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. I understand, having been in your shoes. Here is some hard-earned advice about gearing up without losing your shirt.
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 as 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 trail runners or mid-height 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. REI is completely worth joining as a member if you’re not one already because you can return anything within a year, even if you’ve used it and decided it doesn’t work for you, including footwear. Other online retailers only give you a month or two to try something out and you can only return it if it’s unused and in the original packaging. Many smaller gear manufacturers won’t let you return anything, even if it doesn’t fit unless it’s defective and they need to replace it.
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 made all the difference for me and is something I try to pass along.
6. Buy used gear at a discount.
You can buy really good used gear from other backpackers that is 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. Seriously, some people will even pay more for a piece of gear if it’s perpetually out-of-stock or stuck in a shipping container on the ocean or in port.
8. Don’t buy backpacking gear because it’s cheap.
There’s a lot of really crappy outdoor gear for sale on Amazon, eBay, and elsewhere online. While there’s no doubt that name-brand gear is expensive, it’s often worth the extra cost in terms of design, utility, and quality. If you find that you enjoy backpacking, you’ll want gear that you can enjoy using for many many years and that will stand up to long-term use. When in doubt, talk to your backpacking friends about your intended purchases before you pull the trigger, especially when it comes to expensive items. They can often help you assess the value of an intended purchase, good or bad, or help steer you in the right direction to get what you want. If it turns out that you bought something you don’t like, remember that quality name-brand gear is easy to sell used, but cheap no-name stuff isn’t.
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 whatever you do, don’t accept everything their salespeople say at face value. They mean well, but the advice they provide can be very hit or miss. Just remember, online research is just a starting point, but hands-on field research outshines it all. You need to get your hands dirty to really understand what you want and whether a garment or piece of gear achieves your goals.
10. Try to buy gear in the off-season or during sales.
The REI Outlet and their Parking Lot Garage Sales are a great place to buy really good gear at discount prices. REI and other retailers have multiple 20% Off sales each year. Check out the smaller gear manufacturers listed in our Cottage Backpacking Gear Manufacturers Directory. 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 Outdoor Prolink 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 improved comfort while hiking during the daytime, 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 four first (shelter, sleeping bag/quilt, sleeping pad, and backpack). This is not exactly beginner advice, but advice worth heeding if you’re getting re-acquainted with backpacking again.