Welcome to Beginning Backpacking! Over the next 10 days, we’re going to cover the essential information you need to start backpacking, including gear, food and water, setting up camp, trip logistics, hygiene, and dealing with emergencies. For now, let’s jump right into talking about the kinds of gear you’ll need to hit the trail.
Tents, Tarps, and Other Shelters
There are three schools of thought on shelters: tents, tarps, and hammocks. Tents tend to be heavier, more expensive, and take a little longer to set up, but they offer privacy and security. Tarps require more experience to weatherproof and are more open, but they reward their owners with less weight to carry and lots of room. Hammocks usually require trees to set up and additional accessories for comfort but are an easy, hassle-free way to enjoy a night out under the stars.
A backpack, of course, is the most fundamental piece of backpacking gear. External frame packs have a light skeleton that supports the cloth pack inside. They tend to be bulky and harder to balance, but make carrying heavier loads easier. Internal frame packs have a stiff frame built into the cloth of the backpack. They are sleeker and easier to balance. Neither one is objectively better, so I recommend you try both before buying.
Packs are measured in liters. The more liters in a pack, the more it can hold. For basic backpacking, you will need a 55- to 65-liter pack.
You’re also going to need a high-quality sleeping bag. You can choose between synthetic and down bags. Synthetic won’t be quite as warm but function well when wet. Down will be warmer but won’t do as good a job keeping you warm when soaked. Sleeping bags are “rated” for survival, not comfort. If you pick up a 20°F/-6°C bag, it will keep you alive at that temperature, but you may not enjoy the experience.
Sleeping pads are no-frills mattresses that make it possible to sleep more comfortably on the ground. The standard design is a fold-up or roll-up sheet of foam that goes beneath your sleeping bag. More recently, gear manufacturers have introduced slim blow-up air mattresses to add an additional degree of comfort.
A cook kit is a set of lightweight pots and pans designed to make cooking in the backcountry easy. Some will even include spice kits for you to flavor your meals. Unless you’re planning to cook for a large group or do some gourmet cooking, a kit that includes a small pot or two is all you’ll need. Make sure to accessorize your kit with a bowl, spoon, and mug.
Stoves come in all shapes and sizes. Some are designed for group cooking and allow you more control over temperature, while others are only to boil water. Do research on what best fits your needs. If you think you may ever want to take your stove to another country, purchase one with an “international” designation, so it will be able to burn more than one type of fuel.
First-aid kits should include any medications you take and the supplies you would need to treat a variety of minor emergencies like cuts, scrapes, insect bites, and muscle injuries. Assemble a kit tailored to your own needs. Be sure you know how to use everything in your kit, and get basic wilderness medical training if you plan to use your kit on others.
Map and Compass
You should always have a map of the area and know how to read it. Compasses are also important, but if you haven’t learned how to use it, there’s not much point in having one. Local gears stores will often offer map and compass training.
If you feel overwhelmed by too many gear options, don’t worry too much about making the perfect choices. Most backpackers try out multiple systems over many years before they settle on their preferences. What’s important is to get out in the woods and get going! Tomorrow, we’ll expand on gear by talking about the kinds of clothing you’ll need.
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