By Michael Lanza
Sure, your backpack, boots, tent, sleeping bag, air mattress, and other backpacking 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. Nearly three decades of field-testing gear—including the 10 years I spent as the lead gear reviewer for Backpacker magazine and even longer running this blog—has refined my sense of what I like on certain types of trips and what I will not do without anytime.
Here’s my freshly updated list of essential backpacking accessories, ranging from basics like the best stuff sacks, bladders and water bottles, camp kitchen gear, water filters, tent stakes, and bear canister, to my go-to trekking poles, great values in a headlamp, camp stove, and knife, and what I sit on and slip my feet into in camp and lay my head down on every night I sleep on the ground.
I’ve tested this gear extensively on numerous backpacking trips from the Teton Crest Trail, Yosemite, and the Wind River Range to Idaho’s Sawtooths, the Grand Canyon, Glacier, and countless other places.
I don’t carry everything on this list on every trip, of course. Some, like a bear canister, I bring only when needed; others, like a utensil and my favorite inflatable pillow, I always have with me. But what follows represent the best I’ve found of each type of accessory. You’ll find links below to good prices on many of them right now and you can support my work on this blog, at no cost to you, by making purchases through the affiliate links in this review. Thanks for doing that.
I think you may find some things in this list that you can’t go without. See also my picks for the best backpacking gear of the year.
I’d appreciate any of your observations about the gear reviewed here, or suggestions on favorite accessories of yours that I’ve overlooked; write them in the comments section at the bottom of this story. I try to respond to all comments.
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. Why wouldn’t you take one? These are the best I’ve found.
After using it on multiple backpacking trips, including the Wind River High Route, The Maze District of Canyonlands National Park, and the Wonderland Trail around Mount Rainier, I have a new favorite. The Nemo Fillo Elite Ultralight Pillow ($50, 2.8 oz.) weighs under three ounces but doesn’t compromise comfort—inflated, it measures 15x11x3 inches. Made of 100 percent post-consumer recycled PrimaLoft synthetic insulation, it inflates with two strong puffs and the soft, jersey blend cover fabric is machine washable. An integrated stuff sack (read: you won’t lose it) packs the Fillo Elite to the size of a tennis ball (4×3 inches).
Another longtime go-to head rest has been the Sea to Summit Aeros Ultralight Pillow ($45, 2.5 oz., large 13x17x5.5 ins.) because of its ample size and cushion and soft fabric, and it stuffs down to the size of my fist. The even larger Sea to Summit Aeros Ultralight Deluxe Pillow ($60, 4.6 oz., 23.5x16x5.5 ins.) comes close to imitating your pillow at home and packs down to slightly larger than a wallet.
Another I like is the Therm-a-Rest Air Head Lite Pillow ($35-$45, 2-2.8 oz.), which comes in two sizes that inflate to 18×12.5×4 inches or 15.5x11x4 inches, while packing down smaller than a tennis ball, and the stretch-knit polyester fabric feels soft against your cheek.
BUY IT NOW You can support my work on this blog, at no cost to you, by clicking any of these affiliate links to purchase a Nemo Fillo Elite Ultralight Pillow at moosejaw.com or nemoequipment.com, a Sea to Summit Aeros Ultralight Pillow at backcountry.com or seatosummit.com, a Sea to Summit Aeros Ultralight Deluxe Pillow at backcountry.com, moosejaw.com, or seatosummit.com, or a Therm-a-Rest Air Head Lite Pillow at backcountry.com, moosejaw.com or thermarest.com.
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Stuff Sacks and Packing Pods
Stuff sacks protect clothing and gear from any water that penetrates a backpack, and make organizing and loading a pack easier and faster by compartmentalizing clothing and smaller gear items, 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 these are the best I’ve found.
The Hyperlite Mountain Gear Dyneema Composite Fabrics Roll-Top Stuff Sacks ($40-$75, 3.7L/225 c.i. to 44L/2,700 c.i., 1-2 oz.) are incredibly light, waterproof, and tough enough to withstand virtually any kind of abuse. While they’re not intended to be used as dry bags (they’re not submersible), they keep clothing and gear dry through wet conditions short of full immersion in water. HMG’s Drawstring stuff sacks ($20-$45, multiple sizes) are made with the same waterproof fabric but have drawstring closures that are not watertight; still, they’re adequate for the needs of most backpackers and offer a lighter, more compact alternative to the roll-top sacks.
But the coolest are the Hyperlite Mountain Gear Pods ($50-$60, 1.2-1.4 oz., 6.8L/420 c.i. to 12.3L/750 c.i.). Stackable, flexible, super light, zippered units also made of waterproof Dyneema Composite Fabric with a water-resistant zipper, pods are shaped and sized to slip inside a pack wall to wall, leaving no gaps. Convenient for organization with their clamshell design and spacious enough to fit a surprising amount of stuff, they come in small and large sizes for two capacities—2400/3400 for 40-55L packs and 4400 for 70L packs—and fit inside HMG’s packs perfectly but other pack models as well.
