Gear You Can't Live Without (When Backcountry Hiking)
Author: Kai Pantano Date Posted: 5 August 2020
One of the most frequent questions we get at Wildfire is, what is the best (jacket, shoe, pack)? What I believe most customers really mean is “What do I need?” To simplify the process, here’s a list of items that are invaluable for backcountry hiking.
The uncharted world of outdoor gear can be a daunting place. One of the most frequent questions we get at Wildfire is, what is the best (jacket, shoe, pack)?
What I believe most customers really mean is “What do I need?” The reality is that asking for the best is a very subjective question. The best hiking pack, for example, depends on the individual, what experiences they’ve had in the past and the adventures they have planned for the future.
The process of acquiring the perfect selection of gear is neverending. Every trip refines the collection further and further. To simply the process, here’s a list of items that I feel are invaluable for backcountry hiking.
If you’ve experienced a night in the backcountry without one, you’ll know that a headlamp is essential. My advice is always take two. If you lose one, you have a backup. If one breaks, you still have light and if your friend forgets one, you have a spare.
But which one should you buy? There are three key features that can help narrow down the field: Lumens, Water Resistance and USB Charging.
I recommend a 350 - 400 lumen lamp. They’re bright enough to illuminate the trail, but efficient enough to last for many hours of use. The eye-watering 1000 lumen super-lamps seem cool on the surface, but you’ll rarely need a headlamp that bright and won’t be able to operate it at full capacity for long. 350 - 400 is more than enough.
Water resistance is handy and you should aim for a storm proof rating of IPX4+ as a minimum. Ingress Protection Marking is a classification standard. The first digit refers to dust ingress and the second refers to water. An X means that the item was not tested, so for example IPX4 means that the lamp wasn’t tested for dust resistance but it was tested for water. In this case, it’s stormproof. Water and electronics don’t get along well, so a weather-sealed headlamp is essential.
The third feature to consider is USB charging. We’re constantly surrounded by USB charging points, which means you could recharge your lamp on a plane, in a car or at home. You can also charge your headlamp from a USB brick. Aim to acquire a headlamp that can also accept regular batteries as well to cover all your bases.
Many factors will influence your choice of pack, so I’ll touch on a few lessons I’ve learnt over the years.
You can always under-pack a larger pack. As a general rule to narrow the field (unless you’re mountaineering), anything under 50L is a daypack and anything over 70L is excessive. A small pack is attractive, but at some point you’ll run out of space. Packs like the Osprey Aether 70, Osprey Ariel 65 or the Osprey Aether Pro 70 are ideal and capable of carrying large loads.
Aim for a pack that has a minimalistic exterior. This stops you from getting caught on tree branches or vines in the field.
Most packs these days come with a removable top pocket. On long multi day hikes, remove the pocket when you make camp and place it next to your sleeping mat. Now you’ve got somewhere to store items that you need to access regularly. You can also use them as organisers on flights, if you’re traveling light.
Spare 13 Litre Dry Bag
Every now and then, nature delivers a biblical storm and if you’ve spent enough time in the wild you’ll know they come out of nowhere. A spare 13L dry bag is a handy thing to keep on standby. You can shove weather-sensitive items in quickly if you’re caught off guard without having to dig through your pack frantically searching for space.
Most people will be familiar with the iconic water bottle from Nalgene. The New York based company began crafting scientific containers in the 1940s. These beakers soon evolved into the indestructible water bottles we know today and they’ve been a touchstone of an environmentally conscious, active lifestyle for over 70 years. The 500mL Wide Mouth Nalgene is handy for a number of reasons. It’s small, so it’s the perfect size to carry onto a plane and slides easily into most pockets. The wide mouth makes it easy to fill, but its diminutive size makes it easier to drink out of than it’s larger 1L. This tiny workhorse can keep your electrolytes out of your main water bladder or larger bottles. This prevents cross-contamination of flavours.
Clothing takes up valuable space, so it’s important to carefully select four key items to form the foundation of your layering system.
Thermal Base Layer
Whether it’s Merino or Polypro, you need a base layer. Merino is warm, breathable and can help mitigate unwelcome odours after days (or weeks) of use. Polypro dries quicker, but has a tendency to absorb smells. There are various blends of Merino out there, including Merino/Bamboo or Merino/Polypro blends. My preference is for a short sleeved, 100% Merino t-shirt from Icebreaker. Two of these shirts can theoretically get you through weeks of backcountry hiking.
Fleece or Heavier Weight Base Layer
This should be long sleeved and preferably have at least a quarter zip, if not a full one. You’ll need this zip to dump heat out of the fleece. It pays to select one that has some level of breathability, so you’re not taking it on and off all the time.
This will either have synthetic fill or down fill. Despite advances in the synthetic realm, nothing tops down for warmth. The downside is that once down gets wet, it looses its insulating properties and takes a long time to dry. Synthetic jackets will continue to insulate when they’re wet and they also dry far quicker than down. Most of the time, my preference would be a jacket with synthetic fill. What you lose in warmth you gain in versatility.
Waterproof Rain/Wind Shell
This jacket will shield you (and your new layers) from the elements. Lightweight isn’t always better. You want this layer to resist a decent amount of backcountry abuse. The world of waterproof membranes is a complicated place, so let's break it down into some actionable steps.
- Anything below 10,000mm is considered to be showerproof.
- Anything above 10,000mm is considered to be waterproof.
- GORE-TEX (GTX) is a brand of waterproof membrane that many jackets use. GTX begins at 28,000mm - so it's suited for heavy snow, massive rain storms and high winds.
- Pertex is a lighter option than Goretex, which you’ll often find in running jackets.
- 3 Layer Jackets will often be the most breathable.
- Consider what you’ll be wearing underneath the jacket. Generally speaking, you should size up one full size to accomodate the various layers you’ll be wearing underneath.
They may not be the most sexy item on your gear list, but these things are invaluable. They’ll protect your neck from the harsh rays of the sun, or your face from getting burnt in the snow. At night they take the edge off the wind and can be worn in a multitude of ways to keep hair out of your face. Or as a beanie. Or a sweatband. The list is endless. Take two so you can swap one out when the other needs to air out. Pro-tip: When Buff is out of stock, or for a cheaper alternative, consider our own awesome buffs.
You can use this list as the foundation for backcountry hiking and build upon it with some of the great gear that we have available at Wildfire Sports & Trek.