Friday, March 28, 2014

Thinking about backpacking for the first time?

I have some friends who are interested in backpacking that asked me about what kind of gear to buy and bring. There are many of articles out there, here are a few from WTA.org.

Here's my personal spin on it:


You can spend all kinds of bucks on this kind of gear, and it gets more expensive as it gets lighter and adds features. And there are lots of articles out there on how to gear up. I think it's best to be practical about it, figure out how much you like doing it, and invest accordingly. 

I have only been backpacking for two years, but after the first time I did it, I was all in and it's what I look forward to most each year. I figure I've spent about $2,000 on all my gear and clothing. What's nice about backpacking is that once you have the gear, the costs for each outing are only for the consumables (food, fuel, transportation,and time) and anything that wears out. So that $2,000 is an investment for decades. And you don't have to spend $2K to get on the trail -- you can do it for less than half that, especially if you can get some used equipment and maybe rent for a while.

This post won't go into all the details, but it covers many of the major outlays and things that I didn't know right away but figured out after backpacking a few times. REI has a more comprehensive shopping list to make sure you don't miss anything. 

A side note about shopping: REI is a great place to explore, try out gear and shop, but they are on the expensive side. Being an REI member and reaping member dividends each year is a nice spending spree. Plus REI's return policy is great if you're not sure about some new boots or a backpack, things you absolutely MUST try on before you buy. For other gear, I buy a lot of stuff from steepandcheap.com; they have insane closeout deals going on all the time, plus more deeply-discounted items. They are the outlet for backcountry.com, another place I have bought many items from. I also buy from campmor.com, and everyone's favorite, Amazon, though paying Amazon's state income tax on their goods can send you elsewhere.

If you're not 100% sure that backpacking is your thing, then you should considering renting the tent, sleeping bag and backpack if you don't have a trail-worthy one yet and see how it goes. REI can set you up on the rentals.

Also, go to REI's basement in downtown Seattle and see what used equipment shows up. Might find just what you need at a fraction of the cost.

I did a lot of scanning of reviews, listened to my friends and what they had, and I believe I have a decent kit that didn't break the bank. I'm sure I'll upgrade over the years as I need to, but this stuff can last a long time.

You should definitely check with friends to see if they have any gear they're not using or have upgraded beyond.

Tent: If it's for two of you, then you'll definitely want a 2 person, 3 season tent. No real use in going out for a four season as they're heavier and are you really going to camp in a snowstorm?

Everyone has their favorite brands, but in the end, for the most part, any tent in the same price range is going to be of similar weight, features, and quality. I have a Big Agnes Fly Creek UL2; it's only 2lbs 9oz including footprint. While I like how light it is, its single opening on the end is not tent-mate friendly, and it feels sort of like a 2 person bivy. In other words, you better be really good friends with your tent-mate.

Other well-known tent brands with similar features are Marmot, MSR, Black Diamond, North Face, Kelty, Mountain Hardwear, and REI.

If it's just one of you, then definitely consider a bivy or a one-person tent because they're half the weight and size of a 2-person tent (though oddly about the same cost as a 2P).  I am looking at buying one this year.


Most tents come with a footprint, a layer of material that goes directly on the ground that you then place your tent on. This helps keep your tent dry from ground moisture and protects the fabric of your tent floor. Be sure to have one.

Backpack: This is where I insist that you go to REI and try a bunch on. Proper and comfortable fit while the pack is loaded can only be found by trying them on and walking around; REI is the place to go. They'll set you up and ensure that the pack fits you well. You'll probably want a pack that is at least 60 liters in volume. Mine can carry over 80, and with my camera gear I've needed it. My opinion is that each brand fits differently, so you may discover that, say, Osprey packs fit you better than Gregory, Deuter or REI. I started with an REI pack, but upgraded to a Gregory because it can more comfortably take bigger loads. I have a smaller Osprey dayhiking pack.

