8 Classic Pieces of Backpacking Gear Hikers Love (And Why)
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Some backpacking trends come and go like the seasons, same as any other fad. Others are more enduring. You know the ones I mean: the gear that every hiker has or seems to want, the distinctive equipment that’s become so iconic that it’s virtually synonymous with backpacking—and not because it’s trendy or flashy or status-conferring, but because it’s so dadburn functional that it would be silly not to include it in your backpacking gear shortlist.
These eight pieces of backpacking gear are on their way to becoming modern classics. Here’s why backpackers love them so much.
8 Pieces of Backpacking Gear Hikers Love (and Why)
1. Altra Lone Peak (Women’s and Men’s)
Everyone’s feet are different, and no single shoe can universally meet every hiker’s needs. But the Altra Lone Peak sure does seem to work for a wide range of hikers, given its incredible popularity. If you’ve been on a hiking trail in the US lately, you’ve probably seen a pair or two of the zero-drop trail runners in action.
Back when The Trek first started surveying Appalachian Trail thru-hikers about their shoe choices in 2014, Altra was a mere sliver of the footwear manufacturers pie chart, but the now-iconic brand has steadily crept up the leaderboard every year since then. In our recent 2022 survey, over 41 percent of respondents wore Altras—and the majority of them were in Lone Peaks specifically.
The Lone Peak appears to have single-handedly—or single-footedly, as it were—ushered in the minimalist, zero-drop craze that’s swept the hiking community over the past eight or so years. It’s got the widest toe box around, offering plenty of room for your piggies to spread out naturally with each footstrike, mimicking barefoot movement.
Its lightweight comfort, breathability, and conspicuous lack of break-in time have made it a fan favorite among hikers, and if current trends are to be believed, the Lone Peak will be a fixture of the backpacking footwear scene for years to come.
2. Kahtoola Microspikes
OK, so it might be a stretch to suggest that most backpackers love microspikes. Most backpackers resent microspikes, but most backpackers grudgingly accept microspikes as a necessity for early season hikes when snow and ice render footing treacherous.
I get it. Spikes aren’t fun or sexy—they’re utilitarian, awkward, and inconvenient. But trust me: just bring them. You might begrudge the 11-ounce weight penalty now, but when you’re halfway across a slick, steep-angle snowfield and with every step you feel the spikes bite reassuringly into the ice below, oh boy, you will love them then.
Spikes are one of those things that seems like a waste of weight until that one moment where you really, really need them. They’re only 11 ounces, people, and they could save your life.
Kahtoola Microspikes are sturdy, flexible, and actually pretty lightweight compared to giant mountaineering crampons. They’ll flex with your footwear and provide just the right amount of grip for most on-trail situations without being complete overkill.
3. Patagonia Nano Puff (Women’s and Men’s)
Backpackers are strange ducks by regular-people standards. We get excited about unusual things like single-serving ketchup packets and moldering privies. But one thing normal citizens and hiker trash can agree on is that Patagonia is fly AF. The Patagonia Nano Puff is one of those timeless jackets that’s just as appropriate around town as it is on the trail.
It looks good, and it’s functional as a technical midlayer too. All those pretty quilted seams conceal a judicious amount of performance synthetic insulation: just enough to add light warmth on a cool spring morning, but not so much as to make it stuffy and bulky. It’s the perfect active midlayer. And since the insulation is synthetic, you don’t have to worry about moisture ruining it.
Better yet, Patagonia is an industry leader when it comes to sustainaible manufacturing practices. The Nano Puff is made with 100 percent post-consumer recycled insulation and fabric, as well as a PFC-free DWR treatment and reduced-emissions manufacturing techniques.
4. Therm-a-Rest NeoAir XTherm
Sleeping outside is wonderful. Lying awake on the cold, hard ground, counting the moments until sunrise, is terrible. Look, I’m a softy. I don’t want to sleep on the cold, hard ground if at all possible, and a thin foam pad or a sketchy off-brand inflatable just won’t cut it. Give me several inches of luxurious, insulated air mattress and I’ll get out of my tent each morning loving life and the trail.
If staying warm and comfy are your top priorities, the Therm-a-Rest NeoAir XTherm is the best pad on the market. Its insanely high R-value (6.9!) is unmatched by any other backpacking sleeping pad, and at 15 ounces, it weighs the same as or less than some less-insulated pads. Additionally, XTherms seem to last forever, and they make great floaties for any impromptu backcountry swimming sessions that might come your way.
