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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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  1. I would add to go small. Smaller gear usually means lighter gear. For any two items with equivalent specs/reviews, choose the smaller one.

  2. I guess one caveat I would add to the ‘rent or borrow gear’ tip is rent or borrow gear IF it’s something you would consider buying. I am relatively short/petite (5’2″ and just a bit over 110 lbs) and for my first multi-day backpacking trip I rented gear from our local university – which would have been a great idea had I been a taller/larger framed person. The tent was way too heavy for me to carry for several days , the backpack (while decent quality) was so big even at it’s smallest adjustment that I had to keep moving it back and forth from one shoulder…to the other shoulder…and back…and back again (you get the picture). They did give me the smallest backpack they had, so they tried to accommodate. Luckily, even with all of this I had a great time and was completely convinced of the importance of a properly fitted backpack!!! It was a decision I was willing to take my time with and thoroughly test out my options…the REI store where I finally bought my beloved backpack probably thought I was moving in! Fortunately the woman who fitted me was also small framed and good at fitting backpacks so she was extremely helpful. Even if you rent or borrow gear you will still need to live with it for the duration of your trip so make sure everything works and (hopefully) fits also!

  3. all of these tips have really been helpful in getting my gear/system together, I’m a hopeful beginner backpacker, i have finally gotten all my gear together and hoping to start out by doing a overnighter,but due to work/weather circumstances haven’t gotten a chance to go on even a day test hike yet, but wanted to add what I’m finding is even ease of use, and fit may outweigh weight to a degree(honestly have just tried on my gear and tent set up in my apt so far)I’ve tried a few different packs mainly osprey talon,kestrel / and granite gear lutsen, but settled on the gregory stout 45, the tips about getting the overall proper fit have been invaluable, another example has been the ursack, i ordered from REI, but got it ,looked at and relized yeah my knot tying skills do kind of suck, returned it and after more research saw the post here about the bare box canister and the ease of use, and how i can fit under the lid of my pack, adds some weight but i think on the trail the ease of use will negate any frustration i might having trying to tie up the sack, so getting things from L.L bean,REI and another company backcountry edge, all with great return policies is so helpful,i settled on the ll. bean microlight fs1 tent after trying some others the ease of use and like marco mentions above the smallness of it, fits in my pack great, , now just trying to get together with a hiking group almost seems the hardest part , the local AMC beginner hikes and other groups on meetup fill so quickly its ridiclous , hoping to maybe try a solo overnight trip in a state forest w/ a loop trail and established campsites..if anyone has other beginner tips would be great to hear.

    • One thing to consider about your first overnighter is not to fret too much about whether you’ve packed everything you’d need “just in case”. For one thing, many of the contingencies we may worry about don’t really happen and we end up hauling gear around that doesn’t get used. Another thing is that usually if we forget something we really wish we’d had, it’s only a minor short term inconvenience, not a life altering situation. Besides, it may become a great story later!

      As the song goes, “Don’t worry. Be happy!”

      • I agree absolutely, let your motto be “relax and enjoy it.”

        My best tip is to keep one big master packing list, everything that you might need ever (passport, international driver’s license, electric socks, you get the idea), then go through it on every trip saying, “nope, nope, nope, don’t need it…” Gives you real peace of mind when you leave the house that you’ve covered all your bases.

  4. I liken this to the suggestion that people should live in a house for a bit before they renovate, to get a feel for what is necessary and what might sound good on paper, but is overkill in practice. Beginners should go backpacking with what gear is available to them, by renting or borrowing if necessary. It’s a great way to help a person understand what works and what doesn’t and what is a priority to buy or replace.

    But. generally, it’s best buy a pack last. You don’t want to buy a 70L pack only to realize your new stuff only fills 40L of space.

    • Anthony Chaniotakis

      30 liters of food for longer possibilities. Small gear and big pack sounds ideal !

      But in the reality of the wage earner not many long absences are allowed :(

      So maybe I should buy the ideal gear for weekends….

  5. I LOVE the first sentence in #9: “High price tags do not necessarily equal the best gear” As a group, modern backpackers seem to have swallowed hook line and sinker the idea that the only sleeping bag worth having costs $700, and the only tent worth buying costs $400. HMG, Enlightened Equipment, ULA and ZPack have become the holy grail, when in fact mainline manufacturers make decent equipment for much less and involving only a small increase in weight. So many backpackers have become gear snobs and look down at anyone who doesn’t carry the absolute lightest – and most expensive – equipment..

  6. All great advice. I’m an avid diy kind of guy. I’m quite at home in front of a sewing machine. If you have spare time in your life you can save allot of money and make some excellent gear. It’s quite rewarding to thrive in the back country that you’ve crafted yourself.

    Also thrift stores. One article’s of clothing that alway goes in my pack is a cashmere sweater that was purchased for under $10.00, if memory serves me.

