Why Outdoor Gear Is The Best Graduation Gift—And What To Choose

What better present is there than freedom in the outdoors? Here are our top picks.

My first night camping out was miserable. It was also glorious. I had a sleeping bag but no pad to go under it. The cold seeped in from the hard mountain ground all night, plus my roommate never stopped wiggling in closer in an attempt to stay warm since her sleeping bag was even lighter than mine. Someone in the group made ramen with ham in it over a campfire, and I stared at the sharp stars above us through the night when I couldn’t sleep. I was hooked, as they say. It was the beginning of a lifelong pursuit of time outdoors—overnight or otherwise. Like many folks, I had that formative experience while I was in college. That’s why I make the case that the best graduation gift you can give a young person is a basic, well made piece of outdoor gear.

There are several reasons I strongly believe this. First, giving a young person the tools to feel autonomy in the outdoors helps them build confidence and empowerment that spills over into other areas of their life. Second, time in nature is good for physical and mental health—it’s science. Third, the time during our late teens and early 20s, when many kids are going to college, is a super formative time of life—lots of opportunities are open for the first time. Giving a piece of crucial outdoor gear can be the difference between a young person feeling they can or can’t accept many of those opportunities.

My freshman year, after that night out on the cold, hard ground, my parents generously gave me a sleeping pad and a fleece jacket for Christmas—and I snitched my mom’s long-neglected old backpacking pack out of the basement. Those things, plus a secondhand rain jacket, widened the possibility of what I could do outdoors. And to this day, a few key pieces of outdoor gear are among my most valued possessions. Why? Because they give freedom and autonomy.

So if you’re wondering what to give a recent grad, or looking for the best outdoorsy gift for grads, here’s my advice: Invest in the basics for them—and if they’re too expensive, see if you can go in with other friends or family on something. Or a gift card for something outdoorsy. Here are a few things I recommend.

High-quality rain jacket

It doesn’t have to be the top-of-the-line most expensive version, but something that breathes or has zippered vents is crucial. Even if it keeps the rain out, a cheap jacket that doesn’t breathe will leave you clammy inside, which is just as bad. The Apollo Rain Jacket is a perfect entry-level option with serious weather protection plus comfortable stretch, and the Helium II Jacket is super lightweight and packable, perfect for backpacking, train running and mountain biking.

Sleeping bag and/or sleeping pad

The value of a good night’s sleep cannot be understated. There are plenty of things to keep us awake while camping out—wildlife, snoring tentmate—being cold or uncomfortable doesn’t have to be one of them. A warm sleeping bag and a pad with a little cushion and insulation from the cold ground go a long way.

Puffy down jacket

A good down jacket will last a long time, and it’s another key element to a basic outdoorsperson’s kit. It’s extremely warm for how light and compact it is. There’s really no comparison when it comes to weight and warmth. Whether it’s for sitting around the campfire or walking to class in a blizzard, a down jacket is extremely practical.

Tent or bivy sack

Personally, I consider this a second-tier purchase. It’s easier to make do without a shelter or to borrow or rent one. But the sense of freedom that comes with owning your own tent or bivy sack is priceless. Whether it’s for backpacking, car camping or festivals, the possibilities feel endless once you have a lightweight portable shelter of your own.

Fleece jacket

Possibly the least expensive item on this list, it’s actually one of the most valuable, if you look at it through a cost-per-use lens. A young person may only use a tent or sleeping bag a few times throughout the year, but a fleece jacket or sweatshirt can be used every day. A synthetic fleece—like the Trail Mix or Vigor—is super important for any sizable hike or multi-day trip because it’s warm, wicking and quick to dry. But it’s also comfortable and likely to become a go-to layer around the house or around campus.

Basic camp stove

Like the tent or bivy sack, I see the camp stove as a secondary item. It’s empowering to be able to cook your own food outdoors, but not 100% necessary. Many people rely on cold food for multi-day trips to save weight. Also, this is an item that can be borrowed or rented. But once the other basics in an outdoor kit are taken care of, an efficient, easy-to-use camp stove makes the outdoor life much more fun.

Backpack

So here’s the part where I explain that a bookbag and a backpack are different. This may not be news to you—yay for you—but it was to me when I was a freshman in college. A bookbag certainly can carry a snack, water bottle and extra layer for a day hike. But for any longer outings or heavier loads, it will be painful and inefficient. If you’d like to give the gift of adventure to a young person, a durable, comfortable, well designed backpack is a great place to start. A big enough pack to fit a sleeping bag and tent will open a world of possibility. Getting a good fit and with a strong support system and padding for comfort will make it a classic item that can last for many years—and hopefully many adventures.

As you're shopping, of course you should keep in mind what your graduate is like, what they're into. Maybe it's mountain biking, maybe camping. Maybe birding or hiking. If you're not sure, a down jacket and a rain jacket are two super useful items that are necessary for just about any sort of outing. Even a college football game—just be careful when shopping for colors.