The most daunting aspect of striking-out on your first backpacking adventure is not the mileage, the prowling creatures lurking in shadowy forests or even the unpredictable and unforgiving elements. It is stepping into an outfitter, like REI or Whole Earth Provision Co., finding myriad products produced by countless name brands and absorbing all the pitches and slogans about how these boxers are odor resistant and this stove is ultra-lightweight while that bear spray wicks moisture somehow. The simple truth is, no one can test everything and too many reviews are based on initial use.
The following is a list of 5 backpacking essentials that allow for longer and more comfortable excursions. Each item is “old” in two ways — “old” by outfitter standards (i.e., discontinued and/or outmoded) and “old” in that I’ve used them regularly for anywhere from 4 to 10 years. These products are great on their own but also hint at the quality of their successors.
A quick note: I don’t mind putting money down but I don’t buy super expensive gear. Generally, I like REI products because I’ve had fantastic luck with them and they tend to be reasonably priced. Also (and this is paramount), lightweight is key but ultra-lightweight is a misleading ideal. To save a few ounces (especially on boots and backpacks), you sacrifice features that make the product durable, bearable and wearable. (For instance, ultra-lightweight backpacks often lack sturdy frames and so strain your back more so than slightly heavier but much sturdier alternatives.) Eventually, you got to stop cutting ounces and train for stronger legs.
1) Katadyn Hiker Microfilter ($74.95)
Newer Alternative: Katadyn Hiker Pro Microfilter ($84.95)
Aside from (of course) a backpack, the Katadyn Hiker Microfilter is THE backpacking essential. We puny humans don’t last long without water, water is likely the heaviest thing you’ll carry, and water just lying around in pools and streams along the trail is often infested with microorganisms that make you poop sideways. A good, lightweight water-filtration system makes long hikes doable. Katadyn’s Hiker is the standard. Simply drop one tube in a stream and pump the Hiker to pull water through the filter and spit it out in your bottle or water bladder.
The Katadyn Hiker Pro Microfilter is among the most rated, highest rated, and bestselling water filtration systems on REI.com. There really is no notable difference between the Hiker and the Hiker Pro (except that the former is gray while the latter is black, so there’s that). The Hiker Pro does come with a field maintenance kit, which you can also purchase separately with a replacement filter. Needless to say, I don’t intend to upgrade anytime soon.
2) Tarptent Moment (No longer available new)
Newer Alternative: Tarptent Moment DW ($295)
This 1-person tent weighs under 2lbs and packs down to just larger than my forearm and outstretched hand. A single pole bows over the middle and a stake at each end keeps the tent taut and upright against gravity, heavy rain and stiff winds. The design is ingenious and allows for the best ventilation I have ever experienced in any tent. The “bathtub” floor curls up into the “no-see-um mesh.” You’d be camping in pretty high water before you’d start taking any in your tent.
Though it does have fantastic ventilation and 1 wide-open vestibule fly to allow for even more breathability, the Moment is a single uninterrupted piece of mesh and tarp and has no removable rain fly. This means no star gazing from within the tent (though you can always, I dunno, step outside the tent and risk bug bites for such endeavors) and no cross-breeze (though I can’t emphasize enough just how well this tent ventilates). Also, the Moment is certainly not a 4-season tent. I slept just fine in the mid-30s but wouldn’t take my Moment into the 20s or below.
The newer model, Tarptent Moment DW, is double-walled and allows you to remove the rain fly (for star gazing, of course) or to setup the fly without the inner mesh to just catch some shade or get out of the rain. The Moment DW also has two vestibules for entry/exit from either side, which allows for a cross-breeze and even greater ventilation when rolled up. All these bonuses add a whopping 2 ounces to the Moment DW’s overall weight. Tarptent is simply brilliant.
