Gear Review: 12 Essential Backpacking Accessories
By Michael Lanza
Sure, your backpack, boots, tent, sleeping bag, air mattress, and other core gear matter a lot, and you should put serious thought into your choices when buying any of them. But little things matter, too. Various necessary accessories, convenience items, and small comforts accompany me on backcountry trips. Many years of field-testing gear have refined my sense of what I like on certain types of trips and what I will not do without anytime.
Here’s my list of essential backpacking accessories, ranging from basics like my favorite stuff sacks and water filters, to great values in a headlamp and knife, and what I lay my head down on every night I sleep in the ground. I don’t carry everything on this list on every trip, of course. Some, like a bear canister, I bring only sometimes; others, like a plastic utensil, I always have. But what follows represent the best I’ve found of each type of accessory.
I think you may find some things in this list that you can’t go without.
Call me soft, but an inflatable pillow goes into my pack on all backcountry trips, because these lightweight and compact models help me sleep better at an inconsequential cost in weight and bulk. The Sea to Summit Aeros Pillow Ultra Light ($43, 2.5 oz., large 13×17 ins.) stuffs down to the size of my fist and its fabric feels soft against my face. The Cocoon Ultralight Air Core Pillow ($22, 3.7 oz., 13×17 ins.) is a bit fatter when blown up, and slightly bulkier when packed, and has a soft, fleecy side.
BUY IT NOW You can support my work on this blog by clicking either of these links to purchase a Sea to Summit Aeros Pillow Ultra Light at moosejaw.com or a Cocoon Ultralight Air Core Pillow at rei.com.
Stuff Sacks and Compression Sacks
Stuff sacks protect clothing and gear from water penetrating a backpack, and make organizing and loading a pack easier and faster by compartmentalizing clothing and smaller gear items and giving you fewer things to transfer in and out of a pack. They also provide a more effective way of keeping stuff dry inside your pack than a rain cover, which doesn’t fully cover a pack, can blow off, and will wet through in a sustained downpour. I always use stuff sacks, and have three favorite types.
The Hyperlite Mountain Gear Dyneema Composite Fabrics Roll-Top Stuff Sacks ($31-$61, 1-2 oz., 3.7L/225 c.i. to 44L/2,700 c.i.) are waterproof and tough enough to withstand virtually any kind of abuse, without weighing more than many standard stuff sacks. While they’re not intended to be used as dry bags (i.e., they’re not submersible), they will keep clothing and gear dry through wet conditions short of full immersion in water. HMG’s DCF8 stuff sacks ($13-$31, multiple sizes) and slightly more abrasion-resistant DCF11 stuff sacks ($14-$32, multiple sizes) provide a lighter, more compact alternative to the roll-top sacks, made with versions of the same waterproof DCF fabric, with drawstring closures that are not watertight, but adequate for the needs of most backpackers.
BUY IT NOW You can support my work on this blog by clicking this link to purchase Hyperlite Mountain Gear Dyneema Composite Fabrics Roll-Top Stuff Sacks or DCF8 or DCF11 stuff sacks at hyperlitemountaingear.com.
Planning your next big adventure? See “My Top 10 Favorite Backpacking Trips” and my All Trips page.
The Osprey Ultralight Dry Sacks ($13-25, 1-2 oz., 3L/183 c.i. to 30L/1,831 c.i.) have roll-top closures and coated, 40-denier fabric and seams that render them waterproof even when heavy rain penetrates a backpack or your pack briefly gets wet in a creek crossing; they’ll also keep contents dry short of complete immersion in water. Plus, the rectangular shape uses pack space more efficiently than sacks with rounded bottoms.
BUY IT NOW You can support my work on this blog by clicking this link to purchase Osprey Ultralight Dry Sacks at rei.com.
