realize that the excessive cost of some of this ultralight gear is beyond reasonable for casual or beginner backpackers, but at the least my recommendations can serve as a reference point to compare other products to. Keep in mind that there are many great products on the market beyond the ones I list here, many of which are far less expensive and perfectly adequate for backcountry comfort and performance. You don’t need specialized gear for everything; of course people have been hiking, camping, and enjoying the wilderness for many generations before any of this high tech gear existed!
My Current List of Backpacking Gear
Let's dive right into it. Here's my current updated LighterPack spreadsheet of gear for a typical 1-2 night solo summer backpack trip. This includes everything but food and water. Of course this list varies a bit for each trip depending on the place, time of year, and what different or extra gear I bring.
* In some cases I may not bring all my camera lenses, which can also save a significant amount of weight. Or I may bring more or heavier lenses, which adds weight. Either way, what stands out to me in the graph above is what a huge portion of my total pack weight is the camera gear - roughly a third of the weight of everything!
** Most of the time I backpack with my wife, which lightens things up a bit more since we can split up the shared gear between us.
Read on for lots more explanation, recommendations, and tips!
My Summer Backpacking Setup
Nowadays I mostly backpack with my wife Claudia; we both agree that a fully enclosed mosquito-proof tent is the way to go (rather than floorless tents or tarps). For ultralight tents, the best options are trekking-pole-supported tents made out of Dyneema Composite Fabric (DCF), also known as Cuben Fiber. This material is ultra lightweight, ultra strong, and totally waterproof (so it remains completely taut in the rain, and you can shake the water off and won't ever have to pack a soaking wet tent) - but, it's also ultra expensive. If you can stomach the price, the Zpacks Duplex ($599) is an impressively-well-designed single-wall tent. At a mere 19.4 oz. the Duplex is dramatically lighter and more spacious than comparable 2-3 man tents which are typically 2+ pounds heavier. If you do a lot of backpacking, the high price is worth it to save so much weight. The optional carbon fiber tent pole set converts the Duplex into a freestanding tent which is useful when camping in the desert on sand or slickrock. Their Triplex model is super spacious but its footprint is too enormous for many backcountry camp spots, and there's no tent pole kit option for that size. The Tarptent StratoSpire Li ($689) is another ultralight DCF tent to consider. Both Zpacks and Tarptent (and many other cottage tent brands) also make ultralight 1 person tents.
For trips when we expect very windy or snowy weather, we bring a Big Sky International Chinook 2P Tent which is super bomber.
Budget options: Most inexpensive tents come with a significant weight penalty of several additional pounds or more, which I don't recommend at all. But if the prices of those ultralight DCF tents above seem absurd to you, don't worry, there are still some good lightweight options! The single-wall, trekking pole supported REI Flash Air 2 Tent is only 1 lb 15 oz for a two person tent ($225 on sale) or 1 lb 4oz for the single person version ($187 on sale).
Down sleeping bags are typically lighter, more packable, and warmer than synthetic sleeping bags. For backpacking couples like us, we are big fans of double sleeping bag systems which are superior because you gain a lot of extra heat by sharing the space with your partner (just be careful with those curry or bean chili dinners!). We use a Feathered Friends Spoonbill double bag, which is very warm (I estimate about a 15-20º temp rating) and weighs an incredible 2 lb 8 oz., just slightly heavier than most single person sleeping bags! It achieves this light weight because the down fill is only on the top and sides, not on the bottom which is unnecessary since down is squished and ineffective anyways when you're laying on it. A similar option would be the 1-person Feathered Friends Penguin bag which can be paired with the matching Penguin Groundsheet to turn it into a 2-person bag.
For solo trips I use a Timmermade Wren False Bottom sleeping bag. It's 20º temperature rating is perfect to stay cozy on chilly alpine nights. While comparable 20º down bags typically weigh around 26-32oz, the Wren weighs only 19.5oz thanks to 950 fill down and a zipperless design which (like the Spoonbill) omits down insulation underneath your back. Plus, Dan Timmerman custom makes each bag to your exact specifications, even with custom photo-printed fabric if you choose! Nice.
Budget option: The NEMO Kyan 20 Sleeping Bag has good reviews and is surprisingly light for a synthetic bag (2lb 1oz, $240).
Generally speaking, air mattresses are lighter, more compact to pack, warmer, and more comfortable on bumpy ground than closed-cell foam pads (especially for side sleepers). The obvious drawback (besides the expense) is the chance that it could pop or leak; it's a good idea to carry an emergency repair kit, but whether you can actually identify and repair the leak in the field (and probably in the middle of the night too) is dubious. I have an Exped Synmat HL M Sleeping Pad (15.4 oz, $179) which I personally find to be more comfortable than the lightweight and highly regarded Therm-a-Rest NeoAir XLite Sleeping Pad (12 oz, $185). For couple camping we use the Exped Synmat Hyperlight HL Duo Sleeping Pad (32 oz, $279), which is the same thing as the Exped above, but double wide for two people.
If you prefer the reliability, durability, ease of use, and price of a closed-cell foam pad, check out the Exped FlexMat Plus Sleeping Pad (17.6 oz, $41), which might change your perception of how comfortable a foam pad can be! Another benefit of a foam pad like this is being able to pair it with a Sea to Summit Air Chair (size S/M, 8 oz, $45) for a totally durable, comfortable, lightweight chair for much-appreciated back support during all those hours sitting around admiring the view. (Personally I wouldn't trust the durability of an air mattress to use as a chair!)
For a pillow, I prefer to just fold a down jacket or sweater into the sleeping bag stuff sack.
