Sleeping Under the Stars: Backpacking Gear Guide

In collaboration with Backcountry

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My happy place isn't really a specific physical location, but rather an idea, or perhaps an ideal intrinsic to all those places that remain wild and untamed. It is the innate sense of solace and awe that our wilderness areas both offer and demand from those that wander into their embrace. There is no better way to experience the full force of Mother Nature's power to heal and inspire than by throwing on a backpack and making her your home - even if for just one night. 

Backpacking is where all the world's distractions and expectations quietly fade into the distant background. It's human powered adventure. Type 2 fun. Proof that we can survive with only the things we can pack on our backs. And maybe, just maybe, be even happier that way. But first, you have to know what exactly  you should pack! 

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THE BASICS

This is the gear that I bring with me when I head out into the backcountry.  It's important to remember that these items are simply some of my personal favorites. I haven't tried every piece of gear under the sun, and what works best for me, may not work for you. That being said, I've gone through a lot of backpacking gear over the years, and this is my go to, tried and true, gear guide! Because nothing can ruin a trip faster than uncomfortable, heavy, or crappy outdoor gear. 

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BACKPACK

I have this theory that whatever size bag you have, you will fill it up. For that reason I tend to favor backpacks that are on the smaller size. Starting with a relatively small backpack ensures that I will pack efficiently, invest in quality ultralight gear, and enjoy a much lighter pack on the trail. 

Osprey Exos 48 - This is my go to backpacking pack. I've received numerous other backpacks since I've owned this one, but I always end up coming back. Osprey recently came out with a women's model of this pack - The Eja. I have not had the chance to try it out, but I hear good things. The Exos and Eja have a sturdier frame than most lightweight packs, carry heavier loads comfortably, and are also a pretty good value for the quality of backpack. 

HMG 2400 Southwest - I purchased this pack after hearing multiple rave reviews from friends whose opinions on these things I've learned not to question. And I'm definitely a convert! Optimized for comfort and high functionality, the HMG 2400 was built to withstand a lot of abuse. It's waterproof, lightweight, and I can fit a surprising amount of gear inside. 

Osprey Sirrus 24L - This pack is too small to backpack with (although it does come in larger sizes), but I'm including it in this gear guide because it is my favorite daypack. It's not exceptionaly lightweight but it more than makes up with it in fit, comfort, and support. My favorite thing about the Sirrus, is that it doesn't skimp on important features like a solid hip belt, padded shoulder straps, and adjustable chest strap.

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TENT

A tent is one of the most important pieces of gear you will invest in for backpacking. It effects everything from your comfort and enjoyment, to your safety in the backcountry. It is quite literally your home away from home. There are a lot of options out there, but key considerations include price, weight, interior space, design, and set up, among other things. 

NEMO Equipment Inc. Blaze 2P -  The Blaze 2P is my first choice for backpacking. It manages to find a nice balance between all of the above considerations. The biggest downside that I have found so far is that it's not free standing, which means that it can be difficult to set up on rock or other hard surfaces. But the weight benefit gained is well worth having to get a little creative with the set-up every once in a blue moon. 

Big Agnes Copper Spur HV UL2 - The Copper Spur also finds a nice balance between the various elements I look for in a tent. And unlike the Blaze, it is a free standing tent, so it is easy to set up, and even move around once assembled. 

Mountain Hardwear Trango 2 - I rarely need a 4 season tent, but if you are interested in alpine touring, or otherwise planning on getting into the backcountry during the winter it’s worth the investment. The Trango has been around in one form or another for over a decade, so it has withstood the test of time. When the weather gods decide to dump rain, snow, and wind on your camp, this shelter will keep you safe and warm!

SLEEPING BAG

I run exceptionally cold in general, but especially when I sleep. Growing up I associated backpacking with cold sleepless nights. As a result, if there is one piece of gear that I'm more than willing to splurge on in exchange for comfort in the backcountry it's my sleeping bag. When it comes to sleeping bags, it's all about the warmth-to-weight ratio. 

Marmot Xenon Sleeping Bag 15 Degree - This was the first down sleeping bag I purchased. Backpacking primarily in the northwest, I always thought that I needed a synthetic bag to combat the moisture in the air. But now that I've gone down, I'm not sure I'll ever go back. The warmth-to-weight ratio of down bags, combined with packability is hard to beat. But synthetic materials keep getting better, so only time will tell. 

