Backpack camping gear recommendations
April 7, 2013 7:05 PM   Subscribe

My husband and I love to hike, and this summer we hope to go on some longer hiking trips that will require camping for one or two nights. What gear should we buy to make our trips enjoyable and safe?

We live in the Pacific Northwest, so we’ll be hiking and camping in wooded mountainous terrain. Summer temperatures are mild - the lows are not cold enough to need cold weather gear, and the highs are not hot enough for heat stroke to be a concern. The biggest weather worry would probably be rain. We both have lots of drive-to-a-campsite camping experience, so we know basic things like how to safely start and put out a fire, how to store food safely so as not to draw bears, that kind of thing. But neither of us have experience hiking out to a campsite with everything we'll need on our backs. Husband is tall and muscle-y and can carry a lot of stuff. I’m a shrimp and can carry a lot less stuff.

We have our outdoor clothing needs covered, but for gear all we have is one large backpack (it’s a legit outdoor camping/hiking pack with a metal frame sized to fit my husband), water purification tablets, a couple of basic first aid kits, a pocket-sized multi-tool, and some crappy flashlights. We have no idea what to look for in terms of a tent, sleeping bags, sleeping mats, tools, stuff for cooking, or safety. So our questions are, what should we put on our shopping list of *must have* gear? What should we put on our shopping list of *really nice to have* gear? What features are really important, especially for the big ticket things like tents and sleeping bags? Which pieces of gear would be worth splurging a bit more on to get something lighter/better? Do you have any specific gear recommendations? All advice is much appreciated!
posted by keep it under cover to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (37 answers total) 66 users marked this as a favorite
To start, here's REI's backpacking checklist.

Metal frame packs are a rarity nowadays. If your husband's used to his, all well and good, but it's probably heavier and more awkward than a contemporary internal frame pack, I'd think. Consider upgrading that pack, or better yet, each of you getting your own similarly sized pack and dividing the gear carry (when I used to hike with a friend, for instance, one of us carried the tent fabric and the other carried poles and stakes).
posted by Miko at 7:11 PM on April 7, 2013 [2 favorites]

One thing that can really simplify backpacking is not doing any cooking. If you just take foods that don't need be cooked, then you don't need to bother with a stove, fuel, matches, or any kind of pots or pans. You probably can also get by without any plates, bowls, or utensils and won't need to wash any dishes. You won't have to worry about what you'll eat if it's too windy or rainy to use the stove or about how you'll wash your dishes without leaving food scraps or food smells close to your camping spot (so as not to attract bears.) Unless not cooking will make the experience way less fun for you, I'd recommend not even thinking about any cooking gear until you've tried a few trips without it.
posted by Redstart at 7:26 PM on April 7, 2013

Best answer: Take a look at Backpacker Magazine. They have gear guides and gear reviews. I've purchased several items based on their "Editors choice" recommendation with good success. If you are interested in possibly going down the rabbit hole that is lightweight backpacking, look at Backpacking Light.

You can get lots of opinions from these publications. For my two cents, here are the things that really changed my backpacking life:

- a truly well fitting pack. This required years of searching and ignoring jerks at REI who told me that the uncomfortable packs I tried on would "break in". If your husband really likes his pack, he should keep it. External frame packs are considered old fashioned but they are much cooler (less sweaty) and can be more comfortable than internal frames.

- a truly comfortable sleeping pad. I use an air mattress with down in it for warmth. I love it.

- a gravity feed water filter. This really improved my quality of life. Tasty water without the backbreaking* labor of pumping water.

- a lightweight tent. I have a tarptent, there are other options.

- lightweight LED headlamps. Just say no to flashlights that aren't attached to your head.

Given your location, I think good quality rain gear will also be crucial.

*not actually backbreaking.
posted by medusa at 7:33 PM on April 7, 2013

I agree that water filters are better than purification tablets - you get water a lot faster (no waiting period) and no weird taste.
posted by Miko at 7:35 PM on April 7, 2013 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: I think I was mistaken about the type of pack my husband has. I just looked at it and it doesn't have an external frame, so I'm assuming it must be an internal frame pack? I didn't even realize there were the two different kinds. Sorry about that!
posted by keep it under cover at 7:37 PM on April 7, 2013

Best answer: Headlamps are very nice to have.

