Backpacking Expedition: An Inside Look at What's in My Backpack
Camping & Hiking expert Olivia Whitehead shares what she brings on backpacking expeditions in Colorado in the summer and fall.
Every backpacker has their own system and their own preferences while on the trail. Getting to peek inside someone’s pack can be an interesting experience, and it can tell you a lot about them as a hiker. My favorite place and time of year to backpack is Colorado in the summer and fall, so I’ll go through what I pack on a typical Colorado trip in this backpack breakdown!
First things first, what backpack do I like to bring along? I’ve tested out quite a few over the years, and have settled on Gregory’s 55 Liter Zulu pack as my personal go-to. It’s the perfect size—not too big for quick weekend trips, but still large enough to hold everything I need for five or six days of warmer weather.
This is a men’s pack, but I’m pretty tall at 5’10”. I think that the fit and feel of a pack is more important than a specific gender designation. I love the longer torso, the fact that it includes an integrated rain cover, and the large front panel that makes packing and unpacking much easier than in backpacks that only have top or bottom access!
My general rule of thumb for camping (and almost everything else) is that I’d rather be too warm and remove layers than the other way around. Because of this, I tend to go with a sleeping bag that’s a bit overkill for the weather. I’ve spent too many nights in a sleeping bag that wasn’t warm enough, so I try my best to not let that happen anymore!
That being said, my favorite backpacking sleeping bag is Mountain Hardware’s Bishop Pass zero-degree bag. It doesn’t pack down incredibly small (it’s a little larger than 11 liters), but it’s worth it for the warmth and comfort it gives!
Some people also prefer to bring a camp pillow along. I’ve never personally been a fan, and I’m usually so tired at the end of a day of hiking that a stuff sack full of extra clothes is perfect!
In addition to Colorado, I’ve spent a good amount of time backpacking in Arizona’s Tonto National Forest. The one thing this forest is best known for is its abundance of cacti, which has not been kind to my air-filled sleeping pads. Because of this, I’ve gone through three different air pads in the last five years, and I’ve had a chance to test out some different options.
Currently, I’m using the Insulated Q-Core SLX by Big Agnes and it’s been my favorite air pad by far! It’s incredibly comfortable, very durable (I’m two years in with this pad!), and it also packs down to about the size of your average Nalgene water bottle.
Recently, Big Agnes has started including an inflation sack with all of its pads as well, making inflating the pads that much easier. My pad didn’t include the bonus inflation sack when I bought it, so my only complaint is that it does take a few minutes to fully inflate it manually. I also love that Big Agnes is based in Steamboat Springs, Colorado!
While I do sometimes backpack alone, I am usually with at least one friend—one person to split a tent with! Because of this, I don’t personally use an ultralight tent and just suck it up and carry a heavier tent when I am alone.
I bought my Marmot Limelight tent two years ago as I was just getting into the sport, and I intended for it to be my entry-level tent until I upgraded to something better. It lasted for years though, maintained its waterproofness, and was quick and easy to set up after a long day of hiking. Because of this, I bought another Limelight when it was time to retire the first (90 days in Arizona’s sun finally did it in), and I have been really happy with the second as well!
I personally think that the Limelight is a great warm-weather option for beginners and experts alike. In a few years when it’s time to upgrade again, I might consider going with something a bit more technical, but I’ve been nothing but pleased with my little Limelight for now!
Water and Filter
Arguably the most important thing to have when backpacking is clean drinking water! I like to keep it light and easy-to-use with an MSR MiniWorks EX water filter. It’s not the fastest or most efficient option out there, but it’s very intuitive to use, takes up very little room in my pack, and is affordable too!
In addition to this little filter, I always make sure that I have at least a few liters of water on me, and I bring along iodine tablets in my first-aid kit in case of an emergency.
As with my water filter, my kitchen setup is mostly MSR gear as well. My stove is a little MSR DragonFly backpacking stove that I found in used condition, and I love how lightweight and small this stove is when packed up! My pot is a small MSR as well, and my utensils are a combination that’s come together over the years.
