Part of Recommended Outdoor Gear by Mark Verber
The following covers all items except clothing and the "big three", shelter, sleeping, and backpack. There are a wide variety of things people take to the outdoors. This list only covers things I would consider taking. Don't expect to find hand cranked blenders, battery power DVD players, etc in this page.
Rational: Next to staying warm, the most important survive factor is to make sure you drink an adequate amount of safe water. This often means you need to carry water in something because most locations don't have a continuous supply of safe water.
My Choice: I normally use a 3L Big Zip SL with a hydration tube. It is light, durable, and collapsible. I have sometimes used a pop bottle attached to my shoulder strap. In winter I bring a wide mouth Gatorade bottles because they are one of the few light weight drink containers which can handle boiling water poured into them without melting.
The standard backpacking container is the Nalgene water bottle because they are nearly indestructible and have a wide mouth which makes them easy to fill. Boiling water doesn't melt them which make them particularly useful in the winter as hot water bottles. You should be aware classic Nalgene water bottles are made of polycarbonate based plastic which might pose a threat to pregnant women and young children. Nalgene now makes a number of bottles which don't leach chemicals into water. Empty pop and bottled-water containers are a cheap and lighter alternative to the classic Nalgene water bottle and are surprisingly durable. They are also a good size to hang on your shoulder strap (adventurer racer style) which gives easily access and can provide a bit of weight to counter balance your pack. Growing in popularity are flexible water containers such as the Platypus, Camelbak, Nalgene Wide-Mouth Cantenes, and the heavy duty MSR Dromedary bag. The Nalgene cantenes are nice because they are easy to fill and clean like the classic Nalgene bottle, but significantly lighter and can be collapsed. Platypus are pretty much the lightest and most compact option. The one downside of a Platypus bottle is the narrow mouth which can make it a challenge to clean, dry, and in some situations fill. To dry, shake all the water out, fill with air, and then put the platypus in the sun. It will dry in a day. Platypus makes the Zip SL model, with a zip lock top which is much easier to dry. In 2008 the updated Big Zip SL seems to have addressed the problems I have had getting the Zip II closed reliably. Some people express concerns about durability... but unless you really punish your gear, the platypus should be plenty durable. I have never had one fail (other that the Big Zip II opening up)... and I have been using them as my primary container since around 1996. I used a 1st generation platypus (reported to be 1/2 or less durable than current models) daily for more than a year without a leak or a break and then on periodic trips for several more years. Hydration systems such as Camelbak and Platypus have become popular because you don't have to stop to get a drink. Personally, I think the Camelbak reserves are excessively complex and heavy, I think they are fine around the town, but would use something lighter backpacking. Evernew makes some bladders which are much like Platypus. A more recent addition to the marketplace is Geigerrig which looks quite nice. They have combined a small hand pump to pressurize the bladder and a in-line filter to make it quick and easy to grab your water and go, without the difficulty drinking when you are trying to suck water through an inline filter.
Low Cost: "Disposable" water or pop bottles which you can easily find for free, or very low cost. Surprisingly durable.
The best place to take water is from the top 1/2 inch of a lake. Constant exposure to UV light from the sun tends to purify the top layer of a fixed body of water.
Rational: In many locations, the water supply is not safe to drink without being treated. Failure to treat the water can result in severe illnesses which would minimally make your trip less enjoyable, and in the worse case be life threatening. In the US most the most common issues are typically larger organisms: bacteria, cysts, etc. If the water is particularly cloudy, chemical and UV treatments are are less effective with these, especially cysts and bio-films. Outside the US, you might also need to deal with even smaller organisms like viruses. A basic filter is not effective, you need a "purifier" filter. The good news is that chemical and UV are highly effective against these smaller organisms, so often people will filter and then use chemical or UV to be completely sure the water is safe.
My Choice: On solo trips I typically use Kaytadyn Micropur tablets. In most conditions I see water is safe within 15-30 minutes of treatment. These tablets are easy to use and very light weight. On group trips I bring a gravity filter because it the easiest way to generate a lot of safe drinking water. If I am going someplace that has really yucky water I bring a traditional pump filter that can be back flushed and has a carbon filter. If I am going someplace with really "yummy" water, I might bring a SteriPen, with the Micropur tablets as backup. In the winter I often bring extra fuel and boil the water a few minutes.
Pre Filtering: Anytime you aren't using a filter, or are using a filter in a location where the water has a lot of particular matter you will want to remove a significant portion of the material before getting to the "real" water treatment. There are a variety of techniques for this. A piece of women's nylon hose will keep the larger items out while permitting very fast fill-ups but this doesn't filter out things like algae which can clog things up. More effective, but slower tools include using a bandana, coffee filter, or a specifically designed "pre-filter". It has been suggested that a slightly modified Duda Diesel Filter Bag makes an excellent 1oz, 1micron pre-filter. Another approach is to collect water, let it settle for a few hours, scoop out the floaters, and then carefully pour the water into another container (or scoop water out) leaving the material that settled on the bottom behind.
