Backpacking gear was my original obsession with technology. For even the most minor update to my kit, I read dozens of reviews, talk to my expert comrades, and then finally try it out myself.
After a decade of testing and updating the core set of gear, this particular list shows the best backpacking products available in 2012. I took it all on a brutal five-day trip full of rain, hail, wind and sand, along with several shorter trips in between. Here are the 35 best items for spending a nice night on the trails.
This thing swallows gear like a python. It's a top and side loader with a gigantic sleeping-bag compartment, and a removable top-lid that works as a day pack. It has six exterior pockets for keeping your little things organised. The hip belt can be custom moulded to fit you, and it has a pouch for a hydration bladder. The best part, though, is that it's incredibly comfortable and does a great job distributing weight. For a week-long trip with lots of extra gear, it made an 40kg pack feel a lot closer to 20kg. $US400.
This is the Goldilocks tent — it's a perfect balance of everything. It has enough floor space that you don't feel cramped with two people. It has enough head room that you can sit up comfortably. It has two doors with large vestibules where you can keep you gear from getting rained on. It's strong enough to stand up to storms with howling wind and rain. And for all that, it weighs less than 1.6kg and packs down nice and small. The only problems with the tent are the doors. For the main tent, the arch-shaped doors are way less convenient than D-shaped. The rainfly has a double zipper, which is pointless, and it led me to accidentally leaving the fly open when it rained. Those things aside, this is a killer tent. $US360.
It terms of insulation to weight ratios, the Plasma 30 is peerless. It'll keep you toasty warm even as it gets below freezing, it has a super thin, but breathable water-resistant exterior, and it only weighs 624 grams. It also compresses down to nothing in your pack. It has unique vertical baffles with flow gates to keep the down in place, a roomy footbox with extra padding, and a down collar around the neck that keeps chills from seeping in. It's also silky soft and super comfortable. It's certainly expensive, but it is our current pick for the greatest sleeping bag of all time. $US400.
I can't prove it, but I'm pretty sure this thing is magic. It's the most comfortable backpacking sleep pad I've ever used by a tremendous margin. It's two and a half inches thick, it has an R-value of 4.9 (which means it provides incredible insulation), and weighs only 538 grams. Inside, over a hundred triangular barriers reflect heat back to your body, with no bulky padding added, so it packs down to almost the size of a Nalgene bottle. You can sleep on your side, on a hard rock slab, and wake up feeling great. $US120.
If you're going somewhere you might even possibly get lost, you need to take a map and compass, and you need to know how to use each of them. The Suunto M-3D Leader is a terrific choice. Its scales and rulers are well defined, and it has a magnifying glass to help you see the tiny details on a topo map. The banner feature is its adjustable declination scale, so you can account for the difference between magnetic and true north. The 360-degree scale is easy to turn, it's solidly built, and it's a bargain. $US25.
I've taken the Leatherman Wave with me on every backcountry trip I've done for the last 10+ years. It's 17 tools in one (plus two interchangeable screwdriver bits), and I've used it for fixing tents, cleaning fish, sawing small branches, cutting line, removing ticks and everything else you can imagine. It's solid as hell and it's backed by a 25-year warranty. Got to like that. Honorable mention goes to the Leatherman Sidekick, which has a couple fewer tools, but has absolutely terrific ergonomics. $US65.
On a long, arduous hike, the best way to drink water is the one that keeps you hydrated effortlessly. Yes, water bottles are cheaper, but a system like the Platypus Big Zip will keep you drinking without thinking about it. The bladder goes into your pack, and the hose clips to your chest strap. It keeps the mouthpiece within inches of your face, so all you have to do is turn your head a little, bite down and sip. The bladders are BPA free, can handle boiling or freezing water, and the large zip closure makes it easy to fill and clean. There are a ton of sizes, but 1.8 litres strikes a nice balance between capacity and weight. $US26.
Illumination is too important to bring just one flashlight. Things break, things fall into rivers. You need a back up. For a primary light, go with the Princeton Tec Quad headlamp for hands-free lighting. It has three brightness levels (78 lumen max) plus a strobe for emergencies. It's light, comfortable, and it's waterproof to one metre. For your backup, grab a Mini Maglite. They're small, tough and cheap. The focusable beam and candle modes are both indispensable. Quad Headlamp: $US29 / Mini Maglite: $US12.
Your favourite Bic lighter may be convenient in most cases, but when it's wet or windy, a fat lot of good it'll do ya. Bring the Bic, but definitely also bring some stormproof matches. They light even when they're soaking wet and the wind is howling. Each match is 2.75 inches long, and you get 50 in all, along with a handful of extra strikers. Keep 'em in a Ziploc bag (that's more to keep the strikers dry). These things are clutch. $US6.50.
