Tips: How to buy backpacking gear

Consider this a handy introductory guide to buying backpacking gear, with the emphasis on how to buy instead of what to buy. I’ll discuss the ethos of buying gear and the kind of mindset you should try to get into before purchasing anything, as well as the kind of traps you should avoid. 

My personal experience

Over the years I’ve spent an obscene amount of money on gear. I’ve also fixed, modified, and resold lots of it too. More on that in another post.

Luckily, there’s so much information online now, so if you have the time you can figure out what gear is probably best for you before you buy anything. Your backpacking style, the conditions you will likely encounter, and your existing or anticipated skill set should all drive your decisions.

You can get a lot of great gear that’s lightly used or, if you’re handy with a sewing machine, perhaps you can even modify something ‘off the rack’ to perfectly fit your needs. 

First step: Take inventory

Before making any purchases, honestly answer these questions:

What is the state of your gear? Are you dialed in, starting from scratch, or somewhere in between?

What do you really need? What do you need now, and what can wait?

And of course: What’s your budget?

Helpful guidelines

1. It’s the journey, not the destination

If you’re just getting started, don’t break the bank buying all the stuff on every “Best Backpacking Gear of 2021” post. Rent, borrow and buy things that you can return if they just don’t work for you. Once you have the basics, you can refine your kit over time as you figure out what does/does not work for you. 

2. Avoid “Perfect Pack Syndrome”

This is a real thing, trust me. If you find yourself obsessing over the excruciating minutiae of your pack list, take a step back. There are so many bottomless rabbit holes you can go down with gear that simply aren’t worth it. Focus on getting the big stuff first, and accept when something is ‘good enough’. 

3. Don’t spend money on stuff you really don’t need

Like most retail products, you can get “good” backpacking gear for a relatively reasonable price. But for “the best” gear, you must pay significantly more, and most backpackers don’t backpack often enough to justify that steep price hike. As an example, you’d be very happy with the $359 sil-nylon version of this shelter, and you’d have an extra $340 in your pocket by bypassing the DCF version.

4. Beware of “Shiny New Object Syndrome”

When you encounter a longtime backpacker, notice that a lot of their gear is older and perhaps even discontinued. Yet they continue to use it because it still works well and because the newer models are only marginally better (maybe). You’re unlikely to see one of them spring for new JetBoil Stash if they already have a Pocket Rocket Deluxe, for example.

5. Price per weight savings

It makes sense to spend money in order to drop weight from big-ticket items like shelters, bags, packs, and pads. But at some point the bell curve flattens out and you’ll pay way more to drop each additional ounce. It’s rarely worth it unless you get out a lot and can justify the expense. 

6. Learn to spot good (and bad) online advice

There is a lot of good educational content out there. But there is also a LOT of noise, especially about gear.

Learn the difference between a helpful article and an affiliate revenue-driven listicle designed to make money off your clicks. 

7. Create modular systems

There’s a lot to be said for assembling modular systems. Just like you layer clothing to adjust to conditions, all your gear should aim to be multi-purpose too. Shelters with interchangeable inners or tent flys based on conditions, pads you can stack on top of one another, sleeping bags you can layer for different temperatures, packs with removable storage pockets/features, etc. 

8. What offers the best “performance per…”

Weight isn’t everything. There are lots of examples of stupid light gear choices we’ve all made, so learn from other people’s mistakes. Similarly, you can buy gear that proves to be stupid cheap or stupid disposable.

Online resources

There are a lot of gear-related resources on the internet, and this list is by no means exhaustive. These are just some of the sites I visit the most and have proven to be helpful, in addition to the one you’re currently visiting. 


Buying used gear or last seasons styles 

Luckily, some of the biggest brands are catching on to the demand for a used gear market, and there are more and more ways to buy used gear popping up every day. Here are just a few: 

REI Garage Sales

This (pre-covid) happens a few times a year at most REI locations where you can browse lightly used gear for big discounts. They may, or may not, return at some point. Personally, I never really found them that helpful. It’s all online these days:

The selection of packs at REI

Cottage Industry vs. REI

You’ve no doubt seen the same 5-10 cottage manufacturers popping up in many of the Top 10’ lists‘. Is it worth waiting 10-14 weeks for a custom product from them? It depends.

