Basic Backpacking Gear

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If you want to live a life in the woods or live out of your backpack, you’re going to need a certain amount of gear to get you through it. While some of the old-timers can get by simply with a “big indian sweater” and some hot rocks to keep them comfortable at night, people these days aren’t exactly as hardy as they used to be. If you’re just camping out of your car at a frontcountry campground feel free to buy the typical cheap Canadian Tire or Wal-Mart crap, but you’re going to need a few better-quality basics if you want to be at least somewhat comfortable and safe in your backcountry hiking and remote camping travels. The good news is the same gear can easily be put to use for living out of your backpack around the world. It costs a bit up front, but you’ll save a ton of money in the long run with the initial investment.

The Basics

There are few things you should not cheap out on. You don’t have to break the bank, but shoot for something in the middle of the road:

  • Backpack- A good backpack is essential. You are now a pack mule. This is your life. If you cheap out on your backpack, you’re gonna start to feel it immediately. Do your research and go for a solid quality backpack with stiff hip straps from a reputable brand. They can often be found second hand for greatly reduced prices.
  • Boots- As a pack mule, your feet are important. You don’t have to spend $500 on a pair of boots, but don’t opt for the $60 discount shoe store special either. A good quality $300 pair of boots properly cared for will last you a decade. A $100 pair of boots might last you a year. Pay lots of attention to sizing- if they’re too narrow or wide it’s gonna hurt, and if they’re too short your toenails will soon turn black and fall off. Leather is generally your friend. Elliott even finds that good quality full leather boots breathe well enough even in hot or tropical climates. Just make sure you take care of them with proper products now and then, and they’ll last even longer!
  • Rain gear- If you don’t stay dry, you’re gonna die. That might be a slight exaggeration if you’re traveling mostly in populated or urban areas, but it can actually be true in remote or backcountry areas. Your rain gear is in many ways your new house. The first time you head out with a quality, breathable rain jacket and pants, you will realize that the weather no longer has any effect on you and there is nothing in the world that can stop you now! Again, you don’t have to go crazy- a $100 Marmot Precip jacket and pants is a good introduction that will give you a solid appreciation for quality rain gear.

If you’re going to be camping, you’re going to need a couple of extra important items of quality:

  • Tent or tarp– If your rain jacket is your daytime house, your tent or tarp is your nighttime house. Each have their own advantages. Whichever you decide on, just make sure you do your research and go for quality. Your Wal-Mart Coleman tent is going to be lots of fun until your first (and probably last) night spent in a real rain storm.
  • Sleeping bag- There are two things you want in a backpacking sleeping bag: warmth and low weight/small size. Read about the differences between synthetic and down bags and then make a decision based on your budget and what’s available. Elliott always recommends the Marmot Trestles 15 for first time sleeping bag buyers. It’s warm enough for backpacking in the Canadian Rockies, it’s just packable and lightweight enough to drag around the world if necessary, and he’s still using his almost a decade later (although it’s lost a bit of its warmth over time).
  • Sleeping mat- That ground is cold. While a sheet of discarded cardboard can be enough to insulate you from the ground while guerrilla camping in urban areas (there’s a reason why homeless people do it), you’re going to want something a bit better for real camping adventures. A cheap, thin foamie will work well enough to keep you warm on most nights. Spend the extra money on something a bit thicker or a self-inflating backpacking mattress if you want something more comfortable. And for the love of backpacking, don’t ever go buy a big stupid air mattress.

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