Top 5 Gear Recommendations for Beginner Backpackers

There’s a pretty steep learning curve for beginning backpackers. Once you start hiking on rough terrain routinely, try your first overnight, or hike 10+ miles a day, you’re going to start seeing that you’re outgrowing your old backpack you used for school or using one 20 ounce water bottle for an entire hike. You’re going to need some upgrades, and it’s no secret that hiking gear is expensive. As a college student, I’m constantly struggling to find the best gear for the lowest price. Some people will swear that you *have* to buy Osprey or ZPacks, etc. to get good gear. That just isn’t the case, and I’m here to give you a few tips on how to find your perfect pack, footwear, shelter, bear can, and water filter.

Note: I’m not sponsored in any way, and these recommendations are on how to find what you need, not that you should get the exact product I ended up with.

  1. Backpack

First, measure your torso length. There’s some good guides on how to do this (on most pack sites, they’ll explain how). It’s typically from the bottom of your neck down to your iliac. Have someone else measure this, because it’s one of the most essential measurements for finding the right pack.

Second, decide what you want this pack for. Make sure that if you’re only buying one pack that it can do everything you need. For example, I know that I’m planning to do more overnight hikes in the future, and that I don’t have the money for “ultralight” gear. I ended up with a 60 liter pack, because even though I’m not always going to need that room, I know that I can’t afford to buy more than one pack (and I really don’t need it, because carrying an extra pound of pack weight on a day hike won’t kill me).

Third, decide what kind of fit you want. Of course there’s the standard of how it should fit, because you want the weight off of your shoulders and more on your hips. One of the main features I suggest looking at is the torso strap thickness. This might not matter to you if you’re fairly thin and the strap is almost as tight as possible. However, for me, thinner straps cut into my abdomen and hurt quite a bit. Additionally, with fit, size will change how the pack feels, so keep that in mind. And try to find a store to try the pack on, or at least try on the same brand or style.

I personally went with the Gregory Amber 60. I wanted the adjustable torso because I’m on the border of two different sizes. It’s also affordable and they have pretty good deals when you sign up for their email list. They also have thick straps, which was essential for me. I have to say, this pack probably isn’t fo everyone. But it has a light enough base weight for me, enough pockets, and I don’t see it wearing down anytime soon (which is also important for me, because gear is an investment to me).

2. Footwear

The first question you have to ask yourself is “what terrain am I on most?” The second is “where do I need extra support, if anywhere?” These are the most important questions to me because your own body as well as the terrain you’ll be on will drastically change your needs. For me, I hike a lot in the Adirondacks of New York (completing the 46ers is a goal of mine). I need higher ankle boots, because my ankles have a tendency to give out on a long hike. This is especially true after I slipped and hurt my ankle at Glacier National Park this summer.

The second thing to think about is if you want waterproofing. I personally find it irritating to have to avoid every puddle, and I really like splashing in them in my waterproof boots. I might get muddy sometimes, but at least my feet stay fairly dry. Some people aren’t going to be in a muddy area, so this isn’t as important and might not be worth the money. (You can also try and waterproof them yourself, although this doesn’t always work well).

The third thing to think about is cost. Any kind of footwear can cost a lot, but you can easily save money if you don’t need boots and can just wear trail runners (this isn’t always true, it depends what kind you get). I paid about $100 for my first pair of hiking shoes, and they were not waterproof or good for high elevations (they had no ankle support). I paid about $150 for my new Keen boots, but they’re waterproof, have a lot of ankle support, and fit very well.

3. Shelter

If you’re a day hiker, and will never be overnighting, you don’t need to worry about this. But there’s a lot of choices (some of which aren’t too expensive) if you’re looking to try out backcountry camping.

I’m going to talk about tents first. Some of you may not want a tent, but this is a pretty versatile option and might end up being the least expensive if you want to try out backpacking for just a few days before committing to buying expensive gear. If you don’t need one for winter, don’t buy one for winter (they’re far more expensive and most people don’t need this). If you want one for summer and maybe some spring and fall, then a three season is what you want. Luckily, most tents are three season, and there’s a lot of inexpensive options. These might not be the most glamorous, but they work reasonably well from what I’ve experienced:

  • Walmart Kid’s Tent ($20). (I bought one that was also an outdoor tent, but I’m not sure they sell it anymore. This is similar, but might not work if you have rain. you could use an extra tarp with it and get by, though. Weirdly enough, this thing fit both my boyfriend and I comfortably. It’s definitely not the ideal tent, but if you need something light and are basically just looking for bug proofing, this’ll work.
  • Weanas Tent (Amazon, $72–$100). I got this tent recently, and it’s exactly what I expected and was looking for. I got the 1–2 person in the extra long (so we could fit our packs in at the bottom with us). This certainly isn’t the lightest or most compact shelter you can find, but it does its job and is reasonably priced for its weight, size and design.