I’ve also become a fan of a few other HMG accessories. The Hyperlite Mountain Gear Versa ($70, 0.2 lbs., 2.25x6x9 inches) will attach to your pack at the sternum, hipbelt, daisy chains, or on top of the pack secured by compression Y-straps, or you can wear around your waist in front using its low-profile belt. Incredibly light and compact, made from waterproof, very tough Dyneema Composite Fabrics DCH50, it’s hardly noticeable when I’m hiking but highly convenient when I want to quickly pull out my Nikon Z50, a map, or another small item from its water-resistant main compartment or second, zippered pocket.
The Hyperlite Mountain Gear Stuff Sack Pillow ($50, 1.7 oz., 12×17 ins.) consists of a DCF8 shell fabric with a soft, Polartec 100 fleece lining and is a perfect size for storing extra clothing and small camp items while on the trail and functioning as a pillow at night.
The regular Hyperlite Mountain Gear Camera Pod ($109, 2.7 oz., 7×5.5×3.75 inches), made with Dyneema Composite Fabrics and easy to attach to a pack’s shoulder straps, holds my Nikon Z50 body with a small zoom lens mounted on it (dimensions 5×3.7×3.7 ins.), but get the large ($129, 3.7 oz., 9.5×6.5×4.25 ins.) for extra capacity.
BUY IT NOW You can support my work on this blog, at no cost to you, by clicking any of these links to purchase Hyperlite Mountain Gear Roll-Top or Drawstring Stuff Sacks and Pods at backcountry.com or hyperlitemountaingear.com, the Hyperlite Mountain Gear Versa at hyperlitemountaingear.com, the Hyperlite Mountain Gear Stuff Sack Pillow at backcountry.com or hyperlitemountaingear.com, or the Hyperlite Mountain Gear Camera Pod at hyperlitemountaingear.com..
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For their low weight, durability, water resistance, and price, it’s hard to beat the Sea to Summit Ultra-Sil Dry Sacks ($16-$35, 1L/61 c.i. to 35L/2,136 c.i., 0.5-2.2 oz.). The 4L kept my down jacket dry inside my pack throughout four February days of backcountry skiing in the Sierra mountains around Lake Tahoe, much of the time in heavily falling snow, with me setting my pack down in deep, wet snow frequently. The pack got wet inside, but the jacket never got damp.
Most impressively, I packed clothing in the 20L sack while paddling an inflatable kayak on Idaho’s class III Payette River one afternoon, and the Payette’s Cabarton stretch another day, and everything stayed dry even though the boat filled with water numerous times and we flipped twice. Ideal for backpackers, the 30-denier, high-tenacity Ultra Sil Cordura nylon, siliconized for durability and packability, has a hypalon roll-top closure that doesn’t wick moisture, plus fully taped seams and reinforced stitching.
The fully waterproof, roll-top Cascades Designs SealLine Blocker dry sacks ($17-$27, 5L/305 c.i. to 30L/1,831 c.i., 1.6-3.7 oz.) are my pick when boating or on a very wet or remote backpacking trip where there’s a risk of the sacks holding my sleeping bag, extra clothing, or other important gear going underwater (example: challenging river fords). Made with 70-denier silicone/polyurethane-coated nylon, these are very durable yet still reasonably lightweight, and have welded seams, which are 50 percent stronger than sewn seams. The block shape packs 20 percent more efficiently than rounded sacks, according to the Cascade Designs.
The lighter, 20-denier, roll-top SealLine BlockerLite dry sacks from Cascade Designs ($18-$29, 2.5L/153 c.i. to 20L/1,220 c.i., 1-2.1 oz.) are a good choice for backcountry trips where you don’t want to take a chance of a bag or clothes getting wet in a soaking rain, although they are not recommended as waterproof protection from complete submersion. On a night sleeping out under the stars in Utah’s Dark Canyon, a heavy dew fell, soaking the BlockerLite dry sacks I’d left out—including one with my electronic tablet and extra clothes in it. But the contents of the sacks stayed completely dry. I also used the 10L sack as the outermost of two sacks holding my camera one day and our lunches the next day on consecutive afternoons of paddling an inflatable kayak down two different class III sections of Idaho’s Payette River, and the exterior of the inner stuff sack (and its contents) never got damp, even though the boat filled with water numerous times and we even flipped twice. They also have the block shape, silicone/polyurethane-coated nylon, and welded seams.