Western Mountaineering UltraLite 20 Degree  - The Western Mountaineering UltraLite is probably the best all around sleeping bag I've come across recently. Weighing in at an impressively light 16 ounces, this ultra-premium, 850-fill down bag retains your body’s warmth while maintaining a super-high warmth-to-weight ratio. 

NEMO Equipment Inc. Rave 15 - The Rave 15 is a great option for anyone who can't tolerate a mummy bag. Designed with side-sleepers in mind, its spoon shape is extra wide at the elbows and knees to allow for less restricted movement while you sleep. However, the roomier shape also means that the bag does not retain heat quite as well, so for me this is more of a warm climate backpacking option. But again, I run super cold. 

SLEEPING PAD

Therm-a-Rest NeoAir XLite Sleeping Pad - Comfortable and ultra-light, the Therm-a-Rest NeoAir XLight is a mainstay in the backpacking world for a reason. I've had mine for years, and have never had any issues with it. It reliably holds air all night, and folds down into a compact size that easily fits inside my backpack. I've read complaints about how noisy the pad can be when you move around on it, but it has never bothered me personally. 

NEMO Equipment Inc. Astro Insulated Lite Sleeping Pad - This is the sleeping pad I'm currently using. Like the NeoAir, the Astro is a lightweight sleeping pad for minimalist backpacking. The insulation means extra protection against the cold ground, and extra warmth at night, which we already know is a priority for me! 

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STOVE

Everything tastes better in the backcountry. Especially when it's hot! And few things suck more than getting to your destination and not being able to heat up your food. Take it from me, I've been there. So don't forget your fuel! 

Jetboil Flash Stove - Small, durable, and fast. The Jetboil's all in one design makes it an easy choice for a convenient backcountry cook system. Jetboil's are designed to do exactly what the name promises: boil water quickly. They are primarily intended for tea, coffee, and dehydrated meals. The Jetboil MiniMo Stove is another very popular option. But I actually also use my Jetboil to cook things like Top Ramen and Annie's Mac and Cheese (even though you're not supposed to), and the MiniMo isn't big enough for that. 

MSR Pocket Rocket 2 - This was the cook system that I had before the Jetboil, and It's a pretty great ultra-light option. The only real downside is that you have to own/pack a separate pot to cook in. But the Pocket Rocket will fit into most camp pots along with the fuel. So at the end of the day, it's really not a big deal. It just comes down to preference. 

MSR Ceramic Solo Pot - This is a great option if you are thinking of going with the MSR Pocket Rocket and you need a pot. 

CLOTHING 

Quality outdoor clothing can be on the pricier side, but you really only need a few key pieces to keep you comfortable and happy on the trail. And once you own them, they should last a long time! 

Base Layer

Smartwool Merino 250 1/4-Zip Top - I fell for this Smartwool product the minute I put it on. Okay maybe it took a few hikes to really cement the relationship, but now it goes everywhere with me. EVERYWHERE. It offers dependable warmth for chilly evenings, and because it's wool it's naturally odor-resistant to keep you feeling fresh all day long. Plus, the form fitting design is great for layering and flattering too - which I can't say for a lot of outdoor apparel. P.S. it's super cozy. Not itchy at all! 

Patagonia Capilene Air Crew Top - This is a newer addition to my base layer collection and I can already tell it's going to be a favorite. I first read about Patagonia's new "innovative" base layer fabric that blends merino and polyester in a weave texture that optimizes breathability and wicking in Gear Patrol. The author of the review basically said it was the best base layer he had ever worn. EVER. Mic drop.

So of course as part of my endless quest for warmth I had to try it for myself. And so far, it's pretty great.  

Patagonia Capilene Air Bottom - Same same as the top. But on the bottom. 

Backcountry Catherine T-Neck Shirt - I don’t have a photo of this one, but it’s my new FAVORITE for cold weather. And just for wearing every day at home and around town. Seriously, it’s so comfy and soft. Plus I love the fit!

Insulated Layer

Rab Continuum Hooded Down Jacket - There are so many down jackets out there, and I am personally always completely overwhelmed by the options. But after a little (a lot) of research and some asking around I settled on the Rab Continuum because it has a slimmer fit than a lot of other brands, and because Rab has a long standing reputation for quality apparel among "serious mountain people." 

