From the moment in 2016 that one of my adventure-prone friends suggested we do 100 miles on the Appalachian Trail the following summer, to the time of the hike in July of 2017, and to the present, my gear has undergone a transformation that I imagine many backpackers experience. I began with the mindset of “I don’t want to spend too much money on this, in case I don’t like it,” and most purchases were motivated by price, rather than analysis of key features. That’s not to say I didn’t research my options, but budget was my primary concern. On my first trips, my pack was always 40+ pounds, the heaviest being 44 pounds for a four-day hike of Pictured Rocks.
My tent was my first major purchase. I already had a little five pound K-Mart dome tent, which I was convinced would be fine, until I started looking at Appalachian Trail websites and saw that everyone was using a tent with a legit rainfly, instead of the tiny rainfly that covered a mere third of the tent, like mine had. Being a little claustrophobic, I opted for a two-man when I bought a backpacking tent, not really considering the weight implications. After trying different sleeping pads on various trips, and still lacking a decent night’s sleep, I started interrogating my hammock-camper friends, and upgraded in that direction, but also purchased a used one-man tent to use when hammocking is not an option. I may continue to use my two-man tent for car camping or short hikes, but I can’t justify the additional weight anymore. While all of the different sleeping pads may seem wasteful, it’s really not–one of them is perfect for summer, and the insulated pad is worth its weight for winter tent camping. The underquilt for my hammock is currently in production, as I tried using my insulated pad with the hammock, and found it to be a bit of a hassle. I’m trying to talk myself out of springing for a top quilt until next year. (“Backpacking Gear” is now a line item in my monthly budget, and I’m trying to be intentional about saving up for big ticket items that will have a big impact on my experience instead of picking up little things here and there.)
Next, came the backpack. Again, the bargain hunter in me won out. I purchased a Gregory 40-liter pack online, during one of Sierra Trading Post’s big clearances. Luckily, it has been a fantastic fit, and I couldn’t be happier, but let me stress–this was dumb luck. (This might be a little harsh, in hindsight–I did read reviews of the pack before I bought it.) I also hiked around the neighborhood with a load in the pack to determine it was a good fit before clipping the tags off of it, but going to an outfitters probably would have been a smarter move. While my pack isn’t terribly light, it is durable, and has the best hip pockets ever. I’ll probably keep it around for a few years.
For footwear, I had the sense to buy in person, and I bought several options–waterproof Keen boots, Columbia hiking shoes, and Saucony trail runners. I have no regrets here. Different trails and seasons call for different options. This fall, I purchased a pair of Salomon winter hiking boots, and a felt a little guilty about it, since my Keen’s worn with wool socks keep me pretty toasty, but I did find that the Salomons are a much better fit if I’m wearing my YakTrax, which compress the Keens too much and make them uncomfortable, but not so with the winter hiking boots.
My first stove was a $20 Primus Classic, which was insanely easy to use, but also insanely heavy. The BRS-3000 has been a better (still cheap) option for me, but for this summer’s trips, I’m thinking about going stoveless.
I am also now one of those people with a closet full of sleeping bags. I began with a mummy bag I’d bought back in the ‘90s that was rated to 40 degrees. It’s heavy, huge, and not all that practical. I bought a liner to get me a few more degrees, but eventually upgraded to a five-degree synthetic bag that didn’t really save me any weight or space, but bought me a lot more warmth at a decent price. While the liner is perfect on its own on hot summer nights, I also purchased a 55-degree bag that’s barely the size of a Nalgene bottle for cooler summer nights. A down throw tops off my collection. While I feel a little guilty about all of these different bags, I just don’t think it’s realistic to assume that what works in July will also be comfortable in October when the colors are peaking, or early spring when the trees are just beginning to bud. And while I never thought I’d be a winter camper, it’s amazing what a little peer pressure from your hiking buddies can get you signed up for, so having options for December through March has become important to me, too.
From hydration systems, food, chair, cook set, and everything else, almost every aspect of my gear has changed in the last 18 months. I’ve learned that talking to real people who backpack and reading forums populated by enthusiasts yields much better results than reading Amazon reviews, that impulse bargain buys are not really a bargain, and that maintaining a list of upgrades I’d like to make keeps me focused when I’m looking at gear for sale. Quelling my cheapskate instinct and being patient actually saves money in the long run. I’m also learning that backpacking is a lot more fun when your pack weighs 25ish pounds instead of 40ish, especially if the rest of the group is carrying lighter loads and can move faster because of it.