This gear is smarter, lighter and more thoroughly tested than your typical buyer’s guide. Enjoy our picks of the best light and practical gear in our 2018 Smart Gift Guide for Hikers and Backpackers.
- There’s cool gear from smaller manufacturer and cottage gear you may not know about—gear that’s innovative and lighter—near and dear to our lightweight/practical philosophy.
- And yes, there’s some light gear from mainstream companies.
- Finally, there are more offerings of gear that we particularly love like down jackets and cameras (including a bunch of smartphone accessories for backpacking).
Price Categories — Gift Guide for Hikers and Backpackers
Inexpensive Gifts $3-$30
Keep it cheap and simple. Ultralight backpacking is about simplicity: a little can go a long way!
Black Diamond Cosmo Headlamp – $29 at REI
A headlamp under $30 that’s still bright enough to hike difficult trails at night. Dimmed it’s perfect for weeks and weeks of camp use. But run it on high power and you have all the safety and security that comes with having a reliable light source that shines a beam a long way for 30 hours—just in case you need to make that emergency exit! Weighing in at 2.9 oz with batteries, it’s one of the lightest night-travel-worthy headlamps on the market.
TOAKS 450 ml Ti Mug – a great deal for $20!
A caffeinated backpacker is a happy backpacker! Enjoy your morning coffee with minimal weight penalty in this durable, lightweight, attractive titanium mug. A backpacker can never have too much titanium… or coffee.
Titanium is a backpacker’s best friend! Digging the last morsels out of the bottom of a bag of freeze dried food is challenging with most utensils. Enter Toaks’ long-handled titanium spoon. It can easily reach those faraway corners, providing you all the needed calories to keep you hiking. It’s light at only 15 g (0.5 oz), durable, and won’t put holes in freezer bags like a spork.
White Sierra Alpha Beta Quarter Zip (100 wt) – $17 – $59 at Amazon
or TNF TKA 100 Glacier 1/4 Zip Pullover at Amazon
Possibly the best clothing layer ever. A 100 wt fleece shirt is my go to favorite mid-layer—goes on every trip! For more see my “Top Mistakes Using the Layering System – How to Stay Warmer and Drier.” Sadly it appears that 100 wt fleece shirts like this are a dying breed so it’s best to buy one now.
This is a lightweight, inexpensive fleece that blocks the wind reasonably well. With an appropriate layering scheme, this can replace the need for a wind jacket for me entirely! I find that in cool weather (where a layering system is most useful) a fleece shirt is better. For almost the same weight of a windshirt, a light 100 weight fleece shirt has a greater temperature range for comfort — which means fewer clothing changes. And a thin fleece doesn’t trap moisture in the same way as windshirt.
Windproof Fleece Fingerless Gloves – $10-$15
These inexpensive gloves come with me on virtually every backpacking trip. I wear them around camp to stay warm while keeping dexterity for camp chores. These are lightweight, durable, and warm – everything you’d want from a glove!
DeFeet Duraglove ET – $17-20
These durable liner gloves come with electronic touch to help you interact with smartphones and other touchscreen devices without removing your warm gloves. They use abrasion-resistant Cordura, are lightweight, warm, and still stretch to fit your hands. They come in a variety of exciting colors, as well as tamer black or white options. Although you likely never loose the neon yellow ones!
Outdoor Research Option Balaclava – $28 at REI
A simple, lightweight balaclava, this will keep your head and face warm against the cold. If it’s not super cold, you can roll it up to wear as a beanie. At 1.8 oz, it’s a lightweight way to keep your head and face warm.
Smartwool Cuffed Beanie – $20 at REI
This beanie is just the thing if you aren’t into balaclavas. It keeps your noggin warm without overheating and has a nice cuff to keep your ears warm. Not too bulky it fits as nicely under hoods and is comfortable to wear. And of course it’s made of incredibly warm, soft and natural merino wool, that will last for years!
Darn Tough Socks – $15-$25
Stuff your stockings with… stockings! These merino-wool-based socks come in many types from stretchier ultralight running socks up to padded knee-high ski socks. There are Men’s and Women’s socks. We recommend the ultralight cushion varieties, like the ultralight 1/4 sock with cushion. These have a little more cushion to keep your feet feeling fresh even after long miles, and stretch that keeps them form-fitting when wet. The best part is, these Vermont-made socks come with the best warranty in the business: if you manage to wear through a pair (and I never have), send ‘em back and they will send you a new pair!
