Don’t be a stubborn curmudgeon with broken knees!
Shed more stuff and optimize your life on the trail.
My backpacking gear list is down the page, but there’s a lot more than that here.
You’ll see 4 easy steps to evaluate your gear and create your own best gear list.
I provide top alternatives and budget options, and talk about how to choose things. Much wisdom is peppered throughout the text.
You’ll find links to my specific item reviews, with even more detail.
I’ve backpacked thousands of miles and learned things the hard way.
Make it easy on yourself, lighten things up, and enjoy your hike!
This Article is Huge & Comprehensive
So here’s a menu to help you navigate down the page.
- How to Reduce Weight
- Tips for Novice Hikers
- Notes about the list
- GEAR LIST (chart)
- Ultralight Shelters
- Sleeping Bags
- Sleeping Pads
- Food Storage
- Water Treatment
- Water Storage
- Trekking Poles
- Socks & Gaiters
- Pants / Long Johns / Shorts
- Rain Jackets
- Puffy Insulated Jackets
- Hats & Gloves
- Day Packs
- Traction Devices
Admit it.. Your backpack is too heavy.
So was mine.
I decided I wanted to hike the Appalachian Trail when I was 19 years old.
I’d never been camping before, so I had some learning to do.
Naturally I turned to the internet, but this was in 1999. In those days, it wasn’t as easy to find a good website about how to hike the Appalachian Trail.
Most advice was from old-fashioned backpackers, set in their ways. Since I’m one of the most stubborn people you’ll ever meet, I took all of their guidance to heart.
I got “real” gear. “Sturdy” gear. “Reliable” gear.
I got awful blisters, wrecked my young knees, and never made consistently good mileage. I never re-evaluated my gear… because I’m stubborn.
Eventually I finished the Trail, but it took me 7 months and 2 summers to do it.
I didn’t truly come to my senses until 2008, when I shaved a whole 4 pounds just by getting a new backpack (replaced a Gregory Shasta with a ULA Catalyst). I continued improving since then, hoping that maybe someday I could rank as a SUPER MEGA ULTRA LIGHT HIKER.
Then I achieved Zen enlightenment and realized “ultralight” is just a silly label that doesn’t have a very concrete meaning.
Every backpacker goes through a similar process. We’re conservative at first, but then experience teaches us what we can leave behind. My gear choices are here to help you get a head start.
You won’t find balance and efficiency until you make an effort to shed as much as you can.
I regularly overhaul my backpacking gear list
I tend to find things I like and stick with them, but that creates a problem in writing a post such as this.
When you buy good equipment, it lasts for a long time. That makes it hard to invest in shiny new things, because the old things work just fine. So for full disclosure, I’ve been using most of the items on the spreadsheet since 2019, when I did a big shopping spree.
But I keep an eye on what’s new, and take notes for future purchases. So rather than accepting my current gear list at face value, it’s best to scroll below the initial charts to check for newer recommendations.
Evaluating Your Gear
The process of choosing new gear is really quite simple.
Just look at every single item you carry, and define its function. For example, a Nalgene bottle’s function is to store water.
Next ask yourself, “How can I perform this function with less weight?”
Then you quickly discover, for example, that it’s better to use a plastic disposable water bottle than a Nalgene.
If you’re interested in a deeper breakdown of the methodology, here’s a great way to reevaluate things:
If you’re a novice, proceed with caution
Backpacking is a big part of my life, so it’s worth it for me to invest in premium gear. My recommended backpack and tent retail for about $400, each. Costs can add up quickly.
So if you’re new to backpacking, I’d caution against spending this kind of money. Who knows, you might go on this first trip that you’re planning, only to discover that you despise backpacking and never want to do it again. It happens.
Start out with some cheaper stuff. An internal frame backpack from Walmart and a lower quality (but reasonably lightweight) tent will work just fine. You’ll be carrying more weight than if you’d invested more money, but it won’t immediately break your knees.
This applies to new thru-hikers too
If you’re smart, you’re ultimately going to copy things from other hikers. It’s how we learn what works for us, especially on places like the Appalachian Trail and Pacific Crest Trail. A week spent on one of these trails is the best backpacking education in the world – better than any amount of online research.
So if you’re new to the activity – and an aspiring thru-hiker – it’s often best to start with a smaller gear investment.
Then you can start your thru-hike with an extra $1,000 in your pocket, or even more. This unlocks a clear conscience to completely re-outfit yourself as you go, via the outfitters in trail towns and the wonders of online shopping.
See what works for other hikers. See what they have that you like, learn what works for you, and simply buy new gear as you go. It will save you a ton of money and frustration. A mindset for success is to realize that you’re embarking on a whole new lifestyle over the course of many months, so it’s best to pack some flexibility.
Disclosures About My Gear
There’s a few more things that you should know.
I don’t get free stuff. This isn’t a website where “our team” gets a shiny new thing, unboxes it, tries it for a night, and does a review. It’s just me.
I read stuff on the web, like you are right now. I look around, poke around at the outfitters, talk to my friends… always considering new things. I find what works for me, and pay with hard-earned money.
Then I take it hiking.
I’ve kept up on things for a long time. I’m 42 years old and I finished the Appalachian Trail when I was 21. You can see more about my experience on the about page.
I list the retailer where I got each item, the date, and price I paid in dollars. That’s probably a little over the top, but it satisfies my love of detail and disclosure.
The only compensation I get for this is through affiliate links. Websites are required to have affiliate disclosures and those annoying “cookie” pop-up notifications because that’s how we bloggers make money. When you go through an affiliate link and end up buying something, I get a small commission.
Simple Gear List – What I’m Using in 2023
First I present my current backpacking gear list, organized into 4 charts.
Farther down the page you’ll find important, detailed information. Remember, what I’m using is not always consistent with what I recommend – a $100 investment to save 1 ounce with a new version of something I already own doesn’t interest me. Links are occasionally provided to more in-depth reviews.
First is the basic items chart – items that are almost always in my pack. Next is the clothing chart, followed by electronics, and then specialty items.
If an item does not come with me on most overnight trips, then it’s cased in italics. This way, the charts can be used as a simple gear checklist to make sure you’re not forgetting anything on your hike.
Links go to the exact items I’m currently using, unless otherwise noted. For full transparency, I provide the date I purchased it, where I got it, and even the price I paid. Note that costs have often gone up – sometimes I got things on sale. And inflation sucks.
