Women generally fall into two camps when it comes to gear: Loving it or feeling completely overwhelmed by it.
Usually the former comes before the latter. It's like the five stages of grief, only with more waterproofing and straps.
My first backpacking trip, I made a ton of mistakes, like forgetting to check my tent poles and not bringing a map ("I'll just use my phone!"). I got lost and wore too-tight hiking boots so my feet had horrible blisters.
But I still had an amazing, strength-building experience that I'll never forget.
Seven years after that first trip, a whole corner of my basement is filled with plastic tubs filled with gear. It's become sort of an addiction. I used to get giddy over a pair of great heels. Now? I get giddy over a *sleeping pad designed for side sleepers or *tent twinkle lights.
The bad news for women new to backpacking is that gear can be expensive. Really expensive. Tents, sleeping bags, backpacks and more all can cost hundreds and even thousands of dollars.
But the good news is twofold: First, you don't need a bunch of stuff to get started, and second, you don't need to spend a ton of money. There are plenty of cheap options available if you're still not sure if backpacking is your thing (though I totally hope it's your thing)
So lace up your boots, grab an extra Nalgene bottle of water — I'm going to give you EVERYTHING you need to know to go backpacking — often for not much money. And for those of you just starting out (who also happen to love shopping), you may have just met your next true love — or worst enemy: gear.
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Backpacking for Women: Gear Essentials
Here are all the essential gear you HAVE to have for backpacking. (Later in this post I go into a few luxury items you might want to consider once you get a little more experienced and decide, like so many of us, that you love being out in the woods and want to do it every chance you get.)
A lightweight tent will protect you from the elements and allow you to get a good night’s sleep. Some hardcore backpackers use a hammock made especially for sleeping (personally I love sleeping off the ground — but kinda hate the lack of privacy), or a few hardcore backpackers prefer basically a tarp or what’s called a bivvy sack.
If you’re new to backpacking, I suggest borrowing or renting a tent to gauge your preferences before you shell out the money for a new tent. Or, if you’re just going out for a night or two to see if you even like backpacking, just bring whatever you’ve already got (assuming it's not a four person tent or bigger).
What to look for in a backpacking tent
For purely weight reasons, you’ll want either the smallest “regular” tent you can find (1-2 person), or even better, a tent that is specific to backpacking — they are lighter than regular "car camping" tents and come in sizes based on the number of people they can hold. Manufacturers tend to name their tents with a number (i.e. the Nemo Kunai 2P or the Alps Zephr 3).
Other factors you might want to consider include how easy it is to set up, and possibly any bells and whistles you might want (for example, some tents use your *trekking poles as support, making them really light).
When I first started, I used a *Eureka! Solitaire — a very affordable, lightweight option, but ultimately I felt a bit King Tut like sleeping in a sarcophagus, so I graduated to *Big Agnes Scout UL 2 Person Tent I bought at our local second-hand gear shop (don't you wish you had one of these near you?). I love the tent for its simplicity, but not so much for it's breathability.
Honestly, because I'm cheap I still don't have a backpacking tent I just love — I mostly use either the aforementioned Big Agnes tent, my backpacking hammock with a tarp, or my husband"s old REI 2-person tent which is 20 years old.
Ready to spend more?
(Skip this section if you're looking to hike affordable, because these tents are definitely on the pricier side — i.e. $300+). Here are a few recommendations from my backpacking besties:
*NOTE: With a backpacking tent usually you can count on the tent holding only as many people as it says — with NO room for gear. This is why all the women above have 2P tents, so they can fit their gear without feeling crowded. When my husband and I go backpacking (often with our dog), we bring our 3 person tent so we can all sleep comfortably with our gear inside the tent.
How much should my tent weigh?
A good rule of thumb is to keep the weight to less than three pounds per person — and anything less than that is fantastic, though keep in mind that your lower-weight tents are going to be noticeably less roomy. With a solo tent, it’s good to keep the weight to 2-3 pounds. Two people backpacking tents are usually around 3-5 pounds (but can go as high as 6 and as low a 1 pound).
How much should I pay for a backpacking tent?
You can get away with paying around $100 for a good two-person tent, or upwards of $2,000 for an all-weather, extremely light and technical tent.