BUY IT NOW You can support my work on this blog, at no cost to you, by clicking any of these links to purchase SealLine BlockerLite dry sacks at backcountry.com, moosejaw.com, or seallinegear.com, or SealLine Blocker dry sacks at backcountry.com, moosejaw.com, or seallinegear.com.
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Countless times I’ve stuffed my sleeping bag into a Sea to Summit eVent Compression Dry Sack ($35-$55, 6L to 30L, 3.7-7.4 oz.) 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). Like others, these are not designed for full immersion.
BUY IT NOW You can support my work on this blog, at no cost to you, by clicking any of these links to purchase Sea to Summit eVent Compression Dry Sacks at backcountry.com, moosejaw.com, or seatosummitusa.com.
The folding, 100 percent carbon fiber Black Diamond Distance Carbon FLZ ($190, 12.7 oz./pair 105-125cm, three sizes) hit a sweet spot for versatility, falling on the cusp between the most ultralight and packable poles and models that are heavier and less packable.
Quickly deployed thanks to an internal Kevlar cord, and adjusted using BD’s reliable FlickLock levers, they have extended EVA foam grips and partly mesh nylon wrist straps. I’ve frequently grabbed them from a large quiver of poles I own for outings ranging from hikes and runs on local trails to backpacking trips of 77 miles on the Wonderland Trail around Mount Rainier and 47 miles in The Maze District of Canyonlands National Park.
For lightweight and ultralight backpackers, hikers, and runners, and adventure athletes looking for the lightest and most packable adjustable poles, you need look no further.
Read my complete review of the Black Diamond Distance Carbon FLZ poles.
BUY IT NOW You can support my work on this blog, at no cost to you, by clicking any of these affiliate links to buy the Black Diamond Distance Carbon FLZ poles at moosejaw.com, backcountry.com, or blackdiamondequipment.com.
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Hold the Black Diamond Spot350 ($40, 3 oz. with 3 AAA batteries, included) up against any ultralight headlamp and it offers an impressive feature set and brightness for the price. It has the three modes a backcountry headlamp should have—white beam, white peripheral, and red—and this latest update of an enduring product jacks the max brightness up to a powerful 350 lumens. In plain English, that means it’ll project a beam at least 200 feet, but it also has dimming capability in all modes.
Plus, the Spot350 features BD’s neat PowerTap technology that allows you to tap the right side of the casing to cycle between max brightness and the dimmed level you’ve previously set—so easy that you’ll power down more often, prolonging battery life—and a lockout mode to prevent accidental turning on in a pack. Lastly, it’s waterproof up to a meter underwater for 30 minutes. While not rechargeable, the Spot350 may be today’s best value in a backcountry headlamp.
Gear up right for your trips with the best backpacking gear of the year.
All-Purpose Knife and Multi-Tools
The Swiss Army Camper Knife ($37, 3.2 oz.) gives you a basic set of tools in a light, compact unit, including two steel blades, a can opener with a screwdriver, a bottle opener with screwdriver and wire stripper, reamer with a sewing eye, corkscrew, toothpick and 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, at no cost to you, by clicking this link to purchase a Swiss Army Hiker knife at moosejaw.com.
If you need the ultimate multi-tool, I like the Leatherman Wave+ ($110, 8.5 oz.). Just four inches long when closed, this updated version of Leatherman’s long-popular Wave boasts a robust set of 18 tools that all lock quickly into position, many of which get frequent use in the backcountry: two knives (straight and serrated), a saw, spring-action scissors, can and bottle openers, a medium screwdriver, regular and needle-nose pliers, and wire cutters.
If you need just a simpler, much lighter, and less-expensive tool, I recommend the Leatherman Micra ($35, 2 oz.), which measures just 2.5 inches when closed and has a 1.5-inch stainless steel blade, scissors, Phillips and standard screwdrivers, bottle opener, tweezers, and a ruler and file.
BUY IT NOW You can support my work on this blog, at no cost to you, by clicking either of these links to purchase a Leatherman Wave+ at backcountry.com or moosejaw.com or a Leatherman Micra at moosejaw.com.
You deserve a better backpack. See “The 10 Best Packs For Backpacking.”
From a four-day, 25-mile backpacking trip on the Thunder River-Deer Creek Loop off the North Rim of the Grand Canyon, to a three-day, 40-mile hike in Wind River Range and numerous other backpacking trips and dayhikes, I’ve found the CamelBak Crux 3L Reservoir ($35, 3L/100 oz., 8 oz.) as tough and utilitarian as they come.
The self-sealing mouthpiece valve delivers water quickly and never leaked or dripped when I left it unlocked, and the cap reliably screwed on tightly and leak-free every time. The valve locking mechanism shifts easily using one hand. It has a baffle to minimize sloshing, a push-button release of the hose for cleaning, and Hydroguard antimicrobial treatment in the reservoir and tube to inhibit bacterial growth. Plus, you’d have to make a concerted effort to puncture or damage this polyurethane bladder.
