Sleep System- Your sleep system is hands down the most important decision when you purchase your gear. If you aren’t sleeping at night because you are sore, cold, or uncomfortable, it won’t matter how much you enjoyed the location or the activity, you won’t want to go. You generally won’t sleep well away from you bed anyhow, so you’ve got to come as close to comfortable as you can to stick with it. The first bag I had was a roomier Big Agnes bag that I thought would help since I was a side sleeper who didn’t like the constriction of a mummy bag. Worst…mistake…ever….! I slept cold for years. True story, sad times. However, when I discovered that my internal furnace (my body heat) cold NEVER fill that space with enough generated heat to stay warm, I ditched that bag and will never buy a Big Agnes product…but that’s just my bitterness speaking.
You need 3 basic pieces: a bag rated for you own personal sleep temperature, a pad underneath you, and a pillow. Bags are rated at a lower temperature than their actual comfort level, which some brands list in European comfort unit. Rule number one is to consider how “cold” you sleep. Think of your bed at home and how many covers and of what weight you like and go by that. Then consider what time of year you’ll be camping and what daytime/nighttime swing you think you’ll like. My personal comfort for backpacking ranges as such: anything hotter than 70 degrees is a sweat fest and anything under 40 is cold. Then, it’s all a matter of how you layer and remembering to get OUT of those sweaty clothes and into dry layers as soon as you hit camp. Otherwise, you will chill and not be able to get it under control all night. (My bag is a zero degree bag. The coldest night I’ve camped is 14 degrees. See how that works. At home I am buried under heavy blankets at night.) The rule of thumb is to add 15 degrees to the bag’s labeled rating for true comfort.
The pad is also critical. It actually insulates you from the ground temperature in addition to providing loft over the substrate. I have 2 pads depending on what type of trip we are taking: what I call my princess & the pea 3 inch self-inflating pad, and my lightweight, kayak-fitting, space saving pad. BOTH are 2 1.5 inches thick or more. One hangs off the back of my backpack and is enormous but light, and the other stuffs down to the size of a coke can. I always take princess & the pea unless I packing for a plane or kayak.
Pillow comfort is 100% a personal decision. Some people just stuff stuff sacks with clothing and call that a pillow…. I am not one of those people. At home I am surrounded by pillows, but I have perfected my backpacking strategy to solve my pillow problem now. I have an inflatable pillow (which slips out of place and is not comfortable unless you slightly deflate it). This pillow actually goes inside by bag to support my arms, shoulders, or knees. I take a small down “stuffable” pillow that packs in with my sleeping bag. I put that on top of a stuff sack of clothes that I wedge into my sleeping bag hood to keep in place, and between those 3 soft surfaces, I can contort my bod through the night to be mostly comfortable, despite my sore old body.
Hydration- This is a pretty simple system to figure out. We usually hike where we have guaranteed water sources and only carry what we’ll need to sip on as we sweat. Then we refill at every change we get. This saves weight and wear and tear on our body. One of us (me) will usually carry the hydration bladder slid into the handy pouch in our backpacks. The other (Tree Walker) carries the water filter. There are numerous types of water filters out there, and ours may not be the current popular style, but we like our MSR hand pump style. This allows fast, high volume filtering and has been very reliable for us. I trust it so much more than the Sawyer squeeze style that most younger people use. I just don’t enjoy the hassle of small batch squeezing. We only had trouble one time when the map showed numerous stream crossings, but they all ended up being dry due to the karst topography, and when we finally found a muddy puddle, we pumped while our dog laid in it. We didn’t die or get giardia, so it was a win.
Safety- This is a must on every trip you take, no matter what you end up putting in it. Our safety kit is about 4 x 5 inches and has basic first aid supplies like: Benadryl, pain relievers, bandages and wraps, tweezers, duct tape, fire starters, shoe laces, etc. There are numerous things you can put in it. Just research and decide what your comfort level is. My first trip I almost scratched my eye on a thorn bush, so you never know what may happen, but don’t let that stop you. Just prepare for the basics.