My base pack weight is roughly ten pounds. I do not shave the handle off my toothbrush, nor do I own an ounce scale.
|Item||Model||Weight (oz)||Cost & Date||Vendor|
|backpack||Hyperlite Southwest 3400 Large||32||Jan 2019|
|solo shelter||Big Agnes Fly Creek HV UL2||31||Sep 2022|
|Big Agnes Copper Spur HV UL2||43||Jan 2019|
|sleeping bag||Marmot Hydrogen 30F||23||Jan 2019|
|S2S Thermolite Reactor||9||Sep 2022|
|sleeping pad||Therm-a-rest Z Lite Sol||10||Sep 2021|
|inflatable pillow||Sea to Summit||3||Feb 2019|
|trekking poles||Mountainsmith Pinnacle||22||Sep 2021|
|headlamp||Black Diamond Spot||3||Jan 2019|
|multi-tool||Swiss Army Evolution 14||3||Jan 2019|
|Hyperlite Drawstring XL||1||Jan 2019|
|stove||MSR Pocket Rocket 2||3||Jan 2019|
|pot||Toaks 1350 titanium||5||Jan 2019|
|fuel||MSR IsoPro||4 (+3)||n/a||Local|
|water bottle||SmartWater 33oz||1||2022||Walmart|
|duct tape||SOL (compact)||1||2022||REI|
|ziploc bags||“Slider” (Quart & Gallon)||1||n/a||Walmart|
|watch||Casio Casual Sport||1||Apr 2016|
|pills||Ibuprofen / Benadryl / Vitamins||1||n/a||Walmart|
|wallet||The Minimalist||1||Jan 2019|
|Item||Model||Weight||Cost & Date||Vendor|
|trail shoes||Altra Lone Peak 4.5||21||Dec 2020|
|approach shoes||La Sportiva TX4||24||Apr 2022|
|gaiters||Dirty Girl||1.2||Jan 2019|
|pants||CQR Tactical||23||Jun 2021|
|long underwear||OR Alpine Onset||5||Jan 2019|
|shorts||REI Active Pursuit||6||Jan 2019|
|sun hoodie||NRS Mens Silkweight||10||June 2021|
|puffy jacket||REI Co-op 650||11||Jan 2019|
|rain jacket||Marmot Precip||13||Jan 2019|
|sun hat||Solar Escape Outback||5||2015||found|
|beanie||Columbia Watch Cap||4||?||Local|
|Item||Model||Weight (oz)||Cost & Date||Vendor|
|camera||Nikon D5600||23||Feb 2017|
|phone||iPhone Xs||6||Aug 2019||n/a|
|phone case||LifeProof FRE||1||May 2022|
|power bank||Anker 10000||6||Jan 2019|
|emergency beacon||SPOT Gen 3||4||Feb 2015|
|headphones||standard iPhone||1||Aug 2019||n/a|
|USB cord||n/a||1||Aug 2019||Amazon|
|USB wall charger||n/a||1||Aug 2019||Amazon|
|Item||Model||Weight||Cost & Date||Vendor|
|cord||BlueWater Niteline||4||Sep 2022|
|webbing||BlueWater Tubular||13||Feb 2015|
|water bladder||Camelbak Antidote||6||Jul 2015|
|water bag||Sea to Summit||3||2015||REI|
|bear spray||Frontiersman||8||May 2014||Local|
|bug spray||Repel 100||5||May 2014||Amazon|
|head net||Coghlan’s||1||May 2014||Amazon|
|day pack||Hyperlite Daybreak||21||2018|
|packraft||Supai Matkat||28||May 2022|
|paddles||Supai Olo||14||May 2022|
2023’s Backpacking Gear Guide: all the options & details
Below you’ll find a succinct guide to all my gear choices. These include viable alternatives, budget choices, ultralight thru-hiker’s favorites, and more.
It’s the meat and potatoes of the article!
In all my life I’ve only used three packs for backpacking:
The Gregory Shasta was my first pack and saw me through the Appalachian Trail. It weighed almost eight pounds… empty!
ULA Catalyst – brief review
I loved my ULA Catalyst. It was my first lightweight backpack, and it saw me through so many adventures.
Note that I didn’t use just one Catalyst for this ten year stretch – I replaced it and bought a new one in 2014. Over time the frame starts to punch through the bottom of the pack, and the side pockets get torn up by thorns (If you go off trail a lot like I did). The plastic buckles would eventually snap from the Arizona sun, too.
Maybe I could have returned it to ULA and got a replacement for free (Or not), but I consider this to be normal wear and tear.
Most thru-hikers find the Catalyst to be a little big for their needs, and opt for the Circuit instead.
Hyperlite Southwest 3400 – brief review
I’ve been using this Hyperlite for 4 years, and still love it! I’ve recently done less backpacking than in the past, but the Southwest shows little wear and tear. I expect to get many, many more miles out it.
Otherwise, the pack embodies function and simplicity. It carries things – a big main compartment, 2 hip pockets, 2 side pockets (that fit 2 Smartwater bottles each), and a large front pocket. It also has a simple sleeve for a hydration bladder, and slits for the hose.
Overall, I have nothing else to say here about the pack, which is sign of excellence! The purpose of backpacking is not to be thinking about (or having a significant awareness of) your actual backpack.
The 5 Best Backpacks in 2023
There’s only about 5 backpacks that an aspiring thru-hiker should consider, in my opinion:
1) Hyperlite Southwest 3400
This is one of the lightest packs on the market that can comfortably carry up to 40 pounds. Hyperlite’s focus on using Dyneema® Composite Fabric (formerly called cuben fiber) took the industry by storm.
I chose this as my new pack for two main reasons. First, it’s one of the lightest packs out there – its only equal is the Mariposa (below).
Why did I choose the Southwest over the Mariposa? Simple – the Hyperlite is waterproof, whereas the Mariposa requires a pack cover in case of rain.
2) Gossamer Gear Mariposa 60
The Mariposa is an excellent choice for a smart thru-hiker. Gossamer Gear and Hyperlite (above) are the top players in the game with these backpacks. Each can carry a decent load, and each is built for the long haul.
You’ll be thankful for that extra capacity for big water hauls, technical climbing gear, your new packraft, or a 12-pack of beer.
3) ULA Circuit
It was almost twenty years ago when ULA’s packs first flooded the thru-hiking market. Since then it’s been virtually impossible to hike a long trail without seeing their signature packs.
The Circuit is simply a lighter and smaller version of the Catalyst, and better for most thru-hikers. It’s one of the most common packs on the triple crown trails.
4) ULA Catalyst
The Catalyst is still certainly worthy of a mention for its ability to carry heavier, bulkier loads in a lighter package. It’s essentially a bigger version of the Circuit, with a more sturdy frame. It’s an especially worthy consideration for expedition hikers that plan on doing winter treks, canyoneering, packrafting, etc. Note that the Hyperlite Southwest 4400 is similarly up to the task.
5) REI Co-op Trailbreak (Budget & Beginners)
The REI Trailbreak is a great pick for new backpackers. When someone with zero experience comes to me for a recommendation, I point them toward this pack.
It has everything a beginner loves (external zippered compartments, padding, etc.) and still maintains somewhat of a lightweight package at under 4 pounds. Note that there’s a one size fits all men’s version and women’s version.
Most of all, the cost of just $150 it means you’re paying half-price vs the packs listed above. The brutal truth is that only 2 in 10 people that set out to hike the entire Appalachian Trail are going to achieve that goal. Against those odds, is a bigger investment worth it?
However, investing in a lightweight backpack, shelter, or sleeping bag is the easiest way to cut your pack weight. Decisions, decisions.
An Even Cheaper Backpack
If you’re totally on board with my philosophy of getting a “starter” backpack with the intent of replacing it in the near future, then you can spend even less. Walmart’s backpacks look to be completely serviceable. That’s right. If you’re a rookie looking to get started on the best budget possible (short of used gear) I’d recommend this model.
