The enemy of “good enough” is “perfect”. – Russian proverb
Let’s say you love the outdoors. You love backpacking, hiking and camping. 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 and/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 Boulder, CO may do.
You want equipment that may handle a variety of conditions for well, a variety of trips.
I am fortunate that a combination of my job, not having children and having at least my weekends free (though, lately, not so much due to my job. But that’s another rant.). I have the time and some disposable income to purchase more specialized gear for winter use, car camping , backpacking and hiking. And, this is the important part, I get to use it all on a reasonably frequent basis.
But not everyone has these opportunities.
In the real world beyond backpacking specific websites, most people are in the first category of limited time, money and/or space and can not afford specialized gear for those reasons.
But, as I’ve mentioned before, most mainstream gear is not really that heavy. A person has to work to have a truly heavy pack. Usually by taking a lot of extra gear.
So what gear to take? Take the “Jacks of All Trades” gear. Gear that is not the lightest, but not the heaviest. 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 dirt bag gear either. Solid gear that is theoretically affordable for a person with a middle class income. 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 Boulder, 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 certainly apply for most. I write these article 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.
Shelter: The REI Half dome 2 Tent has been an REI mainstay for many years now. 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 4 lbs and 15 oz, not too bad for a freestanding tent that would not look out-of-place in a campground. Decent enough design to shed snow for some below-treeline and early or mild winter backpacking. At $200, reasonable in price too.
Sleeping bag: A 20F bag will be the most versatile bag for many conditions. With judicious 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. Normally, I suggest a down bag. But for our theoretical person, a synthetic bag will fit a wider range of conditions. The REI Lumen sleeping bag is a “relaxed” fit so it could layer easier for colder weather versus a lighter, but 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 8 oz and $160, not terribly heavy or expensive. The bag is also EN rated so the temperature scale should be true. The REI house brand is generally good quality I find.
Sleeping pad: A sleeping pad to fit many needs has to be durable, have a good R-Value and is not terribly expensive. The Ridge Rest SOlite (regular length), has an R-Value of 2.8 (early or mild winter is about the lowest you’d want to go without an additional pad), is reasonably comfortable and is durable. For 14 oz of weight and $30, a very reasonable choice in a pad.
Pack: A versatile pack is somewhat difficult to obtain. The backpacking gear I am suggesting above is a little bulkier and heavier as it is performing multiple functions, but the pack also can’t be so big that 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 the Circuit is the only pack the fits The Former Wife comfortably for backpacking (other than the Catalyst oddly enough). The Circuit ends up being a light backpack and large daypack. But it can be used for early winter overnights and winter day use activities (snowshoeing for example). 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 $235.
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 rather 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 really 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. The inexpensive ones from Amazon for 3.9 oz and $6 have been out for a while now and have received good 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 $15 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 and you are good-to-go.
Rain Gear: All rain gear is terrible. It is just a matter of finding some that is 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 gear in the past. 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 easily and is not terribly 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 jacket a littler larger for the middle layers below.
Middle layers: Since versatility and durability are of as much importance as 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 Polartec 200 wt fleece may be bough 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 items 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 special headlamp because you are backpacking instead of camping.
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 $70 online.
Transporting it all: The Flyers Kit Bag is huge 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 gear. Durable as hell and less than $30 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 large solo pot. Add it to the pot mentioned above, and you have another pot for car camping, another bowl to eat out of when cooking for two (be it camping or backpacking) and at $10 and 5 oz, not expensive in terms of weight or price. A bandana works fine for a pot grip, or one may be purchased.
- A single burner propane stove – While the canister stove mentioned earlier works well enough, truthfully a dedicated 1 burner propane stove for car camping or road tripping will be more useful. For $20, 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. The fuel can be found in grocery stores, many convenience stores, hardware stores, discount stores, etc. In fact, my single burner propane stove is the oldest piece of gear I still own and use. And it is still very useful.
- A larger utility knife – While my Swiss Army Knife classic works for well over 90% of my needs, 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…usually for The Former Wife. 🙂 . Nothing fancy, the Bahco is just a basic $12 utility knife that keeps an edge, is versatile (makes a serviceable kitchen knife!), being made of stainless steel it is easy to take care of and is made 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. A 25L pack is fine otherwise. A hip belt is good for off-trail travel but not 100% needed. I used an inexpensive, if heavy, nylon day pack for many years and it took a lot of abuse. I paid all of $35 for it in 2016 dollars. But it is a day pack, you shouldn’t be hauling that much weight!
So there you have it. For about $1000 and little over 17 pounds, here is a complete outdoor kit. And I do mean “outdoors” versus one specific activity. Use it for three-season backpacking of course. Bu 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 kit can work for day use winter activities reasonably well. Heck, this may be a wonderful kit for road tripping to national parks and other sites with some backpacking thrown in, too.
Sure, you can go cheaper if on a budget, but this exercise was also to make a complete and versatile kit for those who also may lack a large time budget  and like to do multiple activities beyond backpacking with their precious free time. As a bonus, all this gear fits in one large 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 bed room or even closet (with the exception of 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 carry for most backpackers without feeling too burdened.
The other nice thing about this kit is that it really never becomes obsolete. The tent can be used for other camping based trips even if a lighter tent is bought, 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 a different 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 kit, more than the lightest kit, 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 the time from the time bank is spent, it is gone. And it can never be recovered.