Gear for us, and for many others, is a balancing act. In car camping, going cheaper has fewer repercussions. There’s always the car to hide out in if the tent utterly fails in the rain. If the sleeping bag is not warm enough, throwing in another blanket is no big deal. A Coleman camping stove is cheap and reliable, it’s simple enough to use pots from home and the same chairs that get hauled to the sidelines to watch the soccer game. Big lanterns, power cords and fans, all the hammocks, a radio, ice chests and inner tubes for the creek. We car camp with a family who sometimes brings along a screen and projector and we pile up and watch movies half the night, and it’s awesome.
When it’s time to carry all of that to a campsite a mile or two away instead of a few feet from the parking pad, things start looking a little different! NOW some factors come into play. Lightweight, good durability, good price. Most gear, it’s 2 out of 3.
It’s nothing to drop 2 or 3 thousand dollars on gear for one person. $400 tent, $300 sleeping bag $200 pad, $200 pack, $200 shoes, $200 puffy, $150 raincoat, $100 for socks and liners, $100 for poles, $50 for insoles, $50 each for pants and leggings and another $50 each for shirts to layer. $50 for the footprint for that tent, $50 for a headlamp, $50 for a sleeping bag liner, $20 for lighter stakes, glow-in-the-dark lighter-than-paracord lines, bear bag (an Ursak is $80), gaiters, stuff sacks, compression sacks, first aid, Buff. Then there’s a stove, fuel, pots, food, bowl, spoon, cup, water bottles, purification system, rain gear and bug spray, a lighter. Lightweight towels, camp soap, a few clips to hang things to dry on that $200 backpack. Like a pee rag. Wait-maybe hammock camping is better? Oh, it can add up!
There are ways to cut costs. Sales, buying used, borrowing until sure of a system, catching closeouts and buying discontinued items. They all take time but can cut expenses by more than half. Look on Facebook for gear flea markets, check eBay and Craigslist. Cabela’s has a Bargain Cave, REI has garage sales, there are closeout websites such as steepandcheap.com. Sierra Trading Post and Campmor have great deals year round. Both offer extra discounts almost continually, too.
Assuming the very basics are covered like a first aid kit, flashlight or headlamp, poncho or rain gear (frogg toggs are a good starter set for under $20!) and the ability to make a fire and cook (Amazon has a good backpacking stove for $10 and fuel is around $4 a canister. A lightweight cookset can be as low as $15.) Don’t pour a ton of money into that sort of gear right away, many folks decide to forgo cooking and just eat meal bars and save the hassle of cooking, cleaning and hauling the gear!
Go with a product like Aquamira drops for water purification starting out. I use a UV light, some folks use different filters, another friend just risks it and does not do anything. The point is, try or do research on a few options (maybe NOT the foregoing one) and see what works best. Each has advantages! Ask actual people who actually backpack, join a forum or FB group. Look for people with similar lifestyles-a college guy might not be able to suggest the best pad for a 175-pound 35-year-old mom who sleeps really cold and who may or may not have a child join in the night! Also, look for folks in a similar geographic zone. Desert camping is very different from camping in the Smokies in June!
Please remember-the AT is not the ONLY TRAIL and every piece of gear considered does not (and will not) last from Springer to Katahdin. Gear gets trashed, soaked, mouse chewed, sweat-stained, filthy, dropped, scraped, sat on an occasionally forgotten at the previous campsite ALL THE TIME. Don’t get too caught up in brands and gotta-haves. ESPECIALLY when just starting out. Until a good packing/organizing system is in place, there’s always the chance the hiking pole is propped against a tree by that creek miles back, the spare socks or headlamp fell out when the rain gear was hastily yanked out and all the toilet paper was turned into mouse bedding overnight. Whenever stopping for a snack or break, always do a 360 and look BEHIND and rocks or logs that were used as seats. Learn from my Lost Hat Saga.
If just starting out and hoping to just get going with what’s in the closet and adding gear as budget allows (the way many of us start out!) the first GOOD piece of equipment I recommend is shoes. Boots vs trail runners is not the issue if ankle support is needed, boots it is. If not, go for the most comfortable and most supportive in a price range that does not break the bank. The tread on a pair of hiking shoes lasts around 300 to 500 miles, no matter the brand. I have not found any exceptions to this other than Chacos (sandals) that seemingly never wear through. The straps will break first. So go for comfort. Adding sturdy insoles, Superfeet is the most popular and last through several pairs of shoes, but any stiff insole will help cushion the bottom of the foot against rock poke.
Socks-go for wool or a wool blended with silk. These will really make a difference! TJMaxx and Marshall’s will often have wool socks for $7 a pair, which is a very good deal. Wigwam, Darn Tough, Injini are good brands and will last a long while.