Chemical treatments: are small, light weight, and don't clog. First, let me suggest that you should skip to common chemical treatments of iodine and bleach. Both chemical are more effective than nothing... but both chemicals are less effective than Chlorine Dioxide water purification. The EU will ban the selling of iodine as a water treatment in October 2009. This seems to be based on regulatory processes than any specific concern with iodine. I like Chlorine Dioxide because it is effective and has less of a "taste" than most other chemical water treatment. Just after treatment, the water can taste a bit like pool water just after treatment and becomes less pronounced if given a bit of time to "breath". In clear water it's fully effective in 30 minutes, in cloudy water everything but cysts are killed in 15 minutes, with the cysts taking up to 4 hours to neutralize. I use Kaytadyn Micropur tablets because they are so simple. I used to use Aqua Mira treatment drops. There are a few other chlorine dioxide based treatments including the pre-mixed Klearwater, tablets made by Aqua Mira, and the MSR MIOX system. The tablets from Aqua Mira and Kaytadyn have three times the chemical load of the suggested dose using Aqua Mira drops making them more effective but also having a stronger taste.
UV: Recently, a number of products have come to market that use UV light to purify water. The most popular are the Aqua Star and the SteriPEN. The nice thing about the using UV light is it will purify reasonable clear water in something like 60 seconds. No work, just scoop up the water and turn on the light source. When the water is cool and good tasting, this can be quite the treat. The downside of the UV systems are that they don't work well with cloudy water, and the systems is complex, which is more prone to fail. In particular, I have heard a number of failures reported in temperatures around freezing. It you decide to use a UV system, bring a a backup system. Most people use chemicals because they are small and light. Most UV systems needs a wide mouth container so the typical Playtpus bladders don't work with it.
Pump Filters: These days water filters are very popular because you can drink the water you pump immediately, they are simple to use, they are effective at removing biological contamination, and those with charcoal elements will also remove some chemicals and improve water taste. Filters tend not to catastrophically fail, but as the age they can filter 4x slower than a new filter. If you use a filter when the nights get below freezing, make sure to either fully drain your water filter, or keep it warm so it doesn't freeze. Filters are particularly useful if you are in locations which are hot and have few sources of water. You can "camel up", drink as much water as you can at the source so you don't have to carry it. There are lots of filter options. Here are my observations of the more traditional pump filters:
Gravity filters have become quite popular since they filter almost as fast and pumps with little work required. The downside is that you need a large contain to hold "dirty" water. Originally gravity filters were mostly home-make or very heavy systems designed for base camps. The ULA Amigo (now discontinued) was one of the first gravity filters made designed for backpackers. Since then a number of companies sell purpose designed gravity filters that are appropriate for backpacking including the Platypus Gravity Works, MSR Autoflow and Katadyn Basecamp. Additionally, a number of companies now have gravity input options for what used to be pump only filters. I like the feeder for the Platypus, but I think the clean reserve is less than ideal. The Platypus Water Tank is much better because it can sit on the ground with the opening toward the top.
Sports Bottle Filters / Straws: There are a number of filters which are designed to go inside sports bottles, attached to a hydration system tubing, or are thick straws that you suck the water through. Personally, I have not liked any of these systems. I found the sports bottles tended to be heavier than any options and the filters that you suck the water through required a fair amount of "suck" power. This is fine around town at lower elevations. If you are slightly out of breath after a long climb, and you are at 10k ft, having to apply sufficient suction can be very difficult.
Boiling Water: Three minutes of boiling water is also highly effective went dealing with biological containments. The downside is that you might need to carry extra fuel, and in hot weather, you don't get safe, cold water to drink.
Is Treatment Needed?: There is significant evidence that poor personal hygiene (e.g. not washing hands during food prep) is the most significant source of contamination in the back country, so some people don't purify their water sources. I think this is an unnecessary risk and don't recommend this approach. There has been quite a bit of discussion about Sierra Nevada Mountain Water: Is it Safe to Drink? One of the early scholarly look at this was performed in 1984 about Giardia Lamblia and Giardiasis in Sierra Nevada and a more recent study from UC Davis from 2003 seems to indicate that the water in most of the high sierras is still pretty clean. You can read their technical article An Analysis of Wilderness Water in Kings Canyon, Sequoia, and Yosemite National Parks for Coliform and Pathologic Bacteria or check out their press release Backcountry Water Quality tests are Good News for Campers. Related articles include Cyst acquisition rate for Giardia lamblia in backcountry travelers to Desolation Wildereness and Evidence based Medicine in the Wilderness: The Safety of backcountry Water.
Other Information: BPL's Water Quality Technologies and Trends. PCTA folks have a high level summary about Water Sources and Purification for the PCT. They also had a number of nice (now somewhat dated articles which can be retrieved using archive.org): Water Purification In the Backcountry Overview & Treatment Comparison. The most complete review I have seen, but no longer online was the US Army's Commercially Available Water Treatment. That site does have a number of resources about safe water.