5. Darn Tough Hiker Micro Crew Cushion Socks (Women’s and Men’s)
Despite being almost a complete nonentity in the lives of most people, socks are weirdly important to backpackers. The humble sock, that most boring and utilitarian of clothing items, is a crucial piece of gear for people who walk everywhere.
As much as—if not more than—your choice of footwear, a good pair can make the difference between a happy hike and a blister-ridden sufferfest. Pulling on a dry pair after a cold, wet day can magically transform your mood for the better. Socks are one of the rare items that almost every backapcker—even the ultralight minimalist—agrees you should carry a few extra pairs of.
Ask 100 hikers what brand of socks they prefer and 75 o them will probably name Vermont-based Darn Tough. I’m not making that number up, either; literally 75 percent of AT hikers in a recent survey called this brand out by name. Why? You won’t find a more durable, well-made, comfortable merino wool sock anywhere. They breathe, they wick moisture, and they have just the right amount of cushion without feeling like a sweat sponge.
Another reason hikers love them is that Darn Tough is known for their lifetime guarantee: if your socks wear holes prematurely, you can exchange them for a fresh pair free of charge.
6. Nemo Disco 15 (Women’s and Men’s)
The Nemo Disco 15 is revolutionizing the backpacking sleeping bag market just like actual disco revolutionized the dance moves of an entire generation back in the 70s.
While mummy sleeping bags are traditionally close and constricting, the Disco has Nemo’s classic spoon-shaped cut that creates more room at the elbows and knees. This is allegedly for the benefit of side sleepers, but the extra room improves comfort regardless of your sleep style. It’s genius, really: making the whole bag wider would result in a lot of dead air space and, therefore, a colder night’s sleep and a sloppier fit. In contrast, the spoon shape makes the Disco feel pleasantly snug but not confining.
Also, there’s the matter of those groovy-looking zippers on the top of the bag. They’re “gills” that can be unzipped to vent heat so you don’t accidentally sous vide yourself on a warm night.
Turn the beat around, Nemo. Turn the beat around.
7. Garmin inReach Mini
Most of us go backpacking at least in part to disconnect from the bustle of ordinary life, so I get that packing a satellite communicator can feel like a betrayal of that ideal. But it’s not.
A well-made GPS device isn’t a constant source of distraction like a smartphone. You won’t see backpackers zinging off dozens of texts on a Garmin inReach Mini. You won’t find yourself tuning out of conversations around the campfire because of your inherent need to check email or play Candy Crush on your Garmin inReach Mini.
But you will enjoy the peace of mind that comes from knowing your loved ones can reach you from time to time—and that you can write back to let them know how it’s going. And that if you get into a jam, you can contact emergency services with the press of a button. And that you can check the forecast or view your progress on a map if you need to. Best of all, you get all of this in a lightweight, unobtrusive package that can withstand impacts and rain and all manner of abuse.
The Garmin inReach Mini isn’t just another frivolous 21st-century gadget: it’s a powerful tool backcountry travelers can use to enjoy safer, more successful backpacking trips. This piece of gear is beloved not just by hikers but also by their loved ones back home, who get great peace of mind knowing their person has a means to communicate in emergencies.
8. Deuter Kid Comfort Child Carrier
We all know it’s a struggle to hang onto your pre-children hobbies and identity after having kids. But hiking doesn’t have to go by the wayside. Like anything else in hiking (and in life in general), having the right tools for the job can bring a seemingly impossible feat within reach. True, you have this huge responsibility now, but your own wants and needs are still important—and spending some quality nature time with your kiddos is a great way for them to grow.
The Deuter Kid Comfort child carrier allows you to carry a kiddo of up to 48 pounds chihuahua-style (a la Elle Woods) in your backpack. With a sun/rain roof, a kickstand for stability when you’re not wearing the pack, and plenty of room for your gear, it has helped many a parent enjoy the backcountry with their families over the years.
Day hiking—and even backpacking—with a baby is both possible and realistic, but it’s important to have the right gear to do so safely. This backpack is just one piece of the puzzle, but it will go a long way toward getting you back to the trail. Got to start ’em young, after all.
Check out these eight timeless pieces of backpacking gar and more over at REI. The retailer is currently in the midst of its annual winter clearance event, during which you can save up to 40 percent on your favorite brands, including REI-brand snow clothing, Kuhl, Fjallraven, and Mountain Hardwear, while supplies last.
Featured image: Photo and graphic design by Zack Goldmann.
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