Patagonia Better Sweater 1/4-Zip Fleece Jacket - I'm endlessly surprised by how warm this jacket is. I actually purchased it on a whim, because I forgot my jacket on a trip, and it was the only option that still had an XS in stock. It turned out to be one of the best non-choices I ever made! It quickly became a staple in my outdoor and everyday wardrobe. I also have the Patagonia Retro Pile Hooded Jacket, which is my go-to when I want something I can unzip to take off easily. 

Patagonia Down Sweater Vest - You're either a vest person or you're not. And I guess I am, because I love this thing. Sometimes it's not cold enough for a full on jacket, but your core could use a little love - queue the down sweater vest! The clothing version of a hug. 

Waterproof Layer 

Rab Kinetic Plus Hooded Jacket - Hands down the best waterproof jacket I've owned. It's the perfect blend of being a breathable and super comfy soft shell and a bombproof hard shell. And yes, it has a slim fit! 

Mountain Hardwear Stretch Ozonic Pant - I'm not sure why, but I really just haven't had to wear rain pants very often. Luck I guess. Nevertheless, I try and make sure these are stashed away somewhere at the bottom of my backpack before I head out on any backpacking trip. Alpine weather is notoriously unpredictable, and staying dry is one of my top priorities. 

Hiking Pants

I've never really been a hiking pants type of gal. I think it's because when I started hiking more regularly I just wore what I had, and what I had was a lot of leggings. Over time I've decided that's okay. As long as you're comfortable, happy, and safe, nothing else matters! 

The North Face Motivation High-Rise Tight - High-quality durable leggings in a flattering fit. What more can you ask for? Note - they do run a little small. 

Alo Yoga High-Waisted Airbrush Legging - These are some of my favorite pants for yoga, and they work great for hiking too. 

Glyder High Waist Pure Legging - Seriously soft light weight leggings. 

Shoes

More than maybe any other item, shoes are hard to recommend because they are so specific to the individual. That being said, hiking shoes are also the item of gear I get asked the most questions about, so I figured I'd at least let you know what I'm using. But it's always a good idea to take any pair of boots out for a few short strolls to make sure they are a good fit before committing to a long trail day. 

KEEN Terradora Mid Waterproof Hiking Boot - If I'm hiking these are the boots I'm wearing 99% of the time. They are light weight without sacrificing support or function. The first time I wore them, I didn't follow my own advice, and I went out on an 11 mile hike. They were so comfortable that I forgot I was even wearing new boots. I have narrow feet and the Terradora feels like it was built just for me. If you have particularly wide feet, this might not be the shoe for you. 

Merrell Moab 2 GTX Hiking Shoe - Before the Keen Terradoras, I swore by the Merrel Moabs, and they are still a great option! 

Danner Jag Hiking Boot - Let's be honest, I purchased these boots because I like the way they look. They are decently comfortable, waterproof, and get the job done. But I haven't ever worn them on an extended backpacking trip. 

Danner Mountain Light Boot - Surprisingly comfortable, the Danner Mountain Light Boot is a great option for travel - especially in cooler climates. I like that it's a functional hiking boot that can actually double as a fashionable pair of everyday boots. Again, I use these more for short hikes when I'm traveling, than backpacking. 

Smartwool Hike Medium Crew Sock - Not shoes, but equally important for your comfort. I've been buying Smartwool hiking socks for as long as I can remember. They keep my feet warm, without being too hot, and wick away moisture. Plus, because they are wool they stay oder free for the duration of my trip. I love these so much I keep an extra pair in my sleeping bag just in case. 

TEN ESSENTIALS

Packing the “Ten Essentials” whenever you step into the backcountry, even on day hikes, is a good habit. True, on a routine trip you may use only a few of them or none at all. It’s when something goes awry that you’ll truly appreciate the value of carrying these items that could literally save your life. The specific items from each "essential" that you take can be tailored to the trip, and personal preference.

1.  Navigation

This includes a combination of one or more of the following items: map, compass, altimeter, GPS device, personal locator beacon (PLB) or satellite messenger. 

