A Yosemite backpacking guide shares his picks for the best backpacking gear to fill your pack in 2019.
As a multiday backpacking guide in the Yosemite high country, I’ve logged some rough trips learning the ins and outs of a sufficient, light-as-possible pack. I’ve shivered through 40-degree nights in a bag falsely rated to 32 degrees. I’ve cursed the “waterproof” claim of a tent leaking under a drizzle. And I’ve portered hundreds of pounds in superfluous client gear for countless miles.
Luckily, working for Lasting Adventures — one of Yosemite’s leading backcountry guide services — has also given me a ton of beta on a variety of backpacking products. With time, input from veterans, and a lot of testing, I’ve discovered what’s truly worth its weight on the trail.
This season, I’m rocking the best balance of weight, utility, and comfort I’ve found, with room to spare for an extra bear vault when my clients get tired. Here’s a look at some of the most clutch items in my backpacking kit.
Best Backpacking Gear: Yosemite Guide’s Picks
Gregory Zulu 65 (Men’s) & Jade 63 (Women’s) Backpacks: $230
Lasting Adventures outfits all its guests with Gregory packs, not because they’re cheap (they are competitive), but because they’re able to withstand the beatings of novice clients for at least a few seasons. Gregory’s latest model, the 65L Zulu (for men) and 63L Jade (for women), is large enough to haul my personal setup along with enough group provisions to last a week in the backcountry.
Aside from its durability, the most noteworthy feature setting the Zulu apart from comparable models is the comfort of its free-floating suspension system. I’ve found it allows for less back sweat than Kelty’s and an easier load on the hip belt than Osprey’s.
MSR Hubba Hubba NX Tent: $450
This reincarnation of MSR’s tried-and-true Hubba Hubba two-person tent runs a bit pricier than some similar designs, but the quality is worth the extra dough if you can swing it. Tested against the choice of our guide service — the Marmot Tungsten — my 3-pound 8-ounce Hubba Hubba NX weighs half an ounce less, albeit with 3 fewer square feet of floor space. Its consolidated hub-and-pole system sets up in seconds, and its compressible stuff sack stows at around half the size of other tents I’ve tested.
While the Tungsten is still a good option for $150 less, our guides hail the Hubba Hubba as the industry standard for reliability. My favorite feature is the new model’s 30-denier ripstop nylon floor, which negates the need for a footprint, weeding out an oft-annoying component required for many tents.
If the NX is anything like MSR’s original Hubba Hubba model (which MSR claims it to be, only more sturdy), expect it to live in your pack for half a decade or more. For the one-person equivalent, check out the MSR Hubba NX solo backpacking tent.
My go-to shelter when a tent is more than I want to carry, the Interstellar Bivy is easily the most dynamic piece of gear in my pack. More akin to a one-person tent than a bivy, it uses a single ultralight pole to elevate the 20-denier ripstop nylon top off your face.
The structured canopy also serves to provide a sombrero that stays with your head when sitting up, allowing you to pack or cook without leaving your shelter in rain or snow. Inside the shell sits a zippable bugnet layer, which comes in clutch on warm nights camping near mosquito-plagued alpine lakes.
Perhaps the niftiest feature of this power-bivy is the ability to unzip arm holes without exposing the rest of your body to bugs and weather. This frees your hands to perform random camp tasks (like playing ukulele). It’s also the most waterproof all-season bivy I’ve tried, without being suffocating upon full seal.
The downside of all these features is a complicated setup, but the luxury is worth the hassle in my experience.
Therm-a-Rest Hyperion Sleeping Bag: $390-430
In my opinion, nothing beats hydrophobic down, and the Hyperion’s 900-fill Nikwax technology does it best. GearJunkie even awarded it Best Ultralight Sleeping Bag for 2019.
I first tested it enclosed in a few rainstorms during a bizarrely wet May earlier this season. But despite wrapping it with a three-season MSR bivy, I couldn’t avoid getting damp. Luckily, it took on far less water and dried remarkably faster than any down bag I’ve tried.
The bulk of its 1-pound 4-ounce weight packs into a stuff sack that cinches to the size of a rugby ball, though I prefer to stuff it directly into the bottom of my Zulu to maximize space. Rated at 20 ̇degrees, the Hyperion is plenty warm for most of three seasons in Yosemite, though I would want something a bit thicker for subzero temps.
As a cheaper down option of comparable warmth but with more room than a mummy bag, the Big Agnes Sandhoffer 20 served me well last season.
LEKI’s Black Series is a top-shelf, ultralight trekking pole comparable to the Black Diamond Distance Carbon AR model I’ve tested, with a few notable differences. At 14.6 ounces per pair, the all-carbon Black Series poles are negligibly heavier than the 13.6-ounce ARs. And both use a four-piece folding system that allows for instant, streamlined setup and convenient packability (the Black Series packs are 40 cm long). Both models’ shafts proved very durable for their weight, are height-adjustable, and look great on trail.
Where the Black Series exceeds for me is in comfort; the extended, heat-regulating grips are the best I’ve found. That said, the AR handles are designed to adapt as tent poles for the Black Diamond Distance Tent, a nifty-looking piece of ultralight gear I’ve yet to try. In my opinion, the Black Series falls short of the AR in its synching mechanism of the locking device.