A tarp has so many great uses, particularly in the PNW. It's so nice to have something dry to sit on (or climb under) when the whole forest is soggy. It can also make a fine footprint for your tent.

I'd get a water filter for a primary water supply, and only use the tablets as emergency backup.

Get about 50 feet of paracord. Use it to hang your food and any other smelly stuff from trees at night to discourage bears from sniffing around your campsite. The cordage also has lots of other uses in emergencies or when things break.

A little shovel for digging toilet holes.

Wet wipes.

Ziploc bags for packing out your toilet paper and wet wipes (yes, please do this).

Compression stuff sacks are awesome for compartmentalizing your clothes and other gear in your pack.

Waterproof covers for your backpacks.

Waterproof matches, if only for emergency backup.

In the Pacific Northwest it's all about being prepared to deal with a wet environment. You'll be setting up camp in the rain. You'll be breaking camp in the rain. You'll be hiking in the rain. Most important is to be able to keep your essential gear dry, particularly your clothes, and to be able to get yourself dry.

Sleeping bags: Down is comfier than synthetic, but it's worthless when it gets wet. Synthetic is traditionally a better choice in a wet environment. There are some new bags that use a coated down, for a best of both worlds situation. At least that's the selling point. I have one, and it is comfier than my synthetic bag, but I haven't really taken it out in the wet yet to really put it to the test so I can't endorse it.
posted by Balonious Assault at 7:41 PM on April 7, 2013 [4 favorites]

Best answer: some crappy flashlights

Here's an area where spending a little money makes a big difference. It is much easier to cook, hike, read, etc when you've got both hands free. You want a headlamp each. Something like this is good because it is dimmable so you don't always need to have it on full blast if you just need a little illumination. Also indispensable, I have found, is a good lantern or two. I like this one by the same manufacturer of above headlamp (it's also dimmable, and damn hard to break -- I have dropped mine and left it out in the rain, and it's still working fine).

After water and light, I'd say a solid knife -- not a leatherman -- is in order. A non-folding knife with a 4" blade can be used for cooking, cutting that bear-bag rope, idle whittling and, maybe most importantly, making good dry kindling for a fire. I highly recommend a Morakniv -- you can get one for under $20 with shipping and tax. They are stout as hell, you can get a stainless one so you don't have to worry about rusting, and they are remarkably easy to sharpen. These knives have a "scandi-grind" blade, which is just a flat plane down to the point, instead of a convex grind on many other knives. For inexperienced knife sharpeners like me, it makes it easy to maintain a sharp tool. Get one (or three), they are light and inexpensive enough that you needn't worry about damaging it in a heavy batoning session (though I don't think you will be able to -- I've beaten mine for all I'm worth and they are fine).

For sleeping bags, it very much depends on when/where you will be hiking. If you stick to the Pacific Northwest in summer, you may not need a very heavy bag. You may be able to get away with a combination of a very light sleeping bag and a sleeping bag liner (to add some more warmth and serve as a barrier between your sweaty dirty self and the sleeping bag). Does it rain where you camp? Think about something with Gore-Tex or another water-resistant fabric. In general, down is much better at giving warmth relative to its mass, but it's also twice as expensive as synthetic. Also consider that down insulates very poorly when wet, whereas synthetics will still keep you warm when wet. I find that manufacturers' temperature ratings are usually stretch -- if the bag says it is comfortable down to 30 degrees F, you might want to assume it's more like 40. Nothing worse than trying to sleep when you can't get warm.

For a tent, again, it depends on the temperature and humidity of the environment you're headed to, but in general it's safe to say you want either a waterproof bottom/floor, or else get a footprint, ideally one that's designed for your tent (google or ask at the store -- many manufacturers sell a footprint for each model). It is not an upsell -- waking up in the dark with an inch of water in your tent is not fun. Also probably avoid tents with plastic poles (you want the strength of aluminum unless you really need to save a pound or two of weight) and consider one that is seam-sealed (waterproofed where it is stitched). As with sleeping bags, the manufacturers are kind of BSing when they say a tent is good for X number of people. I'd usually say subtract one from what they claims. So you two might look at a 3-person tent if you want to keep your gear/dog/boots inside with you.

Consider a water filter over water purification tablets. It doesn't have a chemical aftertaste. I use a Katydin Hiker but there are lots of good ones out there.

