Indispensable gear for mountain camping and backpacking
June 17, 2020 7:54 AM   Subscribe

I'm going on a week-long camping trip in the mountains in a couple of months. It has been a very long time since I've been camping and I don't know anything about the latest cool stuff. Do you have absolutely indispensable camping/backpacking gear recommendations? Examples: underlayers you really love, the perfect stove or mattress pad, an emergency beacon . . . What sort of things are you always glad to have or wish you had? What about homemade gear? Also, I'm a cis-woman, in case there's neat gear specific to that whole situation.

I am on a budget, but am happy to look at pricier items if they're going to last a long time. I already have a backpack, sleeping bag, and tent (but still need a mattress pad). I'm probably going to look at getting new boots, so brand ideas for those are welcome as well.

Finally, a hammock is a no-go--some nights may be above the treeline.
posted by anonymous to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (28 answers total)
Not gear, but more helpful: do at least a one night trip before the week long one. Things like "oh yeah. I need to wash these pots" or "I have no plan for keeping my bag dry" or whatever will pop up.

Stove: above the tree line you'll be much happier with a compressed gas stove. I've always used the cheapest ones (friends with fancy ones don't seem to eat any faster or have fewer dishes to wash). You may want to coordinate with your group. Not everyone needs a stove and pots!

Pad: get a foam pad. The self inflating ones are great and Small, but a foam pad always works and is cheaper. If you end up camping a lot, the foam one will still find uses even if you buy a fancier one.

I'm a fan of umbrellas not raincoats, wool underlayers and socks, always having rope and knife accessible, and shoes not boots.

I take a bigger inflatable pillow than most, and that helps. A fake down coat for after sundown (or night time pee trips) is also really nice.

Try not to spend too much! You'll always have at least one item on a wishlist!
posted by Acari at 8:20 AM on June 17, 2020 [5 favorites]

Tons of people have camping gear in the attic or garage, if there's stuff you need post on freecycle or a buy nothing group.

A couple of bandanas will be infinitely useful.
posted by theora55 at 8:24 AM on June 17, 2020

The thing that has improved backpacking the most for me is (slowly)investing in the lightest gear I could afford. You don’t have to go fully ultralight to get some major weight reductions, and depending on your definition of “a long time,” even entry-level gear may have gotten significantly lighter since the last time you backpacked.
posted by juliapangolin at 8:25 AM on June 17, 2020 [2 favorites]

Asolos and other synthetic-upper boots/modern sole have basically 0-2 days break-in time. I wear these.

Be sure to try on in store. I shoulda got wides, alas.
posted by j_curiouser at 8:37 AM on June 17, 2020

Getting a JetBoil has been wonderful. Water boils in just over a minute and the stove is light.
posted by kerf at 8:51 AM on June 17, 2020 [6 favorites]

Just to add to the lightness comments, if you go light enough with your pack it makes it more likely that you will be able to hike in trail running shoes instead of boots and you will have much more of a spring in your step. Depending on how much of a dork you want to be there are incredibly light and packable solo tents, top bags, and self inflating pads. The smaller and lighter your pack, the less that "Do I have to?" feeling when it's time to shoulder your bag again after a break.

Personally I don't mess around with a bunch of food and dishes. Compressed gas stove that lives inside a titanium cookpot, heat some water, dump it into a Mountain House, put the mountain house in your beanie so it doesn't burn your hands, eat with long handle titanium spoon. Clean the spoon with your mouth; enjoy a night in a farty tent from the Chili Mac that you hopefully selected. For breakfast you can dump grits or oatmeal in a freezer bag pre-trip and do same except without the farting.
posted by ftm at 8:52 AM on June 17, 2020 [3 favorites]

The Therm-a-Rest Z-Seat Pad is a very lightweight alternative to a chair that can also pull double-duty as a modest pillow. It packs down but doesn't deflate, so it can be a bit bulky compared to an inflatable.

In general I like Outdoor Gear Lab's reviews.

I always feel a lot more secure if my first-aid kit includes a trauma pack. QuikClot is one brand name.

Depending on where you're going a Tick Key may be very useful, and it weighs basically nothing.

