Normally I use this space to talk about not buying a bunch of shiny new gear, to sarcastically review entire categories of gear, or to extol the virtues of old, crappy bicycles. In a departure from that, I wanted to do something that might genuinely help people. So if you want to get started doing things in the outdoors but don’t know where to begin buying gear, here are a few things I’d put on my shopping list if I were starting all over again at zero gear. Hopefully it will help you sort through all that stuff in the gear store and guide you to what you really need to get started. Obviously gear companies would love to have you buy everything they sell, but truthfully, a good foundation of stuff can get you going on plenty of adventures. Lots of these things can be found used on eBay or at gear consignment shops.
Note: This blog (and my adventures) are supported by Outdoor Research, so I’m obviously biased towards their products. But none of the links on this page are affiliate links, and I’m not getting paid to list anyone’s products on this page. This is just stuff that has worked for me.
1. 30-liter Backpack
A 30-liter pack is a good size for lots of single-day activities—day hikes, ski resort days, peak bagging, hauling books/laptops to the office or across campus, bike commuting, picnicking, whatever. If you’re a sport climber, you should probably be able to fit all your stuff for a day at the crag in a 30-liter pack, and if you’re a savvy trad climber, same deal (unless you’re carrying a No. 4 and No. 5 Camalot. Maybe you’ll have to put the rope on the outside of your pack. But in general, if you’re buying one backpack for all your one-day activities, 30 liters is a great size. A bajillion people make 30-liter packs (or 28-liter, or 32-liter), and you can find them all over the internet. For years, I’ve used a Wild Things Guide Pack, which is probably at the high end of the price range, but it’s light, minimalist, and can take a major beating.
2. Lightweight Soft Shell Jacket
A solid lightweight, breathable soft shell jacket should be a go-to layer for spring and summer (or high-altitude) mountain bike rides, trail runs, multi-pitch rock climbs, peak bagging, day hikes, or anything where you might get a stiff cool breeze when you’re a little sweaty, or get exposed to some wind and possibly a little rain. Since 2011, I have carried the same jacket (actually, the same model of jacket, but I’ve gone through a few, especially after I zipped one up in a dry suit and finally ripped it) for all these activities—the Outdoor Research Ferrosi Hoody. I’m sure lots of other companies sell something similar to it—It’s a very thin soft shell hooded jacket (side rant: never buy a jacket without a hood) that weighs a little less than 14 ounces, and packs down small enough to fit in the lid of any backpack. I’ve found dozens of times that the difference between shivering at a belay and being just warm enough is the ability to pull a jacket hood up over my helmeted head. I realize you don’t often need a hooded jacket while mountain biking or bike commuting, but come on, I’m not going to buy a separate, non-hooded jacket just to wear on my bike—this one will do just fine.
3. 60-liter Backpack
A 60-liter pack isn’t the biggest you can buy, but most of us aren’t going on backpacking trips longer than seven days often enough to justify owning anything much bigger than that. I think 60 liters is perfect for 3-day or 4-day trips when you want to pack heavy, multi-day climbs of peaks like Mt. Shasta or Mt. Rainier, as a piece of checked luggage for most things I do (which don’t often—actually, ever—involve clothes on hangers), 7-day backpacking trips when you don’t want to be carrying a bunch of extra crap anyway, and days of extreme luxury at the climbing crag. You should get a pack that fits you first and worry about features later (in my opinion), but a couple packs I’ve liked over the past couple years are the Deuter ACT Zero 50 + 15 (super-light) and the Osprey Atmos AG 65 (super comfy, but I don’t own one—I just got to borrow one for a three-day trip once).
If you go camping, backpacking, need to find things under your fridge, do car repairs on the street in front of your apartment, have permanently shut off your car’s interior light because of your tendency to leave it on and find a dead battery the next time you try to start your car, a headlamp is for you. You can spend $400 on one that will illuminate a mountain bike trail at 20 mph (useful for those times you find yourself needing lighting while traveling at high speeds), or you can spend $19.95 and get a basic one from Petzl, Black Diamond or Princeton Tec (useful for everything but lighting while traveling at high speeds). I’ve always preferred simple, minimalist lights that run on small batteries and don’t light up a million yards away from you or have a bunch of functions that you have to tap Morse codes on the power button to operate. If I was a search and rescue volunteer or a caver, I might prefer something a little more powerful, but really, for most folks, basic headlamps are just fine (my opinion). The only times they’ve ever let me down are a handful of episodes of rappelling into the dark when I really would have liked to see my rope ends 115 feet away (but didn’t absolutely need to). I had a Princeton Tec EOS that I used religiously for five years until the case finally cracked (but it still works, and I still keep it in my van as a backup), and I’ve recently been using a Black Diamond ReVolt that I dig for the ability to lock the on/off button, and because I can recharge it on a USB instead of using all those AAA batteries. I know people hate to carry extra shit in the backcountry, but I never leave the trailhead without a headlamp stuffed in my pack somewhere, and that’s prevented a few nights of sitting on a rock in the dark waiting for the sun to come up again.
5. MSR Dromedary
It’s a big, tough, bag that holds a ton of water. That’s handy when you’re backpacking or bike touring and need to carry a gallon with you to camp a few miles from your last water source, or just fill it up so you don’t have to keep walking down to a lake or creek to fill up a cooking pot. You can blow it up and use it as a pillow at night if you want. It collapses down to almost nothing. You can get a thing to turn it into a hydration bladder. Really. It’s a big bag of water. I take one water bottle backpacking, and a 4-liter one of these.