Trekking poles save your knees, give you extra hiking power from your arms, and aid in balance. Collapsible poles are preferred for their ability to fit into travel luggage, or to strap to your pack when not in use. Cascade Mountain Tech Ultralight 2-piece Carbon Fiber Trekking Poles are lightweight, telescoping collapsible poles at a much lower price than most other similar trekking poles. I've learned that telescoping poles like this with quicklocks/fliplocks are more durable and reliable than the slightly lighter weight Z-poles such as the Black Diamond Distance Carbon Z Trekking Poles. (After breaking 5 different sets of Z-poles, I've finally learned my lesson that this design just isn't durable enough). I think it's not a good idea to spend an exorbitant amount on poles since they do tend to break eventually.
One Nalgene water bottle. A Gatorade or SmartWater bottle would work just fine too.
Some of my friends never filter water around here at all, but I'd rather be safe than sorry. There are a lot of options and different techniques for purifying water, and I've used just about all of them, but my absolute favorite is the Platypus GravityWorks 4.0L Filter System. Gone are the days of tedious pumping or squeezing; with the GravityWorks you just fill up a 4-liter "dirty" bag, hang it in a tree, and wait 10-20 minutes for the water to flow through the filter into another 4-liter "clean" bag. It really works well, and if/when it does start to slow down after numerous uses, you can just reverse the process to back-flow and clean the filter out. Plus, you have a 4-liter dromedary bag which is super handy for camping in awesome spots away from water sources. This system is a little bit bulkier and heavier than other purification methods but in my opinion it's totally worth it. The only drawback of the GravityWorks system is that it does take a while to filter the water, so it's not practical for quick filtering while hiking. Also, the filter can be destroyed if it freezes, so you have to be careful about that.
My second purification choice for times when I know I'll need to purify during hiking, or when I want to travel really light, is the SteriPEN Adventurer Opti. This is a very light, compact, and quick UV purifier. Just make sure to carry extra CR123 lithium batteries.
My backpacking stove of choice is the Soto WindMaster Stove, which runs on standard propane/butane fuel canisters. This tiny thing is super lightweight and compact, has very nice flame adjustment for simmering, reliable auto-ignitor, and can boil water in breezy or windy conditions which contributes to fuel efficiency. Budget option: Make your own cat food can alcohol stove!
I would recommend titanium cookware, even though it's quite a bit more expensive. It will lighten your load and last forever. For the pot, cooking for couples or groups, I'd recommend something in the 1.5 to 2-liter volume range, such as the Snow Peak Titanium Pot. Perhaps solo hikers could use a smaller pot. I also like the Snow Peak Titanium Fork and Spoons, and their Titanium mug for coffee. The plastic style backcountry spoons/forks work fine too. Don't forget to bring a couple BIC lighters in case you want (or need) to start a fire; and store them someplace where there's no chance of getting wet.
How about an affordable headlamp that shines up to 360 lumens and weighs a scant 1.17 oz? Too good to be true? It's for real: the Nitecore NU25 Triple Output USB Rechargeable Headlamp with Ultralight headband modification by Litesmith. It also has a red lamp which won't attract bugs. Runtimes are as follows: Low (tent or reading light) 1 lumen for 160 hours, Medium (normal camp use or hiking on trail at night) 38 lumens for 8 hours, High (bright off trail night hiking) 190 lumens for 5 hours. The Turbo 360 lumen mode is only good for 0.5 hours. This headlamp is a great choice for shorter ultralight treks; for longer treks you might need a backup battery charger.
If you often hike at night (like I do for sunrise or sunset shoots) and you want something super bright that will illuminate a forest and blind every animal in a 100 yard radius, check out the Zebralight H600Fw Mk IV 18650 XHP35 Floody Neutral White Headlamp. This headlamp is sure to please even the most discerning flashlight geeks with its 1358 lumen max brightness, neutral warm light color tint (more visually pleasing and shows natural colors more accurately than the usual fluorescent cool white light), soft semi-flood beam, and exceptionally long battery life, all at a reasonably light 4.5 oz. weight. Runtimes are as follows: 0.9 Lm = 1080 hours, 55 Lm = 28 hours, 256 Lm = 6.3 hours, 1358 Lm = 2.8 hours (and there are numerous settings in between as well). This headlamp is the choice for longer treks, night hiking, or if you just appreciate high quality light color & beam. Another advantage of this headlamp is that it uses rechargeable, high powered 18650 lithium batteries which can also double as backup battery packs for other devices, using a lightweight charger adapter such as the Nitecore LC10 USB Charger.
If you wanna feel like Rambo you've gotta have a knife out there! But let's be honest, its main job description is slicing salami and cheese. For these tasks the 27g Deejo is beautiful little lightweight knife (you can even customize the handle and engravings). For something a little more sturdy and easier to handle, the Kershaw Skyline knife is a nice one. I also carry a tiny multi-tool like the Leatherman Style in case I need to fix something with pliers.
Don't forget your sunblock, toothbrush, mini travel toothpaste, and a travel bottle of hand sanitizer. As for TP, NEVER leave your toilet paper lying around after you're done! This is the number one most common offense of careless and disrespectful backpackers. After finding a private place a long distance from any campsite or trail, you should first dig a hole at least six inches deep, then bury everything when you're done. Sometimes it's easier to find a big rock, roll it over, poop in the hole, then roll it back in place. If the weather is damp and wet you can burn your TP, but of course never attempt this if there is any chance whatsoever of sparking a wildfire.
First Aid Kit
You can buy a prepackaged first aid kit like this, or just compile your own. Additionally, if you bring a phone, there are some good first aid apps that could provide crucial reference info when you're in the field, including First Aid: American Red Cross and Army First Aid.
and sunglass case if you're anal like me about not scratching up your glasses.