Depending on how much you're planning to go off-trail (or if you're headed somewhere for the first time), it's a really good idea to have a compass. Usually overkill for an overnighter in a clearly-marked area, but it's light and small and can save your ass in a pinch. Plus it is interesting to fiddle around with and learn to orienteer a bit. In that same vein, a GPS app is a good idea -- I have this one on my iPhone. It lets you download a map of the area ahead of time (when you still have reception), and then uses GPS (even when there is no cell service available) to show you where you are, a la Google Maps.

A good solar USB charger is nice to keep your GPS/Phone/Camera charged. I use this Suntactics. It's more expensive than a lot of others, but I've tried a number of them and they generally are terrible -- a passing cloud interferes with charging, and you need to leave a phone plugged in for 12 hours to get any juice. The one I linked to can charge your phone up all the way in a couple hours, even when it's lightly overcast -- and it's light and rugged so you don't feel like you're camping with delicate electronics.

I'm sure I'm going to think of more after I post this. Great question!
posted by andromache at 7:42 PM on April 7, 2013 [7 favorites]

Best answer: The best place to find what equipment that you need is networking (aka hiking and backpacking) with other backpackers and hikers in your area. Check out the local hiking clubs in your area as well as Many groups put on Backpacking 101 classes - although the classes taught at some outfitters can be useful, local hiking groups will give you the widest range of information and wisdom.

Keep in mind that many outfitters (and some university recreation centers) will allow you to rent equipment (including backpacks, stoves, sleeping bags, etc.).

You won't have everything that you need on your first couple of backpacking trips, but you will have plenty of things that you don't need. (Your pack will get lighter the more experience you gain.)

Also, you may want to check out the Complete Walker IV from your local library. Possibly the finest book ever written on backpacking and hiking. Although some of the gear discussions are not current (the fourth edition is from 2002), the fundamentals discussed will give you a very strong idea of what you need.
posted by cinemafiend at 7:47 PM on April 7, 2013 [2 favorites]

Just focusing on tents:
-self-supporting pole structure. It should not need any lines staked out to stay up. (I can pick my whole tent up with the fly on it & shake the pine needles out when I break camp.)
- aluminum shock-corded poles.
- tub floor, waterproof and sealed.
- rain fly with vestibule to store damp stuff under cover but not inside with you. A vestibule is also a place to heat your coffee while the storm rages outside.

Yes, an advertised 2 person tent may have room for 2 but nothing else, not even boots. You must set it up in the store and both of you lie down in it to really know if you will fit. Consider the head & shoulder room. Ideally, try it with the sleeping bags too.
How easily can you enter/exit with tripping or stepping over each other? (2 doors or one big one on the end is nice!) do the zippers bind? are there handy pockets inside where you need them?
posted by TDIpod at 7:55 PM on April 7, 2013 [3 favorites]

A Thermarest sleeeping pad ($60 or so) is pretty essential (Cascade Designs, you'd be buying local), standard thickness (rather than ultra skinny or ultra fat) and 3/4 length to save weight - you just put your pack under the lower part of your sleeping bag.
Marmot makes good, light tents. I recently bought one I think called the Aura (less than $300 iirc) to replace the battered old Moss I'd used since high school, after I stayed in a friend's and realized how far tent design and quality had improved in 20 years.
Re water filters: I used to work as a canoe ranger in northern Ontario, and then as an instructor for Outward Bound, and all those years we always carried a pump water filter and more often than not would just not bother using it, unless we were camped in a really beaver-y, stagnant area. I've pretty much always drank water straight from the source, especially clear, fast flowing water in the mountains, and have never gotten sick. Not a huge thing to carry, but I wouldn't stress out too much about water, especially if you're boiling it for food or coffee.
Most people, I've found, carry too much stuff, weighed down by too much gear and heavy boots etc.. Try to go as light as you can.
posted by Flashman at 7:57 PM on April 7, 2013 [2 favorites]

Echoing the recommendations for a synthetic mummy bag. To start out with, you might want to rent -- since you are in the PNW, REI is based in your back yard.

They have good tents as well -- I have 2 backpacking tents and a car camping tent all REI brand. I suggest using a foot print or tarp underneath the tent just to add to its life.

Regarding backpacks, go to a good outdoor store and have someone fit you. The backpacks these days are significantly adjustable so there is no reason to be uncomfortable.

