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Top 10 Most Essential Pieces of Backpacking Gear That Get Overlooked

Updated on May 31, 2013

Got everything?

"Why didn't I bring a (insert needed item here)?"

Everybody from the veteran hiker to the aspiring rookie trekker knows you will probably need a backpack, tent, sleeping bag, and good boots. This list is not for that. This list covers those items you may not think you need, or didn't even know about, or thought you could get away with not packing them to save weight. But trust me when I tell you; the gear on this list is absolutely essential and will make your next outing be a more enjoyable and safer trip.

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Here We Go...

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#10: Good Socks beat Hard Knocks

It blows my mind when people go out and spend $200 on a pair of incredible hiking boots and then grab whatever cotton tube socks they have in their top drawer to go backpacking! You're just shooting yourself in the foot (pardon the pun) when you don't buy the proper socks for trekking.

If you can afford $200 boots, then spring for 3 pairs of $20 socks. If you're like some of us that have to save for the boots, then don't stop saving until you can afford the right socks to go with them. I use the Fox River Hiking sock because it gives me a good compromise between affordability and function. However; Thorlo, Wigwam, and Smart Wool all make great socks.

The reason behind using good socks is simple. You're going to be walking all day with a lot of gear on your back. Your feet are going to sweat more than usual and your feet are going to swell more than usual. Hiking socks wick away moisture and they keep your foot stable inside the boot.

And while we are on the subject of feet.....

Don't leave home without them....!


#9: ...Lash a pair of Flip Flops on your pack

You can thank me later for this one! Folks, your feet WILL swell and when you get to camp and you're still walking around in those boots; they WILL hurt. Step out of your boots and pop on a pair of flip flops or light sandals and you will be in heaven! Not only are they more comfortable, they will allow room for your swollen feet and air them out.

If you're concerned with weight, find a pair of the foam type sandals like Crocs. I sometimes use a pair of foam over the foot sandals that I bought at Wal-Mart for a dollar and I've had them for 5 years. When I get up the next morning to head out again, I put a carabiner around the heel loop and attach them to my pack or shove them in the top pouch.

So, don't forget them on your next trip and when you speak of me...speak well.

It worked for NASA....let it work for you!


#8: The "Space" Blanket...There is a God and He loves you!

I can't even tell you how priceless a "Space" Blanket is in your backpacking inventory. When you purchase one of these, make sure to get the one that is space blanket on one side and tarpaulin on the other. They usually run at about $12. I've been carrying one on every trip since I was 12. I'm 38 now and I swear by this piece of gear.

You can use them at night by the fire on a cold night as a convection heater. You can fold it into a square, tarpaulin side out, and use it as a table top to lay out lunch or gear. You can put it on your tent floor at night, shiny side up, to transfer your body heat back into your body while your all cozy down in your bag. I'm sure there are many other uses but the fact remains, the "Space" Blanket is a "must have" item.

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Because sometimes it's painful...


#7: Nothing like a little IB to get you back to OK!

Like the boots, people go out buy these $50- $100 first aid kits that can perform surgery on a sucking chest wound or reroute a satellite, but cannot help you with a common headache or some back pain. It's a $4 difference between talking and laughing on the trail or just being downright miserable.

And as you get older, that $4 miracle can be a lifesaver after you get to camp each day, throw off the pack, change into your flip flops, and get dinner going. Without it, you'll just want to crash because of the pain, which leaves you malnourished for the next day's journey.

If you want to be snotty about it, get the upper end Motrin version; but Wal-Mart has a 2-pack for $4. Headaches, neck pain, back pain, annoying trail partners all go away with a little IB. It also wouldn't hurt if you're drinking enough water!

4 Legs are Better than 2


#6: Time to work on your pole routine!

My buddy Tony Stillwell has been using Trekking Poles for years. He's a "through hiker" of the AT (Appalachian Trail) and an accomplished fitness professional. I used to laugh when he carried these things on trips. Yeah, I always had a "walking stick" but that was mainly out of tradition not function. I always thought people looked funny using the poles. He kept telling me, "you gotta try these things sometime, they really help".

20 years later, I purchased my first set of trekking poles and I've come to a realization. Both Tony and the others weren't funny at all....they were smart. Trekking Poles will totally change the way you backpack. They provide leverage when you need that extra foot, they give outstanding support to your knees going downhill, and they just make walking with a pack on your back easier.

