Having the proper gear for an activity can make a world of difference to make trips and activities substantially easier and more comfortable. While there is nothing wrong with roughing it, over time I have finally learned (usually the painful way) that small improvements to the quality of equipment can drastically the enjoyment factor of an activity. As I have gradually accumulated gear over the years, here are some of the best investments I have made.
Deuter Backpack- While hiking the Inca Trail in Peru with a large yet uncomfortably full backpack, I decided it was time to get a real hiking pack. I visited REI, tried on numerous packs, and read up on reviews online about my favorites before deciding on the Deuter AirContact 65 +10. It is large enough to easily fit all camping necessities, while not too large that I would be tempted with bringing extra weight. It has a comfortable carrying system with an easily changeable back adjustment, small pouches on the hip straps- perfect for snacks, the bottom of the bag is separated yet accessible through a zipper to the main compartment, and there are plenty of gear straps to attach any additional equipment. I have used mine for several multiple-day hikes through nature as well as on my three month backpacking tour around the world. It was perfectly compatible for both types of trips.
Osprey Ultralight Rain Cover- One useful accessory for the backpack is a rain cover. The Osprey Ultralight Rain cover serves as both a rain cover for the bag while hiking, as well as a durable carrier duffel for the bag while transiting through the airport. Arriving at a campsite with a backpack containing a dry sleeping bag and dry clothes can turn a damp cold night of not sleeping into a chance to dry out and escape the rain. Also it prevents damage to the exterior of the backpack while in transit by taking the brunt of the abuse.
Therm-a-Rest Neo-Air Xtherm Sleeping Pad- The two main types of sleeping pads available are air pads or foam pads. Foam pads tend to be more affordable, easier, and more durable, but the downside is that they are bulkier and compress over time. Air pads are more expensive, prone but most backpackers find them to be much more comfortable than foam pads and smaller to transport. This is an affordable option of one of the most comfortable air mattresses on the market and comes with a small repair kit. Although I have also been concerned about the possibility of a tear, I have yet to need the kit and have greatly appreciated how little space this requires.
Jetboil- Although this item is not a necessity, it goes a long way for raising spirits on cold or rainy days by providing the option to have a hot meal and drink. It is lightweight and the parts are detachable to minimize the space it requires. However, it does occasionally require replacement cans of fuel which cost about $10, but last for several days depending on how much they are used. There are obvious concerns with transportation of the fuel cans while traveling, but many places sell them and at some popular hiking destinations like Patagonia, many hikers left their cans for others on their way out. Jetboils definitely earn their space in a pack and on cold mornings they prove their worth when they deliver a steaming cup of hot coffee.
Columbia Rain Jacket- While hiking Mt. Fuji I learned a valuable lesson about the importance of a quality rain jacket. Since it was July and the weather was predicted to be sunny and hot for the week, I decided to pack light and just wear a heavy sweatshirt for warmth. After spending several hours hiking in the drizzle and getting completely soaked, I vowed to never again go without a rain jacket. The Columbia jacket I got has been one of my most consistently used clothing items (as evidenced by the numerous photos of me in the blinding pink jacket) and it has yet to leak or tear.
Darn Tough Merino Wool Socks- Another item of clothing worth spending a few extra dollars on is a good pair of socks. REI has several quality options for hiking socks that I have tried, but the Darn Tough Merino Wool have been my favorite so far. They are cushioned yet lightweight, odor resistant, quick drying and best yet- I have never blistered in them. A very comparable sock is from Smart Wool who also specializes in hiking socks and offers a high quality product.
Waterproof Hiking Boots- After year of hiking in issued boots, I was pleasantly surprised to do my first hike in my Merrell boots and find no blisters and barely sore feet. Before heading down to South America to hike the Inca trail, they are one of the items that I am very thankful I went ahead and purchased. Not only did it give me an excuse to visit an REI, but this pair of mid waterproof boots are very comfortable providing excellent arch support and they are surprisingly lightweight.
Lightweight Waterproof Day Bag- Regardless of the duration of a trip, having a compact, lightweight and waterproof bag is an essential item. It is the perfect size for day-long hiking trips, for short excursions on longer hiking trips when it is possible to drop the main pack, or as a day pack when exploring a new city. I got a bag that is just large enough to hold my cameras, a water bottle, and (obviously) snacks which I use on almost every trip.
Quick Dry Microfiber Towel- Again, this is not a necessity and any towel will get the job done, but I have become hooked on this style of microfiber towels because of how quickly they dry. These quick drying and super absorbent towels prevent having to pack up a wet towel after a morning shower while traveling or camping, greatly reducing the likelihood of them getting mildew in the bag. Because the towels are so thin, they can be rolled into a compact bag to save space. Also the normal size (58" X 30") towel weighs only 8oz, another plus especially when trying to reduce weight.
Compact Multi-tool- After being introduced to Gerber pocket knives during Marine Corps training, I became reliant on them and the convenience they provide for doing so many simple things. While I eventually transitioned to carrying just a basic knife in my cargo pants for everyday tasks, I still travel with the multi-tool. For camping they can be used for a large variety of tasks including hammering in tent stakes, opening cans of food, a back-up for pulling out splinters, and the pliers can be used as tongs for flipping bacon when making breakfast. Even if they are just packed as a back-up, they always seem to prove their worth.
Compression bag- These lightweight and waterproof bags are fantastic for keeping clothes organized when living out of a bag and also significantly reduce the space required. Although these save a lot of space, it goes without saying that they do not reduce weight. It is important to keep this in mind not only for checking bags at the airport, but also when you will be carrying the bag for an extended amount of time. By the end of my several month backpacking trip, although everything still fit in my bag and it looked compact, it weighed over 70lbs.