The enemy of “good enough” is “perfect.” – Russian proverb
Let’s say you love the outdoors. You love backpacking, hiking, and camping. And perhaps also like to do the occasional cold weather trek (but not TOO cold) as well. You enjoy giving back and have fun at the occasional overnight trail work project.
But you have limited time, funds, or space for gear. You don’t get out as often as you’d like. Maybe you have a family. Free time and disposable income may be limited. Every dollar spent must work for different activities and go further than what some schmuck in Moab, UT, might do.
You want equipment that may handle a variety of conditions for well, a variety of trips.
I am fortunate that due to a combo of luck, past income, and current lifestyle, I can get out and enjoy a variety of outdoor activities.
But not everyone has these opportunities.
I have friends who can’t spend all the time bank funds on “just” backpacking. If they are lucky, they get in one or two backpacking trips a year. And maybe one camping trip with friends. And a smattering of day hikes.
In the real world beyond backpacking specific websites, forums, YouTube Channels, and Instagram accounts, most people are in the category of limited time, money, or space. They can not afford specialized gear for those reasons.
But, as I’ve mentioned before, most mainstream gear is not that heavy. A person has to work to have a heavy pack – usually by taking a lot of extra equipment.
So what gear to take if you have limited space, money, or (esp!) time?
Take the “Jacks of All Trades” gear.
Gear that is not the lightest, but not the heaviest. A complete kit that works equally well for a dispersed campsite in BLM land, a designated spot in a national monument, or somewhere in the backcountry.
It is not the most expensive gear, but it is not dirtbag gear either. The overall kit makes for solid equipment that is theoretically affordable for a person with a middle-class income and typical family, social, and career obligations. And I tried to pick mainstay gear you’ll find from year-to-year. Naturally, you’ll often find clearance or used items that work well but are of limited use for a longer-term article. If you find yourself with some time to bargain hunt, check out those potential resources.
And, as usual, the gear can easily be found online, locally, or at major retailers without withdrawing too much from the precious time bank. It is gear that works for our theoretical working stiff without as much discretionary money or time as the schmuck from Moab but wants to get out when they have the somewhat rare chance.
So here are some all-purpose suggestions. I don’t claim they are the best for everyone, but the type of gear (middle of the road in price, performance, and weight) will undoubtedly apply for most. I write these articles to make people think, not to dictate.
Having said that, here are what I think are some good choices for Jack of All Trades gear.
Updated January 2020.
Shelter: The REI Half dome 2 Tent has been an REI mainstay for many years now in one form or another. Enough for room for two people to be reasonably comfortable. But not too big for one person. And though “heavy” by lightweight backpacking standards at 5 lbs 5oz, not too bad for a freestanding tent that would not look out-of-place in a campground. And easy to enough to split up as well with a friend who, no doubt, also has limited time bank funds for backpacking. Decent enough design to shed snow for some below-treeline and early or mild winter backpacking. At $220, reasonable in price too.
Sleeping bag: A 25F bag will be a versatile bag for many conditions. With careful layering, a person could easily use the bag for some late fall or even early winter trips, works well for most three-season backpacking, and can be vented/used as a quilt for warmer backpacking. Typically, I suggest a down bag, or better yet, a down quilt. But for our theoretical person, a synthetic bag will fit a broader range of conditions. And not require getting to used to a new sleeping system.
The Sea to Summit Traverse TvII 25 Sleeping Bag is a semi-rectangular fit so it could layer easier for colder weather versus a lighter, but a more tight-fitting bag, and will be comfortable and roomy for sacking out in a base camp type trip. Since it is synthetic, you don’t have to worry, as much, draping it around you to extend your comfort in more camping and social-oriented trips. At 2 lbs 7 oz and $190 not heavy or expensive. The bag is also EN rated, so the temperature scale should be accurate.
Sleeping pad: A sleeping pad to fit many needs has to be durable, has a proper R-Value, and is not expensive. And, as I learned, most people do not want to sleep on foam pads. The REI Co-op Stratus weighs 21 oz, which many people consider heavy. But for our theoretical one or two times a year backpacker who also car camps, at $80, 2.5 inches of cushioning, and an R-value of 2.9, a versatile pad for many different conditions.
Pack: A versatile pack is somewhat challenging to obtain. The backpacking gear I am suggesting above is a little bulkier and more substantial as it is performing multiple functions, but the pack also can’t be so big that it is too unwieldy for a simple day hike or work trip from camp. The answer? The ULA Circuit.
