Well, folks, boots are very personal, and depend on many factors. But make sure and try them on with the heavy wool socks you will use - they shouldn't be tight. You should be able to just slide a finger in by the heel. You never want to cut off circulation to ANY part of the body, especially your feet. If you will be using step-in crampons, you need to make sure the boots support those. Some people backpack barefoot (really!), in sandals, in tennis shoes, etc. I like leather mountaineering boots, pretty stiff, and well insulated, but they are heavy for a lot of people. And not everyone climbs actual mountains like me, either.
Okay, yes, I’ve read the theories about heavy boots requiring lots of energy to wear, but I feel that the resulting protection, safety, and speed is worth it. Most real hiking involves sharp rocks, maybe some edging (standing up on smallish edges) or smearing (trusting friction) on rock or ice, wet marshy areas, unfriendly plants, possibly snakes, who knows? Using mental energy worrying is taxing too. And getting some infection or bad cut could really be bad 40 miles out. Modern Homo Sapiens are many generations of bad breeding away from survivors of the last Ice Age, or even the Vikings. Buncha wussies these days, including me!
Regardless, I recommend high tops for beginners, for ankle support and protection. Remember: you are carrying a load over uneven, sometimes wet or snowy terrain, sometimes rock faces, sand, and so on. As you get more experienced, you can consider things like sports sandals, running shoes, or whatever, but I have a feeling you will see the logic of having real boots like I do.
One rule comes to mind about boots: If you cross a stream you MUST take off your boots. Completely submerging boots is bad news. (This is one selling point of certain sports sandals and some all-plastic shoes that are available, I suppose.)
Another issue about boots is that the very best boots have to be broken in, which can take months, and give you blisters. The casual once or twice a year hiker probably doesn't need the best boots, and can go with some lightweight jobs that, while they won't last, will work out of the box. It's a trade off. Even with these, you really should break them in some before going backpacking...
Bringing ‘camp shoes’ (like light running shoes, Birkenstocks, or whatever) to wear in camp is not what superlight backpacking is about, so this guide says “nay” to that.
If you are going to use a tent get a FREE-STANDING tent. This means you can set it up anywhere (not really but…). There are many, many otherwise great campsites that are hard or impossible to drive in stakes, or to keep the stakes in the ground. A free-standing tent can be set up in seconds, and if you put weight in it, such as your backpack, body, or rocks, it shouldn't blow away. You can stake it sometimes. Remember, this guide isn't about camping... Heck, even when I bring a tent, I don't use it every night, if at all.
A bivy (short for bivouac, French for ‘temporary camp’) sack is a waterproof bag not too much bigger than your sleeping bag. Some of them have a single curved rod that makes an area around your head for comfort, but little else. A great idea but they have some shortcomings. A lot of people carry these just in case (i.e. instead of a tent). Bivy sacks vary greatly in weight, materials, and price. The lightest ones are about 10 ounces (280g), however the lightest ones are very fragile and pretty much for occasional gentle or emergency use only.
Rectangular bags are really for indoor or car camping use only, so get a MUMMY. There are down and synthetic, shelled and unshelled. Down is nice but for our purposes* you need it shelled. Synthetic bags are not very compressible and very heavy, but you don't have to worry about water so much. Obviously they can get wet though.
Whatever you get, get one rated lower than you expect to need.... These ratings are widely considered “optimistic” and often yet another shady aspect of the whole industry, and there are many variables involved. For most backpackers, something rated around 0-10F (-18 to -12C) covers most situations, and remains reasonably light (under 1.5kg or so.) However ‘summer bags’ rated around 40F (4C) can weigh less than half that, so some people have two or three bags. If money is no object (or you can borrow or rent) you can save a lot of weight here.
*By ‘our purposes’ I mean having the flexibility of going without a tent or bivy sack a lot of the time.
If you get a down bag that is shelled (typically with a laminate such as Gore-tex), you can quite often sleep outside under the stars. If it starts raining or snowing (or mosquitoes are around), you can use your shell or space blanket to cover your face (the whole hood area). This has worked for me quite a lot, but some dampness can get in...
For any serious rain or snow, a tent or bivy bag is close to essential, shelled bag or not. But I have gotten through a number of wet situations without getting soaked. It is pretty neat to wake up to see 4 inches of fresh snow piled up on your sleeping bag! 🙂 Here again, cold rain is much worse than snow.
This compresses a down bag to the minimum, and it's essential for superlight backpacking. It also protects your bag. You may also want to use a vinyl garbage bag around that, just in case your pack falls in a creek or you get drenched in a typhoon. If your pack is really small, you could also put any down or other insulation, extra socks, or whatever into the compression sack to free up space.
