By Michael Lanza
The Maze District of Canyonlands National Park. The Wonderland Trail. The Teton Crest Trail. Yosemite. The Grand Canyon. Glacier National Park. The Ruby Crest Trail. Yellowstone. The Wind River Range. The North Cascades. Idaho’s Sawtooth Mountains. The High Uintas Wilderness. The Tour du Mont Blanc. These are just some of the numerous places where I’ve tested the backpacking gear you see reviewed at The Big Outside. I treat gear roughly in places that are hard on outdoor gear and apparel so that I can give you brutally honest and thorough, field-tested opinions that help you make the best gear choices for your adventures.
And that’s exactly how I came up with these picks for today’s best backpacking gear.
Nearly three decades of testing outdoor gear and apparel—including formerly as the lead gear reviewer and Northwest Editor of Backpacker magazine for 10 years and even longer running this blog—have refined my ability to identify gear that’s truly outstanding, at the cutting edge technologically, and a good value.
In this article, I share my top picks for a basic backpacking gear kit, from the four or more best packs, tents, boots, and sleeping bags, including suggestions for backpackers on a budget—because everyone has different needs and preferences—to a favorite rain shell, the best air mattresses, the camp kitchen, and water treatment.
Nearly every piece of gear on this list links to my complete review of it, where you can get more details and find links to online retailers for purchasing it. Purchasing through those affiliate links supports my work on The Big Outside—and you’ll usually find the best prices at those links.
Please share your questions or thoughts on my gear picks in the comments section at the bottom of this story; I try to respond to all comments. And please forward this story to other backpackers you think might find it useful.
Want to read about the many places I’ve backpacked while testing gear? See my All Trips List or use the search box (above right), and check out my e-guides to America’s best backpacking trips, including the Teton Crest Trail and The Best First Backpacking Trip in Yosemite.
Click on the name of any product below to read its complete review, or click on a “Buy it” link to purchase it.
Best Overall: Osprey Atmos AG 65 (buy it now) and Aura AG 65 (buy it now), both $270, 4 lbs. 11 oz.
Best Weight-to-Performance Ratio: Granite Gear Blaze 60, $270, 3 lbs. 4 oz. Buy it now.
Best Durability, Waterproof, Super Comfort: Arc’teryx Bora AR 50, $499, 4 lbs. 13 oz. Buy it now.
Best For Heavy Loads: Gregory Baltoro 65 (buy it now) and Deva 60 (buy it now), both $300, 4 lbs. 15 oz.
Best Budget Pack: Gregory Stout 60L, $190, 3 lbs. 8 oz. (buy it now) and Amber 55L, $190, 3 lbs. 9 oz. (buy it now).
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Best Ultralight Pack
Hyperlite Mountain Gear 3400 Windrider
$345, 1 lb. 15 oz.
Many ultralight packs lack the support for carrying more than 20 to 30 pounds comfortably. HMG’s 3400 Windrider handles up to 35 pounds or more, has the capacity for a week between resupplies, and weighs much less than some best-selling competitors. Its tough Dyneema Composite Fabrics is fully waterproof and built to survive the apocalypse. The fixed suspension comes in four sizes and the simple harness system works. Its minimalist design, durability, capacity, comfort, and low weight will appeal to many backpackers who prefer hiking over simply hauling. Read my full review.
Best Overall: Big Agnes Copper Spur HV UL2, $450, 2 lbs. 11 oz. Buy it now.
Best 2-Person Ultralight: Big Agnes Tiger Wall 2 Platinum, $550, 1 lb. 15 oz. Buy it now.
Best 2-Person Ultralight (pitches with trekking poles): Slingfin 2Lite Trek, $329, 2 lbs. 6 oz. Buy it now.
Best Solo Ultralight: Gossamer Gear The One, $300, 1 lb. 6 oz. Buy it now.
Best Space: MSR Zoic 2, $350, 4 lbs. 6 oz. Buy it now.
Best Budget Tent: Mountainsmith Bear Creek 2, $140, 4 lbs. 3 oz. Buy it now.
Want my help planning any trip on this list? Click here for expert advice you won’t get anywhere else.
Killer Value Tent
Marmot Tungsten UL 2P
$349, 3 lbs. 4 oz.