I haven’t found many affordable tents that have clips for the poles (instead of sliding the poles through the fabric. For me, that’s one major priority, because it saves a lot of setup time (of course, I wouldn’t expect that from any Walmart tent, but any tent you’re spending good money on should be easy to set up.

Now, let’s talk hammocks. They’re not a bad option, but there’s a lot more to it than just setting up your hammock for an hour in your backyard. You need long enough straps, a sturdy hammock (that can fit one or two people, depending on what you need), a bug net, and possibly a tarp. For dry, warm nights, a hammock is ideal. The downside though is that on a cool night you’re going to need lots of layers.

There’s so many different hammocks out there. I would advise you that buying a hammock that already has a net on top is kind of useless. You’ll want the separate net that it large enough to not touch your hammock much when it’s set up. This way mosquitoes can’t bite you through the fabric. You’ll also want a warm sleeping bag for cooler nights. Be aware that not having a completely enclosed shelter cools you down quickly.

There’s other types of shelters, but if you’re a beginner, these are the two I’d suggest to go with.

4. Bear Canister

There are places that you are required to have a bear canister. There are also places where you are required to have a specific kind of bear can. For example, National Parks and the Adirondack High Peaks both require bear cans that aren’t made of clear plastic. This is because their bears have been known to get through the plastic.

Check the policies for where you’ll be hiking. I recommend getting one that is useful for all of your hiking needs. This way you won’t have to spend twice the money after realizing you can’t use your bear can for a place you want to hike.

Some that I’ve considered buying:

  • UDAP’s No Fed Bear Can ($70). I ultimately bought this one because it was the same as another one I would have bought, but this one would ship to me on time. Luckily it hasn’t been in contact with a bear yet, but I’m pretty sure it’ll hold up. The website is certainly a little “scary-tactic-y,” but the can seems to work.
  • Garcia Backpacker’s Cache ($65-$70). Gets good reviews, and is similar to UDAP’s.

Note that neither of these are waterproof, but I personally don’t mind since these are fairly cost effective and you can always use or re-use a trash bag or plastic bags if needed. You can find some others, but just be careful not to buy something clear if you plan to be in bear country that requires a can with harder plastic and a key-turn type mechanism. I personally like these because they both have a shape that can fit sideways (or upright) in my pack. Neither will fit in something that’s 30 liters, but you’re probably gonna want more than 30 liters for overnights anyways.

A note on why you need bear cans: 1. They protect you against bears, because bears can’t get into your food, meaning you won’t be left with no food in the middle of the woods. 2. They protect bears against us. They shouldn’t be eating human food. It’s bad for them, and when they get our food consistenly, they can become aggressive and may be killed. Don’t contibute to this issue.

5. Water Filter

Water is essential during any hike, but when you’re on long hikes, you’re going to need more of it and run out of the tap water you brought. Chances are you’re going to want to filter your water. Unless you know the area really well, you probably won’t know the original source of the water that you’ll find in a stream or creek on a trail. You don’t know what’s in the water, and you can’t see any bacteria or viruses in it. Just filter it. The last thing you want is getting sick on a trail (especially since that can make you dehydrated and increase other risks).

Note: there are some filters that do filter viruses. If you’re in the United States, you most likely won’t need this (at least in most areas). Bacteria is the biggest issue on a trail. However, do more research if you’re in countries with different sewage treatment standards and other policies that may change water quality in nature.

My suggestions for water filters and purification:

  • Sawyer Water Filter (~$20). Full disclosure, this is the one I have. It’s small and works for me and one other person quickly enough for the volume of water we need. This does not filter viruses.
  • Potable Aqua (~$11). This can be found at most outdoors stores and online. It treats bacteria, viruses, and some other things. It’s more for emergencies or as a back up, but I’d recommend having this just in case.

Water filtration doesn’t seem all that interesting, but it’s very important. It’s about what works for you, but just know the area that you’re in and what you have to prevent yourself from contracting.

Overall, do your own research and figure out your own priorities for everything you invest in. These are my personal recommendations, and I think they’re pretty good places to start.

Traveled cross country in my converted Subaru summer 2019. Public health and sexual health nerd. I like trees better than people.

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