Being relatively new to hiking, understanding the huge amount of information coming your way can be overwhelming. At first, the thrill of the freedom and the outdoors is enough to get you out there. But after the first couple of hikes, it quickly becomes apparent how important having the right gear is. The longer your hikes become and the more extreme weather conditions you experience, having the right equipment starts to become a necessity.
Gear can become more than simple tools that increase your outdoor experience. Falling into the “gear craze” that afflicts most backpackers, myself included, is exciting, interesting, and downright dangerous to the wallet. Staying up-to-date on the most recent tents, the lightest backpacks, the newest water filter, it can swallow up your free time. Going down the rabbit hole of the backpacking industry is a path I hope to help you on.
With so much gear and information, don’t start beating your head against the wall. We can break down the backpacking basics and organize the gear into categories. For the purpose of this article, I will be laying out a variety of options, from ultralight to regularly sized and priced equipment. I am assuming you are relatively new to the sport and will try, to the best of my abilities, to point out the best all around equipment for your purposes.
What Kind of Hiking are you Doing?
When analyzing your gear needs, it is important to first, take a step back. It may be tempting to go out and invest in the ultimate tent, titanium cooking pot and that badass backpack that is actually filled with helium to make it lighter than air.
But hold on.
These large investments are usually reserved for long distance thru-hikers and people who have decided to take a few months to backpack full time. If this sounds remotely like your lifestyle, hell yeah! Investing in high end gear could be the right move for you.
However, if you are more of a weekend hiker, it might be smart to hold off on extreme purchases. Taking a realistic view of your outdoor activities can help narrow the huge field of gear choices available.
Will you be hiking with a partner or solo? Maybe you are bringing children along. The people who will be accompanying you will drastically affect the gear choices you make.
If solitude is what you’re after, being a solo hiker offers a lifestyle of adventure and self-discovery. The gear options available to you will be aimed toward fulfilling the needs of only one person. Your tent can be smaller, as can your cooking pot, and even backpack. Not worrying about others will free up your decision making process and allow for the lightest equipment made.
Is there anything more magical than sharing a hiking experience with a friend or a loved one? Sharing a tent and experiencing the fatigue and stresses of trail life is always better with someone else. The gear options available will be larger, to better fit the needs of two people. While bigger and slightly more expensive, sharing the load and the cost is always a possibility.
Do most of your trips involve large groups of people? Are you always going to lakes and waterfalls, carrying coolers and having a good ol’ time in the great outdoors? Group camping experiences tend to focus more on the recreation aspects of camping and less on the hiking. Gear for this style of hiking should be focused on sharing space with multiple people. It can also be slightly bulkier and heavier since the mileage hiked will be less. Most of what you take group hiking can be used for family camping. Bringing kids along on any trip will increase the logistics and overall weight of the gear. It also means that anything that is breakable, will break. Be forewarned and try not to invest in the good gear.
Finding the Right Pair of Hiking Shoes
The first and maybe most important piece of gear you will invest in is your shoes. Whether you are hiking 2 miles or 20, the comfort of your feet is paramount to the overall enjoyment of any trip. Understanding what makes a good hiking shoe and which one matches your needs will be the best way to narrow down your options. Your feet will play a critical role in any outdoors trip. All of your locomotion will be dependent on them. Proper foot care and the right pair of shoes will increase overall happiness in the back-country.
Hiking Boots or Trail-Runners?
The most recent debate inflaming hiker chat rooms across the web is focused on whether or not to wear trail-runners or hiking boots. The arguments for both sides are passionate and each has valid points. If this is news to you, keep reading.
Positives of Wearing Hiking Boots:
- Ankle support. High topped boots that provide support to your ankles feel safe. While walking along uneven terrain, over roots and rocks, spraining an ankle can end a hike early. This ankle support can also provide much needed assistance if your backpack is heavy. If you like to pack heavy, wearing boots could be for you.
- I’ve said it once and I will reiterate myself, there is no such thing as “waterproof” shoes. That being said, boots will provide the ultimate weather protection, when compared to other shoes. Their sturdy construction and over the ankle fitting provides less of a chance for water to find its way in. And if shorter hikes are your cup of tea, there will be considerably less wear and tear on the boots which increases their waterproof abilities.
- Hiking boots have sole. The thick rubbery bottoms are often the best in the business. Included in the design is thick tread that sticks to the ground and prevents hikers from slipping. Confidently walk across loose gravel and slippery moss with a chunky pair of boots on.
Negatives of Wearing Hiking Boots.
- Boots may offer more protection, but they can weigh upwards of two pounds or more. That is a lot of weight below the knees. For this reason alone, most long distance hikers forego boots in favor of trail-runners.
- Not being waterproof. While the benefits of boots keeping the water out is obvious, it is a double edged sword. If water, for any reason, is able to soak the interior of your hiking boots, you are in for a rude awakening. “Waterproof” designs are not built to dry quickly. Your foot will marinate in the saturated interior for days. If the sun doesn’t come out, your shoes will stay damp, moist, and smelly. In severe cases, trench foot can be caused.
