Backpacking Gear 101

After writing our last post, the first installment about our 2015 vacation to Glacier and Yellowstone National Parks, Jordan and I thought it might be helpful to share what equipment we like to take on our backpacking journeys. We have had some trial and error, and while our kit isn’t perfect, we’re pretty happy with what we currently have. Keep in mind that our gear selection is always evolving as we find new and better equipment options. Once we start taking Parker camping we will have to look into camping gear for kids as well.

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Tent

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(Norris Campground, Yellowstone National Park)

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(Upper Ouzel Creek, Rocky Mountain National Park)

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(Happy Four Shelter, Olympic National Park)

We have an old North Face tent that we have been using since college. Made ultralight for backpacking, we did go with a three-man tent for slightly more room. We love that setting up the tent, including the rain fly, only takes a few minutes, it keeps us dry and keeps bugs out, and weighing in at under 7 pounds we are easily able to pack it along with our other gear. While the exact model we have is no longer available (Rock 32), the updated version is the North Face Stormbreak 3.

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Backpacks

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(Kintla Lake trail, Glacier National Park)

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(Ouzel Creek trail, Rocky Mountain National Park)

We bought Jordan’s backpack about 6 years ago, prior to our trip to Yosemite National Park. I carried a borrowed pack on that trip, and we bought mine the next year. Both times we went to REI to try backpacks on to ensure a good fit and comfort. Both of us are tall (I’m 5’8 and Jordan is 6’4) so we wanted to make sure the backpacks were able to accommodate our heights (some packs are definitely better for shorter or average height people). After trying on several styles, we both felt most comfortable in Osprey packs. Jordan ended up with the Osprey Aether 70, and I have the Aura 65. For those not familiar with backpacks, the number on our packs indicates the approximate volume in liters able to be carried within the pack.

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We generally pack pretty light, but on our longest backpacking trips (Glacier National Park and Yosemite National Park) Jordan carried about 50lb and I carried about 45lb, and we were both pretty comfortable. The top pouch of Jordan’s pack also comes off, and we will sometimes use it for day hikes.

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(Bluebird Lake Trail, Rocky Mountain National Park)

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(Sourdough Camp, North Cascades National Park)

We also each have an Osprey Ultralight Rain cover which has been handy when we have encountered rainy or wet conditions.

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(Boulder Pass, Glacier National Park)

Sleeping bags

We love our sleeping bags, but are not currently happy with our sleeping bag situation. They were made several years apart so we cannot zip them together because the styles are too different. If you have a spouse or partner that you like to camp or backpack with, and you think you may want the option of zipping together on cold nights, I would highly recommend that you buy sleeping bags together so that you can ensure they are compatible. Pro-tip: Don’t forget to make sure one sleeping bag is right-handed and the other is left-handed so someone doesn’t end up with their bag facing the ground!

I currently have the North Face Cat’s Meow mummy-style sleeping bag. I did spend a little extra to get the long version since I am on the taller side. I love this sleeping bag. It is super comfy and keeps me warm even when we are snowed in. If you are camping with this bag make sure to have some light sleeping layers, because it gets pretty toasty!

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Jordan’s sleeping bag is a much older North Face Cat’s Meow that he has had since high school. These bags are well worth the investment, since his is still in great shape after 10+ years and survived his time as an Eagle Scout. As I said before, our only issue is that in the time since he bought his and I bought mine, North Face has changed their models enough that our two bags are not compatible. This is the closest comparable current model to Jordan’s bag. He also has the long version and it fits fine at his height.

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Sleeping pads

We also carry sleeping pads to make our nights a little more comfortable when backpacking. These are another piece of equipment that we checked out in-store before making a purchase. While we have been generally happy with these sleeping pads (they are easy to roll and unroll, they inflate easily, and they pack up pretty tightly) they aren’t the most cushiony. If you are expecting air-mattress quality cushioning, these are not the pads for you. They are definitely made for backpackers, being ultralight, and do provide just a bit of extra comfort on the trail.

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Jordan did get the long version for his sleeping pad. 

Food gear

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(Little Yosemite Valley, Yosemite National Park)

When we are on the trail, food is always one of our major concerns. Not only how to pack it, but how to cook and safely store our food when out in the backcountry. As most of the locations we go have bears of some sort, we do make sure to have a plan for food storage in these locations.

