Whether you’re a novice hiker looking to hit the trail for the first time or a wilderness woman upping the ante on your current outdoor adventures, assembling the perfect backpacking kit can be a monumental and often overwhelming task. Not only are there literally thousands of backpacks and boots and tents to choose from, but all of these items represent a pretty hefty financial investment, so you want to make sure you’re getting quality gear that will enhance your adventures for years to come. But where to even begin?!
When you’ve finally found gear that works for you… well, you want to shout it from the mountaintops! Here’s my own backpacking gear list, lovingly assembled and improved from many years of trial and error on the trail, as well as helpful tricks and tips to finding the best gear for you (because, trust me, nothing sucks more than an uncomfortable backpack). As any hiker will tell you, your gear list is a perpetual work-in-progress, so you can expect to be trying out new stuff and upgrading for the rest of your outdoor days, but there’s no time like the present to start building what will one day be your own ultimate outdoor adventure kit.
What's in this travel guide
Brooke Around Town is a member of the Amazon Affiliate Program, which means that if you click on a link and purchase something I’ve recommended on Amazon, I might get a tiny commission (at no extra cost to you). As always, I’ve only recommended gear that I personally use and love!
Essential hiking & backpacking gear
There may be some hikers who have a dozen different backpacks and boots for every month of the year (my dad converted his den into a “Mountain Room” that looks like a small REI store), but you actually only need a few essential items to be well-equipped for everything from weekend hikes to 10-day overseas treks. This is what I consider to be the most essential gear:
Arguably the most essential item on your entire gear list and the very first thing you should invest in, a good backpack can truly make or break your hiking experience. I hiked for years with crappy packs or packs designed for men or packs that were about 20L too small for the trip (strapping a sleeping bag to the outside of your pack is never a good idea, not for your back and not for your future wet self trying to sleep in a soggy bag), but I finally found an amazing pack that changed everything. I always see women on the trail with the same Osprey Aura AG 50 or 65, and we all seem to agree that it is the best hiking backpack around. I can’t say enough good things about this pack— the suspension makes it feel like you’re carrying feathers, the straps are all impossibly comfortable, the design and features are everything you’d want.. and it’s made specifically for women! It comes in a few different sizes based on your hips and torso, but the pack is also adjustable so you can perfectly customise it to your own body. Here’s a quick guide to finding your own perfect pack.
Choosing a hiking backpack
Depending on how much weight you can comfortably carry and the length of your trips, you should look at backpacks in the 50-65L range (for your main pack). I personally find that 50L is enough for me, even on 10-day treks, because I’m a light packer and frankly I’m just not strong enough to carry a bigger bag. I aim to keep my pack under 17kg, and a smaller bag forces me to leave non-essentials at home (which sometimes means rehydrating all of my food with cold water, but at least my legs are happy).
Many women’s bags, specifically Osprey packs, come in varying sizes (XS, S, M). The best way to determine your size is just to go into a shop and get someone who knows what they’re doing to help fit the pack for you. This is especially important if you’re looking at a unisex backpack— you’ll quickly realise that 90% of bags that suit men just absolutely do not suit women. For reference, I’m 5’5″ with reasonably narrow hips and I have a size Small.
Beyond just the size (or for packs that don’t have sizes), you also need to make sure that the bag is properly adjusted to fit you. More than anything, you want this bag to fit like it was made for you— 150km later with an ill-fitting pack and you’ll wish you could be evac’d off the mountain, no matter the cost. Check out this great video from Osprey about pack sizing and fit; it’s super helpful for adjusting a bag to suit you, making sure all the belts and straps are sitting in exactly the right place, etc. If you can’t adjust the straps to sit correctly on your hips or if the shoulder straps are cutting into your armpits.. time to look for a different bag!
As they mention in the Osprey video, it’s absolutely essential that you stuff some well-distributed weight into the pack and walk around the shop to see how it feels. This is how I tested several dozen packs to find the Osprey Aura! Even if the size and fit are technically correct, you still might not like the shape of the shoulder straps or find that the back panel digs into your spine or any number of other complaints, so it’s critical that you actually test it out. Considering how expensive packs are, I wouldn’t be comfortable buying one online unless I was very familiar with the brand and knew exactly how it was going to fit and feel— definitely go in and see them in person before you order something completely new.