Personal Locator Beacon
I always bring along the ACR ResQLink 406 Personal Locator Beacon. The way PLBs work is that if you have a dire emergency in the wilderness you can activate an SOS and the device will alert an emergency center via satellite, who will then initiate rescue knowing your exact GPS location. These things have gotten so light, compact, and cheap, that there's really no reason to not have one with you at all times in the backcountry. The Garmin inReach Mini is another option which has the additional advantage of being able to send non-emergency texts via satellite, which can be handy for updating your loved ones while you're out. But the Garmin requires a recurring subscription which in the long run makes it far more expensive (whereas the ACR is a one-time purchase).
Map and Compass
You've always got to have a map with you on backcountry treks. Fortunately nowadays we can have all the topo maps we want with us on our smart phones, using apps like Gaia GPS or Topo Maps, with the added advantage that those apps will tell you your exact location on the map. The catch is that you have to make sure your phone doesn't run out of batteries! Battery life can be lengthened by always keeping your phone in airplane mode and by carrying a compact battery backup such as the Anker PowerCore+ mini.
A backpack is probably the #1 item where you should really be careful what you buy, and buy the best available. A good backpack will last for many years and will make the difference between an enjoyable trek or a grueling death march.
When you're shopping for a backpack, make sure that you load it up with lots of heavy stuff in the shop so you can feel how it really holds a heavy load. A good pack will put most of the weight comfortably on your hips, not your shoulders, and it will sit straight without pulling backwards on your shoulders. Don't pay much attention to all the bells and whistles, like a bunch of cool pockets or whatever, but rather the main priority should be how well it carries a heavy load on your body.
Here's a tip: a sign of a good backpack is that the top of the internal pack frame rises up above the shoulder pads at least a couple inches, and the load lifters (the straps that pull the top of the frame towards the shoulder straps) angle upwards from the shoulder straps at about a 45º angle to the frame - this keeps the pack straight on your back without pulling backwards. Here is a great video demonstrating how a backpack is supposed to fit.
I use and have highly recommended the Seek Outside Unaweep-Exposure panel loader backpack, which I actually helped to design specifically for us backpacking photographers. I am a big fan of panel loader packs, which means that the whole pack unzips like a suitcase, instead of just having a top pull-tie opening. It's so much easier to access your stuff when you can unzip the whole pack, instead of having to dig through from the top. In the picture above you can see my camera case positioned at the top of the pack where it's quickly accessible. The tripod gets strapped to the side.
Unfortunately Seek Outside has discontinued production of the Exposure panel loader backpack. Despite the lack of panel loader model now, I still highly recommend their backpacks, which are lightweight but have a beefy suspension that will carry heavy loads MUCH more comfortably than pretty much any other backpack. The Divide 4500 Backpack (73L, 2lb 15oz, $359) is good for large loads and/or lots of camera gear. Or if you don't need so much volume, check out the Gila 3500 backpack (57L, 2lb 13oz, $349). These are bomber packs that will last forever and easily haul anything you can put into them.
I use my Seek Outside Exposure pack for week-long backpack treks or winter camping, when I need to carry heavy loads. For most shorter backpack trips up to about 4 days or so, my current choice is the Zpacks Arc Zip 57L backpack, which is an ultralight (2 lb, $350+) panel loader that comfortably carries loads up to about 30 lbs. or so. This pack has lots of clever engineering features like an ingeniously simple torso length adjustment, an adjustable arched frame system, a waistbelt that is connected directly to the frame, and many useful optional add-on accessories. However, with a priority on ultralight weight, the pack sacrifices durability and must be handled delicately - both when packing and while out in the field. It's also overly expensive, especially considering its questionable longevity and extra cost of add-on accessories. But if ultralight is your priority and you're willing to baby your gear, the Zpacks backpacks are a good option.
My wife uses a ULA Equipment Circuit backpack (68L, 2lb 9oz, $255) which is lightweight, durable, and features very comfortable, cushy, and supportive suspension and straps. This is a longtime favorite pack in the thru-hiking community and a solid recommendation (for both men or women), considering its excellent combination of comfort, weight, durability, and cost.
Budget option: Although I haven't used one myself, the Granite Gear Crown2 60L (2lb 2oz, $200) is affordable, ultralight, has good reviews, comes in three back sizes, and is often on sale for significantly discounted prices. They make a women's version too.
Don't want your backpack to get wet if/when it rains on you! Osprey Ultralight Rain Covers are nice, or if you're willing to spend a bit more the Zpacks Pack Covers are dyneema and half the weight. Budget option: use a trash compactor bag as a pack liner inside your pack, then you don't need a rain cover.
The main rule of camping clothes: NO COTTON! When cotton gets wet, it does not keep you warm, it is heavy, and it takes forever to dry. It's better to use wool or high-tech hiking fabrics, which are lighter, will breathe better, keep you warmer, and dry faster. Here is the essential summertime backpacking clothes list:
• Lightweight, breathable hiking shirt. This will get sweaty! Patagonia Capilene Cool Daily short sleeve shirts are nice.
• A warmer, long-sleeved layer for hanging out at camp, and at night. I like REI's Sahara shirts.
• A sweater or insulated jacket. I'm a big fan of down jackets (or down sweaters), which pack light and compact, but provide LOTS of warmth, especially when layered under a shell jacket. Down jackets with hoods provide even more warmth when needed. These can also double as a pillow when folded into a stuff sack at night. Many outdoor companies make down sweaters but I think Rab is a leader here. My down jacket of choice is the Rab Electron Jacket, which is warmer than a typical down sweater, but not so big as a full winter puffy - perfect for staying totally cozy on a chilly alpine night. (Women's version is the Rab Pulsar).
• A shell jacket to protect from rain and wind. When it comes to rain gear, keep in mind that there's no such thing as a waterproof AND breathable fabric. So if your jacket is 100% waterproof, it will feel super clammy and you'll still get wet just from your own perspiration and condensation. So the purpose of shell clothing is more about windbreaking and keeping you sort of dry enough for a while until you can find shelter. The Outdoor Research Helium Jacket weighs only 6.3oz and does this job well. These jackets have a trim fit so I'd recommend to size up so you can layer a down jacket underneath.
