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The Best Gear Backpacker’s Editors Used in 2023

by Staff

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If great hikes make a great life, then great gear helps make great hikes. Over 12 months this year, our editors hiked across the U.S. and Europe, working our way through dozens of pieces of apparel, pairs of shoes, packs, tents, sleeping bags, paddleboards, skis, harnesses, headlamps, and more. A lot of that gear was good, some was great, and a few pieces were exceptional.

We asked Backpacker’s editors and a few of our Outside colleagues for their personal favorite gear they used on the trail in 2023. Unlike our Editors’ Choice Awards, these products aren’t all new for this year: Instead, we opened it up to anything that’s still available for readers to buy. The only requirement was that it earned a permanent place in our gear closets.

(Photo: Courtesy)

I don’t think a month went by this year that I didn’t wear these pants at least once. Since we first reviewed these tapered trousers in 2020, I’ve used them for almost everything. In winter, they’re my go-to for backcountry Nordic days on iced-over roads and trails across Colorado’s Front Range. In summer, I’ve taken them up above treeline on trails throughout the Rockies, where I can trust that their tight weave and DWR will help repel the occasional shower. They’re stretchy enough to rock climb in (and their zippered hip pockets sit out of the way of a harness) but tough enough that they shrugged off direct hits from rocks on the Pennsylvania section of the Appalachian Trail and grabby thorns on local trails near Backpacker’s office in Boulder. If you’re going to drop $200 on a pair of pants, this is the one: After 3 years of near-constant use, I haven’t found a scratch or tear on them yet. —Adam Roy, Executive Editor.

This isn’t the first time I’ve written about this bag, which is always the envy of my hiking partners thanks to its supreme compressibility and warmth. Coming in at 1 lb. 7.4 oz. and packing down to the same size as my inflatable sleeping pad, the Spark allows me to go lightweight without having to sacrifice comforts like an extra t-shirt, my camp pillow, or camp shoes. The 850-fill down keeps a cold sleeper like me plenty warm, even on chilly fall overnights. Now I just have to keep my partner from trying to steal it from me on every trip.  —Zoe Gates, Senior Editor

Mustang Survival Backpack
Mustang Survival Highwater 22L (Photo: Courtesy)

Some of my most memorable adventures this year took place on the water, and this simple, reliable pack was my constant companion. With a single roll-top compartment and generous mesh stuff pockets on the front and sides, the Highwater’s construction will be familiar to anyone who’s used a modern frameless pack. But unlike those, the Highwater is fully waterproof. (Yes, I checked: I threw it in a lake and tried to drown it with a paddle, but the clothes inside didn’t even get slightly damp.) On a SUP-camping adventure to Colorado’s Blue Mesa Reservoir with my four-year-old, I strapped the Highwater to the deck for the paddle out then carried it as we explored the trails and fire roads near our lakeside campsite. And on a weekend canoe-camping trip to Rabbit Key off the coast of Everglades National Park, it survived sand, seawater, and a couple of brushes with oyster-encrusted mangrove roots without springing a leak. —AR

running vest
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I’m picky when it comes to hydration packs. They have to be ultra-lightweight with ample storage pockets and zero spillage. And though I’ve tested dozens of H2O transport systems over the years, there’s only one that does it for me now: Nathan’s 12L Pinnacle women’s vest. It felt like a second skin when I first slipped it on, and I’ve been using it for day hikes and long runs ever since. Eleven exterior pockets ensure easy access to snacks, gels, layers, a headlamp, and my pup’s leash—all precisely organized. Two additional water-resistant chest pockets protect my phone and car keys in crappy weather. And the 1.6-liter insulated hourglass bladder packs the perfect amount of hydration for hours of fast packing. Bottom line: The Pinnacle perma-lives in my mountain rig and goes on every adventure. Patty Hodapp, Senior Contributing Editor, Outside

MSR Freelite Tent
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This isn’t the lightest tent I own (that honor goes to my Zpacks Duplex), but after putting this single-person shelter through its paces on a cold, windy overnight to Caribou Lake near Nederland, Colorado, it’s become the first one I reach for when I’m going it alone. At 1 lb. 10 oz., the Freelite 1 is featherweight, yet its well-ventilated, double-wall design and bathtub floor stood up to graupel in the Colorado high country and a week of near-constant rain in northern Sweden. And while the footprint of the tent isn’t exactly generous at 20 square feet, the 39-inch peak height was high enough for me, at 6’2”, to sit up while I was writing in my journal every night. The tent set up simply enough that I got it first try right out of the box, with one hubbed pole for the body and a smaller pole and several stakeouts for the fly. —AR

