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). 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 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 various outdoor activities.
But not everyone has these opportunities.
I have friends who can’t spend all their time bank funds on “just” backpacking. They get in one or two backpacking trips a year if they are lucky. And maybe one camping trip with friends. And a smattering of day hikes.
In the real world, beyond backpacking specific TikTok influencers, 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, most mainstream gear is not that heavy. A person must 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 works equally well for a dispersed campsite in BLM land, a designated spot in a national monument, or somewhere far in the backcountry while backpacking.
It is not the most expensive gear, but it is not dirtbag gear either.
And it all fits in one large duffle bag for storage or in a passenger car.
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. I also have many tips for less expensive gear overall.
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 June 2022.
Shelter: The REI Half dome 2 Tent has been an REI mainstay for many years 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 enough to split up 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 $230, reasonable in price too.
Sleeping bag: An ~30F bag will be versatile for many conditions. With careful layering, a person could easily use the bag for some late fall or even early winter trips; it 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 too used to a new sleeping system.
The Sea to Summit ThII 30 Sleeping Bag is a semi-rectangular fit so that 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 5 oz and $150 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 Therm-a-Rest Trail Scout Sleeping Pad weighs 30 oz, which many consider heavy. But for our theoretical one or two times a year backpacker who also car camps, at $50, cushioning, and an R-value of 3, 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 performs 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 use 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). Over the years it is the pack I suggest for most people due to its versatility and overall usefulness vs. more specialized packs while still maintaining an overall light weight.
The Circuit ends up being a light backpack and a large daypack. But you can use the Circuit 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 $280.
Stove: An all-purpose stove needs to simmer, can’t be too heavy, has to use readily available fuel, is 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 $11 have been out for a while now and have received excellent reviews. Be aware; that upright canister stoves start getting finicky around 15F; you won’t want to use them for deep winter. If you purchase this one for $20, it comes with a propane converter (green bottles found almost everywhere), making it versatile for car camping.
Cookset: A versatile pot fits many functions. 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, you can still use the pot for car camping quite well.
Joan and I use this $33 Stanley cook set for our quick camping trips all the time, and it makes a complete cook set for two. Take just the pot if going backpacking. The pot is heavy compared to your sub-4 oz pots, but we are again looking for versatility that is reasonable in price and weight. Throw in a Lexan spoon or two and a mug for your coffee or cocoa, and you are good to go.
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 Thunderlight rain jacket for $55 is 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 basic rain pants for $20, and you have a multi-purpose and multi-season shell system for less than $75 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 synthetic puffy and a 100 wt fleece for maximum versatility, durability, and longevity versus a down puffy jacket. Synthetic jackets, though not as long-lasting vs. down, are more forgiving. A very satisfactory generic synthetic puffy costs about $35 and weighs roughly 8 oz. Add a 100 wt fleece from various places for generally $25 or less and about 8 oz. Total? $60 and 16 oz. Good chance you can find fleece in a thrift store for $10, too.
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 activities…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 stores: BassPro and Cabela’s. As I said before, a surprising amount of gear and clothing items that are not hunting-focused are readily available.
Shoes: Since our 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. A simple pair of hiking boots work well for trail work, muddy seasons, spring slush, and perhaps even some light day use snowshoeing or snow hiking. I’ve used one form or another of Hi-Tec Altitudes for years. About $70 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:
- Small frying pan – For the occasional car camping, a small non-stick frying pan from any discount store works well for those eggs vs. the pot. Don’t purchase a pan from the outdoor store. These pans get overpriced and typically don’t work as well as the simple sub-$10 one.
- The Bene Case Greasepot – In a similar vein, the cookset I suggest works OK for backpacking but is not ideal. This grease pot, however, is an ultralight backpacking favorite. At 32 oz capacity, it is a sizeable solo pot at $10 and 5 oz, not expensive in terms of weight or price. With a handle, it makes for some easy handling, too.
- A larger utility knife – A Swiss Army Knife classic works for 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 $18 utility knife. A knife that keeps an edge is versatile (makes a serviceable kitchen knife!), is made of stainless steel, 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! Honestly, any decent day pack works fine if you are starting in the outdoors. The type you use to haul books or your laptop will do OK. If you want a dedicated daypack, the REI Co-op Flash 22 pack for about $60. If you buy the “off colors” occasionally on clearance, you can typically get it for $35 many times.
So there you have it. Here is a complete outdoor kit for about $1000 and a little over 17 pounds when backpacking.
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 cold weather backpacking or camping. As a bonus, the equipment can work reasonably well for day use winter activities. 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 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 time bank.
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, for example, if you buy a lighter tent. Ditto for other gear on this list as you “upgrade,” swap out, or get into more specialized activities such as thru-hiking.
Would I trade 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 I would be pleased to use and own such a kit for the weekend passes I could occasionally get for the different activities I enjoy doing. More than the lightest gear set, a versatile gear set would be better.
 The time bank is another budget that is sometimes more precious than money. Any time there are “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.
If you are going to Amazon for the Open Country two quart pot, you might as well get an IMUSA 1.25 quart mug for less than $6.00. This mug is being used by a lot of people with alcohol stoves. You need to find enough stuff to get your order to $50 for free shipping anyway. Another thing to look for is the Double Black Diamond Packable Down Throw Blanket. This used to be available at Costco for $20.00, but can still be found at Amazon for $40 and up. This thing is under one pound and packs down pretty… Read more »
Remember, this article is about maximizing gear for multiple activities not just the narrow range of lightweight three season backpacking. The gear your listed works great for lightweight backpacking. But not car camping, or cooking or taking another person, etc. Some good choices otherwise for sure…
Mags, so glad you posted this. My son is now backpacking and starting to assemble some gear. I will use the above to make a couple of purchases for his upcoming June birthday.
Yeah, it is (I think) a good, multi-purpose, starter kit.
17lbs is actually pretty good, my base is more like 25lbs (of old-fashioned heavy gear 😉
Thank you – made me think, need to go through and check weights. I was able to get 8lbs off my wife’s back just with a new backpack and ultralight down jacket (Ghost Whisperer on sale with coupon at STP).
I have the $6 stove and the open country pot. I find the pot is extremely slick on the stove and if I don’t keep a hand on, it falls off.
Do you know of any tricks to get the pot to stay put?
Can’t say I’ve had the same problems with my 4 qt pot. Maybe that particular batch of manufacturing? Having said that, perhaps intentionally roughing up the pot bottom or using a SOLITARY rock to hold it in place (too many rocks will cause a lot of heat around the canister. Not good!!!!!)
I’ll give the rough up a shot. Seems like the anodizing made it super slick.. I have what I think is the older model without the bail, I need a pot grabber.
Great article as usual, Mags, and you’ve described the kit I had a few years ago, almost to a T! (I made out like a bandit with a REI tent sale when I was getting back into hiking.) And it’s just fine for the clueless weekenders among us. 😉 Most of the differences between your list and mine can be accounted for by the difference in our heights. I’m just barely tall enough to need a Long everything. (Which meant that the GG Crown fit me better than the ULA, the REI Radiant was better than the Lumen, and so… Read more »
While I have a little more flexibility in getting out and selecting gear, the jack-of-all-trades philosophy was behind my selection of the Sierra Designs Flex Capacitor backpack. The adjustability from 40-60L is perfect for any trip I do, the weight is perfectly reasonable and I scooped mine up on sale for $150. I’m thoroughly satisfied with that pack.
Wow…great price. Very similar to the Circuit. And currently $160. Good deal overall! https://sierradesigns.com/flex-capacitor/