The Gregory Jade 60L bag (shown above) is my go-to choice for 3-season weekend backpacking. For longer distance and winter backpacking, I utilize either the Gregory Deva 70L or Petite Dru Pro 80L (what I carried below on the John Muir Trail). I also have the Gregory Denali 90L for mountaineering expeditions.
For an overnight backpacking trip, you will need a pack to accommodate the 10 essentials for hiking, plus additional overnight clothing, gear and food.. A pack approximately 60-85 liters in volume (REI LINK TO BAGS) is likely suitable, depending on your style (go light and fast (HYPERLITE BAG LINK?), or carry the kitchen sink (REI GREGORY LINK?) and the season in which you will be backpacking. In the winter, you will need a larger bag to accommodate more layers, food, and winter-specific gear. Regardless of the season, I recommend always using a true backpacking bag with load lifters and comfortably padded waist and shoulder straps.
Load lifters distribute the weight of your pack by drawing the bag in closer to your upper body, alleviating the uneasy feel of the bag swaying around and moving you off-balance. When the pack is properly adjusted, it will feel like a solid, natural extension of your body. Your pack should not inhibit your natural movement, nor should it cause you discomfort or pain. The majority of the pack weight should be felt on your hips - if you are carrying the weight primarily on your shoulders, you are susceptible to upper body injury and it won't be comfortable.
In packing your bag, there is always a method to what initially seems like madness. Depending on your environment, you will want to organize the heaviest of your items higher or lower in the bag. For instance, if you are going to be climbing steep terrain, the heaviest items will be more comfortable in the mid-section of the pack. If terrain is flatter, you can pack your heavier items higher toward the top.
Additionally, while packing, you'll want to consider accessibility of high-value items such as food, your emergency first-aid kit or your rain layers. In the event that you want to stop for a snack break, you don't want to dump the entire contents of your bag on the ground to find a snack. And, if an injury happens, you don't want to spend valuable time sifting through your pack trying to find your first-aid kit. Or, in less critical situations, you might find yourself frustrated having to fight everything that lies on top of your hydration bladder (CAMELBAK LINK?) in order refill it for the umpteenth time on your trip.
Pack your items according to:
Accessibility: Ability get to certain items (like food & rain gear)
Frequency of use: Keep water accessible (hydration bladder or Nalgenes)
Emergency consideration: Quick to a first aid kit, personal beacon locator
Balance: A well packed bag will have good shape & stand on its own
Always in the bottom of the bag is your sleeping bag and items that are soft, bulky and that you do not want to get wet. I HIGHLY recommend putting your sleeping bag and extra clothing in waterproof stuff sacks (SEA TO SUMMIT LINK?) prior to packing. If you do end up hiking through inclement weather, you will be much happier and much more comfortable with a dry sleeping bag and dry layer of extra clothing.
Additionally, I pack the tent body and fly around everything else. It's easy to use those materials to fill in any gaps/spaces. You don't want voids in the pack, so stuff that tent and fly in there! If you try to pack your tent in a compression sack, it takes up an awkward amount of room and you're not maximizing the space of your pack. By filling all the gap spaces with the tent body and fly, you're also balancing the pack and helping it have better shape and structure. A well-packed bag will be able to stand upright and balance without you holding it.
The Layering System
Choosing the appropriate materials for the temperature and weather conditions and then knowing how to layer articles of clothing are critical skill sets for being comfortable and safe in the backcountry. Like sleeping bags, the material you wear does not warm you - your body heat warms up the material you wear, and the material acts as a shield to ultimately retain the heat your body generates, circulating air and keeping you warm as a result.
The Base Layer (closest to skin): This is the layer of clothing closest to your skin, worn in cooler months or at higher elevations. Can be wool, silk or a synthetic (fleece, polyester, polyester blend). Ideally the function of the base layer is to keep you warm and wick away sweat from your body quickly and efficiently. The number one medical danger in the backcountry is hypothermia. It is imperative that you know how to regulate your body's natural heating and cooling mechanisms to ensure you do not get wet or stay cold for prolonged periods of time.
In the winter, I wear wool. Wool retains 80% of your body's heat even when wet. Thus, wool socks, wool lightweight pants, wool long sleeve and a wool hat comprise my base layer in the winter. In the spring/fall, I wear either wool or silk. Silk is lighter weight, but still wicks away moisture from my body quickly, keeping me comfortable and dry throughout the day. If the temperature is going to drop a bit lower or it's a cloudy/blustery day, wool will keep me warmer than silk.
Try different weight base layers and figure out a system that works for you. Remember, the goal is to keep dry and warm in the backcountry by regulating your body temperature to prevent hypothermia, especially in inclement weather.
The Midweight/Insulating (middle layer): This is the layer on top of your base layer, and its purpose is to keep you warm by capturing and retaining the heat your body is generating. If I am highly active, like hiking or climbing hard all day, or the weather is less than optimal and I might get wet, I opt for a synthetic mid-weight, like a pull-over fleece.
