Gear Shopping Advice for Folks (adults) new to Backpacking

This is a guide for adults who are new to backpacking and want to get gear for this fun sport.  This advice comes from me having started backpacking in 1967, been active in mountain rescue, nordic ski patrol, peak climbing, backpacking and mountaineering, and teaching college classes in backpacking for 12 years.  I don't do much climbing anymore, but have 48 continuous years of backpacking, and I still love to get out.

The typical way that long time backpackers buy gear is by upgrading their old gear with newer, lighter, better equipment.  This is why I have several old packs, stoves, cooksets, and sleeping bags.  After many cycles of upgrading and replacing, I have a setup that I really like, and its not always the most expensive stuff.  A huge advantage to adults who are new to backpacking is that you can buy the right gear the first time.  That doesn’t necessarily mean buying the super expensive gear, but it definitely means not buying the wrong gear, which wouldjust have to upgrade to get to a product that works for you.  This will save you a lot of money.  The goals of this instructional post are to:

  1. buy the right equipment the first time, so that you don’t have to turn around and buy another piece of equipment unnecessarily.
  2. buying light and compact equipment, in order to keep an adults pack light, making it easier to keep up with strong teenage scouts, to allow more miles to be covered, and to enjoy the experience all the more
  3. buying only the necessary equipment, and not buying stuff you don’t need.

Equipment discussed below is ordered by what equipment you should buy first, and is most important.  As a central component is the need to keep the big three items (tent, sleeping bag, and backpack) to a weight below 3 pounds each, and preferably closer to 2 lbs each.

Sleeping Bag:

If there is one piece of equipment that a new adult backpacker should get right the first time, that is your sleeping bag.  It can either bring you great joy, or cause you much fear and uncertainty.  It is a great joy when you know that at the end of the day you are going to be warm and you won’t be waking up cold in the night.  It is a great uncertainty if you wonder if you are going to be cold all night, and knowing that you have to buy a better bag than the piece of crap that you have.

To make a long story short, I would recommend that you buy a 25-30° sleeping bag with down insulation, in a mummy shape.  This is for 3 season use in the mountains of the Western U.S.  It should weigh less than three pounds, or even less than 2.5 pounds.  Such a sleeping bag can be found for not much more than $100, but some good brands like REI or North Face might run $200.  As of this writing, a great deal is a Big Agnes Boot Jack 24, rated at 24 degrees and I've slept in it down to 17.  It weighs 2 lbs 4 oz, and costs $190.  It compares well to my $350 Western Mountaineering bag.  Any bag you get, make sure it is down, and weighs less than 2.5 lbs.  Having it rated at 30 degrees and down filled means it will weigh less and stuff to a smaller size than a sleeping bag rated at lower temperatures. When its colder than 30 degrees, you just have to wear a hat and socks and maybe throw a down coat over the bag.

What I have is two sleeping bags, a very light and compact one which is rated at 30 degrees, and a winter bag rated at 0 degrees.  I tend to sleep a little cold in the summer bag, because temperatures in the mountains of Idaho can get down to the mid 20s.  When that happens, I put on a hat, possibly wind pants, socks, and my down coat either inside or outside the sleeping bag.

 REI Mojave, 15 degree, $146

REI Mojave, 15 degree, $146

 Kelty Cosmic 20 Degree, $115, <3 lbs

Kelty Cosmic 20 Degree, $115, <3 lbs

Bags filled with synthetic insulation are definitely cheaper, costing less then $80, but they don’t last as long, and they don’t stuff as compactly.  If you do think of a synthetic filled sleeping bag, get a good brand like GoLite, Marmot, or REI.

Bags well rated in Backpacker Magazines 2012 ratings:

Sierra Designs Cloud 15,  15 degree $499, 1 lb 13 oz

REI Igneo/Joule, 22 degree, $339, 2 lbs 2 oz

Marmot Cloudbreak 20, 20 degrees, synthetic fill, 2 lb 14 oz

REI Habanera, 1 degree, $299, 3 lbs 9 oz

Types of Bags to Avoid:

Certain sources are good places to get a high-quality sleeping bags, and certain places are just about guaranteed to provide you with a bag you will be unhappy with. Stores such as REI, REI online, Idaho Mountain Touring (Boise), the Benchmark (Boise), and GoLite are generally places to get good sleeping bags. Brands which are good values in sleeping bags include REI, North Face, Kelty, Mountain Hardware, Sierra Designs, Montbell, and Marmot. Top ranked bags include Western Mountaineering and Feathered Friends, but these are expensive and other brands like Marmot, REI, and GoLite are almost as good and quite a bit cheaper.