Low Cost: If you aren't moving much and it's sunny, you can put the pop bottle filled with water in the sun. The sun's UV will kill off biological threats within 6 hours. Otherwise, Aqua Mira or boiling will be the cheapest in the short term.
I am in the process of integrating text about technique with gear recommendations. For gear recommendations about stoves, cook kits / pots, or eating wares, see my page The Kitchen: Food & Cooking.
Rational: Many outdoor activities requires cutting things. Cutting needs might vary from food preparation to trimming material to cover a blister to hacking branches off a tree to build an emergency shelter.
My Choice: I pack a small pair of scissors from a SwissCard in my first aid kit to trim bandages. In addition to the scissors, I often carry a SOG Flash 1 in my pocket which is large enough for any other housekeeping tasks. When I am doing a lot of cooking I bring a Opinel folding lockblade. When I expect to do wood craft (survival or group activities) I will bring a Ritter RSK Mk1 Knife or a Fallkniven F1.
Options: There are a large variety of knives in the marketplace today. Options includes basic type (pocket, fixed blade, etc), type of ground used on the blade, quality of the materials, and finally style and craftsmanship. Doug Ritter's Sharp Stuff page has a good discussion of knife choices with an eye on survival. You can checkout Knife Forums and Blade Forums to see what knife enthusiasts have to say.
Pocket Knife: A knife is one of the most used tools while camping and backpacking, but there are many different styles selected by people. Ultra-light backpackers often make do with a tiny Swiss pocket knife like the Wenger Esquire or Victorinox Classic which have a small blade, scissors, a nail file, tweezers, and a toothpick. These tiny knives are more than adequate for basic "housekeeping" cutting. I like the Victorininox Rambler which is a lot like the tiny "Classic" except that it has a small philips head blade / bottle opener. In the last thirty years the most popular outdoors knives seem to be the classic Camillus boy scout pocket knife and it's cousin, the medium size Swiss knife from Victorinox or Wenger which contain a can opener, bottle opener, awe, one or two blades, maybe a cord screw, maybe a philips head screw driver. Personally, I think a basic pocket knife is more than adequate for most tasks. Alas, the tendency of bloated "more is better" led to the creation of large Swiss "pocket" knives with their 10s of tools in a package that really doesn't fit comfortably in a pocket anymore. In general I don't like these knives since they are expensive, bulky, and I expect I will use less than 50% of the tools.
Multi-Tools: Growing in popularity are the multi-tools first introduced by Leatherman. These are typically foldable piers or scissors with a number of blades hidden away in the two handles. If you expect to be repairing machinery, these are a great option since it is like having a small toolbox in small package. Of course having a single package can be an issue since you can't hold a bolt with the pliers and use a screw driver at the same time. I think multi-tools are typically not particularly useful in the back country. The Leatherman Squirt seems to be one of the more popular multi-tools among backpackers.
Folding Lock Blades: Folding lock blades are often a good compromise for people who expect to be doing a fair amount of cutting or whittling. By locking the blade they are much safer to use than typical pocket knives and are more compact than fixed blade knives. The most common locking mechanism is a liner lock. It's cheap, but not super reliable. In recent years there are a number of locking mechanisms which are significantly stronger and easier to use such as the AXIS from Benchmade. My favorite high quality lock blades include the Benchmade 530 (great cooking knife), Ritter RSK Mk1 Knife and the smaller Mk2, Benchmade 520, Benchmade 805, and the ultimate and expensive Chris Reeve Sebenza. Have heave not seen it in person, but the CRKT Eos Small (Ken Onion Design) looking quite nice. More reasonably priced lock blades include Buck Protege, CRKT Bandera, Gerber Ultralight LST, Kershaw Chive, AG Russell Featherlite, SOG Flash 1 (when on sale), Kabar / Dozier Folder, and Spyderco Endura. The Baladeo Ultralight is a 1.1oz (34gram) folder which is very light weight for the blade length. It's useful as a filet knife, but I can't recommend it as a general purpose lock blade. Interesting looking is this relatively inexpensive titanium folder. Opinel makes a number of folding knives which have good quality steel blades, adequate wooden handles, and cost around $10 making them a great value. I generally perfect the simplicity of a single blade locking knife, but there are some multi-blade pocket knives that lock such as the Victorinox Hunter.
