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Thursday, February 26, 2015

Gear Purchasing: Where to start Part 1

Backpacking gear is my addiction.  I am always trying to optimize, lighten, and rethink my gear setup for the next trip.  This has caused a lot of growing pain, wasted cash, and obsolete gear sitting in my closet.  So here I am, trying to ensure you make good decisions right out of the gate and learn from my mistakes.  The following is how I wish I would have purchased my gear, and by no means is it a perfect plan, but it should allow you to come up with a flexible plan without coughing up cash on stuff you are going to hate.  This is going to be a brief overview of gear, as I hope to dive into each piece in more detail with subsequent articles.

Keep in mind that everyone’s idea of backpacking is different. My personal preference is to go as light weight as possible while maintaining certain luxuries.  I use to pack in 30-50 lbs., but have since refined my systems to be consistently between 18-25 lbs. fully loaded with food and water.  Your specific situation will depend on your geography, comfort zone, and priorities, and therefore your gear selection will vary too.  Remember, we do most of our hiking in the Canadian Rocky Mountains from 4,000-8000 ft. elevation, and temperatures ranging from -10C to 30C during the summer and fall, so our gear is tailored to these elements.  I believe a trip is more enjoyable when you can take in the scenery and not work so damn hard lugging your gear, trying hard not to collapse under the weight of your pack. Keep this in mind going forward as this goal will influences your gear selections.

Hiking gear: 

Based on my recommendations from my last article, Backpacking: Where to begin I hope you are already starting to hike.  Since hiking should logically take place before backpacking, you will likely need some gear.  This is what I pack on all my backpacking trips and many of my hikes, and how I have saved loads of money.

Hiking Boots:  Do not go out and buy the tallest, heaviest, most expensive pair of boots with full leathers and one piece construction because some salesman says that’s what backpackers buy.  I choose to select something that is on the lighter end of the spectrum, extremely comfortable, and then I look at durability and cost.  Many people do not consider the weight of their boots, but think about how often you are moving them.  Each and every step, it’s up, forward, down, back, over and over and over.  1 lb. off your feet can feel like 5-10 lbs. off your pack.   Also note, the idea of a waterproof boot is a myth drummed up by manufacturers.  Don’t fall for it.  Your feet will get wet, and there is nothing you can do about it.  If it’s not from rain, it’s from sweat.  Therefore, you should select a boot that will dry quickly.  I have glass ankles so I go for a mid-height, lightweight boot that is relatively flexible, and breathes well.  Pro tip:  Bring your hiking socks to the store when trying on your boots for the best fit.  If you like to hike in two pair, bring them both.  Your feet will love you for it.

Socks: Almost as important as your boots.  The general idea behind your sock selection is that you want your socks to do the rubbing and wearing within the boot and not your foot.  The better the fit of boot, and better sock selection, the less likely you will get hot spots or blisters.  I used to wear two pair of thin socks, but found my feet would sweat more than I liked.  I have since moved to a two layer sock (an inner and outer layer that acts as two socks without the bulk and thickness) and have found huge improvements.  Practice and experiment with various arrangements: Two pair, two layer, one thick pair, one thin pair, etc. until you find the setup right for you.  Pro Tip:  Select a wool or synthetic sock, as they will dry the fastest when your feet are wet, or when you wash them on the trail.

Hiking Pants:  Selecting a good set of pants is crucial.  If you make the right choice, it is the only pair you will need to bring and will save you weight and volume. Get a light pair of synthetic pants where the legs zip off to make shorts (convertible).  Synthetic because they will dry quickly, convertible because then you don’t need to pack shorts for those hot days.  I never hike with much in my pockets, so this is never a selling point for me but to each their own.  Try to get a good deal on these, as it will save you more money for the more important pieces of gear, and you won’t be as upset when you rip them on a rock or burn a hole in them from a stray ember.  I do not get wrapped up in weight as I will be wearing this piece typically the entire trip.  Pro Tip:  Costco sells my favorite pair of convertible hiking pants for $22 CAD, and dark colors hide dirt well

