Sarah Herron

What’s In My Pack?: Get These Backpacking Essentials

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a layflat display of everything packed into a woman's backpack for an overnight adventure

Four-years-and-counting and backpacking continues to be an incredible tool for me to mentally and emotionally reset. Since learning, I’ve hosted backpacking retreats for Tents Without Gents and am comfortable backpacking with a group of friends—not just my trusty adventure guide, Dylan Brown.

For the uninitiated, backpacking can seem overwhelming—and I get it! But, if you’re reading this post it means you are either ready to step outside of your comfort zone OR you are looking to get recommendations on these backpacking essentials.

Gear: What’s important

Gear isn’t the end-all of an outdoor adventure, but making solid equipment choices can be essential and important.  Everyone’s backpacking gear list can be personalized depending on individual needs and a willingness to shlep the weight! But the name of the game is to carry the least amount of claimed weight as possible. When you’re hiking for 30+ miles, every ounce on your back matters. That said, a basic kit usually includes a backpacking tent, kitchen set, water filter, pad & sleeping bag and some other items. (Some people opt to sleep in hammocks, build shelters, or stay in shelters along specific trails.) If you’re going with a group and plan to share a tent or kitchen set-up, pieces can be divided among everyone’s packs.

For snoozing, you’ll need a sleeping bag (check that the temperature rating will shield the overnight lows), and a sleeping pad that both fit your frame. 

You might be tempted to pack a sandwich and skip cooking outside but don’t! It’s so comforting and satisfying to enjoy a warm meal after a well-earned hike. So, bring backcountry cookware, a backpacking stove, and an adequate amount of fuel. 

If you don’t own any of this gear, yet, don’t worry: Many gear rental programs are popping up around the country. Check with your local gear shop and they can help point you in the right direction.

How to Pack

Dress in layers and pack extra clothes (puffy, hat, gloves) for nighttime, when the temperatures drop. Opt for synthetic or wool-blend fabrics, rather than cotton, because they dry fast. Think about clothes that fit well beneath a weighted backpacking pack like hiking shorts with a comfortable waistband and a t-shirt with shoulder coverage. I usually bring one extra set of socks and undies but rewear my day clothes. Don’t forget your headlamp.

Sun protection is vital: pack a hat, sunglasses, sunscreen, lip balm with SPF, and a Buff. If you’re going to extremely high altitudes consider wearing protective sun gloves! 

Here are my treasured tried-and-true gear pieces that I never leave at home: 

The Backpack

I can’t say enough good things about the long-time brand Deuter, which was founded in 1898! Both packs I own by Deuter are women’s-specific, so the shoulder straps are narrower, and the torso length is adjustable, which can accommodate shorter sizes. The hip belt is tapered to fit against the curvature of the hips—the plush lower back support is AMAZING. The shoulders and waist are well-padded and cushy. And the back panel has the brand’s “Aircomfort” design: a tensioned mesh panel suspends the pack off your back, which allows airflow to cool you down. A rain cover is integrated into the pack. Also, the bags are made out of ripstop nylon, a super durable material. Mine don’t even show any signs of the rugged places we’ve gone together. Lastly, I love that this pack can be entered from the top AND the front AND the bottom, for the sleeping bag compartment. When I’m fishing out gear, I don’t need to unpack everything. 

Deuter Aircontact Lite SL 60+10L Backpack
The Deuter Aircontact Lite SL 60+10L Backpack is the big sister to the Futura Vario 45L but are you ready for this? It actually weighs LESS. This backpack is a great pack to graduate to once you’ve mastered your backpacking skills and are ready to carry a heavier load. This is a hauler of choice when embarking on a thru-hike along the Appalachian Trail. The moisture-controlling back panel keeps us comfortably cool on long, steep treks, while the X-frame evenly distributes the load to our hip belt for a comfortable, stable carry.
Claimed weight: 4lb 3oz

Deuter Futura Vario Backpack
The Deuter Futura Vario 45+10 SL Backpack is 45L (L stands for liters), but expands to 55L. THis bag is great for smaller backpacking trips where you may be splitting the load with a friend, or can pack on the lighter side. This is an excellent bag for beginners who will be backpacking with a partner.
Claimed weight: 4lb 7oz

Big Agnes Tiger Wall UL2 Tent: 2-Person 3-Season
The tent model I own is no longer made by Big Agnes, but this is their replacement piece and as soon as mine kicks rocks, I’ll be looking to the Big Agnes Tiger Wall UL2. Technically this tent is a 2-person tent, but it’s so light weight, having the extra space inside my tent is worth it. I like to keep all of my gear inside my tent at night incase precipitation or dew forms. I’ve also found that having side vestibules / door is so much easier to get in and out of rather than at the head of the tent (especially when you’re bundled up and have to pee in the middle of the night).
Claimed weight: 2lb 8oz