Fixed Blade: Finally there are some people who really like fixed blade knives because of their ability to stand up to serious abuse (chopping, digging, etc). You should stick with knives with a full tang for maximum durability. Keep in mind that you don't need a huge / heavy blade, 3-4" is actually plenty for tasks as described in the book Bushcraft, and a short article in field&stream about The Wilderness Blade. My favorite fixed blade knife for the back country is the Fallkniven F1. This is a high quality knife that is durable and functional. There are a number of other high quality, reasonably light weight fix blades which are up to taking serious abuse. I don't use them, but I have friends who like the ESEE RAT Cutlery RC-3, RSK Mk3, and SOG Seal Pup. The classic Kabar and USAF Survival Knife are also popular, but heavier than I would want to carry. Others have noted the the quality of the Kabar and the USAF Survival knife is much lower than the beloved knives from 1970s and before. The Chris Reeve One Piece knives like the Mountaineer I and Aviator have been very well regarded, but are now discontinued so will likely be even more expensive as they become collectors items. These knives are very well crafted, but I found that I didn't like the round textured metal handles. I much prefer the feel of the Fallkniven knives. The most affordable, but decent quality fixed blades I have seen are from the Swedish maker Mora though they typically don't have a full tang. If you are around salt water a lot you might look at the Gerber Silver Trident or the titanium Mission MPK-10Ti. There are also a number of minimalist fixed blades which aren't up to heavy abuse, but are reasonably priced and provide a better blade than they typical pocket knife such as the Ka-Bar Becker Remora, the Buck Hartsook, AG Russell.Hunter Scalpel, or even an inexpensive kitchen paring knife. The smallest / lightest "fixed blade" might be a classic safety razor blade wrapped with a bit of tape to you don't cut you fingers on the "back" side. Slightly more than a razor blade is the CardShark which weights 13 grams. Backpackers should remember that in addition to the weight of the knife, is the weight of the sheath. Most sheaths provided with knives are pretty heavy. Ultimate Edge Bladesaver can be the basis of an effective and light weight sheath.
Scissors: Some people have found that all their cutting jobs are easily handled with just a small pair of scissors. Super ultralight folks tear apart the Victorinox Classic, use the scissors from the Victorinox Swiss Army Swiss Card, or use the small blunt-end kid scissors.
Low Cost: The cheapest option would be a pocket strait razor at less than $1... but that's a bit minimalist for me. They are wicked sharp but I expect they dull pretty quickly like a razor. The other issue is that the blade shape isn't useful for a variety of tasks. Another option used by some are small scissors which can typically be found for less than $1. I generally would recommend the small Wenger Esquire and Victorinox Classic can be found for less than $10 and are often given away with someone's logo on the side. If you want a larger pocket knife, it is possible to find the classic Victorinox Recruit for around $11. If you want a locking blade folder, then you should be able to pick up a Opinel folding knife for less than $10, it will have a good blade with a wooden handle.
Rational: Flashlights let you continue your activities once it is too dark to see. The need for light varies based on how light sensitive a person's eyes are (us older folk need more light) and the task at hand. Given time, eyes can often adjust to available light. If you are patient, you might find that the moon and stars provide enough light for a number of activity. My experience is that 1 lumen is enough light for many in camp tasks. I have found that 10-20 lumens is plenty of light for any camp task and most trail hiking. I have found that 70+ lumens in a focused beam is really useful when I am way finding... when I have lost a trail and trying to re-find it, or when I am going cross country.
My Choice: I use a ZebraLight H51. This is a 1.2oz (3.5oz with battery and headband) headlamp that runs on a single AA batteries. It has 6 light levels from with good quality regulation (lumens/time: 0.2/19 days, 2.5/3 days, 8/39h , 30/12h, 100/2h, 200/55min) The beam has a hot spot with enough throw for way finding and enough spill to be useful for around the camp. The headband is comfortable and removable. The glow in the dark holder makes it easy to find at night. The only thing this light is missing is a battery life indicator. On minimalist trips I switch to a iTP A3 EOS Update which is now called the olight i3s eos. This is one of the best flashlight values: $20 for a high efficiency AAA flashlight with good regulation and a nice range of brightness settings. This tiny light provides 80 lumens for 1 hour, 20 lumens for 10h, and .5 lumens fir 120 hours. This flashlight + lithium battery weights just .6oz (18grams). See Candlepower review of iTP A3 EOS for more information. I can clip it to my hat brim (or velco it to the ear piece of my glasses) for acceptable but not great hands free use. I normally use NiMH rechargeable batteries, though I switch to Lithium batteries on snow camping trips. There is a very innovative headlamp called the Petzl Nao which might be a game changer. It automatically adjusts based on how much light scatters back to it's sensor. The following is what I look for in a flashlight/headlamp
Options: These days, I would recommend sticking with LED lights. They are more energy efficient than conventional bulbs (sometimes exceeding compact florescent), and significantly more durable and longer lived. There are three types of LED flashlights on the market today. Micro or button lights, headlamps, and the more traditional hand-held flashlights. I generally recommend getting a headlamp because the hands free operation is extremely useful and you can always use it like a hand light. Why would you use a headlamp in your hand? Having a light source coming from the same location as your eyes creates hard shadows which can make it harder to see things. When night hiking having the light coming from down around your waist makes it much easier to see the terrain. Secondly, when in groups, there is a tendency to turn toward people who are talking which minimally exposes them to the spill of the headlamp if the headlamp is properly adjusted down, or worst case, you just hit your friend with full force light. During summer months I would recommend using a modern NiHM rechargeables which I have found outperform classic alkaline batteries and are more eco-friendly. I would also recommend getting a conditioning charger because you can be losing more than half a batteries capacity using stupid charger. I normally recommend the La Crosse BC-900, though the Maha MH-c9000 has more features at the cost of ease of use. In cold conditions NiHM batteries function better than alkaline, but I would recommend using Lithium batteries because they even less effected by cold, hold more power, and, are 30-40% lighter as an extra bonus. You should be aware that lithium batteries burn-out some LED lamps. Most of the headlamps made by Princeton Tec have regulation which support Lithium batteries. For more information about flashlights, batteries, etc check out Candle Power Forums, cpfreviews, light-reviews.com and flashlightreviews.com to learn what flashlight fanatics are raving about.
