What to consider when buying your hiking & backpacking gear

A few weeks ago, Jack M., a BackCountryJournal.net subscriber, asked in a online Comment  if I planned to evaluate and recommend gear for hiking and backpacking. Jack felt that many bloggers appeared to have sponsorship ties to equipment manufacturers and distributors, which likely influence their recommendations for expensive ultra-light gear.  He was also interested in what gear I used. While I prefer not to evaluate specific gear, I’ll present some overall considerations for purchasing new gear and comparing equipment options; and in some cases, mention what has worked for me. I should also mention that it’s also possible to find good used equipment on occasion at attractive prices, if you know what you’re looking for.

Hikers come in all different shapes and sizes, enjoying the opportunity to connect with nature in various environments—from flatlands to mountains—in varying climates and weather extremes.  As a hiker, you may carry light or heavy loads, depending if it is a day-hike, a week-long backpacking trip or a months-long through-hike.  Obviously, your selections of equipment within a broad range of pricing must fit your purpose.  You may want one pair of boots to hike in Glacier, Mt. Katahdin or the Chugach Mountains in September or October, and a different pair to hike in Canyonlands or Gila Wilderness during July and August. A backpacking tent will likely be different from one you use when car-camping, but not necessarily.  Match the task to the equipment to the budget. Then factor in personal preference.

First, l recommend research and info-gathering.  Over the years, I have come to depend on a few online sources for information on outdoor gear.  I want to clarify that I have no pecuniary interest whatsoever in these online sources nor the equipment manufacturers or suppliers they represent as a retailer.

REI Co-Op, in particular, has excellent information available online plus they have a good selection of gear to compare without leaving the comfort of your home.  Plus, they have outlets across the country. (Note: I’ve been a member of REI pretty much since they started the business several decades ago.) I’ve personally shopped REI in Albuquerque, Anchorage, Boulder, Madison, Minneapolis, Missoula, Reno and Santa Fe.  I visited the REI website a few days ago and noticed a vastly expanded information-base over past years. Midwest Mountaineering is another local outdoor sporting equipment retailer in my area that has a good reputation. Their semi-annual Outdoor Adventure Expos are always a great source of information for inspired outdoor adventurers. And there are many other reputable retailers across the country and online. Don’t forget to check manufacturers web-sites and BackPacker Gear Guide for reviews.

Second, develop criteria and a checklist for evaluating major equipment for trail hiking and backpacking for extended periods (i.e. three or more days).  Just listing things you like or don’t like about different products will help your evaluation. For starters:

Footwear Your boots/shoes are arguably your most important item, so don’t skimp on them. You’re relying on them to carry you safely from start to finish. Light-weight, trail-runners and low-cut shoes are often made with synthetics, and include ventilation technology to keep your feet cool and dry. Many weigh in at under 2 lbs. and prices range from $100-$250 and more. Mid-cut shoes/boots are usually synthetic and may incorporate some leather as well. Prices range from $120-$300. Mountaineering boots are usually all leather but may include some synthetics as well. They are higher-cut, usually above the ankle to provide good support on rocky trails, and they usually weigh about 3-4 lbs. Prices range from $150-$350.

When you decide the type of boot/shoe you want, try on several different brands to compare how they feel. I’ve worn high-cut mountaineering boots over the past couple of decades- both Vasque and Zamberlan. They are about 1.5″ above my ankle, thus providing extra support, and they also provide padded protection to the Achilles.  I hike a lot of rocky and tree-root lined trails and they seem to provide the support I need when carrying 50-60# on my back. They also have good Vibram soles that will grip wet rock pretty well, which is always important-. (Note- wet rock is always dangerous, so watch your step). A knowledgeable salesperson can help you in the store, but do some research on your own beforehand.

When you decide on your favorite boots, it’s extremely important that they be fitted correctly. Most good stores will have an inclined walkway to test your boots, making sure your toes have room when walking downhill, etc. You want a snug fit, but not a tight fit.

