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Reader Poll: Most Expensive Hiking Gear Mistakes

Personal Locator Beacon
Personal Locator Beacon

I used to waste a lot of money buying the wrong hiking gear – everything from wrong sized clothing and hiking boots to an emergency personal locator beacon that was illegal in the country I expected to use it in (despite the advice of the retailer.) Thanks goodness that major retailers now offer no-questions-asked return policies in case you buy the wrong size, gear doesn’t perform as expected, or it breaks down way before it’s time.

Here are some of my worst gear mistakes:

  • Hiking boots and trail runners that turned out to be to a 1/2 to a full size too small. Sometime you can’t judge fit until you’ve hiked outside in them.
  • Watches and electronic altimeter/compasses that had irreplaceable watch bands that broke, never worked after the battery was replaced, or generated seemingly random results despite constant calibration.
  • Numerous hiking shirts, pants, jackets, and socks that were too small or turned out to be sub-optimal in use.
  • A sleeping bag with a vastly over-optimistic temperature rating.
  • Backpacks that were too small in the torso or had hipbelts that were too small.
  • Carbon fiber hiking poles that snapped unreasonably quickly ( multiple pairs of them.)
  • A custom made square tarp that didn’t have symmetrical tie-outs (oversight on my part) and and just didn’t work for me.
  • A series of balaclavas that were either too big or too small, or fogged my glasses too much.
  • A dozen or so of gloves that were either too big or too small, too cold or not waterproof enough, etc.
  • Several pairs of snowshoes that were either too big and awkward to walk in close quarters with, or not aggressive enough.
  • The aforementioned Personal Locator Beacon  ($600).

The list goes on and on….

What are some of your more expensive gear blunders?

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  1. I think mine was buying a GPS. I became GPS dependent and lost my innate sense of direction and learned navigation skills. I had to sell the GPS and redevelop my lost abilities. My most expensive was my obsession with a specific ski jacket. I couldn’t find it anywhere. Finally, I got bought one on eBay for and insane $325. Withing fifteen minutes of wearing it, I found I couldn’t stand it and never wore it again. I try to sell it every year, but I can’t get rid of it.

  2. Ahhhhh, the optimistically overrated sleeping bag temperature rating has bit me severa times as well as the lighter, and lighter and lighter super comfy inflatable sleeping pads that I can’t sleep on.

  3. Yeah, we all get bit sometimes. I bought a fancy framed pack about 30 years ago, ignoring the weight. At 6 pounds it was way too much pack. Cost a lot of money then: $159. I think I used it three times before I gave it away…

  4. – a sleeping pad that’s too heavy, and PITA to full blow it
    – a lightweight backpack with too-easily-torn up part
    – a backpack that turned out too big for me (and it cost almost us200, so expensive for me if compare to another backpack that available here in Jakarta)

  5. I bought a soft shell jacket (i.e. fleece lined with a windproof ‘shell’ on the outside). For use in Australia its too hot to walk in and too cold to use at night. Afterwards I learnt that the main use of softshells is for walking in very cold and dry conditions, e.g. snowfields.

  6. Tents/Tarps. I keep trying to go lighter, but it just never seems to work out. I think I have gotten there now. I have a cuben fiber tarp that is waiting for it’s trial run.

  7. I could list specific pieces of gear but it’s not really about specifics so much as the mistake of thinking that, after re-introducing myself to backpacking, I had to build my gear kit all at once, blowing several paychecks at REI and Backcountry, replacing things that were imperfect but serviceable. . . and then discovering lightweight backpacking and trying to rebuild the entire kit again(and again all at once). I would have been better served by going out and making do with the stuff that I already had(or had just bought), however imperfect, figuring out what I did and didn’t like about each piece of gear, and then rebuilding one piece at a time, as I learned more about the pros and cons of what was available and what style I preferred.

