Well, I not biased, except when it comes to gear/brands I can depend on (35+ years of experience here, soloist/survivalist, land and sea).
First, decide what kind of hiker you are; day hiker, distance hiker, wilderness hiker (if you're a beginner, you're NOT a bushwhacker or soloist!). I presume you want to be a wilderness hiker (for now, you are NOT ready to solo!!)
If you're talking about "ground up" gear, ALWAYS start with your [clothing] layers!! Your clothes are your first, last, BEST protection against exposure, in a survival situation, they are ALSO your shelter.
Buy the best layers (underwear, base, thermal, rain) you can afford. But but SEASON SPECIFIC, meaning the layers you use for summer are not necessarily the same for winter. The main differences being your winter clothes should be bulkier and have a slightly looser fit. With this set, you should be able to wear ALL your layers at once, so buy your base layers first and bring them to the store (and WEAR them) when you're ready to buy your thermal and rain layers.
Summer layers are lighter and can be more fitted, but should dry quickly. No need to be able to wear all your summer layers, unless it gets cold at night.
Next is your sleep system, starting with your sleeping PAD. Whether you're just trying to be comfortable, or you need to survive, you MUST get off the ground! Again, buy the best, highest rated (R-value) pad you can afford!! THEN you can buy your sleeping bag/quilt.
NOW you're ready to buy your shelter system. Starting with your bag/quilt, and including your shelter, pack, etc., your choices become more your own. These items depend on your own preferences, taste, style, and so on. Before you even THINK about shopping, KNOW what your needs and standards are!
For example, I'm a wilderness hiker, I often go into the backcountry for weeks at a time, solo, so I demand dependability above all other considerations. However, good gear costs good money! That's not to say you can't can't have a good time with cheap c***p from the dollar store, just that good gear costs good money!! It’s not that I mind spending money, but I DO mind wasting money. So, buy once, cry once!!! (of course, REI does have a great return policy 🙂 ).
But "things" are absolutely NOT the key to being safe or having fun, those things come from KNOWING WHAT YOU'RE DOING!!! Get experienced!! Don't do ANYTHING that's above your skill level and always go with at least one other person (preferably two).
Hi @Mac, I'm so excited to hear that you are interested in the backcountry!
I agree with everything that has been said so far, and want to emphasize what @SurvivalGal about being aware of your current skill level. It is extremely important to gather knowledge, training, and experience prior to soloing in the backcountry. If you don't already day hike, start with that. Build up your stamina and get used to navigating unpaved surfaces before adding a heavy pack on your back. Once you're comfortable, do some day hikes with a weighted backpack so you can get the feel of it (and, again, build up your stamina!). From there, navigate to short backpacking trips (several of 1-2 days, then 3-5 days, then 6+ days) - NOTE: Do NOT do this solo at first - find someone trustworthy and experienced who can help serve as a mentor while also accompanying you on trail! After you feel comfortable with all of your gear, how to locate water sources, navigate, etc., then you're (probably) ready to solo (but again, only take this step once you feel confident and ready!). Again, start small, with short backpacking trips. Build your way up to extended trips in the backcountry.
A couple of other members mentioned the "10 essentials," but you may be wondering what they are. Here is a link to the 10 essentials for camping & hiking. Below, I am just going to do a quick run through on the 10 essentials and add some gear suggestions from my personal arsenal. Again, a LOT of the items for backcountry hiking and camping will be weather- and season-dependent, so once you have a trip in mind (or are able to tell us what the climate is like this time of year where you live/plan to be in the outdoors), let us know and I'm sure the community will have a bunch of great advice that can be more specifically given!
This item is extremely important. Not only is it important to have, however, but it is equally crucial to know how to use all of your navigation pieces of equipment. The extent of your navigation equipment arsenal will depend a lot on the trip you are doing (location, no. of days, no. of people with you, etc.), so once you have a trip in mind you can better prepare this category. However, NO MATTER WHAT, ALWAYS have a map and compass with you. SAT phones are also great if you will be somewhere remote and without cell reception. Although not navigation per say, if I am in the backcountry with another person (or multiple other people), I like to carry radios. My personal favorite are the Midland TT61VP3 36-Channel GMRS 2-Way Radios (sold as a pair), which are rechargeable but also work with regular batteries.
Ahhhh another important category. Even if you aren't planning to be out after dark, always bring some sort of lighting with you in the off-chance you find yourself in a bind (injury, lost, etc.) and have to stay the night. While flashlights are great, I personally prefer headlamps, as they keep your hands available for navigating terrain/working on your gear/setting up camp AND they automatically point your light in the direction you are looking. I have used PETZL's ACTIK CORE headlamp for years and prefer it over all of the other headlamps I have tried. An added bonus is that this headlamp comes with a rechargeable battery (save the environment!), although it still works with regular AAA batteries. ALWAYS bring spare batteries for anything that requires them, but this is especially important when it comes to lighting. I typically bring 2 rechargeable batteries for my headlamp (and a lightweight battery pack that allows me to recharge batteries on the trail), as well as 3 spare AAA batteries (the amount the headlamp requires). I also recommend always having at least 2 light sources (not only for comfort, but in case something happens to one of the light sources that prevents it from working properly). Usually this is just a second headlamp (since I can also hang this off of trees/my tent to function as a lantern), but if I am feeling pampered, I'll bring Black Diamond's MOJI lantern, which is super small and lightweight, but provides a good amount of light (I usually hang this inside my tent). Lastly, make sure to buy lighting that is waterproof or keep your non-waterproof lighting dry at all times (Dry bags are great for keeping things dry. Personally, I love the dry bags made by Sea to Summit)!