• Shell pants, with full side zips so you can pull them on and off over your boots, and have plenty of ventilation while hiking. I like the Outdoor Research Foray Pants (10.3 oz). If you sacrifice the side zips and durability, the Outdoor Research Helium Pants (5.4 oz) cut that weight in half!
• Shorts. Running shorts are very light and fast drying. Anything will work but the Prana Super Mojo Shorts are nice and light. I also like the Patagonia Stretch Wavefarer Shorts which are a bit more durable.
• Undies. As with everything else, go for something non-cotton like nylon/spandex/wool, which dry out quickly after a sweaty day of hiking. I usually bring along with a spare so that I don't stink too badly after a week of trekking. I like Saxx Quest 2.0 Boxers.
• Long underwear. Smartwool Merinos are nice.
• A sun hat, or a ballcap with sun cape or a handkerchief underneath to shade my neck. I love the Outdoor Research Trucker Sun Runner Hat which comes with a sun cape that shades my neck and stays in place even in windy weather.
• Gloves and a warm beanie for when it gets cold. The North Face Etip gloves are warm, lightweight, and touch-screen sensitive.
• I sweat a lot so a sweat band is a must for me to keep my sweat out of my eyes; I don't care that it looks super dorky! Check out the Halo Headband which has a much thinner profile than usual sweatbands, so it fits nicely under a hat. It also works great - the sweat evaporates efficiently so the headband doesn't get all soaked like normal ones.
• Socks. Wool socks are more durable and will keep your feet warmer when they're wet. I prefer lightweight wool socks like the Smartwool PhD Outdoor Light Crew Sock or Darn Tough Coolmax Hiker Micro Crew Cushion Socks. On longer treks, I'll take three pairs of socks, one of which I keep for camp and sleeping.
• Sturdy boots. To protect my feet and provide a solid foundation for my body, I wear sturdy leather boots with good insole inserts that provide better arch support. My current boot of choice is the Lowa Renegade GTX Mid Hiking Boot, which is sturdy yet still flexible enough for comfortable walking. I highly recommend swapping out your boots' flat insoles with ones that have more arch support, such as Spenco Total Support Max Insoles or Superfeet. If you've got a super lightweight pack and are hiking purely on well groomed trails, you might be able to get away with wearing running shoes, but you will regret it if you're hiking over talus fields, crossing streams, etc.; plus, you run a much higher risk of common injury such as twisting your ankle. Boots are better.
• A lightweight pack towel to wash with. On multiday trips the best option is to jump into a lake or stream, or splash-wash yourself next to a lake/stream with a small bottle of eco-friendly soap, then use the towel only to dry yourself off. This keeps the towel clean for the duration of the trip. Or, if options are limited or it's super cold out, you can just do a towel wash with a wet towel. If you're just doing towel washes, you can go with an ultralight Lightload towel to save a few grams.
• For convenience I put all my spare clothes into a stuffsack. If you're really a gram-counting gear hound, check out the feather light dyneema Zpacks Stuff Sacks; the 0.42 oz. large stuff sack in particular is a good size for holding all your clothes. Or you can just use any common nylon stuff sacks, a plastic grocery bag, or just shove your clothes directly into your pack.
Sun protection is one of those things that many people probably don't worry about enough. Sure, maybe you'll put on some suncreen in the morning and maybe you'll get a bit of a minor sunburn by late afternoon but who cares, not a big deal, right? Well, let me tell you when your doctor informs you that you have basal cell skin cancer and you have to get several chunks of your face carved out, that's a serious wakeup call! That happened to me recently, and sun protection became a top priority real quick. I wish I had been more vigilant about it in the 20+ years I've been hiking and backpacking in the high altitude Colorado sunlight. I hope if you're reading this that you can learn from my lesson and make sun protection a top priority for yourself now before it comes back to bite you.
While sunscreen is a necessary part of sun protection, by far the best protection is physical protection, meaning clothing and shade. This is tricky though for strenuous exercise in hot weather; long sleeve shirts and pants can be unbearable in the heat. Fortunately there are some fantastic items available that are designed just for this.
• The Outdoor Research Trucker Sun Runner Hat comes with a sun cape that shades your neck and stays in place even in windy weather. In my opinion this is superior to traditional round brimmed sun hats because: 1) Sun hat brims often flop up in the wind, thus rendering them ineffective; 2) Sun hat brims often hit your backpack behind your head, which simply won't work for hiking; and 3) Brimmed sun hats don't shade your face or neck when the sun is lower in the sky.
• Outdoor Research ActiveIce Sun Sleeves are a great way to keep your arms protected without slathering sunscreen all over them (and having to clean it off every night). The ActiveIce fabric really works: it has a phenomenal evaporative cooling affect that actually keeps your arms cooler than they'd be uncovered in the sun! Plus, the sleeves have thumb holes so they can cover your entire hands too except your fingers. They also have a Bugout version if you're in mosquito territory.
• Outdoor Research ActiveIce Chroma Sun Gloves will protect your hands while offering durable support while hiking with trekking poles.
• Lightweight hooded sun shirts provide great sun protection, particularly when you're just hanging out at camp or around town or whatever. I prefer models that don't have a restrictive neck gaiter which I find to be claustrophobic on hot days. I've tried a bunch of these and my favorite is the Patagonia Capilene Cool Daily Hoodie.
• The lightest, most breathable hiking pants I've found are the Outdoor Research Ferrosi Pants which are possible to wear while hiking on warm days. On really hot days I can't deal with any long pants so suncreen has to suffice for my legs.
