Last Updated on December 27, 2021
If you’re on a quest for essential backpacking gear — the top-notch items that’ll enrich your life on the trail — you’ve come to the right place. Why? Because I’m a hopeless ultralight backpacking junkie, and I’m itching to nerd out over my 15 all-time favorite pieces of gear.
Health, happiness, and comfort in the backcountry have a lot to do with the gear you bring along. The items you pack will become your bliss or your burden every single step of the way. The choice is yours.
I’ve poured countless hours of my life and thousands of my hard-earned dollars into my backpacking habit. So, take a look through all of the lightweight, durable, and versatile gear that I bring along on my overnight trips and swear by wholeheartedly. You might just find something that catches your eye.
After my gear recommendations, I’ve included a complete backpacking checklist and a few tips to help you find some unbeatable gear of your own.
So, without further ado, here are the very best pieces of backpacking gear I’ve ever laid hands on — the essentials if you will.
ESSENTIAL BACKPACKING GEAR:
TABLE OF CONTENTS
1. Darn Tough Hiker Socks
2. Zpacks Triplex Tent
3. Nitecore NU 25 Headlamp
4. Therm-a-Rest Trekker Pillowcase
5. Garmin inReach Mini GPS Device
6. Montbell Cool Hoodie
7. BRS 3000-T Stove
8. Sawyer Squeeze Water Filter
9. Foam Sitting Mat
10. Patagonia Nine Trails Shorts
11. Ultralitesacks Ditty Bag
12. Cascade Mountain Tech Trekking Poles
13. Buff Original Headwear
14. Peak Design V3 Camera Clip
15. Salomon XA Pro 3D V8 Shoes
16. Backpacking Checklist
17. How to Find Your Essential Gear
18. Final Thoughts
19. Hiking & Backpacking Resources
Weight: 2.5 oz | 71 grams
Materials: Merino Wool, Nylon, Lycra Spandex
Since I first tried out the Darn Tough Hikers, I’ve worn them on every backpacking trip since. These are the most comfortable, breathable, and longest-lasting pair of socks I’ve ever put on. From Injini to Icebreaker, I’ve tested countless brands, and I know by now that it simply doesn’t get better than these.
The Hiker Micro Crew socks were clearly designed with backpackers in mind. Stitched together by a series of panels, every section of the sock is made with varying levels of thickness that cater to each part of the foot. High-pressure points like the heels and toes are thicker and more cushioned, whereas the rest of the sock is thinner and more breathable.
Made from a Merino Wool, nylon, and Lycra Spandex blend, the Darn Tough Hikers were engineered to breathe well, wick away moisture, and stretch along with the flexing of the foot and ankle. These features will help prevent sweaty feet, blisters, bruised heels, and busted toenails, so you can focus on the breathtaking nature unfolding in front of you.
All Darn Tough socks are protected by an unconditional lifetime guarantee, which means if your socks wear out, aren’t comfortable, or simply don’t cut it for any reason, you can return them for a new pair – no strings attached.
Weight: 21.9 oz | 622 grams
Materials: Dyneema Composite Fabric
In 2015, a brutal storm hit as I watched helplessly out the window of my restaurant job. Large chunks of hail pelted my car, which led to a hefty check from the insurance company. Was I actually going to repair my car with the money? Of course not. I bought a Zpacks Triplex instead. This purchase was the start of my obsession with ultralight backpacking.
Before the storm ever hit, I’d already grown tired of lugging around my bulky REI Half Dome 2 tent on backpacking trips. After the hail hit, I decided enough was enough; It was time to get into a Triplex. This tent could fit me, my girlfriend, and my dog comfortably and weighed nearly four pounds less than the Half Dome 2.
After I learned to set up the 22 oz Triplex — it’s not easy at first — my experience with the tent was eye-opening. It was made from completely waterproof Dyneema Composite Fabric, which meant I’d never need to fuss with a rain fly ever again. The tent was held upright by my trekking poles, meaning aluminum tent poles were also a thing of the past.
I’ve since stayed hundreds of nights in my Triplex, and it has endured some truly sketchy weather conditions. Gale-force gusts of wind? Torrential downpour? Snow? Sleet? Dust storms? This tent has stood up to everything.