Hydration bladders have largely differed in capacity and durability, and shared the trait of being inconvenient to clean. The Gregory 3D Hydro hydration bladder ($43, 3L/100 oz., 6 oz.) stands out for being designed with ease of use as priority one. Made with flexible, durable, and light metallocene PE, with an internal divider that stands up when empty, this bladder can be left uncapped to dry out like a hard-sided water bottle after use—the best way to prevent the growth of bacteria that can quickly ruin a bladder.
Its magnetized bite valve comes with a magnetized mating clip that mounts onto the sternum strap of almost any pack, holding the hose in place when hiking (although the magnet doesn’t hold when hiking hard or running); and the valve has a sliding lock to prevent leakage and dripping. Plus, the lightweight, plastic frame at the top end of the bladder provides a handle for easily refilling it—although I found it can be tricky to top off—and has a rectangular slot large enough to quickly clip a bladder inside a pack’s sleeve. Lastly, a plastic hangar at the point where the hose attaches near the bottom of the bladder rotates outward for hanging it to dry. All in all, a very smart reinvention of a standard hiking tool.
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Packable and Collapsible Water Bottles
I prefer water bottles in various common situations, like sitting around in camp or hiking in freezing temps, but hard-sided, heavy bottles are soooo 20th century. The HydraPak Flux Flexible Bottle (1.5L/48 oz., $25, 3.4 oz., and 1L/32 oz., $20, 2.7 oz.) has taken the packability and low weight of a soft bottle and married it to the convenience of a hard bottle’s rigidity for standing up and refilling.
Developed with mutual goals of creating an alternative to single-use plastic and reducing the bulk and weight of hard bottles, the Flux is constructed with a dual-layer TPU film laminate that lends it the rigidity to stand on its flat base—full or empty. The spill-proof twist cap’s valve lets you squirt water into your mouth one-handed (like a bike bottle), doesn’t leak when closed, and the wide opening is compatible with all 42mm threaded filters (like the Katadyn BeFree). Embossed RF-welded soft walls are easy to grip.
Best of all, it’s half the weight of a hard-sided plastic bottle—and when empty, the Flux flattens, rolls and stows into its bail handle, compressing to one-quarter of its full size (smaller than a fist) to slip easily into any pack’s side, lid, or other external pocket.
Taking a slightly different approach to making the water bottle all but disappear in your pack when empty, the wide-mouth HydraPak Stash Bottle 1L ($26, 3 oz.) has a distinctive, solid plastic top and base, giving it rigidity when filled with water—meaning that, like the Flux, you can stand it up. 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 $21.
BUY IT NOW You can support my work on this blog, at no cost to you, by clicking any of these links to purchase a HydraPak Stash Bottle 1L at backcountry.com or moosejaw.com, or a 750ml Stash bottle at backcountry.com or moosejaw.com.
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Water Filter and Water Filter Bottle
It’s hard to beat the speed, convenience, and packability of the collapsible Katadyn BeFree Microfilter soft bottles, available in a 0.6L bottle ($45, 2.5 oz.), 1L bottle ($50, 2.5 oz.), and 3L bottle ($65, 3.5 oz.).
The 0.6L bottle measures just 9x3x3 inches and weighs under three ounces and filters up to two liters per minute just by squeezing the collapsible, BPA-free flask, delivering a strong stream of water. It will even pour through the mouthpiece—albeit more slowly than squeezing, of course—by just tilting it upside-down, even when the bottle is nearly empty.
The 10L BeFree Gravity Filter ($125, 10 oz.) spares you the work of squeezing the bottle, filtering two liters per minute into another bottle or a bladder.
The .01-micron BeFree microfilter protects against harmful organisms like bacteria and cysts and has a projected life of 1,000 liters. Replacing the filter is easy—it pops out and a new one pops in. No backflushing or tools needed. Clean it occasionally by swishing the EZ-Clean Membrane around in water. For long-term storage, clean the filter by squeezing a flask full of clean (tap) water containing either one Micropur tablet or four drops of bleach through the filter.
BUY IT NOW You can support my work on this blog, at no cost to you, by clicking any of these affiliate links to purchase any of the Katadyn BeFree bottles or gravity filter at backcountry.com or moosejaw.com.
The convenience factor of the LifeStraw Go bottle (22-oz., $40, 8 oz., or 1L, $45, 8.6 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 or even leave it half-full if the next water isn’t far, and resume hiking. Consequently, I don’t treat more water than I’ll need and my pack’s lighter.
On my most-recent trip on the Teton Crest Trail, I rarely carried water in my pack’s bladder. 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 of the LifeStraw Go bottle With 2-Stage Filtration.
Got an all-time favorite campsite?
