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Expedition Essentials: Backpacking Gear

Fall backpacking means less crowds, more colors, and better opportunities for trekking without summer's heat or bugs. Before you reach the trailhead, be sure to pack in these 10 essential gear items for your next backpacking adventure.


In the survivalist competition show “Alone” - which we highly recommend you binge if you haven’t been converted already - each contestant is allotted only 10 items for the duration of their isolation in the wilderness. Yes, that’s extreme, even in spite of each contestant’s standing as an expert survivalist. However, to kick off our #ExpeditionEssentials series, we want to provide our own top 10 list of essential gear for any backpacking venture into the backcountry.

Please note that there are several extremely important factors to consider when preparing for any backcountry expedition. These include the expected length of your trip, climate, your fitness level, pack weight, access to water, and whether you will be hiking solo or with a crew (if with a crew, also factor in their backpacking experience levels).

These 10 items are intended to cover your bases regardless of these factors, but you should absolutely feel free to substitute, omit, or supplement these items if circumstances dictate otherwise. Also, we have omitted essential clothing items, including hiking boots or shoes, since we assume you will not be backpacking on “Naked and Afraid.”

Without further ado, here are our top ten essential backpacking items:

1. Backpack

Spoiler alert: if you’re heading out on a backpacking trip, you’re going to need a good backpack to get the job done. When selecting a good backpack - especially your first pack - we highly recommend that you visit a reputable retailer like REI to get one fitted for you. Your backpack should be lightweight (2-5 lbs), hold anywhere from 30 to 70 liters depending on the length of your trip, and fit comfortably on the hips and in the shoulders. Other specifications to consider include a backpack’s padding, ventilation, access, pocket, and water reservoir features.

Bonus item: Daypack. Smaller daypacks are very useful for shorter trips out of basecamp, such as a quick summit venture or supply run. Several newer backpacks even feature removable daypacks that are designed directly into their top lid or reservoir pocket.

2. Lightweight Shelter

In true survival scenarios, the three most important problems to resolve are sources of shelter, water, and food. Of these three necessities, most backpackers are unaware that shelter is the most time-sensitive - in extremely harsh environments, you can only survive for 3 hours without an adequate shelter. Fortunately for backpackers, there is a plethora of lightweight, durable, and easy-to-assemble options of tent shelters to choose from. When selecting a tent, important factors to consider include capacity (how many people will be sharing the space), weight and size when packed (approximately 2.5 lbs per person), ease of assembly, durability, seasonality (most tents sold are 3-season), and “live-ability” features like pockets, windows, and interior space.

Bonus item: Hammock Camping. Outdoor equipment manufacturers like Eno have recently placed more of an emphasis on producing “hammock camping” equipment as an alternative to tent camping. Hammock camping is generally lighter weight than conventional tents, takes up less space in a backpack, and includes features like a rain fly and bug net. This option is obviously tree-dependent and is more suitable to solo-trekking, but hammock camping can serve as a viable and enjoyable reason to leave the tent behind for certain trips.

3. Water Bottle and Filtration/Purification System

Under average conditions, you can survive for 3 days without water. For the vast majority of day hikes, that dire fact fortunately does not enter the equation. For backpacking expeditions and day hike gone wrong, however, packing in adequate water containment and filtration or purification gear becomes exponentially more important. Always pack in a water bottle or bladder (like a camelback), with the size depending on the length of your trip, climate, activity level, anticipated access to water sources, and cooking needs (dehydrated food sources typically require a cup or two of boiled water). For deciding between a water filter vs. purifier, there are a myriad of considerations to take into account. The most important factors include whether you anticipate viral contaminants from humans or livestock (go with a purifier), volume of water to purify, ease of use, weight and size within pack, and speed of filtration. Stay tuned for a future breakdown and ranking of the various water filters and purifiers that are available on the market.

4. Food

The last of the “three survival necessities” is food, without which the average person can survive for 3 weeks. While I have gone for a few days on shorter trips surviving on just dried fruit, trail mix, and beef jerky before, the niche “backpacker meal” market has exploded recently in dishes, flavors, meal options, and allergy-sensitive options available to consumers. Beyond being lightweight and ready to serve in a matter of minutes, my favorite aspect of these pre-made, dehydrated meals is that they are truly delicious. Backpacker’s Pantry tends to be the favorite vendor of these meals amongst my hiking crew, but you also can’t go wrong with Mountain House, Peak Refuel, and AlpineAire Foods’ options.

Bonus item: Bear Canister. While this item is less of a necessity in even the remotest parts of the Detroit region vs. in the upper peninsula or out west, we still recommend purchasing a bear canister for both food storage and smaller-critter prevention (raccoons and coyotes would also love a bite of your leftover Pad Thai backpacker meal). Another option is purchasing a bear-resistant Ursack, although this option is also tree and rope -dependent. Regardless of option, food should be stored overnight away from your camp - ideally 100 yards if there is a risk of bears or other predators where you’re camping.

5. First-Aid Kit

No backpack is complete without at least a small first-aid kit included within an easily-accessible compartment. Any pre-assembled first-aid kit should include treatments for blisters, adhesive bandages of various sizes, several gauze pads, adhesive tape, disinfecting ointment, over-the-counter pain medication, and nitrile gloves. The contents of your first-aid kit should also be modified based on the length of your trip, the number of people involved, and the degree of wilderness medical training among your backpacking team (I fortunately hike almost exclusively with a team of doctors - virtually all of my undergrad buddies went to medical school).

Bonus Item: Satellite Messenger. While less important in the Detroit region, the peace of mind that comes with packing in a personal locator beacon (“PLB”) or satellite messenger cannot be overstated. When activated in an emergency, these gadgets will determine your position using GPS and send a message via satellite. A PLB or satellite will work in remote locations where cell signals die off - an all-too-familiar experience for those of us living amidst the notorious cell coverage that defines Southeast Michigan.

6. Navigation Tools

There are few worse feelings, and certainly none more surprising, than the moment that you realize that you are lost in the wilderness. Fortunately, with the right navigation tools and training, any misstep along the journey can be quickly remedied and redirected. The most common navigation tool among modern backpackers is a well-charged cell phone with pre-downloaded trail maps (such as those maintained on AllTrails), but you should also always carry a compass and at least one hard-copy version of a trail map (keep in a water-proof container).