This six-pound pack for $60 is a good deal, considering that I paid $300 plus for my eight-pound, premium Gregory backpack in the year 2000.
The New Hipster Kid in Town
On the other end of the spectrum, a new brand called LiteAF is making waves among thru-hikers. Beyond the clever name, hikers seem to very happy with their backpacks. This small company puts out vibes like I saw in the aforementioned brands of ULA and Hyperlite when they first came on the scene. Watch out for them in the future.
Final word on backpacks
Remember, a backpack’s function is to carry things. That’s all. I’m especially favorable toward Hyperlite packs because they carry things as light and efficiently as possible, and perform an additional function (keeping things dry) that usually requires an extra piece of gear (a pack cover).
Now here’s the absolute last word on backpacks:
If you can comfortably carry your stuff with a lighter pack than I’ve listed here, then do it!
Most backpacks require you to use a pack cover to keep things dry in the event of rain.
I think some of the best and lightest covers are made by ULA. Most pack covers for a 55L+ backpack weigh about 5 ounces, and ULA’s weighs just 3.
If you want an extra badass rain cover, get yourself some trash compactor bags. Now you’re thru-hiking like a boss.
Tents and Shelters
What is the function of your shelter? Yours may simply be to keep you dry in a pinch… especially if you’re on the Appalachian Trail, where lean-to shelters are available.
Here’s the main things I look for in a shelter:
- A good space to weight ratio
- Is reasonably durable
- Sets up easily
- Keeps me dry
- Keeps out the bugs
The lightest shelters are obviously tarps, but these don’t keep out the bugs, mice, and scorpions. A single-walled tent or “tarptent” would do the trick, but here’s the thing:
I don’t like the idea of using a hiking pole to stabilize my shelter, and (confession) I’m not comfortable in my ability to rig a sturdy tarp in a truly nasty storm, when everything is blowing sideways. So I like classic, good old tents, which have fortunately become a whole lot lighter in recent years.
In the early days I had a tent called the Sierra Designs Clip Flashlight. In 2008 I picked up an REI Quarter Dome, which was a good, sturdy little tent. Later I sought to shave even more weight, and I’ve been using Big Agnes tents ever since (my car-camping / river-trip tent is a Marmot Tungsten).
Big Agnes Tents – experience and review
My only caveat about Big Agnes is their zippers – they’re terrible! I’ve owned several different variations of the Fly Creek and Copper Spur series, and the zippers failed on virtually all of them. It’s not user-error – I’ve been careful with the zippers, staying out of sandy environments, keeping the doors closed, etc.
In switching from the ultralight Fly Creek series to the slightly beefier Copper Spur for a 2-man tent, I’ve had a marginally better experience with the zippers… so there’s still hope! Everything else about Big Agnes tents is amazing, so I’m sticking with them.
The zippers seem to be improving
I bought a brand-new Copper Spur for the Arizona Trail in 2019. The zippers are still holding up great! Maybe Big Agnes finally got their act together and updated them. I sincerely hope this is the case, because I’ve loved everything else about their tents for many years.
There was a night I spent in Grand Canyon where the designated tent sites were especially sandy, and an unexpected wind kicked up after sunset.
Immediately afterward, the zippers on the Copper Spur started to be predictably moody. From past experience I psychologically steeled myself for the worst – another zipper failure – but it never came to be! The kinks and sand seem to have worked themselves out with continued use.
A big wind can wreck the poles
In 2021 I left the Copper Spur set out for an entire afternoon, at a base camp on a backpacking trip. The wind was viscous that day. The shock cord in the poles lost its elasticity, and a segment was permanently bent.
My One-Man Tent
My one-man tent is a Big Agnes Fly Creek UL2. In the past I carried the Fly Creek UL1 for solo ventures, but I’ve grown to appreciate the extra volume of the UL2. Yes, the UL2 is technically billed as a 2-man tent (and I’ve also used it as such), but I’d wager that the great majority of UL2’s you’ll see on the trails are occupied by a single person.
My Two-Man Tent
I think the best 2-man tent that’s actually going to be used by two people is the Big Agnes Copper Spur HV UL2. This is the tent I chose for a 2019 AZT thru-hike. I am 6’0, she’s 5’0, and we’re comfortable in it. Previously we’d used the Fly Creek UL2, but it didn’t take long to decide that having a little more space and a second door would be worth the weight.
A contender in this department from Big Agnes is the Tiger Wall UL2. The Tiger Wall is lighter than the Copper Spur, and still maintains 2 doors, but it’s a little less roomy and less durable.
I find durability to be much more of a concern in a 2-man tent vs a solo shelter. Having that second door is crucial, too. A single door is doable, but at the end of the day I think a “2-man tent” that only has a single door is kidding itself.
Big Agnes Fly Creek vs Tiger Wall
Since it was first introduced in 2018, the Tiger Wall created a bit of a conundrum for hikers. The Fly Creek and Tiger Wall lineups are similar, but with one key difference. The Tiger Wall has an overall more symmetrical design, and features a wider side-entry door. The Fly Creek is more condensed toward your feet, with a smaller and more awkward vestibule than the Tiger Wall.
The Tiger Wall comes at a small weight penalty vs the Fly Creek, but overall I think that most backpackers will prefer the Tiger Wall. Especially as aging hikers have trouble moving their bodies from a standing position to sitting on the ground (and back up again), the easier entry/exit and more inviting vestibule of the Tiger Wall is appreciated.
As a final note on this, I’d like to point out that the Tiger Wall UL1 can effectively be compared to the Fly Creek UL2. If you think the Fly Creek UL2 is too “extra” for your solo needs, but the Fly Creek UL1 looks a little too small, than the Tiger Wall UL1 is probably “just right.”
Below is a quick chart I pulled from Amazon that compares a few key specs. If you want to dig deeper into the specs of Big Agnes tents, then REI publishes a lot more information.
More Tents – NEMO & MSR
NEMO tents are often mentioned as a solid choice, second only to Big Agnes. I’ve noticed over the last few years, however, that their tents are often sold out and unavailable. You can view this as a sign of quality (they’re selling like hot cakes?), but since it’s stretched over a period of years, I think the availability only frustrates shoppers.
I remember one time specifically a few years ago when I wanted to try out a NEMO tent to replace an old Big Agnes, but (of course) it wasn’t available, so I just got another Big Agnes.
Behind the aforementioned brands, I also like the MSR Hubba Hubba models. The series was introduced way back in 2002, and its newest iterations hold up as a solid, reputable choice.
Budget Tents – REI, Featherstone, Walmart
Most of the premium tents listed above come at a hefty price of at least $400. Unless you’re crazy about backpacking, that’s a lot of money to spend on a tent. In this case I recommend the series of tents under the REI brand name. I used an REI Quarter Dome on my first hikes in the Grand Canyon, and on my thru-hikes of the John Muir Trail and Colorado Trail.
To sum it up, the Passage model is REI’s budget lineup. The Quarter Dome and Half Dome are a good step up from the Passage. To my knowledge, the Quarter Dome and Half Dome had disappeared from the market for the last few years, so I’m glad to see that they’re back.
