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One of the most alluring elements of backpacking is its simplicity. Once you’ve loaded up the pack and hit the trail, the only thing ahead of you for the next several hours is walking, slow and steady, till you’re ready for a snack or to set up camp. Then it’s cooking dinner, gazing at the stars, crashing in the comfortable confines of your sleeping bag, and then waking up and hitting repeat. But that presumes, of course, that you’ve got your backcountry backpacking kit dialed.
This round-up covers the gamut, from the big three — your pack, tent, and sleeping system — as well as other gear essentials and apparel recommendations. A few other considerations that fall outside the purview of this article include your food choices and nice add-ons like a pack-friendly camp chair or plastic bottles designed to keep wine fresh for that sunset tipple. As you start to venture into the wild, you’ll understand your need for the “non-essential” essentials, and can start exploring upgrades or additions like a camp pillow (rather than stuffing your extra layers into your sleeping bag sack), a lightweight tarp, or a more sophisticated cook system to let you channel your inner gourmet.
Don’t forget to pack a basic first-aid kit, and bring some rope for unexpected repairs and to secure your bear bag if you’re traversing areas where wildlife can be a concern. And when selecting your lower layer as well as any additional pieces of apparel, avoid cotton. If cotton gets wet, it takes forever to dry, and will not keep you warm.
Now that we have the basics covered, read on to find the best backpacking gear to pick up before heading out on your next expedition.
Our Top Picks
The Pack: Osprey Aether AG 60
Osprey’s Aether AG 60 hits the sweet spot when it comes to comfort, capacity, and add-on features that can make all the difference for long hauls on the trail, but its carrying harness really stands head and shoulders above the competition. The “Anti-Gravity” tech utilizes a continuous, suspended mesh panel, which extends from the upper torso, through the lumbar region, and wraps around the waist strap — it almost feels like the pack giving you a gentle hug. This affords extreme comfort and cooling, as well as a lack of any hot spots or rubbing points. It also keeps you agile, even if you pack it full to its 60-liter capacity.
Other features include dual-access side stretch panels, upper compression straps, a trekking pole attachment system, a zippered sleeping bag compartment at the bottom, access from both the top and the side, and an integrated hydration sleeve for easy on-the-go refueling. The top lid also converts to a quick summit pack.
You can also easily strap additional gear to the exterior, thanks to a profusion of extra straps, as well as two ice tool loops with bungee tie-offs. Sizing of the pack syncs to various torso lengths, and if you want more storage, the Aether AG line goes up to a voluminous 85 liters. Osprey also makes a women-specific pack with all the same features, called the Ariel.
The Tent: Big Agnes Copper Spur HV UL mtnGLOW
Save for minimalists and ultra-light backpackers, a two-person tent is ideal for solo backpacking as it affords a bit much-appreciated extra space. But the Copper Spur offers so much more than 27 square feet of shelter. The three-season, stand-alone tent pitches easily, with ample mesh walls that are reinforced with a rain fly, which affords an additional nine square feet of storage space between its two vestibules, accessible from either of the two zippered doors.
It weighs a feathery two pounds and 13 ounces, and packs down into a four- by 19.5-inch package. If foul weather forces you inside, 40 inches of headspace will help fight claustrophobia, with a floor plan that widens where your head will rest. But perhaps the most innovative element of the Copper Spur comes from Big Agnes’ mtnGLOW Tent Light Technology, which integrates LED lights into the tent seams. The lights run on three AAA batteries and have three settings (on, off, and light at 50 percent), which are accessible via a simple push-button controller.
The Sleeping System: Therm-a-Rest Saros Sleeping Bag and NoeAir Trekker Pad
With a low-temp rating down to 20 degrees Fahrenheit, the Saros will work in most three-season conditions without risk of overheating. It employs Therm-a-Rest’s eraLoft synthetic insulation that’s quick-drying and will keep you warm in the unlikely event that it gets wet. Thermacapture seams trap the radiant body heat to retain warmth without adding bulk, with a foot warmer pocket to heat up cold toes and a heat-trapping draft collar, plus a synch hood. A full-length zipper makes it easy to dump heat (and to climb inside), and a smartly positioned external pocket is great for your headlamp or smartphone.
It also pairs seamlessly with the NeoAir Trekker (purchased separately here), one of the best inflatable sleeping pads on the market. Its baffles are configured in inter-connecting pyramids, so you won’t slide off, and reflective ThermaCapture tech layers the inside of each baffle to reflect the body heat back at you, rather than letting the cold Earth sap away that warmth. It packs down to the size of a water bottle and comes with both a stuff sack and a repair kit for in-the-field fixes.
The Cook System: MSR WindBurner Personal Stove System
Beginner backpackers are best off utilizing just-add-hot-water meal solutions, so the right stove is one that can perform double duty as a water heater and a place to mix all the goodness together. The WindBurner utilizes MSR’s award-winning Reactor tech to rapidly heat water, with a radiant burner and a clever design that marries the stove to the heating element to the heat exchanger to block out wind or rain. Setup is a breeze — just screw on a gas fuel canister to the stove, prop it on the included fold-out tripod, crank the gas, and light it. A small wire running the length of the burner will glow bright red when it’s time to attach the one-liter, hard-anodized aluminum pot.
