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Recommended Backpacking Gear

MightyCamper John

Backpacking is, of course, much different than car camping. Weight and space being the key considerations. You'll pack everything on your back, so please consider some friendly recommendations for gear. This is not a comprehensive list, but rather, it is a compilation of my most popular choices. Hope it helps!

At high altitudes, the weather can be very unpredictable. It can be sunny and warm one minute and literally ten minutes later, it can be raining or snowing. I've seen this a number of times over the years. If you come prepared this isn't a problem. In fact, this can really add to the adventure of being in the mountains!

Here's what I recommend for the type of trips I usually take. You'll want to vary what you carry based upon the temperature, location, and activities you will be performing on each specific trip.


There are lots of different types of backpacks, so find one that works well for you. I have used both internal and external frame packs, but I prefer internal. They are more comfortable and they force you to cut back on carrying extra gear (read "extra weight") due to the fact that they are generally smaller. Spend a little extra money if you can, to get one that fits well and that properly matches your needs. You definitely won't regret this choice.


Choose a tent that is large enough for your needs, yet light enough to carry. My personal preference is that the tent should weight 2 lbs or less per person, including fly and poles. (i.e.. a 2-person, three-season tent should weight 4 lbs or less.) Four season tents are nice, but they are generally heavier than most of us need for our typical type of camping. Make sure the tent has a "full fly." This means the fly is waterproof and it reaches to the ground. Cheaper tents generally have half or 3/4 flys that are ok in desert, or dry-weather conditions, but are often inadequate for mountain backpacking. Again, you probably don't need to spend top dollar to get a good-enough tent, but in bad weather you may find yourself regretting your choice of a low-quality tent.

Sometimes I don't even take a tent at all, and instead, just carry a piece of plastic. This works well if there aren't a lot of mosquitos around and if the weather is reasonable. At other times, I have had fun camping without any tent at all, primitive style. I've enjoyed sleeping in lean-to shelters, under trees, and under the open sky.

Sleeping Bag

Light weight is key. Shoot for around 4 lbs or less on this one as well. For summer camping a 30 degree bag is probably sufficient (you might get a little cold, but you will not likely freeze to death), however, I usually opt for a 15 degree bag that I can use year around. If it is really cold, I can always pack along a lightweight fleece bag liner. I like mummy bags because they keep your face and neck warm. A good sales reps will be able to help you understand the pros and cons of synthetic vs. down insulation.

Sleeping Pads

I've forgotten mine a few times. Pine bows or grass worked as a substitute, but I'd much rather have a lightweight pad. You'll wake up a lot less stiff in the morning!


On just about every mountain trip, I carry a rain jacket (regardless of the forecast) and a mid-weight lined wool or a lightweight fleece jacket. I have comfortably survived several unplanned rainstorms and two early summer snowstorms with this combination.

Jersey Gloves and a Stocking Cap, Baseball Cap or Felt Cowboy Hat (It's a Montana Thing!)

I take these along on every alpine trip for above-mentioned reasons. Remember what your Mom told you about losing heat through your head? Stocking caps work well when sleeping to keep your noggin warm.

Appropriate Clothing

At this point, you're probably getting the message that you really can't predict the weather at higher altitudes. The key is to pack light and resourcefully. No one cares what you look like up here, so wear clothing that is practical. I'm partial to my Black Diamond Schoeller fabric pants, (water resistant and really comfy) when combined with synthetic thermal underwear (no cotton!) to take the edge out of colder weather. A pair of shorts for warmer trips is usually sufficient, with the Schoeller pants thrown in for rain protection. I always take along a complete change of clothes in case I get soaking wet and need to dry out one set over the fire. Schoeller pants or nylon pants, extra socks, underwear, and an extra T-shirt are regulars on my trips.


I probably can't speak loudly enough about this point. Take the time in advance to break your boots in. I am always amused to listen to the conversations in the hiking boot sections of my favorite outdoor stores. Many a moron buys a new pair of boots only a day before the week long trip they have been planning for months. Wear quality, broken-in hiking boots and two pairs of socks as you are hiking and you'll save yourself a lot of pain and discomfort. I used to get blisters every time I went on a hike with cotton socks (cotton retains moisture, thus causing friction, heat, and blisters on your feet. I have since learned that a combination of a lightweight synthetic sock (I prefer Coolmax sock liners) under a heavier wool outer sock (such as SmartWool socks) helps your feet stay cool, dry, and friction free. (They're a little more expensive, yet I haven't had a blister in the 6+ years I have used this combination.) Your boots should be high enough to protect your ankles from sprains and well-broken in before you attempt to carry a backpack in the mountains. I take along a pair of Tevas so I can have a second pair of shoes once I get into camp.

Some people prefer hiking in tennis shoes because they are so lightweight. I would rather have good ankle support, given the choice, when hiking in the mountains.

Backpacking Food

Cooking in the mountains is one of my favorite parts about backpacking. I get a real kick out of creating something nutritious, tasty, and creative far away from home. As a result, I am not the world's greatest expert on lightweight backpacking cooking. For some people, like my friend, Matt, eating while backpacking is largely a matter of nutrition. I regularly harass him about his ability to live on granola bars, oatmeal, and an apple. By way of perspective, one of my favorite backpacking meals involves fresh caught trout, breaded and fried in butter, with warm biscuits and honey and a side of noodles and broccoli! More than once, I have greeted the day with warm cinnamon rolls fresh from my ultralight Outback Oven (tm). These complemented my hashbrowns, eggs, and warm cider nicely for breakfast.

