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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.

Campsuds
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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140 comments

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

    • I agree. I got caught in a downpour on my second night. It was a narrow, gnarly, hilly hike out with 40lbs on my back and I’m sure glad I had my Pivetta’s on.

  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”

      • Exactly right. It ALWAYS depends. My high boots have saved me from more ankle twist sprains than I can count over the years. Especially at the end of a long day when I’m tired, and carrying 40 lbs.

    • I’ve hiked hundreds of miles off-trail in the Sierras and Wind River Range in my trail runners. I would not trade their light weight and faster dry times for a pair of boots. I DO, however, like waterproof trail runners, but opt for OutDry versions from Columbia/Montrail. Add a pair of Dirty Girl gaiters and you’re good to go.

    • Completely agree with smiley J. A good fitting pair of tightly tied boots will save your hike in those conditions. Trailrunners are great on welltrodden paths, but if you face a lot rockscrambles covered in 10+ inches of moss, you can’t see what kind of surface your feet will meet half the time and you won’t cover more than 10 miles a day because if it you will quickly exhaust your feet without that anklesupport. And that is the kind of terrain you will often meet in Scandinavian forests, even on the tracks. I highly doubt trailrunners will carry you through the week.
      Having said that, Iv seen plenty of norwegians run up and down terrain like that without breaking a sweat (or ankles). Never with any kind of backpack though. They allways wear boots.

      • I’ve walked across the wild part of Scotland twice (200+ miles) using just trail runners. The same goes in New Hampshire’s white mountains which are in the same class of rugged, but there I hike about 800-1000 miles per year. I doubt Scandinavia could be much harder.

      • It’s not so much the ruggedness that makes me appreciate my boots, but the unpredictability. In the denser forests around oslo, helsinki etc,sunlight hardly reaches the ground so after the wintersnow has melted everything is soggy and squishy all summer and mosses and fern run rampant everywhere but the most used routes. It’s just hard to get a good footing because the moss gives way or slips away alltogether in more rocky terrain and the fern blocks your sight. Every other step I just don’t know beforehand how much my feet will tilt (?) as I put weight on it.

        It’s a different kind of strain than walking in the Alps, which I think is more like walking in the whites? I could walk there in trailrunners I think. Iv allways worn boots there, but since you can see where you put your feet down it should be ok I guess. Never been to scotland though, so can’t speak fir thay, but I really want to. Actually looking at the Scarp 1 for that and northern Norway because of your articles :)

      • The Scarp 1 will be god for Scandinavia. Lots of people use it in Scotland. Similar conditions.
        We can go back and forth about trail runners. It’s just a matter of personal preference.

      • But ss Bjrjr points out below, maybe my ankles just need to strengthen up and Id feel different about this :)
        I tore one of them though, my tendons run om top of my bonestructure instead of around it. It puts a lot of strain on it.

      • So, given that I have the hilleberg jannu, will the Scarp be a good addition? I have to admit Im really charmed by this tent and that alone is reason enough, but Im also wondering whether it’s worth to go even lighter and dabble with a cuben fibre tent. Strong material, but the builds themselves don’t seem as strong. But the yama mountain gear cirriform is really charming as well, and weighs less than my boots. Don’t know if it will hold in the winds of northern europe, I have no experience with a model like that.

  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!

    • Iv haven’t used a footprint for 8 years and my Hilleberg isn’t budging. Pretty tough material though, I wouldn’t trust the big agnes inners for instance to last as long.

    • Uh… Actually the trapped pockets of air is what insulates you. If you fill out all the air pockets in the sleeping bag with, say, a sweater and a jacket, then you *might* be colder than if you was sleeping naked.
      Of course, on the other hand, if there is too much air in the sleeping bag it will also be colder. It’s a balance, I suppose.
      But if it works for you, then you’re probably fine ;)

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

  9. it’s true what grandma gatewood said that “most people today are pantywaists”. here’s a blanket statement: carrying a 40 lb pack with limited ankle strength/ confidence is just plain stupid. using 3 to 5 lbs of artificial supports and cushy padding to shore up your woefully soft and weak foot structure to prevent injury just so you can compress your spine and grind your weak knees to dust while carrying your kitchen sink around sounds so fun. drop the useless weight, wear “minimal to no support” shoes EVERYWHERE and your ankles and feet will naturally strengthen and you can pretty much kiss goodbye sprained or twisted ankles and most injuries associated with normal to extreme hiking/ backpacking. i too can’t count the times when i’ve stepped in a big, gloppy, sticky patch of mud, because i haven’t. i’ve been wearing merrill trail gloves for years and have never had one single shoe failure or foot injury on or off trails even in snow and “real back country”. as for using a tent footprint to protect your tent floor, try losing the tent floor and you suddenly have no need for for another pointless piece of superfluous “gear”. i use a doubled piece of painter’s masking film for a moisture barrier/ ground cover, 9ft x 3ft weighs 1.5 oz and has literally lasted years. along with a 1/8″ thick (yes 1/8 inch) closed cell foam pad and my thermarest prolite pad has never got a puncture from rocks or twigs (plus i’m careful where i roll out). to even mention cotton clothing as an argument for sleeping naked makes no sense at all. neither one has any validity in a serious backpacker’s sleep system. if cotton’s your thing, ok. but a nylon/ poly base layer is lighter, wicks off moisture, is warmer and traps a lot of your own funk in the fibers thus keeping your equipment fresher longer. naked just plain stinks, literally. sorry about the diatribe, but come on guys. this is my first time to this site and mr. werner was spot on concerning all 10 presented myths, especially #3. they were all no brainers. so alex, trailer, :j, matt, jay- it’s always about seeking a better way and leaving the pink panties at home.