How tough should my tent be?
Most backpackers, especially those who only go once or twice a year, only need a three season tent which will be sufficient to keep you warm and dry from spring until fall. Of course there are various options depending on the climate where you’re traveling — for instance, it’s nice to have a rainfly you can remove to look up at the stars if you’re camping someplace dry.
NOTE: Some people think they need to waterproof their new tent with special sprays — be forewarned, it’s not necessary and may even damage your tent. Also, know that in order to keep you dry INSIDE the tent, your tent needs to have some breathability. Otherwise the condensation gets trapped inside and you wake up soaked in your own breath/sweat (GROSS). Some people like to *waterproof the seams of their tents, especially if the tent is getting worn, but for most new tents it’s not necessary.
Do I need a tent footprint?
A footprint is a ground cloth that’s usually custom-cut to the size of your tent. It’s supposed to protect your floor from rips and tears.
My personal opinion? Leave ‘em at home. They just take up space in your backpack and most tents are plenty durable if you pick the right spot to set them up.
LADY TIP: ALWAYS PRACTICE SETTING UP YOUR TENT AT HOME BEFORE YOU HEAD OUT.
Miscellaneous tent tips:
Your Backpacking Sleeping Bag: A Woman's Best Friend
Even in very warm temperatures, you’re going to need a sleeping bag. Most outdoor environments get significantly cooler at night (the only exception to this might be if you’re literally hiking in the jungle) and besides that, you’re going to want someplace comfortable to bed down.
On that note, the $30 cheap sleeping bag you bought at the Dollar General will only do the trick if it’s very mild outside — and it’s going to add a ton of weight and bulk to your pack. If you just don’t have the money (or the friends) to buy or borrow something better, it will do. Like most gear, it’s always a balance between what you want to spend and what you’re willing to bear.
Three considerations when buying a backpacking sleeping bag:
If you do decide to spend some money on a sleeping bag, there are three things you need to consider: temperature, weight and materials.
With temperature, often the bag has its temperature right in the name, just like tents (i.e. the *Marmot Trestles 15). Most of us won’t be camping in weather colder than 50 degrees, so a 30 degree bag should suit you fine.
A option to increase the warmth of your sleeping bag is to add a *sleeping bag liner to your pack. These usually add another ten degrees of warmth to your sleeping bag, but they’re also nice if it’s going to be really hot and you just want something lightweight to sleep in.
Weight is a big deal with sleeping bags because they can be the heaviest thing in your pack (not to mention it usually takes up the most space). It’s a tradeoff between being comfortable at night versus being comfortable on the trail.
When I went July backpacking on Isle Royale — an island that’s as about far north in the continental U.S. that you can get — I brought my warmest sleeping bag because it also happened to be my lightest (read: expensive). The first couple nights it was hot (or hot for Isle Royale) which was around 60 degrees at night. I simply slept with the bag unzipped in minimal clothes (see the next section on clothing about what to bring to sleep in).
The rest of the nights when the temperature was closer to 45 degrees, I was very comfortable inside my sleeping bag, and in fact some of my favorite memories from the trip are waking up, snug and cozy in my sleeping bag, and listening to the wolves howl (!!).
The final thing to consider is the type of insulation you want: down, synthetic or water-repellent down. Insulation choice also is a financial choice, since down (goose or duck) sleeping bags, while very lightweight and compressible, are considerably more pricey. They also are ruined if they get wet, so you need to consider how well you plan to take care of your gear. Synthetic fills do better in damp, cold weather, but they’re heavier and bulkier. The new water-resistant down fills are great, but pricey.
Women's Backpacks: What You Need, What You Don't
The operative word in backpacking is, of course, backpack. So of course you need something to carry all of your stuff, and your library totebag won't cut it. You’ll need something with a ton of capacity. Here are your biggest considerations when choosing a backpack:
Backpack capacities are usually measured in liters. If you’re going cold weather camping you’re going to need more space, and if you’re into ultralight backpacking you’ll need less.