One thing that needs special note is regulation. Most lights used today are LEDs. There are three ways to power an LED. The first is unregulated. This is basically a battery connected directly to the LED. Since most LEDs want around 4-6 volts, it's common for unregulate lights to use 3 1.5V batteries. Compared to the brightness with fully charged batteries, unregulated lights tends to fall off quickly. Often to 60% of the initial brightness within the first 30 minutes of use. Once it's taken the major drop, the brightness of the light falls off linearly. Next is basic resistance regulation. These lights limit the amount of current that flows, prolonging the time it runs at a reasonably high level by limiting the maximum brightness with new batteries. Finally, there is full regulation, sometimes called boast regulation which requires more complex circuitry. A good quality boast regulator can keep a light running at near the initial brightness for nearly the entire run time of the light, falling suddenly to say 10% output for the last few minutes of the batteries life. As a result, unregulated lights will often to claim many hours on "high", but the reality is that the output is only "high" for the first 30-60 minutes, and then it's more like the "medium" on a more regulated light. This means you should not compare claims of runtime between regulated and unregulated lights. The best way to compare the real performance is look at runtime graphs which plot output against time.
Button Lights: Small lights that are powered by watch batteries and have a single LED. These lights are very small and light. They typically have a few hours of useful light for basic camp tasks or easy navigation on well developed trails. Many will run more than a couple of hours, but the light they generate is useful for only the most basic needs. All of these flashlight permit momentary on/off operation by squeezing the case, and most provide a way to "lock" the light on. Many of the locking mechanisms will accidently get locked on when carried in a pocket using up the batteries. While more expensive than some options, I think Doug Ritter's MkII Photon Freedom is the best button light currently made. It's surprisingly bright thanks to the Nichia LED, water resistant, and the batteries are easy to change. It's user interface is very good (easy to vary intensity and to select push-to-light mode, and the various strobes stay out of the way unless you need them). There are two ways to discourage it from getting left on in your pocket. The first is to put it into momentary-on (also known as morse code) mode by pressing the switch quickly five times. The other method it to put it in auto off mode which allows the light to run for 2 minutes and then automatically turns itself off (see the instructions for details) The only down side is that the light falls off pretty quickly as indicated by the Photon Freedom's runtime graph. Photon also makes the less expensive X-Light which has the same UI. Many people hold their button lights in their mouth for "hands free lighting:". This is ok to do time to time, but if you do this a lot you run the risk of rusting the guts of the light with your saliva. Some people put a Velcro dots on a button light so it can be attached to something, or use clip/frame that Photon includes with the Freedom for hands free lighting. Some people use a pair of button lights as their only light source. I have done this on a couple of trips and it worked fine when I just needs light around camp. For me, it's worth carrying a couple extra ounces to get a light that is more powerful and longer running that a button light.
Headlamps: Alas, headlamp manufacturers tend to lag the folks making high quality flashlights. The two giants, Princeton Tec and Peztl, often take years to embrace the more efficient LEDs and lag behind on regulation and durability. In very cold conditions I recommend getting a headlamp with a remote battery pack which can stay under your coat. Otherwise, the cold gets to the batteries which reduces the effective runtime.
There are a large number of unregulated headlamps in the marketplace. If I was going to choice one, it would most likely be the PrincetonTec Remix because is fairly light / compact, and has a nice mix of flood and thrown, but there are a lot of nice looking options.
