Backpacks, Tents and Sleeping Bags: The Three Things All Beginning Campers Have to Buy

A Backpack & Associated Gear

Not all campers require a backpack — car campers can typically get by without one. You may still find a little day pack helpful for carrying water and some other essentials, but you’ll pretty much just be carrying stuff from the car to the tent pad a few feet away.

But if you’re, you know, backpacking, you’ll need a backpack.

And we’re not talking about any old backpack either. You’ll need a spacious bag, with enough rigidity to support 20 to 50 pounds of gear. This typically means selecting a framed backpack.

Some packs feature internal frames, while others use external frames. There are pros and cons to each style, but internal frame packs dominate the modern marketplace, and they’re the superior choice for most beginners.

You could drive yourself mad browsing through backpacks, but there’s really no need to do so. The Teton Sports Scout 3400 does everything you need it to, and its user ratings are off the charts.

It also comes with a lot of goodies that weren’t common in the past. It’s hydration-system ready, it has a built-in rain cover, and a separate sleeping bag pocket. Oh, and its priced well under 100 bucks.

Once you’ve been camping a few times, know what you want in a backpack, and are ready to invest, you’ll want to sit down, scan through dozens of models and pick the ideal model.

But if you’re starting out, just go with the Teton.

A Backpacking Tent & Associated Gear

Unless you plan on sleeping under the open sky like a cowboy or SEAL commander, you’ll need a tent. It won’t only keep you warmer, drier and less bug-ridden, it’ll give you a bit of privacy when and if necessary.

Understand that tent selection is a whole thing, and if you end up enjoying your camping experience, you’ll eventually want to take your time and pick one that has all of the specific features you want.

But to get started, you just want something easy to pitch, light enough to carry and affordable. There’s not really a great market for second-hand tents, so you don’t want to drop a fortune on something you won’t use if camping doesn’t agree with your constitution.

Size is actually not a huge consideration for backpacking tents. Unless you’re doing some kind of extreme camping (in which case you may want a solo model) or you’re car camping with the fam, you want a 2 to 4 person model.

If you want more space, you’re just going to have to cut weight-corners somewhere else – big tents are heavy. That doesn’t mean you can’t find a way to lug an 8-person behemoth up a mountain, but it’ll suck. Just buy a 2- to 4-person model and be done with it.

Old-school camping guides would discuss the need for a rainfly in addition to a tent (most tents have mesh ceilings to provide airflow and killer views on rain-free nights).

But in practice, we haven’t seen an entry-level tent that doesn’t come with a rainfly in years, so this isn’t really an issue anymore.

If you’re buying some type of ultra-specialized, high-end tent, you may find a model that doesn’t come with a rainfly. But in these kinds of cases, you’ll already be savvy enough to know that and plan accordingly.

In addition to your tent, you’ll need a ground cloth. This will help protect the bottom of your tent and provide a tiny bit more comfort.

Your ground cloth needn’t be anything fancy — your tent may actually come with one, but you can just buy a standard, multi-purpose tarp if you like. Just be sure to pick one that’s a good two-feet larger (in both directions) than the footprint of your tent. This is important, because you want the cloth to extend outside the tent’s perimeter.

A Sleeping Bag & Associated Gear

A sleeping bag isn’t strictly necessary – if you need to cut costs wherever you can, you can just use some blankets. They won’t work as well as a sleeping bag, and they’ll weigh more than a good bag, but you can make ‘em work.

But if you’re not afraid to spend a bit of money, you’d be surprised at the kind of quality you can get for less than 50 bucks.

Sleeping bags differ in a few key ways, such as fill materials, weight, temperature rating and style.

Your selection of fill material and weight won’t be especially awesome at entry-level price points, but just know that you want down or a synthetic fill materials and the lightest bag possible in your budget range.

Most modern backpacking bags are made in the mummy style. This will keep you warmer than an old-school, rectangular bag will and help save a bit of space. But it makes snuggling or canoodling with another warm body tricky.

As for the temperature rating, you’ll want to select a bag that’s rated for the lowest temperature you’re likely to encounter. Some backpackers like to add 10 degrees or so of “cushion,” but you can always put on more clothes while you’re sleeping. Just make sure the bag’s temperature rating is close — you don’t want to spend the night shivering.

In addition to your bag, you’ll also want a sleeping pad. But like a bag, this isn’t strictly necessary — you can just make do and sleep on the ground.

But come on, you don’t want to struggle to get comfy every night, when you can just use a sleeping pad. They’re lightweight, easy to pack, and they are pretty cheap. At least, entry-level models are. You can certainly spend a chunk of change on a high-end model, but that’s not really necessary for your first few trips.

One nifty trick for getting the most out of your sleeping bag is to use a bag liner when it’s cold. A bag liner is exactly what it sounds like — a bag that fits inside your sleeping bag.

Image from Unsplash.

The liner serves two key purposes: It helps protect the inside of your bag, and — more importantly — it will keep you a little warmer than your bag’s temperature rating. It essentially provides a way to use a bag that’s actually rated for slightly higher temperatures.

Most liners are advertised as lowering your bag’s temperature rating by about 10 degrees. In other words, such a liner would make a 30-degree bag comfortable in 20-degree weather.

But as always, YMMV, particularly when it comes to temperature comfort. And for the record, you certainly don’t need a sleeping bag liner if your bag is warm enough and you’re not worried about your sleeping bag’s durability.

There’s one other thing you’ll want: a pillow. A pillow may seem like an extravagance, but you’ll certainly think otherwise after you try to sleep on the ground without one. That simply makes for a miserable night of sleep and achy muscles the next day.

Trust us, tough guy, you want a pillow.

But here’s the thing: You don’t have to buy a pillow. You certainly can buy an inflatable model that won’t take up a lot of space in your pack or contribute much additional weight. But you can also just use your clothes bag.

You may have to futz with it a little and add or remove stuff to arrive at a comfy shape and size, but you can make it work. Just test out your clothes-bag-pillow situation and make sure it’s sufficient before you hit the trail.

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