Here, LEKI employs a flimsy-feeling lever with an adjustable plastic nut that could easily fall off the thread and get lost, whereas Black Diamond uses a sturdy flip-locking system that feels far stronger. For me, the grip comfort of LEKI’s Black Series is worth taking extra care with the locking system.
SPOT X Satellite Messenger: $250 for Device, $12/mo for Basic Service
SPOT faithful most often tout the devices as clutch resources for critical rescue scenarios — which they are. But our guides use the SPOT X more consistently to communicate logistics and critical info when no other device gets bars. That’s to say, we rely on them heavily and they’ve never failed to get our messages across.
The SPOT X offers two-way satellite messaging, so you can send and receive texts with any smartphone. This allows us to avoid dire scenarios by communicating about potential issues well ahead of time. The X also features an SOS button for direct communication with search-and-rescue teams in cases of life-threatening emergencies (fortunately we’ve yet to test). The GPS tracker allows us to pinpoint groups in the field with incredible accuracy, which does wonders for everyone’s peace of mind. This is one gear item I won’t leave the Yosemite Valley without.
I wasn’t a fan of hiking sandals until I found Bedrocks. On trail, I wore boots or approach shoes. And when it came to slip-ons for camp, I found a pair of Vans provided more protection and equitable bulkiness compared to Chacos.
But after experiencing Bedrock’s grippy Vibram tread on wet granite this season (and not falling on my ass), I’ve finally converted. The Cairn 3D Pros stick to slick surfaces like no other shoe I’ve tried. And despite my doubts about the split-toe webbing, the Cairns’ three-point adjustment system makes them super comfy. Beside that, these kicks still look like new after 3 months of constant flogging, which I can’t say about my Vans.
Jetboil Flash ($100) + MSR PocketRocket Deluxe ($70) / MSR WhisperLite ($90)
My backpacking stove setup varies depending on the company. For solo trips, the combination of a Jetboil Flash and an MSR PocketRocket Deluxe is all I need. The Flash is self-contained, light, and simple enough for mindless setup. It can boil 1L of water in less than 100 seconds — especially handy when preparing coffee or liquid dishes on the fly.
It also uses the same isobutane fuel canister as MSR’s PocketRocket Deluxe, which I pair with a lightweight pot set to cook meatier menu items. The PocketRocket stows in a 1.8 x 3.3-inch package and weighs 2.9 ounces (almost negligible in a 50-pound pack). That includes a reliable push-button starter, an accommodating pressure regulator, and a broad burner that works well to distribute heat evenly.
When cooking for larger groups, the MSR Whisperlite is hard to beat. Lasting Adventures has been using these stoves since 1997, and some of the first WhisperLites in our gear fleet are still in service today.
That’s not to say WhisperLites don’t break — as with any heavily-used gear item, they do. But they’re sturdy as any I’ve encountered and field-fixable with a small repair kit ($30) I’ve used to solve any issue without fail. The WhisperLite’s simple design connects to a liquid fuel canister (sold separately) and sets up easily to cook in volume.
This little gizmo comes in handy at every meal. The rubber blade and a hard nylon edge don’t damage nonstick surfaces, working like magic to scrape residue off dirty dishes. It also comes in handy as a spatula and even an eating utensil when I need to pack extra light. It’s a simple, small, light piece of backpacking gear no Lasting Adventures guide goes without.
MSR Trail Base Water Purifier: $140-150
Pumping water for clients is the worst after a long day of hiking with a heavy pack. Tack on the two recurring issues of my old Katadyn Hiker Pro — broken pump handles and clog-plagued cartridges — and it almost felt like fresh water wasn’t worth the sore hands and forearms.
MSR’s newly upgraded Trail Base purifier came to me this season as a game-changer. Its modular build makes it effective in multiple scenarios. It breaks down into a pocket-sized squeeze pump that sets up in seconds and pumps water fast for trailside fill-ups.
At camp, the device doubles as a gravity filter, negating the need to waste energy pumping. To set it up, fill the 4L dirty reservoir with creek water, attach the squeeze pump between dirty-water and freshwater reservoirs, hang it from a tree, and let it be.
The Trail Base reliably cleans 4 L of water in under 5 minutes as a gravity system — no pump necessary — and the freshwater reservoir doubles as a drom so you can pack clean water for the trail. Best of all, I’ve filtered upward of 1,000 L on the same cartridge, and the Trail Base is still flowing strong. I can’t say the same for any other filter I’ve tried. This one is available with your choice of a 2L or 4L reservoir.
This functional layer is a staple in my pack for any condition short of snow. It’s designed for climbers to ward off sunlight on exposed walls and serves equally well under the high-country heat of summertime backpacking.
The Echo’s 100-percent polyester fabric works better than sunblock on bluebird days (it doesn’t sweat off) and dries fast after a bout of rain. It breathes enough to maintain comfort under heavy sun but doubles as a heat-trapping base layer that works well when the evening cools. Its ultralight weight makes it a good substitute for a longjohn top, with just enough substance to wrap my camera lens for protection in the pack.
Bundle all that together for one of the most clutch layers on my checklist.
For more info on guided backpacking, day hikes, and youth summer camps in Yosemite, visit LastingAdventures.com.