Additionally, I like the look of Featherstone’s tents in this category. They nicely bridge the gap in quality between the aforementioned REI models.
Finally, if you want to go even less expensive than REI’s Passage tents, then take a look at Walmart’s Ozark Trail models. Just don’t break your knees.
A note about footprints
I typically won’t bother carrying a footprint for my tent – even for an expensive Big Agnes Tent. The footprints for the tiniest most lightweight one-man tents are still going to weigh at least 4 ounces, and often much, much more. It just crushes my ultralight sensibilities to add such a superfluous item to my permanent base weight.
Over time, sure… I’ll get some small holes in the floor of the tent. So what? It’s the floor. My body weight covers the holes. Bugs won’t get in. Even if I choose a muddy tent site in a torrential downpour, the ingress will be minimal. Holes can be patched, too.
Super Mega Ultralight Shelters
Just because I’m stubborn about sticking to a traditional double-walled tent doesn’t mean that you should be, too. In fact, I’d venture to say that I’m truly not “thru-hiking like a boss” without switching to a simpler shelter.
In this case, a “lighter, simpler shelter” means that it often requires a trekking pole to be used in its construction. If I were to go this route, here’s where I’d look:
|Manufacturer||one man||two man|
|Hyperlite||The Unbound||Ultamid 2|
|Gossamer Gear||The One||The Two|
|Mountain Laurel Designs||Solomid||Duomid|
|Six Moons Designs||Skyscape Trekker||Lunar Duo|
Of the shelters listed above, the most popular ones come from the Zpacks lineup (particularly the Duplex) and Gossamer Gear. The classic Tarptent Double Rainbow is a favorite, too.
Finally, Hyperlite has a new shelter as part of its Unbound collection (designed specifically for thru-hikers) that looks good too.
Hammocks are an increasingly popular option, especially in wooded areas like the Appalachian Trail. Here’s some advantages:
- lightweight – the best ones are 2 pounds or less
- inexpensive – good quality doesn’t break the bank
- warm – stay off the cold ground
Finding a good set of trees can pose a challenge, but on the other hand you no longer need a level, clear campsite!
I have limited personal experience with hammocks, so I’m in no position to make further recommendations on them. Many hikers love them. Hammocks are a viable option, so an “ultimate” gear list would be incomplete without this note.
First of all, you should probably forget about using a sleeping bag made of synthetic material. Down feathers are infinitely lighter.
As far as temperature ratings are concerned, a 20-degree sleeping bag is the most ideal, all-purpose 3-season rating. It’s really the sweet spot for thru-hikers.
Look at the big picture:
I view my sleeping bag as a piece of my overall clothing system. For example, it’s extremely rare for me to bring rain pants on a hike. If my legs are so cold that I need rain pants, then I’m probably finished moving for the day and in camp, where I have my sleeping bag available to stay warm. So rain pants generally aren’t necessary.
Also keep in mind the extra layers of clothing available to you at night. If you’re carrying a puffy jacket, then that should never get wet, and it should be available to wear as you sleep (unless you’re using it as a pillow).
20 degrees is most versatile, but…
…sometimes you can get away with a lighter sleeping bag. If you can, you should. Remember, this is one of your “big three” items, with the potential to save some significant weight. On a mid-summer hike you can get by with a 30-degree bag, or maybe even a 40-degree one.
Examples of when you can do this are on the Long Trail, Colorado Trail, John Muir Trail, etc., where you only plan to be out there in July and August. I doubt you truly need a 20-degree bag for these thru-hikes.
Go here for a more detailed review of summer sleeping bags.
What I’m using in 2023:
With that in mind, I’ve been using the Marmot Hydrogen. It’s a bag rated at 30-degrees, with a factory published weight of 23 ounces. If I’m expecting cold weather I’ll bring extra clothes and/or bring a sleeping bag liner.
I’m due for a new purchase in this department, which will probably be a Feathered Friends Hummingbird (20-degree), once I can afford/justify it. Or maybe I’ll try a quilt, like the cool kids.
5 best sleeping bags for thru-hikers in 2023
Overall, Feathered Friends is the most-respected manufacturer of sleeping bags. They’re simply the best.
Cream of the Crop:
I intend to get a Hummingbird 20-degree bag from Feathered Friends as soon as I can justify the cost. This is the top sleeping bag I’d recommend for thru-hikers on the AT, PCT, and CDT. My partner loves her Swallow.
Western Mountaineering makes wonderful, lightweight sleeping bags too. Their Ultralite is a worthy consideration.
Marmot makes nice sleeping bags, but their prices have generally increased to the degree that they’re not worth it. If you’re spending so much, you’re better off with Feathered Friends or Western Mountaineering.
The REI Magma series (particularly the 15-degree) rounds out my best sleeping bags for thru-hikers in 2023. It perfectly bridges the desire of both value and quality.
Budget & Beginners:
For an even more reasonable choice, take a look at the Kelty Cosmic. Don’t expect it to last forever, but I bet you could squeeze a single thru-hike out of it just fine.
Quilts are Conquering Sleeping Bags
Rather than using a traditional sleeping bag, down quilts are an increasingly popular option. I’d argue that a majority of thru-hikers now prefer a quilt instead of a traditional sleeping bag! The steady takeover reminds me of how mirrorless cameras gradually pushed DSLR cameras into oblivion.
Quilts are lighter and more versatile than sleeping bags. They accomplish this lighter weight by ditching the hood that comes on a traditional sleeping bag. They also have an open bottom, because a sleeping bag’s down feathers crushed between the weight of your body and the ground are rendered useless.
Among these, the products from Enlightened Equipment are easily the best and most popular quilts. The two favorite models are the Revelation and the Enigma. The Enigma has a closed toe box, whereas the Revelation is more of a proper “quilt.”
Katabatic Gear is close runner-up in this department. Even better, the company is founded and operated by an accomplished thru-hiker. Their Flex model is the classic style when it comes to quilts, and the Alsek is a popular alternative with a closed toe box.
Now that the quilt industry is picking up steam, a lot more companies are getting into the game. Hyperlite introduced a quilt for the first time in late 2022 to round out their new Unbound System, a bold shot to combine a thru-hiker’s critical Big Three into a single, uber-premium package that lives up to their brand name.
A Budget Quilt? Impossible!
Since they were first introduced, backpacking quilts were always branded as a high-end product. Not anymore! Featherstone Outdoor Products takes pride in offering quilts that max out at $200.
Your sleeping pad is NOT just for simple comfort.
It keeps you warm! More body heat is lost to the ground than to the open air.
They generally come in two sizes – full length and short. There’s isn’t much reason for anyone to use a full-length pad. I’m 6’0 and I’ve always used the “short” pads. It’s easy enough to put your backpack or some other material below your feet at night.
The only excuse for a full length pad is for cold winter trips, for very rainy trips where you don’t want to bring your backpack into the tent, or maybe for a body height of 6’4 plus.