• As for sunscreen, it can be difficult to find the perfect sunscreen that isn't too greasy or chemical smelling, and doesn't leave a ghostly white residue on your skin. The best I've found so far is Kiss My Face Sport Faces SPF 30. If you know of a good one please let me know in the comments! Don't forget that you MUST reapply sunscreen periodically throughout the day. This is the main drawback of sunscreen: that oftentimes we are too lazy or forgetful to reapply it, not realizing that its effectiveness declines after a few hours. Also, don't forget to sunscreen every exposed spot, including your ears and temples.
Backpacking Food and Food Storage
Before discussing backpacking food, it's important to talk about how to properly store your food while in the backcountry in order to keep both you and your food safe from critters both large and small. Contrary to popular belief, hanging your food with ropes is a very poor solution - not only is it a pain to do properly, but you know black bears are excellent tree climbers, right? Bear canisters like the BearVault BV500 work well, but are way too heavy and bulky, and therefore should only be used where they are mandated, like in some national parks.
The best solution is an Ursack Major Bear Bag, a super strong Spectra fabric food bag which is much lighter than a normal bear canister. You put your food into an odor-proof plastic bag inside, then tie the bag to the base of a tree away from your tent. Bears cannot tear the bag or the rope, so they can't steal your food.
Remember: NEVER STORE ANY FOOD IN YOUR TENT! Do not give bears a reason to come sniffing around. Or smaller critters either, for that matter. We once had some aggressive squirrels chew a hole through our tent trying to get to some toothpaste we left in there!
As for backpacking food, the key is a high calorie to weight ratio. So that means dried meals and dense, high calorie snacks with a high fat to carbs ratio.
For dinners, we prefer to dehydrate our own meals. This is a big topic in itself with lots of different strategies, but they way we do it is to cook a big batch of a meal at home (like pasta sauce, chili, chicken pot, lentil soups, etc.) making sure to dice the veggies and other ingredients into thin pieces. We then spread it out thin on vinyl trays in our dehydrator. After about 8 hours of dehydrating, the meal becomes a brittle "leather" which we break into pieces and vacuum seal into small, labelled pouches. When it's time for dinner in the backcountry, we empty the meal into a pot, pour water into it, let it sit for about a half hour to rehydrate, then heat it up over the stove. The result is a hearty, delicious meal that tastes as fresh as it was when we first cooked it!
A less labor-intensive and more common approach is to buy freeze dried backpacking meals, many of which are quite delicious these days! My favorite meals are from Packit Gourmet, especially their Texas State Fair Chili, Tuscan Beef Stew and Polenta, and Southwest Corn and Black Bean Salad. I also really like many of Mountain House's meals; their Chili Mac and Pasta Primavera are time tested favorites of ours.
A couple tips for the freeze dried backpacker meals: 1) They always say "2 servings" but it's one serving. After a big day of hiking, you will eat the whole thing yourself. 2) Before you pack the meals in your backpack, open the pouches, remove the desiccant pack, squeeze out the excess air, and reseal. This will save a lot of space. 3) For a multiday trek, you only need to bring one of these meals in its pouch. You can repackage all the other meals in ziploc bags, which will save a lot of space and weight. Then, just reuse the one pouch each night to cook every meal in. 4) For strenuous multi-day treks, you can boost your meals' calories by adding olive oil; Marconi Olive Oil packets are convenient for this.
For breakfasts we usually have powdered coffee and oatmeal and/or breakfast bars, and for lunch and snacks we have things like nuts, a block of hard cheese (something like Jarlsberg, for example), salami, pita bread, and/or high calorie chips like Triscuits, pita chips, chocolate, etc.
I've also recently become a fan of post-exercise recovery drinks like Mike's Mix Recovery Drink which supposedly give your body a quick shot of nutrients when it's most ready to absorb them (within 30 minutes of finishing your hiking).
For lots of expert backpacking recipes, check out Andrew Skurka's blog.
Since this is a photography blog and I'm a photographer, here's my current camera gear that I often take with me on most backpacking trips, in case you're interested.
- Sony A7Riv camera
- Sony 24-105mm lens
- Usually a selection of one or two of the following lenses, depending on what type of shooting I anticipate, and/or how light I want to travel:
- Hoya circular polarizer
- Remote trigger (for longer exposures)
- 1-2 extra batteries. Usually 3 batteries will last me for a 7-day trek, if I'm careful.
- Gitzo GIGT0545T Traveler Series 0 Carbon Fiber Tripod (with short center column).
- Really Right Stuff BH-25 Ultra-light ballhead with lever-release clamp.
I typically carry the camera with zoom lens in a toploader chest pouch (in this case an F-Stop Droploader 15) which is rigged to my backpack's shoulder straps with releasable clips. This keeps the camera handy for easy and immediate access while I'm hiking, and also nicely balances my backpack load by putting the camera weight on my chest and not completely on my back.
The wideangle lens and other filters and batteries I put into my backpack in an F-Stop Micro Tiny ICU. If/when I want to carry two extra lenses, I'll use an F-Stop Small Shallow ICU in my backpack instead. The tripod gets strapped to the side.
Here are some things that we may or may not bring, depending on the trek and/or how much we're willing to carry:
• A chair! Over the years I've realized that one major factor that causes back pain when backpacking is spending hours sitting awkwardly on rocks, logs, or the ground with the inevitable bad posture that ensues. A lightweight chair can help a lot to alleviate those aches and pains, not to mention it's such a nice luxury to have a comfy seat to relax in at camp after a long day of hiking. The best lightweight backcountry chair system I've found is the Sea to Summit Air Chair (size S/M, 8 oz, $45) combined with the sleeping mattress of your choice. Although the chair is designed to be used with an air mattress, I prefer using it with the foam Exped FlexMat Plus Sleeping Pad (17.6 oz, $41), since personally I wouldn't trust the durability of an air mattress to use as a chair around camp surrounded by pine needles and sharp rocks. Here's a tip: if you are only using the FlexMat for the chair, and not for a sleeping pad, you can cut it in half and it still works just as well in the Air Chair.