  7. I’m a huge fan of sales. I just upgraded AND saved a ton by finding a great deal on an Osprey backpack. It was also a labor of love refurbishing a 30 year old ultralight tent. I can’t wait to hit the trail!

  8. My only disagreement is not buying from Walmart as a beginner backpacker. I understand where your coming from but I hiked for three years with a few Walmart gadgets before being able to upgrade. You named tents and backpacks and I agree there. But I used the coleman cooking pots, propane gas, headlamp, and a few small things that, while they were heavy, they did the job. So I wouldn’t throw the baby out with the bathwater when it comes to purchasing a few needed items, albeit small, at Walmart.

    • I wanted to make another plug for some of the Walmart options. I’ve found small spritzers of DEET and Picaridin there that are perfect size (and refillable with a minor bit of effort). Also, if you are wondering whether or not hiking poles are for you and don’t want to risk dropping a hundred bucks on a pair of Lekis, only to find you don’t like them, there are some inexpensive options at Walmart. Their hiking poles aren’t as sturdy as Leki or any of the other mainstream brands but are serviceable and cost ten or twelve dollars. As Kevin noted, they also have a good selection of headlamps very reasonably priced.

      • Grandpa: I am aware of the 0.5 ounce spritzer tubes of repellent, but I could never figure out a way to refill them without damaging the pump assembly. Can you elaborate on your method for removing the top? Thanks!

    • Wal Mart is an excellent place to get backpacking food. Keep in mind they treat their workers like slaves though. I’ll shop elsewhere.

    • Walmart 1 qt aluminum grease pot with strainer top – brilliant for those whose favorite dinner is pasta. 8 bucks, IIRC, and darn light.

      Splurge on well-fitting shoes, multiple pairs of good wool socks, some permethrin, and a pack that fits. The shoes and socks make such a difference. Waterproof may not matter that much, depending on conditions. In the summer I prefer non-waterproof, quick-drying shoes.

    • I agree, and was a bit put off by the gear snob comment. I used coleman max gear myfirst trip and for the last 5 years, and just recently upgraded some of that gear. I would not have been able to afford the first trip otherwise. I’ve enjoyed each trip and have every bit of success as my other “Rei” equipped friends.

    • I disagree with the Walmart assertion, as well. For someone starting out and on a tight budget, it’s a good resource.

  9. dieterweber964632478

    Great advice, I follow the same system! I have a different opinion in only one point: Proper water-proof outdoor shoes/boots are irreplaceable. They have MUCH better grip on soil, gravel and rock, and they keep your feet warm and dry. Sports shoes are only good for paved roads in good weather.

  10. Good tips. I practiced all of them. I’d also add, join up with a discount service for which you may qualify, whether on a professional basis or some other way, such as an employee purchase program.

  11. Tents and packs from Walmart are right out, but as mentioned by some, they do have the occasional nice bit or bob. My favorite is their set of three “dry” sacks (really just coated ripstop). I use the little one to protect my paperback and reading glasses, big one for dirty laundry that I’m not washing on the trail. Also, if you buy stuff like Mountain House meals, I don’t think you can find them cheaper than at Walmart.

    • Those “waterproof” bags will keep things dry in your pack but not in a kayak proceeding downriver in the inverted position. Just trust me on this, no need to research it yourself–the research has already been done!

      I use them to organize gear. My water treatment system goes in a blue one. First aid, medical, toiletries in red, Neo Air and repair patches in green. Electronics, such as headlights, batteries, juice pack, and my gear repair kit goes in another blue one in an accessible pocket on my pack so I can easily find my headlamp in the dark. I also use some of my older bags for backpacking tents.

  12. I would add take reviews with a grain of salt for the following reasons:

    -People often review gear without using it extensively just to get hits on their site

    -People are inherently built differently. You might sleep colder or warmer than the reviewer or sweat more or less. Maybe you’re more sensitive to weight on your shoulders or less sensitive.

    -Reviewers may ignore issues that you would find more important

    -Some reviewers inherently want to recommend expensive things they paid a lot for to make themselves feel better about their purchase. Conversely if it was provided for free they may feel pressure to highlight things a little more optimistically than normal.

    etc. etc.

  13. The aluminum IMUSA brand cook pot from Walmart is very good. $5, versus the MSR titanium pot $65.

    Don’t be snob or hater. Walmart sells Coleman brand too.

    REI sells more commercial junk while Wally sells the entry level affordable stuff.