Aside from the ergonomics and comfort of the pack, it’s also important, albeit to a somewhat lesser extent, that you consider design and features. Some of my very favourite things about my pack are the built-in rain cover, the removable lid, and the hip belt pockets. I’m admittedly envious of other packs that zip open from the front to allow easier access, but I was happy to sacrifice that feature for the best fit in the end! Pretty much all packs come with a pocket for a hydration bladder and loops on the shoulder strap for threading the straw through, but check out the latest and greatest pack features to see if there’s anything you just can’t live without.
A backpack for every occasion
Even though I just said that you don’t need an entire Mountain Room full of gear to hit the trail.. you probably will need a few different backpacks. In addition to your main pack (which we talked about above), a sturdy day pack and a packable summit pack are also essential items for any outdoor gal.
Big pack (50-65L): for overnight hikes; needs to hold all your hiking and camping gear; try: Osprey Aura AG 50
Day pack (25-35L): for day hikes; needs to hold hiking gear just for the day; try: Osprey Manta AG 28
Summit pack (20L): for summits or side trips; needs to hold water and snacks and a jacket; should be compact and lightweight enough to roll up into your big bag, support not critical, this is just used for side trips where you leave your big bag at camp and go off for a few hours along the trail/up a summit; try: REI Flash 22
Although many people will say that you look like a retiree, I’d never go on a multi-day hike without trekking poles (and I often take a single pole even on day hikes, depending on the terrain). Not only do poles really help with navigating rocks and roots on the trail, they also make a world of difference on steep ascents and descents, transferring weight to your arms and taking it off your knees and ankles. 95% of people on the trail who aren’t using trekking poles have probably never used them before and don’t realise what they are missing— I used them for the first time on the Inca Trail in 2014 and immediately bought a pair to use on every future hike. Thankfully, they are super lightweight and reasonably inexpensive, so they are an easy item to add to your gear list and something that will have an instantly positive effect on your hiking experience.
Even though it’s clearly important to have a good tent on multi-day hikes, picking one out isn’t anywhere near as personal as finding the right pack or hiking boots. My dad bought me the REI Quarter Dome 2 tent as a gift when I started going on hikes by myself, and it has served me incredibly well over the years. It’s a two-man tent, but I find that it’s lightweight and compact enough for me to carry on solo hiking trips, which means I haven’t had to spend several hundred dollars on a second tent. This is probably the exact scenario I’d recommend to someone buying their first tent— spend a bit more money to get a really lightweight, 3-season, 2-man tent and it will cover you for just about any situation. You should also buy a tent “footprint“— basically a waterproof sheet that goes under your tent to make sure you don’t get any moisture coming up through the floor of the tent, and also to protect the tent from damage. It adds basically no weight to the set-up, but helps extend the life and happiness of your new tent.
Choosing a backpacking tent
Thinking about what kind of backpacking trips you’ll be taking (is this going to be a solo hobby or something you do with friends/your partner?) will probably give you a good idea of what tent capacity to choose. As I said above, I think a 2-man tent is the best starter capacity, since you can hit the trail with a mate and also use the same tent for solo trips (make sure to choose something lightweight).
There can actually be a huge amount of variability even among 2-man tents; you might want to think about getting a larger tent is you’re really tall or if you like having extra space to spread out. I love that I can fit my backpack at my feet when I’m sleeping so I never have to leave anything outside! The height of the tent can also be highly variable, so if you get claustrophobic or you just like hanging out in your tent, you’ll probably want to look for a slightly taller tent so you can sit up inside.
Most tents are “3-season”, which just means that they aren’t designed for super freezing temps or snow (but they are still waterproof and built to handle storms). Chances are, this will more than suffice for anyone who’s reading this post— if you do plan on going mountaineering in the dead of winter, you’ll need to invest in a sturdier, more sealed-up tent.
