10 Hiking and Backpacking Gear Myths

10 Hiking and Backpacking Gear Myths

It’s amazing how some backpacking gear myths persist, even when there’s ample evidence to the contrary. Then there are the lies that gear marketers propagate to sell their products to people who don’t know better.

Here are a few of my favorites:

1. Waterproof means waterproof.

Think again. You’d think that waterproof rain jackets, waterproof rain pants, waterproof boots, waterproof stuff sacks, waterproof backpacks, and waterproof tents would be impervious to water. But most of them are only water-resistant and can leak, either through the fabric or through the seams. For more insight into the waterproof con job, see our FAQs: How waterproof is silnylon?

2. Women don’t need anatomically correct backpacks or sleeping bags.

Women’s Sleeping Bags

Nope. Women are shaped differently than men, they’re generally smaller and generate less body heat when they sleep. They really do need backpacks that adapt to their curves and female-specific sleeping bags that are better insulated to keep them warmer. Unisex is just another word for “men’s”. See Best Women’s Lightweight Backpacks of 2021 and Best Women’s Sleeping Bags of 2021.

3. Sleeping naked is warmer than sleeping with clothes on.

Sleeping naked in sleeping bag

No again. If you’re too cold in your sleeping bag, put on some dry clothes and a hat or an insulated jacket. The math is simple: the more you wear, the higher the combined R-value of your night-time sleeping insulation. See our FAQ: Is it Warmer to Sleep Naked in a Sleeping Bag?

4. Canister stove boil times are more important than fuel efficiency.

Camping Stove Cookset

Nope. You can make your stove fuel last 2-3 times longer if you turn the size of the flame down to 1/2 to 1/3 of full power, in addition to using a windscreen. That reduces the amount of fuel you need which also means that you need to resupply less frequently or that you can carry less fuel weight. It might take an extra minute to boil water, but what is the rush when you’re backpacking? Do you need to be somewhere else? See our Flatcat Gear Canister Stove Screen Review.

5. All of your gear should be packed inside your backpack and none of it attached to the outside.

Backpacks have many external attachment straps on their exterior that you can attach gear to.

This just isn’t practical if you need to carry things that can’t fit in a backpack or that you’d never want inside a backpack, like bulky foam sleeping pads, satellite messengers, potty trowels, pea rags, wet tents, wet clothes, snowshoes, packrafts, paddles, bear canisters, bear spray, rope, ice axes, skis, axes, climbing or ski helmets. rifles and shotguns, etc. Most backpacks provide multiple ways to attach gear to the outside of a backpack like sleeping pad straps, side compression straps, molle straps, daisy chains, under floating top lids, and by threading cord through webbing loops positioned on the exterior of a pack for that purpose. See our FAQ:  What Are The Straps On The Outside of a Backpack For?

6. Waxing the outside of a waterproof/breathable boot preserves the boot’s breathability.

Close-up classical mountain boots with a mountain lake in de background

Nope. Waterproofing pastes and liquids that include wax and oil, like Sno-seal, ruin the breathability of waterproof/breathable leather footwear. When wax and oil are applied to a leather boot, the oil draws the wax into the pores of the leather and creates an impermeable shell that prevents water or water vapor from passing through the leather so it’s no longer breathable. If you call Sno-Seal up and ask them about this discrepancy, they’ll tell you that your boots will still be able to “breathe” through the hole you put your foot into, but not through the external leather. However, you can still use a water-based DWR product to restore your waterproof/breathable footwear’s breathability.  See our FAQ: Should You Waterproof Gore-Tex Boots?

 7. Metal backpack frames attract lightning.

Lightning

Second Grade Science Class here. The tallest thing in a field is the most likely thing to be struck by lightning. It doesn’t matter if you carry a backpack with a metal or carbon fiber frame; an aluminum or carbon fiber umbrella; a tinfoil hat, or one made from yak wool. Everything is a conductor when 300 million volts of electricity hit it. Don’t be the tallest thing in a field or on top of a mountain during a thunderstorm. See our FAQ: Hiking Lightning Storm Safety

 8. You need a special 4 season tent to camp in winter.

Use a tent in winter

Many three-season backpacking tents can be used in winter. If you expect heavy snow which can break flimsy tent poles or high winds, a four-season tent with steep walls may be in order, but otherwise, there’s usually no reason you can’t camp in winter using your existing tent if you have a warm sleeping bag and sleeping pad rated for cold temperatures. See our FAQ Can You Use a Three Season Tent in Winter?