Stores which I guarantee you will sell you a bag you will not be happy with are Cabella’s, Sports Authority, Sportsman’s Warehouse, Walmart, Costco, and Army Navy Surplus.  Brands to avoid include brands such as SlumberJack, Coleman, Cabella’s, and Camp Trails.

The best way to pick up good value in sleeping bags is to buy them on sale, such as the REI garage sales, or in certain cases used bags through eBay or craigslist.com if you know what you’re buying. If in doubt about a bag on ebay or craigslist, ask an experienced person about the brand and price.

The REI garage sales are particularly promising but you still have to know the brands of bags that you want to look at, and you have to check the temperature ratings of the bags that you find. The REI garage sales are for REI members only, and it is worth buying the $15 membership just to go to the garage sales. In the garage sales items which have been returned from customers are resold at 50% or more discount. Often they have been returned because they have a hole in them or some other minor defect. A hole in a down bag is inevitable in the life of the bag, and can easily be fixed with duct tape, or a special tape for rip stop nylon, which is very similar to scotch tape.

Golite has great values and have an online outlet as well as a local store.  The online Golite store is at www.golite.com, and a “clearance closet”  with especially good deals is at http://www.golite.com/Clearance.aspx.

Backpacks:

This is #2 of the big three items, one which you want to keep under 3 pounds, and closer to 2 pounds.  Theoretically you should get this item last, because all your other stuff has to fit in it.  But you also have to have a pack in order to go backpacking.  Borrowing or renting one is a good option at first.  When you buy your pack, if possible take all your stuff in a box to the store when you try on packs, and put all your stuff in the packs for fitting.  If your stuff is compact, a 65 L pack will work.

I use an REI Flash 65 pack, which was Backpacking Magazine Editors choice in 2009, but has since been discontinued.  You might find a used one on ebay and I would recommend it.  It is 65 L, and weighs 3 lbs 2 oz.  There is a review of it here

GoLite has some very light packs.  Whatever pack you get, it should weigh less than 3 lbs.  They can be found for less than $100 in their golite clearance closet.  Also check closeout and sale items on REI.com.

Packs less than 3 lbs and highly rated in Backpacker Magazines 2012 ratings:

REI Flash 62, $189, 3 lbs (replaces the Flash 65 in the REI lineup) seems to be a great pack.

Boots:

The next major piece of equipment for adults is boots.  You can get low top, over the ankle, light weight or heavy weight.  After DECADES of using heavy leather mountaineering boots, I switched to light weight hiking shoes and have never gone back.  I have had great luck with my current boots, Keen hiking boots, and I could recommend them to anyone.  A pound on your feet has a huge effect on your level of tiredness.  The lighter the boots, the further you can hike before you are exhausted. I think low tops are fine, such as these models.

What is needed in hiking shoes for adults is a sole that is stiff enough that rocks don’t poke through.  Soft soled shoes like flipflops or moccasins or deck shoes can hurt a person so much that they can barely walk after a day of rocky trails. Keen sandals however, have a pretty stiff sole and can serve for hiking in a pinch.

Camp shoes are a wonderful thing.  Crocs are very light, and Keen sandals are heavier but also more protective of feet if you have to hike out in them, like if your boots fall apart or are burned in a fire (it happens) . Even flip flops will be appreciated at camp.

Hiking Poles: These can be a lifesaver, or a knee saver.  They can ease strain on ankles and knees, aid in crossing streams, greatly protect the knees when going downhill, help boost your body weight up a steep hill, and can serve as tent poles for some tents.  Neoprene knee braces and bands help some older hikers.

Clothing:

After boots, the next urgent thing to buy is appropriate clothing, including rain gear.  Hiking and backpacking clothing has a common theme, and that is NO COTTON.  Wet cotton dries very slowly if at all, and it sucks the heat out of the wearer.  Loss of body heat is what kills people lost in the mountains, and cotton clothing is a great contributor to that statistic.  The clothing that is needed is listed below, and this is the same for a weekend trip as for a week long backpack.