Therm-a-Rest dominates the market in sleeping pads – most thru-hikers carry something from this brand. Their two most popular pads are:
the Z Lite (foam, my choice)
the NeoAir Xlite (inflatable)
I like the Z lite foam pad. Granted, a foam pad is less comfortable, less effective, and more bulky, but it’s so much easier to manage for daily use on the trail.
You don’t have to inflate/deflate it. You don’t have to worry about it getting popped. You can use it mid-day for a clean, comfortable surface on which to rest.
I trim even more weight from the short Z Lite by cutting off two more of its folds.
My next purchase in this realm could be the Nemo Switchback. It’s a foam pad similar to the Thermarest that I have, but it’s reportedly thicker and more comfortable.
Go here for more details about foam sleeping pads.
If you can’t deal with foam, the NeoAir Xlite is the best sleeping pad out there. In most cases it’s even lighter than foam – a rare quality in an inflatable pad.
Budget Sleeping Pads
For an inflatable sleeping under $100, Amazon has several choices of unsubstantiated quality. This one looks promising. If you want to go up a tier in quality, I’d wager that the best option is to find one that suits you at a discount from REI Outlet.
Regarding budget foam pads, the Ridgerest Classic is probably your best bet. The other pads listed above go for about $50 (yeah, for foam), and the Ridgerest is more reasonable at about $30. If you want to spend even less, read on.
There is yet another, most tempting option. Go with an old fashioned blue foam pad (Unfortunately, an external frame backpack is not included). If this doesn’t make you feel like you’re thru-hiking like a boss, then I’m afraid there’s no hope for you.
I must be getting old!
A few years ago, my girlfriend bought us a couple of Sea to Summit inflatable pillows for our trip on the Arizona Trail. I’d always used bundled clothes and miscellaneous gear for a pillow, but agreed to give the pillow a try.
Now I’m a converted fan! I love this thing and never go backpacking without it.
2.7 ounces for the “regular” size is more than reasonable. Additionally, I may even be saving weight overall through using this – it frees up my extra clothes to be worn overnight, ultimately allowing me to carry a lighter sleeping bag. Boom! Pow!
Your shoes are your most important piece of gear.
They define your relationship with the trail. What’s a car without tires? Nothing, just a hunk of machinery.
Rule #1 – Take Care of Your Feet
Blisters will ruin your hike.
A sore foot will ruin your hike.
Don’t let it happen to you.
Wear comfortable shoes! Use something tried (by you) and true! This is the one and only rule about what you put on your feet.
Everything else (Including what I say below) is useless if your shoes don’t fit.
My 3 favorite shoes for backpacking
I like low-top shoes – I don’t backpack in high-top boots, or in sandals. If you’re looking for advice about those, look elsewhere.
1) Altra Lone Peak
I chose Altra Lone Peaks for my Arizona Trail hike in 2019, and stayed with with the model into 2023. Altra relentlessly puts out new releases of this shoe (maybe even quicker than all the versions of the iPhone), so now they’re up to the Lone Peak 7.
Thankfully, the upgrades never stray much from the original design. So if you can get an older model at a discount (and ideally in a preferable color), then I urge you to do it. $140 or $150 is a lot to pay for these shoes, especially when their durability is somewhat questionable.
That’s the biggest downfall of Altra shoes – they don’t last very long. I can deal with the small holes that develop along the sides, but when the outsole wears smooth as a skating rink, it’s time to toss them. They go kaput after about 500 miles.
If you can put that aside, they’re totally worth it – something about the Lone Peaks is just so cozy. So. Damn. Comfortable. Perfect for the long haul in places like the Pacific Crest Trail. Thru-hikers burn through these shoes like junkies in need of their next fix, and I suspect that’s why Altra doesn’t improve the outsole – because we keep buying the shoes anyway!
A majority of the success behind the Lone Peaks is because of their big toe box. A close second is that they’re “zero drop.” Most shoes actually raise your heel a few millimeters above your toes, but not Altra – they keep your feet flat, the way nature intended.
So as a whole, the shoe may help prevent injuries that could actually be caused by other shoes that keep your feet in a stiff cast. The flip side to this is that the Lone Peaks take some getting some used to, and can make you more prone to injures at first, since your feet are accustomed to a heel-to-toe drop. Check out the book Born to Run for more about the philosophy behind zero drop shoes.
All the cool kids on the long trails are wearing Lone Peaks (or the Altra Olympus, with more cushioning) paired with Dirty Girl Gaiters. As with many things in our social lives, you can join the club… or choose to go your own way.
2) La Sportiva TX4 (or TX3)
I had my eye on this model of La Sportiva shoes for a few years, and finally picked them up in April of 2022. So far, I’ve gotta say I love them!
To be clear, these are technically classified as approach shoes. “What are approach shoes?” you might ask? They’re simply a hybrid of hiking shoes and rock climbing shoes. So the La Sportiva TX4 has more grip than regular hiking shoes. Overall, their build provides better traction and balance, with your toes closer to the front of the shoe, and a more rigid structure.
Rigidity means less comfort, so why might a thru-hiker be interested in these?
They’re perfect for off-trail routes that require a good deal of rocks and scrambling. Anyone trekking the Hayduke Trail, Sierra High Route, Wind River High Route, and so on is going to be thankful for approach shoes. Hikers that tackle these trails tend to be more experienced (aka battered and broken-in), so the more rigid fit isn’t an especially big deal.
A similar model is available, the TX3. The difference is that the TX4 has a leather upper, and the TX3 is more breathable. I opted for the TX4 because it’s more repellent of the cactus spines in the Grand Canyon, where I spend a lot of time.
3) The Merrell Moab
The Merrell Moab line is one of the best-respected shoes in the hiking community. They’ve been around forever – an institution. I don’t know when they were first introduced, but I put a lot of miles on these in the early 2000’s.
They tend to fit a wide of range of people, blister free, and tend to last a long time. They’re a much better value than the popular Altra Lone Peaks. When most of us imagine a backpacking shoe, the Moab is what we see in our imagination.
For those that prefer high-tops, Merrell’s got you covered.
If you like waterproof shoes, they’ve got those for you, too. But I advise against all manner of waterproof hiking shoes. They’re dumb.
For many years, the most renowned makers of headlamps have been Petzl and Black Diamond.
Petzl’s best model for thru-hikers is Actik Core. What’s especially cool about this headlamp is that it can be charged with EITHER rechargeable batteries (included) or traditional AAA batteries.
Black Diamond’s venerable Spot lineup was split up for 2023, now designated into the Spot 400 and the Spot 400-R. The 400-R is your basic rechargeable headlamp. The regular 400 is advertised as being similar to the Petzl Actik Core, in that it can run on either rechargeable batteries or AAA’s, but its rechargeable setup is a little clunky.
If I were shopping for a new headlamp this year, I’d skip these and go for the Nitecore NU25.
For full disclosure, I’m still using an old model of the Black Diamond Spot that runs on AAA’s. This is one of those cases where it’s not worth it for me to add the latest and greatest thing to my collection of headlamps.
The Ursack Minor is a great food bag. I’ve had one deflect countless rodents for years!
In my 2018 article, I wrote the following: “If the Ursack Minor is too heavy for your lightweight sensibilities, get one from Hyperlite and watch the little critters shred your cuben fiber.”