Clothes need to be anything NOT COTTON. People will go on and on about bras, underwear, specific brands of wool. Just hit the thrift store and a box store and over time accumulate wicking shirts, a wool sweater, some comfy non-cotton pants and a good lightweight windbreaker jacket. Those are things that will be the most used. Before going all out on a hiking skirt hike in a $2 skirt from the thrift store a couple times. Regular (non-cotton) underwear will work fine until the need to wash and wear the same pair over and over comes into play.
For large women, check the men’s department. For some reason, men are allowed to be quite large and still dress for the outdoors. Women can only do so up until size 16-18. Size 14 at REI.
Next up would be a backpack that fits and with enough space for everything without having to strap stuff on the outside (65L is a very safe bet. If the load does not fill it up, just cinch it down! Having extra space will come in handy at some point-a longer trip or a cold weather trip when there more food or bulkier clothing coming along). The hip belt is non-optional, it’s vital to move the weight of the pack to the hips and keep it off the neck/shoulders and lower back. Everything else is optional and depends on personal preference-weight, amount of pockets, hydration bladder ready and so on. I do recommend getting a hip belt with pockets. After hiking a while, if the pack is simply the wrong size in liters, trade out. This is a very good item to buy on closeout, last years model (check Amazon’s warehouse) or even used.
Before even upgrading the tent and sleeping bag, the sleeping PAD needs to be a good one. An inflatable pad is most comfortable, but a foam pad will never suffer from a hole or two. Pads are tough and inflatable pads can roll down to very small sizes and I feel they are worth it. If there’s any trouble with sleeping, the whole experience will suffer for it. Wider is better for side sleepers, the standard 20 inches is far too narrow to allow for curling up. Insulated is also better-the pad is what keeps a body warm underneath, not the sleeping bag. If it’s chilly out, the ground can suck up body heat with a non-insulated pad. Any pad with a rating under 1.5 will actively pull body heat just like laying on the ground.
Next, sleeping bag for the weather. Women’s bags are different from men and unisex bags. A man’s or unisex bag rated to 20 degrees will keep a woman warm to about 35 or 40 degrees. The bags are often longer and require more body heat to warm up the inside. A woman’s bag cut will also be a little wider in the hips. Get a bag rated for the coldest likely weather in the area most often backpacked. The temperature rating on a bag, unless otherwise noted, is ‘survival’, not comfort.
If needed, a liner can be added to add 10 degrees more warmth or the zipper can be left open making the bag a quilt for warmer nights. Treated (waterproofed) down is the very best bet for compaction and weight. A sleeping bag can use up a LOT of real estate in a backpack and can be 3, 4, even 5 pounds or more. They are also dang pricey and require babying when not in the field because they can’t be stored in their stuff sack. This is probably where the most personal research will come into play.
The final big-ticket item will be a sleep system. Tent or hammock? One person tent or two, or three? Single-walled or double? Tarp tent? Try options, research, borrow and even rent. A shelter can be a huge expense and it needs to do many things. Protect from rain, heat, bugs and cold. It needs to make the people using it feel secure, be light enough to carry easily, pack down small, have enough room when set up for people and gear. If only one person is going-is it too heavy to carry solo?
There’s more to consider in a shelter as well-tents with bathtub style floors keep water from coming in along the sides of the tent if it’s really coming down and rain is running along the ground. 2 doors (or a single door at the top) mean no crossing a partner for a late-night pee. Inside pockets and a gear loft make keeping things organized much easier. A rain fly that is finicky and requires fiddling with will just add time and hassle at the end of what can be some tiring days. A rain fly that is too short leaves the chance that rain will blow under the edge and soak sleepers. A tent without enough mesh to let air circulate can build up condensation and wet sleeping bags anywhere they touch the walls even without it being rainy.
A hammock will always require finding perfectly spaced trees, though with strap systems out now, that distance can vary by as much as 10 feet or more. It will have to be hung just so, the netting arranged, rain fly pitched to block wind and keep the rain off, something has to be done with the backpack and there’s getting in it with potentially dirty feet. And, there still needs to be an insulating layer (more than the flattened sleeping bag) between back and hammock to keep from getting too cold. Even in the summer. Add in trying to avoid trampling vegetation or getting into poison oak between trees and it can be an event to get set up!
And, that’s it! Go to the dollar store and get a car wash microfiber towel to dry with, get a plastic trowel, use the sunscreen and bug spray and first aid gear already accumulated around the house. Go backpacking overnight and for 2 nights several times to see what’s really needed for personal comfort. Not someone else’s gear list and not someone else’s favorite brand, not someone else’s idea of the perfect trip. Most people come back wanting to haul less gear and weight. Remember, on any kind of trip, possessions=responsibility and when backpacking, a good deal of that responsibility is hauling it around. Be sure it’s worth it!