Surprisingly, that is all the clothes a person should ever have on a backpack.  Anything added to that list is just adding weight to the pack.  On a cold night you will be wearing all of that gear.  On a longer backpack you can wash a set of socks, underwear and t shirt every day, and hang if off the pack to dry.  Washing is by swishing in soap and water in a zip lock bag.

Sleeping pad:

This is another absolutely necessary piece of gear, right up there with clothing and sleeping bag.  While a 90 pound scout can do fine with a foam sleeping pad, an adult needs a pad thick enough that hips and shoulders don’t bottom out when laying on your side.  Fortunately, such pads exist and provide sufficient padding for a good nights sleep, while being fairly compact and not too expensive.

Options are Big Agnes Air Core inflatable for around $80, or the more expensive NeoAire by Thermerest for $120 and up.  Sometimes the Neoaire can be had at REI garage sales for less than $40.  Those often have holes in them, which are easily patched.

What if the most comfortable sleeping pad was the one on the left, and it was also the lightest?  Would you pay $120 for it?  You will never regret it.

See http://www.hikinginfinland.com/2009/12/gear-talk-sleeping-pads-mattresses.html for more info on these sleeping pads.

Sleeping pads rated well in the Backpacker Magazine 2012 ratings issue:

Exped Downmat UL7, $209, 1 lb 4 oz

Therm-a-Rest NeoAire XLite, $180, 13 oz

Therm-a-Rest Z lite Sol, $45, 14 oz

Nemo Cosmo Air XL, $160, 2 lbs 1 oz

Big Agnes Insulated Q-Core, $140, 1 lb 11 oz

Therm-a-Rest All Season, $140, 19 oz

Cooking Gear:

Little is needed for eating utensils: a plastic cup, a plastic bowl, and a plastic spoon.  Mark the cup with indicators for portions of a cup, and make it a measuring cup.   For a water container, a bottled water plastic bottle is best, or something like a GatorAid bottle.  Some like an insulated cup for keeping hot drinks hot longer.

For carrying water, cheap (and lightweight) drink bottle, like Coke, Gatoraid, or water, and collapsible 4 L nalgene bottle.  Some use a bike water bottle and squirt water out the nozzle for measuring.

Knife: A smallish lockback is the safest and most versatile.  The tiny Swiss Army Classic is also good, because it has scissors. I like a Mora knife, a durable and cheap utility knife.  A big survival or hunting knife is totally not needed on any backpack.

Flashlights:

The smaller the flashlight, the better.  All one needs is enough light to find a piece of gear in the pack or tent, or find your way along a dark trail.  An LED flashlight that takes one AAA battery is perfect for the task, and highly recommended.  If there is a possibility of hiking at night, an LED headlamp is recommended.  A photon LED light would also work, but it needs to be checked for battery life before a trip.  LED hats work out well, but you have to be sure there is battery life.  Some bring an extra battery for insurance.

I love my Petzl Zipka, shown below left, which uses 3 AAA batteries.

First Aid Items:

Each hiker should have basic first aid gear, especially articles for treating blisters and small scrapes and cuts.

Moleskin, 3”x 6”

6 Bandaids

Rubber gloves

2 sterile gauze pads, 3”x3”

Small (1/2 motel size) bar of soap

small roll of adhesive tape

small tube antiseptic

small scissors

pencil and paper

eye protection

butterfly bandages

 

Additional first Aid Items for Adults:

Adults can have some more items, such as meds in small (1” x 3’) zip lock bags, with a small paper label.  For meds you don't need a bottle of each, just 4-6 pills of each:

mouth barrier device

Motrin

Ibuprofin (useful the morning of a tough day, to prevent tendon swelling around knees and ankles, and for use before bed time)

Extra Strength Tylenol

Tylenol PMfor before bedtime (softens the ground)

Benadryl (for allergies)

Imodium (for diarrhea)

Pepto-Bismol tablets

Alka seltzer Plus

Migraine Aspirin

Prescription meds as needed

Antibiotics (I take a round of antibiotics for possible infected blisters or cuts)

Pack Cover:

Packs may need to be outside the tent overnight, and might be subjected to rain.  They also might be worn while hiking during rain.  Being able to cover the packs for rain protection is thus essential.  A purpose made sylnylon rain cover is one way to accomplish this, or a large plastic garbage bag also works.