3. Sun Protection
Even if you are somewhere cloudy, the sun's harmful UV rays will still penetrate the atmosphere. Thus, it's crucial to always carry sun protection. I typically wear sun protective clothes (aka with UV protection - you will know if a piece of clothing has this because it will say) to reduce the amount of sunscreen I have to use/carry (basically only putting the sunscreen on any exposed skin). Here is an example of the shirts that REI carries for men with sun-protective fabric (this is something you can filter on the left side of the webpage). Sunglasses are also important, especially if you are somewhere sunny or snowy. Again, look for sunglasses that offer UV protection.
4. First Aid
For me, arguably the most important category. When you start shopping around for your first aid kit (or looking up items in order to make a homemade one - this is what I often use, or buy a commercial kit and supplement as I see fit), keep in mind that while it is important what items are in your kit, even more important is knowing how to use those items and how to address (and prevent!) injuries if they arise (aka First Aid training!). I would highly recommend taking some sort of first aid training course prior to your adventures in the backcountry. Try to find one that is oriented towards the outdoors, such as the Wilderness First Aid course offered by NOLS (I have taken this course, as well as NOLS' Wilderness Medicine/First Responder course in the past - and have active certification as a Wilderness First Responder - and would highly recommend them). For your current purposes, I surmise that the basic Wilderness First Aid course would be sufficient, as it does not go as in-depth into everything as the Wilderness Medicine/First Responder course, but still gives you a solid working knowledge of preventing and addressing injuries in the wilderness/backcountry. Moreover, by taking a first aid course geared towards the outdoors, you will learn how to use the non-first aid items in your backpack as tools in your first aid kit.
What you have in your first aid kit will also depend greatly on your trip (no. of people, location, no. of days, etc.), but always make sure your first aid kit is kept dry at all times! Here is a link to an ongoing discussion in this community of first aid kits on the trail, which you might take a look at. Another note - if you will be in bear country, make sure you adequately prepare (bear spray, what to do in a bear encounter, bear bag/container, etc.) - last thing you want is to have an unpleasant encounter with one!
5. Knife/Gear Repair Kit
Knives are useful for so many things, so always carry one on you! Also make sure you have the items necessary to repair your most essential gear if something happens to it on the trail.
Having the ability to make a fire is important, as it allows you not only to cook, but also keeps you warm. I typically carry waterproof matches on me, and, if in a place that allows fires, typically utilize nature for the rest (dead, fallen wood & sticks/needles/mushrooms on trees for kindling). I always bring a small backpacking stove with ample fuel as well, however, as this is a lot easier and faster to cook with, and ensures you can prepare your food even if you are unable to make a fire.
7. Shelter/Sleep System
This may look like a lot of things depending on your preferences, experience, and the type of trip. Other things to consider are weight, durability, and seasonality (your gear requirements will typically change based on season/climate). Some people choose to sleep in hammocks. Others use tens. Some even use a basic bivy or tarp shelters. Others even choose to forego the shelter and simply sleep under the stars in their sleeping bag! Personally I typically use a tent, sleeping pad, and sleeping bag. I typically recommend that, if using a tent, you always use one designed for one more person than the number of people on the trail (i.e. if I am soloing, I use a 2-person; if I am with a friend, we use a 3-person, etc.). This helps ensure ample space and room for your gear if the weather is not ideal (cold, rainy, etc.). I also tend to bring a hammock if in an area with ample trees, as it provides a great place to sit (especially if the ground is wet).
If you look in the camping and backpacking sections of this community, you will find lots of posts detailing recommended sleep systems and shelters. Here is also a non-REI link (since @REI-JenK already provided some from REI) about sleep systems. When searching for what to buy, be sure to look for items meant for backpacking rather than simply camping. Although these items tend to be on the expensive side, it is definitely worth investing, as this is some of your most important gear. Below are some of the items I tend (and love) to use in the backcountry:
- Aeros Ultralight Pillow (by Sea to Summit) (also sold at REI)
- Igneo 17 Sleeping Bag (by REI Co-op) (I linked the men's bag, but I use the women's)
- Quarter Dome and Half Dome Tent Series (2) by REI Co-op
- Lynx Tent (by ALPS Mountaineering) (here is a link to the 1-P version of the tent)
- Pro Hammock (by Sea to Summit)
8-10. Extra Food/Water/Clothes
It is essential to have extras of all of these things, as you never know when something might happen that causes you to have to stay longer in the wilderness, that causes you to soak a pair of clothes (yes, falling over in stream crossings is a thing haha), or even the unexpected of your expected water source being non-filterable or nonexistent. With that being said, be sure to find a water filter or purifier that fits your needs (sometimes this is even trip/location-dependent).
