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Don't Leave Home Without It: 17 Backpacking Fundamentals

Updated: Nov 25, 2019

Article and Photography by Brent Robillard

Adirondacks, New York
Approaching the Summit of Mount Haystack, Adirondacks, New York

I came across an old photo of my son the other day. He was peeking out from the flap of our two-person tent and smiling, exuberant, ready to face the day. I felt an immediate pang of nostalgia and love. But I was also struck by two things in this photograph other than my longing to have that moment back. 1) How young and small Sebastien was, and 2) How very far from civilization we were in that moment.

I took that picture at Slant Rock Lean To in the Adirondacks. We were 10 kilometres from The Garden Trailhead in Keene Valley and more than 12 kilometres from the nearest settlement. We were in the middle of 26 kilometre hike to Mount Haystack, out and back.

As I looked at that photograph, I wondered aloud, “What was I thinking?”

Sebastien was about eleven years old at the time. It was not our first backpacking trip to the Adirondacks. In fact, I recall wilderness camping with a six-year-old version of my son at Bob’s Cove in Charleston Lake Provincial Park. He’s always been a trooper.

But constitution and ruggedness aside, the thing that makes backpacking most safe and secure—and therefore joyful and memorable—is preparedness. Sebastien and I will be returning to the Adirondacks this summer to tackle 8 peaks over three days in The Great Range. And I have already begun planning.

With the slow return of good weather (it is freezing rain in April as I write this), I am sure that many of you are planning similar adventures. Maybe your first.


The following list contains my go to fundamentals for a successful backpacking wilderness adventure. If you think something is missing, or you have a favourite piece of gear, share it with us in the comments section:

1. MEC CAMPER TWO-PERSON TENT I am a huge fan of the Mountain Equipment Coop. Hand in hand with Lee Valley, it is my favourite store. Their combination of economy and quality is next to none, and they are good for the planet too. I have had my MEC tent for a decade. It is as good as the day I bought it. It’s lightweight (2kg) and folds away to almost nothing. If it's just you and you really want to travel light (and on a budget), try the ALPS MOUNTAINEERING LYNX 1-PERSON TENT.

2. MEC MEN’S FORGE 65 BACKPACK Like my tent, my backpack is ten-years-old. You can’t find it in the stores. But it’s a 65L MEC bag very similar to this newer model. Sixty-five litres is a good-sized weekend bag and can be expanded to handle more gear if you are looking at a longer trip. It has a detachable pouch which can double as a day bag, which I love. And like I said, mine’s been kicked around for a decade already. You get your money’s worth and more. Another economical choice offering many of the same options and configurations is the TETON SPORTS SCOUT 3400. And if budget is not option, try the Arc'teryx BORA AR 63.

3. TETON SPORTS LEEF MUMMY BAG You will see a frugal trend here. A lot of money can be spent on a sleeping bag, but the Teton Sports LEEF, under $100, is an incredible value. It’s rated to -18 degrees Celsius, and I use it year-round. As I age, there are certain comforts I can’t give up. Heat is one of them. My sleep depends on it. The bag is also less than 2kg (which is not bad for a winter bag). If summer camping is your deal, try the TETON Sports Tracker Ultralight.

4. WOODS BASE REST SELF-INFLATING MATTRESS I used to sleep on the ground, but not anymore. Warmth and comfort are high on my list of priorities. Woods brand and Canadian Tire were once synonymous with cheap, but since its purchase of SportChek and Atmosphere, the chain has really begun to produce quality gear that doesn’t break the bank. The ECOTEK OUTDOORS HYBERN8, which has a unique pocket-coil design, also receives good reviews.

5. EMERGENCY KIT Over the years I have put together my own waterproof kit. Outside first aid materials, it has Duct Tape and Duct tape tent patches, a sewing kit, fishing line and lure, water purification tablets, waterproof matches, striking flint, steel wool (fire starter), zip-ties, twist ties, bug spray, sun block, 20ft of nylon cord, flares, etc. I even store my toiletries here. It sits in my pack ready to hit the trail.

6. GARCIA BACKPACKER’S CACHE It’s illegal to camp in the Adirondacks without a bear barrel to store your food. Some parks provide backwoods caches at their wilderness sites, others don't. You can get a carrying case for it, as well. I take it wherever I go. Although I have never had a bad bear encounter, the Garcia pulled through with coyotes once…

7. PLATYPUS I carry a 3L reservoir and purification tablets for refills. After some disappointing leakages in the past, I have settled upon Platypus and never been disappointed. It doesn’t hurt to also carry a metal water bottle, as well.

8. PRIMUS CLASSIC TRAIL LPG STOVE I have the smallest, simplest stove setup possible, fueled by isobutane. It is nonetheless indispensable. Dehydrated meals by MOUNTAIN HOUSE and BACKPACKER’S PANTRY slip easily into the Garcia, too.

9. MSR QUICK 2 SYSTEM Compact, non-stick, lightweight cookware is the way to go. This set comes with mugs and deep-dish plates, as well. All you need to add is a SPORK.

10. LEATHERMAN Honestly, I bought it for the name years ago. But it has been a trusty companion ever since. I am frugal, but not when it comes to steel. On the trail, you need a multi-tool.

11. WOODS CARBON TREKKING POLES Some people forego poles, but on long treks and on the mountains, a good set of poles offers significant knee relief. I find them invaluable on a descent. Black Diamond Pro Shock Trekking Poles are some of the best lightweight carbon poles on the market, but they cost $149. WOODS CARBON TREKKERS are half the price and weigh less than a pound!

12. BIOLIGHT RECHARGEABLE 330 HEADLAMP Hands-free is the only way to be when fumbling in the dark. And this little lamp is rechargeable.

13. GETIHU POWERBANK Speaking of rechargeable! I have my phone for emergencies, but I use it most for photos. I wouldn’t want to miss a moment. A portable charger is light and could be a lifesaver.

14. MICROFIBER TOWEL My son taught me that part of the adventure was slowing down to enjoy it. That means taking a dip in those mountain pools…and then having to dry off.

15. SCARPA or MERRELL HIKING SHOES This might be my most controversial item. I am a fan of minimalist shoes. Whenever possible, I use my Merrell Trail Gloves. For bigger hikes, I still use a shoe, albeit sturdier; I swear by the Scarpa Mojito. I do use boots in the winter, but I am simply more comfortable in a shoe.

16. CAMP SHOES/SANDALS I have Virbram Five Fingers for life around the camp, but also in case I do want to go swimming. It’s nice to change shoes at the end of a long day and going barefoot is asking for trouble.

17. VERSATILE CLOTHES I like stretchable, water repellent shorts and hiking specific pants with reinforced knees and seats. Arc'teryx makes great base layers and you can’t go wrong with a Merino Hoodie and rainproof wind shell. Toss in a ball cap, a few T-shirts, a pair sun glasses and you’re set.

And older version of Sebastien, Frontenac Provincial Park

What do you think is missing? What's your favourite gear? Leave a comment below and let us know. Happy trails!

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