Personal Hygiene Kit

Chapstick (this could be essential enough to bring an extra to loan)

Tooth brush

Tooth paste (baking soda preferred for low odor to not attract bears)

Wet wipes, 2 per day, for cleanup at end of day (essential)

Hand sanitizer

Toilet paper in zip lock bag

Dental Floss

Camp Soap, liquid. in small container, for washing clothes and bathing

Survival gear

Plastic garbage bag big enough to cover pack

Compass, Map

Waterproof matches

Small mirror for signalling (a compass with a mirror covers this need)

Whistle, attached to outside of pack for immediate access

Fire starting steel

Cigarette lighter (take multiple ones)

Mosquito repellant (in a small pump sprayer, like 3 oz) during the bug season

Sun block (in small pump sprayer). DEET works longest, but melts nylon and goretex.  Non Deet products work fine, but don’t last as long.

Head net for bugs in summer months

Tents:

A tent is #3 of the big items which you want to be less than 3 pounds, and preferably less than 2.5 or even 2 pounds.

In many current designs of tents, lightness of weight is achieved by having a low profile and by using a single wall made of Sylnylon fabric. Look at tents that are available on the tarptent.com website.  These single wall tents have floors, zip up mesh walls to keep bugs out, and do fine in rain, wind, and light snow. Generally, these tents are no more expensive than larger and heavier tents.  I have a Tarptent Squall 2, which has plenty of room for 2, but is super roomy for one.  It weighs 33.5 oz, or just over 2 pounds.  Shown below are other tarptent products, all singlewall, with floors, and bug mesh walls and doors, and they have zippers to seal out bugs.

Good brands of tents to buy include Tarptent, REI, Mountain Hardware, North face, GoLite, and MSR. Another option is a hammock like the one above.

Tents that weigh less than 3 lbs and are highly rated in Backpacker Magazines 2012 ratings:

Mountain Laurel Designs Cricket one man, $295, 1 lb 3 oz

Nemo Obi Elite 2P, $480, 2 lbs 3 oz

Mountain Hardware SuperMega UL2, $430, 3 lbs 2 oz

Those prices make Tarptent prices look pretty good:

Contrail 1 man, $199, 24 oz

Squall 2, $235, 34 oz

Double Rainbow, $260, 41 oz

Stoves:

The standard range of stoves include canister stoves, with Giga Power and MSR Pocket Rocket being popular, gasoline stoves, and alcohol stoves.  If the plan is to just boil water, the JetBoil is fast and fuel efficient, but all these stoves boil water.  Being 2 minutes faster to boil water is not as important in the backcountry as being reliable and foolproof.  I like alcohol stoves in general, and specifically one made by TrailDesigns, called the Caldera Ti Tri.  It allows me to cook biscuits, pizza, and cornbread, when used with the Outback Oven.  I mostly cook pasta, couscous, and rice dishes with a sauce and smoked salmon or freeze dried chicken or beef.

This stove burns alcohol fuel in a super lightweight stove made from pop cans, and also burns wood, and esbit solid fuel.  I use this stove combined with the Outback Oven to do baking.  I have an Evernew 1.9 L titanium pot.  A smaller pot can be used for solo cooking.  TrailDesigns has a pot made from a Heinekin can, which works with a support cone and stove. Its got to be the lightest stove out there.  If the plan is to just boil water, a timy alcohol stove and a small simple pot will do fine, and a 1 L capacity is fine.  A fry pan lid helps for cooking fish, but a piece of aluminum foil as a pot cover is lighter and works for boiling water.

Water Filter:

PUR type water filters are a workhorse and durable filter.  Sawyer gravity filters seems to be very good.  to the scouts.  Alternatives that are much lighter include the MSR Hyperflow, and a chemical treatment called Aqua Mira.  The only drawback to the Aqua Mira is that you have to wait about 20 minutes after treatment before you can drink the water, but you can treat a gallon or more of water at once.