Backpacking is an “extreme sport” only if you make it so. Here’s how to get the most out of your wilderness adventures without sacrificing comfort.
by the OutsideDaily staff
There are many ways to enjoy the outdoors, but for sheer adventure and wilderness immersion, it’s tough to beat backpacking. An adventurous hike into the wilds, setting up camp, cooking a meal, and drifting off beside a small campfire is a satisfying endeavor that excites our DNA and helps us reexamine our hectic and often chaotic lives.
Veteran backpackers understand this, which is why they keep at it year after year. For beginners, however, picking up the backpacking lifestyle can be daunting. Equipment runs the gamut in styles, quality, and price. Then there is the matter of knowing exactly what equipment and supplies you need for one, two, or three-plus nights in the backcountry.
The truth is, there are no simple recipes. Equipping yourself for backpacking depends upon many factors, including intended time in the field, physical condition, comfort threshold, and ancillary activities. What we can tell you is that, as a rule, “less is more” and you usually don’t need to pack as much as you think. That said, experimentation and careful research not only of gear options but also of the climate and terrain you will be camping in are your best guides when starting out backpack camping. The thing to remember is that comfort is important—both in the weight you must carry and the gear you need at day’s end.
In this article, we’re going to share our 30-plus years of backpacking experience to help you get started. We’ll start by providing gear guidelines based on the minimum required equipment to be comfortable, and then discuss two alternate camping styles. A third backpacking style that is ultra-minimalist is called bivouacing, wherein only the barest essentials are used to basically get through the night. But that’s a topic for another conversation.
Keeping It Simple
The number one key to an enjoyable backpacking adventure is keeping your pack weight to a minimum. This is a difficult thing to do for beginners, and it’s not exactly easy for those who have been around the mountain a few times, either. This is what we call the “I might need…” factor. If you reach for a piece of equipment with the preface of “I might need it,” nine times out of ten, you won’t need it at all. Here is what you DO need:
Food – Plan your nutritional needs using the “meal-plus-one” strategy. This means taking one more meal than you plan on needing, and be sure those meals are of the dehydrated variety to save weight and pack space. Don’t worry if you’re new to eating meals in a bag. Dehydrated meals have become downright delicious, have ample calories to keep you going, and they require only hot water to prepare. Most entrées are labeled for two servings, but after a day of hiking, you’ll probably find that a “two-person” meal is just right for you. We also like to add to our “plus-one” meal a bag of high-calorie trail mix or dried fruit for emergency backup.
Water – Whether you plan on trekking in an arid climate where water is not available (in which case a quality 3-liter hydration bladder is a must-have) or in an area where ground water is abundant, a compact, lightweight water purifier is essential. For speed and convenience, choose a pump instead of a gravity filter. A filter keeps you from carrying excess water (depending on where you’re hiking), and you can replenish your supply as water sources come available.
Cutting Tool – Nothing fancy needed here. A sharp folding pocket knife with a 3- to 4-inch blade is all you need to cut open meal pouches, trim paracord, shave tinder, or any number of needs you may encounter.
Light – We carry two light sources when backpacking. A small headlamp is ideal for puttering around camp after dark, as it leaves your hands free to cook, build a fire, or head to the bushes. A small but powerful handheld light is kept on deck as an emergency backup or for use when hiking out after dark. Remember to include a set of spare batteries for each.
Meal Prep – If you take our advice for meals, there are only three things you’ll need to prepare them: a 16-ounce stainless steel cup with a wire handle, a small butane stove and fuel canister assembly, and an eating utensil. That’s it! Most dehydrated meals require 16 ounces of water, so a cup of this size works well. Just bring to a boil and pour into the pouch.
First Aid – Seasoned adventurers don’t recommend skimping on the med kit because in an emergency, a few Band-Aids and some aspirin aren’t going to cut it. We build our own kits to cover serious injuries—particularly catastrophic hemorrhaging. Overkill? Maybe, but our life is worth a few extra ounces of medical supplies. And here’s a tip: attach your med kit to the OUTSIDE of your pack. This way, it’s easy for you or your trekking partner to get to in a crisis.
Personal Care – A toothbrush, small tube of toothpaste, small deodorant, and a pack of wet wipes. After all, it’s just you and the critters out there. Oh, yeah…don’t forget the toilet paper!