Smartwool Run Elite PhD Socks – $18 at REI
These are Smartwool’s smartest socks. They have a nice fit which they retain well even when wet and moving fast. They have good underfoot cushion, and seem to be fairly durable. If you’re moving fast, or running, the Run Elite Low Cut socks are difficult to beat. Socks are a more personal thing, and fit is important. These size quite differently than the Darn Tough socks, so be sure to check sizing charts!
This knife is lightweight, but functional. While there are lighter knives, if you’re going to carry a knife into the woods, you may as well be able to cut salami and cheese with it! This knife gets the job done in a lightweight, no-frills, locking folding frame.
This monocular is a great tool for scouting and occasional wildlife spotting. It’s inexpensive and will help you scout a route across the valley, or help you identify those white flecks on the shoulders of a Boreal Owl. At 2 oz. it’s light enough that you’ll want to take it with you!
This is my go-to hydration system. With the Squeeze, you can just fill up the bladder, and drink normally. Carrying heavy filters or waiting for chemical water treatments is more tiring, time consuming, and frustrating than your would realize if you haven’t yet used the Sawyer Squeeze. Its 0.1 micron filter removes all the nasties and yuckies that occur in water in North America (add chemical treatment to kill viruses in more exotic locations). What’s more, at only 3 oz, it’s likely to save you weight by allowing you to carry less water, and drink when you reach a stream.
Sawyer Filter Squeeze Pouches 3-pack – $9 at REI
This is the perfect accompaniment to the Sawyer Squeeze water filter. These pouches fit perfectly on the Sawyer filter systems, fill relatively easily, and each comes with its own cap. Occasionally these pouches spring leaks (usually after a lot of wear), and it can be good to have a backup. It’s also a great way to increase water-carrying capacity when water sources are far between.
Sometimes arm-length selfies just won’t do. When trying to take a picture with your phone far away, it’s a lot easier to use a remote shutter release than to set a timer, then run around like a crazy person trying to get in the frame on time. Set your phone up with a nice little tripod (below), position yourself properly, and hit the shutter when the time is right!
JOBY GripTight Micro Stand – $23
This perfectly sized battery pack will take your phone from zero to hero… twice! It comes with a built-in USB cable to plug straight into your phone or other electronics. What’s more, this battery charges faster than most competition allowing a 2A input, and is one of the lighter options around, making it perfect for most backpackers for up to a week in the wild!
This tiny little speaker packs 12 hours of music or audio into a portable 3.2 oz package. This little device can let you happily listen to an audiobook, or music in camp with your tentmate or friends, all with a small weight penalty, easy micro-USB charging (as with the EasyAcce battery pack!), and convenient Bluetooth connectivity for use with a smartphone. This is especially nice on the longer nights of the fall, winter, and spring, when the darkness in camp can feel unending!
Gaia GPS smartphone app – $20
Use your smartphone for navigation! Using this app on my phone has completely supplanted standalone GPS units for me. Gaia GPS is the standard backcountry GPS navigation tool for iOS (Apple smartphones), and after a new release this year, it is fully capable on Android smartphones as well. Gaia allows loading of GPS data, tracking, and map loading for offline use with many different layers available (similar to Caltopo). This is perfect in conjunction with a caltopo.com subscription!
Caltopo mapping service – $20-$50
This is, quite simply, the best mapping tool on the market. Though it has free capabilities, a subscription allows users to store plotted routes and share them, as well as a number of printable .pdf maps generated from their routes. The $20 subscription is plenty for all but the most serious outdoors-people. Caltopo supports many map layers including USGS, USFS, ArcGIS, Google satellite imagery, as well as snap-to-trails with USFS and OSM sources. Along with Gaia GPS above, this has totally transformed the way I plan trips.
FiLMiC Pro – FiLMiC Inc – $20
This superb app is the best video app available for the iPhone. It supports full manual, shooting modes (and auto or semi-auto), including typical studio video frame rates, up to high speed (240 fps) frame rates. 2K, and 3K video modes are supported for phones that can handle it, histograms, post-processing, support for 35 mm lens adapters, and much more. This app has it all, and is constantly under development to ensure support for the newest features. If you shoot video on your iPhone, this is a must-have app!