So guess what I did in 2019? I got a stuff sack from Hyperlite, intended as my food bag. I’m going to let you in on a little secret. I often sleep with my food in the tent. Shhhh.
If you’re not sleeping with your food and not carrying a bear canister, the best option is to shell out the cash for the Ursack Minor, or one of the other options that Ursack offers, like the Major or the AllMitey.
Ursack is addicted to increasing the retail price of the Minor. The bag originally used to cost 40 or 50 dollars. Now they want almost $110 for the same product!
Every year it grows harder to find, too. In January 2023, the only place I see the “Minor” version available is directly on Ursack’s website. Supply chain disruptions? Maybe they plan to discontinue it?
Many of the National Parks require you to carry a bear canister – a necessary evil in The Realm of Ultralight.
Some parks will loan you a stock canister, but they tend to be the heavier models. If you plan to spend a lot of time in the Parks, it’s worth investing in your own.
For about 15 years, Bear Vault has made the best and lightest canisters that are approved by the Park Service. In most cases, you’re going to want the full capacity of the BV500 (As opposed to the BV450)
While we’re on the subject, I recommend carrying bear spray in Grizzly country (Yellowstone, Glacier, etc.), but not in places where you only find black bears, like Yosemite. For more about bear safety, see these 12 safety tips.
I’m not going into all the details of various types of stoves here (Or the merits of not cooking at all, for that matter).
What I will say is I’ve owned the original MSR Pocket Rocket stove for over ten years, and I’ve absolutely loved it. It boils fast, you can adjust the heat, and it’s simple to use. It’s not too heavy, and the fuel is efficient too (but the empty canister has some significant weight).
My original Pocket Rocket still works great, but in 2019 I picked up the ever-so-slightly improved MSR Pocket Rocket 2. Why? No rational reason, but to have the “newest thing.” Guilty as charged. I think this was before the “Deluxe” version of the Pocket Rocket 2 was introduced.
People also seem to like their JetBoil Systems, or you can always build yourself a denatured alcohol stove for free (Do a Google search for “Pepsi Can Stoves”).
If boiling 2 cups of water for your dehydrated meals is all you need to do, you should probably just get the titanium pot through the picture above, and be done with it. Just know that it’s basically just a cup, not a proper pot to eat out of.
I used a stainless steel pot for an eternity. It has a two liter capacity, because sometimes I’d cook huge meals for myself. A typical dinner would be two boxes of mac and cheese with a sleeve of tuna, or maybe a pound of spaghetti. Oh, to be young with a raging metabolism again.
In trying to lighten my load I finally sprang for a titanium pot, namely the Toaks 1350mm. I’ve been very happy with it, despite the questionable quality of its lid. This pot is the perfect size and shape for my needs.
Manufacturers are building taller, thinner pots nowadays, as opposed to those with a wider base. Why they do this is beyond me, as it lifts more volume away from your heat source, and the higher center of gravity increases the likelihood of a disastrous spill.
Keep those ergonomics in mind when you do your shopping.
For many years I used a simple spoon from this set. That’s wonderful, but I felt like I was missing out on something. How could I be so boring when there’s so many awesome titanium weapons out there?
I opted for this long-handled spoon. Master using it, and you can have this.
I used it for about a year, but in the end I just didn’t like it. Eating directly out of my titanium cookpot, the sound of metal scraping upon metal bothered me – especially as I gathered those last precious bits of food at the end of the meal, before cleanup. If you shiver at the thought of nails on a chalkboard, then you know what I’m talking about (for me it’s fingernails scratching on denim jeans, too).
I donated the titanium spoon to my girlfriend. She likes it, and doesn’t mind the friction. These nuances don’t bother a lot people. Ditto if you’re just eating dehydrated meals out of bags.
I ultimately reverted to a long-handled spoon I bought way back in 2014 at a local outfitter at Denali National Park. It’s like a simple Walmart or Coghlan’s spoon, but with a long handle. For the life of me, I can’t find its equivalent online, so I’ll cry and mourn if I ever break it or lose it. In which case, I’ll probably try this bamboo spoon, which looks kinda cool.
Aquamira Drops are far-and-away my favorite method for treating drinking water. First of all, I get the primal pleasure of dipping my water bottle directly into the natural source. Then I mix the drops for 5 minutes, and add the solution to my water. I wait 20-30 minutes, and drink.
No pumping, no squeezing, no clogging. The only downside is that sometimes you get bits of dirt and leaves and fun squiggly organisms floating in your water. Don’t worry, the dirt is good for you and helps you thru hike like a boss.
Some folks don’t like Aquamira because of the chemicals that go into it. To these hikers I say, “Have you ever researched what they put in your municipal tap water?”
In addition to Aquamira, the three most common treatment methods are:
For many years the Katadyn Hiker filter (Formerly PUR Hiker) was the most popular method of water treatment. It’s what I used for a while, but it’s super-annoying and old-school.
A reader felt that the above description wasn’t fair to the Katadyn Hiker filter, and asked for me to elaborate on it. You can see my reply down in the comments.
Like most hikers, I originally started out with Nalgene bottles. After a while we tend to figure out that generic plastic bottles are the lighter (and cheaper) choice.
In 2008 I picked up my first Camelbak bladder. I’d started doing a lot more hiking in the hot desert of the Grand Canyon, and required up to 2 gallons of water capacity! When you’re hauling this much water, it makes sense to use a bladder. Note that Platypus bladders are lighter than Camelbak.
I grew accustomed to the convenience of drinking on the go, but it turns out that three plastic bottles are lighter than a 3 liter bladder. I’d always liked to use Vitamin Water and Gatorade bottles, but it turns out that Smartwater bottles are even lighter (if you’re an absolute stickler for weight), and do the job well.
The Most Ultralight Option:
Today I still carry my old Camelbak bladder for convenience, coupled with SmartWater bottles. However, the most ultralight option nowadays is to exclusively use SmartWater bottles (or plastic bottles of your choice).
For the missed convenience of a bladder and its hose, the thing to do is to rig a bottle (or two) to your shoulder strap with a device like this.
In Defense of the Nalgene Bottle:
I still see three valid reasons for carrying a Nalgene bottle.
- You might want a precise water measurement for cooking your evening meal (but most cookpots now provide markers for this).
- On cold nights a Nalgene can be handy for the classic hot water bottle trick, where you fill it with boiled water and keep it overnight in your sleeping bag.
- Finally, the wider mouth on a Nalgene type of bottle is better for filling your water at the source, and fills faster in frigid streams (cold hands!). A way around this is to use your cookpot at shallow or otherwise inconvenient sources, or even a ziploc bag.
Trekking poles were first starting to catch on in 2001, when I got into hiking. It looks like they’re here to stay.
I resisted them for a long time, preferring to use a stick (like Gandalf!), or nothing at all. My logic was that photography was a priority, so I wanted my hands free to grab photos in the spur of the moment.
Eventually I compromised by using a single pole. It was a generic one (Wilcor brand), which held up for hundreds of miles.
