Weekend backpacking is a great way to spend your time outside the office. It’s a way to decompress from the stress of everyday life increasingly dominated by multitasking and constant technological interruptions. It’s a way to experience nature close to home. It’s a way to challenge yourself, mentally and physically.
I’ve already written a post about why you should start backpacking as a hobby, so read it first if you’re still considering or trying to weigh pros and cons. But enough of that- let’s talk about what you really want to know: what stuff do you need?
It’s so easy when you start any hobby to fall into that mental trap of wanting to go out and buy the best gear or buy a bunch of stuff that you think will enable you to enjoy it. The reality is you don’t really need much for any hobby beyond basic equipment (which you can usually rent before making the commitment to buy), and I’m sure we’ve all been in a situation where we bought a bunch of stuff only to realize that we didn’t really like the activity that much, and only used the equipment a few times.
The same is true for backpacking, give or take a few essential items. Here’s what we’ve learned that will help save you money, and hopefully help out with a little decision paralysis! For the first time backpacker- all the gear can get a little overwhelming.
What Backpacking Gear You Actually Need:
A pair of solid hiking boots. If you don’t plan on staying the night or carrying a lot of weight, you can probably do with lighter “trail shoes,” but if you’re going out on uneven terrain frequently or carrying more than 20 pounds, you’ll be happy with a $150 investment in some hiking boots. Legit, heavy hiking boots are the only buffer between your feet and the pounding of climbing up and down mountains. They may seem intimidating and totally uncomfortable at first, but a thick, rigid sole will protect your feet. Ever seen those ugly nursing shoes? Same principle.
Hiking socks. See where I’m going with this? One of the worst feelings I’ve ever had backpacking was being 5 or so miles into a trip, and already developing blisters, all because I wore “thick-ish” regular socks instead of hiking socks. Your feet will absorb most of the impact while you hike, not to mention the extra weight of a pack.
The right kind of sock does matter, because they’re designed to protect your feet where they’ll be absorbing the most impact and rubbing against your shoes. Not to mention pulling moisture away from your feet. Take care of your feet and you’ll perform better, enjoy your trip more, and more importantly you won’t develop crippling blisters that slow you down and make you walk like a penguin for a few days.
A backpack. Hiking for the weekend? Or maybe just day hikes? Regardless, you’ll want a backpack that’s designed for your needs. On our first trip together, Nikita loaded up his hiking pack for himself, and gave me a large backpack, like the kind you use for carrying your laptop and textbooks in at school. The backpack had hip straps, but was not designed for what we were doing, and it was pure pain. Of course I didn’t realize this until a few months later when I bought my first real backpack, and was shocked at how comfortable it was!
The right kind of backpack will be designed to distribute the amount of weight you’ll be carrying evenly, and in the right places. Even if you won’t be carrying much on a day hike, there are backpacks that will minimize stress and keep your back and shoulders more comfortable, which means better performance.
I love my Deuter Backpack (because I don’t have Skechers…) Apparently it’s a bestseller.
Water. If you’re just going out for the day, you might be able to get by with carrying a few bottles of water. But it’s always nice not having to- water is heavy. If you hike somewhere where there will be access to water sources, like creeks, or streams, consider checking getting some water purification tools like iodine tablets, a pump or even a life straw*.
The life straw came out years ago as a way for people in developing countries to get access to clean drinking water quickly. It’s now available at REI or on Amazon for about $20! You stick the straw directly into any water source and drink- it purifies within the straw before it even touches your mouth. I haven’t tried it yet, but met a hiker doing about 460 miles on the AT and swore by the straw. Seems like a great option if you don’t want to carry a lot of weight, and will have access to water sources.
A first aid kit. You never know, and it’s always best to be prepared!
Head to your local REI or hiking/outdoorsy store and check out your options. The good thing about these establishments is that the staff is usually very knowledgeable and don’t push you to buy equipment you don’t need. Give or take a few, the staff at REI have always helped me make good decisions about the equipment I’ve bought.
And now on to an important aspect of choosing the right stuff. Despite your best intentions, there will be some things that seem completely necessary during initial planning, but end up being useless or worse, a hassle.
What You Don’t Need:
A change of clothes. Hurray for two days! Besides a fresh pair of underwear and socks, you can wear the same clothes on Saturday and Sunday. No added weight, no fuss and less to wash when you get home. If this seems gross to you, maybe reevaluate why you want to go camping.
In Spring and Fall, check the weather before you go. Nighttime temperatures may warrant some extra layers. We had two trips in a row where the temperature was 10 degrees lower than forecasted and we shivered through 30 degree nights after planning for mid 40s weather. That sucked. And to be completely honest- neither of us have ever invested in hiking clothes, the exception being the shoes and socks.
As long as you wear clothes that are breathable, flexible (don’t wear jeans!) and fit well, you’ll be fine. Most camping and hiking attire you’ll find at REI and similar establishments is undoubtedly well made, but unless you’re wearing them outside of your trips, it’s not a good use of your money.
Freeze Dried Meals. These always look so tempting, especially the freeze dried back country meals. Who wouldn’t want to heat up some Chicken a la King or Organic Spinach Puttanesca after a long day of hiking? I’d like to get around to trying these a some point, but for weekend warriors- the sticker shock isn’t worth the potential convenience of the meal. Unless you’re going on a week long trip or more, stick to your minute meals- they give you more of a sense of accomplishment anyway 🙂
Emergency Rations. I had to talk Nikita down from buying a pack of these after he saw them on the first 10 minutes of a Discovery Channel special about surviving the Zombie Apocalypse. Not even kidding. The selling point is your daily nutrition requirement in one bar. Apparently they have a doughy taste to them… and not much else.
While energy rich, convenient foods are important on the trail, you don’t need to go out of your way to find ways to meet your needs. Also, don’t forget about noms- a secret to great backpacking trips is finding new ways to make your snacks and meals tasty!
A tent. We’ve tested this over several trips and can say we’re hammock people now, devolving for life back up in the trees.
In addition to the no-fuss set up, and a big cut in weight (no poles, but also no sleeping pad), sleeping in a hammock is amazingly comfortable. Think 10-20X more comfortable than your tent and sleeping pad set up. It doesn’t look like it (believe me, I was definitely suspicious at first), but it’s infinitely better. And also costs a lot less than a tent and sleeping pads.
Since we share a 2 person hammock, there’s a lot of finagling at first to get us both in there comfortably, but once we’re situated we sleep in one position for hours on end with minimal stiffness- this has never happened once in countless nights of sleeping in a tent. Even with a nice sleeping pad, I constantly wake up to tense, stiff muscles and have to turn over when I sleep on the ground. Better sleep quality obviously boosts your performance the next day, but also helps you wake up easier and get going faster- something that will really weigh on you once you start planning longer weekend trips.
Depending on your environment your essentials might be a little bit different. For instance, we hike in the very forested areas of the Appalachian Mountains, so lots of sun protection isn’t necessary. This could be completely different if you’re out west, where trees are much harder to come by. There are also a lot less bugs, surprisingly, than in other areas. If you’re in the Midwest and doing summer hiking, I’ve heard the black flies are a b**** and insect repellant would probably be an essential for you.
What are your essential hiking or backpacking gear? I’d love to hear your thoughts on this list!