The general rule for weight is that your tent should be about 2.5lbs (1.2kg) per person (e.g. 2.4kg for a 2-man tent), which can be a useful way of gauging whether you’re looking at a heavy or lightweight tent (and whether it’s worth the money). My 2-man tent is 1.7kg, which makes it pretty light for group camping, but a bit on the heavy side for solo trips— still, it’s totally manageable if I cut down the number of clothes and other items in my pack.
Sleep system: sleeping pads, bags & pillows
After 12 hours on the trail and a delicious mountain meal, there’s nothing I want more than to pass out in my tent and not open my eyes again until morning. Unfortunately, I’ve had many nights where that just wasn’t the case— it can be a limp mattress that’s impossible to get comfortable on, or a sad pillow that hardly lifts your head at all, or a sleeping bag that clearly wasn’t warm enough for the weather.. Either way, your sleep system is super important if you want to actually enjoy yourself on backpacking trips (and unfortunately that’s reflected in the price, so expect to shell out a bit of cash to get something decent).
Choosing a pad & pillow
I’ve had my current sleeping pads for quite a few years now, so I was pretty shocked to see just how expensive and high-tech things have gotten when I was looking online recently. All the ultra-lightweight, insulated, self-inflating pads are probably amazing, but if you’re not ready to spend $300 on a pad (?!?), you can definitely still find an air pad that is comfortable and compact for less than $100.My Big Agnes sleeping pad was around $60 and has kept me incredibly comfy for the better part of 5 years (plus, it only weighs 500g). You won’t find something too much lighter than this, so for the price, it really is a great option for 3-season hiking. If you still want to know more about choosing a sleeping pad, check out this article from REI.
As for a camp pillow, the Sea to Summit range is far and away the best on the market in terms of size, weight, and comfort— smaller than a fist but with the feel of a real pillow! I own the Aeros Ultra Light and the Aeros Premium, but for the sake of a few dollars and a few grams, just spring for the Premium and you’ll never sleep better.
Choosing a sleeping bag
More than any other pad or pillow problem, it’s my sleeping bag that really dictates how I’m going to sleep on a hike (because I am like a human ice cube at night and no comfort rating seems to acknowledge that). Even when the temperatures are hovering around the 18C mark, I’m wearing every pair of pants and socks in my pack, layering 3 jumpers, and sleeping in my gloves just to stay warm in a bag that is rated to 10C comfort. If this sounds like you, getting a sleeping bag that is actually going to keep you warm will involve a bit of extra weight in your pack and a lot of extra money, but it is just not worth the alternative of shivering through every single night of an 8-day hike in the Alps when you should be resting and recharging.
I am the proud owner of 4 different sleeping bags, so there’s been a fair bit of trial and error in finding the perfect bag, but I’ve finally done it thanks to an absolutely ripper deal on a -18C bag from Feathered Friends. This is a ridiculously fluffy 900+ down-filled, woman-specific mummy bag (shorter than unisex bags) that normally costs $900AUD, so it’s the single most expensive piece of gear that I own— and it was truly worth every penny. If I’m hiking with Callum in warmer weather, I might take our Thermarest Vela Down Quilt, which packs to a similar size and weight, but I even took my Feathered Friends bag to Tasmania this summer and was relieved to have it. Here are some things to consider when choosing your own bag:
Sleeping bags almost always list two different temperature ratings— the “comfort” rating is the number you should look at if you’re a cold sleeper and the “limit” rating is the temperature at which pretty much everyone is going to find the bag too cold. When I am looking at sleeping bags, I completely ignore the “limit” rating, because I know it just doesn’t apply to me! I’d recommend choosing a bag that’s rated for slightly colder weather than you think you’ll need, because it’s always easy to stick your arms out of the bag to cool off, but it’s not as easy to spontaneously increase the warmth of your sleeping bag (that being said, it is possible to add a liner for a bit of extra heat).