Many times I’ve stuffed my sleeping bag into a Sea to Summit eVent Compression Dry Sack ($30-$50, 3.7-7.4 oz., 6L to 30L) to make it as compact as possible and ensure it will be dry on the wettest backpacking trips. The waterproof-breathable eVent membrane will pass air, so you can squeeze the sack down smaller even after closing the roll-top opening (which you can’t do with traditional dry bags). But like the above stuff sacks, these are not designed for full immersion.
BUY IT NOW You can support my work on this blog by clicking this link to purchase Sea to Summit eVent Compression Dry Sacks at backcountry.com.
The Swiss Army Hiker knife ($29, 2.5 oz.) gives you 13 tools, including two steel blades, three screwdrivers, bottle and can openers, tweezers, and even a small wood saw. You’ll be hard pressed to find a better value in a small, folding knife.
BUY IT NOW You can support my work on this blog by clicking this link to purchase a Swiss Army Hiker knife at backcountry.com.
You deserve a better backpack. See my “Gear Review: The 10 Best Packs For Backpacking.”
For performance and value, it’s hard to beat the Black Diamond Spot headlamp ($40, 3 oz. with 3 AAA batteries, included), even if you consider only its powerful max brightness of 200 lumens and multiple white and red modes. But the Spot also has a locking feature—no turning on accidentally in a pack—and unique PowerTap technology, which allows you to tap the right side of the casing to cycle between the TriplePower and SinglePower LEDs. Read my “Gear Review: The 5 Best Headlamps.”
BUY IT NOW You can support my work on this blog by clicking this link to purchase a Black Diamond Spot headlamp at moosejaw.com.
A bear canister is required in an increasing number of public lands, among them California’s High Sierra (including the John Muir Trail, Yosemite, and Sequoia-Kings Canyon national parks) and in some campsites in Olympic and Grand Teton national parks. A canister also provides convenient, infallible food storage anywhere. Made from an impregnable transparent polycarbonate, the Bear Vault BV500 ($80, 2 lbs. 8 oz.) stores up to a week’s worth of food for one person (with judicious packing), has clear walls for finding items, and has two tabs in the screw-top lid to provide redundant protection against a bear getting into it.
BUY IT NOW You can support my work on this blog by clicking this link to purchase a Bear Vault BV500 bear canister at backcountry.com.
Be comfortable on your hikes. See my review of “The 5 Best Rain Jackets For the Backcountry.”
You gotta eat, and I extend my preference for carrying the bare necessities in gear right down to my eating utensils. My top picks are the Light My Fire Spork ($3, 0.5 oz.), which is the cheapest option short of disposable plastic ware (which won’t last nearly as long); and the very packable Jetboil Jetset Utensil Kit ($10, 1.3 oz. for all three pieces), which includes a collapsible spoon, fork, and spatula (I don’t often carry the spatula, but sometimes it’s handy).
Lightweight First-Aid Kit
A first-aid kit can seem like something that just adds bulk and weight to a pack without getting used—but when you really need one, you don’t want to be without it. The compact but well-designed Adventure Medical Kits Ultralight Watertight .9 Medical Kit ($36, 12 oz.) resolves questions of utility versus weight. Contained in two layers of waterproof packaging in this kit are various wraps and bandages, a trauma pad and wide elastic wraps, blister treatment, an irrigation syringe and wound closure strips, medications for diarrhea, stomach issues, pain, and inflammation, and, of course, a mini roll of duct tape. I suggest adding a small tube of antibiotic ointment, but otherwise, this is a complete first-aid kit that doesn’t occupy excessive pack space.
BUY IT NOW You can support my work on this blog by clicking this link to purchase a nture Medical Kits Ultralight Watertight .9 Medical Kit at backcountry.com.
Do you like The Big Outside? I’m Michael Lanza, the creator of The Big Outside, recognized as a top outdoors blog by a USA Today Readers Choice poll and others. Get email updates about new stories and free gear giveaways by entering your email address in the box at the bottom of this story, at the top of the left sidebar, or on my About page, and follow my adventures on Facebook and Twitter.
