With chaos in the headlines and smartphones taking over seemingly every facet of our lives, it’s no wonder that backpacking is on the rise as a simple, back-to-roots activity where nature lovers can fully unplug and unwind for a few days.
The number-one complaint I hear from friends who want to get into backpacking is that the gear requirements create a high barrier for entry, even for experienced car campers. Weight is at a premium, as are necessities like an ultra-warm sleeping bag and a large trekking rucksack.
I’ve been an avid backpacker for seven years, and I’ve tested countless assortments of gear out in the field. I’ve hiked in every US national park and on all seven continents, so I’d like to think that my awareness of what works across a variety of different climates is pretty darn high. To put together this list of the top backpacking gear, I also recruited a few of my favorite outdoors professionals to suggest their must-have pieces.
Here is the best gear for backpackers of any skill level, from newbies to dust-covered old-timers.
Best backpacking backpacks
“A light backpack provides the ultimate foundation for all of my backpacking adventures,” says writer Bernadette Rankin. REI’s Flash 55 provides a little something for everyone: It’s affordable, durable and loaded with thoughtful pockets. “From the highest of peaks in Colorado to the deepest of journeys into the heart of the Grand Canyon, this backpack is THE one I trust absolutely,” she says.
Osprey’s backpacks have reached legendary status in the outdoor world, partially because of their copious high-end features and the brand’s fool-proof All Mighty Guarantee. “I have a previous generation of this backpack and have loved it ever since I got it. It’s got tons of padding, and its weight distribution makes carrying all your gear a lot easier than you’d think,” says CNN Underscored editor Kai Burkhardt. Want something even more roomy? Osprey offers the same pack in a 65-liter version.
For trekkers who like to haul loads of gear and tasty treats deep into the backcountry (or who just want to set up a solid base camp and day hike from there), there’s no better option than Gregory’s Baltoro/Deva series. Not only is this pack a durable workhorse that’s gone with me on the High Sierra and John Muir Trails but it’s also comfortable as heck when I’m shouldering a heavy load.
“I feel like some backpackers get a huge backpack just to get the extra space, but sometimes having a slightly smaller pack can force you to pack more efficiently and avoid redundant or unnecessary supplies,” says Dustin Christensen, founder of outdoor hub Territory Supply. Gossamer Gear’s bestselling Mariposa 60 embodies that ethos wholeheartedly. A true ultra-light pack, weighing in at a mere 2 pounds, this bag also boasts large side pockets and a spacious top pouch for storing easy-access essentials.
Best backpacking tents
Big Agnes is often the go-to name brand for hikers seeking an ultra-light, freestanding shelter, and the Copper Spur HV UL2 is one of the best on the market today, coming in at a featherlight 2 pounds, 11 ounces. “It’s ultra-light, packable and surprisingly roomy so you don’t feel like you’re sleeping in a coffin,” says “Women Who Hike” author and CNN contributor Heather Balogh Rochfort. “But it’s not cheap,” she adds.
Another excellent lightweight tent option, Nemo’s Dragonfly Osmo has a minimum trail weight of only 2 pounds, 10 ounces. Yet, somehow, the brand manages to pack a floor area of 29 square feet and a peak height of 41 inches into that petite package. Plus, the tent is backed by Nemo’s Lifetime Warranty.
Of course, many serious hikers prefer to opt for a trekking pole-supported shelter to cut down on weight when they know they’ll be out for several days at a time. “I love saving weight and space while saving my knees by using a trekking pole shelter instead of carrying a tent with its own set of dedicated poles,” says adventurer and award-winning outdoor romance author Stacy Gold. With a peak height of nearly 47 inches and a trail weight of 2 pounds, 6.5 ounces, it’s a spacious alternative to freestanding tents.
If you’re looking for a solid tent but are willing to sacrifice a little bit of weight for more interior room, the Nemo Dagger has a fantastic weight-to-space ratio. This two-person version has enough room for two people to actually sleep next to each other without cuddling, plus enough room at your feet for spare gear or even a dog. Burkhardt has used this tent for both backpacking and car camping, and it’s held up through everything from a hurricane outside of Acadia National Park to intense Colorado summers.