9. Biodegradable soap is safe to use in streams and ponds.

Campsuds

Nope. Soap is not safe to use in streams and ponds, even if it is biodegradable like Campsuds, Sea-to-Summit Wilderness Wash, or Dr. Bronner’s Castille Soap for hand washing or cleaning camp cookware. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Getting any soap in a water source is bad. The soap can cause all sorts of issues from increased nitrogen to actually causing significant harm to aquatic inhabitants. Plus, no one downstream wants to drink water that you’ve washed yourself, your clothes, or your dirty dishes with. Please carry all dirty or soapy water away 200 feet and bury or disperse it so it can’t flow back into the stream or pond. See our FAQ on Biodegradeable Soap and The Campsuds Myth. 

10. Mountain House Freeze-dried backpacking meals are delicious and satisfying

Mountain House Freeze Dried Meals

Mountain House freeze-dried backpacking meals are pretty hit or miss. You usually need to give them a few extra minutes to rehydrate, you need to eat multiple servings to get enough calories, and they’re loaded with enough salt to pickle pig’s feet. If Mountain House meals were really that delicious and satisfying you’re be eating them every night at home. But you don’t.

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53 comments

  1. I’d add pack covers to the list of supposedly waterproof gear. You can get a $10 umbrella at Walmart that sheds water better than a $40 cover from a major manufacturer. But I guess that’s why they invented trash compactor bags.

    • Would put a note on the sleeping naked… Adding too many layers leads to sweating.. which then cools you off. So there is some truth to sleeping with minimal clothing.

    • All great advice and comments especially about Mountain House Sodium levels being too high. Don’t forget the good old poncho. It’s light weight, compressible, an expedient tent, a cover for you gear when camped, breathable, a rain fly, honker down under it in a sudden down pour, and it keeps you and your pack dry when hiking in the rain.

  2. Great post Phillip. Thanks.

  3. Good post. (I still remember the good old days when, if the manufacturers didn’t play it straight about their gear, Colin Flether and the “real” Backpacker magazine called them on it.)

    Myth 1a should be “waterproof/breathable.”
    Myth 11 should be “two person” as applied to tents.
    Myth 12 should be “ultralight,” which is used to describe solo tents that weigh as much as 5 pounds, stoves and filters that weigh a pound or more each, and sleeping bags or puffy jackets that are filled with synthetics.
    Myth 13 should be “minimalist” which I’ve seen used in connection with 2-pound camp chairs, big fluffy pillows, fire grates, multi-tools, pot-pan-cup-bowl sets, and espresso sets.

    • Myth 14: “multipurpose”. Nothing designed to do two or more things does those things as well as something designed to do just one thing.

      re Myth 3: I’ve always considered my bag/quilt to be the final outer layer of my clothing system. As your activity level drops, you add more insulation. Sleep is the lowest activity level, during which you would wear all of your “clothes”.

    • Another myth I’d add is that for backpacking, you must have a solid set of boots will full ankle support. Not true, especially for those who don’t have chronically weak ankles. For many/most of us, a decent hiking shoe or trail runner is so much kinder on your feet, requires less breaking in and less prone to blisters/hotspots, dries out more quickly, and can weigh almost half of what hiking boots weigh.

      • I really don’t know if it’s a myth or not and I’ve given up caring. Some people prefer boots, other’s don’t. I use them about 6 months of the year when we have snow.

  4. My favorite Scoutmaster was a guy named Jim “Wild” West. He was a Marine that defined “real man”. His admonition was we would need to learn things for “when you join the Corps”.He worked at a Federal testing facility. He ran tests on field equipment. We (scouts) would take stuff out for our camping trips. We “tested” tents,sleeping bags,boots etc.Stuff would come apart after a weekend. Things that were “military grade” failed badly. Our camping trips included 150 mile canoe trips in Maine. February trips to Mt. Manadinok in New Hampshire. It was the 70’s. We brought a lot of canvas and rope on our trips. Get durable equipment. Its useless if it breaks or comes apart.

    • Nothing gives me greater pleasure than using a piece of gear I’ve owned and used for a long time. That’s why I get really miffed if I find that I’ve bought crap that won’t stand up to heavy use or falls apart after a year.

  5. The freeze-dried meals are sometimes pretty bad, but Mountain House Beef Stroganoff is pretty good.

    • I hate that meal. It’s just disgusting.

      • Many years ago, I took the son of a friend on a group backpacking trip to South Rim in the High Chisos of Big Bend National Park. Supper that night for the two of us was Mountain House Beef Stoganoff. That kid, at the time justifiably holding the title, “World’s Littlest Bottomless Pit”, took one look and whiff of it and said, “I’ll starve!”, leaving me to eat a double portion… and I don’t think I’ve had another bite of that particular entrée since.

      • Once you make the commitment to dehydrating your own meals, or assembling them from commercially available dehydrated/freeze dried ingredients, there really is no going back. A little experimentation at home and you are soon backpacking with your favorite meals made with your favorite ingredients and sans all the junk you don’t need…looking at you sodium!

      • You can do that. I just carry real food that I eat at home so there’s never that loss of appetite that people frequently experience when they carry food they never eat at home. I think we’ve been indoctrinated to buy these commercial meals when tuna, cheese, bread, oatmeal, wheat cereal, nuts, dried fruit, bagels, peanut butter, rice, noodles, olive oil,honey, soup, etc are easy to throw in a food bag and make a perfectly good meal without the cost and hassle of making your own.

      • I grew up in the midwest. There are life-long impacts on taste.

      • Try Peak Refuel beef stroganoff – I’m not going to keep it for under a year without eating it so the shelf life is meaningless. It’s absolutely delicious! And, while I agree that “real” food is even better, when you have to carry 7-days worth of food, “real” food is not an option – it weighs too much and doesn’t necessarily survive hot sun for several days. I recently did a 7-day trip in Idaho – my food had to survive the plane trip, 2 acclimatization nights before getting on the trail, and 7 days on a trail at altitude. I ate really well with Peak Refuel, Good to Go, and Packit Gourmet (freeze-dried cheese – wow!). (Total food weight for 7 days – 8-1/2 lbs.) I’m so grateful for these companies that make food that tastes really good. Ok their food doesn’t last for 25 years, but who cares? I won’t even be here in 25 years!

      • That response actually made me laugh Phillip.

      • I prefer noodles to freeze dried stuff. Lower cost and minimal packaging, though you do need a cooking pot. Check calories/g carefully as two different processes are used to make noodles ( dewatering with hot oil or by drying)and the cal/g vary quite a bit.

    • You should try Peak Refuel meals — every one I’ve had has been far superior to Mountain House. Yes, they’re considerably more expensive (like $12 vs. $8 for MH), but they have more calories per portion, and taste so much better. Their biscuits and gravy make me forget about the cravings I used to have for MH’s version.

      • I eat those too occasionally. But I’m pretty sure they’re NOT freeze-dried and they don’t have a shelf like of 25 years, but only 1 or 2. It makes a big difference. There are lots of half-way decent dehydrated meals available today from all kinds of mom and pop shops. Check your expiration dates though…they expire very quickly. I still think we’ve been brainwashed against eating real food on backpacking trips though.

      • I don’t consider weight-based decisions on food to be brain-washing; packaged, full-flavored meals that take little time to prepare and have a high calorie-to-weight ratio can’t be called brainwashing. And yes, it is ‘real food’, just freeze-dried. I confirmed that, though the shelf life of Peak Refuel is ~5 years, perhaps to better ensure consumption when the product is most flavorful; I would be wary of how good a MH meal tastes in 25 years, and there’s no way I’d ever need or want to keep anything on my shelf for 25 years.

        If you consider that dehydrated food is real, and freeze-dried is not, well then there’s no point in discussing further. It’s all the same stuff, just prepared and packaged differently. We do bring other items, too, such as olive oil to supplement other meals like mashed potatoes, and angel hair pasta and pesto.

        We also get meals from Packit Gourmet, though tasty, their meals are costly and far fewer calories per serving.

      • I prefer my brie, gouda, edam, camembert, and cheddar to be fresh, not freeze-dried or dehydrated. :-)

        Packit Gourmet also has a pretty short shelf life. The thing I like best from their selection is their puddings! Those I will eat at home.

  6. If you are making weight based decisions about food, I think you’ll find that very few commercial dehydrated foods and portion sizes add up and they’re really quite expensive. You really can eat like a king by eating real food. I think Philip is into something. My favorites are cakes, cheese, hot sausages, Nutella, tortillas, etc. You’re going to eat a lot more if it’s real. Especially on any ttrip of a reasonable duration. Variety is real important.

    • I generally use the term “real food” to mean what I eat at home, and it is decidedly my choice in the field. However, I despise “real cooking” in camp…much too lazy and don’t like the cleanup…and so dehydrating my home-cooked real food is how I have a good, hot dinner. Breakfasts, lunches and snacks are cheese, bread, preserved meats, nuts and grains, etc.

      If you are a cereal lover, a couple of tablespoons of Nido full fat dried milk packed with the cereal…just add water…is pretty much indistinguishable from fresh milk on cereal.

    • I’m with you. Knorr sides, instant rice, tortillas, summer sausages, nuts, and more are at the grocery near the trailhead. I admit to carrying actual coffee and a little plastic drip cone, but my morning is better for it. When we live outside we still need to live.

  7. I recently consumed a freeze dried Oriental Noodle meal “best before”dated more than twenty years ago; it had not turned rancid as I expected, and was pretty palatable. Would have finished it but backing the van around dumped the leftovers across the floor. Of course the name is more outdated than the contents, now. Freeze dried offerings come in wide ranges of quality. Read contents, ingredient balance of fats, protein, carbs, salt is useful but grocery store substitutes like ramen typically are far worse. Better to take ten packages of one favorite, than a variety of things you can’t stand. Remember, strenuous days will deplete salt and minerals, particularly in heat, so normally “bad” stuff may need replenishing. Pre-taste test, as nutrition you can’t stomach is varmint attractant. With enough water, most of us can survive a couple weeks on caloric totals way below what we are burning – you just arrive home leaner.

  8. Generally I find the articles here to be accurate and helpful. I’m mixed on this one. Peak Refuel meals are good enough to eat at home and I do when I’m rushed. So are Next Mile Meals. The macronutrients are well balanced also. The Peak Refuel FAQ says those meals are freeze dried in the USA and provides a shelf life of. 5 years. That, according to research I’ve done is the best used by life. The life sustaining life of freeze dried is 25 to 30 years, and 15 to 20 for dehydrated.

    Matters of taste are purely subjective, and I don’t disagree that your menu sounds delightful, if heavy. Me, I truly do love the new generation of freeze dried meals from Wild Zora, Peak Refuel and Last Mile Meals.

  9. “Freeze-dried backpacking meals are pretty hit or miss.”

    I think you’re interpreting this statement a bit too broadly. I didn’t say that ALL freeze-dried meals suck, but many do. As for eating them at home, I doubt most people do that regardless of the brand. You’re probably in the minority.

    Perhaps I should have written that:

    “Mountain House freeze-dried backpacking meals are pretty hit or miss.” although I find them almost uniformly miss and prohibitively expensive.

  10. Beef stroganoff is why cat hole shovels are made of titanium

  11. I use freeze dried meals for dinner when backpacking. And have eaten my share of Mountain House. But select the ones with the lowest sodium and further refine by reading reviews. My system works for me. I’ve not heard of some of the brands mentioned in the comments, but will look them up.
    Regarding calories, I have found that my calorie intake is lower in the mountains. Mountains for me are the Sierra Nevada, and my time is generally spent at 8000 feet and above. I have read that at higher elevation your digestion slows due to lower oxygen. I cannot eat the same number of calories that I do at home. I lose weight on backpack trips. Works for me. That said, I get plenty of calories from the freeze dried meals and I’m not hungry.