The Triplex is a complete model of efficiency and might be my favorite piece of backpacking gear I’ve ever owned. It paved the way for me to become an ultralight backpacker, and for that, I’ll be forever grateful.
(Note: I recently switched to the Zpacks Duplex for my solo backpacking trips, but still have the Triplex for when my girlfriend and I go on adventures together.)
Weight: .99 oz | 28 grams (Without Headband)
Materials: Plastic, Lithium-Ion (Battery)
My biggest gripe with my old headlamps was the need to change batteries in and out constantly. Whether my light was randomly fading in the backcountry due to a depleted battery or I found myself rummaging around my drawers searching for AAAs hours before my trip, I always arrived at the same conclusion: Headlamps that use external batteries are a pain in the ass.
Thankfully, USB-rechargeable headlamps exist, and neither you nor I have to fumble around with outdated disposable batteries ever again. My top headlamp recommendation is the Nitecore NU25. It’s lightweight, reliable, powerful, and the battery lasts forever, which makes it my go-to headlamp and a favorite of ultralight backpackers worldwide.
Out of the box, the first thing I noticed was how compact and solid the NU25 felt in my hands. Once night fell, I took it outside for a spin and was blown away by its features. Between its white and red lights, it offers an array of helpful settings, which range from dim (1 lumen) to extreme (360 lumens) brightness, as well as auxiliary, beacon, S.O.S., and caution lights.
Its internal 610mAh lithium-ion battery holds as much power as three AAA batteries and can be recharged with ease off a portable battery bank or solar panel. On its lowest setting, the NU25’s battery can run for up to 160 hours, which confirms what you may have been suspecting: This little headlamp is an absolute beast.
Whether I’m lighting up the trail, my tent, or the landscape around me, every time I put on my NU25, I’m overcome with a silly excitement that only gear nerds will understand. Try one out on your next backpacking trip. You’ll see what I mean.
Weight: 2.0 oz | 57 grams
Materials: Brushed Polyester
Sleep is vital but often tough to come by in the backcountry. I’ve tossed and turned during my fair share of overnighters and lost countless hours of sleep due to an uncomfortable setup. Never again, thank you.
One of my biggest issues with getting a good night’s sleep was that I couldn’t seem to figure out a comfortable pillow situation. I’m a side and stomach sleeper, so inflatable camping pillows were too stiff for my neck, and sleeping on folded up clothing wasn’t cutting it either.
Enter the Trekker Pillowcase.
For as simple as this pillowcase is, it’s perfectly designed for backpacking. Its dimensions — 14 x 17 inches — are ideal for holding a down jacket, and its brushed polyester outer fabric is incredibly soft against the skin. No, this will never be as comfortable as my cushy pillows back home, but it’s about as close as I can get out in the middle of the wilderness.
I stuff my ultra-warm Montbell Plasma 1000 Down Parka inside this pillowcase and slide my folding foam sitting pad below it. This combo gives me all the warmth, softness, and loft I could ask for in a backpacking sleep setup. As a result, I sleep better than I ever have on the trail. This pillowcase is, and always will be, an essential part of my backpacking gear list.
Weight: 3.5 oz | 99 grams
Materials: Plastic, Rubber, Lithium-Ion (Battery)
Getting lost or injured in the backcountry with no way to call for help is one of the most helpless feelings imaginable. I’ve been in this terrifying situation before and wouldn’t wish it on anyone. Recently, I got my hands on an inReach Mini to cover my ass if I ever need emergency assistance, and I’m thankful that I did.
Equipped with an Iridium Satellite antennae, this tiny little device can message for help from virtually anywhere in the world. Simply hold down the S.O.S. button, and you’ll be connected with Garmin, who’ll coordinate assistance with the nearest search and rescue authorities.
But the inReach Mini does far more than call for help. It’s capable of two-way messaging when cell service is non-existent. It can share your exact location with anyone in the world. It can import detailed weather forecasts according to your GPS location. And yes, it can even post updates and GPS coordinates to Twitter and Facebook.
During my 486-mile hike of the Colorado Trail, I sent out frequent messages to friends and family, which was invaluable for everyone involved. My loved ones were given peace of mind that I was safe, and I was able to stay in touch with those who mattered most. Bringing my inReach Mini was a win-win, no doubt about it.