• A dromedary bag. This is useful for hauling water, allowing you to camp in awesome locations that aren't necessarily near a lake or stream, like high ridges. Sometimes useful in Colorado, this is often a must for the desert. Check out the 6-Liter MSR Dromlite Bag or better yet, if you use the Platypus GravityWorks 4.0L Filter System then you've already got a 4-liter dromedary bag.
• Bear spray. A must in places with grizzlies like Montana, Canada, and Alaska, but not really necessary in Colorado.
• Bug spray and/or head net, depending on the location and time of year. During the summer months we usually bring bug spray, but not the head net, which is only needed in places where the mosquitos are horrendous; usually it's not that bad in Colorado. I like Ben's bug spray, which doesn't have such a noxious odor. If you are in a place where you actually need a head net, you might also appreciate a bug-repellant shirt such as the ExOfficio BugsAway Halo shirt.
• Umbrella! If the forecast calls for a lot of rainy weather while hiking, an umbrella is a great item to have. Why? Because most waterproof rain jackets are not very breathable, and you will be probably be drenched with sweat in addition to being miserably hot in that jacket. An umbrella such as the Snow Peak U.L. completely solves that problem, and you will be SO much happier hiking in the rain with one. An umbrella is also very useful for keeping your camera dry when photographing in rainy weather.
• Entertainment! Cards, Sudoku, a lightweight book (I wrote about backpacking books here), perhaps a Kindle, and maybe a lightweight journal or sketchbook. I have these great knot-tying playing cards, so when we're not playing Rummy I can brush up on my bowlines, bends, and hitches! Ounce-counters might prefer mini playing cards instead.
• USB battery recharger for recharging your phone and/or other devices. As mentioned above, the Anker PowerCore+ mini is a good compact choice for recharging your phone about 1-1.5 times. Or if any of your devices use 18650 batteries, such as the Zebralight Headlamp I described above, those batteries can double as backup chargers using a lightweight Nitecore LC10 USB Charger.
• Binoculars. Not really necessary for most backpackers, but they can be fun for exploring the landscape from a high perch.
• And not pictured: the vices. A flask of whiskey, tequila, or [pick your poison] is always a treat when backpacking with friends. I met some guys in the wilderness once who were proponents of packing Everclear instead, because as they claimed, "it's half the weight!" I just can't go there, though. Those of you in Colorado, Washington, or other personal-freedom-allowing states might enjoy bringing along some cannabis which I've heard goes well with being out in nature - and it's ultralight too!
My Winter Camping Gear
Winter camping is a whole 'nother ballgame. It's more of a suffer-fest than anything, and I don't really recommend it to anybody. However, during the winter I still get that urge to go out and backpack in the wild and take photos. Typically I don't go winter camping more than once a month, because it takes at least a month after each trip to forget how brutal it was!
In any case, here's what I take on winter backpacking trips:
Instead of listing every single thing again, I'll just list the main differences from the summer setup.
• WINTER POLES: You need to have the big snow baskets on them, which the summer trekking poles don't have. I highly recommend the Black Diamond Expedition 3 Ski Poles which are durable, lightweight, and have a telescoping collapsible design with easy to use flicklocks.
• TENT: For solo outings my winter tent of choice is the Black Diamond HiLight Tent. This single-wall tent is lightweight, spacious enough for one person plus all gear, has plenty of ventilation if needed, is pretty solid in inclement weather if you add a few extra guylines, and has a giant side door for when you want to enjoy the view in calmer weather. But what I appreciate most about winter camping with this tent is its small footprint because it's freestanding and has no rainfly - which means that you only need to stomp out a relatively small area of snow to pitch the tent, and its structural integrity doesn't depend on lots of snow anchors (as with floorless pyramid-style tents). For a two-person winter camping tent I use the Big Sky International Chinook 2P Tent with storm flaps which can be covered in snow for a totally bomber shelter.
• TENT SNOW ANCHORS: Obviously normal tent stakes are useless in snow. The easy solution, if you're camping anywhere near a forest, is to just use sticks or tree branches as snow anchors. You loop your guyline around the branch then just bury the branch under the snow and stomp the snow down around it; the snow will harden around the branch forming a solid anchor. If you are camping someplace up high where there are no trees, you might need to bring dedicated snow anchors, which are basically like little fabric parachutes that you fill with snow and bury the same way.
• WINTER-RATED SLEEPING BAG: You'll need a much thicker and warmer down sleeping bag to stay safe and comfortable through frigid winter nights. My winter bag is a Sherpa Adventure Gear Tenzing -40º down sleeping bag, which fortunately I was able to pick up on sale for less than half off! Good thing, since winter down bags are dreadfully expensive. I previously used a Mountain Hardwear Lamina -30º synthetic bag; although much cheaper, this was very bulky and heavy, and not nearly as warm as down. For multiday winter camping trips you may also want a vapor barrier liner, which prevents heat loss and keeps your sleeping bag from getting wet from your body condensation, thus keeping it warming over longer periods.
• WARMER SLEEPING PAD: A sleeping pad with a high R value is necessary to keep you insulated from the snow or cold ground in the winter. I use a Therm-a-Rest NeoAir XTherm air mattress, and I also bring a shortened small RidgeRest foam mattress, just for extra insulation and as an emergency backup in case the air mattress pops.
• 2 NALGENE BOTTLES. In this case, they must be Nalgene bottles, or similar sturdy thick plastic bottles. The reason for this is because you can fill up the bottles with hot water and put them in your sleeping bag to keep warm at night! Also, by having multiple bottles, you can fill them all up with melted snow water in one sitting, then have water for longer.
• A LARGER POT (like 1.5-2L) is helpful for melting more snow at once for water.