Just to prove the old adage of "what goes around, comes around"....I was on a trip recently and we stopped to take a break and catch our wind and there were some young trekkers stopped also. One kid, probably 15 or 16, looked over at my poles and just sort of laughed under his breath. As we moved off, I chuckled and thought to myself "you'll see one day'll see".

Accept NO Substitute!


#5: A Hat with Character!

This might seem like a "duh" inclusion for most people. Some folks, myself included, don't leave the house without a hat. But this hat is different. You see, for most items on this list I've mentioned items that have different brands and prices to give you a choice as a consumer. But for the hat, there is only one choice. There is only one hat out there that will keep the rain from going down your back, provide great protection from the sun, makes a great makeshift gear attic, and still allows you to look cool and classy all at the same time.

Outdoor Research's Seattle Sombrero is the only choice for a great backpacking hat. It comes in many different colors, is lightweight, ridiculously packable, and the only hat that provides just as much function as it does class. The sombrero is waterproof and has velcro fasteners on the side so you can "pin up" the sides if you want to go all "Aussie Bushman" out there.

Like Tony and his poles, I've been using various versions of the Seattle Sombrero since '94. Trust me when I tell you; you'll be looking for ways to wear this hat in your daily life.

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We are made up of so many layers!


#4: OMG, Like, What Am I Gonna Wear?

Okay, like the boots and the first aid kits, you see people all the time buy the most expensive North Face jacket they can find; only to take it off and find out all they have on underneath is the latest Led Zeppelin shirt from Hot Topic.

That being said, the next gear on my list is layered clothing. This doesn't have to be that expensive to be functional. You can go all North Face, Mountain Hardware, and Patagonia if you want. You can also do what I do and pick out which layer is the most important to you and go budget on the rest. Basically, you need a shirt, a fleece, a rain shell, and/or a cold weather shell.

For me, I'm basically a human heat generator. I usually wear a dry fit shirt, a "bear shirt" polar fleece jacket, and a lightweight rain shell year round. Experiment, tweak, and discover what layers are appropriate for you, but never take the "all or nothing" approach or you may find yourself done for and miserable.

You gotta eat sometime!


#3: Make sure you gotta pot to pi...err I mean....cook in!

Again, this may seem like an obvious inclusion to most people, but it would surprise you how many people forgo packing enough cooking gear. I've seen people complete week long trips on granola bars, beef jerky, and candy. I'm not saying the occasional granola bar or jerky is bad; I'm just saying there's no substitute for a hot meal.

That is why I say to make sure at the very least that you pack a good sturdy pot. With a good pot, you can boil water for rehydrating meals, make soup or beans, use as a food container to eat from, and prep water for some personal hygeine. MSR, GSI, and Snow Peak all make great kits with the backpacker in mind.

Let there be light.....on my head!


#2: The Headlamp

There is no greater camping invention for the late hours than the headlamp. Petzl was one of the first to pioneer this technology, but since then, many other companies have produced some great lights. I can't stress enough how efficient you become at night using a headlamp. It does for camping/trekking what Bluetooth has done for communication; given us a hands-free option for lighting.

Whether your prepping a late night meal, or pitching a tent because you ran late on the trail, or trying to remove your contact lenses inside your tent; the headlamp is a miraculous piece of equipment. Due to it's design, it can quickly be lashed onto your pack for quick access, or lent to friend who is extremely envious of this gem of a purchase.

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And now...the #1 piece of gear you should never be without...


#1: a Ziploc bag of Dryer Lint

Yes, you read it right. No, you're not imagining you read it. I said a Ziploc Bag of dryer lint. Before each trip, clean out your lint trap and put it into a quart size bag and pack it. Lint is one of the best fire starters on the planet.

My dad convinced me of this when I was a ten year old boy scout and in the past 28 years, Lint has never failed me when starting a fire. It doesn't matter if it's pouring the rain, had been raining, or snowing; once the lint gets lit, the wood will follow. And if you pair your bag of Dryer Lint with a bag of whittled wood shavings, you'll be the bonfire hero every night. And if you also happen to be a good camp cook in addition to your lint and wood shavings, I promise you'll never get kicked off of the island.

So backpackers and Survivor contestants alike, take heed to what I'm saying and pack that Lint always!


