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Professor Hike: Your Must-Have, Favorite, Can’t-Leave-Behind Gear

What's the one item you can't leave home without?
backpacking gear

It always goes with you. You never think, ‘This weighs too much,’ or ‘I don’t need it for this trip.’ You remember how it feels, its color, and where you keep it when you’re not on the trail. What am I describing? It’s your most treasured piece of hiking gear—the one item that’s traveled almost as many miles as you have. Not only do you always pack it, but you keep inventing new ways to use it.

This beloved gear could be a weathered hat, a dented cooking pot, a multi-tool that sliced you out of danger, or a faded pair of nylon shorts with a zillion pockets. Or a Marmot DriClime wind shell. That’s the item a NOLS hiking guide mentioned during a recent interview. I was questioning her about a misadventure on Mt. Washington that occurred ten years ago. She remembered the trip so well because it was the first time she wore her DriClime—a same shell she’s carried on every hike since. Listening to the guide describe her cherished jacket made me wonder if all hikers have a favorite piece of gear.

Yes, I think they do. You can hear the adoration in their voices when they talk about it. My next thought was, What makes a single possession more loved than all others? Is it longevity? Versatility? Security? Ability to create warmth and comfort? To find out, I decided to interview five veteran hikers to discover which item always goes with them—and why. Here’s what they told me.

Dave Pidgeon Gym Teacher’s Whistle
Freelance outdoors writer in Lancaster, PA
"I carry this whistle looped around my neck on a cord. It’s small and silvery and it’s the same whistle owned by every middle school gym teacher and football coach. Fortunately, I’ve never had to use it in a rescue situation. But I know international signal for distress—three short whistle blasts—and I keep it handy just in case, especially now that I’m doing more solo backpacking."

Elisabeth Kwak-Hefferan –  Patagonia Down Sweater
Former Backpacker magazine associate editor in Seattle, WA
"I’ve had my chocolate-brown down jacket for almost five years. I owned another one before that, but I think my roommate stole it. It’s the perfect warm-up layer for just about any terrain, activity, and season. Plus, I use it as a pillow while backpacking. My boyfriend Ted, however, complains that I wear it all the time. But I can’t help it—this down puffy is good for everything."

Kevin Jackson - Patagonia R1 Hoody
Managing Partner at The Southern Terrain, a luxury, adventure travel firm based in San Diego, CA.
"I’ve packed this bomber layer on every trip I’ve done for the last 4 or 5 years. It’s been with me to the top of Mt. Kilimanjaro, Mt. Whitney, and Aconcagua several times. It’s a black, long-sleeve, thin-layer fleece that packs down to nothing. When the zipper toggle broke off, I fashioned a new one out of duct tape. Patagonia will gladly repair the zipper if I send it back to them, but I don’t want to be without the jacket even for a few days. I wear it all the time. This August I’m leading a trip on Mt. Rainier and I’ve convinced all four of my clients to get R1 hoodies, too."

Kim Phillips - Stuff Sacks
Associate editor at Backpacker magazine in Boulder, CO
"I’m a super-organized person, so I bring about ten stuff sacks of all shapes, colors, and sizes on most hiking trips. One sack is for my clean clothes, another for my dirty clothes, and I use more sacks to organize my first aid kit and different meals. My camera goes in a wet-dry bag, and a sturdy sack does double-duty as a bear bag. I’ve even used stuff sacks as deadman anchors for my tent when the ground was too hard for stakes. Fortunately, my boyfriend Matt likes to pack his gear in dozens of stuff sacks, too."

Nathan Gehlert - Snowpeak Titanium Double-wall Mug
Ph.D. and avid backpacker in Washington, DC
"I’m an ultralighter, so I’m always reducing the amount of gear I take backpacking. But this Titanium mug is one item I can’t leave behind—even if it is a splurge in cost and weight. Sure, I could drink from a regular plastic water bottle. But this mug makes sipping my morning coffee or nightly decaf tea (and even soup!) much more enjoyable. Holding it in my hands forces me to slow down and savor my time in camp. This mug started and ended every day of my hikes of the John Muir Trail, and from the lowest spot in Death Valley to the summit of Mt. Whitney."

What about Prof. Hike? I follow Kevin and Elisabeth in that my favorite gear is a gray, long-sleeve, polypro base layer. It has a half-zip, a high collar, and the elastic cuffs that are still snug despite being rolled up my arms millions of times. I don’t know where I purchased it, but I’ve owned it for many years. What I do know is that it’s the perfect layer for all seasons. Its mid-weight thickness fits over t-shirts and under fleeces, and squishes into the smallest corners of my pack. I’ve even wrapped it around my hydration reservoir as extra insulation during a frigid weekend.

Of course, when Prof. Hike’s wife heard that this base layer was my favorite, she responded, “You mean that ratty, faded, smelly, gray long-underwear shirt?”

“Yes,” I replied. To me, however, it’s the best base layer on the planet.

What is your must-have, favorite, can’t-leave-behind gear? Post a comment to describe them, or send an email to profhike@backpacker.com. 

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