3) Lowa Zephyr Mid Hiking Boot ($185)
Newer Alternative: Lowa Zephyr GTX Mid TF Hiking Boot ($200)
If there is no other praise I could give the Lowa Zephyr it is this: The Lowa Zephyr is the ONLY hiking boot I have ever worn that has NEVER given me a blister. ‘Nuff said but they’re also comfortable, breathable so my feet don’t sweat much even in warm weather, lightweight though sturdy enough for long hikes, and the rubber soles grip rocks well. The downside: My wife thinks they’re ugly.
The newer model, Lowa Zephyr GTX Mid TF Hiking Boot, is a mouthful and $15 more than its predecessor for GoreTex waterproofing and 3.6 ounces shaved off the total weight. I’ve had poor luck with GoreTex “waterproofing” (which in my experience can, at best, be described as “water-resisting”). I find that if a product is truly waterproof, your feet get sweaty and swampy. What keeps water out, keeps water in. I used to wear demonic little blister factories called Asolo TPS 520 GTX Evo Hiking Boots for trails that I thought would get wet or mucky. Now, I tend to hike in my Zephyrs no matter the trail. I’d rather have a boot that gets wet and dries quickly than traps water and sweat and, in doing so, softens my feet so that the skin is more easily torn or blistered.
4) REI Mars 80 Pack (No longer available new)
Newer Alternatives: REI Yosemite 75 Pack ($179) or REI Traverse 85 Pack ($279)
This beast has a pad on the bottom so that the base of its sturdy frame sits right on your tailbone. The result is like having a second spine. The weight stays on your hips and off your back and shoulders. The Mars 80 is the reason I now shy away from ultra-lightweight backpacks. I’ve been able to comfortably carry several days’ worth of gear and not feel the pinch on my shoulders or the lower back exhaustion I had come to expect when backpacking. The downside: I have the world’s flattest butt and, every few miles, have to shimmy the pack back on my hips and tailbone to keep it in place. Aside from my posterior shortcomings, this pack was a solid purchase.
REI’s current big packs, the Yosemite 75 ($179) at 4lbs-12oz and the Traverse 85 ($279) at 5lbs-4oz, are both significantly lighter than the Mars 80 at 5lbs-12oz. All three have sturdy aluminum frames but the Traverse 85 has all the bells and whistles: ripstop nylon (as opposed to boring ol’ nylon), 11 pockets and a main compartment (the Mars 80 has 7 pockets and the Yosemite 75 only has 3), suspended mesh back panel (like fancy Osprey packs), raincover, and a removable daypack (which totally sounds necessary).
All things considered, though, if I were to buy a big pack today, it would probably be the Traverse 85’s little brother, the REI Traverse 70 Pack ($239).
5) MSR PocketRocket ($39.95)
Newer Alternative: MSR MicroRocket ($59.95)
The PocketRocket is a valve with a collapsible perch for whatever you hope to cook on or boil water in. That’s basically it. At 3 ounces and 4.1 x 2.1 x 2 inches, it’s just about as ultra-lightweight and packable as stoves come. A PocketRocket has been cooking my backcountry dinners for nearly a decade. It’s really all you need.
I see no reason to upgrade my PocketRocket anytime soon. However, MSR has many backpacking stoves, including the much bulkier (though arguably more convenient) WindBurner ($130) designed like the JetBoil system to offer greater stability and fire that burns despite the stiffest winds. (I’ve yet to find winds too stiff for my PocketRocket though.) Another possible upgrade is the MSR MicroRocket, which is basically the PocketRocket made almost absurdly tiny. The MicroRocket clocks-in at 2.6 ounces and 3 x 2 x 2 inches. I’m not sure if the 1.1 x 0.1 x 0 inch and 0.4 ounce difference justifies spending $20 more for the MicroRocket than the PocketRocket but ultra-ultra-almost-nonexistent-lightweight is cool, I guess.
To wrap it all up, do your research and try to get what best suits you and your prospective adventures. Hopefully, this list can help aim your wallet or, at least, ease your nerves when throwing down big cash on gear to make roughin’ it go smoothly. Don’t fret. It’s worth it just to get outside and stay outside.