Synthetic materials, as opposed to down, will still keep you warm when wet. Unfortunately down loses its loft, which is its ability to circulate and retain heat, as soon as it becomes wet, ultimately rendering it useless. While I'm moving, sweating, or getting wet, I avoid down at all cost. However, if I'm standing at a belay spot or am comfortable in basecamp or tucked in my tent for the night, down is a fantastic mid-weight insulating layer.
The mid-weight insulating layer is dependent on your level of activity, the weather, and your needs - and can be stripped/removed if you find you are getting too warm and starting to sweat.
There are synthetic materials on the market that mimic the feel of down, keeping you warm even when wet. Synthetic puffy jackets work as a good mid-layer if a fleece is not enough to keep you warm. Down puffy jackets are amazing if you are absolutely certain you can keep them dry. Remember, the ultimate goal is to stay dry and warm, so mitigating sweat and keeping from getting wet is imperative. And, if you do get wet, wearing the right material or having the ability to dry quickly will keep you warm, safe and comfortable.
The Hard Shell (outer layer): The hard shell or outer layer serves as both a wind-breaker and rain barrier. I opt for gore-tex, but that is a heavier weight material and might be more than what you need. However, in winter and more brutal weather conditions, gore-tex keeps me drier longer and better retains the heat I worked hard to generate.
If I take off my mid-weight insulating layer because I am too hot, I will opt to keep on my hard shell right on top of my base layer to keep my body from cooling down too rapidly during activity. I instead will open the arm or side vents on the gore-tex jacket to allow maximum breathability. Or, if the weather allows, I may remove the outer hard shell and just wear the base layer, or the base layer plus the mid weight insulating layer.
During the winter months, I regulate my body heat through my upper body layers. I always keep on my base layer (wool) and a hard shell pants. If I am too cold, I have a pair of synthetic puffy pants that go ON TOP of the hard shell pants. The easiest way to regulate body temperature is through adding and removing layers on your upper body, as your core/abdomen is where most of your body heat is generated and directed (the body's natural way of protecting your most vital organs, which is why your extremities always get cold first).
Down, Down-tek or Synthetic?
On the plus side, down is the lightest, most compressible and retains your body heat better than any other material on the market. The longevity is unbeatable, so long as you properly care and store garments made of down. However, if wet, down loses its ability to maintain your body heat. It will lose loft, thus limiting its ability to circulate and retain the warmth you've worked hard to generate. And once wet, it can be nearly impossible to dry out. And if you're concerned about the ethical sourcing of down, not all companies monitor the process from goose to product. For ethically-sourced down, purchase Patagonia products.
Down-tek is down that has been chemically treated to mitigate the feathers from getting wet. However, it is imperative to still keep the down from getting wet, even though it will still maintain some loft and will circulate your body heat to a certain degree if wet.
Synthetic materials do not lose their ability to circulate your body heat even when wet, and will continue to keep you warm. However, synthetic tends to be bulkier and heavier, and may not compress as easily as down.
SmartWool Base Layer shirt and pants
The Mid-Weight Layer - Fleece, Vest, & Puffy
The Hard Shell/Outer Layer
The Emergency / Puffy Outer Layer
The 3 season tent I currently use: MSR Hubba Hubba NX, 2 person
-A hammock with fly and under-quilt (for insulation/warmth). I personally don't backpack with a hammock (good hang spots can be hard to find depending on the terrain).
A Hilleberg winter mountaineering tent - the same one I used on my NOLS Expedition in the North Cascades. These tents, while heavy, can withstand some intense weather. As you can see above, the fly and inner body create a sturdy double wall. The tent can be deconstructed from the inside so you always keep the inner body dry and clean.
Closed cell pad: Thermarest Z-Lite. I use this by itself or will double it up with an air pad for extra insulation between me and the ground. It's also a good pad to share with my dog, seeing as how it won't be ruined by her nails. Super important that your dog also has insulation between them and the ground!
My 3-season sleeping bag: Nemo Nocturne Down, 15 degree. The spoon shape is enough space for both me and my 80lb dog. Becomes a tighter squeeze, but totally worth having the extra furry warmth.
The three basic elements of a sleep system are your shelter (tent or hammock), sleeping pad and sleeping bag.
With all of the options on the market, trying to figure out what works for you is going to take a bit of exploring. Do you prefer to carry as little weight as possible, or are you happier with carrying more weight for a more durable product or more comfortable experience? This tradeoff is going to be unique to you. I'll go through the pro's & con's of each approach - the minimalism/ultralight options versus the comfort/extreme environment options, and will detail various products for both.
Minimalist/Ultra Light Tents: Ultra-light tents (under 4lbs) tend to be more expensive, and the reduction in weight tends to come at the detriment of long term durability. However, they are extremely light, quick and easy to set up, and usually leave a smaller footprint than heavier/larger tents. The tent I use on long distance backpacking trips is the Big Agnes Fly Creek UL2. This tent is spacious enough for me to sleep comfortably with my pack and 60lb dog on the interior. I keep my boots and wet outer layers in the vestibule, and everything else inside with me. Other popular ultralight tents on the market include the Big Agnes Copper Spur, the MSR Hubba Hubba NX, and the Black Diamond Hilight (4 season).