Navigation and Communication
For years, I went very minimal with my navigation and communication. I carried a detailed topographical map, a compass, and a phone that was turned off 99% of the time. Because I didn’t have more advanced navigation, this also meant that I often stayed on very well-traveled backpacking routes—places where it was easy to stay on trail! As I’ve become more comfortable in the backcountry over the years, I’ve added to my gear and become more comfortable in less-traveled areas.
Now, I carry a small Goal Zero battery pack, downloaded offline maps in case I get off track, and a Garmin Inreach Mini for communication. Although I have never had to use it, the SOS feature on the Garmin gives a lot of peace of mind, and it’s nice to be able to update family and friends on my progress even when I’m far from cell service.
It’s difficult to buy a lightweight first-aid kit that has everything that you personally want in it. Because of this, I bought a basic Adventure Medical Kit years ago and have added to it and replenished it over the years. I love the fact that the kit itself is waterproof, and it definitely has the basics covered while leaving room to customize.
I always add items like tweezers and duct tape to any first-aid kit then personalize it a bit more, depending on the trip. I’ve even brought this kit on international trips, meeting with a doctor to add things like traveler antibiotics and malaria medication before heading out!
Sun and Bug Protection
In Colorado, bug protection is not nearly as much of a priority as sun protection. I usually just bring a tick remover and a lot of sunscreen while backpacking in Colorado, which does the trick when paired with protective sunglasses and a brimmed hat.
In other areas though, I have definitely brought bug spray that is high in deet. Additionally, doing things like wearing pants and long sleeves, as well as limiting the amount of time my tent door is open, have been very helpful. I have never personally tried more natural bug repellents, although I would like to if I ever spend more extended amounts of time in bug-prone areas.
Clothes and Footwear
A common theme throughout most of my gear is to use things until they no longer work, and to thrift and repair things whenever possible. I don’t skimp on certain things, like my Garmin or first-aid kit, but very few of my clothing items have been bought new. I love to hit up local used gear stores while traveling and I’ve built up quite an eclectic collection of used hiking clothes over the years. The biggest things that I look for when buying used hiking clothes are the material of the fabrics (no cotton here!) and the condition of the clothes (I want to get several seasons out of anything I buy).
The most important things that I don’t buy used are socks and shoes. My go-to socks are tall, lightweight wool socks in whichever brand is most on sale—usually REI, Smartwool, or Darn Tough. When it comes to shoes, I rotate between two warm-weather pairs, depending on the hiking conditions. For most trails, I love my Brooks Cascadias—I’m on my third pair of these comfortable trail runners. When the terrain is more technical though, I go for a waterproof, ankle-high pair of Oboz. They aren’t the most stylish, but I’ve found them to be very comfortable and durable too!
I like to bring two headlamps along on every trip that I take, just to have a backup in case I have any issues with the first! Currently, my headlamps of choice are an old Black Diamond Spot (this one is going strong after five years of use!) and a newer, rechargeable BioLite headlamp.
The Spot served me well for many years, and I’ve been really happy with its durability and battery life. I was ready to upgrade to a more sustainable, rechargeable option though, and in the few months that I’ve had the BioLite I’ve liked it quite a bit! I have an upcoming twenty-six-day rafting trip soon, and I’m excited to fully test out the BioLite’s battery capacity while on the river!
Some people get really into the specifics of different knives, and there are plenty of articles going into the exact pros and cons of each option. To me though, a knife is a knife, and I’ve used the same medium-sized Kershaw for about eight years. It looks very similar to Kershaw’s Bareknuckle model, but I’ve owned it for so long that I don’t think the exact model is actually still in production. It gets the job done though, doesn’t need to be sharpened too often, and cleans off easily as well!
So that’s what I bring on most of my backpacking trips here in Colorado! The specifics have changed a bit over time, but my priorities generally remain the same when choosing what gear to bring on the next adventure. If you’re packing for your first backpacking trip, I suggest going through the checklist of “The Ten Essentials” in this Hiking 101: Everything You Need to Know article. This is a great list to ensure that you have everything you’ll need before setting out, and I still consult this checklist before heading out myself!