1. Backpack. My pack of choice is this Osprey Aura 50. Osprey packs fit me well and last virtually forever (I’ve beat my daypack to hell for the past 10 years, and it’s still trucking). Mine is a 50 liter, because I’m not a big human. For a tall guy, a 60 liter could be perfect. Everyone has an opinion on the best bag, but the most important thing to consider is how the bag fits from top to bottom; the hip straps at the bottom should sit over your hip bones, not above or below, so the majority of the weight is sitting on your hips, not your shoulders. When you pick out a pack, make sure to throw some sandbags into it to see how it feels with weight in it. Everytime I put on my pack, I’m adjusting the straps to make sure the weight is adjusted properly and isn’t rubbing.
2. Tent. Shelter. Home. I love Big Agnes gear. I’ve lived in this 3-season tent for most of the year (as you can tell fom how dirty it is), it’s traveled with me thousands of miles and has been pitched on every terrain imaginable. This 2-person Fly Creek UL2 tent weighs only 2lb 9oz (with the footprint), only 4oz more than the one-person, so you might as well get the two person and have a place for your gear. When you’re wild camping in some far-flung place, I’d rather have all my gear inside with me.
3. Sleeping Bag. This Big Agnes Bald Mountain mummy sleeping bag (in a compression sack) is rated to 18°F. I’ve slept on top of this bag in 90°F weather, and it also kept me warm on freezing, rainy nights in Southern Europe. Another huge plus is that it’s easy to keep clean. Unlike some of my other gear, it still looks brand new after using it every night straight for 5+ months.
4. Sleeping Pad. I must admit, cycling across Europe I didn’t have a sleeping pad. I was traveling super light, and on cold nights I would dump out one of my panniers and use every piece of clothing as a sleeping pad. I made it work, but bring a sleeping pad on your backpacking trip. This is what will absorb the cold seeping up through the ground. No matter what your sleeping bag is rated, without a sleeping pad, you’re going to be cold (and less comfortable). This puppy has an inflatable pillow as well (and if you don’t have one of those, extra clothes work just fine).
5. Water Filtration System. One of the most important pieces of gear you’ll bring, this First Need XLE Elite water purifier by General Ecology screws onto a standard size Nalgene, and filters out bacteria, cysts, and viruses (including Giardia and Cryptosporidium, parasites which cause diarrhea). Chlorine and Iodine are effective against most bacteria and viruses, but not Cryptosporidium. UV light is as effective as this water filter, but takes almost a minute to work, and is difficult to use effectively with a camelbak. The water filtration system you decide to bring depends on varying factors such as length of trip and location. If I were doing a short trip in North Carolina I might take iodine tablets, but on a trekking trip in India, I would definitely bring the General Ecology purifier system. I had a scare in Ecuador a few months back because I wasn’t careful enough with brushing my teeth with bottled water, and thought I might have typhoid, so it’s nothing to mess around with.
Nalgenes and Camelbaks. Some people like to carry camelbaks, or Nalgenes, or both. I’m a big Nalgene fan, because they’re easy to clean and look nice with stickers. If you’re traveling in an area with limited water resources, you’re most likely going to want both. If you’re going on a winter backpacking trip, grab an insulated sleeve for your Nalgene so it doesn’t freeze up on you.
6. First Aid Kit. There’s no standard first aid kit that will be perfect for every backpacking trip. You should take inventory of your kit before every trip, make sure everything is in date and in stock, and pack only what you need. Do you really need a SAM splint when you’re backpacking in the woods and can use a stick? Do you really need all the triangular bandages when you can use one of your extra layers in case of emergency? A few must haves I always bring: NSAIDs (non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, like Ibuprofen, to reduce inflammation), medical tape for sprained ankles, blisters, or fingers, bandaids, gauze, tweezers, wound closure strips, and gauze.
7. Cooking paraphernalia. This teapot by GSI outdoors is insanely light, and encloses a small insulated double dish set with a lid, and collapsible spoon. I use this teapot to boil noodles, make tea, and just plain heat water for freeze-dried meals or oatmeal. It saves on fuel (as opposed to using an open pot), and keeps my cooking gear simple.
8. Stove. This Pocket Rocket stove by MSR is awesome. It’s easy on fuel, weights 3oz, and I’ve never had any issue with it the last 5 years it’s been with me. My teapot fits perfectly on it, and for being so small it’s really stable.
Propane. These small canisters of propane are easy to find in the states, not so much in international rural areas. If you’re bringing a stove on a long term backpacking trip in say, Albania, you’d be better off with a setup using alcohol.
Torch. Not to be confused with a flashlight. This Soto torch takes regular lighters (be careful though, not every lighter will fit this) and is similar to a cigar lighter. Which is convenient, if you’d like to smoke a stogie on the trail.
9. Chair. On backpacking trips, I carry this great lightweight chair. It weighs 1lb 12oz, and is worth every bit of it after you setup camp and can sit and read your book for a few hours before bed.