Five years ago, I would have been more bullish on cottage brands, but the bigger companies and REI have narrowed the gap considerably. You can walk into any REI tomorrow and assemble a very respectable off-the-rack UL kit. Here are the Pros vs. Cons: 

REI:

  • +Many locations
  • +Easy, fast online ordering 
  • +That return policy
  • +Dividends!
  • +Top brands
  • +Great classes
  • -Limited selection 

Cottage brands:

  • +Higher performing gear (DCF, XPac, Robic, eVent, Litesail, 7D nylon, etc.)
  • +More interesting products 
  • +Customization (great for those who know exactly what they want)
  • -Potentially long lead times (10-14 weeks!)
  • -Less forgiving return policies (or non-returnable)

What items should you invest in first? 

The internet will tell you to focus on these things first, and I generally agree: 

  1. Shelter
  2. Sleeping Bag
  3. Sleeping Pad
  4. Backpack

You can save HUGE amounts of weight and up your backcountry experience considerably by getting dialed in on these categories. It can cost you though…. For a world-class ‘Big 4’, you can pay between $1,500-$1,900. Don’t stress though,  you can also get a very respectable kit for around $600 if you play your cards right and shop around. 

Tier 2

Hopefully, you already have these things figured out 

REI has a pretty good selection of sleeping bags, including quilts now.

A note on sleep quality

Don’t skimp on the gear that will help you sleep well. Sleep is simply too important, especially if you’re pushing yourself physically. The last thing you want is to be tossing and turning on an uncomfortable mattress or shivering in an inadequate sleeping bag. Quality sleep is worth the money, and the weight (to a reasonable point).

Footwear considerations

Footwear is incredibly personal, so figure out what works best for your feet. It doesn’t matter what other people wear if they give you blisters or cause you to roll your ankles. Try as many pairs on as you can until you’re confident you have a winner based on the style of hiking you’ll be doing. 


Parting Thoughts

  1. Have patience: Wait for sales, or try and get it used.
  2. Don’t get sucked into consumerism traps.
  3. Knowledge is gear too. Take some classes so you’re better prepared.
  4. Research pays off in the end.
  5. Quality gear is an investment.
  6. Ask yourself: “Where am I going to use this *most* of the time?”
  7. The fitter you are, the lighter your gear will feel. 
  8. Don’t skimp on quality sleep.
  9. Avoid going ‘stupid light’.
  10. The most important piece of gear is Your brain. Invest in educating yourself.

What tips and tricks do you have for buying gear? Leave a comment.

Posted in on March 14, 2021
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15 Comments

  1. Brandon on March 15, 2021 at 6:02 pm

    Solid advice here! I am still a recovering addict of “shiny new object syndrome” 🙁

  2. dgray on March 15, 2021 at 8:19 pm

    I don’t know about the rest of the country, but here in Minneapolis REI no longer has the once-a-month garage sale. Instead they keep their garage sale stock constantly out on the floor in a special section of the store. I pop in to my local store regularly to peruse the garage sale items, and while the selection is definitely hit or miss I have found some amazing deals since they began this new system and I greatly appreciate not having to fight through the crowds

    • Hunter Hall on March 15, 2021 at 8:24 pm

      Yeah, I’ve seen that too at a few SoCal REI’s. It seems like a good system.

  3. Dan Freeman on March 15, 2021 at 9:44 pm

    Good stuff. My big goal this year is solving my sleep issues. For the past few years I’ve been using a 40deg bag and sleeping in lots of clothes and it just hasn’t ever worked well for me. Last year was a breaking point. This year: heavier bag and melatonin gummies.

    • Hunter Hall on March 15, 2021 at 10:42 pm

      Sleeping in clothes seems to give different people different results. Some people swear by it, others like sleeping nearly naked.

      Ultimately, it really depends on a complex array of variables including the bag, the environment, and your own metabolism, so I usually tell people to experiment with different things until they find something that works for them.

  4. neal joseph on March 16, 2021 at 12:52 pm

    Luckily I was a poor student when I fell in love with backpacking. Investing time and effort into research, patience for sales, and getting by with less than the shiniest sexy new piece of Cuben fiber was the only option. I still evaluate gear with this basic formula- what is the sweet spot between functionality, cost, and weight? The first two are not very negotiable, cutting weight is super important but also the place where I have the most leeway. My first shelter was a Six Moons Designs Skyscape Scout, still less than $150! I still cherish that tent and the endless adventures I’ve had with it.