If you'll be in a very remote area, then I like my Garmin inReach Mini for sending automatic location updates, two-way satellite messaging, weather reports, and (if necessary) an emergency beacon. It can be used entirely on the device but for two-way messaging it's much easier to pair with a phone. It's not cheap, but maybe it's something the group could pool together for?

I'm a cis-woman, in case there's neat gear specific to that whole situation.

This probably isn't news to you, and I can't speak to this directly anyway, but there has been a lot of innovation in urination devices, which (judging by the reviews) can be a great quality of life improvement when backpacking.

A couple of bandanas will be infinitely useful.

Definitely. There are also fancy purpose-made versions.
posted by jedicus at 9:00 AM on June 17, 2020 [3 favorites]

Picaridin as the active ingredient in insect repellent won’t damage technical clothing and plastic items, unlike DEET. It’s been approved for use in the US since 2005, but is still somewhat hard to find. Natrapel and Sawyer both make 20% strength products, which is what I’d recommend. Other advantages picaridin has over DEET: it’s not greasy and it smells a lot better.
posted by theory at 9:10 AM on June 17, 2020 [9 favorites]

Regarding being cis-female and camping - I use a PStyle and I love it, it has been a huge upgrade in making peeing outdoors (or even in pit-style toilets) much, much more pleasant and less fussy/gross. It's plastic and easy to use and keep clean. I keep it in my car all the time now in between camping trips, since I like to go driving out in the boondocks and it has come in handy more than once when no bathrooms were available. Also you probably already know this one, but if needed, a menstrual cup - just make sure to try it before you go if you've never used one before, they take getting used to and aren't for everyone.

More generally, the combination foam/inflatable sleep pads are generally warmer and more comfortable IMO. I have a Big Agnes Air Core that is less comfy but does the job if I am packing light, and a ridiculously indulgent Exped MegaMat for car camping that is just... *chef's kiss*. Worth every pound and penny.

If it's going to be buggy, Permethrin and SPF treated clothing can be pricey but I am lazy and don't want do Permethrin treatments myself so I find it worth it. If you are less lazy, you can buy spray bottles of permethrin and treat clothes yourself (doesn't damage clothes and lasts through many washings). Echoing others, trail running shoes over boots unless you really need the ankle support or warmth. Lighter, more comfortable, and don't need to be broken in over such a long period of time.
posted by MartialParts at 9:52 AM on June 17, 2020 [2 favorites]

Learn how to tie basic camping knots; buy some paracord and practice. Then bring rope with you. One will never rue having a bit of rope on a camping trip, but one might certainly rue the lack.

Also, a tarp, either cheap plastic, or expensive technical, can be extremely handy, even if it's just 2x3 metres. In combination with your rope skills, it can be a rain fly, a porch roof, an ultra-quick shelter, a waterproof tent pad, a poncho, etc, etc, etc.
posted by seanmpuckett at 9:56 AM on June 17, 2020 [3 favorites]

Nthing lightweight gear. Take a hard look at your backpack. I had a very fancy and enormous Gregory that by itself weighed 8 pounds. It could fit anything! Which meant I often would go out with a 60+ pound pack.

Cutting down to a much smaller pack with much less structure has forced me to take less stuff, which turns out to be fine.

Ditch your nalgenes and go for Hydration bladders. We are a platypus family, which is nice because everything is interchangeable, even the 2 liter bladder I bought in high school 20 years ago. The platypus gravityworks filter is an amazing bit of kit. No moving parts, and it has yet to clog. The glorious part is going down to the edge of the lake, scooping up 4 liters of water, and then fleeing the mosquitoes for a nice breezy knoll where your water filters itself via gravity.
posted by rockindata at 10:11 AM on June 17, 2020 [3 favorites]

+1 to testing out what you have a week before
+1 to wearing whatever shoes you plan on taking at least a few days before heading out (I like asolos for heavier duty fall/winter hiking, I have vasquez lighter shoes for summer. I roll my ankles a lot so can't get away with trail running shoes)
+ hiking poles if you are going anywhere with elevation. Saves those knees.

- Get your water purification dialed in, depending on where you are going.
- Bring camp shoes. yes it's extra weight, but omg you will want an alternative after a few days of hiking. I personally like croc sandals for this as they are super light weight, and doesn't matter if they get wet.
- ensure your first aid kit is not expired,and appropriate for what you need- are you particularly prone to bug bites- bring itch cream+ benadryl. Are you inclined towards headaches if your caffeine intake is wrong- bring the right painkiller that works for you. do you have enough bandaids? blister things?