To use the inReach Mini, you’ll need to sign up for Garmin’s service and pay a month-by-month fee, which ranges from $12 to $65, depending on which plan you choose. Considering this little device could save your life and can connect you with anyone in the world from anywhere in the world, its overall cost is well worth the investment.
Weight: 6.6 oz | 186 grams
The Montbell Cool Hoodie is comfortable – really, really comfortable. It’s so comfortable, in fact, that it’s become more than just a hiking and backpacking hoodie; it’s now something I can’t seem to stop wearing off the trail. I work out in it. I run errands in it. I lounge around the apartment in it. Hell, I’m even wearing it while I write this article.
But for the sake of staying on topic, let’s get into why the Cool Hoodie performs so well on the trail when the heart starts pumping and the sweat starts pouring.
Made from Montbell’s Wickron fiber, the Cool Hoodie pulls moisture away from the body and onto the surface of the garment, where it dries out as quickly as possible. The fabric — which is breathable and ultra-soft by nature — is sewn with flat seams that sit unnoticeable against the skin and prevent itching and chaffing.
Equipped with a full-coverage hood and thumb loops, this hoodie is designed to shield as much exposed skin from harmful UV rays as possible. Its quarter-length zipper runs down to the sternum and, when unzipped, lets in tons of air, which is ideal for venting when the hiking gets hot and sweaty. Wearing this hoodie is like wearing a dream.
If for any reason, you doubt my love for the Cool Hoodie, know this: I wore it for every single step of my 28 day thru-hike of the Colorado Trail, and I loved every silky-smooth moment of it.
Weight: .88 oz | 25 grams
Weight savings and functionality are everything in the world of ultralight backpacking, and this minimalist titanium stove is as lightweight and practical as they come. Coming in at just under an ounce, the BRS 3000-T weighs a quarter of the uber-popular MSR Pocket Rocket 2 and costs half the price. If you’re trying to trim your base weight and save money, get your hands on this little burner. It’s a no-brainer.
This stove is comically tiny — it folds up to about the size of a lighter — but is quite powerful for its size. In ideal conditions, it’ll boil a cup of water for my dehydrated meals in 2-3 minutes. The flame on this stove is a tad more erratic than other larger options on the market, but I don’t need it to be perfect; I just need it to do one thing.
Keep in mind, I use this stove only to boil water and not for actual cooking. Its three legs fold out about an inch-and-a-half in each direction and aren’t long enough to hold anything larger than a 750 ml titanium mug. So, if you’re a backcountry chef looking for a stable surface to cook with and a dialed-in flame, don’t buy this stove. Instead, check out the MSR Pocket Rocket 2 that I mentioned earlier.
But if you’re searching for a no-frills backpacking stove that will reliably boil water and weighs less than anything on the market, look no further than the BRS 3000-T. This little contraption will shed easy ounces off of your base weight in the most affordable way possible.
Weight: 3.5 oz | 99 grams
Clean drinking water is one of hiking’s ten essentials, so finding the right gear to purify water while you’re on the trail is a must. There are plenty of options on the market, but nothing nails the combination of durability, reliability, and packability quite like the Sawyer Squeeze.
The Squeeze is incredibly easy to use and requires no dangling of tubes, pumping, or waiting around for clean water. To use it, simply fill a pouch with untreated water, screw the pouch into the filter, and squeeze the water through the filter into your water bottle. That’s it. That’s the entire process.
Unlike their closest competitor, the Kathadyn BeFree, the Sawyer Squeeze is built to last. With proper care, the Squeeze is rated to filter up to 100,000 gallons of water over its lifetime. The BeFree, which does filter water slightly faster and weighs an ounce less, is only rated to purify 265 gallons of water. You’ll need to change out your BeFree filter far more frequently than the Squeeze, and it’ll cost way more money in the long run.
I’ve traveled to four different continents with my Squeeze and have backpacked over 1,000 miles with it. It’s sturdy and has no moving parts, which allows it to stand up to the frequent abuse of life on the trail. Its filter speed has slowed down slightly over time, but that’s a small price to pay for years of clean drinking water.
The Squeeze has been my loyal hiking and backpacking companion since 2015, and I’m going to ride this bad boy out as long as it’ll let me. I’m quite curious as to how many more years that might be.
