In a hikers world there are really only two things that matter. Hiking…..and gear. It is no surprise to you, and certainly not to me, that there is a billion posts on gear. Well, take it from someone who started with a $250 dollar budget and a 74 lb pack weight and took that down to an 18 lb pack weight, however, we wont remind ourselves how much money that took. I have been through closer to 6 or 7 different set ups, replacing ultimately every aspect of my pack, including the pack itself in order to figure out what works and what does not. This is not about my gear specifically, its about the reasons I choose my gear, what I look for in my gear and why.
We all know there are a thousand websites out there designed to help you with your gear decisions. And for ever website there must be 100,000 suggestions from people all over the world. Hikers hiking all sorts of different hikes, in different climates, with different purposes and needs. Some great sites are Trailspace.com and outdoorgearlab.com which I find to be the most un-biased, honest, user written reviews out there. That brings me to my first point.
When you are looking for gear, don’t listen to the manufacturers. Have you ever heard a gear manufacturer talk poorly about their product? If you don’t have the luxury to go out and try several set ups like I have, one thing is for sure, you don’t want to spend your money where a manufacturer tells you that you should. Seek out real life hikers, backpackers, back country enthusiasts and experienced mountaineers. Seek out the people that have put in the time on their own. People who have used all sorts of gear, not because of the marketing, but because it works. Finding that average joe that does not give a hoot about what you buy, where you buy it or how much you spend, will highly benefit you during your learning curve. Again, the sites I have listed above seem to do an exceptional job portraying gear as exactly what it is. Nothing less, nothing more.
The second thing I think is extremely important, is knowing up front, what you plan to do, where you plan to go, your purpose, your ultimate goals and your commitment to backpacking. Personally, I am a mile counter. I find a pride in covering as many miles as I safely can cover in a days time. In order to do that I need as light as possible. That being said I am no minimalist by its definition, I do in fact like some luxuries. Also, I know that I’m hiking most commonly on the east coast. The upper east coast at that. It is wet, muggy, unforgiving, rough, and tedious. The roots, rocks and unpredictable grounds are hard to overcome at times and tend to take a compromising toll on tent bottoms, shoes, and packs. The condensation in the air and lack of a tent spot more often than not are things I highly consider when I choose my gear. I also knew from day one that this was a part of my life. Something I would continue to do, and it was crucial that I was not purchasing disposable gear. So in short, my purpose was simple. I wanted light, dry, comfortable, and strong. Most of those qualities not fitting into the same set up by definition. In the same sentence, I wanted to be able to hit the west coast when called upon. I needed to have the luxury of being able to be in the mountains, or in Utah’s dry canyonlands all while knowing that inevitably I would return to Maine’s unique weather patterns and unpredictable storms.
Everyone says hike your own hike. I am with them on that. That being said, what works for me will not necessarily work for you. What works for them, does not necessarily work for me. Which is one of the biggest reasons I say to have your ideas already laid out. The fact of the matter is, you get what you pay for when it comes to gear. So if you are looking for the do it all set up, set aside some money. If you want multiple set ups that cover different climates, places, and purposes, as I have come to appreciate, also set aside some money. Getting into backpacking is going to cost you. Especially if you are going to make a hobby or life out of it. Keep in mind, the last thing you want is for your gear to give way half way through your hike or to fail when you need it most. Don’t short yourself to save a dollar. You will just turn around later on and replace it anyhow.
As we all know there are a few major components to your backpack. The backpack. Your shelter. Your sleep system. And a worthy note to your hydration and nutrition aspects. After all of that you have your luxuries.
So you have come to terms with spending the money. You know this is what you want to do. Now where do you start?
For me, the first question I always ask myself is; “What do I NEED?”. Personally, I can get by with something to reassure me water, something to reassure me food, a shelter, and something to reassure me warmth. So in short, a stove, something to boil water in, hydration options, a sleeping bag and a shelter. Then you have to decide on your luxuries. Luxuries are all the things that make hiking more comfortable, but are not crucial to survival. To survive, if you can stay relatively dry, hydrated, fed, and warm you are likely going to live. That does not mean by any stretch of the word that you are “comfortable”. The only real way you will figure this out, is to get out there, which makes this post somewhat irrelevant, but you should have a fairly good idea on your comfort levels. So lets “start” there.