Handlights: MiniMag lights have been very popular because they were close to indestructible and have adjustable focus from flood lighting to spotlighting. They are also heavy, so I would normally recommend choosing some other flashlight. There are a number of nice compact LED flashlights which have 1-3W bulbs. As with headlamps, I would recommend getting something that uses the Cree or Luxeon Rebel LED. There are numerous good options today. I would suggest you start by decided what battery size you want to use. Three factors typically effect battery selection: what batteries are being used by other devices, size/weight, and run time. I tend to favor AA batteries, so my specific recommendation reflect this. I used a Fenix L1D (L1D-CE review) for a couple of years. It weights 2oz with a lithium battery, or a bit more with NiNH rechargable. It's rock solid high quality light with a good user interface and one of the best power regulation circuits in the marketplace. I get 20+ hours using a rechargeable battery on low setting (12 lumens - brighter than ideal) with a near constant output until the last hour, and can be switched to high mode it puts out approx ~60 lumens for 1.5 hours, or around 6 h on medium. The 4Sevens Quark r5 looks nice with it's moonlight and low settings but I don't have any personal experience with this light. The Photon Proton Pro is also nice with the very feature rich with the "Freedom" circuit control and extra long running mode using a second LED which is red. Liteflux is well liked by flashlight geeks but I have no experience with them. The is also the Nitecore D10 with a highly variable output including a nice 3 lumen low but somewhat quirky user interface and mine sometimes turns itself off which can be a problem. If you really need more light than these lights, consider Fenix or iTP lights which use 2 AA or CR123A batteries. If you need something really bright there are a few lights like the iTP A6 Polestar that will put out 700+ lumens running on 6 AA batteries... not exactly light weight, but certainly bright. If you need a smaller / lighter flashlight, you could look at flashlights produced by the above manufacturer that use a single 123 or AAA battery. The iTP Light A3 EOS Upgrade Edition (Candlepower review of iTP EOS) is one of the best values at $20 for a high efficiency AAA flashlight with good regulation and a nice range of brightness settings (1.5 for 50h, 18 for 4h, 80 for 55min). The Fenix LD01 is simular, but more expensive and I don't like the brightness as much (the lower two are 2x what I think is needed, the brightest is less than the iTP A3). The 4Sevens Preon ReVO is very similar to the A3 EOS Upgrade bit with even more features, but also costs almost twice as much. Years ago, the Pac-Lite which connects two LED batteries to a 9V battery was an interesting options... but I think its well past it's prime these days. It's "incredibly long runtimes" are at very low levels. The weight savings is that there isn't a case around the battery. In the end it has maybe 20% more light output / ounce than a iTP A3 and a few AAA batteries, but the Pac-Lite is a lot less versatile unless all you want is a low intensity nightlight. Some people like the tiny Streamlight Nano which is a mere 10 grams, but I am not fond of it because it's not regulated and takes a weird battery. I would much rather go with a 18 gram iTP A3 which has three modes which are both brighter as less bright, has a longer run time, and good regulation.
Fuel Lanterns: Not a flashlight, but close enough. In the old days, candle lanterns, or small oil lamps were the lightest way to provide long lasting light. There were not bright, but you could get something like 12 hours out of a 2oz candle. The candle holder would be another 4-6oz, or you could use sand in the bottom of a bag like Christmas time luminaries to save the weight of the lantern. These days LED lights with lithium batteries provide more light for a longer period of time for less weight and long term cost without the danger of catching something on fire. The old candle lantern has the one advantage of providing a bit of warmth which is nice on a cold night. There are also a number of small, pack-able gas lanterns. If you want a lot of light, there is no better option. For around 8oz you can get a canister lantern such as the Primus Alpine Yellowstone Easy Light Lantern which will provide the equivalent of a 40 watts light bulb. Note: While the Brunton Liberty Mantleless Lantern seems to be a good design, I was disappointed with the quality and quantity of light it produced (skip it).
Low Cost: For basic task lighting, the photon II knock-offs can be found for between $1-$3 many places.
Rational: You want to protect yourself from biting insects for comfort and health.
My Choice: I normally use physical barriers. Supplex clothing and a TinyFly head net. When I am not wearing supplex clothing I will use a >20% Picaridin. I have been trying Picaridin since 2007. Published research indicates that it is almost as effective as DEET in comparable concentrations (20% DEET -vs- 20% Picaridin). Picaridin doesn't feel slimy like DEET and don't damage plastics and elastics. For a bit more information, see my bites & stings first aid page.
Rational: Popular in Europe for years, trekking poles are catching on in North America. There are a number of reasons to use poles. First, they help provide stability when the footing is difficult such as crossing streams, on very narrow trails, cross snow fields, or when you go cross country over broken terrain. Second, using poles distributes the work load between legs and arms which many people find less fatiguing, especially when climbing hills or carrying heavy loads. Finally, using poles can relieve stress on knees, especially when going down steep hills. Note: I think that the right shoes (going nearly barefoot for many people) will provide more complete relief for knees and hips, though poles can help. I found four downsides with using poles. First, you are exposing your hands to more of the environment than normal... you run the risk of getting blisters and sunburn in a new location, and when it is raining, your hands can get quite wet (and cold). Second, I found my hands sweating more. Third, if using anti-shock poles, they are noisy enough to chase away some wildlife. Forth, while using poles seems to distribute the work load, it seems to use more energy than the times I don't use poles. There was a nice thread on BPL about the science of poles. Not surprisingly, using the poles gives your arms a workout, but that could be viewed as a good thing. Pete's Poles Page is a good place to learn about using trekking poles.