Weight: 1.0 oz | 28 grams
Of all my essential backpacking gear, this folding foam pad is the most simple, affordable, and underrated item on the list. Sure, it’s just a cheap three-dollar slab of Chinese foam, but it’s a super functional piece of gear that has earned a permanent place in my bag. Here’s exactly how I use it:
I sit on it when resting on hard surfaces. I slide it under my down jacket into my Therm-a-Rest pillowcase to add neck support when I’m sleeping. I used it to cushion my back for hundreds of miles when the frame on my backpack broke along the Colorado Trail. I stand on when I’m putting on my socks and shoes before my hike. I use it as padding for planks, yoga, and other exercises. The list goes on.
And yes, it’s been well worth the extra ounce of weight on my back and three dollars out of my wallet.
The simple things often make the biggest difference in life, and this cheap foam pad is living proof. It’s nothing special, and, sure, it’s bound to fall apart one day, but it’s an incredibly useful piece of gear. Don’t believe me? Order one today, wait a few weeks for it to arrive from China, and take it for a spin on your next backpacking trip. You’ll see.
Weight: 6.4 oz | 181 grams
Materials: Recycled Polyester, Spandex
I can’t afford to lose anything while I’m exploring the backcountry, which is why I wear the Patagonia Nine Trails shorts while backpacking. They’re equipped with zippered pockets, which prevent my precious possessions from falling out onto the trail as I hike.
Aside from the pockets, these shorts have plenty of other great features that make them perfect for backpacking. They have built-in boxer briefs, which offer great protection against chafing. They’re made from water-resistant fabric that sheds precipitation in drizzles. They’re also 3% Spandex, which means they stretch with your movement and won’t constrict your movement whatsoever. These shorts are incredibly comfortable and functional.
I also pack these shorts for my minimalist travel adventures. They’re great to wear while on airplanes, working out, doing laundry, swimming in the ocean, and lounging around. Not only will the zippered pockets prevent your belongings from sliding out while in transit, but they’ll act as an extra layer of security against pickpockets as well.
As I did with the Cool Hoodie, I wore these shorts every day on the Colorado Trail. When the weather got chilly, I put on my Capilene thermals underneath, and when the rain hit or the wind began to howl, I slid my rain pants on over the top. Considering how versatile, practical, and comfortable these shorts are, wearing pants while hiking just doesn’t make sense anymore.
Weight: .67 oz | 19 grams
Materials: Dyneema Composite Fabric
Organizing your random pieces of gear is essential when backpacking, which is what ditty bags are made to do. I’ve tried out multiple ditties over the years, including the built-in bag on my old Osprey Exos 48, and I can tell you from experience that it doesn’t get better than the Ultralightsacks Ditty Bag.
For starters, this bag (I bought the large) is the perfect size to hold all of my loose pieces of gear. It can fit my headlamp, spork, paracord, compass, mini-scissors, pen, paper, power bank, USB cables, headphones, toiletries, and first-aid kit with just the right amount of room to spare. It has a full-length zipper too, which gives me easy access to all of these items without needing to remove anything from the bag while I’m searching through it.
Just like my Triplex tent, this ditty bag is made of completely waterproof DCF, meaning it repels rain, spills, leaks, and other liquid threats with ease. The fabric is durable and lightweight, as well, making it the perfect fit for my fast and light needs.
I stash my ditty bag at the very top of my backpack while hiking for easy access on the trail. That way, if I need a piece of gear, I know exactly where it is and can retrieve it within just a few seconds. In a world of constant movement and problem-solving, this ditty bag provides an invaluable level of convenience that I’ll never take for granted.
Weight: 7.8 oz | 221 grams each
Materials: Carbon Fiber
Back when I was an inexperienced hiker, I swore I’d never use trekking poles. They seemed like a crutch and a burden to carry every step of the way on the trail. I’d crushed plenty of hikes without trekking poles over the years, and I’d be fine without them in the future, thank you.
That is until I started getting knee pain on my hikes and backpacking trips.
On advice from a friend, I decided to give trekking poles a try. The result was game-changing. By using poles, I distributed weight away from my knees and onto my arms and shoulders. My knee pain instantly abated. Slips, falls, and ankle sprains were a thing of the past, too. I climbed hills stronger and descended more rapidly. I finally understood what the fuss was about.