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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 ($135, 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.
On a 40-mile, mid-September backpacking trip in Wyoming’s Wind River Range, I pulled out the pocket-size MSR TrailShot Microfilter ($55, 5 oz.) frequently to sate my thirst within seconds, enabling me to carry less water on my back. Small enough to stuff inside a side pocket on a daypack, it cranks out a liter in a minute. It’s ideal for one or two people on a fast-paced outing where time efficiency and minimizing weight are top priorities, like an ultra-dayhike, an ultralight backpacking trip where water sources are frequent, or a long trail run or adventure race. You have to get down low to the ground to place the input end of the hose in a stream or other water source and drink directly from the filter’s spout, or use the TrailShot to pump water into a bottle or bladder. It removes bacteria like E. coli and protozoa like Cryptosporidium. MSR projects its life at up to 2,000 liters.
Simplicity often reigns supreme in the backcountry, and that’s typically how I feel about a cooking stove: keep it simple, efficient, and above all, light.
The MSR Pocketrocket 2 ($50, 4 oz. with plastic case, included) boils water fast, has precise flame control for simmering, holds pots of two liters or larger stably, always fires up, and packs small. That’s why it ends up in my pack on many trips. It’s only shortcoming is that the unprotected burner isn’t nearly as fuel-efficient as stoves with a protected burner.
See my complete review of the MSR Pocketrocket 2.
Stay dry, happy, and safe. See “The 5 Best Rain Jackets For Hiking and Backpacking.”
But when it’s time to cook for up to four people—especially in a windy campsite—nothing beats the MSR WindBurner Group Stove System ($220, 1 lb. 5 oz.). Pressure-regulated to produce consistent heat output, with an enclosed burner, the WindBurner Group System loses virtually no fuel efficiency—it basically performs in wind as if there was no wind. Cooking at elevations up to 11,000 feet, with wind at times and mornings down to around 40° F, I used less than two full, 16-oz. MSR IsoPro fuel canisters in six days cooking five breakfasts and dinners for four people—and barely more than one 16-oz. canister for basically the same number of meals for three people (all just boiling water). Plus, good flame control goes from boiling fast to a low simmer for backpackers who want to do more than just boil water. And the pot has a folding handle and strainer lid with a locking latch.
See my complete review of the MSR WindBurner Group Stove System.
BUY IT NOW You can support my work on this blog, at no cost to you, by clicking any of these affiliate links to purchase the MSR WindBurner Group Stove System at backcountry.com, moosejaw.com, or msrgear.com, or other WindBurner stoves and products at backcountry.com, moosejaw.com, or msrgear.com.
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On backpacking trips of 80 miles through the North Cascades National Park Complex and 40 miles through Utah’s Dark Canyon Wilderness, with one companion both times (plus other trips with up to two companions), I wanted a camp kitchen setup where we could boil plenty of water and cook simple dinners, while minimizing weight and bulk.
Part of the solution was the MSR Big Titan Kettle ($100, 6 oz.). A simple but durable, two-liter pot with handles that fold against its sides and a secure lid with an insulated handle, it’s big enough to cook for two, light enough for solo trips—and doubles as your bowl and (giant) mug, negating the need for carrying them. It measures 6.25×4.5 inches, and I fit a small canister stove (the MSR Pocketrocket 2), a mug, and a little food inside it in my pack.
When convenience and packability take priority over weight, my pick is the Sea to Summit X-Set 31 ($110, 1 lb. 6 oz., for two to four people). The set’s 2.8L/3-quart pot is made with collapsible, heat-resistant, food-grade silicone walls that lock in place, and a 6063-T6, hardened alloy aluminum base. I’ve boiled water, cooked pasta, soups, mac ‘n’ cheese and other messy dinners and found the pot easy to clean; and pouring hot water from the pot was a breeze, with no spills. Both of the 0.7L/22-oz. X-Bowls and 0.5L/16-oz. X-Mugs have collapsible sides, allowing them to nest inside the X-Pot; the entire set packs down to 8.4 inches in diameter and 1.5 inches tall.
See my complete review of the Sea to Summit X-Pot Set 31.
On backpacking trips in Yosemite, Glacier, Wyoming’s Wind River Range, and many other places, the similarly collapsible Sea to Summit X-Seal & Go Cup ($17, 3 oz. medium, 4 sizes) or Sea to Summit X-mug ($14, 2.1 oz., capacity 16 oz./two cups) and the X-Bowl ($17, 2.8 oz., capacity 22 oz.) have been my go-to vessels for hot drinks and food. Made of durable nylon and food-grade silicone and holding a good volume of hot liquid when opened, the cups are calibrated to use as a measuring cup and collapse to slightly more than a half-inch (17mm) thick. The Seal & Go Cup has a threaded lid that forms an airtight seal to keep a drink or food hot. The medium X-Seal & Go Cup is a good size for many hot drinks but the large ($20, 5.1 oz.) holds 20 ounces—a good size for soups requiring just adding boiling water; leave the sealed lid on for about five minutes and you’ll have cooked Ramen or other soups without needing more fuel than required to boil.