You can grab an old shaving kit and throw in whatever medical supplies you think you'll need, but this is just way easier. The REI Backpacker Plus Multiday has just about everything you could need if something goes wrong on a multiday trip with a small group of people. Gloves, scissors, bandages of all sizes, tweezers, moleskin, some basic medicine... there's too much to name. If you require some personal meds, there's extra room in this case for a few small items. $US34.
Y'know what poops in the woods? You do, when you have to. But you can't just poop on the ground and walk away; you've gotta bury that shit. There are fancy, folding trowels out there, but you really don't need them. The GSI Outdoors Cathole Trowel is super strong, super light and packs pretty easily. It's made from repurposed polycarbonate and its serrated edges help it dig through hard ground. Simple product, works great. $US5.
This wins for everybody's favourite gadget of the trip. Pump-filtering water in the backcountry can be an arduous, lengthly and labour-intensive task. This kills all of that. Take the dirty water bag to a stream, open it up, and fill it with four litres of water. Attach it to the hose, hang it from a branch, and let gravity do its thing. Four litres of water gets filtered (and made delicious) in under three minutes, and you don't even break a sweat. Also, it's super compact. This thing is bad arse. The only reason to go with a hand-pump over this is if you're in a location where your only water supply is just a tiny trickle. In just about every other situation, this thing rules. $US100.
The DragonFly is the standard-bearer for liquid fuel stoves. It can burn damn near anything: white gas, kerosine, jet fuel, or even plain old unleaded gas. But here's the kicker. Unlike other liquid gas stoves, the Dragonfly can simmer. I was able to cook everybody pancakes without burning a single one of them. And, of course, you can turn it up to a raging inferno if you want for fast water boiling. It's comes with a windscreen, it's field repairable, and it's rugged as hell. It was left outside, in the sand, through five days of frequent rain, and it didn't have a single hiccup. It's also very compact and weighs less than 450 gramas. It can be more economical too, as buying a jug of white gas is cheaper than getting individual isobutane canisters (though you have to buy the reusable fuel bottles separately). It's a bit on the loud side, but for backpacking foodies, this is a must-have. $US120.
This set nets you a very versatile cooking setup for under two pounds. It includes a 3.2-litre and a 2.2-litre pot, which have two lids that double as frying pans (19cm and 23cm diameters respectively). They have a strong teflon coating and are terrifically non-stick. I scorched some rice one night but it was still very easy to clean. It also comes with a little scrub-cloth, a universal pot/pan gripper, and it all nests together in a mesh bag. Should be plenty for a 4-5 person trip. $US60.
We went with a hodge-podge here. For bowls we really like the pricey-but-awesome Sea to Summit X-Bowl. It folds down flat, has measurements marked on the inside, and even doubles as a cutting board $US14. For a plate, I like the REI Divided Camp Plate. Strong, light and cheap $US5. We also went with REI for the Campware Cup, a touch, inexpensive cut with interior gradations help you measure water when rehydrating food $US3. For cutlery, Light My Fire calls this thing a Spork, but that doesn't do it justice. It's a spoon, fork and knife all in one. Very compact and durable. $US8 for 4.
Don't be fooled by this simple looking thingy — it's genius. You screw it onto a wide-mouthed bottle, add your coffee grounds, add hot water, invert the bottle and/or shake it, and presto, 907g of cowboy coffee. Yes, it'll be grittier than your posh pour-over, but it'll do. On a freezing cold backcountry morning, it might be the best cup of coffee you've ever tasted. $US13.
Certainly not all trips will necessitate this, but some places strictly require that you keep all of your food (and anything else with a scent, like shampoo, toothpaste, lip balm) in a sealed bear can. Of the three models we tested, the BV500 was by far the favourite. It had the largest capacity (11 litres), the widest opening, and it was the lightest. Plus, being able to see exactly what's inside without opening it is very handy. It doesn't require any additional tools (like a coin) to open it. You just grip the base between your knees and give the lid a sharp twist. $US72.
This one's a classic. The wide-mouthed Nalgene bottle is perfect for camping. It's almost unbreakable, it can take boiling water, and it has gradations so you can use it as a measuring cup. The wide-mouth design makes for easy filling (and it place nicely with the H2jO). Get a clear one, if you can. They're easier to read, and in an emergency situation, you can fill it from a clean stream, leave it out, and let the sun's UV rays kill some of the buggies (this isn't guaranteed to work, but it's better than nothing). A sippy-cup top will cost an extra few bucks, but it'll help keep your chest dry. $US8.
We tested rain jackets that cost well over $US400, and none of them worked as well as this simple jacket from The North Face. It's light and extremely breathable, but it keeps you dry even in heavy downpours. Howling wind doesn't penetrate it either. It has two hand pockets, and two gigantic interior mesh pockets. The hood is big enough to fit a helment, but it's super adjustable, so you can get it down nice and snug. Good looking, too. It's available in men's and women's sizes. $US100.
