Try as I might to soften my vice grip on the material world, I’m a gearhead at heart.
In my six long (and not necessarily over) years as a technology writer, I spent thousands of hours examining the tools we employ to make our lives richer. From smartphones and software to mirrorless cameras and even ridiculous full-body sleeping bag onesies, I’ve reviewed a lot of stuff over the years. But my interest has never been about the stuff itself; but instead the way that new tools can shape and reshape behavior. Yes, it’s a pretty cerebral way to admit that I love talking about gear. So let’s do that.
This year I upgraded a lot of my hiking gear, mostly clothing, which was a fairly expensive process that I’d suggest undertaking over time, rather than in one big push. For me, having one main set of “outdoor stuff” with a few rotating components is ideal. I want one tool to do each thing that needs doing. As I get more into mountaineering and climbing, I realize that’s a pretty tricky goal, especially when safety is at stake. But I still like the idea of piecing together a long-term collection of gear rather than chasing trends. Often this mindset means biting the bullet and spending money on something nice that’ll stick around for years. Still, I try to buy everything on sale if possible.
Of course, spending more in the short term to build up a set of good gear isn’t possible for everyone, and in that case I’d encourage you to borrow stuff from friends that you’d like to try out, check used gear sales like the REI garage sale, and aggressively comparison shop online. The main companies making a killing off of outdoor gear right now release their collections in cycles, just like cellphones or designer clothing lines (I think?), so you can find solid stuff from past seasons at huge discounts online. Since a lot of thought goes into designing this stuff to begin with, there are often only minor cosmetic changes year to year.
Beyond that, some gear is totally fine to buy used, but never buy more technical stuff like climbing harnesses or helmets used, unless you know exactly where they’re coming from.
In general, my favorite name brands tend to be Patagonia (they sell men’s XS clothing, an excellent hack for avoiding the unfortunate pastel sea of women’s gear), Mountain Hardware, and Marmot. It’s worth noting that REI’s excellent line of in-house gear is always cheaper than the competition, often imitating popular features and designs at half or 2/3 of the price.
My core gear list:
This is the stuff I use and trust. That doesn’t mean it’s the best gear out there, but it is the best of what I have cobbled together over the years. I’ve tested it all, most of it pretty extensively, unless otherwise noted.
1. Marmot Limelight 2P tent (2012)
I’ve spent so many nights in this tent that I feel a fairly real emotional attachment to it. With only one door and a higher base weight than I’d want for something like through-hiking, it isn’t perfect. Still, it’s kept me dry, warm, and mosquito free for weeks of camping in everything from Oregon coastal spring rainstorms to sub-freezing high desert nights. It comes with a mesh shelf and a footprint, so you don’t have to buy those separately, so that’s something.
Wishlist: I’d love a more pared-down ultralight tent. The Marmot Limelight isn’t too heavy for backpacking, but it isn’t ultralight either. My next tent will almost certainly have two doors.
2. Boreas 55L Buttermilks backpack (2014)
If you’re trying to do fun stuff and stay alive and whatnot outdoors, your pack is arguably the most important gear choice you will make. Go to an outdoor store and try a ton of packs on (be sure to load them up with weight!). Packs are all about fit, first and foremost, and volume is a close second consideration. Feelings are a third consideration, because apparently I have a lot of them about packs!
Boreas is sort of a strange, trendy brand in outdoor gear, with designs that seem suspiciously minimalistic and trendy to actually be functional. Still, I bought the Boreas 55L in 2014 for a trip to some rugged coastal parts of Oaxaca, and since then it’s evolved from a travel pack to a camping pack to a climbing pack and now to my go-to mountaineering pack. At 55L, the Boreas pack isn’t too big or too small, and it’s versatile enough that I carry it on long day hikes even though I recently bought a Vaude 35L Brenta pack specifically for that purpose.
Most importantly, the Boreas Buttermilks is really, really comfy. I hear great things about Osprey packs, but they never fit my body (I’m 5’4”, so maybe that’s the problem…) and the Boreas Buttermilks is the comfiest, best weight-distributing pack I’ve ever loaded up. That said, I can’t afford to be buying packs up left and right, so bear in mind that there are many, many packs in the sea.