10. Navigation. Carry a paper trail/elevation map and compass with you, no matter the place or terrain. It’s better to be prepared than not. When I was cycling in Europe, sometimes I wouldn’t even look at a map, I’d just check my compass and if I was headed South or East or whatever direction I needed, I kept going come what may. Particularly with backpacking, there might be days you want to avoid the trail that heads straight uphill or downhill for the next 7 miles, or at least be aware that section is ahead. National Geographic makes great lamiated fold-out maps that don’t tear or crinkle when damp. In fact, mine were rained on and even thrown in the dryer at one point, and they were just fine.
11. Trowel and Toilet Paper. I don’t really need to elaborate on these two do I? Make sure to bring a ziplock bag and leave nothing behind. (See 21 for sanitation.)
12. Headlamp + Flashlight. Don’t forget your headlamp for hands-free visibility at night, or for use in an emergency, and be sure to bring extra batteries just in case. I always carry my SureFire defender flashlight with me as well. It’s a dual-output flashlight designed specifically for law enforcement. The first click delivers 400 lumens of blinding light, designed to well, blind someone. The second click is only 15 lumens, which is just fine for regular backpacking needs. I keep this flashlight inside of my tent, it’s part of my ritual for setting up camp. (*See 16 + 20 for safety related items.)
13. There is no 13. 13 is unlucky.
14. Bear Bag/Stuff Sack + P-Cord. Always carry a stuff sack, they take up little room, and are great for day trips out of camp— they also make great bear bags. Make sure to pack all your food (ALL OF IT. Put those snickers bars back in the bear bag), find a tree 200 ft. away from camp, throw the p-cord over a branch, tie the other end to the bear bag, and haul that bag at least 15 ft. off the ground. Simultaneously, your cooking and washing up areas should also be 200 ft. away from camp if you’re in bear country.
15. UNO. Enough said.
16. Knife + Utility Tool. This knife is one of the best gifts I’ve ever received. It’s an insanely wicked looking tactical blade, which tends to horrifiy all non-Americans— I generally use it to slice avocado. Don’t forget your utility tool either. I used mine to clip zip-ties and drill holes in the hard plastic of my pannier bag when it split in rural Albania 3 monthes into my cycling trip. Never underestimate the power of a utility tool.
17. Rain Cover. A lot of bigger backpacking bags don’t come with built-in rain covers, you have to purchase them separately. When it starts to drizzle you’ll be thankful you remembered your cover and don’t get hypothermia from sleeping in a wet sleeping bag when it’s cold. One particularly cold backpacking trip up in the mountains with my Mom on the Appalachian Trail (early on in my backpacking experience) I had the misfortune of forgetting my rain gear. It poured all day and my Mom and I huddled together for warmth in a single hammock all night, where I thought for sure our frozen carcasses would be found sometime the next day by another backpacker.
18. Flask. Preferably containing some whiskey. Preferably bourbon.
19. Spot. Having my Spot makes me feel better, especially if I’m backpacking with someone else and know if there’s a major accident, I can call for help via this GPS satellite device. Spot devices are set up through their website and send location information and preselected messages to friends/family, and rescue centers. If a wilderness rescue is needed, you hit the emergency button and a rescue center will be notified to send a helicopter or rescue team to your location. My Spot was a gift from my Dad on my first long-term backpacking trip around Africa. I’ve never had to use it, but it’s nice to know it’s there if I need it. Spot devices can be somewhat contraversial, as there are countless examples of people using them for non-emergency reasons, and keep in mind if that’s the case, you’ll be responsible for the rescue costs.
20. Bear Mace. While I’ve never deployed the bear mace, it’s another item I always keep in easy reach inside my tent. The safety clip is glow in the dark, and the entire cannister empties within 7 seconds. While this isn’t a necessary item on every trip, I’ve come across more weirdos than bears and I like having it close-by in my tent.
21. Hand Sanitizer. Use this after every trip to the toilet— EVERY TRIP. Fecal contamination is the main cause of food contamination and, subsequently, diarrhea on backpacking trips. For god’s sake, don’t touch each others utensils of water bottles if possible.
22. Eye Mask and Earplugs. I’ve pitched my tent under streetlamps, in campgrounds with squalling children, and my eye mask and ear plugs get more use than I ever thought possible. Particularly on long trips where a stop at a hostel might be imminent, don’t forget these two seemingly trivial things, you’ll regret it if you have a loud neighbor at night.
23. USB Charging System. This myCharge device holds enough battery life to fully charge an iphone TWICE. GoalZero also makes a really nice charging system you can hang off your backpack during the day on longer trips.
24. Food. More specifically, Star Wars mac + cheese. Leave those freeze dried meals at home and stock up on fun shaped pasta meals. Seriously though, eat sensibly for all the calories you’re sure to be burning, hauling all your gear around.
25. Washcloth/Quick-Dry Towel. How often you bathe is up to you, my personal record is 7 days. In-between those times, you can use this little piece of cloth for so many other things, like cleaning dishes, a bandana, hair tie, or a napkin.
Gear question? Contact me here.
*This post is dedicated to my Mom, Diane Bradford, who has suffered with me through so many backpacking experiences; almost freezing to death in the pouring rain on the Appalachian Trail, teaching me how to tie a bear bag, the time I forgot the NSAIDs when I was in charge of the first aid kit, and all the better moments like hiding a bottle of wine and gourmet popcorn in the car to celebrate when we emerged from the woods. Every adventure I do on my own has a part of you in it.