- Even budget hiking boots can cost upwards of $100 or more. With high end boots costing more than double that. If boots are the direction you want to go, make sure to find the best priced option.
Recommended Hiking Boot
Vasque has a good reputation and makes a quality boot that offers all the benefits you would need in a shoe. The gore-tex lining offers some of the best waterproofing ability on the market and the overall construction of the boot will last hundreds of miles. This is a good boot that will last many seasons and take you anywhere you need to go.
Positives of Wearing Trail Runners
- Made with mesh material and a low cut top, your feet will be able to breathe in a pair of trail runners. With a fit similar to regular sneakers, trail-runners are quickly becoming a thru-hiker standard. Featuring a thicker sole than your typical gym shoe, this style of footwear allows you to take on the roughest terrain. The lack of ankle support, in my opinion, offers more flexibility and freedom and strengthens my ankles. I find myself falling over less than I did while wearing boots.
- Made of lightweight materials and being cut like a running shoe, strapping a pair of these on your feet will not feel like hiking boots. Providing ample protection and comfort without any of the excess material, these shoes are built to add miles to your hike.
- If you ever find yourself in a rural town or simply overseas, replacing a pair of trail runners is easy to do. Most shoe stores carry this kind of shoe and their popularity among the jogging community have made them ubiquitous in most shopping areas. The high demand has led to most manufacturers creating their own style. If you purchase last year’s model instead of the latest, it is very possible to find a pair for under $100.
Negatives of Wearing Trail-Runners
- Dirt, debris, and snow. Lacking the protection of over the ankle material, trail runners do not provide the same amount of protection boots do. There has been many times when pebbles and sand have sidelined my hiking abilities. Trail-runners are also awful in the snow. Their mesh body and low tops allow the icy chill of snow to thoroughly soak the feet. I do not recommend wearing them for winter hiking.
- When trail-runners begin to wear down, most likely, the sides will blow out. While it is entirely feasible to go more than 500 miles with a decent pair, the blowouts can prove to be annoying. More holes in an already small shoe makes debris that much easier to invade your feet.
- Pastel colors. This is more of a personal preference but the neon colors that most trail-runners come in are annoying. I’m not trying to go on a hike with crayons on my feet. While only visual, I am happy when the bright colors begin to fade.
My all time, favorite shoe is the brooks trail-runner. The inside of the shoe is stitched to the sole and their thick bottoms provide comfortable walking. Strapping a pair of these on your feet will reduce fatigue and make hiking that much easier. I can even jog in them, serving a dual purpose for my lifestyle.
Choosing the Backpack to Match the Hiker
After shoes, investing in a quality backpack is a cornerstone purchase. If you pick right, a good pack can last for years, possibly even life. The backpack should match the style of hiking and backpacking you find yourself doing. There are a variety of packs on the market and plenty of companies catering to your needs.
When choosing your pack, it is a good idea to layout and list all the items you want to take with you. Start big. Make sure you know precisely what you will be carrying. After you can visualize your gear, the size of the backpack will present itself.
Are you packing for weekend trips or long distance trips? Maybe you want to carry enough gear for two people. Understanding your desires and needs will help narrow down a backpack choice.
If long distance hiking is your thing, ultralight packs are going to be the purchase you make. These are made with lightweight materials and are sized to only fit the essentials. Most likely, the pack will not be made to carry more than 30 pounds, commonly, even less.
These models lack an internal frame and the weight distribution is not as stiff as with framed backpacks. Many hikers combat shoulder fatigue by strengthening their packs with their sleeping pad.
Recommended Ultralight Backpack
If you want to shave weight and go as minimal as possible, Osprey has become an industry standard in lightweight packs. Lacking any excess features, if you can keep your weight below 15lbs, then this is the pack for you.
Weeklong backpacking trips and frequent weekend excursions could put you in the market for a slightly larger pack. Mid-range backpacks provide comfort and sturdier materials, albeit with a heavier weight. Characterized with either an internal or external frame, the sturdy skeleton helps transfer the weight to your hips. This enables longer hiking and less stress on your torso. These will be able to hold loads of 30-45 pounds.
This is my preferred style of pack. I like to carry camera equipment and plenty of food on my hikes. The heavy duty materials and overall weight distribution has made me a believer in using this style.
Recommended Mid-Range Backpack
After testing many backpacks, some lighter, some heavier, I have settled on what I consider, my favorite pack. It is large enough to carry everything I need for a 10 wilderness trek and small enough to squeak by as carry-on luggage (sometimes). The mesh lining is surprisingly robust and has survived countless international airports.
Heavy Duty Backpacks
Group hiking, documentary style filming, or bringing kids along would put you in the camp of needing the heavy duty packs. These are constructed out of heavy materials and can hold loads of 60 or more pounds. While giant, their usefulness can allow you to bring everything you need. Just don’t try to hike too many miles with this on.
Recommended Heavy Duty Backpack
Strapping this tank onto your back ensures your weekend will go as planned. Don’t leave anything in the car and even bring a few extra pots and pans for your famous wilderness brownies. Might as well pack an extra tent while you’re in there.