CLOSED-CELL FOAM. End of story. It is light, durable, warm, nearly incompressible (and indestructable too), doesn't absorb water (or dirt), and it is comfortable (and cheap). Those inflatable jobs are bad news. I've owned two, and both of them started leaking within a few uses, for no apparent reason. When you wake up freezing because the air leaked out, you have a really (really, really!) bad night. Your sleeping pad is what prevents conduction of your body heat into the sometimes really cold ground. (In a true survival situation, a leaky air mattress could kill you.)
Again, that is closed-cell foam, such as a Thermarest Ridgerest. Get one a few inches longer than your sleeping bag. By the way, although most people roll their foam pads up, you can fold them into a square with no real damage.
A nice splurge is carrying two, still lighter than an inflatable mat and supremely comfortable and warm (but one ain’t bad.) Or bring an extra ½ - ⅔ length one for the upper body. Also, using two gives you more elevation from the ground, and from any puddles that might form from an unexpected rainstorm.
Get something light with lots of outside attachment points, and buy some straps with Fastex type buckles (the kind you can easily pull as tightly as you want, then snap open) to go with it. Like boots, there are lots of reasonable options and it's kind of a matter of just looking around, asking people, reading reviews. Size? ..well, you can get down under 40 liters for up to about a week...maybe not with a synthetic sleeping bag though. If you get something around 35 liters or so, not only is it usually enough, it will force you to pack lighter. Because, dear friends, it is really a lot smaller than most old-schoolers use.
You might go a little bigger if you plan to do a lot of cooking, or expect to have to carry more than 2 liters of water, or are going into a really cold environment, or perhaps plan to carry special gear or whatever. But, that is why I suggested the attachment points. You can expand a pack by attaching to the outside.
Hiking Staves or Poles
Not recommended in general. There certainly are situations where they are nice, but carrying them on a whole trip is more trouble than it is worth. They can be very awkward to handle at times, add weight and I just don't like them. To each their own. If you might be on a lot of icy trails, snowfields, glaciers, or crossing a lot of swollen streams in the springtime, then maybe. By the way, sometimes hikers leave well-shaped sticks near trailheads for the next guy, so maybe try one of those for a few miles until you are thoroughly sick of it.
Ice Axe, Crampons
Ice axes and crampons are used mainly for glacier travel, require proper training, and are heavy. In my experience, on trails that see a lot of use, the odd snowfield or glacier crossing is well-tramped and can be handled without crampons. If you plan to travel in areas with a lot of glaciers, you should inquire locally for advice.
Other Climbing Gear: Situations requiring ropes and such, beyond fixed ropes on some hiking trails, are well beyond what is meant by backpacking by most people. I have climbed technical rock routes with a full pack where I needed to use rock climbing shoes, but lots of experience is necessary. The point here being: if your pack is light enough, you become very flexible in what you can do. A 15-20m piece of 5.5mm accessory cord is very light, strong (enough to suspend a small car!), and potentially worth bringing. (I have been in, ahem, situations....) Also, you may need to hang food in bear country with it, or whatever.
Headlamps are essential, and modern ones are very light. Bring extra batteries, or much better, a second headlamp (the batteries are much of the weight anyways). Truly waterproof ones are expensive and weigh more. These go in my “good ideas I don’t follow” bin, since I don’t actually hike at night that much. Any other lighting paraphernalia is firmly in the realm of “super-heavy” backpacking or car camping...nuff said.
As you've planned things well, you should have some idea how many to bring. I prefer stainless steel, and my collection includes one 22 oz.(650ml), one 34 oz.(1l), and one 44 oz. (1.3l) That gives plenty of options and 100 oz. (~3l) total has nearly always been plenty. Plastic may be lighter, but it tastes bad and can crack. You don’t want to put anything acidic, or hot, in plastic. Aluminum has similar problems. This is one area a little extra weight is worth carrying; water is important!
Some packs have a pain-in-the-arse-to-fill bladder made of awful tasting plastic. You don’t need this, and I don’t want it. Enough said about those.
These are great for drinking from shallow seeps and springs and tiny streams or the drippings off the end of a snowfield or similar. You can get one with a snap-on lid, too, so then you could use it for something like trail mix (or some blueberries you just picked). And having a Sierra cup hanging from your pack makes you a member of the in-group, as you will see. Make sure you can reach it without taking your pack off.
First of all, as I'll discuss later, I don't usually cook in the wilderness. However, it can be nice, it can save you money, and who doesn't like to wake up with coffee or tea, or oatmeal or something? For stoves, there are two approaches. First is the cartridge approach, which is less bulky, lighter, faster, and simpler. You use single-use cartridges of gas, screw a tiny stove on top, and light it with a lighter. Easy, clean, quick, but ultimately more expensive. They can have other problems too. The other approach is the refillable tank approach, which ends up being cheaper in the long run but more of a hassle. Either way, a wind-shield is required to maximize heat (in some cases, even to just cook something). And, of course, you need one or more pots, which takes up tons of room in your pack, and a spoon and so on. Cooking (with water) works much better below 3000 meters or so, due to the boiling point of water, which is much lower up high.
