Backpacking for Beginners: Tent, Sleeping Bags, and Packs

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Greg and I love backpacking. We are at our marital best when we’re on the trail (not always, sometimes we hike too far for too long or my shoulder hurts or we try and rush or I spill the eggs at breakfast or don’t help set up the tent in the rain because I’d rather go talk to the neighbors or Greg forgets our silk sack or I forget my hat and gloves and obviouslyitsnotalwaysperfect). But it is without a doubt our favorite activity together.

We love hiking with others too, and especially newbies so we can try to brainwash them into loving the backcountry as much as we do. We have plenty of friends and family who would rather have nothing to do with the trail, and that’s okay, but for those of you who think you might love it, I wanted to share some of our methods, tips, and gear to pique your interest and hopefully get you into a tent with us. Well, not with us. Maybe beside us. We don’t share our tent with anyone else, as you’re about to find out.

Join us on our week long trip into Wyoming’s Wind River Range to see just how we Warckens make it warck:

The first thing I do before any backpacking trip is make a list (or a pile) of all the things we can’t live without. Number one being a tent, number two being a sleeping bag. Anything else is pretty much a luxury. Side note: One time Greg and I hiked six miles through thigh deep snow to a cabin in Alaska only to realize neither of us had grabbed the food bag. Luckily it was just for one night and I had the snack bag on me, so we did have some trail mix for dinner, and dark chocolate and emergency Ramen for breakfast. That hasn’t happened since.

Heading toward Jackass Pass from the Big Sandy trailhead. Hope you don’t mind shots from behind, because there’s a lot of them on this post. You can thank Gregory for that.
See, I told you.

Greg and I got married the summer I turned 30 (2013), and I’ll tell you what, mister, there are some real advantages to getting together later in life: Most importantly we were both established backpackers + a skier/snowboarder so we brought our own gear to the marriage. We had everything we needed to live already, so our wedding money got to go to new, ‘married’ gear. Our first major purchase together was the Big Agnes Cabin Creek 15° synthetic dual sleeping bag. Yes, that’s right, we snuggle like a couple of kittens even in the backcountry. This particular sleeping bag doesn’t work without sleeping pads, as there is no insulation on the bottom of the bag (to save weight and space in your pack), so our second major purchase was a Therm-a-Rest NeoAir to match the one Greg already had.

I lied about tent and sleeping bag being numbers one and two. I suppose most importantly is a pack to carry everything in. Since I was old enough to decide for myself, I’ve always used Osprey packs in the front- and backcountry. I don’t know, I just like them. I found my current pack, the Ariel 55, on clearance at a little gear store in Montana a few years ago and really love it. It’s not too heavy when it’s empty, and the lid detaches to turn into a fanny pack when I want to dayhike. And it’s cute and blue, which is obviously important to me. Another side note: Greg and I are minimalists in real life, but not in the backcountry. We like what we like and we pack in what we want. This is by no means an ultra-lightweight backpacking post, but we do have lots of tips for trimming ounces where we feel they don’t matter.

When it rains I cover my pack with an oversized Osprey rain cover to keep all my essentials dry. Gregory has used a Gregory Forester for years and says he doesn’t love it, but likes that it has a separate sleeping bag compartment and is fairly tolerable on the trail. I think he keeps it so he won’t forget his name. He covers his with an extra large Osprey rain cover too.

Look Ma, no heavy pack!

Before we were married, Greg had a two- (really a one) man ultra lightweight Tarptent, and I had a 2-man tent and a 3-man tent, both from Mountain Hardwear that I had bought in 2005 and 2009 respectively. The Tarptent, while super light and luxurious for Greg, made me damn-near suicidal every time we used it. It was so small on the inside that it was impossible not to touch the walls, and if it rained during the night or was super humid out one brush against a wall would pour water down on my head, or my clothes, or our sleeping bag. There’s only one thing I hate worse than being cold, and that’s being cold and wet. I told Greg if we didn’t come up with another tent I was going to reconsider our marriage. My tents were out of the question because the 2-man’s taped (waterproof) seams had all been flaking off, and the 3-man suffered a huge rip during our honeymoon hike up Montana’s highest mountain, Granite Peak. So let’s see- that’s suicidal tendencies, non-waterproof, and huge hole. I decided to try my luck and send my tents back to Mountain Hardwear’s warranty department. A guy called me from there a few weeks later.

MH Guy: I’m from the warranty department at Mountain Hardwear. We received your tents. Since they’re so old there’s really nothing we can do for them. But… we can reimburse you for the cost in online store credit if you’d like.

Me: Say huh? That’d be awesome! How much?

MH Guy: $540.

Me: (after spewing my tea and nearly falling out of my chair) WHAT?!

It gets better. I did my own research and picked out the perfect tent for us (without any input from Greg because he still thought his suicidal Tarptent was okay to use)- the Skyledge 3 DP for $550 on MH’s website. It was like, meant to be. Under 5 lbs, free-standing, two doors and two vestibules, windows, and plenty of room for the two of us. I called MH guy to order, but for some reason it wasn’t available under warranty purchases. He told me to try back in a few weeks, which I did, then again in a few weeks when it wasn’t available again. I called in to order it I think four times before MH guy gave me a new option- since the Skyledge didn’t seem to be available under warranty, he would let me purchase the tent wholesale, and would still give me the $540 to use for warranty purchases. That time I really did fall out of my chair. If you’ve been wondering how we afford all our MH gear and clothing, there you have it. I’ll tell you what, mister, that tent is hands-down our favorite piece of gear and MH has a couple of customers for life. If you have a piece of clothing or gear that has been unintentionally ruined, it never hurts to ask their warranty department what your options are. I just took two pairs of flannel-lined pants back to Eddie Bauer. Greg’s were at least two years old and the flannel had shredded on the inside. Mine were newer, but had two holes in the flannel lining. They didn’t have our sizes in store so Eddie Bauer himself (I presume) mailed us a check for $130 so we can buy our own replacements when we see fit. I’ve sent packs back to Marmot (top handle ripped off, couldn’t replace so I got a new jacket out of the deal) and Osprey (top handle also ripped off, but they were able to repair and send back. IT NEVER HURTS TO ASK.

Important side note: Greg and I don’t pay full price for anything. We shop clearance, we use coupons, we never pay for shipping, and we use my favorite gear website Sierra Trading Post whenever we can. Full price is for suckers. Check out our favorite online shopping portals to save even more money!

There you have our top three most important pieces of backpacking equipment. Stay tuned for food and water, clothes, and other pertinent gear ideas from the Warckens!

Packing List:

  • backpack and rain cover
  • tent (don’t forget poles, rainfly, and footprint!)
  • sleeping bag
  • silk sack
  • sleeping pads


See our other Beginner Backpacking posts:

Backpacking: Food & Water

Backpacking: Clothing

Backpacking: Other Pertinent Gear

See our full Wind River Range – Lizard Head Loop trip report:

  1. Big Sandy to Cirque of the Towers
  2. Cirque of the Towers to Valentine Lake
  3. Valentine Lake to Big Sandy

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