I’ve tried several different brands over the years and have recently fallen in love with the Cascade Mountain Tech carbon fiber poles. They’re nearly half the weight of my original aluminum set and are incredibly affordable compared to much of the competition. Black Diamond’s popular carbon fiber poles cost $170 and Gossamer Gear’s cost $180. These are $45.
After hiking hundreds of miles with these poles, they continue to do everything I ask of them. The grips are comfortable, the locking devices stay put, and the carbon fiber hasn’t shown a single sign of breaking down. They’re incredibly lightweight in my hands and were light on my wallet as well. What’s not to love?
Weight: 1.5 oz | 43 grams
Materials: Microfiber Polyester
If you’ve spent any amount of time hiking and backpacking, you’ve likely seen a Buff or two along the way. Stylish and practical, this multifunctional headwear has cemented itself as an essential piece of backpacking gear for hikers long and far.
So, what exactly is a Buff, and why is it so great?
It’s a stretchy, soft, and silky-smooth tube-shaped piece of fabric that can be used in several different ways – as a beanie, balaclava, neck gaiter, facemask, headband, and pillowcase, to name a few. Buffs are lightweight, breathable, moisture-wicking, UV-blocking, and easy to wash. Yeah, they’re pretty useful.
Whenever I embark on a hike, long or short, I always bring along my Buff. Whether I’m using it as a headband to protect my ears from the sun, a beanie to keep my head warm while I sleep, or a facemask to protect from a certain virus, I always find a use for my Buff on the trail. Do you have a Buff in your hiking arsenal? If not, it might just be time to get your hands on one.
Weight: 3.0 oz | 85 grams
Materials: Aluminum Alloy
I used to dread taking my camera on hikes. I would sling it over my shoulder with its stock strap, and it was a complete burden from the instant I put it on. My camera would bounce off my hip while I climbed up trails, the strap would get tangled in my backpack, and nothing photography-related ever seemed to go smoothly. I felt like an amateur out there.
Then, I got my hands on the Peak Designs Capture V3 camera clip, and life as a backpacking photographer got much better. No more straps, no more bouncing, no more tangling, no more cursing the heavens on the trail. Smooth sailing became the new normal.
This sturdy little clip is meant to be fastened to your backpack or belt using two small screws on either side, which fits a small plate that can be screwed into the bottom of your camera. Once attached, you can slide your camera in and out of the clip by pressing down on a small button. Your camera is completely locked in until you press the button and slide it out to remove it.
Because this aluminum alloy clip is so rock-solid, my camera is completely safe and stable as I move up and down the trail. The clip never fails, and, as a result, my camera is much safer than it was bouncing around on its old godforsaken strap. I never think about my camera until it’s time to snap another photo, and that’s exactly how it should be.
Weight: 27.8 oz | 788 grams
Materials: Synthetic, Textile, Rubber
The XA Pro 3D V8s saved my thru-hike of the Colorado Trail. I’d hiked the first 120 miles of the trail in a pair of La Sportiva Wildcats, which ran almost a full size small and left my feet cramped, sweaty, and covered in blisters. When I reached my first resupply, I had a pair of these waiting for me, which saved the remaining 365 miles of my journey.
I instantly found the XA Pro 3D V8s to be the most comfortable and breathable pair of hiking shoes I’d even worn. They fit exactly to size and adequately vented my feet, which left my toes dry and allowed my blisters to heal. (Yes, I realize it’s my fault for starting a thru-hike with a pair of shoes that were too small, but you live and you learn, right?)
My favorite feature of these shoes is their innovative lacing system. Through a corded drawstring, I can adjust the tightness of my shoe by pulling a rubber tab towards me and cinching down a sliding piece to the base of the shoe. Thanks to this feature, I don’t have to tie and untie my shoes constantly, and taking my shoes on and off is much quicker.
The soles and the rubber toe of this shoe are also quite sturdy, which helped protect my feet from rock kicks and missteps the entire way along the trail. Though there are lighter trail runners and hiking shoes on the market, the XA Pro 3D V8s don’t feel bulky or heavy, despite their beefy soles and solid rubber toe.
I’ve put over 500 miles on these shoes, and, thanks to their durability, there is still plenty of life left in them. I’ll continue hiking in them until they fall apart, then I’ll grab another pair and get back out on the trail.