Choosing the Right Outdoor Shelter for Your Next Adventure
Once your shoes and backpack are properly chosen, finding the right shelter to match your needs is of vital importance. It’s also beneficial that your backpack has been chosen, this will help narrow down how much room you have available in your backpack. When picking the right shelter, focus first on the type of hiking you will be undertaking. Weekend hiking and even one-off week long adventures do not necessarily warrant an investment in a top of the line tent.
As with most products in the backpacking world, the more lightweight a shelter is, the more expensive it will be. Unlike most industries, buying less of a product will cost more money. It is a funny and slightly tragic outcome of being obsessed with weight.
Will you be hiking with a partner or a group? I don’t pretend to be a therapist but if you show up to camp with a solo tent and your partner has nowhere to sleep, you might be in big trouble. Always match your shelter with your style of hiking.
Another consideration that should weigh on your decision are the conditions and elements of your hikes. If the majority of your trips take place in a certain area, be sure your shelter makes sense. For example, if you live in the desert, it would be a silly thing to use a hammock. Without trees, the shelter is useless. The same goes for colder, snowier climates. If you expect to be caught in a snowstorm, be sure to invest in a tent that can hold up under the elements.
Hammocks as Shelters
For many hikers and backpackers, nothing beats the comfort of using a hammock. Snugly elevated above the ground, the lack of rocks and roots promises a good night’s sleep.
Hammocks are also generally lighter and easier to pack, lacking poles and stakes. Of course, if there are no trees around camp, hanging one can prove impossible.
Perfect for solo hikers of all types, from weekend warriors to long distance thru-hikers. I hesitate to recommend this style of shelter for couples as it can be uncomfortable to share with another person. But, there are those who love to double-up.
This is a middle of the road hammock, made with durable material. What makes it a great hammock for a first purchase is that it comes equipped with a bug-net and a rain fly. Set this shelter up in any climate and enjoy a night free from precipitation and biting insects. It’s also incredibly lightweight and breaks down up to fit in any size pack.
If versatility, protection, and privacy are what you look for in a shelter, a solo tent could be your answer. Small and lightweight because of their size, these shelters make the perfect companion for any type of hiking trail. There are plenty of options, some lightweight and others heavier. If this is your first purchase, I always caution against the more expensive models. Test out some beginner tents to understand what you like and what you dislike. This will make upgrading easier and give you the courage to continually hike longer and longer trails. I also recommend starting with a double walled tent. This style of tent helps to keep moisture from the inside and offers the most protection in terms of rain, wind, and temperature. Look for a waterproof rain fly and always make sure there is a bugnet interior.
Recommended Solo Tent
I have first hand experience with this tent and I absolutely love its bombproof construction. Using heavier duty material than most other manufacturers, you can be certain this shelter will hold up in the worst conditions mother nature can throw your way. While it’s no lightweight candidate, for one person, it offers a respectable base weight. It is also quite roomy and if an emergency did arise, you could sneak a smaller person inside. The price is under $200, which is perfect for any beginner tent.
Two Person Tents
If hiking with a partner or with a group is more your style, look into buying a multi-person tent. The title of this section might say two person but there are options for tents from 3 to 6 people. Unless you are planning long distance hikes, feel free to indulge in the heavier tents. Because more material is required to make them, the prices of larger tents will be relatively more expensive. Look for a rainfly that covers the entire structure. Too many times I have witnessed families being flooded out of camp because the tent they had purchased featured a rain fly that would only block rain falling straight down.
Recommended Two Person Tent
This two person tent is your basic tent that will withstand heavy rains. Made with durable material, it is fairly lightweight and will fit into a car or even a large backpack without a problem. What stands out is the rainfly construction. Laying flat against the ground, this model provides more protection than your run of the mill shelter. Kelty is a respectable brand and their gear can hold up for years without problems.
Choosing a Cooking Pot for Your Next Trip
Cooking on a camping trip can be a rewarding and delicious experience. For many, the types of food made in a wilderness setting harken back to simpler times. There are a plethora of camping recipes available and the unique setting allows for the creativity to flow. While being limited without a modern stove or an oven can be a challenge, choosing the right pot to cook in will help.
There are many styles of pots and pans, even dutch ovens, that allow for outdoor cooking. Because this article is aimed toward beginners, I will focus on pots specifically. Cooking in one pot affords plenty of opportunities for delicious and nutritious meals without wasteful dishes and large messes.
Anodized Aluminum to Cook With
When looking for the right backpacking pot, there are few different materials to choose from. There are the options of stainless steel, aluminum, titanium, and anodized aluminum.
- Stainless steel conducts heat thoroughly but it can be heavy.
- Aluminum conducts heat thoroughly, is relatively lightweight, but health concerns over the metal leaching into the food can be troubling for some.
- Titanium does not conduct heat efficiently. You will have to stir your meals frequently to prevent them from sticking to the bottom. While it is the most lightweight option, it is also the most expensive.
- Anodized aluminum conducts heat efficiently and is relatively lightweight. It cooks food fast, is almost nonstick, and the cost is perfect for beginners.