Sleeping bag: There are a zillion out there. The big thing again is the tradeoff of performance, usually focused on insulation/temp range, vs. weight. I have a North Face 0-degree mummy bag. For the most part it's overkill, and I'm not a huge fan of the mummy shape. But if you want to be warm, that's the way to go. I also have a Mountain Hardwear 35/50 Flip, which is nice because depending on which side of the bag you sleep on, it provides warmth down to 35 or 50 degrees, and if you sleep in thermal underlayers, then that'll give you additional insulation. 35-50 covers you for just about any mid-season trip, and it's more than a pound lighter that the 0-degree. While goose down bags are warmer for the weight, I prefer the usually cheaper synthetic fill because you can wash it at home. And you'll want to wash it from time to time.

You don't want to sleep directly on your tent floor, because it's hard and cold. Get yourself a sleeping pad, whether it's foam or inflatable. Honestly you don't need a full-sized one because your feet don't really need a lot of padding and socks will keep them warm. But do have one for your knees on up.

Camp stove: We always share our stoves, so no worries initially, but you'll need one if you're going out on your own. There are lots to choose from; most folks go for the propane canister-based ones like JetBoil and my super-tiny MSR PocketRocket. The Jetboil is nice because it's an all-in one design (fuel, pot, burner, etc.), and works well in the wind. But it's expensive, relatively speaking. The 8oz. propane fuel canisters last a few days. With my PocketRocket, I get more than 90 minutes of burning time with a single canister; considering you can boil a pot of water within about 3-4 minutes, that's a lot of meals.

Poles: With a full backpack, your center of gravity is much higher and tripping or turning an ankle with all that extra weight means a much great risk of serious injury. Poles help to stabilize you, give your legs a little less to pull up, and they most definitely help your knees on the way down.

Water purification: You quickly discover how essential water is to life when you're backpacking. Any freeze dried food is practically inedible without boiling water, and of course you'll want safe water to drink and to clean yourself and your dishes.

You can buy a pump filter, use tablets, a UV stick, gravity filter, or an inline filter, and some folks use a combo of those. Each has its own merits, but the goal is to neutralize all the parasites and bad bacteria from the water, and each will do that. I have a pump filter which produces very clean, pure, neutral tasting water. But I recently also bought an in-line filter called the Sawyer System which claims to be able to filter over 200,000 gallons water in its lifetime, it costs less than $30, and weighs only 3 ounces vs. about 16 ounces for my pump. You also need the bags that go with it, because you squeeze the water from the bags through the filter. Here's a starter kit from Amazon that costs about $21. Honestly I think everyone should have a Sawyer kit around the house, just in case something happens and your water utility shuts down. I could go down to Lake Washington or find a local stream and get all the potable water I need from it.

And you'll need some Nalgene bags to store your water at camp. I like the big Nalgene bags because they're light and compress down to a very manageable size.

When on the trail, most of us use Camelbak water bladders. Some prefer bottles. Nice to throw some Nuun tablets in there to make the water a little more appealing and add some electrolytes.


Food: While some may be more creative and bring their own home-made meals, for me, it's a combo of bars, gels, blocks, and commercial freeze-dried offerings. REI and Fred Meyer have a good selection of the typical freeze-dried meals; they're not gourmet, but after burning a few thousand calories on the trail, this stuff can taste pretty damn good. I also bring along extra proteins like chicken and salmon in foil pouches and add it to the freeze-dried meals to boost the flavor and nutrition. Some folks have their own food dehydrator, and that works too. Adding boiling water to it makes it edible again.

Nuts, peanut/almond butters are good choices; trail mix, anything that's high in energy and protein is good. And it's customary to share each your meals around the group, so we're not bored to tears with our one meal. Again, though, be mindful of the weight you bear. We generally just eat straight out of the pouches to minimize cleanup. Make sure you have a utensils and a cup, too. Simple lightweight plastic ones will do well.