Hiking Shirt/Top:  Layers, Layers, and Layers.  My base layer is usually a synthetic quick dry work out shirt, such as under armor or anything else really.  I prefer a long sleeve shirt regardless of the weather as it covers my arms protecting me from bugs, the sun, and scratches from the trees.  I then layer another quick dry T-Shirt on top of this for mornings and evening, and take it off during the heat of the day.  Weight isn’t a huge concern, as opposed to fit and function.  Pro Tip:  When you start your hike, don’t layer up to be warm.  Instead, wear the perfect layers to be cold and pack the rest.  Once you start hiking you will heat up accordingly.

Rain Jacket: MY MOST IMPORTANT PIECE OF KIT I OWN. When it rains, I put it on.  When it is windy, I put it on.  When it is cold, I put it on.  When my tent explodes and I am left to survive in the elements on my own, I will put it on.  It is my second skin, and one of my biggest pieces of safety gear.  I have been caught in freak torrential rains, hail and snow, and scary winds, and this piece of gear has kept me calm, warm, and dry through it all.  Look for something that is light weight, breathable, and durable.  The pockets should be accessible when hiking, and should have a hood you can cinch down when the weather turns on you.  I look for a hood with a built in brim, and it sheds the water away from my face.  Be prepared to spend some good money on this piece, but manufacturers often have a last year model blow out, and this is when you will want to buy.  The neighborhood of 300-450 grams is the region you will want to shoot for.  Any lighter and you might run into durability issues, any heavier and you are lugging around unnecessary weight.  Pro Tip:  When trying on jackets in the store, make sure to strap on a pack to see what pockets you can get at, and where the hip belt sits in relation to the bottom edge (no one likes chaffing).

Rain Pants:  I still haven’t made up my mind on rain pants.  My main arguments for them are if my pants get soaked and I need something to wear while they dry, I can wear the rain pants.  If we are in a crazy storm, I can wear them to stay warm and dry.  If it gets very cold and windy out, they will keep me warm.  On the other hand, a good pair of pants will dry as you wear them, and a light pair of gators will keep half your legs dry for a fraction of the weight.  If you are going to pick up a pair, try to select a very light set, as you will likely be carrying them the majority of the time.  Select a pair with zippers or snaps so you can access all your pants pockets.  Pro Tip:  Wear your hiking boots to the store when you go to buy some, and make sure the pants slide OVER your boots.  You hiking partners won’t want to stop on a cold rainy day for you to take off your boots to put your rain pants on.

Head Gear: This is a piece of gear I have neglected for years, but have finally started paying attention to, and it has complimented the rest of my gear as a result.  I pack 1 small toque that is pretty tight (also known as a beanie) for cool nights and sleeping in.  Fleece makes my head sweat so I usually go with wool.  For hiking and during the day I pack 1 large brimmed fishing hat to keep the sun off my face and neck.  Could I get away with just 1 hat and still be relatively comfortable? Yeah probably.  Is this one of my selections where I sacrifice a little weight and volume for comfort? Yes.  And it has paid off.  You know the old saying, “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure”?  Well try packing an extra pound of sunscreen instead of a sun hat and see how it does you, or packing a pound of OMG its cold tonight and my head is freezing instead of a toque.  Pro Tip: the hat you are not wearing can be used to organize small items on your pack.  When you switch hats, transfer the items from one hat to another.

That concludes my thoughts on the hiking gear you need to start adventuring.  The reason you buy this stuff first, is simple; What if you hate backpacking? Then you still have this awesome gear you can use for anything outdoors, and you are likely to use all year round, not just 1 or 2 trips.  My next appearance will be to discuss the BIG 3… but actually BIG 4!  So stay tuned. Happy trails

Ken KR

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