The insulation material (synthetic or down) plays a big role in the warmth of the sleeping bag, but also in the compression of the bag and the suitability for wet conditions. Down bags, like my amazing Feathered Friends bag, are stuffed with goose or duck feathers, and you’d be amazed to see how small my bag can pack down compared to how huge and fluffy it looks in the tent (the higher the fill, the more the bag will compress and the warmer it will keep you; my bag is 900-fill). The trade off is that down becomes pretty useless if it gets wet, so it’s often smart to double-bag your sleeping bag or even put it into a plastic garbage bag just to make sure that no moisture comes into contact with the feathers. Another pro for synthetic bags is that they can be cheaper, which can often be the deciding factor.
Shape and size
The most efficient sleeping bag shape is a mummy bag (tapered at the feet to limit the air around your body). Basically, this means a lighter and warmer bag! It can be strange to get used to a tight mummy bag if you’re someone who thrashes around a lot at night, but I’d recommend just sucking it up because it really is better than a large, semi-rectangular bag. In the same vein, some sleeping bags come in a “petite” or “women’s” size, which usually just means it’s about 6in shorter than a standard bag. This can be a great way to save on size and weight if you’re a smaller lady (if you’re a tall gal, there are also “tall” sleeping bags).
The warmth, insulation material, and shape/size of the sleeping bag all contribute to the overall weight, so it’s a bit of a tradeoff to find a comfortable bag that also doesn’t fill your entire backpack. My bag is 900-fill down, rated to -18C, and weighs around 1.2kg. Some people would probably consider this on the heavy side, but compared to other -18C bags, it’s actually really light, thanks to the down fill and shorter women’s size. If you don’t think you need a sleeping bag rated below freezing, you should be able to find something around 500-700g that will suit you for most trips.
Camp stove, mess kit & mountain food
Your mess kit (cup, plate, mugs, cutlery, etc) should be lightweight and compact—if I’m really tight on weight for a trip, I would cull everything but a spoon and just eat straight out of the dehydrated food pouch. Sea to Summit makes the absolute best range of camp “dishes” and cutlery.
As for dehydrated mountain food, you’ve probably heard people complain about lacklustre dinners and a miserable variety, but my parents discovered this company several years ago that does small-batch dehydrated food and it is actually incredible. I get them to ship it over to Sydney for me, and it’s worth every penny! Check it out: Packit Gourmet.
Choosing a backpacking stove
There are heaps of different stoves on the market these days, and for years I’ve been happily using an MSR Pocket Rocket with a basic pot (which also came with a mess kit, all of which conveniently fits inside the pot).. until I went on an 8-day solo trek and realised that the size and weight just aren’t practical unless I’m cooking for multiple people (or unless I’m actually cooking, instead of just rehydrating mountain food).
I’ve since invested in a Jetboil Zip, which is a super-compact integrated system designed to boil water quickly (but not much else). If you’re not doing any cooking and you just want to keep your pack as light as physically possible, this is the best option, and thankfully it’s pretty reasonable in price. If you want something in between these two stoves, my parents own the MSR Reactor, which is widely regarded by hikers as the single best backpacking stove on the market in terms of efficiency and size.
Aside from a good backpack, hiking boots are probably the most important gear you’ll buy for backpacking. It can be challenging to find the perfect pair, but if you understand what to look for and how to properly fit your boots, you should be able to hit the trail right away.
I’m intensely jealous of all the people who say they’ve “never had a blister”— I have literally gotten blisters under my toenails (which I didn’t even know was physically possible, but apparently it is), so I speak from a place of great experience and pain when I say that hiking socks are also really important. After losing two toenails on a single trip, I decided to explore every blister prevention option under the sun, and finally found these amazing toe sock hiking liners that have made a world of difference (in combination with a few other tricks). It might not be necessary for everyone, but if you even think you might be prone to blisters, I’d recommend always hiking with a liner and an outer wool sock, and definitely try these toe socks immediately. The same brand also makes toe socks in a low-cut version, and I absolutely love wearing these with running shoes for easier walks or day hikes.