BUY IT NOW You can support my work on this blog, at no cost to you, by clicking any of these affiliate links to buy the Sea to Summit X-Set 31 or other X-Pot sets at backcountry.com, moosejaw.com, or seatosummit.com; or any individual X-Seal & Go Cup, X-Cup, or X-Bowl at backcountry.com or seatosummit.com.
On numerous backpacking trips, I’ve become a fan of the packability, low weight, and high functionality of the GSI Outdoors Pinnacle Dualist cook set ($80, 1 lb. 4 oz.). A complete cooking and eating kit for two people, it includes a 1.8-liter, non-stick, hard-anodized aluminum pot that disperses heat more evenly than titanium, with a folding handle that locks in place for cooking and securing the entire kit in transit, and a strainer lid. It also has two bowls with graduations and two insulated mugs with sip-through lids, a stove bag, and a welded stuff sack that doubles as a sink for washing. The components all stack together, measuring 5.9 in x 6.4 in x 5.9 inches when packed. I don’t bother using the two telescoping Foon utensils—I’m not a fan of spoon-fork combos, and there are better backcountry utensils (see below). But that doesn’t diminish the value, low weight, packability, and functionality of this kit.
BUY IT NOW You can support my work on this blog, at no cost to you, by clicking this affiliate link to purchase a GSI Pinnacle Dualist cook set at moosejaw.com, or the GSI Pinnacle Soloist II cook set and other GSI cook sets at backcountry.com.
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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 super light, durable, and convenient Sea to Summit Alpha Light Long Spoon ($11, 0.4 oz.), Alpha Light Long Spork ($11, 0.4 oz.), Alpha Light Spoon ($9, 0.3 oz.), and Alpha Light Fork ($9, 0.2 oz.), which come individually and in sets.
The collapsible, indestructible, and lightweight Optimus Sliding Long Spoon ($9, 0.5 oz.), which, at under seven inches long, is ideal for eating from a bowl or mug, but extends to over nine inches for digging into a food pouch.
And the very packable Jetboil Jetset Utensil Kit ($11, 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).
BUY IT NOW You can support my work on this blog, at no cost to you, by clicking any of these links to purchase any Sea to Summit Alpha utensils at backcountry.com, moosejaw.com, or seatosummit.com, an Optimus Sliding Long Spoon at Moosejaw.com or rei.com, or a Jetboil Jetset Utensil Kit at backcountry.com.
If you own an MSR liquid-fuel stove, the nine-inch (23cm) stainless steel MSR Alpine Long Tool Spoon ($10, 1.5 oz.) is good not only for digging out food at the bottom of deep mugs or pouches without getting your fingers in your meal (or food on your gloves), its handle doubles as a jet and cable tool for repairing your stove.
In a pinch, you could also use this sturdy utensil as a deadman to help stake out a tent in snow or with rocks.
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No one likes carrying a large amount of water very far in the backcountry, but when I have to do it, I turn to a reliable standby—as I’ve done many times backpacking in the Grand Canyon, including on my most recent trip on the Utah Flats Route and Clear Creek Trail. The MSR Dromlite Bag ($33-$43, three sizes 2L-6L, 4.6-5.7 oz.), the brand’s newest, lighter (and cheaper) but still tough version of its Dromedary, collapses to its cap size. Made with abrasion-resistant Cordura, these tough bags have a temperature threshold from freezing to boiling, a secure cap that ensures effortless filling and pouring, and a sturdy, low-profile handle that enables easy refilling and hanging it in camp.
The classic MSR Dromedary ($45-$55, three sizes 4L-10L, 7-10 oz.), although heavier, offers one larger size (10 liters). These stout sacks have never sprung a leak inside my backpack, thanks to BPA-free, 1,000-denier fabric and a tight seal on the screw cap. Strong perimeter webbing makes it easy to carry or hang in camp, and when empty, they roll up fairly compactly for storage in your pack.
Every backpacker should own one or two of these bags—and two bags give you both a large capacity and the option of carrying less weight when large capacity isn’t needed. There will come a day that you’ll need it—whether you like it or not.
BUY IT NOW You can support my work on this blog, at no cost to you, by clicking any of these links to buy an MSR DromLite at backcountry.com, moosejaw.com, or msrgear.com, or an MSR Dromedary at backcountry.com, moosejaw.com, or msrgear.com.
