Gear Review: 10 Favorite Backpacking Accessories
By Michael Lanza
With backpacking gear, there are the Big Four—backpack, tent, boots, and sleeping bag—that cost the most and arguably have the greatest impact on our enjoyment, comfort, and to varying degrees safety. Close behind in importance and cost are your sleeping pad or air mattress and your stove and cooking gear. Beyond those, though, are various smaller items, from water filter, headlamp, and trekking poles to stuff sacks and other accessories that we either need or that make a backcountry trip more enjoyable (and are on my personal backpacking gear checklist).
Here’s my list of the 10 backpacking gear accessories that I carry and I think will make your backpacking trips a little more enjoyable.
Some of the product names and photos below are linked to existing reviews at The Big Outside.
#1 Water Filter
Unless you like taking chances with your gastrointestinal system, water treatment is essential. I have a few different water-filter devices of choice, depending on where I’m going and the group size.
If your water sources have suspended particles—like silted desert rivers or glacial flour in rivers draining glaciers—you need a pump filter, and the fastest, most efficient, lightweight model I’ve used is the MSR Hyperflow Microfilter ($100, 9 oz.). A hollow-fiber filter, it pumps a speedy three liters per minute and removes protozoa, bacteria, and particulate matter (but not viruses or chemicals). Measuring just 7×3.5 ins., it stuffs easily into a backpack pocket.
BUY IT NOW You can support my work on this blog by clicking this link to buy an MSR Hyperflow Microfilter at backcountry.com.
Gravity water filters are low-tech solutions that do the work of filtering for you; just fill the bag with water and hang the unit from a branch. These are most useful with a group of two to four people, but avoid filtering silted water, which can clog them. I’ve reviewed two good ones: the Platypus GravityWorks and the Katadyn Base Camp Pro 10L filter.
BUY IT NOW You can support my work on this blog by clicking this link to buy a Platypus GravityWorks or a Katadyn Base Camp Pro 10L gravity filter at rei.com.
#2 Water Bottle
Although I virtually always use a bladder in my pack, I like having a bottle when in camp (plus, you will need a bottle to harvest water from a lake to fill a gravity filter bag). And I love the quickness and convenience of two water bottles that each have a built-in filter: the Aquamira Frontier Flow ($50, 7 oz.) and the Lifestraw Go ($35, 8 oz.). Being able to fill the bottle in a creek, screw the cap back on, and then immediately drink from a straw means that, in areas with frequent water sources (like many mountain ranges), you will tend to carry less water weight on the trail than if you have to stop to pump or otherwise filter water manually.
With essentials like a headlamp, I want reliable functionality and low weight. If cost is no obstacle for you, it’s hard to do better than the USB-rechargeable Black Diamond ReVolt ($60, 3.5 oz.), which has all the brightness any ultra-hiker, backpacker, or climber will probably ever need at 130 lumens, a variety of modes and dimming capability, a power meter, and a lockout mode.
But if you prefer simplicity and a bargain, go with the Princeton Tec Sync ($30, 3 oz.), with white and red modes, five brightness levels, enough power to light a rocky trail on a night hike, and an easy-to-operate dial that includes a lockout mode.
See also my review of my five favorite headlamps.
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#4 Stuff Sacks
I’ve gotten my sleeping bag or the extra clothes in my pack wet enough times (it doesn’t take many times) to be persuaded that stuff sacks are important. I also want the lightest sacks that do the job. To keep my sleeping bag absolutely dry—because that’s an issue of safety as well as comfort—I stuff it inside either a larger size, roll-top Sea to Summit eVent Compression Dry Sack ($28-$47, 6L, 10L, 14L, 20L, and 30L, 3.7-7.4 oz.) or a larger size Hyperlite Mountain Gear Roll-Top Stuff Sack ($35-$70, 3.7L, 9.4L, 19.5L, and 44L, 1-2 oz.).
For my extra clothes, I have the roll-top Osprey Ultralight Dry Sacks ($13-25, 0.7-1.9 oz., 3L to 30L)—the largest of which will also keep a bag dry through most backpacking trips (short of full immersion underwater)—and the Hyperlite Mountain Gear CF8 Cuben Fiber Stuff Sack set no. 1 ($66 for the set of 4×6—big enough for a phone—8×10, 9×12, and 10×14). Constructed from tough Dyneema fibers, the entire set weighs just an ounce.
BUY IT NOW You can support my work on this blog by clicking one of these links to buy the Osprey Ultralight Dry Sacks or the Sea to Summit eVent Compression Dry Sacks at backcountry.com, or buy the Hyperlite Mountain Gear stuff sacks at hyperlitemountaingear.com.
#5 Trekking Poles
I almost never hike in the backcountry without poles—no matter how much I’m carrying, and especially if I’m hiking a long distance. And I generally want very lightweight poles that are nonetheless sturdy and easy on my hands. Two models stand out to me.