These pants are lightweight and super comfortable. A light rain will bead right off of them, and should they get soaked, they dry lightning fast. The breathe extremely well to keep sweat at a minimum. On hotter days, you can zip off the lower legs and turn them into shorts. You don't have to remove your boots to do that, and the zippers are colour-coded to make them easy to get back on. Great attention to detail. If you're going to get pounded by wind and rain, you may want to go for the (much) more expensive Kimtah pants (not pictured). They're rainproof and windproof to 97km/h, and sparks bounce right off them (some other friends by that same fire got holes in their britches). Endeavor: $US75 / Kimtah: $US190.
Y'know what's awesome? Merino wool. It's lightweight, comfortable, and it will keep you warm even when it's wet. Seriously. And merino doesn't easily start to stink, either. I have nothing but raves for the Smartwool undergarments. The Microweight Tee $65 and Microweight Crew $75 are hands down the best backpacking shirts I've ever worn. The Microweight Boxer $48 and Microweight Boxer Brief $45 kept my undercarriage warm, ventilated and chafe-free. They're pricey, but you can wear them for a long longer than cotton before they get nasty, and they don't wear out easily either. [Smartwool]
This thing is cool. It looks like some kind of futuristic Marty McFly jacket. It's basically a medium-thick merino wool shirt with an insulated vest sewn onto it. It's full of Smartwool's new SmartLoft insulation and it's tucked behind a DWR coated, quilted nylon front panel. That gives it extra wind resistance and lots of warmth where you need it. The lower pockets do a great job of keeping your hands warm and the inner pockets are plenty big enough for hats and other small items. Nice thumb loops, too. Pretty dang expensive, but very versatile, and especially if you're going to be sweating or getting wet. It will be available in late August 2012. $US200
Hat: Mountain Hardwear Dome Perignon
My favourite cold weather hat of all time. Yes, it looks kind of silly, but get over it, this thing is amazing. It's thin, so it doesn't take up much space when it's not on, but it's warm enough to keep your head warm even when it's below zero. It's long enough to cover your ears, and the fleece is super comfortable. The best part, though, is that it's totally windproof. It has a Gore-Tex membrane that will keep even the bitterest winds at bay. The only downside is that it's a bit hard to hear when you're wearing it. Grab one now because they've just been discontinued. Yet another sign of the apocalypse. $US15-$US30 depending on size/colour
Full-disclosure: I am not a big proponent of expensive sunglasses because I almost always break or lose them. For most people, this $US20 pair of Chili's will do just fine. That said, these Revo Headways are badass. They feature some of the best polarisation I've ever seen, cutting right through glare on water and making it easier to see hazards on land. The optics are just incredibly clear. They're built tough and have withstood some hard drops without so much as a scratch. They also come with a snap-in leash and buoy, so even if they fall in a lake you probably won't lost them. $US190
If you're putting in hard miles in boots, you need some serious socks. Truth be told, I'd expected Smartwool to win this category, but Wigwam blew them out of the water. They chafe less than any hiking sock I've ever worn. Blisters and hotspots weren't an issue, even with a heavy pack. They do a great job of wicking moisture away from your feet, so they always feel dryer than they actually are. Super comfy too. $US9-$US12 depending on size/colour.
Boots really boil down to personal preference. No two feet are the same. That said, the Asolo TPS 520 GV Hiking Boots are the best I've ever worn. The beauty and the beast, all in one. I bought these six years ago for trekking in Central America, where I wanted a single pair that could hack it in the meanest rain forrest jungle, and still look respectable at a decent restaurant. These may be on the heavy side, but they are tough as hell, waterproof and very comfortable (once you break them in). Plenty of angle support and some very mean tread. Men's, women's and wide sizes available. $US230
If you're going to be somewhere cold and wet, but not freezing cold, you're going to want some protection for your hands. At the same time, you don't want to sacrifice dexterity with something too thick. The REI Spring Gloves hit the sweet spot on my chilly and wet trek. They kept my hands high and dry, they were comfortable, and the goatskin palms were plenty grippy, allowing me to chop wood without accidentally flinging my axe. You can cinch down the long gauntlets to keep water from getting in your cuffs and running up your sleeves. They're lightly insulated, too, so you don't have to keep your hands in your pockets for them to be warm. $US30.
Stuff You May Want
Yes, saws are lighter and more packable, but when you have to break down some thick driftwood into logs that will fit in your fire ring you want an axe. Gerber's Sport Axe II is dreamy. Gerber's steel is hard and sharp and it keeps its edge extremely well. The hollow handle keeps weight down. It's short and light enough to pack, but it's long and heavy enough to cut through some serious timber. It comes with a plastic sheath that makes it safe and easy to strap to your pack. Good price too. $US35.
