I view backpacking equipment as a means to an end. And that end is to have the safest, most enjoyable experience I possibly can whilst out in the wilderness.
With that philosophy in mind, I look for five basic attributes in all of my outdoor gear:
- Value for money
No matter whether I am in the backcountry or the city, I strive for simplicity. Life generally seems at its best when it’s kept simple. Isn’t that one of the reasons why many of us head out into the wilderness in the first place?
In regards to backpacking equipment, simpler designs equate to less zippers, less compartments, less straps, less that can break, rip or go wrong (e.g. tarps, quilts, frameless and/or streamlined backpacks, alcohol stoves, compass rather than GPS, etc.).
Always go for functionality over style. A piece of equipment may look fantastic in the store, but unless it performs as it is supposed to out in the field, it will be about as much use as a chocolate teapot.
This is where all that research you did comes to the fore……….scour the internet, read backpacking magazines, ask the advice of experienced hiker buddies, etc. You don’t want to discover that you have a porous rain jacket while caught in the Mother of all Storms.
“Where should I start my research?”
Earlier this year I updated a list of useful websites for hikers and backpackers. This compilation includes 25 different sites, many of which offer gear recommendations.
It’s also worth remembering that not all gear reviews are created equal. Generally speaking, if I’m interested in a piece of equipment, I’ll look for reports from experienced hikers whom have used the said item extensively (i.e. months and years, rather than days or weeks). Always be wary of any review that starts with: “I just received X piece of gear in the mail, and after trying it out in my living room/backyard, I unequivocally give it a double thumbs up!!”
We all want gear that is going to last. Ask yourself whether the design and materials of the item you are thinking of buying are appropriate for the conditions in which you will be hiking (e.g. an inflatable sleeping mat may not be the best choice if 100% of your walking is done in rocky, desert-like terrain). Once you have taken the purchasing plunge, the key to making your gear last is doing the “little things” routinely. For example:
- Not regularly overloading your backpack.
- Making sure your tent is clean and dry before storing it.
- Not overly compressing your down sleeping bag for long periods of time.
Hiking is more enjoyable if your backpack doesn’t weigh the proverbial tonne. Innovative designs combined with increasingly lightweight, yet still durable materials, have meant that manufacturers can now produce incredibly lightweight equipment, without unduly sacrificing performance or safety (see Going Light).
5. Value for Money
Discerning what constitutes value for money, basically comes down to a balance between the long term effectiveness of your purchase and what you paid for it. In regards to the latter, there are a handful of reputable sites on the internet that regularly offer sizeable discounts on all sorts of quality hiking gear. Listed in alphabetical order below are nine that I have personally used:
- Backcountry (Sale Page)
- REI (Coupons & Rebates Page)
- Running Warehouse
- Sierra Trading Post
- Ultralight Outdoor Gear