Gaia GPS App - The best off-line GPS map app that I've found. For offline mode to work, you need to download the map you want to use for the area you plan to hike beforehand. When you get to the trailhead, start up the Gaia GPS app and load the downloaded map for use. 

Garmin InReach Mini - Garmin makes a full range of InReach products, and like many other pieces of gear the one that is best for you will depend a lot on how you plan on using it. This lightweight satellite communicator enables two-way text messaging, downloadable maps, and interactive SOS to the 24/7 search and rescue monitoring center. However some of the functions, like the SOS require a monthly subscription. 

ACR ResQLink+ - This Personal Locator Beacons won't help you find your way home if you get lost. It will help search and rescue find you. Plus, there's no monthly subscription! 

2.  Headlamp 

Whether you are day hiking or backpacking it's always a good idea to keep a headlamp and extra batteries in your bag. You never know when you're going to get caught in the dark. 

Petzl Actik Core Headlamp - There are fancier headlamps out there but I like to keep it simple. The Petzl Actik is easy to operate, very lightweight, and charging is a breeze with a micro-USB or AAA batteries. 

3.  Sun Protection

It's not always intuitive, but the sun is often stronger at higher altitudes, especially when there is snow for it to reflect off of. Always carry sunglasses, sun-protective clothes, and sunscreen in your pack. 

Maui Jim Sunglasses - I've never been one to purchase nice sunglasses because I always loose them. Then I received a pair of Maui Jim Howzit Polarized Sunglasses and realized what I'd been missing out on! These are relatively lightweight, they stay put, and the polarized lenses are an AMAZING quality. Plus, because they are so comfortable I don't feel the need to constantly take them off and loose them! 

Sunski Sunglasses - Sunsiks are a great casual and budget friendly alternative. I've had a few pairs over the years, and I always end up scratching the lenses, but they are fun while they last. 

4.  First Aid 

I use one of the prepackaged first aid kits, and then supplement it with any items that I feel it's missing. 

Adventure Medical Kit - Ultralight and watertight these prepackaged first aid kits come in a variety of different sizes depending on your first aid needs. 

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5.  Knife

Knifes are handy for preparing food, and making quick repairs to gear - especially if your knife is a multitool. 

Leatherman Sidekick Multi-Tool - Relatively basic multi-tool with everything that I want, without too much else. 

6.  Fire 

You will likely need fire to start your stove. But it could also be a life saver in the case of an emergency as a signal or a source of warmth. 

Waterproof Matches - Because sometimes you need to start a fire when it's wet out. 

Lighter - Doesn't need to be fancy. I usually just pick one up at the gas station on my way into the backcountry. 

7.  Shelter

When you're backpacking this is your tent. See above for detailed tent recommendations. 

8.  Extra Food 

Plans change. If you happen to stay out on the trail longer than anticipated, you will be thankful for that extra Freeze Dried Dinner or Perfect Bar you packed away at the bottom of your bag. 

9.  Extra water

This is a big one. Clean drinking water is critical for any trip into the backcountry. There are a wide variety of different water purification and filtration methods out there. The system that works best for you will depend on where you are going, how long you are going for, and personal preference. 

Chlorine Dioxide Drops & Pills - I ALWAYS have Chlorine Dioxide Drops & Pills on me. Doesn't matter if I'm on a day hike or a backpacking trip. Sure they might make the water taste a little funny, but I think they are hands down the lightest weight, most reliable method of purifying water. The downside to chemical treatments is that there is a wait time before you can drink the water. 

SteriPEN Adventurer Opti - The SteriPEN is another quick and easy purification method. It works by creating Ultraviolet (UV-C) light rays that sterilize clear water by destroying bacteria and even viruses. You simply press a button and gently stir the water in your water bottle. The biggeset downside to the SteriPEN is that it's battery operated, and I'm never quite sure if it actually worked or not. . . but that's my personal trust issue. The main downside is that the SteriPEN is battery operated, but I'm slowly learning to trust it. 

MSR AutoFlow Gravity Filter - This is a great option if you are going on a longer backcountry trip and anticipate needing to filter a large quantity of water quickly.  The MSR AutoFlow is simple, and intuitive to use and cleaning. Unlike the Chlorine Dioxide or SteriPen which are water purifiers, the MSR AutoFlow is a water filter. The difference between a water “filter” and a water “purifier” is that purifiers remove or kill viruses and filters do not. That being said, viruses are rarely a concern in North America, so most US backpackers don’t worry about treating them. If you are traveling abroad to a country with less developed sanitation systems, you should supplement your filtration method with a chemical treatment or UV filter. 