If you're comfortable with a more cramped space, you can opt for the one-person version of the aforementioned tents, saving you a bit more on weight. However, the two-person versions will give you a little extra space and will also accommodate a partner if you want to share it on occasion. If you think you'll be backpacking with a partner all the time, a three-person tent will keep you from being on top of one another.
Hammocks: Many people swear by the convenience of a hammock. Again, this is personal preference. You can be warm and comfortable in a hammock using a sleeping pad inside it, good sleeping bag, and an under-quilt on the outside of it. Additionally, most hammock set-ups include a bug net and rain fly to keep you dry, comfortable and mitigate insect visits all throughout the night. Hammocks may be bottom or side entry. The Hennessy hammock is a very popular brand, and the company offers a wide variety of hammock styles and additional accessories to maximize the comfort of your experience.
Mountaineering tents: Higher-end mountaineering tents, while extremely durable and able to withstand serious weather conditions, are often very heavy, often exceeding 8lbs. The Hilleberg line of mountaineering tents are tried and proven in the most serious conditions. Personally, I stayed a month in a Hilleberg Kaitum 3 while on a mountaineering expedition in Washington's Northern Cascades, and it is by far the most comfortable and heavy-duty tent I have ever used. One of the coolest features of a Hilleberg is that the inner body of the tent detaches from the fly from the inside, meaning you can set up the fly first and then set up the inner tent during a storm, or breakdown the tent from the inside out, without ever exposing the inner tent body to the outer elements.
Sleeping Pads: There are two primary options for sleeping pads - closed cell foam pads or air pads, The type of pad you use is going to depend on the level of insulation you need between you and the ground, as well as your preferences for convenience and comfort. A sleeping pad's insulation ability, known as its R value, is the measurement of the sleeping pad's thermal resistance. The higher the R value, the warmer it will keep you. Section Hiker has a great table of virtually every sleeping pad on the market, and you are able to sort it by price, R value, weight, Brand, etc. according to your preferences.
A closed cell pad, like the Thermarest Z Lite Foam Pad, is made of compressed foam. They are quick and easy to set up, strap on your pack, fold into an accordion or roll up, and you don't have to worry about keeping them dry or protecting them from things that may puncture them. And in an emergency, you can put an injured person on a closed cell pad to keep them warmer and prevent hypothermia from setting in while they're down on the ground. I always carry a small square closed cell pad as a butt pad to sit on whenever I stop and rest or while I'm cooking.
Air pads, like the Thermarest Prolite, can be thicker and more comfortable than closed cell pads, but they require more care and protection so as to prevent them from puncturing. In the winter I double up closed cell pad and air pad to increase the R value, which is the amount of insulation between me and the ground. Side sleepers may prefer air pads because of the increased thickness, but they may not benefit as much from the increased R value because their full body is not in contact with the sleeping pad.
Sleeping bags, like your insulating layers, come in both down, down-tek or synthetic material. Like all other down products, keeping a down sleeping bag dry is imperative. The pro's of a down bag are that it's lighter, compresses smaller, and will ultimately keep you warmer than its synthetic counterpart. However, if it gets wet, its ability to keep you warm is rendered useless.
Finding the right temperature rating for your body is important. You may be comfortable in a 0 degree bag when it's -10 degrees, yet your friend may need a -40 degree bag. I have several sleeping bags, all with different amounts of insulation and temperature ratings, depending on the season. My 3-season bag is a Nemo Nocturne 15 degree bag. Even when it's 30 to 40 degrees at night, I need a 15 degree bag. And if I'm still cold, I'll use a sleeping bag liner to add 10 degrees of warmth. When it's below freezing, I use a 0 degree bag minimum.
Thankfully, I also have a dog who sleeps inside of my sleeping bag with me. Personal space heater for the win! Anything colder than 30 degrees probably requires 3 dogs for warmth.
Me and my pup, Libby, hiking and camping in Colorado. She's the best snuggle buddy ever.
There is nothing better for morale than good food on a long-distance hiking trip or expedition. While eating "ready to go" or instant add-hot-water meals are convenient, they get old, fast. I highly recommend learning how to cook at least a couple good backcountry meals, as it'll help you enjoy your experience that much more. Or just bring Mountain House meals, they're good too. You do you.
So what do you cook with? As with all my answers...it depends! On some trips I bring my personal MSR Pocket Rocket stove and isopropane/isobutane canisters, and on others I bring my MSR Whisperlite and white gas canisters. On longer expeditions, it's nice to be able to bake and slow cook meals, which is where the Whisperlite is handy. I can also cook for several people with a Whisperlite, while the Pocket Rocket is just for me.