  14. But REI does not have wage-slaves like Wal-Mart.

  15. How timely. I just returned from a trip with my 11 year old Nephew in which he learned some valuable lessons about Hiking Gear when bought by inexperienced people especially Parents who make the mistake of trying to Go Cheap and 11 year old boys who think certain items a “cool”.. For instance he found that a really cool multi-purpose Binoculars, Thermometer, Magnifying glass, Compass and whistle all in one Unit were useless in the Wilds of a National Forest…. The Plastic lenses on the Binoc’s gave him a headache and hurt his eyes. The Magnifying Glass could not start a Fire, the Compass was inaccurate and the Whistle barely made any sound at all. The Thermometer was pretty accurate…His new pocket knife could barely cut through some 300# test greased fishing line. Nor would it keep a sharp blade. Same with an Axe they bought. I did show him how an Axe is really not good when compared to a small Bowsaw, he now prefers the Saw over the Axe. You mentioned Walmart, I guess your legal person said that was alright, but Walmart does have a a number of items that I highly Recomend you buy there. So you need to qualify your Statement a bit further.. My first rule is if it has the word “Sport”, and “Tex” any where in the manufacturers title do not buy… Now as for Walmart, Their Freeze dried Food from Mountain House is cheaper than Bass Pro, Cablela’s, Dicks, Campmor and most others by a as much as 4 Dollars for some items. Some of their Water Bladder Gear and Cleaning the Bladder items are cheaper.. There Pocket Knives are of the same quality as Outdoor Stores, SO if you mean large items like Tents and Sleeping Bags I agree.. They carry Troggs Rain Gear now too. If you go on line you’ll find their Daypacks and Overnight Packs are very competitive when it comes to Price and Size and features.. I just bought 5 Day/Overnight Packs for my Nieces family from Walmart On-line Store and saved a big chunk of money over the Outdoor Retailers in the area.. So it pays to shop around and not make a blanket statement….

  16. Borrowing from a friend was a good tip. No matter how much research you do, you don’t know if the specific backpack/sleepingpad etc fits you, or your style of hiking before you actually used it. It’s only when you get out there that you know for sure what you want to change.

  17. Agree.

    This is how we advise our Boy Scouts to acquire significant gear – borrow from the Troop’s library and others, wait a year, then buy.

    There are some exceptions for personal items, for example: buy the best quality wool socks you can afford on Day 1, buy a well-rated headlamp, Ten Essentials, a cheap/heavy sleeping bag that can later also be used for winter camping, etc.

    ADD 12.5. …. Think Different. An umbrella looks goofy to boys but it keeps one dryer & cooler than most alternatives. Pop bottles for canteens. Jar of peanut-butter & spoon for teenager meal supplement.

  18. I suggest Costco in the spring. At least locally (Seattle area), they carry a fair amount of cheaper gear at decent prices, with a great return policy. They also have the vendor booths on weekends – Klymit was in the store last month. I’ve picked up a decent backpacking tent, a box of Mountain House meals (good when the power goes out, too!), a 2 pack of headlamps, first aid kits, sleeping pads… for my first time purchasing gear, it was pretty good. I’ve swapped some of it out years later, but it was a good opportunity to learn what I liked, what I didn’t, for a little less risk and $$. Those headlamps ended up being $10 each and 5 years later, they’re still amazing.

    I’ll also add ziplock bags. Double bag the stuff you need to keep dry. They’re cheap, light, and they work. ;-)

  19. I started out last year on my first small section, Approach trail to Woody Gap, with a 45.00 Walmart Ozarks Trail 2 person tent. A little over 4 lbs. Super easy to set up. My sleeping bag was a marked down to 15.00 Suisse Sport. 2 lb 9oz. Very comfortable down to 40 degrees and good to 26 degrees with a very lightweight down throw from Costco added in. (about 20.00) My water system (Sawyer Squeeze), stove (Pocket Rocket), merino wool socks and Cabelas Instinct sleeping pad were about my only splurges. It was what I could afford and seemed adequate. I. Had. A. Blast. I was bitten badly by the backpacking bug. The symptoms are getting worse. But what I’m getting to is, if I hadn’t “made do” with inexpensive gear I wouldn’t have been able to even start last year. I look forward to upgrading gradually to lighter and better made stuff, but for now I am excited to be heading out soon to push myself like crazy up those mountains, mingle and talk to the thru hikers and learn all I can from anyone with the patience to answer my questions.
    Start out with what you can afford and if you’re hooked, piece by piece get the better made gear.

  20. Excellent advise no matter where in the world you live. As an older person light weight is the best way to go from the start. As age progresses joints deteriorate and muscles lose elasticity and many hikers fall by the wayside and give up. The expression “Use it or Loose It” really has meaning and with light weight packs and shoes your hiking days can be much extended. I am close to 80 and with light pack weights now achievable can still do multi days in the backcountry of New Zealand, and some of that can be tough!
    Good advice is check what you didn’t use after each trip and unless it is essential to safety don’t take it next time. I call it cutting out the crap! Do not feel the need to up-grade gear every year, tried and tested gear you are familiar with is always best.

  21. When I started out I had decent luck finding serviceable used gear for cheap prices at yard sales. The best deal was an old frame backpack stuffed with all sorts of gear for $5. I used that pack for a few years before upgrading but still carry some of the contents at times. I passed the pack along to the local scout troop.

  22. I wish I had read #4 a few years ago! Every time I open your awrticles, I have an incredible urge to hit REI or Amazon :-)

    Seriously, all greta advice. Thanks for the post.

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