With the best weather of the year already here or close by, my mind has been constantly wandering towards thoughts of beautiful mountains and meadows full of wildflowers. It is camping season. Everyone who finds out I go camping always responds as if it is some crazy/insane adventure. In reality it isn’t all that intimidating. I thought I would assemble some info for those looking to get their start at backcountry camping. Specifically, I have made a list of the minimum essential equipment you need for your first backpacking trip.
If you are just getting into camping, you are going to find the amount of gear options overwhelming. Walk into any outdoor goods store and you will find a dazzling array of specialized tools that are all made to seem essential. In actuality, though, you don’t need most of it. Oh sure, there are definitely times you will wish you had that specialized pot scrapper or that hat that morphs into a moccasin, but it is not worth your money or the extra weight on your back to carry those items into the backcountry.
Jessica and I have done a lot of frontcountry camping (at campsites you can drive up to) and we are doing more and more backcountry camping (at campsites many miles from your car). As the gear junkie of the relationship I have spent too much time reading reviews of different items and wasted way too much money on things we just don’t need and haven’t used.
What I am finally learning is that less is more, for a number of reasons. First, the less you have, the less you need to carry. The less you carry the happier you will be. 2 to 3 pounds might not sound like a big difference, but you will feel those extra pounds every step you take over the duration of your trip. Second, by purchasing less items you can use your limited funds to buy good gear that will last.
These are items you will absolutely need if you plan to spend a night in the backcountry. I am sure there are ultra-specific itineraries where you could make due without one of these items but you will not regret purchasing these. They are essential for keeping you safe, comfortable, and happy on your hike.
Previously, choosing a sleeping bag meant deciding if you wanted down or synthetic filling. While both options are still available, there is little reason now to choose anything but down.
For a long time, synthetic stuffing made sense for areas/trips in which your sleeping bag was likely to get wet. Now, however, manufacturers have begun to make water-resistant down. Down is warmer for its weight and stuffs down to a smaller size. If you are worried about it getting wet due to excessive rain (pacific northwest) or river crossings (remote trips) you can invest in the more expensive water-resistant down, but there is little reason to choose synthetic fill unless you are on a really tight budget.
To choose your sleeping bag, you need to ask yourself: “What is the coldest temperature you would go camping in?” Bags are rated based on the coldest temperature for which they can keep someone warm. For example, a 20 degree bag would keep you warm even if it got to be 20 degrees at night.
To choose a bag, you need to figure out what are the coldest nighttime temperature you could encounter on your trip. Depending on your location, this can vary a lot. For example, on a camping trip to Utah in March, Jessica and I had 80 degree days with 20 degree nights. Obviously, nighttime is colder than day, but elevation also plays a big role. You can find different rules, but most say that for every 1000 feet you go up, expect the temperature to drop 3 to 5 degrees.
If you aren’t sure where you are going to camp or what temperatures to expect, I would suggest getting a 20-30 degree sleeping bag. Even in the summer, higher elevations often drop below freezing, and a warmer bag will give you more flexibility. You can always unzip it or use it as a blanket if you are too hot. Also, many people recommend adjusting the temperature rating by as much as 10 degrees if you are a warm- or cold-sleeper.
Finally, you may also want to consider shapes. Mummy–which has a hood and tapers at your toes–is standard but can be uncomfortable for some. I suggest trying different shapes at a store and then shopping once you know your preference.
A sleeping pad is a the object you place under your sleeping bag while you sleep. It has two main functions. First, it keeps you warm by slowing heat loss to the colder ground. Second, it keeps you comfortable. Unless you are winter camping, comfort is the only function that matters much here.
There are two main sleeping pad options: inflatable and foam. There are tradeoffs with both. Foam is lighter and more durable but not as comfortable. Inflatable pads are really comfortable but can spring a leak and can weigh more.
For me, an inflatable pad is the only choice. I often sleep on my side when camping and this puts most of my weight on one hip. A foam pad is just not soft enough to allow me to sleep through the night before my hip grows sore and wakes me up. I suffered through this for about 15 nights before I finally came to my senses and bought an inflatable pad. Money well spent!
One great way to save weight (and money) is to use a shorter than needed pad. The sleeping pad is really only needed to comfort your hips and shoulders, so one that stops at your knees (or higher) will be totally fine. Throw your backpack under your lower legs and you are good to go. This may seem like overly aggressive weight cutting to some, but others swear by it. It is up to you.
Choosing a shelter is really tough. It is often the first thing people buy when it should be one of the last. You need to get a feel for your camping preferences before choosing a shelter. There are just so many types of shelters and they are all very different. Save this purchase for last by borrowing your friends’ tents, tarps, tarp-tents, and hammocks and giving the different forms a test ride.
Double-Walled Tents (max protection and weight)
Double-walled tents are the most common form of shelter you will see. They have an inner-wall (usually made of mesh) and an outer-wall (made of waterproof material). Two walls gives you great flexibility and protection. Is it a beautiful night? Leave the outer-wall off and sleep under the stars. Does it look like rain? Pull on the outer-wall and fall asleep to the patter of raindrops over your (dry) head.
