Essential Backpacking Gear: The 7 Items You Can’t Get Wrong

Last Updated on October 17, 2020

A hiker walking up an Alaskan trail with a backpack full of gear

You’re at the complete mercy of Mother Nature when backpacking into the wilderness. Volatile weather, sparse water sources, steep and brutal terrain — its all a fact of life in the unpredictable backcountry. Harsh conditions push your backpacking gear to the limits, and it’s essential to prepare yourself with the best possible equipment.

If you’re trying to put together an effective and valuable pack for your next trek, remember this:

There are some essential pieces of gear you simply can’t afford to get wrong when it comes to backpacking — your comfort and safety rely on them.

Here are the most essential pieces of backpacking gear to consider while assembling your perfect setup for your next multi-day trip into the backcountry.


Hauling gear around can be a delight or a detriment, and it all starts with your backpack.

A lightweight and well-designed pack should distribute weight evenly and keep your focus on the surroundings. An ill-suited pack is a constant distraction, reminding you of its shortcomings with every step.

I used to trek with a bulky pack that pulled at my shoulders, jabbed me in the back, and squeaked with my every movement. Hiking with it was always a painful and maddening experience.

Investing in an effective and comfortable backpack means you’re investing in your sanity. You have to get this one right. Don’t battle your pack, battle the trail.

My Essential PackOsprey Exos 48


A Zpacks Triplex tent pitched in front of a mountain range on the Huemul Circuit in El Chalten, Argentina

Essential Backpacking Gear: Zpacks Triplex Tent


Your shelter is the most important piece of equipment on a multi-day hike. A good tent, tarp, or bivy will shield you from howling wind and pounding rain. With a reliable shelter, you’ll stay dry and rested during worst-case scenario weather.

I learned this in 2014 while hiking the Laugavegur Trail in Iceland. My cheap tent struggled to protect me from a disastrous storm, and my energy, safety, and morale were all destroyed in under an hour. I gambled when I packed a subpar tent and was forced to turn back. I’ve since faced similar weather while trekking Patagonia’s ‘O’ Circuit in Torres del Paine and my Zpacks Triplex tent stood up to the challenge.

My Essential Tent: Zpacks Triplex

Related: 8.8 lb Ultralight Backpacking Gear List for 2020

Water Purification System

Your trek won’t last long if you don’t have safe water to drink. An effective water purification system is essential to staying healthy on multi-day hikes where untreated water is your only source.

Most water in nature needs to be treated before it is ready to drink (but not all of it). Drinking untreated water can lead to crippling bouts of cholera or giardia, both of which can force a sudden end to your trek. Whether you’re filtering, boiling, UV-zapping, or treating your water with iodine, make sure you find a surefire method for producing potable water every single time.

My Essential Filter: Sawyer Squeeze 


Above view of muddy boots on a hiking trail

Essential Backpacking Gear: Salomon Quest 4D 3 GTX Boots


Boots are the intersection of your body and the trail, and safety and comfort start from the ground up. Sprained ankles, slips and falls, blisters, and busted soles can send your trek sideways in a hurry. A good set of boots will keep you upright, blister-free, and full of confidence for tackling those many miles of trail ahead.

I never thought about boots much until I laced a pair up that truly pampered and protected my feet and ankles. Do your homework and spend money on boots that give you a perfect blend of comfort, grip, and protection. Quality boots will elevate your hiking experience to new heights.

My Essential Hiking Boots: Solomon Quest 4D 3 GTX (READ MY REVIEW)

Sleeping Bag

Sleep is your body’s best chance to recover from vigorous multi-day hikes in the backcountry. Bring an appropriately rated sleeping bag that will conserve and evenly distribute your body heat as you rest.

A quality sleeping bag will serve as a recharging station, especially after cold, wet, and morale-zapping days on the trail.

Torn between a down or a synthetic sleeping bag? Down bags have a higher warmth to weight ratio, are much lighter, and trap heat better than synthetics. Synthetic-filled bags usually cost less and perform better when wet.

Me? I’m a down bag guy.

My Essential Sleeping Bag: Katabatic Gear Alsek 22°

Waterproof Jacket, Pants, and Pack-Liner

A soaking wet hiker selfie on the rainy Laugavegurinn Trail in Iceland

Essential Backpacking Gear: Marmot Precip Rain Jacket


‘Water-resistant’ is definitely not the same as ‘waterproof.’ I learned this the hard way on the same Icelandic trek that destroyed my tent. Biting rain coupled with howling winds penetrated my water-resistant pants as I trudged numbly towards a distant campsite. I arrived soaked, frozen, and was showing signs of hypothermia. Not good.

It’s equally important to prevent water from entering your backpack. If your shelter, sleeping bag, and sleeping pad get soaked, you’ll have no place to dry off, warm up, or recharge. Shivering in a wet sleeping bag in a cold, damp tent is easily preventable with the right gear.

My Essential Rain JacketMarmot Precip Rain Jacket
My Essential Rain PantsThe North Face Venture Rain Pants
My Essential Pack-Liner: A trash bag

Down Jacket

Becoming chilled to the bone in the middle of nowhere is a helpless feeling. When temperatures drop and winds pick up, a good down jacket is your best ally.

I always avoid wearing my down jacket until I absolutely need to put it on. When the time inevitably comes, its cozy down filling retains my body heat and preserves energy. A good jacket doubles as a warm and comfy pillow, better than any inflatables I’ve tried.

My Essential Down JacketArc’teryx Cerium LT Hoody

Nail Down Your Essential Backpacking Gear

Osprey Exos 48 Backpack perched in front of a snowy mountain range near El Chalten, Argentina

Better gear leads to better backpacking


To me, the goal of backpacking is simple: Discover beauty and serenity by hiking long distances safely and comfortably. The ‘discovery’ part of that goal is up to me, but the ‘safe and comfortable’ part resides in the gear I choose.

While every piece of backpacking gear you pack is important, there are certain pieces that are essential to your comfort and well-being. Get this equipment right now and your future on the trail will be bright and boundless.

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