• WINTER-SUITABLE STOVE: For short winter camping trips I use a MSR WindPro II Stove. The main advantage of this stove over other normal canister stoves is that the fuel canister is positioned upside down so in cold weather when there's less pressure in the canister the fuel can flow out easier so it's more reliable. That said, for multiday winter trips you'll probably be better off with a traditional pump-style stove like the MSR WhisperLite. With a pump stove you don't have to worry about your fuel canister losing pressure in extreme cold temps, since the pressure is created by the manual pump instead. Also, since much of your time winter camping is spent melting snow, it's much more economical to have a big bottle of cheap white gas instead of burning through lots of expensive and wasteful fuel canisters. Either way, make sure you also have a good windscreen and heat reflector base for your stove to maximize efficiency in cold and/or windy weather. Make sure your stove is functional and reliable before you go - if your stove breaks or you run out of fuel, you have no water, and with no water, you must leave immediately!
• SHOVEL: Whether you're digging out a snow cave, building an igloo, or simply carving out a flat spot for your tent, a shovel is a must for winter camping. You can also use the blade as a platform for the stove. A lightweight aluminum ski/snowboard avalanche shovel like the Ortovox Shovel Pro Light is perfect for this; just make sure that it's a metal one, not plastic. If you are building an igloo, you'll appreciate an oversized shovel to move lots of snow around quicker and more efficiently.
• Since the bears are probably hibernating, I leave the bear bag behind and keep my food in the tent with me.
• Remember to keep your spare batteries inside your down jacket at all times to keep them warm (cold batteries die sooner). Some people recommend keeping your boots inside your sleeping bag at night, but I don't do this.
• What's not shown here are skis or splitboard, and all that entails, or their mobility-challenged little cousins, snowshoes. One way or another, you'll need a way to get through all that deep snow!
• I also have not included avalanche beacons or probes - here's why: I do not know anybody else who enjoys winter camping, so I always just go out alone; thus, beacons or probes are useless to me. I do, however, only go winter backpacking on routes that are safe from avalanches - no steep slopes whatsoever. This severely limits my options, especially in the San Juans where the mountains are mostly all steep. But I would rather return home safe! All that said, if you're going out with partners, definitely bring your avy beacons, shovels, probes, and of course the knowledge of how to use them and and how to assess avalanche danger.
Winter Camping Clothes
Obviously you're going to need more warm clothes in the winter! Again, NO COTTON. Here's my list:
• Performance long-sleeve shirt for hiking in cold temps.
• A winter weight long-sleeve shirt and long underwear bottoms. These are heavyweight shirts that are not meant for hiking in, but just for sitting around in the winter. Very, very warm for the weight. I love the Patagonia Capilene Thermal Weight One-Piece Suit which is even more thermally efficient as there's no gaps at all between your tops and bottoms (though sadly it looks like maybe it's been discontinued?).
• Softshell jacket with hoodie. Softshell jackets are great for winter hiking as they protect you from the elements but are breathable enough for strenuous exercise, especially with big pit zips. The hoodie is useful for windy or blizzard conditions. You might think about erring on the larger size so you can wear this as an exterior layer over your poofy down jacket when you're at camp. I like the Outdoor Research Ferrosi Hooded softshell jacket.
• Poofy down jacket with hoodie. The most important piece of clothing! A big, thick down jacket will keep you toasty warm on even the coldest days. I definitely recommend one with a hood, since it keeps the drafts out and insulates your head and neck much better. I'm a big fan of the RAB Neutrino Endurance Jacket.
• A down vest like the Montbell Alpine Light Vest can add a huge boost of body warmth for a minimal amount of extra weight.
• Western Mountaineering Flight Down Pants. After years of lusting after down pants, I finally sprang for a pair and OMG, they are awesome! I can't believe I've ever gone winter camping without them. The nice things about these particular pants, aside from the usual excellent down that Western Mountaineering is known for, are the full length side zips for when it gets too hot, and reinforced butt and leg materials.
• Ski/snowboard pants. The summer shell pants won't cut it in the snow. Make sure they have side or thigh zips for ventilation while hiking. I like the North Face Freedom pants.
• Winter boots. If I'm splitboarding, of course I'll be wearing snowboard boots, which generally are comfortable and warm. I prefer very flexible boots; you don't want to spend days in stiff boots. The K2 Taro Tamai Snowsurfer Boa Boots are relatively flexible snowboard boots that also have high-end features like durable vibram rubber soles and boa lacing systems. For snowshoeing or winter trips when I'm not splitboarding, the Baffin Control Max Insulated Boots are extremely warm and comfortable.
• Vapor barrier socks prevent your boots and/or down socks from getting damp from moisture from your feet, keep your feet noticeably warmer over a longer period of time. Rab Vapour Barrier Socks are super lightweight and do the trick. Or for super cold weather the RBH Designs VaprThrm Insulated Socks are thicker and even warmer.
• Down Booties. As opposed to down "slippers", down booties have rubber soles so you can walk around in them on rocky terrain. They are very lightweight and easy to pack, and they are comfortable and warm for when you're lounging around camp, melting snow.
• Depending on how snowtight your pants and boots are together, you might need gaiters keep the snow (and wind) out. Outdoor Research Verglas Gaiters are good ones.
• Warm gloves, like ski/snowboarding gloves. Mittens are even warmer, though you lose dexterity. I prefer to have lightweight liner gloves like North Face Etip gloves (which work fairly effectively with touchscreens on cameras/phones) along with the super warm down-filled Outdoor Research Transcendent Mitts.
• Hand warmers. Very important! Especially for photographers who must use thinner gloves when fiddling with the camera, hand warmers will keep your blood warm and your fingers from freezing.
• Super warm beanie, such as the Mountain Hardwear Dome Perginon, along with a lightweight beanie for hiking.