    But if I had to list specifics, my most regretable purchases would have to be:

    -Spending too much money on ebay on a brand name light weight rain jacket when one for half the price would have done the same.

    -trying to go frameless with my backpack after discovering UL, and realizing I’d rather pay a weigth penalty and have at least a light frame.

    -reading advice online about bringing a bag for at least 15 degrees colder that you might anticipate, and then sweating through 45 degree Sierra nights in a 20 degree bag.

    – spending money on too many water bladders with drinking tubes and then realizing I’m just as happy with a 99 cent Aquafina bottle stowed in a side pocket. Not a huge expense, just an annoying one.

    -buying into the the marketing hype with soft-shell jackets. Great in the winter, but in the summer, bring a proper rain jacket unless it’s warm enough to just get wet.

  8. Pretty much any item purchased from Backpacker mag’s gear guides, with the exception of the Soto OD1-R stove. In two years that’s about the only surviving kit item. Long gone are the heavy internal frame backpack, 650 power fill sleeping bag, 3P and 4P tents, heavy cookwear, full on leather boots, etc. My baseweight is now 25lb lighter than in 2010, thanks to advertiser-independent resources like sectionhiker and BPL. My bank account would have been much happier had I discovered you first.

  9. I have these new hiking boots that I still can’t figure out how to make comfortable, despite trying different insoles and methods of tying them. Gonna switch to trail runners and Vibram Five Fingers from now on.

  10. Fortunately the only real big mistake I’ve made has been a pair of absurdly thick and heavy hiking boots but that is only because I didn’t have the money to buy a lot of things when I first started out. Sometimes I’ll find those old gear lists and just laugh at some of the things I was going to buy and I thank God I didn’t have the money to make that mistake!

  11. When I discovered UL certainly increased my purchases and obsoleted almost all of my equipment, which I keep for car camping – which I never do (which is another problem) but the one area where I have way too many things is trying to get the perfect cooking setup. I must have over a dozen pots of various sizes – unfortunately many of them TI (at least they are light wieight :-)

    I keep telling my wife I could be into boating $$$$$$


  12. Hey there! I bought an airplane twenty five years ago. A while back the question was asked in one of the flying magazines, “How much money does it take to own your own plane?” The answer was “All of it.”

    Since I own an airplane, there hasn’t been nearly enough cash to blow on backpacking so the mistakes there, although many, haven’t been as expensive.

    I bought a $300 tent that was supposed to weigh two pounds but really weighed three but I did put it to good use for a couple years until I bought a Tarptent. I got “auction fever” and bought a $70 used backpack that I’ll never wear, even though I turned down a brand new GoLite Pinnacle at the same price a month before. I’ve owned a couple now broken GPS units but when I upgrade my steam powered cell phone, I’ll use the GPS in it. I own too many stoves. I tried several alcohol ones and decided I like my JetBoil better. I have a couple water filters that have been as dry as the Atacamba ever since I bought them. My layering system has developed over the years and the closets have several items in them that just sit there keeping the hangers from getting lonely. I’ve bought countless small “cool” devices and pieces of gear that never make it into the pack on the trail because I don’t want to haul the weight.

    Most of my retired stuff gets used for car camping and outfitting grandkids and friends who want to come along. When you look at the several tubs of gear I own, you’d never believe I was into lightweight backpacking.

  13. Being relatively new to hiking my challenge hasn’t been bad gear as much as going through the evolutionary process. For instance, boots. I started out with Asolo 520’s, then went lighter with other Asolo’s went still lighter with Innov8’s and finally settled with Five Tens which meet my needs; they’re light enough and stick like glue to rocks (which is my primary requirement). Same deal with a tent. I started with an MSR and then went with a Big Agnes which is lighter.

    The evolutionary part can’t really be helped. Until you’re out there with the equipment you don’t really know if it will work for your particular needs since you have little if any idea what your needs are. Take this blog. I’ve really enjoyed reading and learning from the evolution of Phil.

