Adventures in Backpacking | Choosing Gear
By mistiaggie on April 24, 2011
Before you go out and put that pack on and walk into the wilderness you might want to think about getting some gear.
Thankfully technology has improved backpacking gear in the last 30 years, particularly in the past 10 years. These days light wear gear is even more affordable and with the internet, deals abound!
If you aren't sure backpacking is your thing you might consider borrowing a pack from a friend, even if it is an old external frame. Why splurge on the expense if it will end up in the closet for the rest of its life? But if you think you'll be out often, decide what kind of pack you want. Personally I use the Osprey brand, but there are a plethora of choices at stores like REI or Backcountry.com.
External frame packs are just that, the metal frame is on the outside of the back. Some people enjoy having the frame on the outside to tie things to, but I find having extra things swinging around to be annoying. Internal frames compact the frame to the inside and tidy things up---these are the most common type of packs now.
Once you get that far you want to figure the size of pack. You don't need a large expedition sized pack. Somewhere between a 50L to 70L pack is a good sized pack to start with. Perhaps you will end up in the ultralight movement after a few hikes and drop your pack size even further for lighter traveling.
There are womens and mens packs and it is worth trying on both to find the right fit. I personally use a mens pack but it really is up to you. If visiting a store ask an associate to help you with the fit and picking out a pack. Stores such as REI will generally have experienced associates to answer questions and help guide you in the decision process.
If you are striking out on your own a one person, three-season tent is ideal. Unless you are planning to do a lot of winter camping, there's not reason to buy a winter season tent. Again, tents are similar to backpacks in price and weight. If you want to start off on the cheaper end you might end up with a heavier tent to start. Do not go out there with a car camping tent! You will greatly regret your choice!
Since I hike with my husband we have a two person tent and prefer to have a tent that has two vestibules which allows us our own entrances to the tent but also a place to keep our packs at night.
Most outdoor stores will allow you to set up a tent in the store before you buy it, so feel free to ask to do that. Make sure you are comfortable setting it up before purchasing it.
Our tent of choice is a Big Agnes Copper Spur UL 2, but tents as in the rest of backpacking gear is hiker specific. Find what fits for you.
Some people prefer tarps to tents or even skip tents all together and go for hammocks with a tarp for rainy nights. Hammocks are easy for weekend trips. Popular brands are Hennessey and Grand Trunk.
Sleeping Bag and Pad
There are many options for sleeping bags and pads. Do you want down or synthetic? Synthetic dries faster if you get your bag wet and down takes forever to dry but will generally weigh less than synthetic. But, down can be more expensive.
Then you take into consideration what type of season you are going to be camping in. Are you primarily going in summer? Then a 40-55* bag will suffice. Cooler times of the year and you might want a 15-30* bag. It also depends if you sleep cold or hot.
Our colder weather bag is a 15* down Marmot Helium while our warm season bag is a 40* synthetic Marmot Pounder.
Sleeping pads vary greatly from the accordion folding Therm-a-rest Z-Rest to the self inflatable pads and then one of the newest additions to lightweight and compact sleeping pads, the Therm-a-rest Neo Air. All have their ups and down. Some people swear by their Z-Rests, despite having them attached to the outside of packs and taking up space in that manner and others swear by blowing up their Neo Airs despite the fact they can be slightly noisy. Start cheaper at first and see how you sleep and move on up as you hike more often and are willing to spend more money on gear.
The latest trend in hiking is to wear trail runners instead of boots. Gone are the days of heavy leather boots. These days there are hybrid mixes of trail runners and boots and some people even venture to hike in hybrid sandals such as Teva and Keens.
If you are hiking on level surfaces and terrain trail runners might work for you. If you are going up rocky slopes where twisting an ankle might be likely you could consider ankle support in the form of a low boot. Some shoes come with waterproofing from Gore-Tex to brand specific waterproofing systems. But you should keep in mind that despite all of the waterproofing, in a downpour or if you stand in a puddle you might end up wet anyway!
Socks are just as important as the boots. Preventing blisters is important in having a happy hike. Many hikes have been ruined by painful blisters and other feet issues. Wool socks and blends are the common sock choice as they tent to repel water and keep feet dry longer than cotton socks. Invest in socks you like, there are many brands to chose from. If you are really blister prone silk liner socks that go under your wool socks are worth trying.
In general you want to steer clear of cotton as it holds in water and sweat and does not dry easy. There are outdoor tech clothes everywhere so you don't need to invest in expensive brands to start. Many big name brand stores carry some form of tech clothing and you can find what you need there to start. You'll want clothing that will wick water and sweat away from the body keeping you dry, cool in hot weather and warm in cold weather.
If summer is when you are hiking, a pair or two of shorts and a top will suffice. You don't need a closet of clothes for the woods! Pants that zip off at the knee are worth getting so you can make shorts while hiking and put the legs back on for cooler evenings.
A fleece top or long sleeve tech top will help for cool evenings and if you are hiking in three season weather you might consider a lightweight down jacket. Top your clothing off with a sports bra and a pair or two of tech underwear and this is really all the gear you need. Resist the urge to pack more clothes than you need. It will only take up space and you really don't need it.
Food and Water
Tap water is not found in the backcountry unless the trail you take happens to meander through an area that might cross a state park or somewhere near a city water supply, but for the most part you will be making your own water
Water on the trail can be in the form of springs, rivers, lakes and ponds or if in desperate circumstances maybe a puddle in the middle of the road. (Done that!) You will want to treat everything otherwise you risk getting waterborne diseases such as giardiasis. You do not want that!
Water treatment in the backwoods varies from drops such as AquaMira, pump systems like Katadyn, iodine tablets, SteriPEN, or good ol' fashioned bleach. There are ups and downs to all but they all reach the goal, which is potable water. If you run into turbid water you might want to do a pre-filter through a bandanna to get rid of pond scum or floaties, but most of the time that won't be needed.
Some people choose to not cook on the trail but we like having a hot meal for dinner. You will need a stove, whether it is stand-alone stove to attach to a fuel cannister like an MSR Pocket Rocket or JetBoil system that has the pot attached to the stove, it's up to you. We carry a separate stove and separate pot but some people don't want that much space taken up by kitchen gear. You could even venture into alcohol stoves.
Food choices are varying but breakfast could be oatmeal or sports bars, lunch might be pb&j on a tortilla with some crackers and dinner can be dehydrated backpacker meals or a pack of tuna with a noodle or rice side. There are many choices and options for meals but one think you don't want to do is carry cans of food! You do want to carry enough food to compensate for the calories you will be burning. If out for long distances a hiker can burn 4-6,000 calories a day.
There are all sorts of extras you may or may not want: mp3 player, journal, book, hiking poles, hat, rain gear, gaiters, camp chair....you name it there are all sorts of small extras to carry. A walk through the aisles of any outdoor store will show you the other options out there. Do you need a GPS? A small knife might be ideal. It just depends on the type of hike you are out for.
I know I have just touched on the topics for getting started but there are plenty of places for deeper research. Gear is really a personal choice and you will hear opinions of all kinds so the decision is up to you!
Here are some websites to check out:
http://www.backpacker.com/ Backpacker Magazine
http://www.backpackinglight.com/cgi-bin/backpackinglight/index.html Backpacking Light
http://www.steepandcheap.com/ Steep and Cheap