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Backpacker Magazine – Online Exclusive

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

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

by: Jason Stevenson, author of The Complete Idiot's Guide to Backpacking and Hiking

backpacking gear
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 

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Reader Rating: Star Star Star Star Star


Star Star Star Star Star
Jul 29, 2013

Extra socks. I hike mostly in sandals, but I've run into unexpected snow on the trail tooooo many times, and finally decided I was never going to put up with frozen toes again. I always take some big thick synthetic socks on day hikes, they might get wet but they still keep me warm. And if I'm wearing boots and my original socks get wet it's always nice to have spares.

Jeff Dillavou
Mar 30, 2012

Bandana - always have it tied around my neck, I have made hat, sling, hauled water in it from a pit, it even saved my life when I gashed my arm open climbing it was right there to tie off the wound. - then of course my knife and lighter - but they go everywhere with me

Jan 26, 2012

My ACU polartec fleece

Jan 14, 2012

My trusty fire steel!

Dec 31, 2011

My bamboo hiking staff. It' been on every trip but one since the day I cut it from a bamboo patch back in the early 70's. It is an old friend that has supported me and has shared many of the most valued experiences of my life. Now, no matter where I am physically, all I need do is pick up my bamboo staff and I am immediately standing on a mountain trail enjoying a view that brings tears of joy to my eyes.

Oct 13, 2011

Hi,good luck for you!
===== ========
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Nike air max shox dunk AF1 $30--39;
Ed Hardy AF JUICY POLO Bikini $20;
Handbags (Coach lv fendi d&g) $30
T shirts (Polo ,edhardy,lacoste) $15 Rolex: $99
Jean(True Religion,edhardy,coogi) $30
Sun glasses (Oakey,coach,gucci,Armaini) $15
New era cap $15
Bikini (Ed hardy,polo) $20
===== ========
Accept westernunion,moneygram,bank transfer,credit card.

Sep 23, 2011

Nothing makes my hike better than sharing it with the love of my life, Mary Jane.

Sep 21, 2011

The thing that I never, ever hike without... Body Glide. I thought long and hard about my trekking poles, my trusty multi-tool that I carry daily, and a couple of other pieces of gear, but the Glide won out. Man, this is the best stuff ever made to keep away blisters and chafing. Can't hike without it!

Sep 20, 2011

My poles. I have sworn by Leki poles even on my AT thru hike but now use black diamond poles in the winter because of their locking device that does not slip like the leki's do in the winter.

Sep 19, 2011

Say what you will, but I will leave everything else behind, including my first aid kit, but I will never ever leave behind my cell phone (with spare battery, I intend to get a small solar charger soon). I've heard too many stories where lives were saved by someone with a cell phone. No reception you say? Which is closer...a mountain ridge or peak where you may get reception, or the hike all the way back to civilization. I've even heard of a case where a couple of guys were found by search & rescue by the personal location program found in most newer cell phones, even though they weren't able to call for help (be sure to turn on at the trailhead).

Sep 18, 2011

I have these gators made of spandex that keeps the trail debris from working its way through my hiking socks. I've had them for about 10 years and they keep doing their job where ever I hike.

Sep 17, 2011

I have a Sierra Design windstopper jacket I bought over 10 years ago. I take it hiking, biking, camping, cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, etc. I love this jacket! It is light weight, water repellent, wind resistant, air hole zippers on the sides and is an awesome seafoam green color with black sides. I live in South Dakota and it gets pretty cold here in the winters. It's the only jacket I wear. Friends have even offered to buy me a 'warmer' coat. A few years ago I was sent to Hartley, IA, to draw up engineering plans for the company I worked for and I showed up wearing this light jacket. The first thing they said was that I would need a winter coat. I remember looking down thinking, wow, I hadn't even thought about bringing a different coat! The temperature got to 25 degrees below zero, (yes, I said 'below') without the wind chill. I had my dogs with me which I took on walks twice or more each day. I was there for a month and kept plenty warm.
Some friends and I were looking at pictures from 5 years ago where we were snowshoeing and someone mentioned I had the same jacket on as I did that same day. Yep! It is the jacket I still wear year 'round. It is light, easy to pack and warm if I need it. Love it! Don't leave home without it!

Sep 17, 2011

Topo Map

Tom in Idaho
Sep 16, 2011

Mountain Hardwear Monkey Phur. Fabulous, lightweight insulating layer. I'm warmer even before I'm done zipping it up.

Eric Nelson
Sep 16, 2011

Obviously, there are some things that are not only must-haves but must-not-forget like the right sleeping bag or shell or Merino wool socks. However, the one thing that I will always bring that may not be essential is my BD LED/Xenon headlamp. It's a bit heavy, but man is it so useful. Flashlights are stupid. I rarely use the Xenon bulb, but when I need it the light distance is awesome. And if I cannot read at night, I have a hard time going to sleep. It's a ritual.

Sep 16, 2011

A hat I've had for twenty years it's a Boston red socks hat. At one point it was blue... Now it's a sunfaded purple color it's got tears and stains but I once traveled 5 hours back to where I had left it once.

Sep 16, 2011

Fingerless ragg wool gloves with foldover mitten top... have taken them on every hike...

Sep 16, 2011

My Canon DSLR. My DSLR is big and heavy, but I have never gone on a hike or climb without it. It has been to the summit of Mount Rainier and on long backpacks

traildogg, Ontario, Can.
Sep 16, 2011

Every time I look at my gear to see what I can eliminate to save wait I always put my Thermarest camp chair kit back in. I just can't bring myself to part with that one.

Sep 16, 2011

My must have is a Leatherman Micra. Does so many different things, and of course my bandana. Like the Micra, it is a multi-use piece of equipment.

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