The three-section, 100 percent carbon fiber Black Diamond Distance Carbon Z poles ($160, 10 oz./pair), despite weighing barely more than a half-pound for the pair, withstood much hard use ascending and descending a lot of wet, slick talus and loose scree. But they’re not adjustable like the Leki Micro Vario Carbon Trekking Poles ($200, 1 lb./pair), three-section, carbon-fiber poles with a SpeedLock below the handle that allows for up to 20 centimeters/8 inches of length adjustment instantly.
BUY IT NOW You can support my work on this blog by clicking this link to buy the Black Diamond Distance Carbon Z poles or the Leki Micro Vario Carbon trekking poles at backcountry.com.
See all of my reviews of trekking poles at The Big Outside.
#6 Dromedary Bag
The MSR Dromedary Bag ($27-$45, 9 oz. 10L, four sizes 2L to 10L) sets the gold standard for durability in a portable, collapsible water sack for backpacking; it’s the one I’ve used for years when at backcountry campsites that sit more than a few minutes’ walk from the nearest water source.
BUY IT NOW You can support my work on this blog by clicking this link to buy an MSR Dromedary Bag at backcountry.com,
Bear canisters are required in an increasing number of public lands, including all national parks and forests in the High Sierra and in national parks from Grand Teton to Denali. But even where they’re not required, they offer tremendous convenience and security, especially when camping in alpine areas or conifer forests in bear country where places to hang food bags aren’t readily available. I use the Bear Vault BV500 ($80, 2 lbs. 8 oz.) because it’s impregnable and has beaucoup space for its weight. It’s been updated with a second tab that must be depressed to unscrew the wide-mouth lid.
BUY IT NOW You can support my work on this blog by clicking this link to buy a Bear Vault BV500 at backcountry.com.
#8 Inflatable Pillow
When it comes to non-essential, comfort items, I ask myself one question: Will the energy I conserve through better sleep or down time in camp, thanks to a specific accessory, exceed the energy I expend carrying it on the trail? That depends on each item’s weight as well as how much time I’ll spend on the trail versus in camp. (I use the same logic in selecting an air mattress: The energy I gain by sleeping on a comfortable air mat will more than outweigh the energy expended by carrying its slightly greater weight in my pack, when compared to getting a poor night’s sleep on a lighter but uncomfortable air mat or foam pad.)
I usually carry an ultralight, inflatable pillow when I’m backpacking, because they weigh next to nothing, and I split my loyalties these days between two models: the plush Sea to Summit Aeros Ultralight Pillow ($37-42, 3 oz., regular and large) and the Exped Air Pillow UL ($49-$55, 2 oz., medium and large).
BUY IT NOW You can support my work on this blog by clicking this link to buy a Sea to Summit Aeros Ultralight Pillow or an Exped Air Pillow UL at rei.com.
#9 Chair Kit
Except on trips where I’m ultralight backpacking long days and spending very little time in camp, I like having a portable chair kit in camp that assembles using an air mat. The Therm-a-Rest Trekker chair kit ($35-$50, 9.5 oz., two sizes), which I took on backpacking trips in Canada’s Kootenay National Park and Idaho’s White Cloud Mountains, is the lightest I’ve used, fairly easy to assemble, but not quite as sturdy (or probably as durable) as the heavier Big Agnes Big Easy chair kit ($45-$50, 1 lb. 1 oz., two sizes).
#10 Pack Towel
A pack towel may seem superfluous—that is, until you really want to wash off some trail filth in a stream or lake and the water and air are a little too chilly for sitting and air drying afterward. Then you’ll be happy to brought along a PackTowl Nano Towel ($8-$10, two sizes), which is antimicrobial and weighs only an ounce, anyway.
BUY IT NOW You can support my work on this blog by clicking this link to buy a PackTowl Nano Towel at rei.com.
Optional #11 Portable Lantern-Charger
This is one of those non-essential items that you either feel strongly that you don’t need or feel strongly that you need. If you want to charge your electronics in the backcountry, whether for picture-taking or navigation, the Biolite NanoGrid LED Lantern and Portable USB Charger ($100, 8 oz.; two remote site lights add 4 oz.) is a water-resistant, rechargeable, combination battery/USB charger, 250-lumen torch and 200-lumen lantern that throws 360 degrees of soft light and easily illuminates the inside of a tent or a campsite within about a 20-foot perimeter. The torch mode is as bright as many flashlights that are twice as heavy, throwing a focused beam as well as a dimmer, wide-area light. The lithium ion battery charges in four hours and can charge up to three phones, and the NanoGrid has three ports for charging devices in the backcountry: micro USB, USB and a dedicated 2mm port for the two included site lights, all with rubber covers that stay in place.
BUY IT NOW You can support my work on this blog by clicking this link to buy a Biolite NanoGrid LED Lantern and Portable USB Charger at rei.com.
See my “Gift Guide: My Top 25 Picks in New Outdoor Gear and Apparel,” my personal backpacking gear checklist, all of my reviews of backpacking gear, and my Gear Reviews page at The Big Outside.
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