10. Extra clothes 

Weather changes quickly in the backcountry and it's important to be prepared for a wide variety of conditions. Layer up! 

A FEW OF MY FAVORITE THINGS

If you've checked off the above items in this gear guide than you are technically ready to hit the trail! My goal is generally not to simply survive in the backcountry. I want to thrive! The following gear is not necessary, but just might change your life! 

Camping Pillow 

The camping pillow is a game changer for quality of sleep. I used to just ball up my extra layers inside my stuff sack and call it good. And that totally works. The bellow camp pillows deflate into next to nothing, are lightweight, and so much less lumpy than balled up sweaty clothes. So go ahead, live a little!

NEMO Equipment Inc. Fillo Elite - Pretty much everything I look for in a pillow (minus feathers) - it is soft and provides a nice amount of support. It packs down into its own internal stuff sack, and weighs next to nothing. 

Sea To Summit Aeros  - I really like the slight curvature of this pillow, it keeps the pillow balanced even when my head is not. 

Trekking PolEs

My knees aren't what they used to be, and a heavy pack combined with a steep decent can result in a lot of discomfort. Trekking poles take a lot of that pressure off, and can also lend a helping hand on ascents! 

Black Diamond Trail Pro - Remarkably light for aluminum trekking poles, these fold up small for easy storage in your pack when you don't need them. Plus, the aluminum means they are more budget friendly than their carbon counterparts. 

Black Diamond Distance Carbon FLZ - incredibly lightweight and collapsable for easy storage. 

Microspikes

Kahtoola MICROspikes Traction System - Absolute life savers in cold, icy, or snowy conditions! Seriously these are one of the best products I’ve ever purchased. I don’t always end up using them, but just having them in my bag during shoulder seasons and all winter long has come in handy on multiple occasions. Super easy to put on and remove, microspikes are just a no-brainer.

gaiters

Hillsound Armadillo LT Gaiter - When the weather turns cold and wet I love to use caters. They keep my shoes and socks dry, my feet warm, and me happy. The Hillsound Armadillo are a great light weight option, and I like their slimmer trim. Perfect for snow shoeing!

Sandals  

I don't know about you, but after a long day of hiking there are few things that feel better than slipping off your hiking boots. I like to bring along a lightweight pair of sandals to change into at the end of the day so that I can wander around camp in comfort without taking my boots on and off a million times. 

The North Face Base Camp Plus Mini Flip Flop - Any pair of sandals will do, but it's nice to find a pair that is reasonably light weight and grippy. 

Nalgene

When I'm at home working out, driving in my car, or even going on short hikes I'm all about that Hydro Flask life. But in the backcountry I like to bring a Nalgene. First, Nalgene is a lot more weight efficient. Second, on cold nights I fill it up with boiling water and stuff it into my sleeping bag! The Nalgene will provide heat for hours. 

Candy 

No explanation needed. 

Photography Gear

If you are anything like me then photography gear is more like one of the "10 Essentials," than an option. The exact camera gear I take depends a lot on the length of the trip. The farther the hike, the lighter I tend to go. Check out my complete Travel Photography Gear Guide for more details! 

LEAVE NO TRACE 

If you are stoked on nature to the point where you are thinking about spending the night, then I have to assume that you would love to hear about how you can help minimize your impact while you are out there! After all, a clean home is a happy home. Leave No Trace is built on seven core principles that outline the best available minimum impact guidance for enjoying the outdoors responsibly. Leave No Trace isn't black or white, right or wrong. It is not about exclusion. It's a framework for making good decisions about enjoying the outdoors responsibly, regardless of how one chooses to do so. For more information please visit The Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics

The Seven Principles 

  • Plan Ahead and Prepare

  • Travel and Camp on Durable Surfaces

  • Dispose of Waste Properly

  • Leave What You Find

  • Minimize Campfire Impacts

  • Respect Wildlife

  • Be Considerate of Other Visitors

© 1999 by the Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics: www.LNT.org.

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