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    • profile image


      12 months ago

      I see what you did there with the Bull Durham line. Well played, good sir. Well played.

    • profile image


      20 months ago

      I've been camping since I was a kid, but new to backpacking. So, thanks for the great list! Our regular camping group gathers lint throughout the year and stuffs toilet paper rolls as full as we can with the lint. This makes the lint a bit denser and the roll can be tossed under your starter wood. It's a little scary how flammable lint is!

    • profile image


      2 years ago

      Birch bark over dryer lint, in New England anyway. It is also light enough to carry some strips if you can't find along the trail, and burns so hot it will work best in wet conditions.

    • profile image


      2 years ago

      Instead of whittled wood shavings add a small pencil sharpener then you get all the wood shavings you need and it's super light weight.

    • profile image


      2 years ago

      Agree with Mr Smee, using wax makes the firestarters even better. Buy a block of paraffin wax in the canning section of a grocery store or Walmart, and melt it in a sauce pan on the stove over a low flame. Pour over dryer lint as Mr Smee's method, or do what I do: use a fork to dip some cotton balls and swirl to coat, then slide off onto parchment paper to cool. When cooled, pop a few in a baggie with a lighter. When making a fire, just pinch and pull in one spot to pull out some cotton threads to make a wick. One should do you, and it will burn a long time!

    • profile image

      Mr Smee 

      2 years ago

      I've been working with dryer lint for years it's amazing... I put some in a cardboard egg carton covered with candle wax...light the end...last time I had one burn for 17 minutes... Plenty of time to get a good fire going

    • profile image


      2 years ago

      Nothing against your dryer lint, but give me a half a dozen natural cotton balls slathered in Vaseline. A great fire starter even in the rain, plus good to smear on chapped lips, cheeks, small scratches or heel blister.

    • profile image


      2 years ago

      Bug spray. Saw. Ax. Fire irons. Birch bark (works better for me). Canoe (if it is a lake or river trip). Dry bag. Tarp and straps to roll all your clothing and small belongings into your sleeping bag then put into your dry bag. Map. Rain gear. MATCHES....I used to be a Camp Wabun camper/camp counselor up in the Lake Temagami region of Ontario. Best times of my life!

    • profile image


      2 years ago

      Dont forget empty the pencil sharpener, very good and easy tinder

    • profile image

      Mama T 

      3 years ago

      Thanks for the great list. I too am a big fan of dryer lint and wood shavings. I got laughed at last weekend in VT until my camp mates saw how quickly I got my fire going.

      Have you used the BAFX trekking poles? A friend was using a cheaper pair of Kelty poles last weekend and they failed their first time out. He's a beginner so looking for inexpensive but will do the job until he knows if he's a hiker or not.

    • Will Jason profile imageAUTHOR

      Will Jason 

      5 years ago from Chattanooga, Tennessee

      Thank you Availiasvision for the outstanding comments. I agree with you on all counts. And man what i wouldn't do for a job in the industry you lucky guy you...

      And i'm with you on keeping people safe. i tell folks all of the time that gear frustrations, lack of proper planning, and any kind of pain during a trip can make any trip misery instead of fulfilling.

    • Availiasvision profile image

      Jennifer Arnett 

      5 years ago from California

      Great choices of gear! Space blankets really are a gift to humanity. You can use them as a ground sheet, for emergency warmth, to haul items (or injured people with the larger stronger ones), create a shelter, use as a backup rain poncho, and as a reflective distress signal.

      The Optimus Weekend cook set is one of the best I have seen on the market. It is super lightweight and I love how the burner folds up into the pots. I especially love how the lid can be used as a drinking cup or frying pan.

      Keep spreading the word on proper layering systems. I work in the outdoor industry and see too many people wearing cotton up in the mountains. A good jacket is priceless in extreme conditions but ineffective when you're staying wet from the inside.

      If these products and the knowledge we present keeps people safe and having a good time out in the wild, then we've done our job. Great Hub.

    • Will Jason profile imageAUTHOR

      Will Jason 

      5 years ago from Chattanooga, Tennessee

      glad i could help with the lint Joy. appreciate the comment. yeah you're right, the poles really help

    • Joy M profile image

      Joy M 

      5 years ago from Sumner, Washington

      I've never tried the drier lint - will have to give that a try. You are definitely right about the trekking poles though - tried them once and immediately thought, "I've got to get me a pair of these!"


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