I would not drink unfiltered water personally -- a pump filter is not that hard to use and getting Giardia is nasty.

I like using hiking poles -- I'm 50+ and they really help a lot on uphill, downhill, and stream crossings.

I also like using a camelbak or similar type of water bag with valve. It is really important to stay hydrated and a camelbak makes that simple.

I usually am not up that late -- especially with our long summer nites, but a headlamp is lightweight and handy.

In addition to packing out toilet paper and wet wipes, you need to pack out female sanitary supplies.

Have fun!
posted by elmay at 8:06 PM on April 7, 2013 [1 favorite]

Start with the 10 essentials for each of you.

Supplement your first aid kids with Celox or QuickClot pads.

I'm a big fan of Big Agness sleeping pads, especially as a 6'5 guy who is well over 200lbs.

Pump with a field cleanable ceramic filter, ignore people who tell you to not bring water treatment. It's a good way to end up that one time a day or two away from your car and unable to stay hydrated. At the very least bring field tabs.

Seconding paracord, also handy gorilla tape or ducktape spooled around a pencil for closing wounds or for sealing rips in gear.

Top of the line headlamp is a must, either pop new batteries in it every trip or carry spares. We use Petzl's.

Loud ass whistle.

Really nice camp towel.

I am partial to Mountain Hardware mummy bags, mostly because they make some really big ones. I would go synthetic based on the rain.
posted by iamabot at 8:10 PM on April 7, 2013

For those who haven't spent much time in the Pacific Northwest, summers there actually tend to be quite dry. So you probably shouldn't make recommendations based on the assumption that there's going to be a lot of rain.
posted by Redstart at 8:36 PM on April 7, 2013 [1 favorite]

Jetboil Stove with French Press attachment
Therma Rest w/ chair frame. Make chilling around the campfire and watching sunsets so much more comfortable.
First Aid Kit
Water Filter and camel pack - I like MSR
MSR camp towel. Very absorbent and quick drying
Treking poles. They have saved my knees on many hikes with burly descents.
Black Diamond Headlamp
posted by trbrts at 8:36 PM on April 7, 2013 [1 favorite]

Thru hiker guy coming in to say water pumps are for the birds. Chemicals are easy,light, and failproof. I like polarpure the best.

Jetboils are great, as long as you dont actually cook in them. I have a dehydrator and make my own meals, its super easy, then use the zip-loc method to rehydrate them.

Last 2 pieces of general equipment advice - size your shoes at least a FULL size over what you normally wear - your feet swell an amazing amount from a good day hiking. More then the religious fight over sneakers vs boots, just make sure the damn things have plenty of room. (I'm a sneaker guy myself).

Be ruthless with the weight - less truly is more. I think a reasonable pack baseweight - thats everything not including water, food, and fuel is around 14 pounds. I say thats reasonable because less then that starts to get really expensive and you lose some nice creature comforts, but more then that and you are going to feel the increased weight.

As someone who spent way too much time going from 60+ pounds packs all the way down to 10 pounds, do yourself a favor and at least experiment with light packs and big shoes and see how pleasant the whole thing can become.
posted by H. Roark at 8:51 PM on April 7, 2013 [3 favorites]

Don't forget a bear bag that is relatively waterproof, and lots of paracord. The bear bag is for safely storing food overnight, and the paracord is for hanging the bear bag from a tall branch at night. Having an extra 30 ft of paracord can really come in handy for other stuff, too.

For water purification, I recommend getting a UV light water sterilizer, like one of the SteriPen line. It's a very easy, quick, convenient way to sterilize water. And pack extra batteries for it. You also may want to bring a bandana to strain water through, in case the only water available is mucky.

Spend money and time finding good hiking boots that fit your feet well - you won't be sorry. And in case your boots aren't perfect, make sure your first aid kit has moleskin patches in case of blisters.

Also, not a gear suggestion, but one thing I wish I had known before going backcountry backpacking my first time is that even a very small slope makes sleeping in a tent very uncomfortable! If you must camp on less-than-perfectly-flat ground, orient your tent so your feet are pointing downhill.

Also, bring nutella. Lots of nutella.
posted by Salvor Hardin at 8:54 PM on April 7, 2013

Just focusing on tents:
-self-supporting pole structure. It...