Even in summer in the mountains, you often need a pair of light gloves to fend off cool temps and wind, and the Black Diamond HeavyWeight Wooltech Gloves ($50, 2.5 oz.) are a great pick. On hikes in temps ranging from the low 40s into the low 30s Fahrenheit, my hands stayed surprisingly warm, considering the minimal weight and bulk (and excellent dexterity) of these gloves.
Combining a lightweight, fast-drying 302g Nuyarn Merino wool on the back of hand with goat leather palms and fingers and a soft fleece lining, these gloves trap warmth even when wet. The index fingers and thumbs have touchscreen functionality. BD rates the gloves for 25° to 40° F, but that’s entirely relative to your hands: As someone with chronically cold hands, I find these gloves ideal for moderate- to high-exertion levels in temps from the mid-30s to the 40s. People who don’t suffer cold hands might prefer BD’s lighter MidWeight Wooltech Gloves ($40, 1.9 oz.) with 210g NuYarm Merino wool or LightWeight Wooltech Gloves ($35, 0.9 oz.) with 160g NuYarm Merino wool.
BUY IT NOW You can support my work on this blog, at no cost to you, by clicking either of these links to purchase any version of the Black Diamond Wooltech Gloves at moosejaw.com, backcountry.com, or blackdiamondequipment.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 ($93, 2 lbs. 8 oz.) stores up to a week’s worth of food for one person (with judicious packing).
It 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.
Bent stakes suck. Stakes should be extremely light and strong and never fail. Adhering to those simple truths, the Nemo Airpin Ultralight Stakes ($19, 1.4 oz., set of four, or $10, 0.7 oz., set of two) demonstrated their mettle (or metal, if you will) on various trips, including a six-day traverse of over 90 miles in Glacier National Park. Made of aircraft-grade 7075 aluminum, they have three notches in the head, two facing downward and one facing upward. Run the tent’s stake cord under the first downward notch (labeled “O”), then over the second, upward notch (“OO”), and finally under the other downward notch (“OOO”), creating friction on the cord as you drive the stake into the ground—which is easier thanks to the stake’s tapered shape. No more bent tent pegs or stake cord popping off stakes.
BUY IT NOW You can support my work on this blog, at no cost to you, by clicking any of these links to purchase a set of four or two Nemo Airpin Ultralight Stakes at backcountry.com, moosejaw.com, or nemoequipment.com.
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 ($44, 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, at no cost to you, by clicking this link to purchase an Adventure Medical Kits Ultralight Watertight .9 Medical Kit at moosejaw.com.
For three-season backpacking, low gaiters (not high ones, like you’d use in winter) are indispensable for helping to keep feet dry in rain or when wet trailside vegetation constantly brushes your lower legs, or for simply keeping stones and other detritus out of your boots. Get a model that’s tough and water-resistant but reasonably breathable, like the Rocky Mountain Low Gaiters ($39, 5 oz.), available in adult and kid sizes. Made with an abrasion-resistant nylon, they have a hook-and-loop closure reinforced with top and bottom tabs, a drawcord top to seal them tight, and a durable BioThane instep strap that won’t get shredded by talus, scree, or rocky trail.
BUY IT NOW You can support my work on this blog, at no cost to you, by clicking any of these links to purchase the Outdoor Research Rocky Mountain Low Gaiters at moosejaw.com, backcountry.com, or outdoorresearch.com.
Light and small enough to carry into the backcountry, the Helinox Chair Zero ($130, 1 lb. 1 oz., not including 1-oz. stuff sack) will force you to ask yourself why you’d ever tolerate squatting on a rock or log in camp again. The chair consists of a fabric seat that slips over a shock-corded pole structure that forms the chair’s back and legs; and it assembles quickly, like a hubbed tent pole system.
The result is a comfortable seat that’s 20 inches wide, 19 inches deep, 25 inches tall, and whose bottom rises 11 inches above terra firma—unlike chair kits that, while less bulky, are often no lighter, and place your butt at ground level. It also, impressively, has a carrying capacity of 265 pounds, although 200-pounders might find the chair a little tippy, and packs down to 14x4x4 inches, roughly the dimensions of a lightweight backpacking air mattress. Unless you’re ultralight backpacking or thru-hiking, having a comfortable chair in camp may seem well worth the effort of carrying 17 ounces.
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Another comparably packable and light camp chair, the REI Flexlite Chair ($70, 1 lb., not including one-ounce stuff sack), assembles and packs away just as easily as the Helinox Chair Zero—for about half the price. The ripstop nylon mesh seat fabric breathes well, there’s a little pocket for a book, and the aluminum frame is sturdy. REI claims it has a weight capacity of 250 pounds, but I found it a bit more wobbly than the Chair Zero under the weight of my 160 pounds—although a friend weighing around 180 sat in and liked it.
BUY IT NOW You can support my work on this blog, at no cost to you, by clicking this link to purchase an REI Flexlite Chair at rei.com.
