Getting into backpacking is hard. Not only is gear expensive, there are infinite choices for all the equipment that you’ll need, and everyone has differing opinions on what is best. I’ve devised my recommendations based on years of experience and years of hands on testing. The products you’ll find in this article are what I consider the best values on the market, without costing a small fortune.
For this list, I’ve looked into gear that’s first and foremost reliable, fully functional gear that will survive the most common backpacking conditions. The equipment on this list is considered essential, as your safety and comfort will rely on these items. That being said, they obviously need to hold up to the potential abuse that may come their way on a typical weekend adventure. Backpackers need gear that will protect them and make them comfortable at all times. Special consideration for products on this list has been placed on weight and cost. I have considered only gear that I have personally test that have turned out to be not only exceptional values, but also exceptional gear. I’ve done my best to provide affordable options, without complicating the situation with too overburdening with much information.
Arguably the most essential piece of backpacking gear, a quality shelter is necessary in any practically any environment. A shelter must not only protect, but also provide an enjoyable living environment for the user. The chosen products balance protection, comfort and cost.
The Eureka Midori 2; At less than 5 pounds and retailing for only S159, the Midori provides solid protection without breaking the bank. The tried and true crossover pole design and sturdy polyester fabrics make for a solid tent that’s not going to fail during even the worst storm. Headspace is sufficient, and the vertical expansion bar built into the vestibule increases gear storage volume, compensating for the lack of a second door. The only down side? A single door means crawling over your tent mate during late night restroom breaks.
The L.L. Bean Microlight 2 is pricier at $250, but it’s also under 4 lbs, has two doors, and provides adequate head room. A lower profile and a more modern pole design means great wind stability, and the full mesh body makes for great star viewing experience while allowing for ample ventilation. The walls are steeper, providing more room to move around inside too. An overall better experience makes the Microlite 2 one of the best values on the market, even if it’s more expensive. Our very old Microlight 2 review. Since this review, the shelter has been updated with lighter materials in the form of the Microlight UL 2.
An easy way to ensure a miserable backpacking experience is choosing a backpack that’s not up to the task. There are many budget packs out there, but many of them are clearly not designed by those who actually have to haul them around. A good pack will prevent pain, fatigue, and won’t fail on you on the trail.
The Kelty Redwing 50 is the true budget king of backpacks. It’s small, which forces new backpackers to not overpack (only the essentials here) and that also makes it’s lighter. Weighing just over 3 lbs and retailing for $124, it’s a cheap light weight pack, but it has a solid frame, comfy padding, and just enough room to stuff in a few days worth of gear inside.
The Gregory Stout 45 is exceptional. Uncompromising comfort, plenty of storage, and a capacity that’s just enough for most backpackers, the stout is the fast and light option for new backpackers and experienced backpackers who want to shave weight, just just over 3 lbs. It retails for a tad more at $169, but offers valuable features like external gear straps for overloading, lusciously thick padding, and more organization. The full review of the Gregory Stout 45
As if backpacking wasn’t hard enough,adding sleep deprivation and sore joints the next day will only worsen your experience, and possibly turn newcomers away forever. A sleeping pad is, in my opinion, the only place you cannot skimp out on if you actually want to sleep. Foam sheets are cute, but they don’t cut it in my book.
The Thermarest Trail Scout is often overlooked. At just an inch thick, it doesn’t seem like it can provide true comfort, but looks are deceiving. The solid PU foam provides excellent root absorption, while also distributes pressure throughout the pad. The PU foam also allows the pad to self inflate by creating a vacuum that pulls in air, and provides an R-value of 3.4 (it’s warm year round) that allows for camping in cold conditions. At just $45 and 1 lb 3 oz for the regular, it’s an incredible deal. The only downside is the large pack size(11″ x 5″). Details can be found here.
Also by Thermarest, the Prolite Plus rings up at a pricier $99 (regular) but the comfort, weight and pack size cannot be matched. It has a similar build to that of the Trail Scout, but the Prolite Plus uses an improved urethane foam that’s strategically cored out. This reduces the pack size, improves comfort thanks to the softer materials and thicker 1.5″ height, and has no weight or warmth penalty. It’s my personal pad of choice, and while it’s more expensive, it’s worth the splurge if you’re a finicky sleeper. A full review of the Prolite Plus.
The hardest place to cut costs. A cheap sleeping bag will leave you cold, pack huge, and weigh a ton. None of these things are something you want to deal with. Being that the case, I’m going to recommend the cheapest bag that I can.
The Kelty Cosmic 20 weighs just 2 lbs lb oz, and warm to around 20 degrees for me, and about 30 degrees for women. At a retail cost of $189 it’s certainly not cheap, but it certainly is the best deal on the market. It’s warm enough for camping most of the year, it’s light enough to carry anywhere, and has a generous size and solid overall build. Not only that, but you’ll feel like your sleeping in a warm cloud. Packed size is a very doable 10 liters. Kelty Cosmic 20
The Marmot Trestles 15 Is a doable budget minded sleeping bag at 3 lbs 14 oz. The downfall is the sleeping is realistically only warm to about 25 degrees, and has a large packed size due to the synthetic fill of about 27 liters. If you simply cannot splurge on a down bag, this is a cheaper option at only $109, but you’re going to need a larger pack to haul it. Marmot Trestles 15
Other budget ideas
I’ve covered the big 4, but there are always smaller essentials to consider also. Here are a couple of quick tips that you might find useful.
Gatorade bottles make great, lightweight water containers that won’t bust. Plus, they come with Gatorade. Bic lighters are an excellent source of fire, and waterproof matches act as a solid backup and can be found at just about any sports or convenient store on the cheap. A poncho is an excellent, if not flattering, option for rain protection. It’s versatile and breezy, and can be found for less than 20 bucks at retailers like Target or Wal-Mart. Instead of a rain cover for your backpack, slide a trash compactor bag into your pack to protect your gear. It’s light weight, reliable, and and will actually keep you dryer than a pack cover. Painters plastic makes a great cheap foot print for your tent, if you’re into such things. And a stove and cookware? Who needs them anyway. Pack in a fresh sandwich for dinner, granola bars for breakfast, and plenty of snacks. You’ll save weight on cookware and fuel, and you’ll save time by not having to cook. If you’re determined to cook, a cheap GSI stainless steel cup can be used over a fire or on a fuel canister stove. An MSR pocket rocket is your cheapest descent stove.
Any thoughts? Comments? Suggestions? This is a quick and dirty list of my personal favorites, but that doesn’t mean a better option isn’t out there that I didn’t consider. Let me know what you think!
Thanks for reading.