A see-through plastic lid helps you see what’s happening, and also comes with a strainer pour on one side, and spout on the other. When it’s ready, you can handle the pot easily thanks to its insulated sleeve, and it also comes with a half-liter plastic bowl. Everything fits inside the main pot when not in use like a Russian nesting doll, and — coffee fiends rejoice — the system is compatible with MSR’s French press accessory.
The Water Filter System: Platypus Gravityworks 2.0L
Why waste precious downtime pumping water through a hand filter when gravity can do all the work? The aptly-named Gravityworks makes filtering two liters of water shockingly simple: scoop the water from the source into the bag marked “Dirty," attach the clean bag to one end of the filter tube, the other onto the contaminated H2O, flush the filter by raising the dirty side high and then refunneling that water back from the clean side to create a steady flow, and then just attach the dirty bag to a tree and let the water flow — and filter — on its own.
It can provide fresh drinking water at the rate of 1.5 liters a minute and comes with adapters if you want to let the good stuff flow into your hydration pack or water bottle. It weighs as little as 6.3 ounces and barely takes up space in your pack. Most importantly, each microfilter is individually tested to ensure it meets EPA and NSF guidelines for removing 99.9 percent of bacteria and protozoa.
The Rain Jacket: Black Diamond Stormline Stretch Rain Shell
Not many backpackers want to hike in a torrential downpour, but at some point, every backpacker will, so it pays to follow the “always be prepared” adage. Black Diamond’s Stormline Stretch Rain Shell has you covered in everything from a light sprinkle to a full-on monsoon, thanks to its “BD.dry” tech that’s water- and wind-proof and fully breathable. The large pit zips, which help disperse excess heat without exposing you to the elements, are DWR-sealed, and the center zip is waterproof.
As its name implies, the fabric stretches to deliver loads of maneuverability, partnered with underarm gussets and an overall baggy fit that’ll accommodate a few mid-layers or a puffy coat without feeling constricted. The two zippered hand pockets sit high enough to access them while wearing your pack, and adjustments at the hem, cuffs, and hood let you customize the fit. Best of all, the price point is a far cry lower than other jackets of similar quality, and the overall aesthetic is at home in cities as much as it is in the backcountry.
The Base Layer: SmartWool NTS Mid 250 Crew
Sure the NTS Mid 250 Crew is undeniably more expensive than synthetic base layers, but when you factor in that most synthetics start to stink — really stink — after a few washes, you’ll understand the value of merino wool. This all-natural fabric is a miracle when it comes to active performance. It wicks naturally, breathes well, has a soft-against-the-skin feel, keeps you warm when wet, is machine-washable, and won’t retain any body odors.
Treat it right, and it’ll last for years. The slim-fitting, long-sleeve will protect you from the sun and comes with shoulder plans that eliminate the top seams, so you won’t be rubbed by your pack straps. The 250 refers to the merino thickness, which is SmartWool’s warmest layer, so if you’re hiking in hot climates, you may want to go with a lighter fabric, like those in their 150 line, available for both men and women.
The Footwear: Five Ten Guide Tennie Approach Shoe
This may seem like an unlikely choice, but unless you’re hauling heavy loads or are plagued with weak ankles, you don’t need a backpacking-specific hiking boot on most outings. What you need is sure purchase on any and all types of terrain. Five Ten made their name making some of the best climbing shoes on the market, and they bring their love of sticky rubber to the Tennie Approach Shoe, with large, circular treads underfoot along with their proprietary Stealth C4 rubber that gets unrivaled traction on rock — and it seems to work better when it gets wet.
You also get the support you want, with a compression-molded EVA midsole and an ergonomic design. The uppers are made of suede leather and synthetics adapters both stylish and functional, shrugging off almost all moisture. And rock scramblers will also appreciate climbing-specific features, including the hand-ground beveled toe for precision-edging power and extended laces to help dial the optimal fit.
The Sock: Darn Tough Hiker Micro Crew Cushion
The true sign you’re a gear geek? You get excited about outdoor sock technology. But even if you don’t care that the Hiker Micro Crew Cushion is made of a mix of merino wool, nylon, and Lycra, you’ll still appreciate all the thought that went into the socks when you’re on the trail. The performance fit assures you won’t endure slipping, bunching, or blisters, while merino wool’s all-natural wicking properties will keep you cozy in the winter and cool in the summer.
These deliver mid-level cushioning density underfoot, with a height that peaks just above most boots. But perhaps the best testament to these socks’ quality is the fact that Vermont-based Darn Tough guarantees their socks for life — no strings, no conditions. That’s why they rank as the top sock for thru-hikers.
Our writers spent 70 hours researching the most popular backpacking gear on the market. Before making their final recommendations, they considered 50 different products overall, screened options from 20 different brands and manufacturers, read over 10 user reviews (both positive and negative), and tested 9 of the products themselves. All of this research adds up to recommendations you can trust.