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How to borrow free hiking gear from Bay Area public libraries

A person with a backpack hikes a trail along a mountain.
Hiking gear, such as backpacks, hiking poles and bear spray, can be borrowed from public libraries. | Source: Jordan Siemens/Getty Images

The Bay Area is famous for its hiking, from coastal paths overlooking the blustery Pacific to narrow dirt trails dwarfed by towering redwoods. Depending on trail conditions—and how far afield you plan to travel—you may find yourself needing a hiking backpack, trekking poles or any number of other hiking essentials.

The good news is there’s no need to plunk down hundreds of dollars at your local REI. Instead, all you may need is a library card: Many Bay Area public libraries carry outdoorsy items for you to borrow—for free.

Pair your newly acquired gear with a California State Library Parks Pass—which you can check out from any California public library and gives you vehicle access to more than 200 state parks—and you’re well-positioned for adventure.

Sadly, the San Francisco Public Library doesn’t have any hiking gear in its catalog, so you’ll have to travel a bit further to fulfill your hiking needs. The below libraries have you covered.

Santa Clara City Library

At Santa Clara City Library near San Jose, patrons can check out any number of hiking items, from backpack kits filled with wildflower and bird guides, binoculars, a compass and a flashlight to trekking poles and bear canisters, hard-sided containers designed to keep your food safe from bears. 

Librarian Megan Stroup Tristao said the backpack kits—which have been available since 2018—are consistently popular, though the highest demand is in the summer months. Trekking poles (a 2022 addition) are “super popular,” and there is usually a waitlist to check them out, whereas there is less demand for bear canisters (also new to the catalog in 2022), which are usually available. However, “the people who do use them are super appreciative,” said Stroup Tristao, adding that the library has received camping photos from spots where canisters are required, like Desolation Wilderness.

You don’t need to be a Santa Clara resident to borrow gear or anything else from the library. If you’re a U.S. resident with a photo ID, you can sign up for a library card and check out all the gear you need, pending availability.

A person with hiking poles and boots stands at an edge of a cliff looking out into the ocean.
At multiple Bay Area public libraries, patrons may check out hiking poles. | Source: Jordan Siemens/Getty Images

San Mateo County Libraries

The 13 libraries in San Mateo County Libraries‘ system don’t have bear canisters in their catalog, but they’ve got a number of other exciting items for exploring the outdoors, including backpacks perfect for your next hiking adventure. That’s in addition to trekking poles, GoPros and bikes.

The San Mateo County Libraries’ backpack kit comes complete with a magnifying glass, binoculars, a hiking book, pamphlets on wildflowers, a flashlight, tick prevention kit, sun aid kit and a California State Parks pass. Fanny packs for checkout come with a San Mateo County Parks pass, and a Library Explorers Pack made for kids comes with a magnifying glass, binoculars, nature guide, colored pencils and a waterproof notebook.

“We love that these hiking packs and trekking poles invite new people to visit county and state parks and entice people who already know and love the world of hiking,” wrote Communications Manager Katie Woods in an email to The Standard.

Anyone with a library card to a facility in San Mateo County can check out the items.

Meanwhile, San Mateo Public Library, a separate library system for the city of San Mateo with three branches, offers trail stoolsGarmin GPS deviceswalkie-talkies and child carrier backpacks. The child carrier backpack is especially impressive: It’s an Osprey and retails for $300

Berkeley Public Library

If you’re into birding or astronomy, the Berkeley Public Library has got you covered. Librarian Kelsey Ockert confirmed that the library has binocular kits available, as well as a telescope

Ockert has checked out the telescope, which she took on a camping trip to Death Valley to get a closer look at the moon, planets and a number of wide-field celestial objects like nebulas and star clusters.

All California residents are eligible for a free Berkeley Public Library card.

A pair of old binoculars rests on a striped canvas bag in a natural outdoor setting.
Binoculars may be checked out at some Bay Area libraries. | Source: Jordan Siemens/Getty Images

Sunnyvale Public Library

The Sunnyvale Public Library has a “Hiking Backpack Kit” containing a California State Parks pass, binoculars, a compass, a magnifying glass and two pocket guides on California trees and wildlife. Library cards are free and available to California residents.

Contra Costa County Library

Backpack kits are popular! Contra Costa County Library offers Outdoor Explorer Backpacks that come with binoculars and foldout local nature identification guides, as well as a temporary parking pass and a temporary family membership card for any East Bay Regional Park District facility. Full-access library cards are available to California residents.

Correction: This article has been updated to distinguish between items available for borrow from San Mateo County Libraries and San Mateo Public Library, which are separate systems. Additionally, the title for Katie Woods has been corrected.

Sophie Bearman can be reached at