Other Needs:

Best to have some stuff sacks to sort your stuff out. I have one for personal hygiene (wash clothes, TP, contacts+solution, toothbrush+paste, DO, soap, etc.) and one for eating (utensils, cups, stove, pots, etc). I also have a stuff sack for all my clean clothes that is reversible, meaning that it's flannel on the inside and nylon on the outside. I stuff it with clothes and use it as a pillow. 

You should also have at least a couple of compression sacks. Your sleeping bag might come with one, but I have three, and one of them doubles as a dayhiking pack. I put my sleeping bag in one compression sack and it compresses it down to the size of a volleyball. Also, I compress my clothes (in their own stuff sack) with my tent into another.

You must always bring a rain/wind shell. Doubles as a bug shield. Bugs are almost ALWAYS a problem, unless you're camping up high (like over 7,000 ft) in rocks and away from water. Bring bug juice, the more DEET the better, but really, you'll want as much non-penetrable clothing as possible, and a rain shell works well.

Bring a hat, maybe one with a brim, to keep out the sun/rain. I have the ubiquitous Seattle Sombrero, but there are other styles that are just as good. Consider, too, in investing in rain pants. Misery is being soaked to the bone, shivering in your tent. A wool hat and light gloves are nice to have during the cool night. You won't always have a campfire.

No need for cotton. At all. Bring synthetics and/or wool. Wool socks are great. Also bring synthetic shells, zip-off pants, layers. Even on the cooler days, when hiking and snowshoeing, I'm usually down to a single layer. 

Bandana. Always a use for a bandana. Sweat rag, makeshift cap, bandage, who knows.

First aid kit. Yes, you're likely to have co-hikers that have a kit, at least make sure *someone* has a good kit before heading out.

A small plastic spade is useful for when nature calls, because there's not always a privy available and you need to make a hole and bury it.

A sitting pad is very useful; as nice as a log or rock to sit on might seem, your butt will get sore, especially after a full day of hiking. Pads come as foam pads or inflatable ones. You can also use your sleeping pad, but it may not be as tough and puncture-proof as one made for sitting.

You need something to cover/protect your pack if it rains. Nothing's worse than a rain-soaked sleeping bag, so be sure to at least bring a trash bag big enough to envelope your backpack when hiking.

Headlamps. They are so effective, especially when nature calls in the middle of the night. Preferably one that has a red LED so as not to kill the night vision of your fellow campers.


Extra zip-locs and a Trash bag. Hike it out. Share the load there.

Boots/footwear:

There's been a revolution for many in the footwear arena. Lots of folks are hiking with minimalist footwear with little to no heel or arch. Not me. I'm old school, and when backpacking, I want a competent boot to protect my feet from rock edges, support my ankles, and give me nothing to worry about down there. Don't go cheap here, expect to invest at least $150, and they should last a long time. Be sure to break them in on a few hikes before going out with a heavy backpack. Also consider replacing the insoles with something like Superfeet; it gives me extra arch support. I rarely have any problems with my feet.

Bring some camp shoes for around the campsite so you can get out of your boots and let them (and your feet) air out. While some bring flip-flops because they're so light, I prefer something with toe protection, because in the middle of the night you don't want to stub your toe on a rock or root. Even a cheap water shoe will work. I carry Keen sandals, but they're heavier than I'd like and am considering a downgrade to something cheaper and lighter.

Technology:
You're probably going to take your mobile phone with you, at least to take snapshots. You can be out in the middle of nowhere and if you climb a peak, you'd be surprised that you may get coverage. Not that I'd encourage it, but it's nice to surprise your friends with an instagram from some awesome vista when they thought you'd be off the grid for a few days.
If you're taking your tech, you'll probably want some way to keep it charged. I have a solar-charged extra battery; fully charged it will recharge your phone twice. And itself will recharge from the sun in about 13 hours; you can hang it on your backpack.

Downtime: 
Most of my trips are busy -- meaning we're always doing something. Once we make camp, we usually refuel and then explore the area with some more hiking. Then back to camp for dinner, drinking, chatting, and then off to sleep. It's nice to be able to settle down with a book or some other relaxation.

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