Oh god what horrible advice. Is it really worth the extra 2,3,4 pounds for a free standing tent? No. If you are using hiking poles, (which I think is a good idea), there lots of tents on the market that use the hiking poles as the sole support structure. Not to plug a particular manufacturer, but these are great, super light, and surprisingly resilient to the nasty weather you will inevitably encounter.
posted by H. Roark at 8:56 PM on April 7, 2013 [1 favorite]

For those who haven't spent much time in the Pacific Northwest, summers there actually tend to be quite dry. So you probably shouldn't make recommendations based on the assumption that there's going to be a lot of rain.

That's a fair point about summer weather, but those of us who live (and hike and camp) here also know that it's kind of foolish to invest in gear that you can only use in July, and that there is some great hiking and camping to do in the rainforests, which are in fact wet most of the time.
posted by Balonious Assault at 8:58 PM on April 7, 2013 [2 favorites] has excellent reviews and can help you understand which products to consider/what features to look for depending upon your particular needs.
posted by hannahelastic at 9:01 PM on April 7, 2013 [1 favorite]

If you are going to get water downstream of old mines, it may be prudent to invest in a filter that will remove heavy metals.
posted by Radiophonic Oddity at 9:34 PM on April 7, 2013

To start, here's REI's backpacking checklist.

Also, you may want to check out the Complete Walker IV from your local library.

Seconded. These resources are comprehensive.

Break in your boots before the hike, and plan a easy day for the first day's hiking , just to get the bugs out of your routine.
posted by sebastienbailard at 9:55 PM on April 7, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Specific recommendations: save yourself hours of research and just get a Tarptent, you won't get much lighter without sacrificing cost or comfort. They hold up to really awful weather better than you'd think and are spacious, afford nice views and are bug proof. Plus good resale if you hate backpacking.

Sleeping pads: if you are over 21 and not a super bad ass do yourself a favor and get an inflatable one like a Thermarest neo rest or similar made by Big Agnes, Exped or Nemo. The only real choice is long baffles, sideways baffles or quilt like baffles and you can go to REI and lay on them to choose. They pack down tiny and are the most important thing in terms of comfort. You don't need an insulated one for your location in the summer, save the weight and get a tiny 3oz pump instead so you don't have to get dizzy blowing it up at night.

Light weight down sleeping bags. Cheap brand is fine for summer use. I've put in hundreds of nights on a cheap Sierra Designs 30 degree down bag.

Buy a simple canister stove unless you are mountaineering or snow camping. Jet Boil is fine or just a $40 stove plus a pot. Aluminum weighs only a titch more than titanium and costs way less. Get one pot, a bowl, a pocket knife, some Light My Fire sporks and a couple mugs and you are good to go.

Collapsible water bottles from platypus or the like. Why lug bulky hard heavy water bottles around?

Steri-pen. Beats pumping water and tastes better than iodine.

A good flask for liquor. V. Important.

Speaking of weight- this is the single most important thing that will make backpacking more fun for both of you. Don't assume your big strapping husband can carry all the gear, he will be hating life. Small women can carry their own gear just fine. I recommend Gregory packs for women specific but other people like Osprey or Deuter. Also don't buy all matching gear just because you're a couple. The sleeping pad he loves, you might hate. The pants you love, he hates. Buy individually. Buying matching gear is the biggest waste of money I see.

Abusing the edit function to add: Starbucks VIA coffee packets. Most important gear innovation in backpacking since the internal pack. Must have item.
posted by fshgrl at 10:08 PM on April 7, 2013 [1 favorite]

One more thing: they make very lightweight drybags nowadays our of siliconized nylon or something. Anyways the point is: get some and put all your important dry sleeping and clothing stuff in them. They are amazing and will keep your down bag dry in a total downpour.
posted by fshgrl at 10:13 PM on April 7, 2013

Best answer: Refining a couple points posted above:

Camelbaks are great, and if you buy new packs most will be hydration compatible. I use the Unbottle 3L which is insulated, and is only marginally heavier than the smaller or non-insulated reservoirs.

Get a headlamp with a red LED as well as a white one for those times where you need a little light but don't want to kill your night vision. I use the BD Spot which is dimmable. Get one for each of you, plus a third just in case. You can strap them to a water bottle to make a makeshift lantern.