My Choice: I have used trekking poles on and off since 2002. They made a big difference as I was transitioning from carrying a heavy-weight load. These days I bring one or two Gossamer Gear Lightrek 4 Adjustable_Poles for river crossing, when I go cross country, and as a way to put up my shelter. Generally though, the pole(s) are attached to my pack because I found that I like to have my hands free and that using the poles changes my gait in a non optimal way.
Options: There are five factors to consider. First is the length of the poles. Shorter poles tend to be lighter and pack more compactly, but the don't have enough reach for taller people, and might not be sufficiently long for use with some shelters. Second is the material of the poles. Carbon-fiber is extremely stiff for a given weight, but is also susceptible to breaking if you aren't careful. Aluminum will be heavier than carbon-fiber poles, but more durable. Third, is the shape / angle / material of the handles. This seems to be a very personal choice, though positive angle grips seem to be generally preferred. Forth is whether the pole is a single piece of material or made of sections joined by some sort of locking device. I wish poles makers would stop using the twist locks because I have found them difficult to adjust and have had them fail twice. Finally, there is the question of whether to get poles with anti-shock devices. I originally tried the classic Leki Super Makalu COR-TEC PA. I used poles with the anti-shock feature turned on and off. There might have been a tiny improvement on the down-hills and level sections with the anti-shock feature enabled, but I am not convinced that the anti-stock feature is worth the extra weight, cost, and noise, but the angled handles were nice. If you can, I would suggest borrowing one anti-shock, and one normal pole and compare them. These days I typically don't use poles. If I was going to buy a new pair of poles today, I would consider:
Rational: Storage containers are often used to contain smaller items. The storage might be used for protection (water or crushing), make it easy to find, or to take up less room (compression devices).
My Choice: I used to use a varied collection of storage containers. These days I normally use two OR Drybags, a freezer zipperlock back for small items, and some sort of food storage (typically a bear canister, sometimes a SilNylon stuff sack). sleeping bag / quilt and any clothing that will only be used at night go into a 13L drybag. I never open this bag until I am in camp so what's in the bag will stay dry. Clothing that I might need during the day are in a separate 8L drybag. Small items which are sensitive to water (first aid kit, matches, etc) are organized using zip-lock bags and protected using a 4L drybag. Combining all the items in the drybag makes it easier to find in my pack than if the individual items were loose. If I regularly used a pack with a top lid, I would most likely have these items organized using small Aloksaks and do away with the drybag. All my cooking / eating items live inside my cooking pot which protects them from being crushed or poking other items.
Options: There are lots of storage options. Some people use compression sacks to make large, compressible items smaller. This can be useful if you are packing into a limited space and you have a number of bulky but compressible items. I typically don't use a compression sack because they make solid lumps which often create dead space and are compressing things I might not want to compress. For example, sleeping bags will have a longer light if you minimize the amount of compression it undergoes. Many people use stuff sacks of various sizes to make items findable. Stuff sacks can be made out of mesh or nylon. Dry bags such as the Sea to Summit ultra-light Drybags are an excellent way to keep larger items dry under normal conditions. If I was facing seriously wet conditions I would recommend a more heavy duty dry bag. There was a nice review of ultralight dry sacks at BPL.com. Another option are Aloksaks which looks like ziplock bags, but are air tight bio hazard rated containers waterproof to 200ft (in theory), and some versions "odor proof". I haven't found Aloksaks very durable... ziplock freezer bags last longer. They are also very difficult to sell properly. I would skip them. I have often found that I re-use contains other products come in. For example, bio-degradable soap goes in what was an micro eye-drop bottle. You can find lots of small contains at travel shops, outdoor stores like REI, and backpackinglight.com, and easytraveler inc. It is often useful for the storage containers to be either transparent or translucent so it is easy to fine items without having to open up the container. Some people will use a pack liner rather than individual containers to keep their gear dry. Doing this can be lighter, and more space efficient than protecting items individually. Effective pack liners might general use items like a large plastic garbage bag, a pack size sil-nylon drybags, or a very purpose driven design like the gossamergear pack liner bag. Sometimes items need to be protected from not just water but use from being crushed. There is often a rubbermate product that will do the job. If you need items to be ultra-protected, you should look heavy but effective hard cases made by Pelican.
Generally I like leaving high tech gadgets at home. Part the my joy on the trail is getting away from the rapid fire interrupts endured in a go-go world (cell phones, pagers, email, etc) and to have a sense of connectedness with the world rather than being distracted by various gadgets.
Compass, Maps, Mapping Programs
National Geography Mapping Software & Ink Jet Paper. Google Earth
In general I don't think GPS are needed or even that useful. A compass + map is more reliable and is cheaper. GPS requires batteries (while typically last between 10-20 hours), the electronics can fail (has happened to me). It's also possible to accidentally erase waypoints (I have done this), so don't only take a GPS unit. Some people use GPS units to closely monitor their progress (e.g. how far they have gone, how much for distance / time until the next stop). In general I think this will detract from the outdoor experience. GPS can be a blessing when normal navigation queues are missing: e.g. night time, during a white out (though you should most likely be hunkering down and not moving), the the middle of deserts without durable landmarks, or if your goal is pure speed. I don't normally take a GPS. I own a Geko 201 which gets used periodically. GPS don't make a good altimeter because the earth is irregularly shaped. For a list of good GPS units check out gps information. In some urban-ish locations, it is possible to use Cell phone as GPS.