- Confirm if you need a bear canister, and ensure you own one/can rent one if needed.
- Plan out your food and your calories, it doesn't take a very long time to do, but make sure you actually have 3 meals a day of stuff you want to eat. do a dry run of the food your are bringing- can you make it just by boiling water? Inclusive of caffeine as necessary. I find I don't eat as much during the day, but am ravenous at night- I make big dinners, and don't really fret about lunch (some triscuits+ peanut butter in a packet+ trail mix is usually enough for me. its probably not enough for you)
- pack one extra meal just in case- you never know if something does wrong, and I'd rather lug extra food than not.
- don't discount supermarket food- you don't need specialized backpacking food. Stuff like this is delicious and easy enough to just add water and olive oil too.
- on your first day, don't be afraid of carrying in perishables- I personally bring a ziploc bag of chili that I've frozen- it defrosts by the time you get into camp on day one, and it's really nice to start out your trip with real food. I always bring a hard cheese as well. and I like to bring a few cherry tomatoes- very refreshing and nice break from the dry stuff.

If you are hiking into a single location, weight won't matter as much as if you are doing a through hike, so keep that in mind.

If you find anything missing, check out REI rentals- (or your local shop equivalent) they have relatively good stuff that you can borrow for pretty cheaply. Also generally people who hike will have old stuff knocking around that they will be thrilled to lend to you. (I'm always happy to share gear with someone who hasn't been out for a bit!) All new stuff is going to be radically lighter than what you bought even 5 years ago- there have been tremendous improvements in pretty much everything
posted by larthegreat at 10:17 AM on June 17, 2020 [2 favorites]

- headlamp
- plastic or folding trowel
- 50’ cord
- maybe trekking poles?
- good maps, & compass
- star chart or app on your phone
- solar charger if appropriate
- small snap links or carabiners
posted by TDIpod at 10:31 AM on June 17, 2020

Most of my friends that have tried pee funnels swear by them.

It'll add weight, but I'd recommend bringing at least one USB battery and charging cable for your phone, just in case your phone accidentally discharges during the week. There's a variety of camping lights and gadgets that can be charged with USB if you want to go that route. My experience with the USB batteries with built in solar chargers is that they charge so slowly as to be next to pointless. The larger solar panels can be much better but still are relatively slow and are pricey and add bulk and weight.
posted by Candleman at 10:46 AM on June 17, 2020

One cheap and light thing that gives me piece of mind is a very loud whistle for safety or for scaring bears. I carry a bright orange Fox 40 on a lanyard. It's mega loud.

Also, get a headlamp that has white and red lights. Red lights preserve your night vision for those night time dashes out to pee and also prevent flashing the eyes of your fellow campers when around a fire.
posted by advicepig at 11:35 AM on June 17, 2020 [2 favorites]

There are some great suggestions in here. I wanted to weigh in on the boots vs. shoes bit. I'm about to turn 40 and I learned surprisingly late that, if it's not the middle of winter, my favorite camping/hiking shoes are plain old low top canvas Converse Chuck Taylor's. It's just a good reminder that all the recommendations and product top 10 lists in the world are no match for your own experiences and preferences. Start small and don't feel like you have to go out and get a bunch of new stuff. What you already have might be just fine!
posted by late afternoon dreaming hotel at 11:36 AM on June 17, 2020 [2 favorites]

Since you mention needing a sleeping pad:

I've camped every summer since I was a kid. The only life changing gear advancement I can think of recently is the latest generation of ultra-light sleeping pads. I have the thermarest version. It's a little noisy to sleep on if you're a light sleeper, but packs smaller and lighter and is WAY more comfortable than the older models. Life changing for a side-sleeper like me who used to wake up sore when camping.

Otherwise keep it simple! And if you buy an emergency beacon, make sure you're ready to use it at a moment's notice or else it's just extra weight in your bag.
posted by no regrets, coyote at 11:43 AM on June 17, 2020

+1 to:
- Foam pad: a Thermarest Z-lite is lightweight and cheaper than an inflatable pad. I do have an inflatable Exped mat too, but the z-lite is still useful on winter trips.
- A couple of bandanas in different patterns or colors so you can easily tell which one is your pee rag.
- Pstyle: I prefer it over other styles of pee funnels because it's so easy to wipe off with a bandana afterward. Definitely practice at home beforehand.