Best backpacking sleeping gear
If you’re a vegan, allergic to down or simply more into the feel of a synthetic bag, check out Nemo’s Forte Endless Promise sleeping bag. It’s surprisingly lightweight for a down-alternative bag, weighing in at a scant 2 pounds for a regular-length bag with a 35-degree-Fahrenheit temperature rating. “It packs surprisingly small, is warm and has a multitude of small details like its draft collar and unrestrictive shape that make it extra comfortable,” says Burkhardt.
When people ask me what my favorite camping purchase under $100 is, I always mention the super-cozy Fillo Elite Pillow from Nemo. It has single-handedly saved me from neck aches and cranky mornings in the wilderness. Packing down to the size of a lime and boasting a weight of 2.8 ounces, it’s a no-brainer that I always toss it into my pack.
“I use a backpacking quilt in lieu of a sleeping bag. It’s light and versatile, so I can use it easily whether I’m sleeping in a tent or hammock and in cool or warm weather,” says Christensen. The Corus quilt has a 20-degree-Fahrenheit temperature rating and is warm enough to keep most campers happy for three seasons of use while boasting the super-light weight (1 pound, 10 ounces for a size regular) that serious thru-hikers might crave when they’re pushing big miles.
It’s not the cheapest (or the quietest) pad on the market, but it is one of the lightest and most comfortable, and after two years of slogging up burly alpine trails in the Sierra Nevada and trying to cut my pack weight, I can safely say that Therm-a-Rest’s NeoAir XLite is my favorite sleeping pad in my gear closet. And with an R-value of 4.5, it’s warm enough for shoulder season expeditions too.
“I only made the mistake of backpacking at elevation in the early months of the year without an insulated camping pad once,” says Contravans founder Kurt Bradler. That’s why he heartily recommends Big Agnes’ Rapide SL Insulated Sleeping Pad, which weighs a mere 1 pound, 3 ounces for a size regular. Plus, a high-volume valve allows for easy inflation and deflation when you’re setting up and breaking down.
“If you’re strict on size and weight but still want to bring a pillow, you can’t really beat this one from Outdoor Vitals,” says Burkhardt. “It’s comfortable enough, can be blown up in two and a half breaths and packs down smaller than a pair of socks.” At 2.6 ounces, it even beats my beloved Fillo Elite, weight-wise.
Kelty’s Cosmic Down sleeping bag is a plush, ultra-warm, budget-friendly sleeping bag that’s great for both beginners and seasoned outdoors people. “It’s a rarity to snag a down sleeping bag for less than $200, and the Cosmic Down is cozy and comfy,” says Rochfort.
Best backpacking cooking gear
Along with my ultra-light camping stove, GSI’s Pinnacle Dualist cooking set was one of the first things I purchased when I first began my sleep-in-the-dirt journey almost seven years ago. To this day, I still use it regularly, as its insulated bowls, strainer lid and just-the-right-size pot are the perfect companions for overnight treks with a partner in tow. It’s great for car camping too.
Personally, I was a die-hard Pocket Rocket girl for five years, until I spent three weeks hiking the JMT and saw the Jetboil. If you primarily use your pot to boil water and don’t need a larger vessel (like the Pinnacle Dualist provides), it’s an excellent, all-in-one solution that even features a clickable fuel-igniting button.
Erica Zazo, a Chicago-based writer and frequent contributor to CNN Underscored, actually prefers her ultra-light Pocket Rocket 2 stove to Jetboil’s popular cooking system. “I much more enjoy the smaller stove because it is more compact and saves a lot of weight in my backpack,” she says. Just don’t forget to pick up some fuel canisters while you’re at it.
After trying what feels like nearly every dehydrated meal on the planet, I’ve come to the conclusion that Backpacker’s Pantry is the best of the widely available brands you’re likely to encounter in your local gear shop. In my years of peak bagging and traipsing across the Rocky Mountains, the Pad Thai flavor is always a big hit, and it’s vegan.