  12. Thank you for those points and confirming my thoughts on #10! Safe trails!

  13. I have always avoided the higher sodium FD meals. Mary Jane Farma are notably LOWER in sodium than most FD meals.

    I find most omelettes are not too high in sodium so I buy them.

    Using supermarket foods for “Freezer Bag Cooking” is better for both taste and lower sodium content but you still must watch for the CUMULATIVE sodium in any recipe.

    • I never check FD meals for sodium, calories or fat ect. If it tastes great I will eat it. I can worry about those things at home, but for a few days on the trail, it won’t be too bad for me. It’s all about enjoyment and letting go for me ! But I only get out 4-5 times a year,so that’s where I’m coming from.

  14. I constantly use my Tarptent Moment DW solo 3 season tent (with the optional “Crossing Pole”) for winter. It works great with the “solid” ripstop and net vents.

    In fact I’ve made a few mods to my Tarptent Notch Li (Dyneema) to use it in winter as well.

    But my Tarptent SCARP 2 has a heavier winter main pole and 2 Crossing Pole I’ve shortened and put under the fly for more strength against wind and snow load is THE winter tent i have.

  15. Phillip, I love your answers. I’m a long-time backpacker always looking for food ideas and I think you’re right. Eat what you eat at home. The problem is it takes a little more effort, but I love the simplicity in concept, and I agree.

  16. I think it’s what works best for you and learning from others. One big surprise I learned from here is using hiking shoes not boots to me a big benefit. I have better quality bags and tents from this site. Food not directed to backpackers are everywhere in stores. Any suggestions on the best way to carry an msr dromedary with water?
    Finally I have to admit i love mtn houses raspberry crumble. Forgive me it’s a weakness.
    Thanks for the information
    Good numbers

  17. For overnights I usually bring a Jersey Mike’s sub. I eat half for lunch and half for dinner. Couple snacks and oatmeal and instant coffee for breakfast. Done

  18. Is it Mountain House or any freeze-dried meal directed at backpackers? I prefer the offerings from Backpacker Pantry. Might be nice to do a comparison test.

    The first time I ever had freeze-dried meals was doing the 100-mile wilderness on the AT in Maine in the late 70’s when freeze-dried was a rarity. But we needed a 10-day food supply, so we went with Mountain House.

    Now my personal favorite strategy, since I mostly just do long weekend trips nowadays, is to have fresh food on day 1, frozen food on day 2 (especially in cooler weather), supermarket food (rice, pasta, etc.) on day 3, and carry a freeze-dried meal as “emergency food” in case i extend the trip a little. The load gets lighter as I go, and saves the lightest for last. by day 4 i pretty much can use the extra salt in a MH or BP meal.

  19. I’d love to know why the instructions for EVERY SINGLE MOUNTAIN HOUSE MEAL specifies way more water than is needed. It seems like this more be an important bit of instructions to get right.

    BTW – Next Mile Meals does a great job of this. So, I know it’s technically possible.

  20. I would add “women’s gear is only for women.” I’ve encountered a few men who found a “womens” version of something met their needs better than the mens/unisex version.

    I’m a big woman (mostly fat, but also I have a 32″ inseam). I’ve spent almost my entire adult life wearing athletic clothing made for men because sizes for women’s clothing is erratic and it’s only been in the last decade that manufacturers have woken up to the fact big women are active, too.

    I think the cottage brand food producers consistently have higher quality, but boy howdy does the price add up.

  21. Wow……. I agree with every single word you wrote!!! And it is all true!!!!!! From Leaky $450. Rain Wear that is any thing but dry,,or Down filled $500 Parka’s that your freeze in, to the fewer Ounces this year in many of the Mountain House Entree’s that your paying more for… I had a heck of a time for years finding Clothing for my two daughters until some marketing person woke up.. Even Danner Boots went to making sizes just for women long before the big time Companies caught up with them with clothing……. Sleeping Naked… I did that for Years and Years until one trip I felt so yucky dirty that I took a Sponge Bath and found that for some reason if I take a hot sponge bath and got rid of the Crud, then put on the Long Johns I was pretty comfortable, so that is what I do now.. Only took 30 years to figure that out…..

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