The Boreas 55L Buttermilks (named after a bouldering area in California) is made out of lightweight material while still offering the support and stability of a traditional rigid internal frame pack. The design is pretty simple, with only one big internal compartment, so organization can be a little trickier if you’re used to your pack having a lid and more bells and whistles. Still, it’s got roomy hipbelt pockets, a zippered outside pocket, and plenty of side storage and daisy chains for clipping things on for that overburdened backpacker look. Did I mention mine is this great, garish orange/red color that screams “search and rescue” because that color was way on sale? Well it is.
The Boreas Buttermilks 55L has accompanied me to the summit of two proper glaciated mountains so far, but it’s not especially well built for mountaineering. The pack runs a bit wide, which can make more technical climbing a little lopsided feeling, so something purpose built for alpine climbing would be nice. Also, the Boreas Buttermilks 55L is built from super stretchy material, which makes it feel a bit saggy and bottom-heavy when it isn’t fully loaded up. Mountain Hardware makes a bunch of cool packs and I’m liking the creative new designs on this season’s REI packs, like the REI Traverse series which offers a clever compression system that’s supposed to keep weight up high and close to your body when it isn’t fully loaded.
3. Mountain Hardware Lamina 20 women’s sleeping bag (2012)
Compared to new developments in sleeping bag design (yes, that’s really a thing), the Mountain Hardware Lamina 20 gets the job done, but it’s not exactly luxe. I’ve had mine for four years now apparently, and the new Lamina appears to offer a women’s option that isn’t the weird muted mauve and teal that I got stuck with. But (surprise!), since I got it in a price-matching sale, the Lamina 20 has proven its value again and again. As someone allergic to down, my options for synthetic bags were pretty limited at the time. I may not be crazy about how it looks, and it does slip around a bit for stomach sleepers like me, but in four years I’ve never been cold in this thing. Granted, I run hot, but I’ve pushed this well below its 20 degree rating without a liner and it’s performed great.
New sleeping bags with integrated sleeping pad sleeves are an awesome idea for squirmy sleepers like myself. Most sleeping bags seem designed with the assumption that you’ll sleep on your back (never!) and remain motionless, but some new models seem to accommodate atypical sleepers with dual zippers near the collar, and a less claustrophobic design. Really, I’d love to pick up anything that wasn’t mauve, but I can’t justify it when my Lamina 20 still keeps me plenty warm.
4. Exped SynMat sleeping pad
Given how many horror stories I’ve heard about sleeping pads popping or springing leaks, I remain impressed with my now four year old mat’s ability to inflate easily and keep its loft. It packs down plenty small for backpacking, though I have a cheap foam mat I bring along if I’m too lazy to inflate it. Even with my pitiful asthma lung capacity, this thing takes less than a minute to inflate and its considerable thickness keeps me warm.
The Exped model I use is rectangular, with long air chambers running down the length of the pad. The shape can be a little awkward, and I wish it was wider up top and narrower down at the bottom, you know, human-shaped.
5. Black Diamond Ergo Cork trekking poles
This is my first season using trekking poles and let me just say that they’re a game-changer. Going uphill feels less brutal and I basically run down scree fields and other steep inclines without ever feeling sketched out.
6. Snow Peak GigaPower Auto Stove
Snow Peak makes gorgeous gear, and this ultra-compact stove is no exception. This thing is absolutely tiny, like the size of a few matchbooks stacked together tiny. It looks like a little metal spider and preps your coffee and cooks your dinner, no problem. You just screw it onto the top of a standard fuel canister and boom, you’re in business.
I’m just starting to explore the world of dehydrated backpacker food, and something purpose-built to boil water like the Jetboil Micromo cooking system seems ideal for that sort of setup. The Snow Peak stove boils water, it just does other things better, like stir frying and eggs and stuff.
7. Platypus Hoser 3L Hydration System
This thing is perfect for my needs, simple, and totally necessary. I’d suggest the 3L over the 2L since you might as well have the capacity for that extra liter. On strenuous day hikes/climbs I tend to fill this Platypus up and toss a Gatorade in my pack’s side pocket.
This list covers some of the most essential things that I take hiking and camping, but believe it or not, there’s a lot of other stuff to consider too! I always carry the 10 essentials, including a modified first aid kit, proper extra clothing for changing weather conditions, and a handful of other odds and ends that I’ll go over in a different post (footwear, clothing, and climbing gear could all be separate discussions!).
Still, this core gear list should be enough to get anyone started thinking about what they might need for a range of outdoor adventures, from day hiking and car camping to backpacking and mountaineering.