When trying on boots/shoes, be sure to wear the type socks you’ll be wearing on the trail. If you’re going to be hiking on varied, rugged terrain, I’d suggest a light pair of liner socks underneath a heavier pair of quick drying hiking socks- this tends to reduce friction and ‘hot-spots,’ which lead to blisters. I’d recommend breaking them in slowly, walking around at home for a few days to be sure the fit feels correct. Then go hiking in local parks, up steep inclines and back down again, a few miles a day, then more. Put on a minimum of 20 miles of rigorous outdoor hiking to break-in your new boots, and throw on a pack with 40-50# while you’re at it. Let your feet rest a few days before actually going backpacking.

If you’re going to be hiking more than a couple of days, be sure to carry some Moleskin and/or Nu Skin– type of blister treatment product and a small scissors. These types of blister-treatment products can be a life-saver when out on the trail. Follow the manufacturer’s suggestions on use of all products. Carry the Moleskin and/or Nu Skin and scissors in your first-aid kit.

 

Blister treatments

Moleskin blister pads, snake bite kit, pocket knife and flashlight, First-Aid kit in rear

 

Packs- Identify the ‘necessities’ you’ll need for the time out on a ‘typical’ or longer trip, given the climate, etc. Better to have a slightly large pack than an undersized one, although it may cause you to carry excess ‘stuff’ that you don’t really need. If you are responsible for carrying everything you’ll need on the trip, you’ll have to make a detailed list to determine the proper size (volume) pack you’ll need. Figure a sleeping bag, tent, sleeping mat, clothes, rain-gear, cook-stove/fuel, food/utensils, water filter/purifier and water storage (bottles and/or bladder) given water availability along your usual routes. You’ll need a headlamp/ flashlight, extra batteries (very important), knife, first-aid kit, matches/lighter/flint fire-starter, toilet paper, etc., so plan accordingly. If you’re new at this, you may want to get everything together in a bag and bring it to the store and load it into a backpack just to be sure everything fits. Your goal is to meet your basic needs while on the trail, while minimizing the weight you carry. You need the pack volume to carry the load, and you must be physically capable of carrying your load from start to finish. It’s a big deal, and it can get tough on the trail, so don’t make light of it—even though that’s part of your goal! Plan ahead.

I’ve used North Face and Gregory backpacks over the past couple of decades, and I’ve used a daypack from REI for over a decade. Many of the better backpacks are adjustable for ‘torso-length,’- an important consideration. You want the pack to fit you- not someone who is 3”-4” taller or shorter than you. Good backpacks will allow for a 3″-5″ torso-length adjustment. Talk with an experienced salesperson and get the pack sized to fit you! And watch how the adjustment is made so you can do it later, if further adjustment is needed. There are many good packs to choose from at a range of prices. You want to carry the weight mainly on your hips and be able to adjust the upper pack in terms of distance from your shoulders/spine. You must be able to control the weight you are carrying and not let the weight shift and influence your ability to maintain balance, etc. You don’t want to fall off the mountain! Get a waterproof rain cover for your pack, and use it. Prices for backpacks will range from $125- $400 depending upon volume and other features.

Day-hiking packs are only required to carry essentials for a day- water, snacks, jacket, raingear, first-aid kit, flashlight, sunscreen and bug juice, etc. Wear a hat when hiking- it will protect you from the sun and keep bugs off your head. A low-volume day pack should only weigh 10-25 lbs., depending on season. Prices for day-packs range from $50- $150. You may want to be able to haul a small tent/wind fly and sleeping bag for those ‘just-in-case’ scenarios, bad weather, etc. Be realistic and plan accordingly, the other option could be spending the night out in a thunderstorm in your rain-gear… it could be worse!

Tent- Get a free-standing tent; one that doesn’t have to have stakes, and can be picked up and moved with no effort- maybe in the middle of the night in a rainstorm. Of course if you’ve got a bunch of ‘stuff’ in the tent you may not be able to just pick it up and move it- a sleeping bag and mat, no problem. You can even set them up on rock and weight the corners with rocks, if need be.