For beginners going out for 1-3 days, a 35-50 liter pack should work fine (I see the *Osprey Aura AG 50 Women's backpack all the time on the trail), or try the *AmazonBasics Internal Frame Hiking Backpack with Rainfly if you’re looking for something smaller and cheaper.
Smaller backpacks force you to be more choosy about what you bring with you — which can be a good thing or a bad thing, depending on your personality and the weight/bulkiness of the rest of your gear.
If you’re going for 3-5 days, a 50-80 liter pack will suit your needs better (personally I love my *Gregory 60L, which has a really nice suspension system). In fact, I use my 60-liter pack for most trips, even the shorter ones, because I have a system down for how I organize the pack.
If you're going out longer, then you'll likely need something bigger — but I don't recommend going out for longer than 5 days as a first-time backpacker unless you go with an experienced backpacker who you trust and that can help make sure you have the right gear.
Fitting your backpack
Now that you know the size, it’s time to make sure you have a good fit. A lot of women I know prefer women-specific packs, since they tend to fit our shorter torsos and wider hips better. Personally, I don't notice a difference between men's and women's packs (#pinkwashing), but most of my backpacking friends disagree.
For me, the most important thing is for the pack to sit comfortably on my hips — a full 80% of the weight of your pack should rest on your hips. I had one backpack that, despite cinching it as tight as I could on the waist belt, still wasn’t tight enough (and I’m not exactly Kate Moss when it comes to waist size, either). That pack put a lot of pressure on my back, which let’s face it, isn’t as sturdy as it used to be.
Also, keep in mind that torso length is different from overall height. Many packs have options to adjust the tension for torso length, which I’ve found to not be all that useful, but maybe you will.
Other adjustable parts of the backpack include the “load lifter” straps located at the top of the shoulder straps, which ideally you’d like to form a 45 degree angle between the pack and the straps. There’s a sweet spot with these, and you just have to experiment with how they feel the most comfortable, where they keep the pack from pulling too far away from your body, which adds extra stress to your lower back.
The chest strap that goes across your sternum adds a small layer of stability. PRO TIP: I find the chest strap most useful for reducing swelling in my fingers while I’m hiking. I hook my fingers facing in on my chest strap and let my elbows hang, which keeps my fingers from looking like sausages at the end of the day.
Backpacking Frame Types
Every once in awhile out on the trail you see some old timer — or some way over-geared dude — carrying an external frame backpack. They look like something your grandfather might have used. Apparently these packs are good if you’re portaging a canoe or kayak, or really anything else big and awkward.
But Internal frame backpacks are the industry standard. They have a built-in frame that hugs your body and keeps you stable on uneven trails, and often is designed to transfer more weight to your hips.
Frameless backpacks are basically for ultralighters or superheroes. They’re awkward and don’t offer much support, but I guess they do save on weight.
Packing Your Backpack
Today’s backpacks have a million different straps and compartments, so it can be hard to keep everything organized and accessible. However, if you can follow your mother’s rule of “A place for everything and everything in its place,” you’ll find yourself in a much more Zen place when unpacking after a hard day’s hike or trying to find your raincoat when it starts pouring.
Again, you’ll have to experiment with which features are important to you and how you want to organize your pack. It can be a bit of an art form, balancing comfort and access.
Backpacking Gear: Non-Essential Items
There are some pieces of equipment that aren’t required per-se, but will make your trip a whole lot more comfortable. If you're going backpacking, you should probably take these things with you (though technically, you could do without these items).
I’m a bit of a nerd when it comes to backpacking food and cooking. Personally, I have three stoves I use, depending on the situation (I did say that backpacking gear was addictive, didn't I?). Since many backpacking locations don’t allow you to build a campfire (this always surprises my non-backpacking friends), a stove is a must. And honestly, you don’t want to cook your food over an open fire — it’s almost always way too much work and has unappetizing results.
Luckily, today’s backpacking stoves are light and easy to use. (My husband recently pulled out his 20-year-old backpacking stove, and the contraption looked like it could’ve been used on the Space Shuttle, it had so many levers and cranks and components. Plus the fuel canister was almost as big as my head.)
Generally speaking, there are two categories of backpacking stove: canister fuel and liquid fuel, though the proliferation of outdoors-related startups have created a variety of alternative fuel stoves.
