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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 profhike@backpacker.com. 

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ALL READERS COMMENTS

squidy
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

Anonymous
Jan 26, 2012

My ACU polartec fleece

John
Jan 14, 2012

My trusty fire steel!

Jim
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.

vghj
Oct 13, 2011

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Bud
Sep 23, 2011

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

Anonymous
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!

Sleeveless
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.

TLM80209
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).

Gary
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.

Lori
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!

meanolddog
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.

Anonymous
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.

VACAMOM
Sep 16, 2011

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

Devin
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.

John
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.



John
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.



Tom
Sep 13, 2011

My hat! It's wide brimmed and made of wicker. I wear it every day the sun is shining.

JP
Sep 13, 2011

Nylon water bag w/shower head, aluminum Soldier knife, Rando 360 stove and pot kit. Clean, safe, fed.

Frank Watson
Sep 12, 2011

it may not be a piece of "gear",
but I never go backpacking without.....COFFEE!!
that, and my 15 year old Wigwam stocking cap.
I have a large head, all of the cute new "beanies" don't fit. Sometimes old school is best! The best gear is whatever gets you out there. I have friends that have all of the cool new "stuff"....& then go out once a year, sad.

AT18Wheeler
Sep 11, 2011

I have a Nylon Water bag that makes treating water so easy taht I can't figure out why no one else on the trail is ever cxarrying one. One trip to the water source--it holds up to tow gallons and I can filter water right from the bag. Never hit the trail without it.

tim
Sep 11, 2011

Great web site. A lot of helpful info here. I'm sending it to several friends and additionally sharing in my<a href="http://www.happydragonhostel.com/ " title=" beijing backpackers hostel"> beijing backpackers hostel</a>. And obviously, thank you on your sweat!

Tracy
Sep 08, 2011

I can't do without my Mountrek Women's Casey Sandals, sooo comfortable!!!

dw
Sep 07, 2011

my buff

Joe
Sep 07, 2011

CRKT M21 or M16 (both are awesome) and Komperdell Poles. Never a second thought.

Fly16
Sep 06, 2011

My 1st generation Leatherman, until I passed it down to my boys. Now I take a Leatherman Fuse and have used it in two tours in Afghanistan. Don't leave home without it!

Bill
Sep 06, 2011

My knife- 35+ year old Victorinox Climber. An old friend sold it to me for $5 and used the $5 to buy us some beer. Cancer took my friend years ago, but my knife always reminds me of old friends and good times.

Steve
Sep 06, 2011

My SVEA123 cook stove. Ambience, and whatever happens out there, dinner will be served!

Nick
Sep 06, 2011

Small flask of sippin' bourbon & a square of dark chocolate - hits the spot every evening in the backcountry (or front country)!

Karen
Sep 06, 2011

No question, it's my hiking stick. A long piece of wood I found someplace and made mine. I put a nice leather grip and wrist strap on it, and other odds and ends from all over. It's panned for gold in the Black hills, been all over Yellowstone, and the Black hills, and the the Bighorns. It's been on the AT, and other places East as well.....it's been on every hike I have been on since I was about 15 and neither of us show any indication of stopping anytime soon.

Beth Kramer
Sep 06, 2011

On our last backpacking trip, we realized how great it would be to carry one of those windsheild reflective things that are made for cars.
They are really light weight, you can use it as a "counter top" when cooking on the ground, and it's a huge reflective surface if you ever get lost!

Larry
Sep 06, 2011

I always hike with my Tilley hat. It keeps the sun off my face and keeps the rain off during downpours. In the spring with a bug net it keeps the blank flies at bay. It is perfect for out West or the White Mountains in the East.

Craig Gardner, MA
Sep 06, 2011

I can't even think of going into the back country without my Outback Oven. I know, I know, it is heavy but I eat like a king. I'm a total back country gourmet and couldn't think of cooking on the trail without it.

Craig Gardner, MA
Sep 06, 2011

I can't even think of heading out to the back country without my Outback Oven, I know, I know, it's a lot of weight to bring but I eat like a king. I'm a total back country gourmet and love cooking exciting meals outdoors.

Tom
Sep 05, 2011

My Patagonia Dragonfly wind shirt.

Tom
Sep 05, 2011

My old Patagonia Dragonfly pullover wind shirt.