For a cheap alternative to a pack cover or dry bags, line your pack with a trash compactor bag or heavy duty garbage bag.

Boots/shoes: I'd avoid waterproofing if you're not hiking in a lot of snow. They'll dry out faster overnight. My summer backpacking shoes are Altra trail runners; my friend who rolls her ankles easily swears by her Asolo boots. Size up - your feet will swell at higher elevations and after a full day of hiking.

Headlamp: make sure it's fully charged beforehand, have backup batteries (and USB cable if rechargeable), and that you know how to lock it so it doesn't accidentally turn itself on in your pack and completely discharge on day two of a weeklong trip...
posted by kiripin at 11:44 AM on June 17, 2020 [2 favorites]

LEDs have changed everything about lighting. The headlamps mentioned are great task lights. Flashlights are way better, and batteries last long enough for a small tabletop lamp to be feasible.

When I got a new first aid kit for my boat, I was surprised how different they are now from back in the day: much more organized, much better instructions, etc. It may be that it's no longer assumed the every group will have at least one member with Boy Scout or Girl Scout training.

The most dangerous animals in most places are bees and wasps. Have an antihistamine stashed somewhere.
posted by SemiSalt at 12:25 PM on June 17, 2020 [2 favorites]

Big changes in the last 10 years, let's see. You can get a headlamp that's blindingly bright, lasts for hours, and weighs almost nothing. The thru-hikers all seem to like Petzl, they're like $30. Unless you're literally mountaineering / snow hiking no one wears actual boots anymore (I do, but most people don't) and wears trail runners instead. There are new tent materials, silnylon and DCF (Dyneema Cuben Fiber) that are considerably stronger for the weight, though they are $$$$ (like $500 for a 2-person ultralight tent). People are cutting footprints out of Tyvek Homewrap instead of factory footprints or blue tarps, though some folks are going without a footprint entirely with Dyneema (!). Carbon fiber is now available in quite a few products, such as hiking poles and bear canisters. As you might expect, it is very light and very expensive. The Sawyer Squeeze is $30 and will filter literal tons of water, and weighs almost nothing (no pump needed). Picaridin is a wonder chemical compared to DEET.
posted by wnissen at 1:27 PM on June 17, 2020 [2 favorites]

Can't recommend a Jetboil highly enough.
posted by gottabefunky at 5:29 PM on June 17, 2020

You might be okay with a foam pad, but I never was. I recently bought a Klymit Static V Luxe Sleeping Pad (I went with the big one but they've got smaller models too) that actually supports my large male body enough to avoid aching joints in the morning yet is light and rolls up into an amazingly small stuff sack (included).
posted by Greg_Ace at 5:48 PM on June 17, 2020

Advance warning: my recommendations are both Europe-based and I don't know if they are widely available in the US.

I used this urination device up and down Nepal. I don't know if it's unique to this brand, but there is a knack to it, so do practice first in a place where you can wash up afterwards. Once you get the hang of it, it's really simple.

I really liked this silk sleeping bag liner but I can't say I have tried many others. It is quite lightweight and feels really nice. Plus I like that it's not particularly technical; one could easily stitch something similar at home if so inclined.
posted by tavegyl at 10:55 PM on June 17, 2020

I'm a fan of foam pads, but (a) when I camped non-stop, like for months at a time, in my late teens and early 20s, when nothing could make me sore, even then the Ridgerest was far more comfortable than the Z-lite, if the bulk doesn't bother you (e.g., if you can just attach it to the outside of your pack), and warmer too. Sometimes the Z-lite felt like I was almost lying on the ground. (b) I do think the self-inflatables have taken a real step forward. They're crinkly / noisy, is the main problem, but they do inflate faster and keep you warmer than past inflatable pads. That said, IDK, the Ridgerest might be just fine for you.