For cooking, we have a Snow Peak camp stove that attaches directly to the top of a small liquid fuel canister (isobutane/propane). It is very functional, but if we had to buy another one, Jordan would prefer a stove with a self-igniter. We received ours as a gift, and the pros are that it is super tiny and light, and we are able to pack it in with our cooking set (it fits easily inside one of the bowls). However, it would be nice to have a self-igniter and only have to rely on igniting it by hand as a backup method.

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I bought Jordan his cooking set a few years ago, and we have gotten a TON of use out of it. We have the GSI Halulite Microdualist. It packs up really small, is fairly light at under 1.5 pounds, and has been very functional with our stove. I would highly recommend this set, and there is a similar single person set available as well. It has been very durable and has held up well to several trips out on the trail.  The only thing we did not prefer with our cooking set were the utensils it came with, so we do carry a few extra utensils with us, two of these Snow Peak Titanium Sporks, and a small spork multitool.

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When we backcountry camp we are usually in bear country, so food storage is a large safety concern. We generally hang our food to keep bears and other critters away from our campsite. The Osprey Ultralight Dry Sack has been amazing for food storage for us. It can hold a large amount of food, and it keeps everything nice and dry even in bad weather. 

(Upper Kintla Lake, Glacier National Park)

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Depending on where we are traveling, sometimes we have to rely on our bear vault for food storage. When out on the trail, all of our food, utensils and cooking equipment end up either in the bear vault or in the dry sack. Keep in mind that the bear vault is only intended to protect the food from critters, it doesn’t lock in scents. If you are going to use a bear vault for food storage you do still need to place it a good distance from your campsite. The bear vault also adds a fairly significant amount of weight and bulk to our packs. Because of this we generally only take it along when we are definitely going into rocky bear country with minimal large trees.

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(Upper Ouzel Creek, Rocky Mountain National Park)

Water filtration and storage

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Having clean water on the trail is also a major concern. When we are gone for multiple days at a time it is impossible for us to pack in as much water as we need to consume, especially in hot weather. We take a water filtration system and check maps to be sure that there are water sources on our routes. The water filter from Sawyer that we have is no longer available, but this Platypus water filter is pretty similar. We typically will filter water directly into our water reservoir and fill all of our canteens at the same time. Jordan carries the 2L reservoir in his pack, and then we carry three Klean Kanteens between the two of us. We tend to refill all of our water storage every time we filter water just to be safe.

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We have gotten in the habit of carrying Nuun tablets with us too, to help with replacing electrolytes and also to mask any weird flavors in the water we are filtering. We also have found that we tend to drink more water along the trail when it is flavored. Just keep in mind if you are flavoring your water you will need to store your canteens and/or water reservoir with your food when you set up for the night so that you don’t attract any unwanted wildlife to your campsite.

Miscellaneous

Jordan has a handful of extra items that we pack for convenience and safety. These items tend to ride in the top zipper pouch on our backpacks along with our rain gear for easy access.

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He found these microfiber towels which come in super handy for wiping down our gear after rainy portions of our days to prevent mildew. They come in multiple different sizes and colors, and are cheap to take along.We always take along a first aid kit whenever we hit the trail, just in case of accidents. I have taken a few falls and have cleaned up with some of the items in the kit, and we bring along some additional medications that we add to the kit just in case, like Advil, Benadryl, antacids, and Immodium. It also contains iodine tablets as a last resort water purification method. Be sure to toss in some moleskin for blisters too!

We keep a few methods of fire starting with us at all times as well. Jordan loves his magnesium firestarter from the Friendly Swede. We also carry at least one box of windproof matches with us just in case.

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Another thing we always carry are multiple light sources including a small LED light for me, headlamps, and Jordan’s tactical light. You never know when one may run out of batteries.

The only other thing we typically take when traveling is a duffel bag to protect all of our belongings on the road and on the plane. While not a piece of equipment we backpack with (usually we are trying to cut weight so these get left in our rental car), it is important to protect all of your investments before you hit the trail. We currently use the extra-large REI Backpack Duffel shown below for each backpack. It’s normally a tight fit but we manage to squeeze everything in.

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This particular duffel is no longer available, so the most similar alternative is available here.

Whew! That was a fairly comprehensive list of the main gear we carry when on a backpacking journey! If you have any questions about our gear or would like to see any other posts related to this topic, please leave us a comment below.

Happy trails!

jpk3black
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