Good-to-go meals – $6.75-11.50 per pouch
These meals are some of the best on the market. They are hearty, healthy, and require only boiling water, perfect for those lightweight alcohol stoves we love to carry. The meals are made in Maine, and are totally delicious! Many are vegetarian, and the meals come in single serving or double serving sizes, to fit bigger trail appetites. Of course, these go well with the titanium long-handled spoon above!
Pro Bar Meal Bar – $3
Pro Bar Meal bars are truly single-serving meals. They pack over 350 calories, 8-9 g protein, and plenty of fats and salts into a trim 3 oz package. These will keep you going! So why not get a few different flavors, and stuff the bottoms of those stockings, as well as a backpacker’s stomach?
Dirty Girl Gaiters – $23
Not just for Girls! These lightweight, running shoe gaiters are perfect for keeping twigs, rocks, and dust out of your trail shoes. What’s more, they will keep your shoelaces from snagging on twigs and other detritus, leaving them tied snugly all day long! They come in a variety of bright, colorful, and imaginative colors and patterns, as well as plain options. They come with a kit to attach to any shoes, but several trail running shoes have built-in “gaiter traps” made to attach to these gaiters (e.g. Altra Superior 2.0 and Altra Lonepeak). Made by hand right here in the USA, Dirty Girl Gaiters are the perfect gift for the trail runner, backpacker, or hiker in your life!
Fischer Space Pen – $15
When you need to take notes, this pen will work. Even if it’s bitterly cold, or wet, or you’re upside down. It’s solidly built and features a retractable tip and replaceable ink cartridges. And if you get lost, and accidentally wander onto a rocket, this pen will even work in space!
Even if you’re not John Muir, it can be nice to keep a few trail notes. This paper won’t tear, won’t bleed, and won’t get soggy and rip in the rain. Write in the rain! This is perfectly paired with the Fischer Space Pen above for all-purpose, all-weather writing.
This stuff will fix just about anything. It’s perfect for stopping up holes in your tent, patching a tear in a rain jacket, or even keeping a wool shirt from unraveling. Duct tape is nice, but doesn’t work nearly as well in the woods. This stuff will keep your gear going, try as you might to beat it up.
Ultrapod Ultralight Tripod – $12 (for point and shoots)
This tiny little Arca-Swiss tripod mount is the perfect companion to the Ultrapod Ultralight Tripod above, and works perfectly with the Peak Designs Capture Clip. It’s light at 1.8 oz, and holds an Arca-Swiss mounted camera steadily.
Digital Kitchen Scale – $15
Few tasks in cutting backpack weight are as instructive as weighing out all of the gear in your pack, and taking stock. This scale can handle weights up to 15 lbs and down to 1 g. Like everything in an ultralight backpacker’s kit, this piece of gear serves dual purpose. Use it to weigh your gear, or use it in the kitchen, making those delectable meals you need to sustain you on the trail.
These scissors are airplane carry-on safe, and do most of what you’d normally do with a knife. They open packages, and cut tape and bandages for first-aid needs. Even if you don’t need a knife to cut your salami, it can be useful to have a cutting tool. Keeping things simple when out in the woods can pay off with such a lightweight (0.9 oz) and inexpensive tool.
REI Ultralite Packtowel – $15
This face-sized packtowel is just right. It’s not too big so you never bother taking it with you, but it makes for a great multi-purpose backpacking tool for wiping condensation off of tent walls. It also works for drying face and hands, or drying pots. Since these towels are easy to wring out, you could even use it to dry off after a quick dip in an alpine lake.
These aluminum y-stakes work much better than the stakes that typically come with tents. They will keep your tent or tarp locked down even through the windiest nights. The triangular construction is strong, durable, and holds well in soil. Many tarps set up with 4-6 stakes, so this package should provide anchorage to spare.
These batteries often power headlamps (like the fantastic BD Ion above!), GPS beacons, and other backcountry gadgets. While these batteries may seem pricy, they are totally worth it. These are both the lightest on the market, and also store the most energy. In fact, they weigh over 60% less than alkaline batteries! They also work better than alternatives at colder temps, so your headlamp will shine the way as long as possible. Ultimate is about right.
Be sure to check out the other Price Categories Guides as well
Price Categories — Gift Guide for Hikers and Backpackers
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