    Lastly, this and other blogs\reviews have really helped in avoiding buying crap gear…

  14. I bought a solar charger that can supposedly charge its internal battery in 8 hours of direct sunlight. In my experience, no amount of sunlight will dver accomplish that!

  15. -A cheap sleeping bag ‘just to get me by for the weekend’ turned out to take up way too much space, wasn’t compressible, not warm at all.
    -A single purpose ski jacket that is thick and heavy and not compressible. Looking back, I should have purchased a thin and light rain shell that can be used for more applications. Don’t get me wrong, it was an amazing jacket, just not so good if the temperature goes above 40 degrees.

    In the past year and a half or so I’ve learned from my mistakes and I’ve been purchasing quality gear that can serve multiple purposes or work in multiple environments. This has shed plenty of weight, and eliminated useless junk that only works in one season of hiking.

  16. Too small shoes seems to be a common theme. Proper hiking boots bruise my ankles. Now I’m happy with some souped up trainers. The lesson I should learn from this is not to buy gear according to what other people think is the best thing. And definitely don’t keep buying the same thing over and over and wondering why it doesn’t work!

  17. Being new to hiking…I spent quite a fortune last year on gear and clothes. I read several books and did lots of research, but nothing replaces good ole experience. So, a few things didn’t work out quite like I planned and had to be replaced. My list includes a backpack that was too large and with too short of a torso, 3 pairs of hiking boots (either too wide, or too uncomfortable), a sleeping pad that weighs nearly 4 pounds (gotta say it does sleep pretty well, but only good for car camping), a synthetic bag that is too bulky and heavy for anything other than car camping, a couple of hydration packs that I have never used (they looked pretty cool on the website), rain pants that were too long, balaclava (too small), a couple of 300 weight fleeces that I found to be much warmer than anticipated (Good for subzero camping I guess). That’s just off the top of my mind…probably missing some things.

  18. Semi-mummy synthetic sleeping bag [temperature rating / weight issue]
    Battery powered lantern.
    Plastic scat hole trowel.
    Candle lantern and holder
    Pack cover.
    Ice fishing gloves.
    Bivy shelter [thankfully it was returnable]

    I love my ACR PLB. Allows my wife to allow me to go solo, especially in the winter.

  19. Ice fishing gloves – can’t wait to hear that story! Did she make you sell the ice fishing house too?

  20. A North Face down sleeping bag. I lost a lot of weight and as a reward I wanted a TNF sleeping bag. It was going to be my first mummy bag and I was excited about the lightweight. I dont remember how much i spent, but i only slept in it one night. I’m a tummy sleeper & i felt so cnstricted by that bag i just couldn’t fathom crawling back in it. I did manage to sell it on ebay but I know i lost money on the deal.

  21. Handheld GPS. Not because I don’t use it, I still use it in the car for driving. But I realized a couple of years ago that I was using it far too much instead of developing good map and compass skills. After going without it for awhile, I can navigate off-trail with probably more confidence than I had with the thing.

  22. Sunglasses! After all, all sunglasses are made out of simple plastic!

    At Home Depot and Lowe’s you will find sunglasses that are tough, with ballistic lenses, styled well, good color correction and have excellent distortion control. Figure around $20.

    Why pay $200 for bragging rights unless you have nothing else to brag about?

    • Yeah, just make sure they have the right UVA/UVB protection. My understanding is that sunglasses that use the word “sport” have to have full protection from both. Also, some sunglasses are made from glass, which make them easier to clean and less likely to scratch. You are right, though; much of the cost of expensive sunglasses is due to the styling (and the belief by some that wearing them will somehow make the user irresistibly attractive).

    • I would disagree about the sunglasses. Some expensive sunglasses have high quality optics and coatings that are worth the extra money in my opinion. I have a pair of Prada’s that simply remove all glare without appreciably darkening the view. You could wear them at night for example and have no trouble seeing as clearly as without them. They are fantastic. Also Costa del Mar’s higher end coatings are exceptional. That being said, it is easy to waste $200 on a brand name and get basically the same thing as the $20 pair. The glasses I mentioned are quite a bit more than $200 though.