Pack – There are scads of packs on the market and, no, not just any one will do. In selecting a pack, the first step is to find one that fits your body shape. A properly fitted pack will have a padded waistband that cinches tight and puts about 60-percent of the pack weight on your hips. This, combined with a sturdy internal support panel and generously padded shoulder straps that center the pack weight close to your body will keep most of the weight off your shoulders and properly balanced.
Second, find a pack appropriately sized for the type of backpacking you’ll do. There’s no need for an expedition-level pack if you’re mostly camping in fair weather for two or three days. Again, more is not better.
Third, be sure the pack has an intelligent compartment strategy. We favor top-load packs with a bottom compartment for stowing a sleeping bag, and two to four exterior zippered compartments that allow us to store various small items. A self-contained rainfly is a welcome bonus.
Sleeping Gear/Shelter – Now here’s where things get interesting…
A Tale of Two Camps
The typical backpacking camp scenario is typical for a reason—it works and works well under most conditions. The nuances may vary from person to person and with one’s experience level, but in general, a backpacking camp consists of a lightweight free-standing tent with a rain fly, a mummy-style sleeping bag appropriately rated for the overnight low temperatures, and a sleeping pad.
Most folks favor a tent to sleep in. A tent offers protection during inclement weather, of course, but also provides a sanctuary in areas where biting insects are problematic. Additionally, a tent is a psychological “safe haven” if you’re not accustomed to sleeping in the open.
When selecting a tent, choose one that is lightweight, has enough room to be comfortable, includes a sturdy rainfly with a vestibule design, and has large mesh panels for ventilation during warm-weather camping.
Even though you are sleeping in a tent, it’s good practice to take a small backpacker’s tarp to place beneath it. This will protect the tent floor from pokes and abrasion, and ensure a dry night’s sleep should you encounter heavy rain.
To this mix you must also add a sleeping pad, since a sleeping bag, by itself, is more about keeping warm than keeping comfortable on the ground. The better sleeping pads are of the self-inflating variety. Simply open the valve, let the air flow in, then shut the valve.
Conventional Backpack Camp
This year we’ve been testing several products from ALPS Mountaineering—a couple of which include the Chaos backpacking tent and the Ultra-Light sleeping pad. Both have performed well as far as conventional backpacking camp gear goes, and the prices are in line with our conservative budget. The Chaos has a somewhat unorthodox frame system, but it’s easy to setup and the two-person model we acquired provides plenty of room and head space. As for the Ultra-Light pad, it has a slightly larger footprint than some of the other sleeping pads we’ve used over the years, and we’ve grown fond of it. The narrower pads are sometimes easy to roll off of if the ground is sloped too much or if we get too much air in them. The extra width of the Ultra-Light goes a long way in keeping you on the pad if you do much tossing about at night.
Unconventional Backpack Camp
While we were perusing the ALPs Mountaineering product offerings, we came across something called the Ready Lite cot. Now this is different. The Ready Lite is a low-standing, full-length cot that packs in a small zippered bag and takes up less room than a standard one-person backpacking tent.
We were intrigued, and it got us to thinking. We’ve done plenty of bivouacing, where we slept with only a sleeping bag, a bivy sack, and a pad. Ultralight, yes, but not exactly cozy. So, what if we took the Ready Lite cot and left the tent at home? The cot would allow us to set up on practically any ground (soggy, rocky, bumpy, etc.) and still give us a “bed-like” sleeping experience. We also wouldn’t need to pack a sleeping pad. Erect a tarp over the cot and presto…an open-air camp that is super comfortable and protected from dew and light rain.
Well, we got the Ready Lite cot, we tried it, and now we’re spoiled. Sleeping on the ground will never be the same again! The other interesting outcome was that going the cot route saved us a little over a pound in weight and several cubic inches of space in our pack.
Here is the weight comparison breakdown:
For a low-cost, high-adventure escape from the daily grind, a backpacking trip is hard to beat. The key to making your trip a pleasant experience is intelligent equipment and supply selection and cutting pack weight to a bare minimum. Fortunately, quality gear that’s affordably priced, such as the products we’ve been testing from ALPS Mountaineering this year, makes it easy to camp in comfort.
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