A backpacker usually carries a tent just large enough to allow for sleeping comfortably. This allows you to minimize the weight. Make sure it offers good ventilation. If your backpack has a rain cover, it can be left outside with no problem, assuming there is no food in the pack. Hang your food/toiletries from a tree, or carry them in a bear-resistant canister. Many varmints will chew right through a pack to get at food inside, take care. No food/toiletries in the tent. Carry a patch kit in case of a bad seam or hole, and 12” of duck-tape to mend broken poles, etc. in an innovative fashion. Don’t pitch your tent under dead trees or large dead limbs- you’re just asking for trouble. Check the landscape slope to assure comfortable sleeping while avoiding low areas where water will flow/accumulate. If it’s very windy, stake your tent (or use rocks) even if it’s free-standing. Have a headlight/flashlight and other ‘necessities’ available in your tent at night.

 

Bear Canister

Bear Canister

 

Water Filters/Purifiers- A very important component of your kit. Water taken from lakes, rivers, streams and springs has microorganisms in it- some can make you sick, some can disable you. Don’t drink unfiltered/untreated water- you’re just asking for trouble.  You need a good filter, actually a purifier that will remove protozoa, bacteria and viruses- the organisms causing giardia, salmonella, E.coli, and hepatitis A.  Don’t skimp on your water filter. Get one that pumps a decent volume (good flow-rate), has a good replaceable filter, and is built well. Get an extra filter or two while you’re at it.

I’ve used the same First Need Purification System for 15 years and have never had a problem. The matrix- filter can be back-flushed in the field if needed, although I’ve never plugged a filter. I usually back flush at the start and end of the season. The First Need System is priced at about $125 and a replacement filter runs about $50. Filters usually last me a couple of years, with 4-6 weeks use per year, but I tend to filter clean-looking water most of the time; filtering lots of dirty water will shorten the filter’s life, but that’s OK, that’s why we carry them- we want to drink safe water. Check for it online if the retailer doesn’t carry it.

 

First Need water filter-purifier

First Need Water Purifier system & chlorine-dioxide tablets

 

There are new water filtration systems coming on the market every year, some are junk, some look to be pretty good. Many are just filters, that perform a very limited function. You’ll just have to know what you’re looking for in terms of technical filtering capability, talk with friends and sales staff, but avoid cheap water filters. You really want a purifier that can pull out viruses (.05- .1 microns). My First Need system attaches directly to wide-mouth water bottles, and I can fill a bladder from the bottle very easily. You want the filter-purifier system to work with your bottles/bladder as much as possible. I use a 2 liter bladder and 2- 1 liter bottles with my Gregory pack. I usually use either the bottles or the bladder and fill as needed from rivers/streams. In hot, arid locales I may carry 4 liters as standard practice, and may need to refill by mid-day.  Always check water availability along the trail- especially in hot weather. One liter of water weighs 2.2 lbs.

Also carry a small bottle of chlorine-dioxide tablets to eliminate pathogens in case your filter clogs or breaks down. Iodine tablets can also be used but are less effective than the chlorine-dioxide treatment. Check dates on the bottles. Boiling water also works, but it’s a pain and requires a lot of fuel. If someone else in your party gets a clogged or broken filtration system, your tablets just might save the day for that person. They are a cheap, light-weight backup.

Stoves- I use backpacking stoves that are light weight and reliable. I’ve used the MSR Dragonfly liquid fuel stove for well-over a decade and found it to be an excellent stove. I carry it inside a 20 oz. (volume), titanium pot with a cup that goes on the top, and store it with a ‘spork,’ in a mesh bag that keeps everything together. It is a light, compact system and works very well. I strap a liquid-fuel storage bottle or two on the outside of my pack. You may want to carry a stove rebuild kit with extra seals, etc. just in case of problems, they don’t take much space.