What I really came to hype, though, was if you're doing any car camping or are just hiking in a mile and then staying put, look into the Exped. Much as the self-inflatables are pretty good, that thing blows me away. It doesn't have that hot and sticky "I'm lying on a raincoat" plastic feeling. It is flat. It doesn't do that thing where if you put your hand down, the other part goes way up, like you're lying on a waterbed. It is 4" thick. I was opposed to any other camping-gear investments given how little we go now, but when my husband showed it to me, I was convinced.
posted by slidell at 3:34 AM on June 18, 2020

One big change in the last decade I haven’t seen people mention: you can download the topo maps on your phone with an app like Gaia or TopoMaps+, and then even when out of cell service your smartphone will still get GPS signal. We still bring a paper map, of course, but use our phone as our primary map. We have a tiny backpacking solar panel and a USB battery pack to recharge with. Phone also serves as camera then, too.

Water filtration has come a long way. I swear by my Katadyn Gravity Filter. Of course Aqua Mira drops are still great in mountains with crystal clear streams.

I love my Jet Boil and use it not just for boiling water, but cooking things too, with a pot adaptor. I love the French press accessory for coffee!

For boots, I’ve loved my pair of La Sportiva’s, finally disintegrating after 7 hard-use summers. Might get a pair of Altras next - I love their trail running shoes and have heard good things about their boots.
posted by amaire at 4:38 AM on June 18, 2020 [1 favorite]

Some people have gotten at this point already, but don't let weight totally dissuade you from taking something that you'll use (in other words, don't be ounce wise and comfort foolish). If your trip will involve lots of miles and not much time in camp, a camp chair is mostly extra weight. But if you're going to be in camp a lot of the time, you might find it worth the pound.
posted by benbenson at 10:15 AM on June 18, 2020

I'm packing for a trip to Desolation Wilderness right now, and after a number of years of serious backpacking[1] I finally have my personal weight-to-durability-to-comfort calculus locked in. I can't overstate how much more pleasant my backpacking experiences are now that my "big three" gear items (pack, sleep system, shelter) don't weigh a billion pounds[2].

I carry a Gossamer Gear Mariposa pack (2 pounds), an Enlightened Equipment 20 degree synthetic quilt (1.5 pounds), and a Big Agnes insulated AXL Air inflatable sleeping pad (11 oz). Our tent is a Big Agnes Fly Creek HV3 (3 lbs, split with my husband, so 1.5 lbs each). That's a grand total of 5 1/2 pounds for my big three. I'm pretty sure my old pack weighed that much on its own!

None of the gear I currently use sacrifices any comfort (I man, we carry a three-person tent for two people because we want the space!) and the low weight makes it possible to cover more miles every day and see more beautiful stuff.

If it's been a while since you've updated your gear, you'll be amazed at how far the technology has come.

[1] Our last long-weekend trip was 44 miles and 8,000+ feet of elevation gain/loss.

[2] My husband and I have no children and nothing else on which to spend our discretionary income except gear for our hobbies; I am very aware that this shit is expensive and we're extremely lucky to have the means to acquire it.
posted by jesourie at 12:55 PM on June 18, 2020 [7 favorites]

I mostly do car camping so some of these suggestions may be too heavy or cumbersome for backpacking.

Solo Stove Lite - Used this on a road trip where we camped quite a bit and it was fantastic. It's basically a really fancy metal tube designed to burn super efficiently, so it works great with just a handful of fire starter and little twigs/sticks. We kept a Ziploc baggy with old dryer lint and sticks because out in some of the desert campgrounds we stayed in you couldn't count on finding enough wood). Don't have to worry about running out of fuel or figuring out recycling or replenishing the little gas canisters for other small stoves.

Trail chairs - Just really nice and light to bring on camping trips or hikes.

Inflatable Solar Lantern - we use this all the time, even when not camping! It's come in handy several times during electrical outages and we use ours for some extra light in our backyard too. Just super well designed, light, and versatile.

Sleeping Bag Liner - Buying a warm liner allowed me to buy a lighter weight sleeping bag. I still have the option to use the liner if I think it'll be chilly but most of the time I just really appreciate being nice and cool and not having all the bulk of a 4-season bag.

Hydrocolloid bandages for blisters - these work incredibly well. I keep a few tucked in my day-to-day bag, car, and camping gear.
posted by forkisbetter at 10:52 AM on June 20, 2020

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