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?
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.
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.
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:
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:
- REI Outlet (last seasons styles-HUGE deals!)
- REI Used Gear
- Arcteryx Used Gear
- Patagonia Worn Wear
- The BackPacking Light gear swap has been around for a long time and is one of the most common places to buy/sell/trade used gear. I’ve used it dozens of times without any issues.
- Reddit ULGearTrade
- Craigslist.com – Buyer beware.
- Lwhiker.com – This was referred to me by my colleague @fitformiles Brandon Chase. It basically searches all the sites for specific products. Looks promising!
Cottage Industry vs. REI
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:
- +Many locations
- +Easy, fast online ordering
- +That return policy!
- +Top brands
- +Great classes
- -Limited selection
- +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:
- Sleeping Bag
- Sleeping Pad
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.
Hopefully, you already have these things figured out
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 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.
- Have patience: Wait for sales, or try and get it used.
- Don’t get sucked into consumerism traps.
- Knowledge is gear too. Take some classes so you’re better prepared.
- Research pays off in the end.
- Quality gear is an investment.
- Ask yourself: “Where am I going to use this *most* of the time?”
- The fitter you are, the lighter your gear will feel.
- Don’t skimp on quality sleep.
- Avoid going ‘stupid light’.
- The most important piece of gear is Your brain. Invest in educating yourself.