Both of these approaches have more pros and cons that are worth researching if you are interested. If altitude is involved or absolute reliability is required, it would pay to look deeper into this area.
Anyways, if you have all that stuff, you can cook. Actually, the total weight, including the pot, isn't much more than a pound (450g) or so, and you can usually nest it together somewhat. I just find that, all things considered, cooking, even just making tea, really slows you down and is what I like to call a “time-sink.” Plus if you have a pack down to 9 pounds (4 kg), say, then you are adding like 10% in weight.
Obviously, if you are going where you have to melt snow for water, then you gotta have it. In fact, I find the cartridge system a little more reliable overall, since there are less moving parts involved, less stuff to fail. Consider investing (you will soon discover why I chose that word!) in a titanium pot (with lid, gotta have a lid!) and spoon. Titanium is very light and seems to be quite tough, and doesn’t leech (like aluminum) or otherwise affect the taste of food. In reality, if you get a titanium pot, the lightest cartridge stove out there, and use the smallest canister of fuel available, you might be able to get under 300 grams and be able to make tea, noodles, or something on a short trip.
If you don't have to melt water, and are truly trying to go light and fast, forgo the stove and accessories and associated time involved. It will free you up more than you think!
First Aid Kit
What can I say? I never bring one, really, being the outlaw, bad-boy who lives on the edge. I do bring some beeswax-based lip balm, though! I find that any cuts or scratches heal much better in the open air. I wouldn't know what to do if I broke some bone, to tell you the truth. But having a “first aid kit” wouldn't likely help me. In the U.S., good luck getting a doctor to give you any “emergency opiates” too. Moleskin is useful, I used it like once...ever. Oh, hey, I almost forgot...aspirin are useful. Sometimes at higher elevations one gets headaches. Aspirin are also good in cold conditions to help numb the extremities a little, or just for general body aches and so forth.
Some people bring a small bottle of liquor, and if you live where it is legal, cannabis really can soothe a frazzled body and mind, help with sleep, and make that can of tuna taste like a gourmet meal. Valerian or skullcap (tablets probably best) can be useful for getting a good night’s sleep, when sore or uncomfortable, and otherwise can take the edge off.
I always bring these, along with a lighter. Either for the stove, or for starting a campfire. In fact, I rarely do either, but I typically do burn my toilet paper and other paper trash. Needless to say, keep them dry.
Useful to tie around the neck for sweat and sun protection, for washing your face, as well as lifting hot things. Also can be used for filtering debris from water, and other purposes.
Pen and Paper
You might need to write something down, you never know. Or write notes on your topo maps, or get someone’s phone number, or whatever. Sometimes it's nice to doodle or write a little poetry too.
Space (‘Survival’) Blanket
Requirement for the superlight set. This is the court of last resort if you don't have a tent or a bivy sack, and your shelled down bag isn’t quite cutting it (or you don’t have a shelled bag). Space blankets, it should be known, reflect infrared heat energy directly back to the body, and can truly save one's life.
You also could use a space blanket as a pack cover, or like a cape in heavy rain, or possibly cut a head hole through it and turn it into a poncho-like rain covering. I've not got that desperate, so far..
Here’s the thing: space blankets that are commonly available are only 5’x7’ (1.5m x 2.1m) which is a bit too small, really. Two of these taped together is a perfect size and very, very useful. The Mylar these are made of is very cheap, so it might better to try and obtain a single large piece, and cut the size that will be perfect to wrap around you and your pack, while on your pad. You have no idea just how much heat can get reflected back from your body…………….a whole lot. And no water or wind is coming through. Hence, a survival blanket.
These come in handy more than you might think. They are useful for trash, for keeping things dry, and for storing wet or dirty things until you get a chance to dry or clean them. Anything that might leak and make a mess should definitely be protected too. Remember, as of 2015, no backpacks are waterproof. When you are packing, you will want a number of zipper-lock bags to put stuff in. Bring plenty. You might even want to collect some kind of, oh, I dunno, berries, mushrooms, pebbles, ...gold nuggets would be a nice find. You never know, but these don't weigh much and sometimes you want to use a couple (like on that empty, oily sardine can, not to mention used wet-wipes..)
Daypack or Fanny Pack
A nice optional thing to bring, if your backpack doesn't have a removable top pouch (some do). A superlight daypack (sometimes for good reason called a “summit pack”) can allow you to establish a good bivy site, and take day hikes carrying next to nothing. I don't always bring one, but usually wish I had it at some point. Also, this is another way to extend the capacity of your main pack, but attaching it somehow to the outside.