Definitely a cushy-enough sleeping pad for each of you, which will likely be a different type and thickness for you and your husband. Depending on the weather, you may prefer a lightweight synthetic bag plus a silk/cotton liner— you can get in the liner with the bag under you for extra softness, or use it as a blanket.

Stuff sacks, and at least one drybag for separating your gear and protecting things that can't get wet. Thermarest makes one with a soft lining that you can evert to use as a pillow with your clothes inside it. Drybags are much lighter than Pelican cases and good enough if you're not going to immerse them. Get the lightweight ones with the silicone coatings that stuff up super small, sometimes you can find them in S-M-L multipacks.

If you're a coffee drinker, a lot of people like the Aeropress and a travel grinder. I don't mind grinding ahead of time and putting the ground coffee in a small sealed container, plus brewing in a Clever Dripper, which is like a regular Hario cone brewer but with a valve that lets you be more flexible on grind. A lot of people use those enamel camp cups but I prefer the Snow Peak Ti with double walls and folding handles. Because I'm fancy.

These merino wool socks from REI are maybe the best thing I can recommend. Sometimes they do a 20% off three pair deal. They're worth it.

If your boots aren't waterproof, either treat them with Obenauf's or consider buying a pair with a waterproof/breathable membrane such as Gore-Tex.
posted by a halcyon day at 10:22 PM on April 7, 2013

Best answer: I see a lot of people offering great advice, but--oh, I am a snob--someone who doesn't know the difference between an internal and externally framed pack probably shouldn't be making expensive purchasing decisions just yet. There are plenty of ways to make this a shopping trip that costs you a couple thousand bucks a piece, and a whole lot of that is titanium sporks and other lifestyle shit that you have no idea whether or not you'll need until you actually do some camping. Depending on the season and weather, the only things you really need are a backpack that roughly fits your torso size and has compression straps and a hip belt, a sleeping bag, and decent shoes. A sleeping pad helps; cheapest is fine if you don't mind the size. These are all things that can be rented from REI or another outdoor store, bought used from the REI gear sales or off Craigslist, or borrowed from friends. Find those things, then go spend a couple days in the woods. You'll see what you use and what you don't, and after a few camping trips using different borrowed or rental equipment you'll know a lot more about your realistic needs. For me, beyond backpack and sleeping bag, I really appreciate a good headlamp and Smartwool long underwear. I'm also fond of having a hammock and a Snowpeak stove, but those are both luxury goods as far as I'm concerned.

No need for Moleskine patches; duct tape works just as well and you've already got some. Put a big swath over blisters and it displaces the friction over the entire covered area, rather than the smaller blistering spot. Wet wipes are wonderful unless you're in river-swimming territory & season.
posted by tapir-whorf at 11:24 PM on April 7, 2013

What kind of gear do you have for "drive to campsite" car camping?
You probably do actually have what you need- once you go out a few times you'll figure out some preferences.

Tent/Shelter, Sleeping bag + pad, a backpack each, your existing hiking clothes (RAIN GEAR) and food. ('food' includes stove+fuel, bear bagging gear etc)

As mentioned, whatever pack you get, no matter what the manufacturer says, will not be fully water proof, get dry sacks. (big ziplocks can work.)

Everything else is extra.

Don't be oblivious about weight, but don't obsess over grams either.
posted by titanium_geek at 1:14 AM on April 8, 2013 [2 favorites]

I recently posted my complete gear list for 3-season (and light winter) backpacking in a different thread:
posted by Cygnet at 4:45 AM on April 8, 2013

The people saying weight should be your primary concern are absolutely right. I've never done more than a week on a trail, but even by day 2 you're going to be wishing you brought less. Everything you can do to shave of pounds before hands will payoff in spades on the trail. The only thing I refused to skimp on was food (choosing fresh over dehydrated, for example), and I never regretted that.

Speaking of food, we used to pack surprises for each other: special treats, fancier desserts, a bottle of hot sauce. Makes a world of difference when you're tired. Packing beer is usually a really bad idea, but one of my friends took one can for her husband on an anniversary trip. Patric raved about it for months afterward.

Our trick for alcohol was to bring everclear (90%+ alcohol) and dilute. Why pack extra water if you don't have to? You can get "dehydrated" wine packets at REI which are quite acceptable on a mountain side during sunset.
posted by bonehead at 5:57 AM on April 8, 2013

It looks like people mostly have you covered above. If you have any specific follow up questions feel free to email / mefimail me - i go backpacking quite a bit.

