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Selecting and Purchasing Backpacking Equipment

Preplanning your Purchasing Strategy

For the few people who's only concern regarding the purchase of backpacking equipment is whether or not it will all fit in the cargo area of their brand-new Toyota Landcruiser, this section is more or less irrelevant. But for those of us who cannot go out and buy, and in a single shopping spree, every piece of equipment needed to begin a new hobby, this section is for you. It is a good idea to prioritize your purchasing needs ahead of time. Buying that $150 GPS (Global Positioning System) might seem like a great idea while you're chatting with the sales staff at your local outfitter, but tying up that kind of money when you have yet to acquire a pair of suitable hiking boots, or even a backpack, doesn't make much sense once the novelty of playing with your new toy wears off.

Despite what some people might say, it is very difficult to truly appreciate hiking and/or backpacking without actually venturing out on a trail and doing it. The sooner you actually find yourself on a trail with a backpack on your back, the sooner you will know whether backpacking is an activity that you will want to pursue. You may have some items that, while not designed for backpacking, can be adapted. If you have gone car camping, for example, you probably already own a sleeping bag. It may be a bit bulky and heavy for backpacking, but it should work fine for a trip or two while you decide whether to pursue backpacking as a lifetime activity. If you don't own a tent suitable for backpacking, don't despair! A friend, relative, or neighbor may be able to lend a tent to you, or you could perhaps rent one from a backpacking store. Most store chains rent equipment. Don't own a pair of sturdy, full-grain leather hiking boots? Pick a trail with easy or moderate terrain and wear a pair of dayhikers. For years, I backpacked in tennis shoes, and while I wouldn't recommend it, especially while carrying heavy loads, mid-height dayhikers are completely suitable for a weekend outing over moderate terrain.

What I'm trying to say here, is beg, borrow, steal, rent, adapt, or buy what you need to give backpacking a try, and if you have to resort to buying something, consider purchasing it second hand. You don't need a tent, you can simply hold off on your hike until the weather forecast is for clear weather. If the weather gods don't comply, that 6' by 8' tarp that you purchased for ten dollars can be strung up to provide shelter, and later, after buying a backpacking tent, the tarp can be used as a ground cloth, for the fraction of the cost of a ground cloth that was specifically designed for your tent. Adapt what you have, borrow what you can, and purchase only those things you cannot find another way.

Categorize the things you want to purchase by how important they are:

  • Things absolutely needed prior to going on a backpacking trip.
  • Things that, while not needed, are extremely important (a tent or stove would be a good example).
  • Replacements for "adapted" equipment (that 6 pound sleeping bag that takes up two-thirds of your backpack, for example).
  • Everything else.

Once you've categorized everything, make sure you purchase everything in the first category before you go on the the second, and so on. By doing this you will soon become self-sufficient, from a backpacking point of view.

Choosing Equipment

As a woodworking acquaintenance once explained to me when I asked him about his purchasing strategy, it is best to "buy once, cry once." What this means is that whenever possible, buy a product of good quality that will last. Otherwise, you will only end up replacing it before you wear it out and, in the end, spending more money than if you had simply purchased the higher quality product first.

Rather than being completely subjective, and providing a list of manufacturers, roughly ordered by level of quality, I will just point out specific features one should keep an eye out for when shopping for particular products.

Tents: Tents do a couple of things that are, at times, contradictory with each other. They keep you protected from the elements, and they keep you comfortable across a range of temperatures. Some tents are not suitable for all backpacking trips. What many manufacturers optimistically call a four-season tent is often too poorly ventilated to provide comfortable sleeping in the summertime. Many three-season tents are just that, tents that are suitable in spring, summer and fall. Other three-season tents are really just summer tents--the manufacturer know that the tents will sell better if they are categorized as being three-season tents rather than summer tents.

Assuming you are buying your first backpacking tent, it is likely that you will be looking primarily at three-season tents. In my opinion, you should purchase the lightest available tent that is free-standing, well ventilated, comes with aluminum poles, has a full-coverage rain fly with a vestibule, and is large enough to hold two people. If you are backpacking alone, you will appreciate the the extra space for your gear; if you are planning on backpacking in groups of three or more, simply buy two tents. That way, you will have the flexibility for any backpacking situation. While you may be tempted to buy a single four-person tent because you are a family of four, and while it might be slightly less expensive than buying two two-person tents, buying the four-person tent would eventually put you in the position of trying to backpack alone while carrying twelve to fifteen pounds of shelter on your back. Kind of like riding a tandem bicycle alone, or setting off on a solo sea-kayaking trip with a two-person kayak.

Backpacks: Under Construction

Sleeping Bags: Under Construction

Copyright © 1998, David Lister

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Document last modified on Friday, 19-Jan-2007 07:17:48 MST.