Depending on the trip, it can also be helpful to have a pair of gaiters. These protect your boots (and feet) from heavy rain/ snow/ mud, protect your shins from scratchy bushes, and, in Australia, can serve the added bonus of providing a layer of protection against snake bites.
For some people, hiking in trail shoes (sort of a minimal, low-cut version of a hiking boot) is more than enough support, but for rougher terrain or longer hikes, you’ll want to look at boots that offer support around the ankle. I wore mid-height La Sportiva boots for many years, and they were great on flatter trails, easy to break in, and very lightweight— but I would occasionally roll my ankle even with the boots on. There are few worse places to injure yourself than in the middle of the wilderness or on the top of a mountain, and thankfully I was still able to limp through the rest of the Mt Fitz Roy trek with a swollen ankle, but the experience convinced me that I needed to invest in higher, stiffer backpacking boots that would offer better support. I am now obsessed with my Salomon Quest 4D 2 GTX boots (check out the newer model here) and think they are totally worth the tiny bit of extra bulk.
Most hiking boots are made with synthetic materials, particularly Goretex which offers reasonable breathability and water resistance, but some people actually prefer the additional support and quality of leather boots. Synthetic boots tend to be lighter and far easier to break in, so for the small amount of durability you sacrifice, it’s probably worth it.
It should come as no surprise that fit is the most critical aspect of a good pair of boots, so use these tips to find the perfect fit in a size and brand that suits you:
Try the boots on with a pair of wool socks and liner socks so you have a realistic idea of how they are going to fit. It can also help to try them on at the end of the day, since your feet might swell slightly from walking around.
It’s pretty typical to size up a half size or even a full size in hiking boots to make sure you’ve got adequate room. Some boot brands even come in quarter sizes (e.g. 7.75), which can be useful for getting just a smidge of extra room.
When the boots are laced, you also want to have 1-2cm of space in between your toes and the end of the shoe. I can’t stress this enough.. you will end up losing all of your toenails if you hike downhill in boots that are too small around the toe! A good way to check this without actually hiking downhill for an hour is just by kicking the toe of the boot into the ground— ideally, your toes won’t hit the front of the boot at all.
Depending on your feet and the boots, you might need to break in your hiking boots before taking them on a long trip. This can be a slow and agonising process in stiff boots, especially if you have, let’s say weird feet.. but it’s important to know the difference between boots that need to be broken in and boots that just don’t fit. A salesperson in an actual hiking shop can really help with this, but if you can wear them around the store or your house without feeling any hot spots or general discomfort, you will most likely be fine.
Shirts, fleeces & jackets
The secret to any great hiking outfit is layers and colours: layers, because the mountains don’t believe in following predictable weather patterns, and colours, because nothing looks better in your photos than a vibrant splash of colour! My dad is a firm believer in mountain fashion and he always taught me that brighter is better; if you don’t take a lot of photos, this might not mean anything to you, but if you want some nice photographs from your trip, do yourself a favour and ditch the black and grey.
You’ll want at least one of each layer to start out with:
Active shirt: I find that running shirts or general active t-shirts are more comfortable and cheaper than “hiking” shirts, and you may well already heave some of these; try: Lululemon Swiftly Tech
Lightweight long-sleeve: sweat-wicking long-sleeve that can be worn over a t-shirt or on its own; try: Arc’teryx Motus Crew
Lightweight fleece: thin fleece, preferably a quarter zip that can be layered over a shirt; try: Arc’teryx Rho Zip Neck
I didn’t include shorts and pants on my list of essential backpacking gear above because it’s likely that you already own everything you need to keep your lower half covered and comfortable on the trail. There are heaps of expensive (and, frankly, hideous) cargo/zip-off pants for sale at outdoor shops, but I am a firm believer in wearing running shorts and exercise tights for just about any hike!
Depending on conditions, I might supplement these with rain pants (you can also try rain pants designed for biking, they accomplish the exact same thing) and fleece pants, both of which layer nicely over a pair of tights. In the event that this truly is your first foray into outdoor activities and you don’t already own two dozen pairs of yoga tights and spandex shorts, here are my top picks: