Welcome to my beginners backpacking gear series! In each episode, I’ll be discussing each gear item needed for backpacking in depth. I will also provide some of my favorite brands and recommendations on what to buy. If you want quick and dirty advice just scroll down until you see “The Quick and Dirty” in bold and ignore the rest. If you want details and my reasoning keep on reading the Nuts and Bolts!

Thanks for reading and I hope you find what you’re looking for!

First of all, what do I know about backpacking?

Basically, I’ve done it quite a bit. I’ve been backpacking since I was a teenager and have hiked hundreds of miles all over Washington, Idaho, Oregon, Montana, Nevada, and California. During my time out in the boonies, I make sure to pay attention to my gear and how it performs and what it does. I’ve had gear fail, and I’ve had many pleasant surprises. I’ve researched every piece of gear I own extensively and tried a number of different things. So I have a fair amount of experience as well as a large amount of book-learnin’. I feel that I’m qualified to give sound backpacking advice that will do someone good, and harm no one. There’s always other opinions out there, so you should listen to them! and don’t take my word for it, go try different things and see what works for you!

The beginning backpacker needs very little for a weekend in the wild. There is a basic gear kit which I will discuss and make a few recommendations on, and some basic knowledge that you or someone in your group should have to make sure everyone stays safe and gets home without incident.

Before we discuss gear, here are a few minor skills that you or someone in your group should have.

  1. Someone should know how to read a map and compass. This is the key to basic route finding skills. This knowledge should include taking a bearing with a compass, knowing how to read a topographic map, and familiarizing one’s self with the area.
  2. There should be a first aid trained person in the group. At minimum someone should know how to splint a broken bone, apply a bandage, and make a tourniquet.
  3. Learn a bit about the native plants and animals wherever you are going. It is good to know what poison ivy and poison oak look like, which snakes are poisonous, if there are any dangerous bugs, and a bit about large mammal safety.
  4. Read up on the weather in your destination. There’s nothing worse than being caught in a freak storm. It’s uncomfortable at best, and life-threatening at worst! Pay attention to the clouds and wind, check the weather up until you depart, and bring an extra layer just in case.
  5. Everyone should know the universal emergency signal of 3-whistle blows/gunshots/light flashes to call for help

It’s always best to spend a little extra money and buy a high quality piece of gear if you intend to use it regularly. There’s nothing worse than realizing that a piece of gear you were depending on has failed because you were able to save an extra $20. That being said, I too have to work on a budget and if you can make it work, then use it!

Ok lets get to work.

Footwear

The Quick and Dirty

Buy a pair of quality trail running shoes to hike in. Your feet will stay cool, dry, and comfortable and they won’t break the bank. Stay away from waterproof shoes or boots for anything but mountaineering. They get wet slower, but they dry even slower than that.

The Nuts and Bolts

What you put on your feet might be the most important part of your backpacking gear. Your feet are doing all the work, so it’s important to take care of them! Long gone are the days when massive clunky leather boots are required for every trip. Today, there are so many types of footwear for hiking that it can be pretty intimidating. So here’s the best place to start in my opinion: Evaluate  the terrain of where you are headed. Will there be snow? loose rock and gravel? A well maintained dirt trail? Lots of water? Very steep climbing? Mud? Sand?

Each of these has a specialized type of footwear that will make you more comfortable overall. The problem is, that one rarely (never) encounters a single type of terrain on a given trip, so you need something that can do several of these well. The four main categories of shoes I would recommend looking at are: trail running shoes, hiking shoes, hiking boots, and mountaineering boots.

Next, think about the future. What kinds of trips will you be doing with these shoes/boots, and how much use will you really get out of them? If the answer is “all of the trips until there’s holes in them!” Then that should help you to bite the bullet and drop some money for quality shoes. There’s gear you can skimp on to save a buck, and hiking shoes are not that place. You should look at spending anywhere from $80 for a pair of quality trail running shoes to $650 for a pair of high-end mountaineering boots. I know that seems steep, and it is, but your feet are your best friend out there. Keep them happy! And remember, footwear is a very personal choice. This is just my advice based on my experience. If you feel uncomfortable following it, then don’t, and get a second opinion!

So now that you know where you’re going and have a budget in mind. lets looks at the types of shoes.

Trail Running Shoes

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These are my personal favorite. They are light, comfortable, breathable, and cheap(ish). The first time I went backpacking in a pair of trail running shoes, was also the first time I walked more than 25 miles in a single day. Before that the furthest I had gone was about 12 miles in boots.