I have found that a good nights sleep is honestly the difference in if I get 15 miles tomorrow or 25 miles. Or any at all for that matter. So personally, most of my luxuries revolve around my sleeping. I will bring a sleeping pad, a pillow, and a set of sleeping clothes and one extra pair of socks to sleep in to reassure that I will sleep well. I have also started to bring ear plugs, as when you are sleeping within a stones throw of several other tired hikers, you will inevitably deal with restlessness and snoring. A few other luxuries I like to bring are what some might tell you are ESSENTIAL and not a luxury at all. For me, those are a good topographical map and compass, rain gear, my phone, toilet paper, my toothbursh and toothpaste and a bushcraft knife of some sort. Much more than that and you are starting to push the boundaries between car camping and backpacking. For me it is more about the survival aspect. If I wanted pure comfort, there are plenty of fantastic campgrounds close to town that allow you to bring really whatever you want including a mini fridge and your fancy ipad. Just remember, you have to carry all of this with you, and your luxuries are exactly that: anything extra that you find you WANT but do not NEED. In the end there is a saying.. ” ounces make pounds.” Battling wants and needs for most hikers is a learning process. Most sporting good outfitters along most major trails will offer you a “shake down” enlightening you of what you once saw as a necessity and justifying it as almost useless in the long runs.
Now that our luxuries are out of our way you have some decisions to make. Lets move on to your shelter. Yet again, another spot in which there are soooo many options to choose from. An important aspect of choosing your sleep set up, is WHERE and HOW you will be sleeping. I love the privacy of a tent, however I appreciate the lack of weight and free feeling of a tarp. Here are some things that I have learned along the way that helped me with my decisions. I appreciate being dry. I appreciate privacy. I don’t always choose an established tent site and I do in fact camp year round. For me, this meant a tent would be my main go to. Choosing a tent means you are going to carry a little extra weight over consistently utilizing lean-to’s (not fool proof), or carrying some sort of tarp or hammock set up. Personally, I love all of the set ups, so I had to weigh out what would be preferred more often than not. By choosing a tent, I knew that the rain would never be a real issue, or any storm for that matter. That I would have walls that would allow me to be a bit less self conscious about my daily duties like changing. That I would be free of bugs and debris blowing around. High winds and scavenging rodents would also be much less a concern. For me, the benefits of a tent outweigh the benefits to everything else, and I would decide that I would carry the extra weight to have one, in turn learning to save the weight somewhere else. When I made the decision to be a tenter for the majority of the time, I would come to find how different tents are. This is where going back to your “ideas” is crucial. I knew, as I mentioned, that I would not be camping always in well established tent sites. Being a lover of mountains, I don’t always have soft ground to drive stakes into at alpine heights. Being a long distance hiker, I will inevitably run into sun, rain, wind, bugs and beautiful views. All that led me to these following conclusions. I wanted a free-standing tent. One that I could move around at will and not have to rely on the ground in order to erect it. I would want a two piece tent, with a screen style innards for nice nights and good views, and a nice, durable, removable, water proof fly on the outside for warmth and weather. I also knew that I would want something small and somewhat light weight. I always go camping alone so a 1 person tent is plenty fine for me, understanding that I would not have a ton of extra room and I certainly would not be inviting along any visitors that did not in fact have their own shelter. Again it is important to note, that this is what worked for ME, but your goals will likely be different than mine so it is worth considering alternative options like hammocks, tarps, two person tents, or nothing at all. All of which are used often here in Maine. Tarps and hammocks are both something I have used. They take a bit more diligence when it comes to site choice, and are harder to use if you don’t have trees for guy line or good ground for stakes. They are extremely light weight however. A hammock is possibly the most comfortable way I have slept, in which case I always pair mine with a tarp as well. I love the lack of weight to a tarp and its versatility, but practice with it at home before you head out into the woods.