Purple Puffy Jacket
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My body temperature runs cold, so hiking in a boxy, warmth-shedding jacket does me no favors. Thankfully, Jack Wolfskin’s Routeburn Pro Insulated Jacket is tailor-made for female athletes, like me, who adventure in all sorts of weather. Two stretchy side panels hug its windproof and water repellent outer shell comfortably close over base and midlayers. Inside, Primaloft insulation and soft fleece wick sweat and provide breathability on torching ascents. And on chilly, gusty days or long descents, I cinch its closures at the waist and neck to lock in heat. Without fail, this sustainable piece keeps me toasty, dry, and most importantly, focused on the trail ahead. PH

(Photo: Courtesy)

Thanks to this daypack’s versatile size and dialed feature set, it was my pick again and again for hikes of varying mileage. The FreeFloat suspension, which employs a cushy, dynamic hip belt anchored to an alloy steel frame, paired with padded shoulder straps, made loads feel light even when I packed extra snacks and water. On my longest day of the year, a 20-some mile trek through Washington’s Enchantments, my shoulders and back never ached, even when my quads began to shake and my knees buckled on the 6,000-foot descent. The voluminous hipbelt pockets kept my gummy worms always at hand, helping boost morale when my energy wavered. I also love the stretchy mesh pocket on the pack’s exterior for holding rain gear, water filter, or even stashing my trekking poles in a hurry. Gregory’s “body-hugging” design does just that; even when I jogged mellow stretches of trail, the pack moved with me; impressive for a full 28-liter pack. —ZG

Orange Outdoor Research rain jacket
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A totally bombproof rain jacket typically has some serious tradeoffs: lack of breathability, heavy weight, and a lack of stretch. OR’s Foray Superstretch, one of Backpacker’s 2023 editor’s choice winners, tackles all three of those things with aplomb. For starters, it’s made of 50-denier Paclite Gore-Tex—a burly, truly waterproof fabric choice that clocks in at 14.5 ounces, a commendable weight for this class of shell. Like all of OR’s Foray jackets, this one has pit-to-hip zips, which means you can dump tons of heat on intense uphill climbs, because we all know “breathability” is relative when it comes to rain jackets. Lastly, the Superstretch includes a panel of dimpled, waterproof, elasticized Gore-Tex between the shoulderblades, allowing me to crouch down to tie my shoelaces and reach up to finagle a PCT hang without feeling like I’m in a Gore-Tex straitjacket. Benjamin Tepler, Senior Gear Editor

Silver sunglasses
(Photo: Courtesy)

No item of gear transitions from trail to town better than Goodr’s sunglasses. Take it from me: I have six pairs. I don’t treat my Goodrs very well (they often end up in purgatory at the bottom of my bag), and I’ve never had a pair break on me. I even accidentally closed the car trunk on a pair while hiking in Yosemite this September, and somehow they were fine. Goodrs don’t bounce when I jog down steep inclines, and they don’t slip down my nose during particularly sweaty hikes. TAlso, if you’re buying the shades online, you won’t have buyers’ remorse thanks to the Snapchat-powered “Virtual Try-on” feature online that shows you what you’d look like with different frames. It’s an easy way to decide which style is your favorite—mine is the Circle G. —Emma Veidt, Assistant Editor

teal dog pack
(Photo: Courtesy)

I hiked some amazing trails this year, but by far the best part was sharing the experience with my dog. Nothing motivates me to keep up the pace than seeing her bound ahead of me, peering down from switchbacks above with her tail wagging. Since she already has boundless energy, I decided to get her her own pack this year, so she can carry water, treats, and full poop bags (this is the real bonus). The Front Range pack has two spacious, saddle-bag style pockets, three leash attachments, and a padded harness to keep Fido comfy on long romps. My dog, who had never worn a pack before, didn’t seem to mind the first time I put it on her. Collapsible water bottles designed to fit in the pockets allow her to carry up to 2 liters of water, though she much prefers lapping straight from mountain streams. With the harness and adjustable belly strap, the pack stays secure even when she rolls in snow patches, zooms between fallen logs, or sprints after squirrels. —ZG

mountainsmith tent
(Photo: Courtesy)

The Morrison’s certainly not the lightest, flashiest tent on the market, but it’s given me some of my best nights of sleep this year. It’s the most versatile three-season tent that I have ever owned: It seems to hold strong in every condition instead of just barely getting you through the night. The fly kept gusts of cold wind from piercing through the tent one blustery night in the San Bernardino Mountains. On another trip, the deep bathtub floor kept rainwater and mud out during a freak storm along Section A of the Pacific Crest Trail. Perhaps my favorite thing about it is the ease of setup: I forgot to practice before my first adventure with it in January of this year, and I ended up setting the tent up for the first time after the sun had set. I expected the worst, but it took under 10 minutes. We wrote about this tent in our 2011 gear guide, and here I am, over a decade later, still getting plenty of mileage out of it. —EV

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