 

 

A couple of years ago I picked up a JETBOIL stove that uses canisters of iso-butane/ propane as fuel. The fuel canisters store well in my backpack and I don’t have to worry about spilling fuel. However the iso-butane/propane fuel does not work well in cold weather, especially at altitude. It’s also difficult to know just how much fuel is in the canister. The JETBOIL stove also fits inside the above referenced pot/cup just like the MSR stove, and that’s what I’ve been using mostly over the past couple of years.

I always eat dehydrated foods on backpacking trips- and the Mountain House individual serving packets require boiling 14 oz. of water, which is just right for my 20 oz. storage pot. I may make some tea or just drink water from the bottle with my meals. You need a compact cooking/eating system- and you can buy it or assemble the parts as I’ve done. It must be functional and light-weight.

Regardless of stove-type, do some experimenting with a ‘small volume’ of fuel to see how many liters of water it will boil- put some tape on the fuel container (bottle or canister) and mark it for each liter you boil.  Then you can plan for your next extended trip… maybe add ten percent, just to assure you get that last meal or two. Also, be sure to carry plenty of waterproofed stick matches.

Sleeping Bags and mats– As a backpacker, I have a light-weight down-filled bag that remains comfortable to about 45 degrees. It requires little storage space and weighs very little. I also have a heavier down-filled bag that is comfortable to about 20 degrees, but it’s much bulkier and heavier. If it’s below 20 degrees I shouldn’t be there. I’m not a winter-camping kinda guy! If you carry an inflatable sleeping mat, also carry a repair kit in case it gets punctured or develops a leak. I carry basic THERMA-REST inflatable mats- either full length or ¾ length.

Hiking Poles- I first used hiking poles out in the Sierra Nevada Mountains over a decade ago.  I started out carrying way too much weight, and after a couple of days someone suggested I try their hiking poles. I couldn’t believe the difference. I bought myself a pair after the trip and I use them regularly. I use them to help lift the load when climbing and to break the load when going downhill. In all cases they also provide added balance and have saved me on numerous occasions. In my case they have made hiking easier and safer. I highly recommend them.

 

1 person tent and hiking poles

Backpack tent, hiking poles, bear spray and K-Bar

 

I’ve used Black Diamond poles with clamps to adjust pole length, and I’ve never had a problem. I’m still using my original pair and I’ve got plenty of miles on them. I also use them when snowshoeing; they work great. I probably paid about $125 for them.

There are a number of good brands out there, and their prices range from about $85-$200. Some use a twisting mechanism to adjust/tighten pole length. I prefer the adjustable clamps. I’ve seen the twisting style fail on more than one occasion. I only weigh 150# and in recent years I’ve tried to carry 50# or less, somewhat successfully. But in earlier years I carried 60-65# regularly.  If you’re a 200# guy and carry 60-70# or more you will place much more stress on those poles, so plan accordingly.

First-Aid Kit- A basic hiker’s First-Aid kit should prove adequate for most hikers (about 3”x3”x2”). If you have better than average first-aid knowledge and/or are traveling in somewhat unique areas, you may want an enhanced First-Aid kit- either way you should be able to find what you need for $30-$60. You might want to purchase components and build your own custom First-Aid kit. In many areas, you may also want to carry a snake-bite kit, about $25. Also check the NOLS online store for First-Aid kits and Wilderness Medicine books and classes- and be sure to stop in and visit if you’re ever near Lander, WY.

Compass and Topo Maps/GPS- It’s long been a rule of mine to never hit the trail for multiple days  without a topo-map and a compass—and I’ve rarely broken that rule.

The first thing is to learn how to read a topographic map. Learn to read the contour lines in order to determine terrain conditions, elevations, which way rivers are flowing, etc. Modern topo-maps like those produced by National Geographic identify trails, roads and current landmarks, they are waterproof, tearproof, and are produced at a scale usable by hikers. The NatGeo maps are about $15. Topo’s are also produced by other private firms, states and the federal government. They will help keep you on the trail, and should you get off the trail, they will help you get back on it or find an alternate route to your destination.