Sleep set ups. This one as I mentioned is extremely important to me. Being a lover of all weather I am known to camp rain or shine, cold or hot. This has led me to a layering system which incorporates both down and synthetic quilts combined. Down is great for its warmth, the way it packs down so small yet lofts up so well, for its comfort and for its lack of weight. Hydrophobic, or water proof down material is somewhat new and worth looking into although be prepared to fork over the big bucks. The down sides to down (no pun intended) is that when wet, it loses all of its ability to retain heat. Keeping it dry is a crucial consideration when looking into something down. Synthetic is heavier considering comparable temperature ratings to a down bag and does not compress near as small as down. However, when wet, synthetic retains all of its heating properties which makes it a good choice for muggy, wet climates. Now to my layering system. Sleeping bags are expensive. Ideally, you would want a different one for every place you go. That is just unrealistic, so upon some diligence I have learned to layer. By layering a three piece system, I have three individual systems on their own. With any combination of two or all three I can cover just about every bit of weather and temperature down to sub zero temperatures and up into the summer months as well. My layering consists of the following: A very light weight silk liner. Great on its own for warm weather or great for being used with the addition of a second bag for colder temperatures. My liner adds about 10 degrees F to my sleep set up and packs down to the size of a soda can. Next would be my 40 degree down bag which is what I will primarily carry if I am too choose only one thing to take. For colder temperatures I add a lightweight 50 degree synthetic bag to the outside of my down bag and liner. The synthetic bag serves several purposes. Additional warmth for one. It keeps the down bag from accumulating moisture from the outside in which is extremely important. It also serves as a fantastic summer bag in wetter climates like the pacific or higher up in the mountains. Also to note the silk liner helps keep moisture closer to your body and does not wick it into the down like a fleece or cotton liner might. So in short by having these three pieces, alone or combined, I can cover just about anywhere I want to go at anytime in the year, all while cutting down on bulk and weight at the same time reassuring warmth and staying dry. OK moving on… a sleeping pad. I am fairly confident anyone you talk to you will suggest one. If you are camping in colder weather it is necessary as the cold you experience will come from the ground once you are out of the wind. Getting yourself up and off this cold is the difference between getting hypothermia or not. When it comes to sleeping pads there are so many options. I have learned to prefer an air style mattress. When choosing a sleeping pad your warmth is rated in an “R-Value”. The higher the r-value the warmer your pad. I like an air mattress due to the size it packs down to, the lack of weight, and the comfort as I am a side sleeper. There are many others pads ranging from foam, and a mixture of air and foam as well. They all have their ups and downs, but for me an air mattress is by far a better choice understanding that its durability does not compare to other options. Choosing your tent site in this case is extremely relevant, as the smallest of rocks or twigs that might not puncture your tent, will in fact still puncture your air mattress as you roll around in the night. Although, in opinion, much warmer and much more comfortable, they are much weaker and cant be thrown around thoughtlessly. A pillow. A pillow was something I never thought I needed, until about your third day in when you wake up with a sore neck which makes your pack seem like it accumulated ten pounds in the evening. I used to stuff my hiking clothes into my pack and use this as a pillow but found it to lack true comfort. I recently discovered inflatable pillows and its my absolutely go to. The pillow I have (Klymit Cusion) doubles as a seat, is extremely versatile with its ability to fold while inflated, is ergonomic, and packs down to the size of a long hot dog. This addition has literally changed the way I sleep forever. It also gives me the option to have a dry and comfy place to sit during a break. The ear plugs… well they are pretty cut and dry. If you are a heavy sleeper, let it be. If you have ever slept in a place filled with overly worn out hikers, and heard the rustling of tents, sleeping pads, and uninterrupted snores… find yourself a pair. It is also fair to note that during cold weather I also combine sleeping pads. I will used a foam roll up pad combined with my air mattress for added warmth mostly and also to alleviate punctures.