• No matter how bundled up you are, in very cold and windy weather your face will still be exposed to the elements, so a face mask or neck gaiter can be the final piece of the puzzle to keep you warm and safe from frostbite. A removable face mask that velcros on is advantageous since you can put it on without removing your hat. Otherwise a balaclava or tube style neck gaiter such as a Hoorag are lightweight and compact.
Here is a list of my recommended summer backpacking gear (for a 1-person backpacking kit not including clothes, accessories, etc.) compared to similar but less expensive options.
|Jack's Picks||Weight (oz)||Price||Budget Picks||Weight (oz)||Price|
|Backpack||Zpacks Arc Zip 57L||32||$360||Granite Gear Crown2 60L||34||$200|
|Tent||Zpacks Duplex||19.4||$599||REI Flash Air 1||20||$187|
|Sleeping Bag||Timmermade Wren False Bottom 20º||19.5||$420||NEMO Kyan 20º||33||$240|
|Sleeping Pad||Exped Synmat HL||12.5||$169||Exped FlexMat Plus Sleeping Pad||17.6||$41|
|Trekking Poles||Cascade Mountain Tech Ultralight 2-piece Carbon Fiber||10.76||$63||10.76||$63|
|Water Purifier||SteriPEN Adventurer Opti||3.6||$83||Sawyer Squeeze||5.7||$37|
|Stove (not including fuel)||Soto WindMaster||2.4||$65||cat food can alcohol stove||0.3||$1|
|Headlamp||Zebralight H600Fw Mk IV 18650 XHP35||4.5||$89||Nitecore NU25 (with ultralight headband)||1.2||$42|
|Total||104.66 oz |
|$1848||122.56 oz |
As you can see, it's possible to compile a comparably lightweight backpacking kit for less than half the price as my top picks. That extra 1 lb. of weight savings costs over $1000!
Of course, there's more to it than just the weight numbers; my recommended gear choices offer superior performance, comfort, and convenience. For me personally as an avid [and possibly obsessed] backpacker, it's worth the ~$1000 premium for this top-of-the-line gear. But the difference isn't necessarily that much, so really there's no reason to spend so much money when you can be equally well equipped with less expensive gear.
Also worth mentioning is that you don't necessarily need to go ultralight or spend even $800 to get into backpacking; you can likely find all of the gear you need in used marketplaces or thrift stores for much cheaper than these budget listings.
If it’s not entirely obvious by now, collecting all of this gear can be a very expensive endeavor! Here are a few ways that you can cut the costs:
• Be patient! If you’re not in a hurry to buy certain gear, just wait until it goes on sale, which eventually it will if it’s sold by any of the big online stores.
• Spring is probably the best time of year to find great deals on gear; many online retailers slash prices and have big sales to try to unload last season’s gear before the next year’s inventory comes in. This is an especially good time to buy winter gear, with down jackets and ski gear often on sale for 50% or even 75% off. Around Memorial Day time (late May) almost every shop has big sales.
• Sign up for sales newsletters from the big outdoor online retailers like REI, CampSaver, Backcountry Gear, Enwild, etc. I know you probably don’t want more ad emails in your inbox, but this way you can be sure to catch promotional deals; for example, many of these stores regularly offer discount codes for 20% off any full price item.
• Go to local ski swaps. In many towns, at least here in Colorado, there are big annual ski swaps, where companies and stores unload all their old stock at cheap prices, or where people sell their used stuff.
• Do you have a friend in the biz? I’ve been fortunate to have had the opportunity a number of times to buy (or trade photos for) a batch of gear from friends who have the coveted “pro deal” – items direct from the warehouse for less than wholesale price. This is probably more likely to happen if you live in a mountain town, where mountain athletes live.
Leave No Trace
Through my trip reports and informational articles like this, I hope to inspire people to get out backpacking in the wilderness, because I truly believe it’s one of the healthiest and most satisfying things a person can do – physically, mentally, and spiritually. I also believe that the more people go out and immerse themselves in nature, the more likely they will be to support the protection and preservation of wild places. But on the other hand, this only works if backpackers respect nature and the wilderness while we’re out there. So I think it’s worth listing here the Leave No Trace Seven Principles which apply whenever you are camping, whether it’s next to your car or deep in the wilderness. I will add some further comments of my own to elaborate.
1) Plan ahead and prepare. Know the regulations and special concerns of the area, be prepared for possible weather and hazards, schedule your trip to avoid times of high use, and go in smaller groups rather than large groups.
2) Travel and camp on durable surfaces. Use established campsites whenever possible, or campsites on rock, hard dirt, or dry short grass. Don’t camp right next to lakes or streams, and don’t trample meadows and wildflowers.
3) Dispose of waste properly. See above my comments above about TP. Basically poop far away from any potential campsites, trails, or water sources, and bury your poop and TP.
4) Leave what you find. Don’t take artifacts or plants. Leave places as you found them.
5) Minimize campfire impacts. Do you really need that campfire? Especially deep in the wilderness, the answer is no, you don’t really need that campfire. Don’t create new fire rings, especially up on fragile tundra areas or near lakes.
6) Respect wildlife. Don’t harass wildlife just to get a photo. Store your food properly. Keep your dog under control or leave them at home.
7) Be considerate of other visitors. This is so common sense but I think I should still spell out some things: Leave your portable speaker at home; nobody wants to hear your tunes in nature. Don’t camp right nearby other campers. And definitely no drones in wilderness areas!!!
I hope that if you’ve read this far, you’ve found some helpful tips and suggestions for attaining and/or improving your backpacking gear collection, and enjoying your time in the backcountry. If you have any other tips you'd like to share with me, I'd love to hear them in the comments below.
If you are discouraged by the sometimes outrageous prices of some of this gear, remember that people have been adventuring in the mountains for hundreds of years, using gear that was probably worse than what you could compile from a thrift store nowadays! As long as you can get the basic essentials, you can make it happen.