A few weeks ago, Louise and I headed off to the Yukon for an amazing week of old-timey adventures and a journey into the heart of the Canadian wilderness. Most exciting of all on our itinerary was a 3-day backcountry excursion into Tombstone Territorial Park. It promised to be 3 days of epic and rugged adventures, stunning scenery and over 40km on foot.
It was especially exciting for me in particular, because as battle hardened as I like to think I am, this promised to be my first real backcountry adventure. I’ve done plenty of front country camping, but aside from our annual camping weekend at Lake O’Hara, this was going to be my first real adventure into the wilderness. It was my first time hiking everything in, and as you might imagine I was full of confidence about what I felt I could carry and how easy it would be. This post is all about the backpacking essentials, and the backpacking not-so-essentials.
Headed into Tombstone, we had several things to consider that affected what we packed and how heavy our bags would be. I’ll talk about each of those considerations and what I actually packed, and then how I would do it differently next time if possible.
The most obvious backpacking essentials are rain protection. Tombstone is tundra so there’s virtually no shelter from the elements and there are no trees (i.e. no fires and nothing to burn). Here’s what we brought for rain:
Overall I think we packed pretty well for rain, but our tent turned out to be more rain resistant than waterproof, and very quickly sprung a few leaks. Ultimately it rained constantly for the 3 days we were there, so you can imagine that we were pretty damp and miserable at times.
Part of the issue was the fact that the parks staff had recommended leaving our tent pegs behind (because you can attach your guy ropes to the tent pad), but it left us unable to pull the tent taut…so rain pooled and then leaked through.
Our shells worked great, but mine was more of a ski shell and was quite bulky. I’d definitely recommend getting a lightweight fully waterproof/seam sealed layer instead.
The rain proof cover for our backpacks were really only water resistant, but kept the inside of our bags pretty dry. Most backcountry backpacks come with one of these; don’t forget it!
I packed in a lot of expensive camera gear (more on my stupidity later), and the dry bag was an absolute lifesaver. Considering we flew to the Yukon and didn’t have a hotel base to go back to, we also had all our valuable documents with us. Rain + passport = disaster, so we couldn’t have survived without the dry bag. Seriously. Also the Sony we brought along wasn’t weather sealed so it was important to keep it dry in there too. From my perspective, a small dry bag is an absolute backpacking essential.
I would definitely have packed a tarp to cover our tent or possibly would have bought a better tent!
3 days of hiking burns a lot of calories and realistically you need to pack in quite a lot of food. Enough for your base caloric consumption plus however much you think you’ll burn in a whole day of hiking. On the plus side, this only gets lighter throughout your trip.
The lightest method for bringing in food by far is bringing dehydrated food. Backpacker’s Pantry and various other brands are our favourite and are usually about 10-15 bucks per meal. Louise and I ate as much as we could before we set off in order to avoid having extra meals while we were there and save weight.
We also packed in a dehyrdrated dessert which was a much needed pick-me-up on day two of constant rain. I recommend bringing something sweet in case you’re in dire need of an endorphin boost.
For cooking I really recommend investing in a pocket rocket stove and leaving the giant camp stove at home. It’s super light weight and takes up very little space. Bring a small canister of fuel and a lighter and you’re set.
For pots and pans you can usually buy a decent set that packs down. Don’t bring a bunch of different pans etc, and pack in foldable cutlery/sporks that you can fold up and store inside your pans.
Don’t bother packing in extra water unless your route doesn’t pass a water source. Get water from a lake or river and boil it up.
Probably would have packed in more snacks to keep energy levels up and potentially could have brought a pan that doubled as a bowl. Due to last minute planning, I packed in one of those huge BBQ lighters rather than a lighter or waterproof matches. Rookie error that definitely cost me some extra weight. Probably couldn’t have got much lighter with the food, could even have gone for more. You can also bring in biodegradable soap to clean up your utensils, but we just used boiling water to clean everything and saved on weight.
Also note that there were no french presses or any other superfluous rubbish that would make sense in front country camping, only the essentials. Bring the most calories for the least weight!
With unpredictable environments, being able to get warm is pretty important. You never know when the weather might change and leave you frozen!
