Review: 20 Essential Backpacking Gear Accessories
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. 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 on the ground. You’ll find many of them available at sale prices right now.
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 13x17x1 ins.) stuffs down to the size of my fist and its fabric feels soft against my face, while the larger Sea to Summit Aeros Ultralight Deluxe Pillow ($60, 4.6 oz., 23.5x16x5.5 ins.) will almost feel like your pillow at home. 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 any of these links to purchase a Sea to Summit Aeros Pillow Ultra Light at rei.com, an Aeros Ultralight Deluxe Pillow at backcountry.com, moosejaw.com, or rei.com, or a Cocoon Ultralight Air Core Pillow at rei.com.
Light and small enough to carry into the backcountry, the Helinox Chair Zero ($120, 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 modern 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.
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, 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.
For their low weight, durability, water resistance, and price, my top pick for stuff sacks are the Sea to Summit Ultra-Sil Dry Sacks ($12-$33, 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 even flipped twice. 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 Hyperlite Mountain Gear Dyneema Composite Fabrics Roll-Top Stuff Sacks ($38-$75, 3.7L/225 c.i. to 44L/2,700 c.i., 1-2 oz.) 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 (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 ($16-$38, multiple sizes) and slightly more abrasion-resistant DCF11 stuff sacks ($19-$40, 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.
The fully waterproof, roll-top Cascades Designs SealLine Blocker dry sacks ($15-$25, 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 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 ($16-$27, 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.
Planning your next big adventure? See “My Top 10 Favorite Backpacking Trips” and my All Trips page.
The new Osprey Ultralight Stretch Stuff Sack 12L, ($20, 12L/732 c.i., 1 oz.) and Ultralight Stretch Stuff Sack 6L ($18, 6L/305 c.i., under 1 oz.), with drawcord closures, have slight stretch in the 40-denier nylon ripstop side panels for cramming them full or fitting oddly shaped items inside. The Osprey Ultralight Dry Sacks ($13-25, 3L/183 c.i. to 30L/1,831 c.i., 1-2 oz.) have roll-top closures and are made of coated, 40-denier nylon ripstop 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 keep contents dry short of complete immersion in water. Both types have a rectangular shape for fitting more efficiently inside a pack.
BUY IT NOW You can support my work on this blog by clicking either of these links to purchase Osprey Ultralight Stretch Stuff Sacks at backcountry.com or Osprey Ultralight Dry Sacks at backcountry.com.
Many times I’ve stuffed my sleeping bag into a Sea to Summit eVent Compression Dry Sack ($30-$50, 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). But like the above stuff sacks, these are not designed for full immersion.
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.”
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, 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.
Even in summer in the mountains, you often need a pair of light gloves to fend off cool temps, wind, and rain, and the Seirus SoundTouch WindStopper All Weather Glove ($50, 2 oz.) is a great pick. They’ve proven ideal for me from a cool morning during a three-day, 40-mile backpacking trip in late May in Utah’s Dark Canyon Wilderness, to cool spring days cycling and trail running. The WindStopper fabric used in the hand section of the glove (but not in the short, wicking gauntlet) is waterproof—and many lightweight gloves are not—the forefinger has touchscreen sensitivity, and the ToughTek palm adds durability.
BUY IT NOW You can support my work on this blog by clicking this link to purchase a pair of Seirus SoundTouch WindStopper All Weather Gloves at sunnysports.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).
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.
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 moosejaw.com.
Hydration bladders have largely differed in capacity and durability, and shared the trait of being inconvenient to clean. The Gregory 3D Hydro hydration bladder ($36, 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.
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.
No one likes carrying a large amount of water very far in the backcountry, but when I have to do it, I use an MSR Dromedary. Available in three sizes, 10 liter ($50, 10 oz.), 6 liter ($45, 9 oz.) and 4 liter ($40, 7 oz.), these tough sacks have never sprung a leak inside my backpack, thanks to 1,000-denier fabric (that’s BPA-free) and a tight seal on the screw cap. Strong perimeter webbing makes it easier to carry or hang in camp, and when empty, they roll up compactly for storage in your pack. Every backpacker should own one; there will come a day that you’ll need it—whether you like it or not.
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.
Sun and Bug Hat
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+. 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. When I need a second flask (as is often the case), I bring my GSI Glacier Stainless Trad Flask, ($23, 4.5 oz., 6 fl. oz., 4×1.2×4.6 ins.), which has a hinged, screw-on cap and comes with a small funnel for refilling through its smaller mouth. One caveat: With such a narrow base, both are tippy, so adhere to the rule that one never sets a flask down with its cap open.
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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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