The cost, however, of all that protection and flexibility is weight. Double-walled tents are heavy. Really heavy. And as comfortable as you think you may feel with that extra layer of protection, remember that you are going to have more aches and pains from carrying both of those walls to your campsite. Most experienced backpackers find that the extra weight is not worth the cost.
Jessica and my Marmot tent is a double-walled tent. It is great for car-camping when the car can carry the load, but our next tent will be something much lighter that is easier to carry up and down mountain passes.
Tarps (minimum protection and weight)
Tarps are on the other end of the spectrum from double-walled tents. Tarps weigh the least of any type of shelter, but they also provide the least amount of protection. Tarps come in many different shapes of waterproof material that can be set up above your sleeping area. Different shapes allow you to pitch the tarp in many different orientations.
A tarp is essentially just a roof which means your shelter will not have a floor or a mesh lining to keep out bugs. Carefully choosing a campsite and pitching your tarp well can mitigate these concerns, but if you are just getting into camping you might feel more comfortable with something that feels more like a structure and less like an oversized umbrella.
Single-walled tents (medium protection and weight)
Single-walled tents (sometimes called tarp tents) are new designs looking to capture the benefits of traditional tents without the weight. They are essential the outer wall of a double-walled tent with a sewn in a bug lining and tent floor. This design saves weight but still feel like tent, and many people are making the switch to them.
One drawback of the single wall is that they can be subject to significant condensation. Inside the tent, your body heat warms the air. As the air rises it runs into the wall of the tent and condenses water on the inside of the wall. This can drip on your face, waking you up, or get some of your gear wet. This happens sometimes on double-walled tents too, but it is worse on single-walled tents because circulation is more limited.
This item should be rather obvious. It is called backpacking after all! Even though you are only bringing the minimum amount of gear, you still need a decent sized pack. Packs are measured in liters, and I recommend a pack in the low 40s. It won’t be huge, but it will hold everything you need.
You will definitely want a pack that is as comfortable as possible. A good backpack will put most of the weight on your hips through a waist strap. I strongly recommend heading to an outdoor goods store and getting fitted by an experienced sales person. Try lots of different packs on (with weight in them) and see what feels best. Almost all of the packs have the same features. Just be sure that yours has a place to put a water bladder.
Water and Food Storage
You are going to want to be well-fed and hydrated on your trip, so you will need gear to transport water and food. For water, I strongly recommend a hydration bladder–a water sack that has a straw at the base that you can drink from while hiking. This helps you stay hydrated and happy on your trip.
If you are camping in an area without bears, you only really need plastic bags for your food. If, however, there are bears living near your intended destination, you need a way to protect your food from them. Campers used to hang their food from a tree. Unfortunately, this is hard to do well, and bears have gotten better at accessing even well-hidden bags. Many campers are now carrying bear canisters. These are hard sided containers with locking mechanisms that bears lack the dexterity to open. They will keep your food safe.
Hopefully you are going camping somewhere without artificial lighting. This means you need a way to see once it gets dark. A flashlight will work, but a headlamp is better. They are lighter than flashlights and keep your hands free. You can pick up a great one for under $40 too.
Since you will be alone in the backcountry, you will want to have some basic gear available to keep yourself healthy. First, you need some way of treating any water you collect from a stream or spring. The simplest method is to use iodine tablets. Iodine tablets can leave an unpleasant taste in your water, but many now come with neutralizer which significantly improves the taste. There are lots of filtering options too.
Next, you will need tools for going number two. You will want a light trowel to dig a cat hole and hand sanitizer to wash up with afterwards. Some bring toilet paper into the backcountry, but a good rock works just as well. And, some places require you to pack out your toilet paper meaning you would need to place used toilet paper in your pack for the duration of your trip. NOT WORTH IT!
Additionally, you will want to bring any necessary prescription medications as well as some over the counter drugs to treat minor ailments. Bring moleskin for blisters, Advil for aches and pains, antibiotic cleanser for cuts or scrapes, and sunscreen. You will also want a toothbrush and toothpaste.
On any hike, you should always bring a map and compass. You should be able to locate yourself on the map and interpret the contour lines. You will also want a good rain coat and probably rain pants to stay dry should it rain hard.
What about food? I mentioned food storage above, and since this is a minimalist list, I figured that many readers would not want to also be purchasing a stove and fuel and pots and bowls and sporks. There is nothing, however, like a delicisious meal cooked in the backcountry. So, if you are up for it, buy yourself a cook set and lug along ingredients for you favorite recipe. Nothing tastes as good as meal cooked on the trail.
That should do it! A shelter, sleeping bag, sleeping pad, food and water storage, headlamp, health gear, and a backpack to put it all in. Hopefully this list gives some people enough information to get out on the first trip. Have fun out there.