The Best Backpacking Gear I’ve Tested Over the Past 5 Years
As the Trek’s Managing Editor for more than five years, I had ample opportunity to test, review, and write about backpacking gear. Some items I requested from companies because I thought it would fit well with my backpacking setup and be useful reviews to have on the site. Some items were sent to me unsolicited and I ended up loving them.
Overall, my backpacking setup is very much middle-of-the-road, and the following gear items reflect that. I don’t have a tiny frameless pack, but I do choose layers that save significant weight over other options. I save weight in some areas and splurge a little in others. My base weight is usually around 10-12 pounds, and I’m very comfortable hiking and at camp. Not all of these pieces make it into my pack for every trip, but they stand out as far as design, quality, intended use, and the backpacker standard of weight-to-literally-anything ratio.
1) Gossamer Gear G4-20
Stats: 25 ounces / 42L capacity / Robic Nylon construction
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-Large hip belt pockets, one with a sealed zipper
-Comfortable, removable back pad
-Roll-top closure so you can cinch it down for smaller loads and extend the collar for bigger carries
-Huge side pockets can fit two liters of water easily
Why I Love This
I was pretty decked out in Gossamer Gear (#NotSponsored) this year. I used this pack, their trekking poles, and I just received The One as my first solo tent. The G4-20 is the third pack I used this season, and it became my go-to after just a few uses. the 42-liter size is perfect for my mid-range gear list, and the roll-top can extend for bigger carries, then rolls down so it’s not floppy with smaller loads. This pack also has the designation of being the only pack I’ve ever been able to grab a water bottle from while moving—a huge boon when I’m trying to keep up with my record-setting partner.
Ultimately I gravitated towards the G4-20 because of the capacity, reasonable weight, and how organized I feel when I use it. It has just enough pockets where my gear is easy to locate and I don’t have to dig into the pack every time I want to shove a handful of Goldfish in my face. It has two stash areas on the hip belt: one large pocket with a sealed zipper for small items, and one open mesh pocket for snacks and my iPhone. There’s also a giant mesh pocket on the front of the pack where I leave a raincoat and more snacks, and a small zippered pocket under the roll-top closure that’s perfect for a filter, headlamp, and tent stakes.
This pack was designed with long-distance hikers in mind, and it’s very intuitive to pack and organize. The only issue for me was the sizing: I’m a small torso in most packs, but the small in the G4-20 was almost comically small on me. Read the size chart, folks, and check out Carl’s review here.
2) BioLite HeadLamp 200
Stats: 1.6 ounces / 200 lumens / rechargeable
-Wide, easily adjustable, comfortable band with integrated light unit
-Ultralight unit with no-bounce fit
-Rechargeable with micro USB
Why I Love This
Out of the gear I tested over the past few years, this was one of the only pieces where the design felt ingenious enough to be a game-changer in the category. Where every headlamp I’ve previously used has a distinct separation between the light unit and the strap, the BioLite model is seamlessly integrated into the wide, comfortable strap. I’ve gotten pressure headaches from headlamps in the past, but it’s never been an issue with the BioLite model.
If you think you’ll be night hiking for extended periods of time, I might recommend the HeadLamp 330 ($59.95), which has 330 lumens instead of 200. I’ve night-hiked with the 200 for hours and felt like it illuminated more than enough, but a good rule of thumb is to have around 300 lumens for night hiking. This headlamp lasts for three hours on its highest setting and up to 40 hours on the lowest setting.
It’s stress-free as far as running out of power goes. It’s rechargeable with a micro USB (the same cord most rechargeable gear uses… except the goddamn iPhone) and charges relatively quickly to full power. I spent a few hours in the dark chasing a tour bus before it left the trailhead, and was running with a full pack on. I’m not a good runner, and I’m a worse runner with a full pack. The BioLite 200 was bounce-free as I crashed down the trail and didn’t slide down my face like another model might have.
I do find the settings somewhat stupefying—I’m never sure what’s going to happen when I push the settings button. Will it be high beam? White strobe? Red strobe? It’s a surprise! But the comfort and wearability of this light outweigh the fact that for some reason the button confuses me. The BioLite Headlamp 330 also made the Trek’s Best Headlamps of 2020. Trek Writer Clay has reviewed the 200, as well as their newest model, the 750.