I’m pretty happy with what I packed in to keep warm, although being wet from our leaky tent left me a little damp and chilly. I hiked in in shorts but immediately changed out of my wet socks and shoes and shorts once I was in the tent. Crack the heat pouches, put your hat and gloves on and warm up!
I actually brought two sets of gloves – one regular and one pair of kayaking gloves. Kayaking gloves are designed to insulate when wet, so they actually work really well when it’s raining. Especially compared to regular gloves that just get cold and damp when wet. Not exactly backpacking essentials but they seriously came in handy.
A decent insulating mat between you and the ground is also so important for keeping warm. It probably will make the biggest difference to whether or not you end up freezing during the night. Don’t cheap out on this one, and make sure the one you buy is lightweight and compact.
The only thing I would have changed would have perhaps been to have packed in a smaller backcountry sleeping bag with better insulation. The one I brought was definitely heavy and designed for car camping. I also might have invested in waterproof trousers to keep the clothes I was wearing dry and remove the need for a change.
Thick spare socks are so important. Don’t forget them!
In all honesty, I don’t think I would have really wanted to have travelled with less gear. This was the bare minimum that I felt I needed, but if you’re an ultra light camper you could still get by with less. If it was midsummer and I could have relied on the weather a bit more then I would have packed far less warm gear. We didn’t pack a proper change of clothes and we didn’t really pack too many everyday luxuries.
The InReach really helped give us peace of mind that even in the middle of nowhere we’d be safe. The portable (and waterproof) charger kept our phones and electronics alive for 3 days, allowing us to track our movements and listen to podcasts as we waited for the rain to pass (….it didn’t).
This is probably where you can stop reading, the next section is more how not to do things.
One of the projects I was working on while I was out there required a different camera, so in my infinite wisdom I decided to pack in a Sony arII as well as my regular Canon 5D Mkiii. I also packed in a wide lens, my regular lens, a 35mm and a 70-200mm (the size and weight of a wine bottle). For a trip of this magnitude, I would seriously consider whether or not bringing more than one camera and one lens is worth it. Because the weight literally nearly killed me.
Thankfully I had the good sense not to bring a tripod or any other gear otherwise I would probably be dead right now. If you have a big crew then sharing the load might be an option, but if you plan on being a ‘one man mule’ then put in some serious consideration. Considering the awful weather and how little I used the gear, it was pretty dumb.
So for this assignment, I had to shoot two giant puff jackets. I had to carry these both in as well, so they were a lot of extra weight that I didn’t need. Considering it was too wet to take photos, this was a bit of a bummer.
Here’s another lesson in planning your trip properly: if the sun sets after midnight and rises around 5am, do you really need a headlamp? let alone 3… Look at your location and you might realize you’re being overly cautious.
An extra portable charger didn’t really make sense.. not sure why it was in there to be honest and hardly an essential.
A super heavy fancy backpack was a nice idea but in the future I would have loved one of those ultralight backpacks. Basically you can have luxury or lightweight, pick one.
The bear barrel was a non-negotiable term for backcountry hiking in Tombstone, but added a lot of extra weight and meant rearranging a few things. Might be a backpacking essential if bears are a consideration.
We had plenty of water and camelbaks so I really didn’t need the lifestraw. Just extra pointless weight!
When I look back on the long list of things I brought along, it seems like good sense for the most part, but there are definitely ways our weight could have been improved. The major realization here was the need to invest in better backcountry gear.
For example, our tent was 6.4lbs, whereas a similar backcountry tent is only 4lbs. Our bags probably weighed an extra couple of lbs, the extra camera gear was probably an extra 10lbs, the sleeping bags and mats were non-backcountry and added another couple of lbs, the jackets were definitely another 2 or 3 lbs etc. etc. etc.
Each item by itself just added a little on to the total weight, but it quickly adds up!. Overall I estimate that my pack was a good 60lbs and let me tell you, over 3 days and 40km that very quickly takes its toll. I’m all for being macho and grinning and bearing it, but honestly any idiot could tell you that my bag was too heavy.
Read more about our road trip through the Yukon.