Backcountry camping is all about survival. You have a tent, a sleeping bag, and the gear necessary to last a night or more without typical creature comforts.
And when a challenge arrives—anything from a storm to a wild animal—it’s up to you, and only you, to conquer that challenge.
Before heading out into the backcountry, the first thing you need is knowledge.
“The most important thing is the thing between your two ears,” says Dave MacDonald, outdoors expert at Kenco Outfitters in Kingston. Learn how to start a fire, pitch a tent, and navigate the wilderness before starting your multi-day adventure.
But once you’re ready, here’s the most essential equipment you’ll need to survive and thrive in the backcountry.
wool base layers
The best way to stay temperature-regulated is by wearing clothing that works with you, and wool does that better than other fabrics. Ibex’s Woolies crew neck shirts (2 for $100 at Kenco) and bottoms (2 for $80) are the right start for men. Smartwool keeps women warm with its Mid 250 Crew ($95); Ibex has wool bottoms for women in full- ($110) and three-quarter-length ($80).
Regardless of skill level, have a good pair of waterproof hiking shoes. Merrell provides a solid value: the Men’s Moab Ventilator is a good pick ($120 at Kenco), as is the Women’s Moab Mid Waterproof ($130). It is equally important to pack extra pairs of socks—keeping your feet dry is crucial.
You may need a heavier jacket if you’re winter camping, but otherwise opt for something lightweight and waterproof. World Famous Sports’ Rain Pod Packable Jacket ($75 for men, $33 for women at Kenco) is waterproof, breathable, and can collapse into a packable pouch, helping eliminate space concerns. Marmot also has a good line of waterproof, breathable jackets.
They come in various sizes, but your best bet is a one- or two-person vessel to lighten your load. The Eureka! Spitfire 1-Person Tent ($139.90 at Kenco) weighs less than three pounds and offers quick assembly, needing only two stakes. The water-resistant and breathable North Face Talus 2 ($199 at Kenco) is a five-pound two-person tent.
Every camper on a backcountry hike should carry an emergency sleeping bag, and the key to a bag is reflection—“for body heat,” says MacDonald. The company Survive Outdoors Longer makes the Thermal Bivvy ($30 at Kenco) that reflects 80 percent of body heat and is made of a metalized, non-woven, waterproof fabric. Guide Gear’s Rectangle Canvas Sleeping Bag (-30 Degree) is made for frigid temperatures with its cotton canvas and flannel lining. You can find it at Sportman’s Guide (sportsmansguide.com) for $89.99.
Durability and comfort are necessary in a backcountry backpack. Kenco carries a wide selection of Osprey backpacks: the Exos 48 ($190) is a good value, perfect for thru-hiking and light backpacking, with removable straps and pockets, mesh external pockets, and an ice tool loop; for more ambitious hikers, the Xenith 88 ($360) is the choice for longer backpacking trips, with more accessible pockets, a trekking pole attachment, and two ice tool loops.
A sturdy, nylon rope is a great utility. Kenco has the 50-foot Wilcor Camo Braided Utility Rope ($2.99), which breaks at 210 pounds. For a heavier- duty rope, Sterling manufactures a 50- or 100-foot parachute cord ($9.99 for 100 feet at thefirestore.com).
It’s one of the first things hikers typically buy, and it’s one of the most essential things. You can’t go wrong with Hydro Flask’s 40-ounce Wide Mouth Insulated Bottle ($36.99 at Kenco). Platypus makes a collapsible bottle ($12.95) that can hold up to 70 ounces, if you’re really looking to minimize impact.
Always filter the water you collect. The MSR HyperFlow Water Filter ($99.95 at Kenco) pumps more than three liters per minute and, at 7.4 ounces, fits well in the backpack. Be smart about buying a filter that can fill directly into your container.
“I’m a big knife person,” says MacDonald. Though he carries multiple knives when backcountry camping, you only need one good one. The Helle Temagami Stainless Knife ($179 at Kenco) is oiled with linseed and carved for maximum grip. Those going on longer camping outings may consider an axe: the Gränsfors Bruk Outdoor Axe ($180) is good for felling trees (to use for firewood or shelter), is lightweight (one pound), and can be used as a large knife.
If you plan on cooking hot meals, or maybe having some coffee, the MSR MicroRocket Stove ($59.95 at Kenco) is the smallest option (just 2.6 ounces). It boils one liter of water in less than four minutes and fits inside an insulated mug (included). Fuel canisters are sold separately (11-ounce bottle is $17.95, 20-ounce bottle is $19.95, 33-ounce bottle is $21.95).
In distress, knowing how to shine light is a necessary skill. Pack a mirror (Coghlan’s Featherweight Mirror is $3.25 at REI), and look into buying Ultimate Survival Technologies’ SplashFlash LED Flashlight ($12 at Eastern Mountain Sports). It works as a flashlight, mini-lantern and personal locator light, and also has an SOS flashing mode for emergency situations. “You can set it on SOS and let it go,” says MacDonald. Batteries required.
compass and map
Think a GPS is enough? MacDonald cautions: “What if you reach a cliff and need to get around the cliff? Or if the battery dies? And in the deep woods a GPS may not work.” Grab a map of wherever you’re camping, and get to know magnetic north. Kenco sells the Silva Polaris 177 Compass ($20.25) so you can easily navigate the deep woods.
Even expert survivalists can use a refresher. Kenco sells the Wilcor Wilderness Survival Guide for $8.99. It’s waterproof and highlights everything from building a shelter to foraging for food and water.
First, know how to start a fire. Second, buy some waterproof matches (Coghlans offers 10 sets of 45 in one $4.49 box at Kenco). A magnesium fire starter (pilotshop.com offers the Aurora Fire Starter for $25.99) can be a good hack in a pinch.