 

Map, compass, VHF-UHF radio

Topo Map, 3 various compasses, VHF-UHF radio and pocket knife

 

A compass helps you keep track of where you are along the trail. It is especially useful should you get off the trail, or if you want to bush-whack directly from one point to another via an off-trail route, rather than following a long circuitous trail. The topo will show you the type of terrain you’ll have to cover to reach your destination, best routes, routes to avoid, etc. You can use a map and plot a bearing from point A to point B, and then follow that bearing to your destination. To return, you simply follow the back-bearing to your starting point. You can also find your location on a map by using the triangulation method with a compass. I use map and compass because they are light and do not need batteries. And they have saved my behind more than once- Glacier NP and the Chugach State Park come readily to mind! If you’re into tech. toys, the GPS units will do most of this stuff if your batteries don’t wear out… always carry extra batteries!

Emergency Communications- There is usually no cell phone coverage in places you’ll be backpacking. However, there may be remote radio operators or radio towers nearby, and some towers may have repeaters to boost a weak radio signal. Therefore a VHF/UHF hand-held Ham radio is an excellent emergency communication tool when out in the boonies. If you’re a licensed Ham operator, plan ahead and program the frequencies of any nearby repeaters into your radio for those ‘just-in-case’ situations. Of course you can also scan for radio contacts.  A radio transmission could bring emergency personnel, when all else fails. Further Ham radio information available at ARRL. There are also geographic locator units available that will send messages to those at home and/or notify emergency response units if needed- they are based on satellite communications- I’ve used a SPOT device on several occasions when hiking alone in the wilderness; it keeps family/friends appraised of your whereabouts.

There are several books on using topo maps and a compass in the Recommendation section of the blog (see top of page). And remember, it does you no good to carry a map and compass, a GPS or a radio, if you don’t know how to use them. And learn how to use the sun to find your general way during daylight, and the Big Dipper-North Star at night.

Defensive Aids- I always carry bear spray, especially in Grizzly country. I also carry a sidearm in Grizzly country. Be aware of state firearms laws, although they are usually pretty non-restrictive in Grizzly country- except in Canada! If I’m hiking alone in the wilderness I usually carry a sidearm anyway, Grizzlies or not. Be bear aware in bear country. Better safe than sorry, is my motto. See Bear Attacks, Their Causes and Avoidance, by Herrero for further information.

Enjoy the outdoors!

73  -Happy trails!

 

About Mike Hohmann

I did lots of camping/hiking as a kid in the Scouts, and I still strive to 'be prepared.' After high school, I got bored with more school and enlisted in the Army Corps. of Engineers, doing two tours in Vietnam. Post military, I completed BS and MBA degrees and spent several decades with Corporate America, working mostly in the areas of conventional and renewable energy. I also spent over a decade as a self-employed small business consultant in marketing and finance. As a young family man with a wife and two kids, we spent many vacations camping and hiking in northern Minnesota. I spent additional long weekends fishing the rivers and camping/hiking along the North Shore of Lake Superior. I retired early and hit the trails hard-- in the lower-48, Alaska, and western Canada. These days I backpack, car-camp and day-hike, go snowshoeing, and try to get the grand-kids out to teach them the ways of the trail. Other interests include American Revolutionary War and Civil War history, 19th and 20th century firearms, Native American history; business and macroeconomics. I'm a recently-licensed amateur (Ham) radio operator, and I look forward to many radio-related adventures in coming months. Life is good! Member, Superior Hiking Trail Association; Member, Appalachian Mountain Club; Member, REI; Member, ARRL- Amateur Radio Relay League, the National Assoc. for Amateur Radio; Twin Cities Metro Skywarn Spotter; Twin City FM Club; Richfield Amateur Radio Club; QRP ARCI, Low-Power Amateur Radio Club International; Life Member, National Rifle Association
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