Your hydration and nutrition. One thing that I have found to be fairly common on the trail is do it all mess kits. A plethora of pots, pans, cups, and cutlery. Like I did, many people come to realize quickly that you probably are not out in the back country for a four course meal. So you have to decide what it is you will need. Personally if I cook ANYTHING at all, it is probably “cooked” by boiling water at most. I personally carry one titanium cup, in which case I boil the water for my meal and while its re-hydrating I boil a second cup for coffee. Having a nice frying pan, some measuring cups, a spare bowl and plate probably is not necessary and can really add up weight in a hurry. As far as stoves, there are a ton of options. For me, I have found a convenience in having a “isopro” or “butane” style stove. They boil water in a hurry, work in the wind and rain, and not to mention put off a fair amount of heat. All important things when your 5500′ feet up in December, huddled up to the inside of your vestibule. (Also noteworthy when choosing a tent, is having a vestibule for a dry space.) There are many kinds of stoves. Alcohol stoves are common, but you also have mixed fuel stoves, sterno style stoves which are similar to fuel tab style stoves and on and on. Alcohol is light and fool proof to the extent that you wont run out of fuel unless you are negligent and you wont run into stove malfunctions. I still prefer the ability to operate in less than ideal weather without having to put much thought into it. So a blow torch like style stove works best for me. As far as hydration. I don’t think there is really a right or wrong here. In the end, you need safe drinking water, so any way you obtain it is fine. Some filters are bigger and bulkier than others but generally cut down on the time you spend filtering it. Using iodine tabs and chlorine tablets are fool proof but temperature is very relevant in treatment times. Boiling water always works but ups your fuel consumption. I use a sawyer filter which if cared for will filter 100,000 gallons of water with no real issues. Just keep it clean and don’t let it freeze. This is one place where I always have a backup. My back up is iodine and ph tablets. If my filter malfunctions, tablets are an easy and relatively lightweight backup plan. The most relevant part to choosing this part of your set up, is simply to choose one. Look into how they work, what care they need when you use them, and how much room it takes up in your pack if you are going to be weight conscious. So now that food and water is out of the way… lets talk backpacks.
Your backpack, in my opinion, is absolutely the most important part to my set up. It is in fact HOW you are going to carry EVERYTHING that we just talked about around with you. Like everything else, there is a plethora of options when it comes to backpacks. First thing is first though. Find your size. Any local outfitter can help you with this, but it is extremely crucial. A pack that is to big or small will disperse weight in all of the wrong places. A small pack onto your back and shoulders, and a large pack will hang off of you like a child in a piggy back also putting unnecessary weight onto your back and shoulders. A properly sized pack will put the weight almost perfectly onto your hips, which in turn will transfer for your legs, leaving your shoulders and back free of burden. I do notice one of the most common mistakes is buying a pack that is too large, and hooking the waist belt around your hips. It should in fact sit on top of them on your Iliac Crest. Hugging in between your bottom rib, and the top of the first bones you feel if you were to slide your hands down from those ribs. By positioning it too low, you will find you constantly have to pull up your pants, get chaffing in spots you did not think was possible, and are very off balanced. A well sized pack will feel almost as a part of you and allow you to move freely as you climb, descend, twist and turn.
Now you are all sized up the next step would be deciding what SIZE bag you need. Bags are generally measured in liters in which case I am more often than not using a 48L lightweight backpack. During colder weather or shorter trips that I want a bit more luxury I use a heavier duty 50L. Now its fair to say there are a ton of people using much less than me, but I never really saw anyone putting in the distance using less than a 35L. 65-75 Liter seems to be fairly common but come with the extra added weight. Essentially the gear you have chosen will decide this for you. Bring it to a local retailer and start shoving it in bags, keeping in mind you still need room for a bit of extra clothing, food and water.
Backpacks tend to have a lot of bells and whistles. Realistically you are not going to strap a ton to your backpack unless your mountaineering. So all the extra lashing and straps are great sales point, but they are likely extra weight you will never need. I also prefer a pack that has a removable top lid as I dont tent to use it. I have found it extremely helpful to have a separate compartment for your sleeping for easy access and storage. I also find the water bottle holders to be a huge deal to me. It is extremely hard to remove and put back a water bottle on the fly, so looking for something that can load from the front as well as the top has really helped me stay efficient. For me, getting rid of all the extra pockets and straps is a big deal. Everything I have goes in the main compartment and realistically I don’t have a ton of odds and ends that need “organizing” so having extra pockets is somewhat irrelevant to me. I do like to have a couple of waist belt pockets as I store things like my camera and snacks in them for easy access without taking off my pack. That being said, I think one of the most important parts of a backpack is being able to access it from each end or at least more than one spot. You don’t want to have to take everything out in order to get the spoon that slid to the bottom of your pack. All in all, I might suggest just taking a box full of your gear to an outfitter, and I think you will find them extremely helpful in letting you fill their bags up and trying them on.
When you are looking for gear and you are doing your research, do exactly that. Research. However in the end, try to touch, use, feel, see and experience as much as you can prior to purchasing. Don’t think that your best friends set up will work for you. Just because its the latest and greatest doesn’t ALWAYS mean that it is whats going to work best. Sometimes simple is better. Know yourself. Know your purpose. Most importantly, know a community with like minded people. Good luck and Happy Trails.