It doesn’t take long to discover that Black Diamond is the premium brand. Their top 3 models are the Trail Ergo Cork, the Alpine Carbon, and the Distance Z Carbon.
The Trail Ergo Cork is the best, all-round simple trekking pole. It’s made of aluminum, collapses to 27 inches, weighs 18 ounces, and costs $140.
The Alpine Carbon is a sturdy, premium, classic choice. I bought these in 2019, but managed to lose one somewhere. Oops. It’s made of carbon, collapses to 24 inches, weighs 17 ounces, and costs $200.
Finally, the Distance Z poles super light, and popular when considering airline travel – they collapse down to just 13 inches. The sacrifice is that they’re a fixed length, rather than the adjustable height of most poles. They’re made of carbon, weigh just 9 ounces, and cost $190.
Since I didn’t adopt poles until later in life, I haven’t yet subscribed to spending a lot of money on them. I did so once (with the Alpine Carbon Cork model) and soon lost one of them. The thing about poles, for me, is that they’re so easy to leave behind when you’re hitching a ride or something.
So I like to deal with cheaper poles. For a while I used Wilcor poles, purchased from a local outfitter, until they inevitably failed.
Currently I’m using Mountainsmith Pinnacle poles (also purchased locally), but don’t expect those to last forever, either. The problem with inexpensive poles is that they’re locking mechanism is almost always via a twisting action (rather than levers), which is prone to failure.
After the Mountainsmith’s are kaput, I really like these poles from Trailbuddy. I bought these for my girlfriend, and they’re great. They’re inexpensive ($40), but actually utilize a lever system! They’re made of aluminum, weigh 19 ounces, and collapse to 24 inches. Plus they have all kinds of snazzy colors, bells & whistles, and fun branding.
I used to burn through socks like nobody’s business. Smartwool was my go-to brand (Don’t they feel amazing when they’re brand new?), but Smartwools are far from durable. After a while I switched to Thorlo, which I found to be longer-lasting.
Then Darn Tough socks came into the market, and that’s what I’ve been using ever since. They’re not as thick, soft, or cushy as the brands mentioned above, but they basically never wear out.
I still like the cushy, thick Smartwools for wearing around the house, and sometimes I’ll bring them strictly for overnight use on colder backpacking trips.
I never used gaiters until about 5 years ago. I always viewed them as heavy and completely unnecessary, something used only by hunters, swamp rats, and boy-scout leaders who believed in digging trenches around their camouflage tents.
Dirty Girl Gaiters changed all that by making them lightweight, fun, and even fashionable. No more thorns and pebbles in my shoes!
Pants, Shorts, Long Johns
Historically I always backpacked in gym shorts, with a pair of long johns on hand for chilly weather (And yes, occasionally rain pants too).
I switched to convertible hiking pants when I started going off-trail more in the Grand Canyon, because my long johns were getting torn to shreds. I grew to really like convertible pants, and all those pockets!
I’ll often still go back to the shorts / long johns combo. It’s just more comfortable – making me feel more agile – and as if I’m in my pajamas all day.
Despite the premium choices I just mentioned, I think it’s best to go with whatever is cheap and comfortable in the realm of shorts and long johns for backpacking. Just buy what you like from Walmart or Target, or wherever you get you clothes. In the old days, Umbro soccer shorts were perfect for the Appalachian Trail’s midsummer heat.
Finding a good pair of pants is a little tricky. It’s tough to find something that fits just right (not restricting movement when rock climbing), and has that perfect desired thickness that’s not too hot or too cold.
In 2021 I picked up some CQR tactical pants from Amazon. They fit well, and so far I love them. The ones I have right now aren’t convertible, but if I were setting out on another long thru-hike, I’d definitely be keen to trying CQR’s convertible pants.
There’s a lot of other (more expensive) options out there from companies like Outdoor Research, Kuhl, and so on. I’ve always liked the classic Columbia Silver Ridge pants, especially for hot-weather hiking in tick country. They’re just not very good for thorns and scraping against limestone.
I also have no complaints about the quality of North Face’s Paramount Pants, which are more thick and durable. I’ve done lots of miles in these, but the fit was never quite right for me.
Backpacking in cotton underwear is not recommended. It was about a decade ago when I discovered Exofficio boxer briefs, and I still really like them.
Nowadays there’s a lot more budget-friendly options. For example, here’s a search on men’s performance underwear on Amazon – all probably passable choices. Your local Walmart or Target should carry men’s boxer briefs made of synthetic material, too.
However for an extended thru-hike, I think the Exofficio’s are still the way to go. You’ll find reports about how they’re not very durable after all, and about how the threads come loose and such, but I think this is due to repeated runs through the dryer.
This underwear dries so fast that I think a 30-minute cycle on high is sure to damage them. Just let them air dry.
The Marmot Precip rain jacket is an old institution in the thru-hiking community, and still what I’m using today in 2023. If you’re interested in something beefier (say, for the rainy Appalachians), check out the (poorly named) Marmot Minimalist.
With that said, the OR Helium is a popular ultralight choice, too. It’s especially wise to go light in this department on the Pacific Crest Trail, where it rarely rains and you’re really just looking for a shell to break the wind.
Frogg Toggs are silly-looking, inexpensive, and get the job done too.
I haven’t been in an environment that requires rain pants in a long time (not since Denali NP in 2014).
If I were headed back there, or to another environment that requires rain pants, I’d get these from Marmot.
I have a beloved fleece hoodie that’s been with me on almost every major backpacking trip for the last fifteen years. I got it from a Kohl’s department store all those years ago. It’s a little heavy, but still serves as a functional security blanket.
In my effort to cut weight, in 2019 I finally switched to a puffy jacket. The REI men’s Co-op 650 fits the bill, without being too heavy or breaking the bank. It’s what I’m still wearing in 2023.
Another jacket I’d consider is the super light Mountain Hardwear Ghost Whisperer. I almost sprang for the Ghost Whisperer, but a few reports about their flimsy zippers turned me off. Plenty of backpackers are very happy with it – I just didn’t like the premium cost.
If I were getting a new down jacket today in 2023, I’d probably look (in order of increasing cost) toward one of these:
If want to try sleeping with a quilt in the future (rather than a sleeping bag) then you’re going to want a down jacket with a hood.
It makes sense to backpack in whatever synthetic t-shirt you can find at your local Target or Walmart.
For the hot, sunny desert I’ve switched to long-sleeve shirts for the last few years. A basic long-sleeved polyester shirt was always part of my kit, but I found myself opting for button-down shirts like the Columbia Bahama and Silver Ridge. The Bahama is made of a thicker material than the Silver Ridge, and the Bahama is more prone to wrinkling, but it’s more durable and better for thick brush.
I like the ventilation and overall style of the Columbia shirts, but eventually they made me feel like a stiff old man. I have the rest of my life to feel like an old man, so I tried out one of the popular sun hoodies – namely the NRS Men’s H2Core Silkweight Hoodie. I wear it all the time now, especially when cycling or running, or even around the house. I love this shirt!
Gloves and Beanies
I’ve lost a lot of gloves over the years (or burnt off the fingertips whilst stoking campfires), so for a while I gave up and started getting the bundles of six pairs from Walmart.
