Backpacking gear guide by a seasoned backpacker
The excitement of buying new gear for your first family backpacking trip can soon turn into an overwhelming confusion given the plethora of choices. This is exactly what happened to me, leading to frustration, wasted time, and many useless arguments with my husband. Read on to save yourself a great deal of time and effort.
First of all, it is vital to keep in mind that backpacking gear is a long-term investment, so be prepared to invest in high-quality gear upfront. It will save you money in the long run. Most of our backpacking gear was bought almost a decade ago and is still performing great.
You will need to balance three factors while selecting backpacking gear: weight, comfort, and cost. Weight is critical, especially if you are planning for multi-day hiking trips in faraway landscapes in the near future. Comfort is subjective, depending on the ages of your kids and your personal preferences. Cost is undeniably a key factor, as it will add up quickly.
I am sharing my list of backpacking gear with a full disclaimer that it is sponsor free and I am not paid for my recommendations. This is what we have been using for the last decade for our numerous backpacking trips in diverse terrains.
How to choose a perfect tent for your backpacking trip, is a complete topic itself. Our requirement was to get a lightweight four-person backpacking tent. After reading many reviews, we decided to buy a Big Agnes Copper Spur. It was worth every penny. Though it is 3 season tent, it has withstood blustery winds in Patagonia, heavy rains in New Zealand, and snow at the high altitude of the Himalayas. It is spacious, which is essential when four persons are in there, it has two vestibules to keep shoes dry. Plenty of pockets are a bonus. We love our tent! Recently we also added Big Agnes Copper Spur for 2-person in our gear galore. Read this guide to select the best backpacking tent for your adventures.
2. Sleeping bags
We decided to spend more money up-front and buy water-resistant down sleeping bags. These bags are incredibly compressible and very durable – I am talking about up to 10 years here!
Instead of buying multiple bags for different temperatures, we have only one three-season REI bag for each of us. I highly recommend using sleeping bag liners to minimize the need for washing the bags after every trip. One great thing about REI bags: they can be zipped up with another bag. This is especially appreciated on cold nights so two people can cuddle up, which my son loves.
3. Sleeping pads
We made a mistake with this one; we bought the cheaper ones, underestimating their role in a good night’s sleep. Now we have the Therm-a-Rest NeoAir XLite, which are wonderfully comfortable and provide exceptional insulation from the cold ground. We have used those in the snow without any complaints.
My husband and I have been using our clothing items for several years. For growing kids, we usually have to buy frequently depending on their growth. Nonetheless, I never try to purchase low-quality for kids to save money. REI sale is a perfect time for me to stock up on their base layers, pants, and shirts.
1. Base layer – temperature regulation
A well-thought choice for base layers makes a big difference while hiking in fluctuating temperatures.
Underwear – I don’t prefer to spend money on any fancy undies. I stock up microfiber undies for my husband and me from the Jockey outlet during the sale season. For the kids, I usually buy comfortable undies from Costco in packs. Moving Comfort Juno is my only choice for bras.
My kids wear REI base layer bottom and top. We used to have REI base layers which were great, though for last two years we have been using Icebreaker. Those are amazingly comfortable and ultralight.
Shirts and Pants – I don’t dwell on these items a lot as long as they are made of moisture-wicking and sun-protective fiber. My choice is dictated by cost and weight. But, as the kids are growing, style is becoming a factor as well!
I have learned that 2-3 good quality long sleeve shirts and convertible pants are sufficient for all our backpacking trips. My personal choices are REI, Columbia, Patagonia, and Prana, and my husband loves Kuhl.
2. Mid layer – insulation in colder climates
Fleece – Buying a basic fleece is kinda simple; I have two fleeces for each of us. These are lightweight Columbia fleeces, bought during the end-of-season sale from an outlet store. Though I sometimes pack an ultralight 100% wool sweater for me, when feeling a bit stylish.
3. Top layer – weather protection
Jackets – This is a layer that you will end up spending a lot of money on. We have Patagonia down jackets for all of us, and they are the best! Though we had to buy new ones for kids, ours are still in good shape, even after six years of rough use.
Rain Jacket – I can’t stress enough about the importance of a high quality (expensive) waterproof/breathable rain jackets. These jackets are built to give maximum protection in stormy conditions and have justified their cost on our many backpacking trips.
My husband and I have REI jackets, and kids use Marmot jackets.
Rain pants – If you’re still thinking, do I really need rain pants? The answer is definitely YES unless you’ve got the power to order perfect weather during your entire backpacking trip. It is an indispensable item. They have kept us dry in relentless downpours. We all have REI rain pants with long side zippers to avoid taking off boots to put them on and off.
Winter Hats – We have some basic woolen matching hats bought from here and there, nothing special.
Gloves – I opt for light woolen gloves and Smartwool liners instead of thick gloves and layer them when extra warmth is needed. These are easier to take off when handling the camera.
1. Freeze-dried breakfast and dinner
It is way lighter, very convenient, and available in lots of variety. Just pour boiling water in the pack, zip it, wait, and eat directly from the pack. Once done use to pack out the trash. Our all-time favorites are Backpack Pantry and Mary Janes Farm. Both of them can be ordered directly online in bulk. I always pack an extra breakfast and dinner. Desert is a nice reward which we all look forward to after a whole day of hiking.
2. Lunch and snacks
We rely on protein bars for lunch and pack healthy snacks for the kids, e.g., almond nut butter, Clif Bars, and Honey Stinger waffles.
Hot chocolate packets – There is nothing like hot chocolate at the end of the day for kids.
Being a tea drinker, I pack teabags, sugar, and milk powder – True confession, I need my tea to function like a normal human.