Want an even more comfortable camping chair? While too bulky and heavy for backpacking, the Helinox Sunset Chair ($170, 3 lbs. 8 oz.) will be the envy of your friends when car camping.
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I generally consider camp shoes superfluous weight: I often hike in low-cut shoe and just wear them like slippers in camp, with the laces quite loose and the tongue flipped up. But when I need or want footwear for backpacking campsites, water fords, and paddling trips, two different types of footwear have become my go-to picks, depending on the trip.
For cooler backcountry trips, especially when hiking in midweight boots in wet climates, where I want warm, dry footwear in camp, I like the Allbirds Men’s Wool Runners ($95, 17 oz./pair US men’s 10). For backpacking in the Wind River Range and elsewhere, on hut and yurt trips, and for river fords, these lightweight, packable, comfortable, warm shoes were perfect. The uppers and insoles are made from super fine Merino wool—keeping feet warm even if wet—and instead of the EVA foam traditionally used in footwear, Allbirds uses SweetFoam, made from sugarcane, and calls it “the world’s first carbon-negative green EVA.” Sizing runs small; buy up one full size in men’s and women’s models. Allbirds.com.
Rhamani sandals ($80, 14 oz./pair US men’s 9) come in one style with multiple configurations, thanks to the removable heel and forefoot straps and retractable toe loop—and the strap system is secure enough that I took hikes from campsites, walking faint use trails and splashing through creeks, on a six-day backpacking trip in the Grand Canyon. The contoured footbed feels plush and the outsole grips well on a variety of ground surfaces—packed-dirt trails, pebbly riverbanks, scrambling on rocks. Best of all: They weigh about half of many sports sandals. Sizing is standard whole sizes. rhamani.com.
Windproof, Waterproof Emergency Matches
The UCO Titan Matches ($12, 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, at no cost to you, by clicking this link to purchase UCO Titan Matches at rei.com.
Sun and Bug Hats
On hot days from the Grand Canyon in spring and fall to the intense alpine sun in mountains like the High Sierra, I always wear a wide-brim hat to keep my squash from baking—which makes a big difference in how I feel over the course of hours hiking in such heat. And my pick is the Outdoor Research Papyrus Brim Sun Hat ($36, 3 oz.). The well-ventilated paper straw fabric allows air to pass through and my head to release heat, keeping me cooler, and the Supplex lining keeps sweat out of my eyes. It’s rated UPF 50+ for sun protection, the removable chin cord keeps strong gusts from stealing it, and it doesn’t bump against the top of my backpack when I’m hiking.
Sometimes we wander into beautiful places in nature that are @#&*! full of biting insects. When the bugs are robbing you of your happy face, bust out an Outdoor Research Bug Helios Hat ($55, 4 oz.). It’s first and foremost a sun hat, with breathable, wicking fabric and a UPF rating of 50+ (although it’s not as cool as OR’s Papyrus Brim Sun Hat, above). But when the skeeters and other tiny nasties crash the party, just release the no-see-um bug mesh. It hangs over your face, head, and neck while the hat’s brim keeps it off your face, and tucks away unnoticed when unneeded. While the mesh has a gauzy effect that makes it a little difficult to see fine details in the landscape, it sure beats eating bugs.
Got a favorite sipping beverage you like to have in the backcountry? Mine is single malt scotch whisky, and I carry it in a GSI Glacier Stainless Hip Flask ($30, 7.5 oz., 6 fl. oz., 4×1.2×5 ins.). With a mouth wide enough to pour into directly from the bottle, this stainless-steel flask has a leashed screw cap and a classic, curved shaped, and comes with a soft stuff sack. Steel is heavy, yes, but leaves no taste like plastic can. One caveat: With such a narrow base, it’s tippy, so adhere to the rule that one never sets a flask down with its cap open.
BUY IT NOW You can support my work on this blog, at no cost to you, by clicking this link to purchase a GSI Glacier Stainless Hip Flask at backcountry.com.
See also my recommended backpacking gear checklist and menus of all of my reviews of backpacks, backpacking boots, hiking shoes, tents, and sleeping bags. And don’t miss my picks for “The Best Backpacking Gear” of the year.
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Whether you’re a beginner or seasoned backpacker, you’ll learn new tricks for making all of your trips go better in my “12 Expert Tips for Planning a Wilderness Backpacking Trip” and “A Practical Guide to Lightweight and Ultralight Backpacking.” If you don’t have a paid subscription to The Big Outside, you can read part of both stories for free, or download the e-guide versions of “12 Expert Tips for Planning a Wilderness Backpacking Trip” and the lightweight backpacking guide without having a paid membership.
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 my Gear Reviews page at The Big Outside for categorized menus of all of my reviews and my expert buying tips.