Sure, weight is important when evaluating a tent. But space—and especially the space-to-weight ratio—merits equal consideration, particularly for taller people.
The Tungsten UL 2P offers more square footage than virtually any comparable freestanding, three-season, two-person tent, while still weighing in just ounces over three pounds—and costs less than many competitors in its category. I have some nitpicks with it, but it’s a sturdy tent and a super value.
Read my full review of the Marmot Tungsten UL 2P.
Get the right gear for your trips. See my picks for “The 10 Best Backpacking Packs”
and “The 7 Best Backpacking Tents.”
Shoes and Boots
Best Backpacking Boots: Scarpa Zodiac Plus GTX, $269, 2 lbs. 7 oz. Buy them now.
Top All-Around Shoes: Scarpa Mescalito, $169, 1 lb. 13 oz. Buy them now.
Most Breathable and Sticky: La Sportiva TX3, $135, 1 lb. 9 oz. Buy them now.
Best Trail Running/Ultralight Hiking Shoes: Hoka One One Speedgoat 4, $145, 1 lb. 4 oz. Buy them now.
Killer Value: Oboz Bridger Mid Waterproof, $180, 2 lbs. 6 oz., buy them now, and Bridger Low Waterproof, $145, 2 lbs. 3 oz. Buy them now.
Buy smart with my pro tips on buying a backpack, backpacking tent, hiking shoes or boots, and a sleeping bag.
Best Ultralight Boots
Arc’teryx Aerios FL Mid GTX
$185, 1 lb. 11 oz.
The trend toward lighter footwear for hiking and backpacking has produced a lot of shoes that, frankly, lack the support and cushion for rugged dayhiking or lightweight backpacking. Not a problem with the Aerios FL Mid GTX. I wore them carrying upwards of 40 pounds (a substantial portion of it water) on a six-day, 74-mile backpacking trip through the Grand Canyon—which included the very rugged Escalante Route. Despite falling within the weight class of trail-running shoes, these shoes unusually strong support and cushion for a shoe in its weight class, making it ideal for lightweight or ultralight backpacking or dayhiking in any terrain. Read my full review.
Buy the Arc’teryx Aerios FL Mid GTX men’s or women’s boots now.
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Best Down Bag: Feathered Friends Hummingbird and Egret UL, $429, 1 lb. 6 oz.-1 lb. 9 oz. Buy a Hummingbird UL 30 or 20 now or an Egret UL 30 or 20 now.
Best Synthetic Bag: Nemo Kyan and Azura series, $200, 1 lb. 15 oz.-2 lbs. 14 oz. Buy a men’s Kyan 35 or women’s Azura 20 now.
Roomiest Mummy: Big Agnes Picket SL 30, $270, 2 lbs. 4 oz. Buy it now.
Best Ultralight: Therm-a-Rest Hyperion 32, $350, 1 lb. 1 oz. Buy it now.
Best Ultralight Quilt: Sierra Designs Nitro Quilt, $250, 1 lb. 5 oz. Buy it now.
Best Budget Sleeping Bag: Kelty Cosmic 20, $170, 2 lbs. 7 oz. Buy it now.
Click on the name of any product below to read its complete review, or click on a “Buy it” link to purchase it.
Good Value Bag
Sierra Designs Nitro 800 20-Degree
$320, 1 lb. 15 oz.
When shopping for sleeping bags, it’s helpful to compare certain key specs: temperature rating, type and amount of insulation (or fill), total weight, and, of course, the price. Using those metrics, the Sierra Designs Nitro 20-Degree looks really good, with water-resistant, 800-fill-power DriDown feathers, enough warmth for sub-freezing temps, a cut that delivers more generous space than many bags—all at a weight south of two pounds. The Nitro series includes several men’s and women’s models at competitive prices. Read my full review.
Plan your next great backpacking adventure using my downloadable, expert e-guides.
Click here now to learn more.
Best Rain Jacket
Outdoor Research Microgravity AscentShell Jacket
$249, 14 oz.
Wear enough waterproof-breathable shells in the backcountry and you understand what really separates the excellent from the mediocre: It’s the second half of that hyphenated adjective—the “breathable” part. Whether hiking steep hills in steady rain or backcountry skiing in heavily falling, wet snow, the Microgravity AscentShell Jacket kept me dry going both uphill and downhill, thanks to the solid waterproofing and exceptional breathability of OR’s proprietary, three-layer, waterproof-breathable AscentShell fabric.