Dave
Sep 05, 2011

My backpacking stool. Every trip.

oak
Sep 02, 2011

newest edition is my gravity feed water filter..no more frozen hands and scraped knuckles. Love it. but I do have an old first layer long sleeve few from rei that is non negotiable

Brooks
Sep 02, 2011

A bandana i have owned for years and years. It has been with me on every backpacking trip and every vacation. Whenever I put it on, I feel like I can go forever.

Vincent
Sep 02, 2011

Would have to say my seal pup knife. It has been with me during Iraq, Afghanistan, my time in Alaska, California, Arizona, Idaho, Washington, and every other place I have been for a training or an adventure. I wont leave home without it.

Jeremie
Sep 02, 2011

My Benchmade 557. I got it as a gift when I graduated basic training with the army, and it's stayed with me ever since.

Jeremie
Sep 02, 2011

My Benchmade 557. I got it as a gift when I graduated basic training with the army, and it's stayed with me ever since.

B. A.
Sep 02, 2011

Three items: my ancient desert tan military boonie hat, Sierra Cup (carried an aluminum one for 25 years before they made it in titanium), and two white bandanas.

Ryan Lawrence
Sep 02, 2011

My buff! Great in all weather types and couldn't go backpacking without it!

Joe from CO
Sep 02, 2011

Spyderco Delica 4 w/combo edge. Starbucks Via coffee.

Rob
Sep 02, 2011

My Swiss Army Knife that my wife gave me the day we got married, 28 years ago!

Doug
Sep 02, 2011

"Beaver Tuned" hiking stick. found it early on in my section hikes across the U.P. of MI. Still have it and take it on every trip. It is getting shorter from wear :(

Eric
Sep 02, 2011

It has to be my Swiss army knife. I've been in love with these things since I was a kid, and I carry an older Victorinox Tinker model at all times in the woods. I've added a small loop of orange Perlon cord to make it more visible and easy to clip onto stuff. The beautiful economy of design makes it a joy to use, and its iconic shape is as close to a talisman as anything I'm ever likely to own.

C. Owen
Sep 02, 2011

Gerber Compact Sport multi-tool. It's been to Japan, Alaska, Iraq, Korea, Thailand, and all over the States with me. I use it every day, on the trail and at home.

James
Sep 02, 2011

I'm a psych tech in Colorado. My leatherman surge! It's all u need in just about any situation. I have used it to build a shelter when hunting & the rain starts falling. I have used it fishing, hiking, biking, yard work & camping! I don't leave home with out it! It can be a life saver!

James
Sep 02, 2011

My leatherman surge! It's all u need in just about any situation. I have used it to build a shelter when hunting & the rain starts falling. I have used it fishing, hiking, biking, yard work & camping! I don't leave home with out it!

Steve Sumner, Arkansas
Sep 02, 2011

I have an old, blaze orange, wicking material, long sleeve cycling jersey. Base or top layer, windblocker and weighs next to nothing.

Porter
Sep 02, 2011

my Hyperlite Mountain Gear Echo 1 ultralight shelter system. at 1lb 5 ounce it does it all and more. just finished the A/T with it and it is awesome

MB
Sep 01, 2011

Hennessey Hammock and Gosssamer pack for me. Jetboil for sure.

DW
Sep 01, 2011

My journal!

Laura
Aug 31, 2011

How is JetBoil possibly not on this list? Camp stove/bowl/mug/miracle all in one! It's like my food security blanket.

Su
Aug 31, 2011

I LOVE my thin Mountain Hardwear poly-wool top. It dries fast, wicks moisture, and is cute. I wear it all four seasons over a sports tank and under my insulating layer. Perfect for cool spring and fall hikes. I saw the same shirt style in a different color 6 months after I bought the first one. Didn't hesitate to buy a second one.

Karen Vaughan
Aug 31, 2011

It's my Mountain Hardwear Transition zip T. I got it for less than half price in a closing down sale about 6 years ago and it's been on every multi-day hike or dayhike since. It's perfect as a first layer in cool conditions (windproof, warm, and breathable) and great as a 2nd layer in cold conditions or a nighttime layer in summer. Why on earth did they stop making these?

MCD
Aug 30, 2011

I don't get the mug, regardless of the rationalization...

DJ
Aug 30, 2011

My ENO hammock.

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