The downside to trail shoes is that they lack ankle support and a stiff sole for heavy loads. They wear out faster than boots, and they won’t protect your feet from snow, ice, or sharp rocks.

Bottom line, if you are going to be hiking on flat to moderately steep terrain, on an established trail, in warm weather where there’s no chance of snow, then buy trail running shoes. I like Solomon, Montrail, Columbia, North Face, and Ahnu shoes.

Hiking Shoes

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These are the worst of both worlds in my opinion. If you’re going to go light and fast, get trail shoes. If you need more foot protection get hiking boots.

Hiking shoes tend to be more expensive than trail shoes, and much heavier. They usually come with flashy, unnecessary features like waterproof membranes, double sidewall protection, and claim to be lightweight. Compare them to trail runners and they will feel heavy and clunky and without the higher ankles they basically become hiking boots with features removed.

“Waterproof” is a gimmick when it comes to hiking shoes and boots. There is no such thing as waterproof only water resistant. If it is raining for 4 days straight and you are trudging through it, your feet WILL get wet even if you’re wearing top of the line boots. At that point, the extra $80 you spent for the Gore-Tex membrane is just keeping the moisture trapped in your shoes/boots and your feet will soon be in wet little piggy hell. The only times to buy waterproof are when you’re selecting waders for fishing, or mountaineering boots (and I’ll get to that in a bit).

Breathable mesh shoes may get wet faster, but they also dry in a couple hours instead of a couple days like waterproof shoes. Dry feet = happy feet! Don’t hike with wet feet unless you have no other choice.

Hiking Boots 

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These are the old classic. “Common knowledge” would have every person who walks between two trees wear hiking boots. They are, for the most part, outdated in my opinion, though there certainly is a place for them. If you are carrying more than ~35-40 pounds in your pack, you need boots to give your feet some support. If you are hiking through scree (loose rock and dirt), shale, occasional to moderate snow and ice, sand, or extremely steep terrain then you’ll want boots.

I tend to go for the all leather boots and this is where a waterproof membrane is 50/50. If you’ll ever be in snow and/or minor water, then Gore-Tex is your friend. If you’ll mostly be in warm rainy weather or dry steep terrain, then I’d go without. The synthetic boots are appealing for their lightweight construction and high-tech materials, but they also don’t last nearly as long and won’t give you the fit of leather boots. I recommend Vasque, Asolo, Keen (if you have wide feet), North Face, LOWA, Ahnu, or Pategonia.

When selecting boots, fit is everything!

Don’t buy boots if they hurt right out of the box. Always try boots on with thick socks to make sure you get a proper fit. You are looking for a pair of boots that feels snug but not painfully tight around your forefoot and doesn’t reduce blood flow. They should not have any spots that pinch or rub when you walk, do not allow your toes to touch the front of the boot when walking downhill, and lock your heel down so that you don’t get blisters. If a pair of boots feels good, then they are probably a good fit.

The people who work in the hiking boot section of most outdoors stores are usually very knowledgeable when it comes to fitting boots. They will however, commonly (but not always) be slaves to conventional wisdom and tell you that you NEED boots if you’re hiking anything, so don’t let them pressure you into buying boots you don’t need and won’t use!

Mountaineering Boots

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These are very specialized pieces of equipment that I won’t discuss in much detail. Suffice it to say, unless you are planning to go straight up Mt. Rainier or some other peak, you don’t need them. They are specifically designed for hiking through steep snow and ice, have an immovably stiff sole so they can be used with crampons, are truly waterproof which is a must in the snow, and they are also ungodly expensive.

If you ARE looking for mountaineering boots, I would look at Scarpa, La Sportiva, Mammut, and North Face. I love my La Sportiva Nepal Cubes, but I don’t get much use out of them compared to my Solomon trail runners.

Down the road I will probably write up a post about mountaineering gear. I have very limited mountaineering experience and don’t feel as comfortable giving advice in that area so as I gain experience then I’ll post more. Until then I recommend reading The Freedom of the Hills. It is the bible of mountaineering and it a great place to start.

Well that’s all for part 1 folks! Part 2 is forthcoming and I’ll discuss clothing and the layering system that is key to keeping you warm and cool out in the bush. Please contact me if you have any questions that I didn’t cover, or leave a comment. Thanks for reading!

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