How to use a backpacking stove
Each stove is different, so make sure you read the directions and try it out at least once before you hit the trail. The canister stoves tend to have a device that basically screws into the canister, and lets you adjust the flame with a small knob on the side.
Once you’ve got the stove component screwed into the canister, turn the knob that regulates the fuel and use a lighter to light the gas. This is something that takes a little bit of practice; many women feel like they’re going to light themselves on fire, but rest assured you just need to be a little quick to pull your hand away as soon as it lights.
Now that you’ve got the flame (make sure you have your water or food ready to go in the pot before you light your stove so you don’t waste fuel), you then set your pot on top and let it cook. Canister stoves tend to boil water the fastest, but they also tend to be very touchy when it comes to simmering.
My favorite stove is my *Jetboil, which isn’t cheap, but it’s so reliable and easy to use that it’s one of my favorite pieces of gear. It works in wet weather, you can add a variety of extra accessories, like a *coffee press or a *skillet and it packs down pretty light. Plus its insulated cook pot means I don’t accidentally burn myself on the pot (though I do have to closely watch the pot because water boils in it fast).
If you’re looking for something smaller and lighter, the *MSR PocketRocket Stove is a good option, though then you need to get a separate pot. I've got one and it's always been very reliable. If you’re backpacking in really cold or windy weather, you may want to consider a windbreak so that you don’t waste too much of your fuel when it blows away in the wind.
I also have a *BioLite CampStove, which is kinda fun because you can charge your phone with it, but also a pain because you have to keep it going with small sticks (but it can also be nice because you don’t have to carry fuel canisters). So if you’re backpacking with a BioLite and you think it might rain, gather your fuel beforehand and store it so that you have something dry to burn.
How much stove fuel should I bring?
I find that store clerks always overestimate how much fuel you need to bring. Yes, it would suck to run out of fuel on the trail, but today’s stoves are very efficient and depending on the weather conditions and how long you need to boil your food and/or water, you probably won’t be using all that much fuel. A good rule of thumb is that, generally speaking, one 8 ounce canister of fuel can heat 60 cups of water. Ultimately, fuel consumption is something that you’ll just need to try to figure out through trial and error.
Final Stove Tips
toI would never go backpacking without a sleeping pad, unless maybe the zombies were attacking. Sleeping pads not only add comfort to your trip — getting a decent night's sleep is the difference between hating backpacking and loving it — it keeps you from freezing your ass off. The ground will suck all the warmth out of you and you'll hate nature and yourself within minutes of lying down.
For most women, I recommend buying the best sleeping pad you can afford.
I'm a side-sleeper, so I need my sleeping pads to accommodate the fact that there's a lot of pressure on my shoulders & hips. I have three pads that I use for varying situations:
Backpacking Utensils & Dishes
This is another area that heavily depends on personal preference. I hate doing dishes and cleaning up on the trail, not only because I’m usually dead tired, but also because throwing out food, even traces of it, usually means a higher likelihood of attracting unwanted wildlife visitors. This means I have to put more work into food prep while still at home, but I’m ok with that. Others just want to throw some instant potatoes or ramen in their pack and head outdoors.
You can put your cookset together in one of two ways: Buy a prepackaged set of cookware that usually nests together well, or cobble together your own cookset, which has the advantage of being customized to your own needs (plus it’s cheaper).
Cooksets are made of all different kinds of materials. Aluminum is cheap and strong (enough), whereas titanium is light and incredibly strong. Depending on the cookware, silicon is also an option. Many utensils are made of heat-resistant plastic, which in most cases is fine, though I’ve had more than one “camping” spork break on me when I was stirring a thicker-than-usual stew.
I have a cheap cookset I bought at a local big box store, which fits inside itself and has collapsible, heat resistant handles. But frankly, I don’t bring it on many trips anymore because I do all my meals using the freezer bag method. I simply boil my water in the JetBoil, then pour it into the bag and wait for the meal to cook.
I also like to bring a mug for my coffee and occasionally soup. I love my aluminum Deschutes Brewing carabiner mug I picked up on a trip to Portland, OR, though my future gear wishlist (there's always a wishlist, no matter how much gear you have) has something that is collapsible yet still has a handle.