      • Its all a question of getting something thats good for purpose – if it isn’t right for you then no amount of money or a brand name is going to change that.

        Personally I have a lovely pair of Armani sunglasses, really true colours. They cost me a fair bit, but that was 20 years ago and they’re the only pair I’ve used in that time so its worked out pretty well. Of course, if you’re the sort of person that loses sunglasses, stick to the cheap ones!

  23. When I first started backpacking and looking for packs, I had a friend who said “you have to check out this site called Gossamer gear before you buy a pack!”. He had a G4 which he showed to me and I thought was just crazy-looking (dirty socks in the shoulder straps, what?!?). So I bought a good, sturdy 6 pound internal frame that I used twice. Now I have a Mariposa (insert heavenly choir sound effect here). I still have the heavy pack that I loan to friends when they want to come backpacking with me (funny, they never come with me twice…)

  24. Biggest waste has been on GPS. I’ve owned two and my experience is that they just don’t work well in the backcountry (at least around here) and take a lot of time futzing with a piece of gadget rather than enjoying my surroundings. Recent use of a smartphone GPS is more promising (didn’t cost anything extra and the map programs show promise) though it still has the “looking down at a screen than up at the view” issue. They are kind of fun but overall not very practical.

    To turn this around — these are the BEST DEALS I’ve come across:

    $2 for a barely used full length thermarest complete with chair kit (great for car camping)
    $150 for brand new Marmot 5F 750 fill down dryloft bag
    $200 for an MSR tent that delaminated after 5 years of moderate use and was replaced by MSR for free
    $75 for a brand new TNF down jacket, still going good 15 years later
    $38 for custom-made G4-based pack by Rodney Liwang (it’s got at least another 5-8 years before I’ll need to replace it…with a Gossamer Gear pack most likely unless Rodney is still making them by then :) )
    $70 for Frogg Toggs “pro action suit”, best/lightest raingear I’ve owned (I use it in winter too)
    $200 for Suunto altimeter watch, still accurate, fully functioning and looking good 13 years later (an expensive item, yes, but sure beats my buddy’s Avocet watch that stopped working less than 5 years later, multiple attempts of the mfr to fix it failed)

  25. I bought a Kelty backpack without a separate sleeping bag section and used it on one trip in Colorado. The hipbelt was too big and slipped no matter what I did to adjust or tighten it. The good news is that my daughter does fit it, so hopefully we will be able to go hiking sometime together. My current backpack doesn’t qualify as UL, but it does what I need it to do right now. I hope to be able to lighten my load more, but right now there’s no funds available for extra gear.
    A GSP is not very useful if it indicates your location as being somewhere else. I do better with a map and compass.

  26. Bought a whole lot of Chlorine Dioxide water treatment tablets on Ebay or someplace, discovered they were real cheap because they only had a year or so left before their due date. Didn’t seem like a problem. But on my trips I forgot and kept using Aquamira drops. Then one day I looked at my stash of tablets and they were at least a year out of date. They were stored well and seemed to still be working fine, but the company wouldn’t commit to saying they would still work if the package was intact and they were stored properly. My wife made me throw them all away, maybe $100 worth. Sigh…

  27. A green 3-ply state of the art big brand name rain jacket. I wear it to parties now. Driducks and tyvek reign.

  28. The biggest waste of money for me was hammock camping equipment. I did not consider that Im a side sleeper.

  29. I think I have an addiction that I’m trying to control. I wasted money because I bought too many.

    You know you have wasted money when you find that you have 4 car camping tents and 5-6 backpacking tents. I bought a new backpacking tent whenever I saw one lighter than my current one. I’ve given away all but 2 car camping tents (one is torn so I should just throw it away) and sold all but 3 of my backpacking tents. I need to sell the Eureka Zeus 2 and the Big Agnes UL FlyCreek 2 (last summer’s tent) since I exclusively backpack with my ZPacks Hexamid 2 with bug screen sewn in at less than 12oz.