However, you don't want to be dependent on water sources that may or may not actually be there when you are there (due to drought, frozen ice, etc.), and you want to have something to store water in once it's filtered. I typically bring a 6L water reservoir (or larger/multiple if I need to carry/store more water at a time) and a 2L or 3L hydration bladder (for easy water access while hiking - it's important to stay hydrated!). My favorite 6L water reservoir is the MSR Dromlight Bag (they also make smaller liter versions of this bag). Water reservoirs are great because they are compactible - you don't have extra space being taken up by air - and offer versatility in terms of how much water you store/carry at a time!
I would also highly recommend looking into electrolyte tablets. Personally, I use the sport and vitamin tablets by Nuun (also sold at REI), as they help ensure my electrolytes are balanced, I stay hydrated, and get the vitamins I need (which you don't always get with backpacking food). Even better, they pack well, are super light, and taste good!
If you have a specific trip in mind or gear questions, don't be afraid to ask. I (and others in the community I'm sure) would be happy to help!
one or more gifts or other benefits from the co-op.
The topic of navigation has been touched on several times in this thread by @hikermor and @bryndsharp , but I can't emphasize this enough! It is very crucial to study the trail(s) you will be taking and understand certain waypoints, trail crossings, water sources, etc along the rout. A topo map is very good for this and most of them will identify critical landmarks along the trail. Not only studying the map, but do a simple google search on the hike you'll be going on in order to get the most up to date information from previous hikers that have recently done the trail. You'll find there are an abundance of forums out there where you can obtain first hand experience from other hikers on the trail you'll be going on. Learn basic navigation skills (map and compass) from youtube videos or REI events that your local store puts on for free!
Doing this homework (studying the trail) along with your map and compass will be Plan A. IF your map is printed out on a standard piece of paper, place this in a zip lock bag to protect it from the elements. I'd recommend a Plan B of using your cell phone if/when you are lost or are having a hard time navigating with the map and compass. I know this is not the old school form of navigation, but it'd behoove you to take advantage of modern technology if you're in a pinch. There are several Map Apps out there that you can use which do not require Cell Phone Reception, and a lot of these apps have an abundance of back country trails on them. My personal favorite is "Maps.Me". It is free to download and I've used this on the Pacific Coast, The Appalachians, Southeast Asia, Europe, South America....you get the point. You simply download the area you'll be traveling while you have cell reception and you can use this as you study your physical map. Maps.Me is really good because it has a TON of back country trails on it along with critical landmarks and waypoints. Just be sure to turn your cell phone off or put it in Airplane mode when you're not using it to conserve battery. I REPEAT, RELYING ON YOUR CELL PHONE FOR NAGIVATION IS NOT PLAN A....what happens if your cell phone battery dies (I always carry a portable charger for emergencies, but even that is not 100% reliable in the wilderness)? You still have to rely on critical map and compass navigation skills.
one or more gifts or other benefits from the co-op.
@Mac, As I've said in other threads, getting lost continues to be a major reason for Seach And Rescue missions, so you should avail yourself of every reasonable option to mitigate the possipossibility. That said, I would disagree with @tadoerner regarding the smartphone as follows:
First, I use (and highly urge) people to bring their smartphone for a NUMBER of reasons, but as to "navigation", I most definitely consider it my go-to or "plan-A" method of navigation. However, it is not my ONLY method of navigation! NOTE: I prefer, and recommend, an app' called Backcountry Navigator (the name speaks for itself!), or "BN app".
Why? Using a map & compass while you're MOVING on the trail is both cumbersome and dangerous. If NOT moving, it's cumbersome and time consuming. Easier to simply pull out the phone and LOOK... task accomplished! But that's not all there is to it for me.
If you have enough experience, you'll notice all maps are not created equally. Maps, at best, are snapshots in time, they reflect what the cartographer knows at the moment. But trails, old and new, get missed, change, and so go out of date, but not all maps show all these variables. So what I do, is I look at several maps, and make notes/changes to the map in my BN app.
Next, I make the relevant notations for my chosen course on my paper map, but I use ONLY waterproof paper! (yes, you can buy waterproof printer paper, but you need a laser printer).
Then, I STUDY my course, committing key aspects to memory (if not the entire course) every chance I get. Another advantage for a smartphone, it's always with you. Why? Batteries go dead and paper can be blown away, but as the saying goes, "The more you know, the less you carry."
When I'm on the trail, the studying doesn't stop, I NEVER go for a day or two, it's more likely a week or two (or more), so I'll review the next day's hike the night before to refresh my memory and work out possible detours. Why? As good as your research may be, as through as your maps may be, maps can NOT tell you the CURRENT condition of the trail!
The trail may have been wiped out with landslide or flooding, there may be tree-fall or overgrowth, or you may just not pay attention and get LOST, and THAT is when you need to know The Lost Rule and be able to competently evaluate which of The Eight Reorienting Strategies. To say nothing of envisioning "MENTAL maps" along the way!
Now that I've peaked your curiosity, Illeave you with "Safety is NOT an accident, it is an intended, mindful effort!!"