If you've read my first article on beginner backpacking, you're ready to talk about the major pieces of backpacking gear you'll need and want. This is where another experienced backpacker might begin disagreeing with me, since there's a lot of leeway in what backpackers consider "essential" gear. As I'm writing this article for the rank beginner, I'm going to suggest that you purchase yourself a decent backpack, a light 2-person tent, and a synthetic sleeping bag rated for approximately 20 degrees Fahrenheit. Obviously there are many other things you'll need and want for a backpacking trip, but these are the major items. I'll provide my own backpacking checklist in a separate article on smaller gear items to help you round out your pack. For now let's discuss each of these major pieces of backpacking gear.
There are two major types of backpacks for backpacking: internal frame and external frame. You may wonder why a pack needs a frame. The purpose of the frame is to efficiently transfer the pack's weight to your hips rather than making your shoulders do all the work. Your hips are a much more efficient load carrier than your shoulders. Most backpackers today use internal frame packs, and that's what I suggest you buy for yourself. An internal frame pack has a frame of metal or composite inside the pack itself. Internal frame packs are comfortable to wear, allow for more flexibility than external frame packs, and today provide fairly good transfer of the pack's weight to your hips. Having said that, I own one external frame pack myself, and I still use it. An external frame pack has, as you can guess, a frame of composite or metal material outside the pack. Basically, the bag itself is strapped to a frame. Despite the advantages of today's internal frame packs, external frames are still more efficient at transferring heavy loads to your hips. They're also cooler to wear because the frame keeps the pack further away from your back. I also like that I can strap extra gear to random places on the frame when I need to. One final point is that external frame packs are often less costly than internal frame packs, although this isn't as much the case today as in the past. There are also disadvantages: metal external frames are often noisy and squeaky, external frame packs don't allow you to be as mobile and flexible as internal frames, and they're generally not as comfortable to wear as internal frames. Most often I use my internal frame pack. I only use my external frame pack these days when I have a heavier than normal load to carry.
So, which backpack should you get? That's not a question I can answer for you. Not very helpful, huh? Sorry. However, I can make some general suggestions. As stated previously, my advice is to buy an internal frame pack. I highly suggest you make a trip to a local store that sells backpacking gear and try on a few packs. Everyone's body is different, and every pack has a different build. Don't spend a fortune on your first pack unless you're committed to backpacking often. A reasonably comfortable pack with a reasonable amount of space can be found for less than $200 here at the beginning of 2011. The reason for this advice is that I've seen so many people give backpacking a try, decide it wasn't for them and all their expensive gear is sadly decomposing in their closets and attics. Will more expensive gear perform better? Sure, in most cases you get what you pay for. But the thing is, reasonably inexpensive gear often performs well enough even for serious backpackers. Find yourself a decent pack that's comfortable with around 4000 cubic inches (65 liters) space. That's enough for a two-night trip in warm weather even if you pack excessively.
If you don't have a local store to shop in, there's no shortage of online retailers (just search for "backpacking backpacks"). Read user reviews of packs that fit in your price range and make a purchase based on the best information you can. If it won't work, you can always return it. Another alternative is to rent or borrow a pack. Some smaller outdoor gear stores will often rent the major pieces of gear for you to use on a first trip. That's a good way to give it a try, and if you don't like it, you don't have a ton of stuff clogging up closet space. Check with local hiking clubs for ideas. Renting and borrowing is an option for all the major pieces of gear discussed in this article. In case you're curious about what I use: Deuter Act Lite 65+10
Now let's turn our attention to tents. Tents are like backpacks. You can spend about as much as you want to on them. They range anywhere from a simple tarp up to heavy duty 4-season monsters able to support heavy snow loads. I suggest you buy something in the middle: a 3-season 2-person backpacking tent. Why 2-person? A two person tent provides enough space if you'll be hiking with a buddy, isn't that much heavier than 1-person tents and is downright luxurious if you're alone. Tents come in single-walled and double-walled versions. A single-wall tent is made of water-proof or at least water-resistant material and doesn't have a rain fly. A double-walled tent is basically a tent with a water-proof rain fly that drapes over it. I suggest you get a double-walled tent. I own a nice single-wall tent (Henry Shires Tarptent) that is excellent when the weather is nice, but when it rains hard, I get wet. Not drenched, but enough to make it an unpleasant experience. The weight-savings are worth it on occasion, but, as you're new to all this, I suggest a good double-wall tent that will keep you dry even in a downpour.
So which one to buy? Well, I can be a little more helpful in this case. For the average person who is six feet tall or shorter, most backpacking tents will provide you with enough foot and head space. If you're exceptionally tall, you'll need to find a tent with enough length to accommodate you. For you average backpackers, I recommend a 2-person double-wall tent with "average minimum weight" of 5 lbs or less. I don't recommend spending over $200. REI (Half Dome 2 and Half Dome 2 Plus), Mountain Hardwear (Drifter 2
Sleeping bags are even easier. I recommend you buy a synthetic mummy-style bag rated to roughly 20 degrees Fahrenheit for $100 or less. REI, Marmot, Mountain Hardware, and The North Face all make bags that fit the bill. A 20 degree bag will keep you warm in most situations that you'll experience in the contiguous United States June - early September. As a beginner, I recommend you take your first few trips during a warm part of the year and that you try to choose a period of nice weather (see my article on Trip Planning). If you insist on taking your first trip during winter, you'll likely want a much warmer bag. How warm will depend on where you're going. You could spend much more than $100 on a bag. Goose down bags are excellent and lightweight, and they cost a fortune. Goose down also doesn't do well when wet. Since you're a beginner, I'm going to assume there's a chance you could make a mistake or just have a tough break and get all your stuff wet. If that happens, goose down will be next to useless. A synthetic bag, although a bit heavier, will still give you some insulation even if it gets wet. If you're over 6 feet tall, make sure to purchase a "Long" sleeping bag. Once again, you should be able to purchase a good sleeping bag locally or at one of the online retailers.
In my next article, I'll be covering more of the gear equation: clothing. I'll also provide my own backpacking checklist so you can see the other stuff I typically take.