    I had 3-4 car camping stoves and 4 backpacking stoves. I’ve given away all the car camping stoves. I’ll probably sell my alcohol stove because I like my two MSR canister stoves (SuperFly and Pocket Rocket). I can’t decide which one I like best. I have another MSR that is the pump type that I never use because my canisters worked while winter camping.

    With 4 kids and a cousin that lived with us, we had 7 car camping sleeping bags, big 6 lb monsters. I’ve given half of them away. I had 5 backpacking sleeping bags. I gave away my 3.5 lb SlumberJacks. I have 2 Lafuma Warm n Light Kilo sleeping bags that work to 19-20 degrees. And a Western Mountaineering Highlite that weighs a pound and has kept me warm (fully clothed in my bag) when my water bottle froze solid.

    I had a pair that shredded my feet on a 19 mile hike. Then I was stupid enough to tweak them again and wear them on a 30 mile hike. I took off my boots and reapplied moleskin every 30 minutes. I can wear them in the snow here in Colorado from the car to the front door of my office but no further.

    GPS Units:
    They were fine when I used them but I have replaced them with my Android with a Delorme InReach that I love.

    Compression bags, straps, snow stakes, mesh bags, water filters, water filter bottles, rain jackets that absorbed water (I didn’t know rain jacket meant they loved rain), O2 rain pants that shredded the first bush I got near, cheap snow shoes.

    Gossamer Gear G4 that I made myself with the recommended materials. It tore into pieces on my first backpacking trip with it. Good thing I brought some rope to hold it together to get me back to my car.

    I’m getting depressed that I had more money than brain cells but hopefully I have learned from my mistakes but I heard there will be lighter tents and sleeping bags coming out next year….

  30. I ordered a very expensive pair of walking trousers, they took weeks to arrive then in my eagerness to get the parcel open I cut clean through the trousers.

    Worse still was the fact that I had bored my workmates rigid with talk of these things so when they arrived they were all watching as I opened them.

    I got mercilessly teased about it every time picked up a knife for the next 5 years.


  31. Most expensive gear mistakes?
    Tents and GPS
    I have yet to find a good backpacking tent and have now completley given up in favor of bivy sack and hammocks.
    GPS, I have determined is a waste, at this point in time. Plus, I have yet to find a place where I could not keep track of where I was at and this includes when I was a paratrooper in Alaska. Ok, once or twice, up there, I was mightily confused for a couple of days but I figured it out. Down in Virginia and NC? Confused for an hour or so, maybe. If that. If you have a map, on the east coast at least, I just think GPS is a waste.
    I cannot help but sing praises of some of my best gear even though others may not think so.
    MSR Whisperlite, the OLD type. I think I got it at the Anchorage REI back about ’89 and it has been with me across three continents and more than 2 decades. I just ordered new seals for for this summers work. Awesome stove!
    An Army issue ECWCS, gore-tex bivy cover. I was there when the Army field tested Gore-tex, in Alaska, in 1989. I have the letter of commendation, from Nattick labs, for the reccomendations I made on the ECWCS system. It is somewhat ironic that I now cannot afford good gore-tex. LOL I tripped over this bivy cover, literally, after I left active duty and was with the Virginia Army NG, at Ft Picket, Va around 1998. moving through a training area, about 2 AM I ended up flat on my face with my legs tangled up in something. It turned out to be a spiffy new bivy cover, which the regulars were issued but not the NG, yet. No regular units were around and it had been laying there for sometime so it went home with daddy and I still use it today. It may be a little heavier than some of the civilian versions but I love the roominess and sturdiness of it.

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