Best backpacking clothing
Boasting the best warmth-to-weight ratio of any of Patagonia’s jackets (only 9.3 ounces), the Micro Puff Hoody is a fantastic down alternative that’s eco-friendly and packs down super small. “I was a die hard fleece-plus-shell or down puffy person, depending on the weather, for years, but the Micro Puff’s combination of low weight and high-temperature versatility (along with insulating when wet) has converted me to the synthetic jacket side,” says Gold.
A good, non-cotton sun hat is hard to find in my experience, and Sunday Afternoons offers loads of hiker-approved options. I dig the Sun Tripper Cap because of its foldable clamshell brim and rear cinch cord. Even on the windiest days, I can easily tighten it or stuff the hat into my pocket.
“I wore this buff across the snow fields of Mount Adams, in Washington, and remained sunburn-free in the glare of the high-altitude sun,” says Rankin. Neck buffs are becoming increasingly popular these days, and they can double as a scarf or an impromptu balaclava on chilly winter excursions.
Not to get too real, but smells can become pretty funky when you’re in the backcountry sweating and hiking for days on end. “The odor-beating properties of wool, combined with their comfort in a range of temperatures, turned me into a convert on a five-day trip,” says Gold of Icebreaker’s Merino underwear lineup. Want a bra to match? Check out the brand’s Sprite racerback design.
I learned the hard way while hiking the John Muir Trail that sun shirts are paramount when you’re going to be trekking above 10,000 feet. After recovering from a minor bout of UV poisoning (yes, that’s a real thing), I got smart and picked up a few of Rab’s super-light Force Hoodies to finish out my thru-hike.
Boasting epic water resistance, wind-proofing and stretch, Outdoor Research’s Ferrosi Pants are a bestseller for a reason. While testing these babies for a larger CNN feature, I held them under my sink faucet for 30 seconds and watched beads of water stream off the pant leg, barely soaking through at all. In a matter of minutes, they were completely dry again. As if that weren’t enough, they’re hyper-light at only 8.95 ounces.
There’s a reason nearly every hiker on the Pacific Crest and Appalachian Trails nabs a handful of Darn Tough socks before setting off on their grand adventure: The brand stands by its products with a lifetime guarantee. Personally, I’ve had several pairs of these socks and never needed to mail them in, though, and the fabric is incredibly durable, sweat-wicking and perfectly fitted to my soles. Bonus points for helping me stay blister-free on big days in the mountains.
Much like the underwear that Gold recommended, Artilect’s all-new Sprint Tee won’t stink up immediately after you sweat in it, a feat your tentmates will thank you for. Plus, this ain’t your grandma’s itchy old wool. The brand weaves all its products with super-fine Nuyarn, which has a cozy next-to-skin feel for all your athletic endeavors.
Cheaper than an alpine shell and featherlight at just 6.3 ounces, Outdoor Research’s Helium Rain Jacket is the ideal stuff-it-in-your-pack solution for temperamental climates when rain is almost always on the menu. Made with eco-friendly, Bluesign-approved Pertex Shield Diamond Fuse 2.5-layer fabric and ripstop nylon, this fully seam-taped wonder is a cinch to pack down into its chest pocket that doubles as a stuff sack.
This is the jacket that kept me safe and sane on a recent six-day backpacking journey across the rainy, muddy, rocky Tasmanian wilds, in which my group got pummeled with freezing rain for four straight days. The shell is designed with breathable Gore-Tex and boasts armpit zippers to keep you well-vented on long uphills in the gnarliest weather. Sure, it’s pricier than most, but since it can double as an alpine shell and is covered by Arc’teryx’s practical product lifetime warranty, I consider it a fabulous investment in your gear closet, particularly if you call a rainy locale home.
Best backpacking boots and shoes
Frequently topping the best-of lists, the Ultra Raptor II is a super-sturdy hiking boot from the fine folks at La Sportiva. Waterproof and supportive, with a slick over-the-ankle profile, these shoes are also incredibly light, at just 2 pounds, 1 ounce per pair.