Supple and packable, with a comfortable fit that allows very good mobility, it has the features an all-season shell should have: a fully adjustable, helmet-compatible hood; four roomy, zippered pockets; weatherproofing features like hook-and-loop cuffs and waterproof zippers; and solid durability—all at a good price. Caveats: It’s heavier than some backcountry shells and it lacks pit zips, but many users won’t miss them, given the Microgravity’s breathability.
Read my complete review of the Outdoor Research Microgravity AscentShell Jacket and see my review of “The 5 Best Rain Jackets for Hiking and Backpacking.”
Best Down Jacket: Feathered Friends Eos Down Jacket, $339, 11 oz. Buy it now.
Best Synthetic Jacket: Outdoor Research Refuge Air Hooded Jacket, $229, 15 oz. Buy it now.
Best Ultralight Down Jacket: Mountain Hardwear Ghost Whisperer/2 Down Hoody, $325, 8.8 oz. Buy it now.
Best Ultralight Synthetic Jacket: Patagonia Micro Puff Hoody, $299, 9 oz. Buy it now.
Which puffy should you buy? See my “Review: The 10 Best Down Jackets” and
“Ask Me: How Can You Tell How Warm a Down Jacket Is?”
Best Insulation: Therm-a-Rest NeoAir XTherm, $220, 15 oz. Buy it now.
Best Ultralight: Therm-a-Rest NeoAir Uberlite, $200, 9 oz. Buy it now.
Best Value and Comfort: Big Agnes Insulated Air Core Ultra, $100, 1 lb. 6 oz. Buy it now.
Best Inflatable Pillow: Sea to Summit Aeros Pillow Ultra Light, $43, 2.5 oz. Buy it now.
What do you really need for backpacking? See my “Essentials-Only Backpacking Gear Checklist.”
Best Ultralight Pot: MSR Big Titan Kettle, $100, 6 oz. Buy it now.
Best Cook Set: Sea to Summit X-Set 31, $110, 1 lb. 6 oz. Buy it now.
Best Solo Stove: Jetboil MiniMo, $150, 1 lb. 1 oz. Buy it now.
Best Family/Group Stove: MSR Windburner Group Stove System, $200, 1 lb. 4 oz. Buy it now.
Best Bear Canister: Bear Vault BV500, $80, 2 lbs. 8 oz. Buy it now.
Best Ultralight Stove
MSR PocketRocket 2
$45, 3 oz. (4 oz. with plastic case, included)
Backcountry stoves come in a variety of designs these days. But in many respects, the simplest design remains the most versatile and reliable, and the PocketRocket 2 continues to embody everything a backpacking stove should be. It fires up easily every time, boils water fast, has good flame control for wilderness gourmands, weighs next to nothing, and costs less than many of its best competitors.
Whereas some types of stoves have limitations on what you can cook with them, you can use the PocketRocket 2 for cooking almost anything, almost anywhere, for any size party (or more than one stove for a large group). That may explain why it’s so popular.
I can help you plan the best backpacking, hiking, or family adventure of your life. Find out more here.
Best Pump Filter: MSR Hyperflow, $100, 9 oz. Buy it now.
Best Gravity Filter: Katadyn Base Camp Pro 10L, $100, 12 oz. Buy it now.
Best Filter Bottle: Lifestraw Go, $45, 8 oz. Buy it now.
Best Ultralight Personal Filter: Katadyn BeFree Water Filtration System 0.6L, 1L, or 3L bottle, $40-$55, 2.5-3.5 oz. Buy it now.
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Whether you’re a beginner or seasoned backpacker, you’ll learn new tricks for making all of your trips go better in my “12 Expert Tips for Planning a Wilderness Backpacking Trip” and “A Practical Guide to Lightweight and Ultralight Backpacking.” With a paid subscription to The Big Outside, you can read all of both stories for free; if you don’t have a subscription, you can download the e-guide versions of “12 Expert Tips for Planning a Wilderness Backpacking Trip” and the lightweight backpacking guide without having a paid membership.