Let's not beat around the bush — PackTowls used to be horrible. It was like trying to scrape water off your body with a brillo pad, and they would reek to high heaven. Those days are gone. The PackTowl Ultralite is super soft and incredibly absorbent. I mean, it's about as thin as a heavy t-shirt, and it can suck up four times its weight in water. Then it wrings out easily and dries quickly. It packs down so small you might lose it in your backpack, and it generally stinks less than a regular towel. I take this on all backpacking trips, or even when I go swimming at the gym or beach. It comes in several sizes, but the 127cm x 69cm XL is my pick. $US30.
When you're hanging around base camp at night, whether you're trying to cook dinner or just lounging around, it's nice to have a constantly lit area. The Black Diamond Apollo is perfect for this. It can pump out 80 lumens on high to light an area 14m in diameter. Or you can fade it down to as little as 10 lumens. It has adjustable legs so it can stand on uneven surfaces, and a foldable hook on top so you can hang it, but it collapses down to the size of a soft drink can. Four AA batteries give it 60 hours of use on low and 15 hours on high, which is very impressive. $US43.
For years I just used a rolled up jacket as my backcountry pillow. It wasn't comfortable, but it was the woods, what do you want? Then I stumbled onto this pillow and I'll never go without it again. If you're a side-sleeper, I can't recommend this thing enough. You can blow it up to be as soft or firm as you want, and it has insulation in there so it doesn't feel like an inflated plastic bag. It has a plush microfibre side and a strong nylon side. Best of all, it weighs only 113 grams and it packs down to the size of your fist. I've never slept so well while camping. $US18.
I know, I know, it has Bear Grylls' name on it. I hate that, too. Look past that, though, and you have an excellent Gerber knife. It's got a 4.8-inch high-carbon, stainless steel drop-point blade that retains its edge extremely well. I had to whittle a ton of tinder from big chunks of wet wood, and it stayed sharp the full five days. The rubberised handle is strong and extremely grippy, and at the base is a steel pommel you can use for hammering. The nylon sheath keeps the knife safe and easily accessible, but it also hides a diamond-coated knife sharpener, and a ferrocerium rod fire starter for emergencies (yes, it worked). $US40.
We hate thinking about it, but in the wilderness, things can go very wrong, very quickly. If you're going to be embarking on a potentially dangerous trip, it may be worth bringing a personal location beacon (PLB). There are some expensive options that require service subscriptions and give you two-way messaging, but all you really need is for people to come and get you if you're in trouble. The FastFind 210 requires no subscription, the battery lasts for five years, and it's waterproof to 10 metres. You activate it, it sends an emergency signal to a global network of satellites, and the closest search and rescue is given your position to within 30 metres. The FastFind 210 has just been discontinued which means you can get them for half price right now. The 220 will be out soon to replace it, but the 210 should still last you a good few years. $US100.
Personally, when I'm in the backcountry, I want to be as far away from electronics as possible. That said, sometimes you need some USB power in the middle of nowhere. The JOOS Orange is simply the best portable solar charger ever. Yes, it's a bulky, heavy brick, but solar cells it uses don't need directly sunlight. It doesn't even need indirect sunlight. This thing was capable of charging gear in the middle of a very dark thunderstorm. It is waterproof, and it is bullet proof. I mean, you can literally shoot it five times with a .22 cal rifle and it will still charge. It's a freakin' beast. It has a 20Wh, 5400mAh battery inside so you can charge it by day, then charge your gadgets at night. I just wish it could charge larger items like digital cameras. $US150
If you're hoping to catch some of your dinner on the trail, you're going to need a lightweight, compact kit. There a lots of ways to go, but since I planned on a mix of fresh and salt water fishing, I went with the Shimano Sedona 400FB Reel and the 8' (2.4m) Telescoping Hurricane Rod. The rod has stainless steel hoods with ceramic guides, and it can support 5kg to 14kg test line. It extends to 2.4 metres, weighs only 255 grams, and collapses down to 22 inches, making it highly backpackable. The Shimano Sedona 400FB a solid performer for heavy lines and rods, but it's nimble enough to deal with just about anything freshwater thows at it. It's incredibly strong, easy to use, and it's just amazingly smooth. It even comes with an extra spool which you can pre-load ahead of your trip. Great all-around reel. Rod: $US20 / Reel: $US50
Odds and Ends
There are of course other things. Biodegradable soap, toothbrush/paste, a big plastic serving spoon, a spatula if you're cooking fish or pancakes, lip balm, condoms, sunblock, map, spare batteries, extra cordage, duct tape (roll it onto a pencil then snap off the ends to save space). Binoculars? Sure, why not. But this list at least offers 35 items to get you started.
Top image: Stefanie Daehler