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A Guide’s Take: Subtle Features Of 2020’s Best Backpacking Gear

This article by LA guide Michael Misselwitz was originally published on

Less-obvious gear qualities that make backpacking way better

As a guide who spends the better part of each summer embedded in the backcountry, my quality of life depends on the contents of my pack. Over the seasons, I’ve found that the best backpacking gear often boils down to the subtlest features—little nuances that make a world of difference with comfort and convenience. Here are some of the features and products that proved surprisingly clutch in summer 2020.

A lung-saving, quiet, sleeping pad.

Featured product: Nemo Tensor Insulated

After a 12-mile day at altitude, no one wants to exhaust their last waking breaths of the day puffing into a sleeping pad. Additionally, no one likes a noisy sleep setup, which can be tough to avoid in the realm of inflatable sleeping pads. The solution at Lasting Adventures is the Therm-a-Rest Z-Light Pad, which is not an inflatable, but made of foam, a solution that is lightweight, comfortable enough, and easy to set up. But if you’re backpacking all summer like I am, I recommend upgrading to the Nemo Tensor—a pump sack-inflated, crinkle-free, cushion with three inviting inches of loft that’s available in varying sizes and degrees of insulation, and packs into the size of a super burrito. The Tensor not only makes setting up for sleep a breeze, it makes sleeping in the dirt feel like cloud 9.

A sleeping bag that stays on the pad.

Featured product: Big Agnes Anvil Horn 0˙

If you’re anything like me, you spend at least one night on a multiday backpacking trip—not always consciously—tossing and turning. There’s nothing more discouraging for a sound night’s sleep than rousing in the twilight hours to find you’ve wriggled off your pad and onto the rocks. Luckily for my back, I found the Big Agnes Anvil Horn system bag—a roomy down-fill bag with a nifty sleeping pad sleeve sown into its underside. Stuffing pad into sleeve allows me to merge my sleep system into one unit, so writhing off mid-slumber is not an option. The sleeve’s fabric is worth its weight when packed, just make sure your pad fits the sleeve before you set out or you’ll be dealing with dead weight.

A side-zipping backpack.

Featured product: Gregory Paragon 68

Inevitably on trail, the most coveted items in my pack seem to wind up lodged somewhere in the middle. With the all-access side zipper of Gregory’s Paragon pack, I no longer need to dishevel my entire pack to reach an item buried in the void. Paired with the cinchable top-access that allows for extra packing space, and the zippered sleeping bag access at its base, the Paragon is the most accessible pack I’ve owned to date. The only foreseeable downside to the side-zip will come if/when it breaks, but despite the low price point of the Paragon, the hardy zipper hasn’t failed me yet.

A roof-pocketed tent.

Featured product: Big Agnes Seedhouse SL

“Where the heck is my headlamp?” Not a question I want to be asking in the middle of a sub-zero night when I wake up to pee. Traditionally my tent floor has been a black hole for the items I use most amid the twilight hours. The overhead pouch on Big Agnes’ lightweight, Seedhouse single-person tent takes the guesswork out of midnight duties by providing a space to stow my headlamp, among other things, conveniently and reliably within reach above me. Also available in 2-person and 3-person setups.

Pump-free water filtration.

Featured item: The MSR 10L Autoflow Gravity Filter

Pump filters like the Katadyn Hiker Pro are generally loathed by guides for the excessive exertion they require and the clogging cartridges that make water pumping progressively more strenuous. On the flip side, potable water tablets like Aquamira leave drinking water discolored and weird-tasting. Discovering MSR’s Autoflow gravity filter this season changed the way I view drinking water. Instead of wasting my forearms on a finicky pump, now I just scoop water from a lake or stream into the reservoir, clip the contraption to a tree limb, attach its spout, and wallah, we have 10 liters of fresh drinking water on-tap. Additionally, the filtration cartridge lasts multiple trips or even a full season when properly maintained. Just be sure to backflush the filter after each use and it will go the long haul.

Grippy, durable, camp sandals.

Featured product: Bedrock Cairne 3D Pros

No matter how comfy the boots are, taking them off after a long day on-trail and slipping my toes into a reliable set of slippers makes for one of the best little wins in backpacking. But to cover all the bases of a good camp slipper—packability, comfort, durability, and most importantly, grip—is no easy feat. Above all the Chocos and Vans I’ve owned, Bedrock achieves this balance best. The Cairne 3D Pro’s heal strap locks in snug and sturdy, wedging your foot comfortably into the toe strap for a secure and reliable fit. But the real beauty of these babies is on the bottom—a sticky Vibram sole that even sticks to slick granite. What’s more? I’ve used the same pair of Bedrock Cairne 3D pros for two full seasons and they’re still going strong.

A multi-tool for dish cleaning.

Featured product: MSR Alpine Dish Brush

Scrubbing charred fish scales off the bottom of a cooking pot is never fun, especially with the dirty, disintegrating sponges I’ve employed in the past. I used to go full-caveman over the job, employing rocks for the dirty work of pot-scraping, thus demolishing the lifespan of my nonstick cookware. Then I found MSR’s Alpine Dish Brush, a no frills dish-cleaning multitool measuring in at 3.2” on its longest edge, and offering a bristle brush, a rounded scraping edge to match the bevel of your pan, and a nonstick-friendly makeup. The result is a game-changer for dish duty, 0.8 ounces of added pack-weight that lends loads of convenience in the camp kitchen.

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