Occasionally, I opt for Matt's method, however most of the time, the backcountry gourmet in me rises in the alpine air. Although the menu varies, the core idea is still the same: lots of nutrients in as light a weight as possible, with ease of cooking holding a close second. I hope to eventually get a backpacking recipe section on this site, until them, you'll have to get creative on your own. I now frequently recommend a great book, Backpacker Magazine's "Backcountry Cooking," by Dorcas Miller to anyone interested in upping the ante in backcountry dining. This book opened my mind to a whole new level of yummy in the great outdoors.

Easy snacks are also highly prized on my outings. Granola Bars, dried fruit, and trail mix help when the hunger gets roaring between meals. And don't forget the chocolate!

Cooking Gear

Many areas will not allow fire making due to limited fuel and fire hazards. I take along a lightweight camping stove (MSR Dragonfly) and a bottle of fuel. This stove has served me very well through 5+ years of frequent use. I am also currently experimenting with an MSR Pocket Rocket for shorter trips. I like lightweight aluminum nonstick pans for cooking. I carry one frying pan and one deeper pan for boiling water. I also use an old army cup for boiling water on some trips. I carry a lexan fork and spoon as well as a small spatula. For spices, I carry a homemade cornmeal fish fry, salt and pepper, and a small container of Lawrey's seasoning on just about every trip. I carry dish soap and a small nylon abrasive pad for cleaning up after meals. Several gallon-sized ziplock bags and a couple of small garbage bags are a must to complete my cooking gear. Don't forget the lighter or matches!

Water Filter

I never trust the cleanliness of a water source in the mountains. For this reason, I boil, filter, or chemically purify all water I use for drinking, toothbrushing, and sterilizing dishes. Many different varieties of filters exist. Purchase one based on the amount of water you need filtered as well as the level of purification it provides.

(Some personal favorites: I have really liked my PUR Voyageur for large-volume filtering. They don't make it anymore, however, the Pur Hiker is basically the same thing--a great filter. It is light weight and easy to use. For day hikes, I carry a SafeWater filter bottle. This works fine for one person, but is a pain to use when you need more than a few cups of water filtered. My latest toy is a Sweet Water Guardian filter. It works fine, but it needs to be cleaned a bit more than I would like. (after every two liters of water when the water contains elevated levels of algae and other micro-thingamajiggers). When I complained to the Rep, he convinced me that this frequent cleaning is an indicator of how well the filter is working to clean the water. He claimed you'll get a longer life out of this than out of the Hiker. I lean more toward the Sweet Water filter simply because I find it easier to pump water using the lever handle. I also add a drop of the Sweet Water solution that came with the kit to my purified water.

Map and Compass or GPS

After getting lost three times due to my stupidity and failure to carry a good map, I hope I have now learned my lesson. CARRY A GOOD MAP. Get one that is accurate and covers a small enough area to show you the detail you need to find your way around (7.5 minute map). I am a huge fan of the TOPO! map software because it provides me with detailed, seamless, customized maps for the entire state. Well worth the investment if you have a hankering for leaving asphalt and concrete in search of adventure.

I'm a firm believer in the counsel we learned during my scouting years to "Be Prepared" for contingencies. My orienteering preparation includes both a GPs and a map and compass. Carrying them is of little use unless you know how to use them, both individually and together, so take the time to refresh your skills before you head into the hills. There is a certain sense of adventure which develops as you go where no one has gone before, and then are able to find your way back home without the gracious assistance of Search and Rescue teams.

Two great books from which I learned a great deal about Map and Compass and GPs use are Bjorn Hjellerstrom's "Be Expert With Map and Compass," and Michael Ferguson's "GPs Land Navigation." These are excellent resources to have in your outdoor library.

Other Misc. Gear (Remember, you carry what you stuff into your pack, so pack light!)

    • Toiletries (TIP: Deodorant not only makes you more pleasant to be around, it can be used to help prevent chaffing of the backpack straps against your skin.)
    • Toilet Paper
    • Camera and extra film
    • Sunscreen
    • Poetry or a book
    • Paper and Pencil
    • Matches or Lighter
    • Flashlight or Headlamp (The Tikka LED lamp is a beauty)
    • Large Garbage Bags
    • Parachute Cord or Light Rope
    • Mosquito Repellent or Net
    • Hatchet
    • Fishing Gear (Oh, yes, glorious fishing gear. A must, I say!)
My philosophy on backpacking gear is simple. UltraLight, weight-conscious backpacking is good, but tasty meals, warm nights, and a touch of comfort are better. Creativity is one of my favorite aspects of backpacking. Look through your gear and around your house and see how many different uses you can get out of each item. For the rest, shop early or late in the year to get specials on last year's closeouts and discounts at this year's end of summer sales. Choose your camping partners so you can share gear with them. Not everyone needs a stove, water filter, and their own tent. Team up to save money and to enhance your outdoor experience.