3) Enlightened Equipment Torrid Apex
Stats: 7.75 ounces / Climashield synthetic insulation / DWR-treated face fabric
-Insane warmth-to-weight ratio
-Lower priced than many heavier down jackets
-DWR-treated nylon face fabric is more durable than you’d expect for the low weight
-Climashield APEX insulation is ultralight and can handle dampness
Why I Love This
Enlightened Equipment has built a permanent place for themselves in backpackers’ gear closets with their quilts. And while my sleeping bag loyalties fall elsewhere, their layers are freaking clutch. As soon as I saw they had made an ultralight jacket that weighed less than my Patagonia down jackets while being synthetic, I knew I had to try it. I ordered the women’s medium, and it came true to size, with a mid-type cut that fits a rain jacket over it with enough room for a mid-layer and a base layer underneath.
The zipper is tiny and lightweight, but doesn’t snag and has held up to a lot of use over the past six months. This jacket is just as warm as my Patagonia Down Sweater and Outdoor Research Transcendent Down Jacket, but it weighs less, costs less, and I don’t have to worry about it getting damp thanks to the synthetic insulation. Sometimes when a company that built a reputation on one type of gear (sleeping bags) jumps to something else it can be a train wreck, but that’s certainly not the case here. Owen did a great review of the Torrid Apex here.
4) Enlightened Equipment Visp
Stats: 4.5 ounces / pit zips / what more do you need
-Super long pit zips for venting
-Deep hood and longer hemline for more protection
-ePTFE membrane is waterproof and breathable, faced with a 7D ripstop nylon
-Very reasonable price for a three-layer rain jacket with an ePTFE membrane
Why I Love This
This jacket weighs 4.5 ounces, is long enough to be perfectly secure under a hip belt, and has generous pit zips and a deep hood. I don’t know why there’s any competition. The Visp meets all of my standards for being waterproof, in that it keeps me dry as long as any other rain jacket, and shakes out in a jiffy. The main thing I was worried about with such an ultralight rain jacket was durability, but this jacket has seen some sh*t this year and it is entirely intact. I only opt for rain jackets with a waterproof/breathable ePTFE membrane (the same the Gore-Tex and eVent use), since you’ll get more wear out of it and won’t sweat as badly as you would with a PU membrane.
The only downside to this jacket is that there aren’t any pockets. I’m fine with it since I use hip belt pockets on my pack, but ultralight hikers without hip belt pockets might miss having them. Like the Torrid Apex, you can choose your color, and for a custom jacket, Enlightened Equipment’s lead time (6-week average) isn’t bad at all. All of their gear is made in Minnesota, and their customer service is legendary. Megan reviewed this (and the pants) here.
5) Feathered Friends Petrel UL 10
Stats: 950+ fill / 32.3 oz / 10-degree rating
-The hood is deep, the drawcords easy to use, and the draft collar makes a huge difference in heat retention
-Woman-specific build means the Petrel has more down in areas of higher heat loss, plus there’s less interior space to heat up
-Water-resistant outer fabric. It won’t stay dry forever, but you have some wiggle room with tent condensation.
Why I Love This
You’re going to pay a premium for premium gear, but all Feathered Friends bags are sourced with the highest quality down, made in the US, and beautifully constructed. The down is incredibly lofty, and unlike most bags I’ve tested, the 10-degree rating doesn’t feel generous enough. I’ve winter-camped (in Montana, gross) with this bag and I’ve never been cold, which is the opposite of my experience with other bags’ temperature ratings. This sleeping bag is bulkier and heavier than my Therm-a-Rest Hyperion, so it doesn’t come on warmer-weather trips, but the Petrel is 100% the nicest sleeping bag I own.
The woman-specific construction makes a difference in sleeping bags as well. The down distribution is tailored towards areas where women lose heat more, and the shape is built for our body types. A woman-specific sleeping bag also means less space to heat up at night, which can be a huge energy saver. The price point is a stopper, and I doubt I could have afforded this bag if I didn’t get it donated for review. Video review here.
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