The Circuit is the little brother of the ULA Catalyst. The Catalyst is a workhorse pack, and the Circuit is very similar. I love my Catalyst, and I’ve started using the Circuit for the trips Joan and I do together here in Utah (more water carries, taking some bulkier gear, esp in winter, vs. solo backpacking).
The Circuit ends up being a light backpack and a large daypack. But it can be used for early winter overnights and winter day-use activities (snowshoeing, for example). Am I performing trail work? The ULA Circuit is durable and large enough to haul tools and other gear. If there was just one pack I had to own out of my entire kit, I can honestly say it would be this one. The pack weighs 2 bs 9 oz, less if stripped down a bit, and costs $255.
Stove: An all-purpose stove needs to simmer, can’t be too heavy, has to use readily available fuel, stable enough to hold a larger pot when cooking while car camping or cooking for two, etc. White gas stoves generally don’t simmer well and are heavy. A Jet Boil type stove is somewhat limited. An alcohol stove is great for boiling water mainly and may not be allowed during fire restrictions.
If I had to pick one type of stove to own, it would be one of the many ~3 oz canister stoves. This stove type can truly simmer well if you want to make some scrambled eggs somewhere in the middle of Utah when camping. Or perhaps boil two cups of water fast for a pouch meal somewhere in the backcountry. And these types of stoves aren’t expensive. There are also many to choose from overall. The inexpensive ones from Amazon for 3.9 oz and $9 have been out for a while now and have received excellent reviews. Be aware; upright canister stoves start getting finicky around 15F or so; you won’t want to use them for deep winter.
Cookset: A two-quart pot is very versatile. It can boil water, is big enough for simple frying (see your car camping eggs above) for real cooking, works well for more than one person, and if you end up expanding your kit, it can still be used for car camping quite well. The Open Country, 2-quart pot, is $17 and 8 oz and is one I suggest. It is heavy compared to your sub-4 oz pots, but we are again for looking for versatility that is reasonable in price and weight. I use the four-quart version of this pot for my car camping and deep winter backpacking. It is a keeper. Throw in a wide mouth Lexan spoon, a mug for your coffee or cocoa, and you are good-to-go. Some people rough down the bottom of the pot a bit to prevent slipping.
Rain Gear: All rain gear is terrible. It is just a matter of finding some that are less terrible for a given situation. The Red Ledge gear is “bread and butter” gear. Nothing fancy, not expensive, gets the job done. I’ve used their clothing in the past under the Campmor House Brand label. The Red Ledge Free Rein Parka has pit zips for better ventilation, durable enough for some moderate bushwhacking, can be used in camp without worrying about being torn too quickly and is not heavy. In other words, a versatile jacket. Throw on some Thunderlight pants, and you have a multi-purpose and multi-season shell system for less than $100 and 20 oz. Size up the coat a little larger for the middle layers below.
Middle layers: Since versatility and durability are of as much importance as the weight for this exercise, I am going to be a little different and suggest a 200 wt and a 100 wt fleece for maximum versatility, durability, and longevity versus a puffy jacket. Whether grabbing some wood, cooking dinner in your BLM camp, needing a breathable layer for cold weather or hiking in drizzle, the 200 wt and 100 wt fleeces offer a lot of functionality for the price. A good 200 wt fleece may be bought for $20 and weighs roughly 16 oz. Add a 100 wt fleece from various places for generally $15 or less and about 8 oz. Total? $35 and 24 oz.
Misc: Far too many items to list individually (headlamps, thermals, socks, hats, pants, water carrier, first aid kit, etc.), but I’d look over my various inexpensive gear lists for ideas. The Budget Backpacking Kit and the $300 Gear Challenge kit, in particular, have some ideas. Assuming you buy similar items, the total is roughly $100 and 3 lbs. The misc pieces of kit work for all the typical hiking-based activity…be it for car camping, day hikes or backpacking. In other words, you don’t need special thermals or a designated headlamp because you are backpacking instead of camping. And don’t forget America’s largest camping store: BassPro and Cabela’s. As I said before, there are a surprising amount of gear and clothing items readily available that are not hunting focused.
Shoes: Since out theoretical person is probably sticking mainly to trails (I assume) or perhaps Class 2 type hiking or easy Class 3 at the most, a good pair of running shoes will work fine — something most people have, too. For trail work, muddy seasons, spring slush, and perhaps even some light day use snowshoeing or snow hiking, a simple pair of hiking boots work well. I’ve used one form or another of Hi-Tec Altitudes for years. About $40 online.
