By Michael Lanza
Yosemite. The Teton Crest Trail. The Grand Canyon. Glacier National Park. The Wind River Range. Idaho’s Sawtooth Mountains. The North Cascades. Zion. The Tour du Mont Blanc. New Hampshire’s White Mountains. Maine’s Mahoosuc Range. The Canadian Rockies. Spain’s Picos de Europa Mountains. These are just some of the numerous places where I’ve tested the backpacking gear you see reviewed at The Big Outside. I treat gear roughly in places that are notoriously hard on outdoor gear and apparel so that I can give you brutally honest and thorough, field-tested opinions that help you make the best gear choices for your adventures.
And that’s exactly how I came up with these picks for today’s best backpacking gear.
Nearly three decades of testing outdoor gear and apparel—including many years as the lead gear reviewer and Northwest Editor of Backpacker magazine (see my About page for more about me and this blog)—have honed my ability to identify gear that’s truly outstanding, at the cutting edge technologically, and a good value.
In this article, I share my top picks for a basic backpacking gear kit, from the five or more best packs, tents, boots, and sleeping bags—because everyone has different needs—to a favorite rain shell, the best air mattresses, the camp kitchen, and water treatment.
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Each item on this list links to my complete review of it, where you can get more details and find links to online retailers for purchasing it; in a few cases, those links are to a multi-product review, like my favorite backpacking accessories. Purchasing through those links helps support my work on The Big Outside—and you’ll usually find the best prices at those links.
I’d love to read what you think of my gear picks, or your experiences with any of this gear or other stuff; share your thoughts in the comments section at the bottom of this story. And please consider sharing this story with other backpackers you think might find it useful.
Want to read about the many places I’ve backpacked while testing gear? Click on Trips (also in the main menu above) or use the search box in the sidebar, and definitely check out my e-guides to America’s best backpacking trips, including the Teton Crest Trail and The Best First Backpacking Trip in Yosemite.
Click on the name of any product below to read its complete review, or on a photo or “Buy it” link to purchase it.
Best Overall: Osprey Atmos AG 65 (buy it now) and Aura AG 65 (buy it now), both $270, 4 lbs. 11 oz.
Best Weight-to-Performance Ratio: Granite Gear Blaze 60, $270, 3 lbs. 4 oz. Buy it now.
Best Durability and Waterproof: Arc’teryx Bora AR 50, $499, 4 lbs. 13 oz. Buy it now.
Best For Heavy Loads: Gregory Baltoro 65 (buy it now) and Deva 60 (buy it now), both $300, 4 lbs. 15 oz.
Best Ultralight Pack
Hyperlite Mountain Gear 3400 Windrider
$345, 1 lb. 15 oz.
Many ultralight packs lack the support for carrying more than about 25 to 30 pounds comfortably. HMG’s 3400 Windrider handles up to 35 pounds or more, has the capacity for a week between resupplies, and weighs much less than some best-selling competitors. Its tough Dyneema Composite Fabrics is fully waterproof. The fixed suspension comes in four sizes and the simple harness system works. Its minimalist design, durability, capacity, comfort, and low weight will appeal to many backpackers who prefer hiking over simply hauling. Read my full review.
Best Overall: Big Agnes Copper Spur HV UL2, $450, 2 lbs. 12 oz. Buy it now.
Best 2-Person Ultralight: Big Agnes Tiger Wall 2 Platinum, $550, 1 lb. 15 oz. Buy it now.
Best Solo Ultralight: Gossamer Gear The One, $300, 1 lb. 6 oz. Buy it now.
Best Space: MSR Zoic 3, $350, 4 lbs. 6 oz. Buy it now.
Killer Value Tent
Marmot Tungsten UL 2P
$299, 3 lbs. 4 oz.
Sure, weight is important when evaluating a tent. But space—and especially the space-to-weight ratio—merits equal consideration, particularly for taller people. The Tungsten UL 2P offers more square footage than virtually any comparable freestanding, three-season, two-person tent, while still weighing in just ounces over three pounds—and costs less than virtually all competitors in its category. I have some nitpicks with it, but it’s a sturdy tent and a super value. Read my full review.
Your trips will go better with the right gear. See my picks for “The 10 Best Backpacking Packs”
and “The 5 Best Backpacking Tents.”
Shoes and Boots
Best Backpacking Boots: Scarpa Zodiac Plus GTX, $269, 2 lbs. 7 oz. Buy them now.
Best Lightweight Boots: The North Face Ultra Fastpack III Mid GTX, $160, 1 lb. 15 oz. Buy the men’s or the women’s now or see my complete review for links to buy other versions.
Most Comfortable: Tecnica Plasma S, $150, 1 lb. 14 oz. Buy the men’s or the women’s now at rei.com.
Most Breathable and Sticky: La Sportiva TX3, $135, 1 lb. 9 oz. Buy them now.
Killer Value: Oboz Sawtooth II Low Waterproof, $140, 2 lbs. 4 oz. Buy the men’s or women’s now.
Best Ultralight Boots
Arc’teryx Aerios FL Mid GTX
$185, 1 lb. 11 oz.
