12 Gear Tips for Beginner Backpackers

Gear Tips for Beginner Backpackers
Gear Tips for Beginner Backpackers

What backpacking gear do you need? Which features are the most important? Which manufacturers make the best backpacking gear? Who can you turn to for advice? Where can you get the best deals? The amount of information new backpackers need to digest can be overwhelming at first.

Here are 12 of the most important backpacking gear tips you’ll ever get. They come from 250 backpackers, experts as well as beginner backpackers, who’ve just geared up themselves. It’s all excellent advice. I wish I’d had it when I started backpacking since it would have saved me a lot of time, money, and frustration.

1. Borrow gear from friends or rent it before buying.

Don’t buy anything right away if you don’t have to. Renting and borrowing is a great way to experiment with gear before you spend hundreds or thousands of dollars on it. It’s best to try a few different tents, backpacks, and sleeping bags before you spend a chunk of change on something that might not be what you really need. For example, many tents that work great in sunny California, don’t work so great along the rainy east coast. Experiment with as much gear as you can before you start buying stuff.

2. Use what you already own instead of buying new gear.

Go through everything you have at your house and see what can be used for backpacking before you buy anything. That $15 Energizer headlamp from Home Depot works just a well as the $60 Black Diamond headlamp from REI. Use a pair of synthetic pants or shorts that you already own instead of buying a new pair of hiking pants, use your running shoes instead of  a new pair of Gore-tex lined boots, use your existing rain coat, fleece sweater, baseball cap, fleece hats, gloves, utensils, and so forth. Use plastic bags and trash bags instead of stuff sacks. You can upgrade later if you still feel it’s necessary.

3. Buy gear from stores with good return policies.

Buy from a place that allows returns after you try stuff out. I bought a pack I thought was great, but after a 20 mile overnight, not so much. Luckily, LLBean takes anything back, anytime, for any reason. The same goes for tents or backpacks that aren’t available in stores and you can only buy online. Order them and use them around your house before you decide you want to keep them. If you find that they don’t fit or they’re not what you expected or wanted, return them. That’s what their return policy is for. It’s worth it even if you have to pay for the return postage.

4. Set yourself an annual gear budget.

Set yourself an annual backpacking budget, say $400 dollars per year, so you don’t try to buy all of your backpacking gear at once. This will force you to research purchases and help stop you from making impulse buys. You can easily spend a couple of thousand bucks on gear, only to discover that it’s not quite what you wanted.

5. Backpack with a friend and try out their gear.

Find some friends who backpack and go on a hike with them to try out their gear. Even an overnight hike will give you a good idea of what you need and don’t need. Backpacking with a friend to talk to about gear has made all the difference for me.

6. Buy used gear at a discount.

You can buy really good used gear from other backpackers that’s advertised on backpacking gear forums, Craigslist, or from your friends. It might not be new, but it will still be in good shape and you can save a lot of money. A lot of money.

7. Sell your used gear to finance new gear purchases.

If you’ve bought and used gear but want to replace it with something different, sell the old gear to help finance the new. Good backpacking gear retains a fair amount of value if it’s taken care of and you’ll be able to use the money towards your next purchase.

8. Don’t buy backpacking gear at Walmart.

Don’t buy useless crap from Walmart: you will regret it after carrying something too heavy for too long and it will inevitably break. Tents and backpacks from Walmart are junk.

9. Do plenty of research before you buy.

High price tags do not necessarily equal the best gear. Join backpacking social media sites, read backpacking blogs, read reviews, compare prices, and ask questions about what you might need. Do not just go into REI and ask to be outfitted and don’t accept everything their sales people say at face value. Just remember, online research is just a starting point, but hands-on field research outshines it all.

10. Try to buy gear in the off-season or during sales.

REI garage sales are a great place to buy really good gear at discount prices. REI and other retailers have 20% sales online all year-long. Check out Sierra Trading Post and other online clearance sites. Massdrop is another great place to save on great gear from small cottage manufacturers. Don’t be afraid to buy gear that’s not the latest model or came out a few years ago. Shop around, use the price matching that many retailers offer, and haggle if you can. Try to get a pro-deal (near wholesale pricing) at Promotive if you can qualify. There’s no reason you have to pay full price for any backpacking gear as long as you’re willing to do a little leg work, or web surfing, that is.

11. Keep it light.

Aim for less and lighter weight equipment for comfort during your day hike, and less for comfort at the campsite, which would require carrying more stuff. Pay attention to gear weights when you buy new gear, but don’t compromise your safety. Buy an inexpensive digital scale so you can weigh your gear and replace heavy items when you upgrade.

12. Update your gear.

If you haven’t been out in 10 or 20 years, update your gear – no reason to be miserable with 40-50 pound packs when you can have much more fun with half the load. Replace gear a little at a time, focusing on your big three first (shelter, sleeping system, backpack, in that order). This is not exactly beginner advice, but advice worth heeding if you’re getting re-aquainted with backpacking again.

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One comment

  1. On behalf of broke hikers everywhere, I’d like to respectfully disagree with the tip about “Walmart junk.” Pretty much everything I carried during my first year of backpacking came from Walmart, because it was just about the only option I had. I had no one to borrow from, and even the good used gear was out of my price range, due to gear’s wonderful resale value. On my first trip, I loaded up all of my ‘junk,’ steeled myself for any possible gear shaming from other hikers, and defiantly set up my $30 Ozark Trails tent amidst the sea of Copper Spurs and Ultamids. The point is that I was out there WITH them – and we ALL stayed warm and dry. Yes, there are things at Walmart that are not worth buying, but that holds equally true for many high dollar name brands. It’s been my experience that, most of the time, the main trade offs you make, when buying inexpensive gear, are weight and features. A $20 backpack isn’t going to have the bells and whistles that a $200 backpack is probably going to have, but that doesn’t mean it won’t hold your stuff. As for quality, you should always test new gear in locations where it’s simple to bail out and go home until you know how the product will perform, and this is true regardless of how much it cost. No one who enjoys the outdoors should have to sacrifice doing what they love just because popular opinion says that Walmart gear is junk. If it’ll get you out there and keep you safe, then don’t let it stop you if it’s all you can afford. See you on the trail! (I’ll be the girl in the Frogg Toggs).

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