Backpacking Gear: What Should You Invest Your Money In?

I get asked a lot of questions about gear. I have a few friends who are just getting into the outdoorsy side of life, and lately their questions have had me thinking about what I wish I had known when I was a brand new starry-eyed backpacker, completely clueless about what would actually happen when I hiked into the woods. Looking back, it would have really helped me if someone had sat me down and explained what gear was worth spending serious cash on, where to save my money, and what I could make myself. So I’ve put together a small list of suggestions for new backpackers based on my experience:

Consider Coughing Up the Cash For…..

  • An ultralight tent: If you want to save weight but aren’t into the idea of hammocks, bivouacs, or tarps, then drop your dimes on an ultralight tent. Yes, they’re pricey– but you will be amazed by the weight and space savings.
  • An ultralight inflatable sleeping pad: If you’re camping in a cold climate, an ultralight inflatable pad will save space in your bag and keep you warm and comfy at night.
This Patagonia rain jacket was not the cheapest option, but it kept me dry for five years. (Pictured in El Chalten, Argentina.)
This Patagonia rain jacket was not the cheapest option, but it kept me dry for five years. (Pictured in El Chalten, Argentina.)
  • Rain gear: In my experience, there is a big difference between a $40 raincoat and a $160 raincoat. A high quality rain jacket should keep you dry for years and typically will have better design and features that significantly enhance your comfort out on the trail.
  • Hydrophobic synthetic down: It weighs almost nothing, packs down small enough to carry anywhere, and stays warm when wet. It’s definitely worth investing in a good jacket, like my Sierra Designs Stratus Jacket.
  • A good sleeping bag: Relevant to cold weather campers. A lot of people haul around enormous sleeping bags that take up half their backpacks and weigh too much. Shelling out more money will enable you to purchase a bag that is much more compact, but equally warm.

Rebecca and I enjoy a meal cooked over a cat food can while backpacking in Patagonia.
Rebecca and I enjoy a meal cooked over a cat food can while backpacking in Patagonia.

Save Your Money On….

  • Camping stove: Years ago, I dropped over $100 on a camping stove that I’ve only used on one trip. It takes too much space and requires field maintenance. Instead, make your own! I made mine out of a cat food can and it works like a charm come wind, rain, or snow– no maintenance required.
  • Pack cover:  They don’t cover the entire pack, so they won’t keep your things dry in a real downpour and they can easily fly away in high winds. I use heavy-duty black trash bags as bag liners instead.
  • Skip the tent: Consider a hammock, making your own shelter, or using a bivvy.
  • Foam sleeping pad: Expensive inflatable pads aren’t for everyone. A plain old foam pad is quite cheap and will do the job just fine. They take up more space, but if you can strap one to the outside of your pack, go for it.
  • Pre-prepared “backpacking” meals: They’re super expensive. Eventually I’ll write about preparing food for backpacking trips, but for now I’ll just say that I’m confident all you clever people can find a cheaper way to feed yourselves.
  • Fancy lighters: Don’t be fooled by marketing gimmicks: unless you’ll be expeditioning into truly extreme conditions, just use a $1 drugstore lighter and carry a backup.
  • Random tip: Consider buying clothing from the kid’s section… No, I’m not joking! If you are small enough to fit into kid’s clothing, why not? It’s always cheaper. 6 years ago I bought XL rain pants from the youth section at REI (I usually wear a women’s medium)– I saved $50, nobody knew the difference, and the pants are still keeping me dry to this day. In fact, I am wearing those very pants in the photos in this post!

Any tips you can share? Let me know in the comments below!




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