Some people like using Pedometers to keep track of how far they have walked. They can be reasonably accurate +/-5% and will be lighter and use much less power than a GPS. I don't use one. From what I can tell, New Lifestyles makes the best pedometers. Low tech low cost version is ranger beads. Often accurate within 10%.
Communication and Signaling Technology
See short section on signaling & communication on my survival page. Note: Some people might bring high tech signaling devices such as a Sat Phones not so much for safety, as for a spouse or parent's piece of mind. Normal cell phone don't work in most back country locations... and if they did, do you want to receive a call in the middle of a trail. I generally recommend not taking computing devices on backpacking trips. One exception would be people on extended / thru hike. On these longer trips something like pocket mail or a PDA can enable keeping and sharing a journal with just moderate lag time. PDAs can also be a light weight way to carry reading material.
Radio receivers can provide entertainment, news, and weather information. I have yet to find a really small weather radio. The smallest / lightest I have seen is the Sony SRF-M37W which is around 3.5oz. I haven't found any radios that support SAME (has an alarm when emergency alerts go out) that weights less than 8oz (Midland HH54VP), and none of the "pocket" SAME weather radios have AM/FM reception. There are a lot of minimalist radios that weight around 1oz which are used with ear buds. The cutest one I have read about is the Motz Tiny Speaker FM Radio
I have always been fascinated by weather. I like the Brunton line of weather instruments. I currently own a Brunton Atmospheric Data Center Pro and love it. I took it on every trip I went on for several years. This helped me to learn how various factors effected my perceptions of conditions, and what equipment / clothing allowed me to face various conditions comfortability. Kestrel and Skywatch seems to make a nice line of portable weather instruments. If all you care about is tracking temperature, take a look at the temperature logger from ibutton. Other ways to record max-min temp and read them on the trail are the Coghlan's C-Tech Time & Temp Digital Dangler, control company traceable stick, or the expensive oakton digital thermohygrometer.
iPods, Gameboys, Kindles, etc. I recommend asking yourself the question will this device enhance my experience, or distract me from experiences and learning all that I can. I often carry my iphone because it's in my pocket on the way to the trailhead, and it has a lot of utility in a small package (GPS, eBook reader, music, games, etc).
Some people carry recharging systems. On shorter trips, or trips with regular resupply I wouldn't bother, but longer trips a recharging system makes sense. Most of solar. .nPower is making a kinetic charging system looks kind of interesting.
Rational: The best thing you can take away from a trip are the memories. Pictures are a great way to remember what you have seen, and provide a great way to share some of your experiences with other.
My Choice: I my opinion, there are no cameras which are ideal for backpacking. I normally take an a Canon S90 because it has pretty good image quality, can shoot RAW, and has a good wide angle lens which is good for scenery type pictures. When I want better image quality or pictures of wildlife I bring a Panasonic GF-1 with a 20/1.7 lens, sometimes I will also bring a 14-45 or the 45-200mm lens. When I was using film I took a Leica/Minolta CL, but I have switched to 100% to Digital Photography.
Options: The first choice is if you are wanting a camera for snapshots, or you are wanting high quality images. If you want high quality images you choices are either somewhat heavy, high end digital rangefinders or DSLRs, or film cameras which use high quality lens. The lightest option is using film with a high quality range finder such as the old Leica CL There are several small size / big sensor cameras on the market including the Sigma DP1/2 and the Leica X1. Slightly larger (and much more versitle) there is a new crop of mirrorless, interchangeable lens cameras such as the micro-4/3 Panasonic GF1. If snapshot quality is good enough for you, then there are lots of choices. In most cases I would recommend a digital camera. If you are going to be the in the field for an extended period of time, I would recommend going with a camera which uses AA batteries and a solar recharged if needed. If several hundred photos will be enough for any given trip, then one of the internal, proprietary batteries should be good enough. A few more recommendations on my Choicing a Camera page.
Low Cost: Disposal cameras (typically I would recommend the file over the digital due to higher image quality) can be fairly inexpensive if you don't want to take a lot of pictures. There is the added benefit that you don't have to worry to much if it gets lose or broken since they are not very expensive.
Rope: Kelty Triptease, gossamer gear ezc2 line is really great because it has a strong sprectra core, holds knots unlike 100% spectra, and is reflective which make it much more noticeable in the middle of the night
Towels: Some people use a 100% cotton bandana. Some people like "pack towels" which are typically made from rayon. I like pack towels but find that they take a long time to dry. Recently I have heard the handy-wipes recommended as being durable enough to last several seasons, cheap, very absorbent, and dry quickly. A new entry is discovery trekking's wicking towel.