MSR PocketRocket backpacking stove is our favorite. It is super light and comes with its lighter. Fuel is easy to come by, it’s light, and it works. We have used it on our international backpacking trips without any problem. A windscreen for the stove is invaluable in breezy conditions, and we learned it the hard way in Patagonia.
Kettle – GSI Outdoors Halulite Tea Kettle is the only utensil we had ever used on our backpacking trips. We only need boiling water, which is what it is made to do. Boiling water for freeze-dried meals, for chocolate milk, for tea. No washing!
Spoons – We have GSI long spoon to dig in those food packets.
Mugs – REI insulated mugs have been perfect so far.
Water bottles – We all carry Nalgene bottles, the big ones to stay hydrated.
Water purifier – MSR Guardian purifier was another great buy. It has been filtering water for us for the last six years without any trouble. It is super easy to use, fits on Nalgene bottles like a charm. Now you see, why we all have Nalgene!
Your feet are the most crucial gear of all, keep them happy, and show lots of love. Don’t compromise on comfort and durability. If you are planning easy trails, a pair of lightweight boots or trail-running shoes may be adequate. Moderate and strenuous trails mean more work for your feet and more chances of injuries. Make sure your boots are waterproof, preferably with Gore-Tex. NEVER buy hiking boots online, always try them on before buying.
Buy your boots in the evening after trying them with hiking socks on.
Our daughter’s favorite boots are Lowa. Our son adores his sixth pair of Vasque’s boots. My husband and I are also fans of Vasque’s leather boots. I tried La Sportiva recently and love them!
Nothing ruins a good time like freezing feet and blisters. We always pack at least 3-4 pairs of quality wool socks. Smartwool and Darn Tough socks are durable, thick and comfortable. I stock up our socks during the sale.
2. Hiking poles
If you are planning trails with the steep grades, invest some money in buying quality lightweight hiking poles. Your knees will thank you. We have been using black diamond adjustable poles for more than a decade now.
Other Important Stuff
A topography map – this is in addition to Gaia Maps on our iPhones. Always keep a backup map!
Sun protection – I haven’t come across a better sunscreen than Aloe Gator Super Total Sunblock Gel SPF 40+ and a better lip balm than Aloe Gator SPF 40+.
Sunglasses – I am on my third pair of RayBan polarized Waywafers, the wrap-around design covers the eyes very well.
Insect Repellent – I prefer to wear long pants and long-sleeve shirts to minimize sun exposure and insect bites. It is good to check the trail condition about these pesky creatures before you start your trip.
First-aid kit – Adventure Medical Kits UltraLight / Watertight .7 First-Aid Kit
Repair kit – Gear Aid Fix Anything Camp Kit
Headlamps with extra batteries – black diamond
Swiss army knife
Emergency Blanket – Space Emergency Blanket
Blister kit – Spenco 2nd Skin Blister Kit
Solar charger – We use Goal Zero Venture 30 Solar Kit to charge our devices.
Towels – I pack four ultralight REI hand towels, each of different colors.
Aftersun lotion – Aloe Gator Green Stuff After Sun Moisturizer is my only moisturizer on the backpacking trips. I use it for our beach vacations as well. It works like magic soothes the sun-beaten skin and make it new by the morning.
Wet wipes – a great way to stay fresh on cold, showerless backpacking trips.
Compression sacks – We have four of them, properly labeled to pack clothes.
Camp slippers – I prefer to take my slippers and crocs for the kids to give a much-deserved break to our feet while camping.
Almond or walnut oil – to keep the noses moist while backpacking in arid conditions.
Soap – Campsuds
Toothbrush and toothpaste – instead of packing one big toothpaste, I pack 2-3 travel size toothpaste, depending on the days on the hike.
Ziplock bags – sturdy ones, in assorted sizes.
Sturdy Trash bags
Just for kids
Journal and pens
A game or two
Lantern (Luci inflatable solar-powered)
These are the items, which are heavy and there is no way we can leave behind. Me and my husband, both love to take photos, though he is more of a capture-every-moment guy. Most of these are his toys, which he carries on the trails.
DLSR camera – Canon EOS 7D Mark II
Camera lenses – Canon wide and telephoto lenses
Lens cleaning kit
Tripod – Gitzo Carbon Fiber travel tripod with Actatech GP ball head (total 2 lbs) and a little one for iPhone
GoPro – Hero 8
Video Stabilizer – Osmo Mobile Stabilizer
Drone Camera – DJI Mavic Pro Quadcopter (if allowed)
And to pack all your gear, you need a backpack.
The backpack is not just any bag to throw things in and walk. Your backpack must fit your body, should be highly adjustable, and meet your needs. Don’t forget to buy a high-quality pack cover, which covers your pack perfectly. To protect our bags in their international travel, I sewed sturdy thick canvas sacks for them, which I consider was a smart idea. Read here if you are planning to buy a backpack.
My husband is an ardent fan of Osprey bags, and he has Osprey Aether 70 for multi-day hikes and Osprey Atmos AG 50 for shorter ones.
I cherish my REI 65 Pack on long trips and REI Flash 45 Pack on shorter trips. Both these bags are superb, regarding quality, comfort, and features. I love them!
Our daughter has graduated to a bigger bag REI 65 pack from her Osprey 50. Our son still uses his REI kids pack, which is not very comfortable. I am planning to buy Deuter Fox 40 pack for him for our next backpacking trip.
All our shopping is done exclusively at REI, and they’ve always exceeded our expectations. REI staff is knowledgeable and genuine. The return policy and customer service are unbeatable. Being a member, we get a decent dividend every year and exclusive discounts.
I hope this all-inclusive list of our backpacking gear is helpful for you to make your gear selection. Don’t hesitate to ask any questions, if you have one. Here are some field-tested tips to start hiking/backpacking with kids.
Happy and safe travels!