The trend toward lighter footwear for hiking and backpacking has produced a lot of shoes that, frankly, lack the support and cushion for rugged dayhiking or lightweight backpacking. Not a problem with the Aerios FL Mid GTX. I wore them carrying upwards of 40 pounds (a substantial portion of it water) on a six-day, 80-mile backpacking trip through the Grand Canyon—which included the very rugged Escalante Route. Despite falling within the weight class of trail-running shoes, these shoes unusually strong support and cushion for a shoe in its weight class, making it ideal for lightweight or ultralight backpacking or dayhiking in any terrain. Read my full review.
Buy smart with my pro tips on buying a backpack, backpacking tent, hiking shoes or boots, and a sleeping bag.
Best Down Bag: REI Magma bags, $319-$389, 1 lb. 4 oz.-1 lb. 12 oz. Buy it now.
Best Synthetic Bag: Nemo Kyan 20 and Azura 20. Buy a Kyan 20 or Azura 20 now.
Roomiest Mummy: Big Agnes Picket SL 30, $260, 2 lbs. 4 oz. Buy it now.
Best Ultralight: Therm-a-Rest Hyperion 32, $360, 1 lb. 1 oz. Buy it now.
Killer Value Bag
Sierra Designs Nitro 800 20-Degree
$360, 1 lb. 13 oz.
When shopping for sleeping bags, it’s helpful to compare certain key specs: temperature rating, type and amount of insulation (or fill), total weight, and, of course, the price. Using those metrics, the new Sierra Designs Nitro 20-Degree looks really good, with water-resistant, 800-fill-power DriDown feathers, enough warmth for sub-freezing temps, a cut that delivers more generous space than many bags—all at a weight south of two pounds. The Nitro series includes several men’s and women’s models at competitive prices. Read my full review.
What do you really need for backpacking? See my “Essentials-Only Backpacking Gear Checklist.”
Best Rain Jacket
Outdoor Research Interstellar Jacket, $299, 11 oz.
Wear enough waterproof-breathable shells for the backcountry and you understand what really separates the excellent from the mediocre: It’s the second half of that hyphenated adjective—the “breathable” part. Too many jackets, while keeping rain out, will cause you to overheat so much when exerting (like carrying a backpack uphill) that you’re as wet as you would be walking in the rain without the jacket. That’s where OR’s Interstellar shines. It uses OR’s highly breathable, proprietary AscentShell membrane, which moves moisture out faster than any three-season jacket I’ve used. It’s lightweight and has a fully technical, adjustable hood and other features found in high-end shells—at a price radically lower than the top competitors. Read my full review.
Which puffy should you buy? See my “Review: The 10 Best Down Jackets” and
“Ask Me: How Can You Tell How Warm a Down Jacket Is?”
Best Insulation: Therm-a-Rest NeoAir XTherm, $200, 15 oz. Buy it now.
Best Ultralight: Therm-a-Rest NeoAir Uberlite, $180, 13 oz. Buy it now.
Best Value and Comfort: Big Agnes Insulated Air Core Ultra, $100, 1 lb. 6 oz. Buy it now.
Best Inflatable Pillow: Sea to Summit Aeros Pillow Ultra Light, $43, 2.5 oz. Buy it now.
Plan your next great backpacking adventure using my downloadable, expert e-guides.
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Best Ultralight Pot: MSR Big Titan Kettle, $100, 6 oz. Buy it now.
Best Cook Set: Sea to Summit X-Set 31, $110, 1 lb. 6 oz. Buy it now.
Best Solo Stove: Jetboil MiniMo, $135, 1 lb. 1 oz. Buy it now.
Best Family/Group Stove: Jetboil Joule, $200, 1 lb. 12 oz. Buy it now.
Best Bear Canister: Bear Vault BV500, $80, 2 lbs. 8 oz. Buy it now.
Best Ultralight Stove
MSR PocketRocket 2
$45, 3 oz. (4 oz. with plastic case, included)
Backcountry stoves come in a variety of designs these days. But in many respects, the simplest design remains the most versatile and reliable, and the PocketRocket 2 continues to embody everything a backpacking stove should be. It fires up easily every time, boils water fast, has good flame control for wilderness gourmands, weighs next to nothing, and costs less than many of its best competitors. Whereas some types of stoves have limitations on what you can cook with them, you can use the PocketRocket 2 for cooking almost anything, almost anywhere, for any size party (or more than one stove for a large group). That may explain why it’s so popular. Read my full review. The new PocketRocket Deluxe ($70) adds a piezo push-button igniter, but as with that feature on other stoves, its performance can be erratic.
I can help you plan the best backpacking, hiking, or family adventure of your life. Find out more here.
Best Pump Filter: MSR Hyperflow, $100, 9 oz. Buy it now.
Best Gravity Filter: Katadyn Base Camp Pro 10L, $100, 12 oz. Buy it now.
Best Filter Bottle: Lifestraw Go, $45, 8 oz. Buy it now.
Best Ultralight Personal Filter: Katadyn BeFree Water Filtration System 0.6L, 1L, or 3L bottle, $40-$55, 2.5-3.5 oz. Buy it now.
Tell me what you think.
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Want to make your pack lighter and all of your backpacking trips more enjoyable? See my story “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 that story for free, or click here to download that full story without having a paid membership.