Trail runners are really having a moment, and Christensen says he loves Altra’s Lone Peaks when he wants something ultralight and grippy on his feet. With no-slip lacing and big-time traction lugs, the 7s are a welcome iteration of this bestselling shoe. “I usually try to wear trail runners instead of bulky hiking boots since they feel lighter and more breathable during hot summer trips when I’m usually backpacking,” says Christensen.
With loads of waterproof and light-on-your-feet options, Vasque is a staple in the outdoor footwear scene. The Breeze is a popular, ever-evolving shoe that’s been on the market for two decades, and when you feel its superior waterproofing, soft Nubuck and grippy outsoles, you’ll understand why.
Best backpacking gear
“Squatting at the side of a river while hand-pumping clean water for 30 minutes is the worst,” says Rochfort, which is why she recommended Katadyn’s fast-flowing BeFree pouch filter system. The BeFree Filter is lightweight, portable and easy to use. Plus, it connects to a variety of portable pouches for in-camp water access or on-the-go hydration.
Why haul in a full camping or backpacking chair when you could turn your sleeping pad into a cozy lounger? Therm-a-Rest’s Trekker Chair does just that, saving you weight and space inside your backpack. “Some people swear by taking a lightweight chair, but a chair kit is so much lighter and smaller,” says Gold. “Unless I have a table or find a tall enough rock to cook on, it’s easier and more comfortable to be on the ground instead of elevated.”
While some hikers prefer to bring hard-shell water bottles along for the trek, Rankin suggests an easy-to-sip Hydrapak Force reservoir, so that she isn’t fumbling for plastic bottles all day. “I take this hydration system with me everywhere, but most recently on my hike to the summit of South Sister in Oregon, which extended to 12 hours, and I didn’t run out of water,” she says.
In what has since become a legendary review here at CNN Underscored, Rochfort highly recommended the discreet, antimicrobial Kula Cloth as a bomber solution for ladies who need to pop a squat while in the woods. I’ve brought mine on countless treks across the United States, and while I was a bit skeptical at first about spending $20 for what is essentially a glorified strip of reusable toilet cloth, I’ve since grown to love my Kula immensely.
At only 13.6 ounces for the pair, the Flash Carbon Trekking Poles are as lightweight as they are affordable — for carbon fiber poles, that is. These sleek hiking sticks pack down to a slim 64 centimeters for easy transport, and they’ll seriously help absorb harmful joint impact on gnarly downhills. Rankin loves them for their uphill assistance too. “Trekking poles help me successfully power up impossible-looking backcountry ascents while balancing my heavy backpack load,” she says.
Ursack is the best-of-the-best when it comes to hangable bear bags for food storage. Each design is constructed with puncture-proof fabric and put to the test against a real-deal grizzly bear. “This is a great alternative to a hard-sided bear canister because it’s flexible and takes up less space in your pack,” says Bradler.
Many public lands (and major national parks like Yosemite) require a hard-sided bear canister for food storage when out backpacking. Though cumbersome, heavy and huge-seeming inside a 60-liter backpack, they are, by far, the most effective way to guard your food against determined bears in a high-use campground or trekking area. Simply store all your smellables in it, 100 feet away from your camp, preferably downwind.
When you start to get serious about long-distance hiking and backpacking, investing in a solid, lightweight pair of trekking poles is key to protecting the longevity of your joints, which are helping carry a whole mess of extra weight up and down rough, rocky paths. Black Diamond’s Distance FLZs are considered the crème de la crème of ultra-light poles, weighing in at a scant 13.8 ounces for the smallest size. Gold recommended this adjustable set, in particular, to pair with a trekking pole-supported shelter.
“A chair is definitely not a necessity, but I’ve never regretted bringing one: They’re relatively light, don’t take up much space and offer a welcome rest for your feet after a long day of backcountry hiking,” says Christensen of Helinox’s 1-pound Chair Zero. After all, who wants to sit on the cold, hard ground after hours of slogging up a mountain? (Especially if you’re in an area with ticks.)