We each carry our own “necessities.” For me, that’s head lamp, lighter, extra contacts, glasses, hand wipes, eye drops, and an extra pill of each medicine I have to take each day. And toilet paper. On every hike, day hiking included.
Bug spray, head nets, bug bracelets, and foggers that attach to your stove gas are also considered essential safety items. Never leave home without them once the temperatures get above freezing at night.
Stove- Once again, there are numerous options depending on your own needs and wants. We started with a white gas MSR Whiperlight, but have moved on to the JetBoil system which is just so simple and easy. You just screw in your gas, hit the igniter and adjust the flow. (I’m much more comfortable using it than the white gas liquid that always seems like would explode when you lit it. I was a big chicken.)
Tent- Go with light weight + vestibules. That way you have a place to actually put your gear instead of on top of you while you are trying to get ready. Also purchase lightweight plastic rolls and cut a rectangle with an extra 2 feet around it to protect your tent and give you a place to sit and take off your boots or sort your gear.
Boots- Some people today swear that a hiking trail shoe is all you need, but that may just be for thru hikers that are also hiking on wide, clear trails in shorts and are just trying to pound out the most “light weight” miles they can so that they don’t break down. However, most basic backpackers are more comfortable in a mid-height waterproof boot and thick wool sock. This prepares you for all situations and terrains.
Clothing is really a matter of a layering system. I used to always over pack, but I’ve learned that the only thing I need extra of is underwear, socks, and my top. Everything else just needs layering and stays fairly clean. If we start at the feet, I wear a wool sock that also includes a small percent of stretch. I always hike in pants, no matter the time of year. I debated with a friend of mine who swore she’d prefer shorts…then she went hiking and realized the poison ivy, thorns, ticks, mud, and logs made that a miserable choice and has worn pants ever since. There may be some places you truly can hike in shorts or stretch pants, but the Midwest is not one of those places. Make sure your pants are a blend of polyester, nylon, and stretch. They will work in all temperatures and offer you more comfort as you move.
I always take a soft belt because my pants shift with all the movement and pack adjusting.
I then hike in a synthetic base layer, short sleeve or sleeveless shirt. I just now invested in merino wool, but the cost is so prohibitive. I also start with a long sleeve shirt that I can wrap around my waist or stuff as I get hot. I pack a fleece for when arriving at camp and sitting around the fire at night. Finally, I pack rain pants and a rain jacket if the weather is at all rainy. Rain pants are my favorite piece of gear for their utility. They are comfortable around camp or if your hiking pants need to air out, and they slip over your boots easily if you need to take them on and off in a rainy situation. As far as outer layers are concerned, I either pack a soft shell jacket that breaks the wind and is fleece lined or I take a nano puff with a little insulation. Wind is a major factor in how cold I am, and I find the Nano puff lets more wind through it than a soft shell.
A hat & gloves are also always thrown in my pack as I tend to heat up and chill off quickly.
For pajamas, I take a set of long underwear and a pair of boy shorts and socks. This allows me to switch into something clean and dry each night and the boy shorts allow me to move around the tent and camp without feeling exposed.
Finally, food….which is a major personal choice. I constantly struggle with packing too many things that tempt me and leave me feeling like I gained weight hiking vs. taking too little and being hungry. I just don’t care for many pre-packaged processed foods, and unfortunately, that’s just what packs the easiest.
Breakfast- hot=oatmeal with mix ins like brown sugar, dehydrated strawberries, pb powder, chocolate chips, etc. Cold= bars, pop tarts for Rock Hopper
Lunch- If we are doing lots of miles, we’ll have dehydrated meals, if not, we take snacks like apples, carrots, bars, jerky, summer sausage, cheese, etc.
Dinner- we make our own dehydrated meals, which you can see on our dehydrating page.
Snacks- jerky, trail mix, paydays, M & Ms, dried fruit, nuts, rice crispy treats, bars, shakes
Dessert- hot cocoa,
Depending on where we are, if it is safe, and if we don’t’ have kids with us, Fireball single shot bottles or a plastic container of Kraken Rum, etc.