Transporting it all: The Flyers Kit Bag is enormous and can swallow all the gear above in one convenient package. I know because I use it myself. Truly one of my favorite pieces of equipment. Durable as hell and less than $35 on eBay.
Honorable mentions: Here are some items that will round out the kit, won’t add much money, will still fit in the duffle bag above, and will add a touch more versatility.
Optional, but useful:
- The Stanco Greasepot – an ultralight backpacking favorite. At 32 oz capacity, it is a sizeable solo pot. Add it to the pot mentioned above, and you have another container for car camping, another bowl to eat out of when cooking for two (be it camping or backpacking) and at $7 and 5 oz, not expensive in terms of weight or price. A bandana works fine for a pot grip, or you can purchase a pot grip.
- A single burner propane stove – While the canister stove mentioned earlier works well enough, truthfully, a dedicated one burner propane stove for car camping or road tripping will be more useful. For $27, the single burner propane stove is a versatile little item. They put out a whopping 10,000 BTUs (about twice of most isobutane canister stoves), simmer extremely well, support pots effectively, and are bomber. You’ll find the fuel in grocery stores, many convenience stores, hardware stores, discount stores, etc. My single burner propane stove is the oldest piece of gear I still own and use. And I always find the stove very useful.
- A larger utility knife – A Swiss Army Knife classic works for well over 90% of my needs. However, I find myself reaching for my Bahco 2444 in many situations when camping and occasionally when day hiking or even backpacking when I want to bust out a nice lunch… :). Nothing fancy, the Bahco is just a basic $12 utility knife. A knife that keeps an edge is versatile (makes a serviceable kitchen knife!), is made of stainless steel, it is easy to take care of, and is produced by Mora for Bahco, so the quality is excellent.
- The Circuit can work OK in a pinch for a day pack, but not ideal. You probably have an older book bag in your collection. Just enough to haul a sandwich, some snacks, your fleece and rain gear. An ~25L pack is fine otherwise. A hip belt is suitable for off-trail travel but not 100% needed. I used an inexpensive if heavy, nylon day packs for many years, and it took a lot of abuse. I paid $38 for it in 2020 dollars. But it is a day pack; you shouldn’t be hauling that much weight! The REI Co-op Flash 22 pack is very similar to my current daypack of choice and about $50. If you buy the “off colors,” you can typically get it for $35 many times.
So there you have it. For about $1000 and a little over 17 pounds when backpacking, here is a complete outdoor kit.
And I do mean “outdoors” versus one specific activity. Use it for three-season backpacking, of course. But also use the kit for car camping, use it for trail work projects, you can push the kit into late fall or even early winter backpacking or camping. As a bonus, the equipment can work for day use winter activities reasonably well. Heck, this may be an excellent kit for road trips to national parks and other sites with some backpacking thrown in, too.
Sure, you can go cheaper if on a budget. Still, this exercise was also to make a complete and versatile kit for those who also may lack an ample time budget  and like to do multiple activities beyond backpacking with their precious free time.
As a bonus, all this gear fits in one sizeable duffle-like bag that can easily fit in the trunk of a compact car.
At home? Store it all in the same bag in the corner of your bedroom or even closet (except the sleeping bag, of course). This type of storage also makes it much easier to get away on trips when you can withdraw from the timebank.
And while 17 pounds as a base pack weight will give some ounce counters agita, this kit is again meant for versatility, comfort, durability, and price. To put it in another, more common sense, way: If a person is backpacking on a long weekend with three days of food and carrying a liter of water, they are right at 25 lbs — a reasonable amount to take for most backpackers without feeling too burdened.
The other bonus about this kit is that it never becomes obsolete. The tent can be used for other camping based trips even if you buy a lighter tent, for example.
Would I trade in the kits I built up over the years for the Jack of All Trades kit I just listed? Probably not.
But in a different world, there is an alternate version of me. Perhaps with children and more obligations. A version that would be very happy to use and own such a kit for the weekend passes I could occasionally get for the different activities I enjoy doing. A versatile gear set, more than the lightest gear set, would be better.
 The time bank is another budget that is sometimes more precious than money. Any time there is “last-minute weekend patches that a client needs” or “a social obligation we just have to do,” that means less time to spend in other places. Unlike money, once you spend the time bank funds, they vanish for good.