  10. Another big myth is needing to wear thick cushy socks and/or liners. Maybe a must for snow travel but many a seasoned hiker wears thin nylon or polyester socks. They are low friction and dry quickly. YMMV

  11. Did a lot of hiking in the Himalayas over the years and used trail runners and boots. Both good but prefer boots when going in the high mountains. Runners a fine on long-distance hikes without too many steep ascents of descends.
    and I am using my Meindl hiking boots for 7 years now and they are still in good nick. Can’t really state the same of the numerous trail running shoes I have used. But it seems to me like most of the UL gear is not designed to last for years, hence overpriced in my opinion.

  12. When you’re 4’11’ (slightly overweight) and your daughter is 5 ft and slender you CAN do the 2 person, but that’s just us!

  13. In my mind number 6 applies to ANY fabric which an outdoor company describes as breathable including all those windshirts which do not have a membrane. Yet they continue to be ‘reviewed’ in outdoor magazines in which the tester describes how they breathed well. I am sorry but I just don’t believe it.

    • “Waterproof” the single most erroneous word in relation to outdoor gear.
      The buying public is completely convinced of its validity when in fact NOTHING is waterproof.

    • I can’t speak for all fabrics, but the outer layer on the marmot dryclime hoody is amazing. Very windresistant, very capable of dispatching if sweat and watervapour. Along with the really thin fleece liner I haven’t felt wet or cold due to swet or rain, even though I was wet, as long as I was on the move. Great jacket and it weighs nothing at 240 grams.

  14. Love the pic with #7. And it certainly depends where you are. Winter camping means snowshoe backpacking here in Western Montana

  15. Boots are bad in general. Not only are they taxing on the feet and spine, they cause a huge amount of soil erosion on trails. I go barefoot, or with very thin soled shoes or sandals, for a reason.

  16. Truly a great, informative article. This has actually restored my confidence on my used outdoor gear. I really thought those ‘myths’ were true. Thank you so much.

  17. I actually thought so many of these myths to be true! Thanks for proving me wrong! A great article indeed

  18. I am interested in your thoughts on trail runners. I wore Vasque hiking boots for a pilgrimage in France, but now that I am back in Texas I can see the benefits of wearing shoes that breathe more than my boots. Before I purchased my hiking boots, I hiked in a pair of New Balance Running shoes. My ankles were sore for a few days after a 10 mile hike, and they did not seem to give the kind of arch and ankle support that I got with the hiking boots. Do trail runners give more support than the average running shoe? Thanks for your blog. I have really enjoyed your blog.

  19. Carrying a map and learning how to use it is essential. GPS devices will run low on charge, but now there are solar devices out there that can help you keep a charge. This could be very valuable if you need to contact someone for help in an emergency. A map won’t call for help. However, again I stress that it is essential to know the area you are hiking/camping on your map. I have used both and both are, in my opinion, are packed without fail. Just a note – sleeping in a sleeping bag can be a pleasurable experience, especially for this fair weather hiker and camper, but in the nude – no thanks. Hiking Grandma

  20. #11. Do a calorie count for daily intake.

    Calories are a measurement of how long something burns when you start it on fire. Sorry folks, but your body doesn’t work that way.

    • Actually – you’re incorrect on what a calorie means, and incorrect on how your body works. A calorie is a measure of energy, not how long something burns. And calories are fungible. A calorie of sugar is exactly the same energy as a calorie of peanut butter. By definition that’s what it is. Counting calories is not a reasonable way to plan for food for normal outings, but could be reasonable for extreme situations where weight is a premium. Planning adequate meals is a better idea. However – calories are the same regardless of source – and that is in fact how your body works. Mitochondria convert fats, carbohydrates and fats into energy in the metabolic cycles. And one calorie of fat creates the same number of ATPs as one calorie of carbohydrate. Technically carbohydrate metabolism is about 66% efficient as compared to fat at 60%, but it’s close enough.

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