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10 Backpacking Gear Myths

It’s amazing how some backpacking gear myths persist, even when there’s ample evidence to the contrary. Here are my favorites.

 1. Two people can fit in a 2 person tent.

The Dash 2 is a tight fit for two people with 20 inch sleeping pads. There is simply no room floor space left, width-wise.
Most two person tents are a very tight fit for two people and there is barely enough  floor space for two sleeping pads making it awkward to do anything except sleep.

Most two person tents are too small to actually fit two people unless they’re 8 years old. If you want *any* extra space in a two person tent, size up to a three person tent and make sure it as two separate doors, so you and your partner can get out at night to pee without falling over each other.

2. You’ll sleep warmer if you sleep naked in a sleeping bag.

Sleeping Naked in a Sleeping Bag
Sleeping Naked in a Sleeping Bag is colder than sleeping in clothes in a sleeping bag (duh!)

No again. If you’re too cold in your sleeping bag, put on some long underwear and a hat or a down jacket. The math is simple: the more you wear, the higher the combined R-value of your night-time sleeping insulation.

3. You need to wear hiking boots to go backpacking.

Salamon XA Comp 7 Trail Runners
Salomon XA Comp 7 Trail Runners

Wrong. Most long distance hikers don’t wear hiking boots anymore. They wear running shoes which are much cooler to wear in hot weather, dry faster when they get wet, and are much softer than hiking boots so they don’t cause as many blisters.

4. You need a backpack rain cover to hike in the rain.

Line your Backpack with a Trash Compactor Bag
Line your Backpack with a Trash Compactor Bag

Backpack rain covers are a hassle: they get ripped, torn off and lost, and they don’t do a very good job at keeping your pack dry in rain anyway. Most experienced backpackers line the inside of their backpack with a trash compactor bag instead which is much more effective and less expensive.

5. You need a tent footprint to protect the floor of your tent.

Tent Foot Prints
Tent Foot Prints

Footprints are just an easy way for tent companies to milk you for more money. Tent fabrics has come a long way in the past 40 years and almost all tents have bomb-proof waterproof floors that aren’t going to wear out unless you live in them full-time.  Even Kirstin doesn’t bring a tent footprint backpacking. Need I say more?

6. Waterproof breathable rain jackets are breathable.

Breathable Fabrics and The Emperor's New Clothes
Breathable Fabrics are the Emperor’s New Clothes

So-called breathable fabrics, such as Gore-tex and eVent, have been so over-hyped that their breathability claims are not believable anymore. If you want to stay dry in a rain jacket, get one with pit zips so you can vent your sweat the old-fashioned way by cracking a zipper.

 7. You need a 4 season tent to camp in winter.

Stealthy Nemo Obi 1P Tent
Nemo Obi 1P Tent

Most three season backpacking tents work as well in winter as during the rest of the year. If you expect heavy snow, a tent with steep walls is best, but there’s usually no reason you can’t camp in winter using your existing tent if you have a warm sleeping bag rated for cold temperatures.

8. Biodegradable soap is ok to wash with in streams and ponds.

Biodegradable soap is not safe to use in steams and ponds.

Nope. A lot of people I meet on backpacking and camping trips think that it’s ok to pour soapy water into streams and rivers if they use biodegradable Campsuds, Sea-to-Summit Wilderness Wash, or Dr. Bronner’s Castille Soap to wash their hands, shampoo their hair, or clean their camp cookware. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Getting any soap in a water source is not acceptable. The soap can cause all sorts of issues from increased nitrogen to actually causing significant harm to aquatic inhabitants. Plus, no one wants to drink water that you’ve washed yourself, your clothes or cookware with. Carry all dirty or soapy water away from water sources and bury or disperse it at least 200 feet away.

9. Waterproof hiking boots will keep your feet dry.

Waterproof Boots-001

No again. Waterproof hiking boots are only as waterproof as the coating applied to their exterior which degrades rapidly with use, or the integrity of the Gore-tex lining which quickly breaks down with wear so they start to leak. Waterproof shoes, even those with so-called breathable liners, trap perspiration from your feet, which makes your socks damp and increases blistering. Except in winter, when waterproof boots can increase insulation by trapping warmth, you’re better off hiking in non-leather boots or shoes that have some mesh so that they drain and dry faster when you get the wet and your feet sweat.

 10. You don’t need to carry maps and a compass because you have a GPS.

Garmin GPS-001

No. You should always carry a map and compass and learn how to use them. GPS devices (including cell phones) can complement a map and compass, they don’t replace them. While battery-powered devices are a convenience when hiking, you can’t rely on them in the backcountry. GPS devices are power hogs and you don’t want to be stuck in a lurch with dead batteries with no idea where you are or how to get to safety.

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  1. Great list but must admit that I still prefer to use hiking boots when it is offtrack.

  2. I disagree about sleeping with clothing on. If your clothing is made of cotton or of a material that leeches your heat when wet, you will be MUCH colder sleeping in that clothing that if you were to sleep naked. When you sleep, you sweat. Cotton will absorb your sweat and that wet cotton will quickly transfer the heat away from your body. On the other hand, if you are wearing Merino wool, you can safely sleep in it without the fear of waking up in a hypothermic state. If it dips into freezing territory and/or you’re at high altitude with cold strong winds that pierce right through your tent, wet cotton can kill you.

  3. If you’re a first time backpacker, you tend to be more meticulous about everything. Thanks for sharing those myths!

  4. Never liked big clunky hiking boots , I’ve always used trail runners … I use the trash compactor bag and the rain cover for my bag , can’t be too cautious … and just use wipes for cleaning your self if your sooo into being clean , just pack it out and you don’t have to worry about using those stupid soaps that are to over priced any way …

  5. I can’t count the times I’ve stepped in a big, gloppy, sticky patch of mud and been super thankful I was wearing hiking shoes and not trainers.

  6. Good points, although #3 is bad advice. For hiking well-maintained park trails I would say hiking shoes are great, at least in summer. But in real back country, there’s no way you want to be three days up a mountain without proper leather boots. Advising otherwise is actually dangerous. Wet feet all day, torn open shoes, and sprained ankles are not fun.

    • Completely disagree. Closed trail runners are just fine. Hike your own hike.

    • I would shy away from blanket statements about footwear. Whether you need boots or not largely depends on the load you plan to carry (40 lbs plus and you might want to consider boots) and your athletic ability (limited ankle strength/confidence and you might want to consider boots). If on a longer trip where emergency services are limited, folks who opt for trail runners should definitely consider adding ankle wraps or joint support to their first aid kit in the event they sprain or otherwise damage their ankle. Otherwise, to each their own.

      • I prefer to wear my red wing work boots with gor-tex. I wear them for at least 12 hrs everyday and walk a minimum of 7 miles a day according to my iPhone. But Philip said it perfect “Hike your own hike”

  7. I definitely disagree with #1: We always use a 2-person tent, there’s not much reason to be in a tent except to sleep. #4: That IS a rain cover, don’t be so pedantic. And #5: rocks and sticks will tear up your tent without a footprint… and PUDDLES STILL HAPPEN, I don’t know what magical tents you’ve been using, but mine isn’t waterproof.

    But you’re right about #6, (but surprisingly I have some REI rain pants that are DEFINITELY breathable. I wore them skiing and sweated a lot, and I found condensation inside the gaiters I wore over them, but the pants were still bone dry.) and I’ve never heard of #2. Sometimes I put on all my clothes to sleep. Of course it’s warmer. What makes you cold is any pocket of air inside the bag, so it’s much better to fill the bag completely!

  8. are these up for debate? all are grey areas except 8 (soap) and 10 (gps)

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