Best Backpacking Gear: Features to Look for in Your Next Gear Upgrade

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As a guide who spends the better part of six months embedded in the backcountry each year, my quality of life depends on the contents of my pack. Over the seasons I’ve found that the best backpacking gear often boils down to the most subtle features—little nuances that make a world of difference with comfort and convenience. Here are some of the features and products that proved exceptionally clutch in summer 2020.

Nemo pad backpacking gear

A lung-saving, quiet, sleeping pad

After a 12-mile day at altitude, no one wants to exhaust their last waking breaths of the day bellowing into a sleeping pad. Additionally, no one likes a noisy sleep setup, which can be tough to avoid with many new inflatable pad. One solution is to sacrifice comfort for the convenience and quietude of a foam pad, something like the Therm-a-Rest Z-lite. Another, more luxurious option is the Nemo Tensor Insulated—a pump sack-inflated, crinkle-free cushion with three inviting inches of loft that’s available in varying sizes and degrees of insulation, and packs into the size of a super burrito. The Tensor not only makes setting up for sleep a breeze, it makes sleeping in the dirt feel like cloud nine.

Big Agnew Anvil Horn

A sleeping bag that stays on the pad

If you’re anything like me, you spend at least one night on a multi-day backpacking trip—not always consciously—tossing and turning, often wriggling off the pad and onto the rocks. Luckily for my back, I found the Big Agnes Anvil Horn system bag—a roomy down-fill bag with a nifty pad sleeve sewn into its underside. Stuffing pad into sleeve allows me to merge my sleep system into one unit, so writhing off mid-slumber is not a threat. The sleeve’s fabric is worth its weight when packed, just make sure your pad fits the sleeve before you set out.

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Sea To Summit day backpack

A compactible day-pack

A well-packed backpack is like a Matryoshka doll. One package stuffs into a larger package stuffs into a larger package. Inside your mack-daddy pack, you’ll want a stout day-pack to accommodate shorter hikes from base camp in between the high-mileage days. New last year, Sea to Summit’s featherlight 20L Ultra-Sil Nano Daypack can carry everything you need for a full-day outing, but also stuffs into an egg-sized package to consume negligible real estate in your full pack on bigger hauls. The Nano stuffs so small that I even attach it to my keyring in the front-country and never forget a bag for the grocery store.

side-zipping Gregory backpack

A side-zipping backpack

Inevitably on trail, the most coveted items in my pack seem to wind up lodged somewhere in the middle. With the all-access side zipper of Gregory’s Paragon 68 pack, I no longer need to dishevel my entire pack to reach an item buried in the void. Paired with the cinch-able top-access that allows for extra packing space, and the zippered sleeping bag access at its base, the Paragon is the most accessible pack I’ve owned to date. The only foreseeable downside to the side-zip will come if/when it breaks, but despite the low price point of the Paragon, the hardy zipper hasn’t failed me yet.

Big Agnes tentA roof-pocketed one-man tent

“Where the hell is my headlamp?” Not a question I want to be asking in the middle of a sub-zero night when I wake up to pee. Traditionally my tent floor has been a black hole for the items I use most amid the twilight hours. The overhead pouch on Big Agnes’ lightweight, Seedhouse SL1 single-person tent takes the guesswork out of midnight duties by providing a space to stow my headlamp, among other things, conveniently and reliably within reach.

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Msr gravity fileter for backcountryPump-free water filtration

Pump filters like the Katadyn Hiker Pro are generally loathed by guides for the excessive exertion they require and the clogging cartridges that make water pumping progressively more strenuous. On the flip side, potable water tablets like Aquamira leave drinking water discolored and weird-tasting. Discovering MSR’s Autoflow Gravity Filter this season changed the way I view drinking water. Instead of wasting my forearms on a finicky pump, now I just scoop water from a lake or stream into the reservoir, clip the contraption to a tree limb, attach its spout, and wallah, we have 10 liters of fresh drinking water on-tap. Additionally, the filtration cartridge lasts multiple trips or even a full season when properly maintained. Just be sure to backflush the filter after each use and it will go the long haul.

Bedrocks sandalsGrippy, durable, camp sandals

No matter how comfy the boots are, taking them off after a long day on-trail and slipping my toes into a reliable set of slippers makes for one of the best little wins in backpacking. But to cover all the bases of a good camp slipper—packability, comfort, durability, and most importantly, grip—is no easy feat. Above all the Chacos and Vans I’ve owned, Bedrock achieves this balance best. The Cairne 3D Pro‘s heel strap locks in snug and sturdy, wedging your foot comfortably into the toe strap for a secure and reliable fit. But the real beauty of these babies is on the bottom—a sticky Vibram sole that even sticks to slick granite. What’s more? I’ve used the same pair of Bedrock Cairne 3D pros for two full seasons and they’re still going strong.

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