Here’s the exact checklist I use while getting ready for my backpacking trips. As long as I pack everything on this list, I’ll stay safe, warm, and prepared for three-season adventures down to temperatures that drop slightly below freezing.
I only bring along the gear that I deem essential for my backpacking trip. I don’t bring along doubles of anything, and I leave behind the gear that I don’t anticipate using. Less is more in the world of backpacking, so long as you’re adequately prepared for what lies ahead.
Click the boxes on this checklist as you pack for your next trip to ensure you don’t leave anything behind. Add and subtract gear according to the needs of your upcoming trip, and you’ll be good to go.
Backpack, Shelter & Sleep System
Cooking System & Food Storage
Food Storage Bag
Water Filtration & Storage
Dirty Water Container
Clean Water Container
Electronics & Technology
Pen and Paper
First-Aid Kit & Toiletries
Blister Prevention Cream
If you want to become a stronger backpacker, keep the following advice in mind. These four tips will help you put together your own killer backpacking setup that’ll set you up for success on your next overnight adventure.
Seek Out Lightweight Gear
When studying to buy a new piece of backpacking gear, I always look at the item’s weight first. The lighter the piece of gear is, the more likely I am to buy it. Why? Because the less weight I carry while backpacking, the more I enjoy myself.
Since my disastrous 2014 trek in Iceland, I’ve shed 30 pounds off my base weight, and life on the trail has improved immensely. I move faster, cover more miles, am less prone to injury, and feel way better at the end of the day. Buy quality, lightweight gear, and your backpacking experience will be better. Plain and simple.
Seek Out Durable Gear
Lightweight gear is great, but it won’t be of much use on your backpacking trip unless it does what it’s supposed to do, day in and day out. Get your hands on durable gear that isn’t likely to break, tear, or give out when you’re out in the middle of nowhere. Nobody’s got time for that.
To ensure that you buy durable gear, stay away from anything made from notoriously cheap materials or produced by brands with subpar reputations. Nerd out as you research specs and spend time diving deep into unbiased reviews. Who knows, you might just find your own piece of essential backpacking gear that’ll last for years and years to come.
Seek Out Versatile Gear
Versatile pieces of gear are useful in multiple situations; the jack-of-all-trades backpacking equipment, if you will.
For instance, my $3 Chinese foam pad can be used as a seat, pillow padding, exercise mat, and makeshift backpack frame. My Buff can be worn as a beanie, neck gaiter, facemask, and more. My trekking poles not only take the strain off of my knees, but they also prevent slips and falls and prop up my tent as I sleep.
Search for gear that’ll be purposeful in a handful of different circumstances, and you’ll be well on your way to assembling your perfect backpacking kit.
Seek Out Well-Reviewed Gear
So, how do you ensure your next piece of backpacking gear will be lightweight, durable, and versatile? By reading over lots and lots of reviews, of course.
When searching for your next piece of gear, you’ll likely have a specific set of questions that weren’t answered in the product’s description. Scouring through good reviews will often reward you with detailed, candid, and helpful answers.
Keep your eyes out for phony, fake, or paid reviews, as they’re biased and unlikely to tell you the full story about a product. Biased reviews aren’t always easy to distinguish from unbiased ones, which is why it’s important to read over lots of reviews from many different websites.
Nobody has paid me or given me anything in exchange for the essential backpacking gear writeups above. This is gear that I love, and I wanted to shout it out to the world. You can rest assured that every word of every product description above is honest and unbiased.
Wandering into the wilderness for days, even weeks, months at a time may seem crazy to most people, but we backpackers know that it’s one of the most liberating feelings on earth. We’re not crazy; we’re just in search of a little freedom and fresh air.
Maybe you’re a backpacking junkie like I am, or perhaps you’re just a beginner looking to step up their game. Whoever you are and whatever your reasons for ending up here, remember this: the gear you bring along matters and could be the difference between an incredible trip and a maddening one.
So, if you’re in the market for some new backpacking gear, go out and buy some of the essentials that I swear by. If all goes as planned, this top-notch equipment will make you a stronger, happier, and more confident backpacker, just like it has for me.
- My 8.8 lb Ultralight Backpacking Gear List
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What are some of your personal pieces of essential backpacking gear? Do you own any gear on this list? What gear should or shouldn’t have made this list? Let me know by leaving a comment below!