  5. Tom P on March 16, 2021 at 1:41 pm

    For saving money, I’ve found really good deals getting stuff on clearance together with another coupon/sale (many retailers offer an extra coupon for clearance/outlet items, and/or they offer a discount on your first order). Of course, you’ll have limited selection by doing this, so you’ll want to make a list of models you want instead of picking just one backpack or sleeping bag.

    The advantage of doing this when you’re just getting started is that you probably don’t know enough to accurately choose between the top 5 anyways. And if you get a really good deal, you’ll be able to sell it used for nearly the same price you paid. I bought my first backpack (an Osprey) for $140 and sold it for $110 when I upgraded two years later.

    In general if you’re just starting out, keep in mind that no matter how much you research you’ll probably discover things that change your mind about what you want. So expect that you’ll want to replace many of your initial purchases and make sure you can do so in an economical way.

    • Hunter Hall on March 16, 2021 at 2:17 pm

      Agreed. Most people change their minds about what they need/like many times as they are getting started.

  6. Amy Barker on March 16, 2021 at 4:03 pm

    What are the old school backpackers actually using? That’s my jumping off point for researching gear. I’ll see a link to gear on their website or youtube video, then I’ll go to their social media feeds and see what they’re being depicted as actually using.

    I fell for the MSR Pocket Rocket, but when I tried it out in my kitchen I decided I just don’t like it. I started with the Trail Designs Sidewinder Ti-Tri alcohol stove, and I still just love that thing. There’s something simple and almost romantic about it for me. I don’t care if the alcohol adds to the weight at first. That said, I’ll still keep the MSR & BRS for areas that don’t permit the TD Ti-Tri.

    I got addicted to going UL at first, but as Hunter suggests regarding “style of hiking,” now I’m trying to go more UL so I can add in more comfort items. I shaved weight on my pad & pack so I can justify the extra weight from my semi-freestanding tent because it’s just SO easy to set up after a long day. Convenience and ease win me over every time.

    • Hunter Hall on March 16, 2021 at 8:31 pm

      Totally. Convenience and ease of use are highly underrated.

  7. Joe on March 17, 2021 at 4:53 pm

    Not to nitpick, but I would highlight another difference in the REI vs. Cottage section. When I buy a quilt from Enlightened Equipment, or a pack from Seek Outside, there’s a fairly direct connection between my money and some folks in Minnesota and Colorado. Local communities there end up adding useful jobs like production sewing and customer service, and those jobs are available to people from a wide range of backgrounds. Although I’m sure there are exceptions, the few cottage companies I’m personally familiar with are incredibly supportive places to work that pay livable wages. The two companies I cite above, and many, many more, also directly contribute to, and advocate for, conservation.

    Contrast that to big-box retailers and the endless stream of highly paid VPs, Directors, Consultants, etc. that take the cream in the corporate world, and their dubious conservation credentials.

    Sorry for the soapbox 🙂

    • Hunter Hall on March 17, 2021 at 8:01 pm

      Great point! It’s obviously preferable to buy local and support American-made products.

  8. mehmet on March 21, 2021 at 12:38 am

    hello andrew i did read every hiking vlog and watch every hiking – thru hiking video on internet if i buy a 800 fill power premium xxl jacket ( im using s size ) can i sleep inside my 800 fp xxl downjacket and use as a sleeping bag ? what can be happen if i will do this 🙂 i will thru hike with this sub 2 kg setup

    • Hunter Hall on March 21, 2021 at 11:42 pm

      Hi Mehmet,

      I’m a little confused. Are you saying you would try and essentially double up on jackets for a modular sleep system? Or use a very large down jacket as an actual sleeping bag?

      • mehmet on March 23, 2021 at 7:15 pm

        hello again , i will use on this conditions : 5 degree – 10 degree night temps , not a difficult trekking route , yes i wanna use just down jacket i wont take any sleeping bag with me just xxxl down jacket + sleeping pad + bug net + poncho tarp maybe extra baselayers + midlayer, not very rainy and mostly sunny conditions. i want to use just like this setup because of the time savings. what can be happen i dont really know 🙂 thank you for answer 🙂

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