On Choosing Backpacking Gear

My cousin recently asked for my advice on buying a backpack. My mind engaged, my fingers began typing, but I had to stop. I quickly realized that I was about to write a book about it, all within a tiny Facebook chat window. For this reason, I’ve decided to talk about it here.

I’ve learned a lot from other people about gear, and I will link the sources I found most integral in my research. I’m going to be pretty unapologetic about my feelings (because they are actually facts, learned from experience) on this topic. While I did not finish the AT, 1700 miles exposed me to many other hikers, and their stuff.

What did I really learn after living on trail for 133 days? Just as Robert Frost summed up the whole of his life experience with “it goes on;” I too found a succinct, and simple answer:

It doesn’t matter!”

No, really. It doesn’t matter, so don’t worry about it too much!

Every new hiker gets hung up on this subject, without understanding a few underlying facts, which are really only understood with experience.

Fact One, Weight: You’re going to carry too much weight on your first few trips. Everyone does! Later on, as you build confidence, you might even carry too little weight. Both of these extremes are uncomfortable, but you will find your Goldilocks in time. With common sense, you won’t die in the process!

Fact Two, Confidence: Eventually, you’ll stop caring about what other people are carrying, and you’ll come to disregard critiques about your own gear choices. You’ll come to realize that you are carrying your own pack weight, just as others are carrying theirs. As long as you’re not asking others to hoof your pack for you, what does it really matter?

That Zpacks owner doesn’t like your five-pound Coleman tent? Fuck Em!

That dude with the 85-liter Kelty pack thinks he’s tougher than you, because he’s hauling more weight than you? Fuck Em!

Be confident! You are carrying your own burden, and that burden is the product of choices you’ve made. Sound familiar? Life people. Stop judging others!

Fact Three, Individuality: The most beautiful, inspiring, and wonderful thing about backpacking gear is that it’s completely unique to the owner. Ask two hikers to spill their packs, and you will never find the same exact contents.

Celebrate this! Express yourself!

On the AT I met dudes like Mule, with his dialed-in Hyperlite Mountain Gear backpack. Clean lines, nothing dangling off the back, everything in his pack was neatly stowed away.

I also met a girl named Firefly, who had the most awesome, bohemian hodgepodge of a backpack ever. A Granite Gear pack at its core, but completely her own. She had a steam-punk style leather purse attached to the hipbelt, a dream catcher, bottle opener(s), art, flags, etc. I have few regrets on the AT, and one of them was never getting a picture of that beauty (her pack that is).

In both cases, these packs reflected their owners perfectly.

So you might be asking:

What does matter?”

What matters is knowing how to use your gear, knowing its limitations, and knowing that it fits your personal needs.

Always try your stuff out before that big trip you have planned. This seems like common sense, but so many people come out (to the AT in particular) having never set up their tent, used their stove, etc.

When you start a thru-hike you’ll have so much going on mentally, emotionally, and physically. The most basic kindness you can allow yourself, is just a tiny bit of confidence that you can set up camp. Knowing that you can perform the basic tasks of sheltering, watering, and feeding yourself with the stuff you have chosen to bring, will bring TREMENDOUS relief during those first few weeks.

In my opinion, knowing how to use your gear is VASTLY more important than physically training for your hike. Get off the treadmill, and set up camp in your (or your friend’s) backyard. Don’t worry about getting in shape for the AT, the trail itself will do that for you.

Know the limits of your gear. If your sleeping bag says it’s rated for a certain temperature, try to test it in those conditions. See how it fairs in others also. I performed many sleeping bag/pad tests on the balcony of my third-floor apartment before taking that stuff into the field. Afraid the neighbors will find you odd? Well, that’s a great exercise in confidence. Read above! Fuck em!

Know your gear fits your personal needs. One example is sleeping pads. There are people in this world who can sleep soundly on a blue foam pad from Walmart. Personally, I think all of them are lying, but hey, if I could sleep on something that durable (and inexpensive) I’d look no further.

For me, a Neo Air X-lite was my choice of pad. It’s horrendously expensive, but worth every restful minute of sleep it provided me on the AT.

Shoes and packs are very personal item choices. Disregard brand names, price, or what your friend likes. Much like the Matrix, you cannot be told what the best choice is. You have to feel it for yourself.

Also, don’t underestimate the importance of quality, reliable clothing. Take the time to do some research. Thankfully, you don’t need a lot of clothes out there, which is why care in choosing them is important.

But you didn’t tell me what to buy?!”

No! That was my intention! Do your own research and remember that the gear between your ears is all that matters. Just don’t stress about it too much.

I will be posting some reviews of how my stuff fared, things I changed, etc. On the whole of difficulties faced during a thru-hike however, I found my load-out to be a fairly negligible part of the equation. Day to day budgeting, and managing your mental needs are far more important in the grand scheme of things.

In the meantime, you can learn a lot from these guys:

Ryan Grayson: http://ryangrayson.blogspot.com/p/advice.html

Seven: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DV4lmQU2zyQ

Andrew Skurka: andrewskurka.com/section/how-to/gear-and-supplies

 

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