If you're going out into the backcountry, and not carrying all the water you need with you (a very heavy proposition), you'll need a way to filter water. There's no quicker way to ruin a trip than with waterborne parasites.
Luckily, there are lots of options to help with purifying your water. I'll list them from the most popular to least.
Women's Hiking Boots for Backpacking
Taking care of your feet should be one of your very top priorities. One backpacking book I read devoted almost a third of its content to footwear. I thought that was a bit overkill at first, but after dealing with dozens and dozens of blisters, twisted ankles and lost toenails, I now realize just how important your footwear can be.
There are four general considerations when buying footwear: weight, breathability, durability and water resistance. Be careful about buying footwear that’s completely waterproof — you want to make sure that your foot’s sweat isn’t getting trapped inside your boot, which is a surefire way to get blisters.
So while the good news is that you may very well be able to get away with wearing your running shoes while backpacking, the bad news is that you don’t know until you try it.
For me, buying hiking boots/shoes is a bit like buying a mattress — you can spend a ton of money, and chances are that the more you spend the happier you'll be with your choice (psychology 101 at work!), but in the end it could be a cheaper version will work just fine for you.
Traditional hiking boots are heavy, they’re expensive and it turns out they’re really not all that good at protecting your feet anyway. Consider getting a pair of light hikers, cross-trainers or some people even backpack in sandals (that’s a bit extreme, though bringing sandals when backpacking is one of the best pieces of advice I can give you — camp shoes are like my third favorite piece of gear I take backpacking).
That being said, here are the types of backpacking footwear you might want to consider:
I have a pretty severe case of plantar fasciitis, and so my feet need all the support and love they can get. Earlier this year I bought these *Oboz Bridger B-DRY boots and I've been really happy with them (though I still need to stretch my feet after every hike). Plus they're RED!
Women's Backpacking Clothing As Gear
One of the first things newbie women ask when backpacking is “What should I wear?” The type of clothes you wear out into the backcountry could make the difference between having a great experience and never wanting to step foot outdoors again.
Rule #1 NO COTTON
Wearing jeans, sweatshirts, t-shirts and cotton socks can make you miserable on the trail. Those clothing items are fine when you’re car camping and have easy access to indoor shelter, but out in the backcountry, they’ll soak up every bit of moisture and hold onto it until you literally want to die.
Bring poly blends instead — think any clothes that are designed specifically for athletics and working out.
My favorite camping clothes are the race shirts I get a 5ks — not the cotton ones, but the performance fabric, high-end shirts. Sure they’re more expensive, but they’re worth it when you’re both sweaty and cold in the middle of the woods. Many yoga pants, capris and even sports shirts are made of good wicking material.
Rule #2: Don't overpack
This is one of the biggest mistakes I see newbies making is bringing way too much, and thus overloading their pack and making it too heavy to carry enjoyably. Check your list, make sure you have everything you need, then leave the extra clothes at home. No one cares if you stink on the trail (in fact, getting dirty is part of the fun).
One special note: A lot of women have issues with certain kinds of fabrics irritating their skin. Wool is almost always a great option if this is you — today's wool activewear is lightweight, wicking and feels amazing. Just know that it's more expensive than synthetic materials, and you have to be careful not to put it in the dryer!
Here's a checklist of backpacking clothes I bring on my backpacking trips:
Other clothing items you might consider:
Misc. Backpacking Items You Should Have in Your Pack
There are things you can't forget, that should be on your checklist, but that don't require a lot of explanation. Those items include:
Other "luxury" backpacking items
There are some things that are totally unnecessary, but I LOVE having on the trail with me. Consider adding them to your Christmas list & acquiring them over time:
Final Words: Your turn
Whew! Now that was a long post. I really did put my heart and soul into it, trying to give you as many options and tips as I could. But I know I could always do better!
NEWBIES: What burning questions did I leave unanswered? Leave them in the comments, and I'll answer as many as I can.
EXPERIENCED LADY BACKPACKERS: What advice do you have for newbies? Help a fellow future trail bestie out and leave your best backpacking hacks in the comments.
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Jill Hinton Wolfe,
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