6. Water Bottles
To paraphrase Ian MacKaye, companies are not selling you water; they’re selling you a plastic bottle. Water is free. If you have a water bottle, you can access and store water so you can take it with you when you walk away from the source, such as an airport drinking fountain. With a full water bottle or two, you have some chance of actually staying hydrated on a trans-Atlantic flight, since you don’t have to rely on flight attendants pouring you a 4-ounce cup of bottled water every three hours. I have been using a Klean Kanteen Classic 40 oz bottle for almost everything, and a Camelbak Podium bottle for running and biking. They work, and have probably saved me from using about a million or so Dasani bottles.
7. Trail Running Shoes
Something they don’t tell you about running shoes: You can just walk in them if you don’t want to run. In fact, it’s often less strenuous than running. You can wear trail running shoes for hiking and backpacking, as long as you can live without the ankle support and stout outsole of hiking boots. You can also use trail running shoes to run on surfaces other than trails. I wouldn’t stop anyone from buying a pair of hiking boots, but if you’ve only got room for one pair of outdoor shoes in your luggage, trail running shoes are probably more versatile. I’ve been wearing the Vasque Pendulum II for the past year, and love their lightweight, not-overbuilt construction.
8. Rain Shell
If you go out there, you’re going to get rained on sometime. Which rain jacket is the right one for you? I have two I rely on regularly. The first is the Outdoor Research Helium II, a lightweight shell that packs down to the size of a peanut butter sandwich, and I carry it for bike commuting, mountain biking, day hikes, and multi-pitch rock climbs in the late spring, summer and early fall. It’s kind of a “just-in-case-it-rains” jacket. For longer trips, or colder conditions, or wetter forecasts, I have used the Outdoor Research Axiom (high end of the price spectrum) or Foray Jacket (middle-of-the-road price). Even if you’re not planning on a ton of rain, a rain shell can be a great wind-blocking layer for activities when you’re spending lots of time exposed to windchill—summer multi-pitch or alpine rock climbs, fall and spring bike commuting or mountain biking, peak bagging, et cetera.
9. Puffy Jacket
Pros: Super-warm, compresses down to nothing in your backpack, can be used as a pillow. Cons: rips easily, doesn’t insulate when wet (unless it’s synthetic insulation or treated down), easily perforated by flying sparks from campfires. Be good to your puffy jacket and it will be good to you. It’s like an appetizer for the later, full meal of getting into your sleeping bag. It can be your happy place. I have always used small amounts of Krazy Glue to patch the little holes in my puffy jackets, but most people use duct tape. I like the Outdoor Research Transcendent Hoody, which is more of a down-sweater-weight jacket than the kind you’d buy for Mt. Rainier, but it’s perfect for all the colder-weather spring and summer nights and mornings I have in the desert and in the mountains in the summer.
10. 2-person Backpacking Tent
If you want to buy a bunch of tents for all your needs, you could get a one-person tent for all your solo backpacking (or bikepacking) trips, a two-person tent for trips you take with a friend, a big car-camping tent for weekends you go out with friends and want to spread out all your stuff and maybe just stand up inside your tent because you can. Or you could just buy a basic 2-person backpacking tent and use it for everything—including not taking up as much space as three separate tents in your gear closet/garage. I still own an older version of MSR’s Hubba Hubba that I got in 2007, and have recently been impressed with Big Agnes’s Copper Spur UL2, but they’re both pretty high-end. If you’re looking to spend a little less, REI has sold about a million Half Dome 2 tents over the past decade, and it’s still under $200.
11. 15-degree Sleeping Bag
I’ve done most of my camping and backpacking in the past decade in the mountains and desert in the West, and I’ve never found a 15-degree sleeping bag to be overkill, and only in rare, way-late-season situations has it proven to be too chilly. If you’re a very cold sleeper or are planning on winter camping, a bag with a rating closer to 0 degrees is probably more appropriate, but I would say most people buy something moderate (15- or 20-degree rating) and then buy a different sleeping bag for winter so they’re not hauling around the extra weight of a winter bag all year. A 15- or 20-degree sleeping bag is a great all-purpose, three-season sleeping bag. Down sleeping bags are more compressible and lighter but generally more expensive, and synthetic bags are bulkier but have traditionally held insulative value better when wet. But lots of companies are now using treated down, which has helped down insulate better when wet (and dry more quickly than untreated down). I haven’t had a ton of experiences where my sleeping bag has been completely saturated, but have been very impressed with treated down in situations of extreme condensation (sleeping without a tent next to a river or another humid scenario) and picking up moisture from the inside of a wet tent or from wet clothes and gear during a rainy trip. I’ve been using the Big Agnes Bellyache Mountain 17 for a couple years now and remain pretty happy with it.
12. Sleeping Pad
For sleeping on the ground. They’re not all the same, but they’re all better than sleeping on the actual ground. I can’t 100% recommend one particular model for super-cushy unpuncturable comfort, but I’ve never carried one that weighs more than a pound and a half.
13. Isobutane (Canister Fuel) Stove
Yes, Jetboils are exciting, efficient and compact, but I think a solid (non-Jetboil) canister stove is a great entry point for anyone who’s getting started in the outdoors. I like Jetboils for certain applications, but cooking non-dehydrated meals in a pot is not one of them. If you want to make your own pasta, grab a simple canister stove and a windscreen (if it doesn’t come with one, make one out of a foil turkey roasting pan from the grocery store) and get going. There are a bajillion models out there. I prefer the slightly-less-than-minimalist ones that stand on their own instead of perching on top of the fuel canister, like the MSR WindPro II—although my most recent purchase was an MSR Whisperlite Universal because the WindPro II was out of stock for a while.