Here's my backpacking checklist that i use each time to make sure i've got everything.
posted by escher at 9:59 AM on April 8, 2013

Don't forget liner socks. Seriously.
posted by ckape at 11:50 AM on April 8, 2013

As you are in the PNW, check out this site. You'll find lots of talk about the pros and cons of various gear and places to go.

This is a good thread about cost and weight of the basics.
posted by stirfry at 12:57 PM on April 8, 2013

Also consider looking into your local Parks & Rec who might have some classes/backpacking trips. Good way to get an idea of the kind of gear you might want, learn how someone sets up their camp site and trip and pick up other tips. It's a good excuse to also just rent a bunch of gear and see how it goes. You'll definitely come back from your first trip with different ideas.
posted by amanda at 3:58 PM on April 8, 2013 [1 favorite]

Don't forget that while it might be very hot at the trailhead (at sea level, etc) once you hike up into the mountains (which is where most backpacking trails will lead you) it will be much, much colder. This would be an uber-shitty lesson to learn the hard way. For example, while most of my backpacking experiences have started with everybody in t-shirts and shorts in hot summer weather, by the time we are set up at the campsite we are invariably all wearing long underwear, fleece, down, toques, mitts, etc.

For your first trip, maybe rent gear from REI to get a feel for what you like, want or need.

I am a woman, 40s, and average height/weight with reasonable fitness. I aim for a 25-pound pack (including everything: sleeping bag, thermarest, my half of the tent, food and cooking supplies, water, clothing, first-aid) and usually end up in the 30-32 pound range. I still find this heavy.
posted by lulu68 at 4:29 PM on April 8, 2013

Response by poster: So much great stuff here! I favorited the most comprehensive answers, but every tip and pointer has been hugely helpful.

We'll take up the suggestions to rent a tent and a pack for me the first few times. When we're ready to buy, we'll definitely consider the recommendations here. I think we're comfortable with buying the sleeping bags and pads, and other small accessories and gear because we can still use them for carcamping if it turns out that we hate backpacking.

In case anyone reading is planning to come camp in our neck of the woods, it's true that our summers tend to be quite dry but I've been summer camping plenty of times where we got caught in the one rainy weekend after weeks of sun. All the tips for keeping stuff dry are definitely appreciated.

Thanks also for links to full lists of essentials... all those little things that we'd totally forget about, like a trowel for digging!

We both have fully broken in hiking boots that are still in great shape, so no worries there. We also have Goretex shells and wool or fleece baselayers and midlayers. We may need some cheap rainpants, but i think that's it?
posted by keep it under cover at 6:20 PM on April 8, 2013

This is kind of a silly contribution to the thread, but one of my favorite things to go out with is my straw hat. You'll be outside all day; even if you've put on sunscreen it's still nice to keep the sun off your face and neck. My hat has a little strap thing, and I think looks kind of dorky, but it sure does keep it on my head when it's windy.
posted by compartment at 7:24 PM on April 8, 2013

So, one enormous caveat; people used to do with a lot less schnazzy gear. REI and Backpacker and whatnot? It's their day job to sell you more stuff. The stuff they sell is *fantastic*, but yeah, it's still their job to sell more of it.

The one gadget that I've found absolutely wonderful? A headlamp. I thought they were incredibly nerdy - and they are - but they're enormously better than a flashlight, because they always face where you're looking, and you keep two hands free. Our power went out at our house today, and I grabbed one. My wife worked on her car stereo, and it came in handy again. $30-40, Petzl makes a good one, and the ones with more bells and whistles have tradeoffs. (I think I have the Tikka Plus, and it's lasted years.)
posted by talldean at 7:32 PM on April 8, 2013 [2 favorites]

On that note, I always feel bandannas are indispensable for backpacking. They can be many things - headscarf, sweatband, wrapped around the wrist for a wrist-sweatband, washcloth, towel, flag, seive, wrapper, pouch, duster, chafe protector, patch, placemat, napkin, bandage, sunshade, lanyard/tether, potholder for hot pot handles and bails, wind protector for lighting your stove, thing to stuff in hole in window screen of shelter when mosquitos threaten, etc. Buy a few, always take about 3. They're so light but so useful.
posted by Miko at 7:39 PM on April 8, 2013 [2 favorites]

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