LEKI Cressida Cor-Tec Trekking Poles
The LEKI Cressida Cor-Tec Trekking Poles are designed for comfort on long days on the trail. Their length is easily adjusted with the SpeedLock Plus locking system that can even be used while wearing gloves. The poles adjust down small enough to comfortably stay out of the way when they’re attached to your pack.
Claimed Weight: 1lb 0.2oz

NEMO Equipment Aya 15 Sleeping Bag 
I had a very hard time finding a sleeping bag that I love. I tend to get cold when I camp out, but I need a sleeping bag that’s also super lightweight for backpacking. Then I found Aya. This bag’s warmth rating is 15 degrees Fahrenheit (remember, freezing point is 32 degrees Fahrenheit). The bag has 800-fill down insulation that’s section-treated with water-resistance, waterproofing, and Nikwax, so the bag retains warmth in damp environments. The design is tailored to women via the head contour, foot box shape, and contoured core shape. I love the cocoon hood and blanket flap, since I curl up when I sleep. The zipper vents are awesome, in case I get too hot. And, the bag is only 2 pounds, 1 ounce, which is great for backpacking or multi-day stand-up paddleboarding. 
Claimed Weight: [regular] 2lb 1oz [long] 2lb 2oz

Therm-a-Rest ProLite Plus Sleeping Pad 
This Therm-a-Rest sleeping pad is surprisingly comfortable despite how thin it is! I’m even a side-sleeper. Plus, it’s self-inflating, so you only need to top off the final bit rather than gassing yourself as you arrange camp. This pad is also extremely lightweight and small when rolled up, so it’s super for backpacking. I opt for the women’s LONG, because the regular is a little too petite for me.
Claimed Weight: [small] 1lb, [regular] 1lb 7oz, [large] 1lb 15oz

Therm-a-Rest Compressible Pillow
I NEED to sleep with a big, plush pillow, which can be hard to do when you’re backpacking. I tried so many inflatable and small down-fill pillows but none were supportive enough. This Therm-a-Rest pillow was a turning point! It’s the closest match to my at-home pillow that I’ve found. It’s lightweight, full of tiny soft-foam cubes, and expands when you unroll it. It comes in three sizes. I take the size small when I go backpacking, and the size medium when I am car camping. Also, this pillow is great for air travel or sleeping in the car on long road trips. This pillow was a lifesaver when I traveled across the Atlantic to trek up Mount Kilimanjaro.
Claimed Weight: *not given

Good To-Go dehydrated meals
We’ve tried ALL types of packaged dehydrated meals. Good To-Go is my number one favorite. The curry, noodle, and rice recipes are all delicious. 
Claimed Weight: 6.7oz

Snow Peak Trek 900 Titanium Cookset 
I use this compact frying pan and pot cookset as a catch-all for eating on overnight SUP and backpacking trips, as well as for coffee in the morning. The capacity is 30 fluid ounces. At a weight of only 6.2 ounces, it’s incredibly light to bring along. 
Claimed Weight: 6.2oz

The Merrell Moab 2 Mid Waterproof Hiking Boot 
After many years being a Danner brand loyalist, I had to make the switch to Merrell last summer while on a roadtrip. My feet had somehow grown (???) in the middle of the trip and I was getting excruciating blisters in between my toes while backpacking through the Sawtooths. I picked up a pair of these Merrells at a retailer because they were recommended to me based on their “wide toe box” and well, they CHANGED MY LIFE. They’re all I have worn ever since.
Claimed Weight: 1lb 16oz

Down Slippers
I love the Teva Ember Moc Shearling Shoe, a Slipper-style sneaker for everyday warmth, or The North Face Women’s ThermoBall Traction Bootie.

Rumpl Blanket
My Down Puffy Rumpl blanket is a must. I get cold easily, and this item is super lightweight. I strap it onto my backpack and bring it along to have at camp and for cool evenings.
Claimed Weight: 1lb 12.8oz

Water Filter
For water, I pack my LifeStraw Go water bottle (you can fill it straight from a lake or stream), and a Platypus GravityWorks 6L Filter System, which is a gravity filter. The latter is VERY convenient, but may need a second set of hands to get it set up. (I find it challenging with one hand, but if I needed to, I could do it by myself.)
Claimed weight: *not given

Garmin inReach Mini Satellite Communicator 
We always carry a satellite (SAT) communicator with us. You can send texts from it, since it pairs to your phone via bluetooth, but we don’t use it for texting. It is merely for emergencies. And, if we are out on long trips, we can drop pins for family members at home who can watch our progress. I took this with me on my Mount Kilimanjaro expedition, and my mom was able to track our ascent. 
Claimed weight: 3.5oz

Anything that I missed? Leave your suggestions in the comments, and happy trails!

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