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Collapsible Water Bottle
There have been other collapsible water bottles, but the wide-mouth HydraPak Stash Bottle 1L ($23, 3 oz.) has a distinctive, solid plastic top and base, giving it rigidity when filled with water. That means you can stand it up, which translates to convenience in the backcountry. When empty, the flexible walls collapse and the base clicks into the top, shrinking it down to slightly larger than a hockey puck for stowing away in your pack. Plus, the Stash Bottle is BPA and PVC free. The 750ml Stash bottle is $18.
BUY IT NOW You can support my work on this blog by clicking this link to purchase a HydraPak Stash Bottle 1L at backcountry.com.
Water Filter Bottle
The convenience factor of the LifeStraw Go Water Bottle With 2-Stage Filtration ($50, 8 oz.) has lightened my pack weight by letting me carry less water—and it’s not because I drink any less. The ease and quickness of dipping, filling, and immediately drinking from the 22-ounce Go bottle—and not having to take time to treat water with a traditional filter—means that, wherever there are fairly frequent water sources along a hike, I can chug some water at the creek, top off the bottle, and resume hiking. Consequently, I don’t end up treating more water than I’ll need before reaching the next source, and my pack’s lighter. The LifeStraw Go’s two-stage, hollow-fiber, 0.2-micron filter membrane with activated carbon removes virtually all bacteria, protozoa like giardia and cryptosporidium, and organic chemicals like pesticides and herbicides. See my complete review.
BUY IT NOW You can support my work on this blog by clicking this link to purchase a LifeStraw Go Water Bottle With 2-Stage Filtration at backcountry.com.
Got an all-time favorite campsite? See “Tent Flap With a View: 25 Favorite Backcountry Campsites.”
Of course, there are times when you need a pump water filter in the backcountry, such as when dealing with silted water, or when you have to treat a large amount of water (for a group of three or more people or when water sources are far apart). The MSR Hyperflow Microfilter ($100, 9 oz.) stands out for its speed and compact size. Measuring just 7×3.5 ins., and lighter than many competitors, this hollow-fiber filter pumps three liters per minute, removing protozoa, bacteria, and particulate matter (though not viruses or chemicals), and leaves no taste. It comes with a Quick-Connect Bottle Adapter for pumping directly into a variety of containers, including all MSR hydration bladders and Nalgene bottles.
BUY IT NOW You can support my work on this blog by clicking this link to buy an MSR Hyperflow Microfilter at backcountry.com.
Ultralight Pack Towel
Small enough to disappear in your closed fist, the antimicrobial MSR PackTowl Nano ($10, 1 oz., with mesh sack), absorbs twice its weight in water and dries fast, making it ideal for drying hands, feet, and face, or even toweling off (with a little patience) after a swim in a mountain lake—while adding inconsequential weight to your pack.
BUY IT NOW You can support my work on this blog by clicking this link to buy an MSR PackTowl Nano at backcountry.com.
Windproof, Waterproof Emergency Matches
The UCO Titan Matches ($10, 3 oz.). will fire up in any downpour, no matter how wet. Each thick, four-inch-long match provides 25 seconds of wind and waterproof burning; they even relight after being submerged in water. The kit includes 12 matches, three replaceable strikers, a waterproof case that floats, and a cord that attaches to a lanyard.
BUY IT NOW You can support my work on this blog by clicking this link to purchase UCO Titan Matches at rei.com.
“5 Tips For Spending Less on Hiking and Backpacking Gear”
“Gear Review: The Best Gear Duffles”
“10 Tricks For Making Hiking and Backpacking Easier”
“The Simple Equation of Ultralight Backpacking: Less Weight = More Fun”
NOTE: I tested gear for Backpacker Magazine for 20 years. At The Big Outside, I review only what I consider the best outdoor gear and apparel. See categorized menus of all of my gear reviews at The Big Outside.
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