In 2019 I thought I’d give fancy gloves a second chance, and got some from REI called the Polartec Powerstretch. So fancy.
These gloves kicked ass! My hands get cold easily, so the REI gloves got a lot of use. But eventually I managed to burn one of them, and then lost one soon thereafter. So now I’m using a pair of Black Diamond gloves that were gifted to me. Overall I preferred the REI gloves listed above (the Black Diamonds are a little thinner) but I’ve grown used to them.
The Columbia Watch Cap has been my favorite go-to beanie for many years. I tend to lose beanies too (Something about gloves and beanies).
A beanie is a beanie, as long as it’s not cotton.
Wide Brim Hats and Baseball Caps
I dislike using sunscreen, so I’ll often go with a wide-brimmed hat. Currently mine is the Solar Escape Outback.
Sometimes for day hikes and shorter trips I’ll go with a sun hoodie and a mesh trucker ballcap.
For extended hikes on shaded trails (east of the Mississippi) I’ll consider a ballcap too, but for high-elevation western backpacking trips, I still want a wide-brimmed hat.
For thru-hiking in 2023, my best recommendation is to use your mobile phone for photography. It’s clearly the lightest option, and the photos can turn out wonderful.
Until I can justify the cost of a full-frame mirrorless camera, I’ve increasingly just been using my phone.
The Best Smartphones for Thru-Hiking
The best phone for hiking essentially becomes the one with the best camera. A number of websites dive deeper into this subject than I ever will, and their general consensus in 2023 seems to be the following:
The iPhone 14 Pro has the best camera, followed by the Google Pixel 7 Pro and the Samsung Galaxy S22 Ultra.
Get a new phone for your thru-hike
Rather than buying a camera for your trip, I think that an upcoming thru-hike is the perfect excuse to invest in the latest version of your preferred phone. You’re not only upgrading to a better in-phone camera, but you’re also getting a phone with a new, fresh battery – which is helpful too (see below).
A new phone encourages that psychological “fresh start” feeling of a long hike. You can set up your new device with a priority on backpacking. Install only the necessary apps for your trip, delete the clutter, and dig through the settings to ensure that everything is oriented toward saving battery life.
The use of all this technology on the trail begs the question of keeping your gadgets charged. Enter the power bank – nothing more than a rechargeable battery.
For the old-fashioned types, something about carrying a mobile charging station on a backcountry trip seems disagreeable to the values of backpacking… but if you’re carrying a mobile phone and relying upon it (and a headlamp, etc.) then it’s a necessity.
A GPS devices have two purposes – navigation and emergency calls.
Such devices were especially helpful before the rise of smartphones. Nowadays a plethora of apps (most prominently Gaia GPS, AllTrails, and FarOut) took the reigns of navigation. Now that the iPhone 14 is offering an emergency GPS beacon, smartphones have almost completed their takeover of the GPS market.
But there’s still something to be said for having a dedicated device for this need, especially as an emergency beacon.
Intended for areas without phone reception, a GPS emergency beacon is designed to send a 911 “call” to local Search and Rescue, complete with your exact location. This niche is dominated by SPOT and Garmin, and a subscription is required.
SPOT’s first devices gained traction over a decade ago as a one-way communication device, including features for 911, a “help” message to your friends, an “okay” message (a good way to check in daily from camp), and tracking. The latest version of this classic product is the Gen4 device.
DeLorme (now acquired by Garmin) pulled a huge market share from SPOT when they introduced two-way communication – basically the ability to send and receive text messages. Another key feature that set DeLorme apart is its ability to receive weather reports.
Later SPOT introduced its two-way SPOT X device to catch up to Garmin.
For 2023 (even with the introduction of the iPhone’s emergency function), Garmin’s InReach Mini is still the best emergency device for most hikers.
I still use a SPOT Gen3 device, and I like the convenience of keeping my SPOT subscription and tossing the device in my pack.
Go here for my full review of SPOT devices.
I should first mention that a navigation device isn’t necessary to find your way up the popular long distance trails. GPS navigation is more useful in places like the Hayduke Trail and the Sierra High Route (though it’s still not necessary), and of course when you’re off the trails completely.
I have an old-school Garmin eTrex 20x device, which was perfect for its time, but I rarely use it anymore
Today I use the Gaia cell phone app, which is great.
Swiss Army Knives come in all shapes and sizes. Most are too heavy for a savvy ultralight backpacker, but the “Evolution 14” is worth its weight to me… blade, scissors, tweezers, toothpick, can opener, bottle opener, corkscrew. What more does one need in life (besides driving your enemies before you, etc.)?
Most backpackers will be happy with a basic Swiss Army knife, but I like having the added scissors, can opener, bottle opener, and corkscrew. No more, no less.
On my early thru-hikes, I carried my ID and cash in a ziploc bag. Within it, the small billfold that’s removable from plenty of men’s wallets was great for protecting my ID and credit cards.
But on shorter trips I’d run in to a problem. It’s inefficient to have to reorganize my wallet for each individual backpacking trip. So all-too-often, I’d end up carrying my entire wallet in the backcountry, complete with random business cards and the like.
Then I discovered that Hyperlite makes an awesome little wallet for backpackers. Problem solved!
When I carry it in everyday life, it promotes the feeling of carrying the lifestyle and lessons of thru-hiking over into the “real world.”
The popular Osprey Talon 22 is the best day pack for most purposes. I owned this pack for years.
For something larger, the Osprey Stratos 34 is another great choice. The Stratos comes in smaller versions too, to bridge the gap between it and the Talon.
After my Osprey fell victim to my usual off-trail usual thrashing, I eventually replaced it with the fancy (and pricey) Hyperlite Daybreak. It’s waterproof, like all of Hyperlite’s backpacks.
The Hyperlite’s main advantage is in keeping things dry. In addition to day hiking, I especially like it for spur of the moment outings, bicycle commutes, and everyday travels. I’d wager that the DayBreak carries my laptop even more often than my hiking gear.
The REI Flash 22 is venerable ultralight choice. It’s a little lighter on the budget too, at $60
Regarding budget choices, Walmart has serviceable day packs for less than $20.
Go here for my full review of the Hyperlite Daybreak, with a comparison chart that lists even more daypacks.
Hiking poles are good for dealing with slippery ice and snow, but it’s less often that you’ll hear about traction devices. Rather than full fledged mountain-climbing crampons, YakTrax makes simpler devices for added friction.
For a higher-quality choice, I like Kahtoola Microspikes. They provide the best combination of reliable traction, reasonable weight, and less headaches (the cheap ones tend to slip off your shoes). I used mine for almost a decade of winters, mostly on the upper reaches of Grand Canyon’s treacherous trails.
For a budget version of these spikes, look here on Amazon.
Slide Stopper Cleats are an even cheaper and lighter option. I owned these before investing in the Kahtoola’s, but they always wanted to slip out of place. I thought I’d solved the slippage by tying them into my shoelaces, but then they still slid up the outside of my shoes. They’re not a bad option if you need something for just a single trip.
Tell me why I’m wrong about my gear in the comments below, so I can steal your ideas!