Don’t Fall For These 7 Backpacking Gear Myths

Backpackers love to tell you what to do. If you’ve ever spent time in the backcountry, chances are you’ve heard a lot of advice, sometimes solicited, mostly not. Something along the lines of, “X serves the best burger on the AT,” or “I know it’s only 8am, but you really have to camp at that lake in one mile. It’s the best campsite ever.” Have you ever had someone tell you that, “Drinking vinegar keeps bugs away”? I hope not. Backpacking myths abound.

And here’s the kicker, only some of this advice is true while other parts are bogus. While their intentions may be good, hiker advice, particularly thru-hiker advice, is often filled with misinformation that has been passed through the trekking community for years. And no aspect of backpacking is safe. Whether it is about food, weather, or the trail itself, advice should all be taken with a grain of salt. Gear talk is no exception. From water bottle cap sizing to waterproofing, here are seven myths about backpacking gear to watch out for.

1. It’s warmer to sleep naked.

Another bad sleeping bag technique.

If there was ever an urban legend in the backcountry, it would be that it is warmer to sleep naked than clothed. The supposed explanation for this is that sleeping bags are designed to reflect your body heat, and clothes get in the way of this process, but there is no truth in this myth. In reality, common sense prevails. Insulating layers like sleeping bags and down jackets trap heat inside them and the more layers there are, the less heat can escape.

That being said, it is worth noting that wearing clothing that is wet, too warm, or too tight fitting can cause you to be colder. Wet clothes have a tendency to draw away heat, and clothing that makes you too hot will cause you to sweat, making you wet, which in turn begins to make you cold. Furthermore, tight-fitting clothing can cut off your circulation, leading to chills. While this is rare and an effect usually reserved for wearing ski boots, some people find that sleep socks restrict blood flow and cause cold feet. All in all, dry clothing that is appropriate for the weather will keep you warmer than going nude.

2. A pack cover is necessary to keep your stuff dry.

Life with a pack cover is tough. Photo credit: Maggie Slepian

Have you ever struggled for an eternity to deploy your waterproof pack cover only to discover after a long day that part of it slipped off and now all your stuff is drenched? Of course, you’re also extra soaked and miserable from chafing all day. All the rain that fell on your pack beaded up and soaked your shorts as well. Yeah, me too. 

Thankfully, a pack cover is not the only solution. You can also use a pack liner, which lines the inside of your pack, rather than the outside. Also, they are usually lighter, and save you from worrying about the cover snagging a branch or removing the cover to dig into an exterior pocket.

They’re also cheap and easy to obtain. While there are plenty of options for purpose-built liners, you can also use a simple trash bag or trash compactor bag, which are durable enough to last for an entire long thru-hike.

The downside is that they can wrinkle up and slightly impact space efficiently. They also don’t prevent the outside pockets or pack fabric from getting wet. You also need to interact with them every day, even when the weather is nice. However, many backpackers believe the advantages outweigh the disadvantages. The protection is arguably better than that of a pack cover, and a liner is always ready to keep your stuff dry — even on your lazy days.

So, no pack cover or pack liner is a perfect solution all on its own, but a liner is less likely to leave you low and soggy. Some hikers even choose to use both for the best, and worst, of both worlds.

3. The heaviest items in your backpack are the tent, sleeping bag, and pack itself.

The true culprit of a heavy pack.

Ultralight backpackers do everything they can to minimize their pack weight and typically target what is known as the “Big Three.” In theory, purchasing lightweight models of the tent, sleeping bag, and backpack is the easiest way to cut big weight from your kit. That is a good, potentially expensive approach, but there’s another thing that all backpackers carry that is almost always heavier — food.

Many experts recommend carrying about two pounds of food per day. Add that up for a four-day backpacking trip and we’re talking about eight pounds in food weight alone. Long-distance backpackers with hiker hunger or longer stretches between resupplies can easily double this weight. Forget spending $100 to save one ounce on your sleeping bag. Ditching one extra Clif Bar will save you money and more weight.

That’s why cutting food weight is often the easiest and cheapest way to lower your overall pack weight. When purchasing food, try not to overbuy and consider calorie density: the ratio between its weight and the number of calories (calories/ounce). Make a shopping list before entering the store, and aim for an average of over 100 calories per ounce. You’ll find that foods high in fat tend to be the densest because a gram of fat provides nine calories, while a gram of carbohydrates or protein only provides four.

By all means, splurge on lightweight gear if you want to. However, it’s worth putting just as much effort into lowering the weight of your food bag as your Big Three.

READ NEXT — Basic Thru-Hiker Nutrition Part 1: Macros and Micros

4. You need to buy expensive ultralight gear.

A lot of this gear isn’t the lightest or most expensive, yet it will go the distance. Photo credit: Nadia Fenay

Don’t get me wrong — lightweight gear is great. It’s easy to feel a difference of just a few ounces on a long trip, but a low pack weight comes at a cost. Selecting gear is a trade-off between weight, price, and comfort, and it’s rare to find all three in one item. That said, there are many options that are just a little bit heavier or slightly less comfortable while being significantly cheaper.

Check out other hikers’ gear lists for ideas of low-cost options, or search for store-brand gear from companies like REI or EMS. Walmart carries staples like the Sawyer Squeeze and dehydrated backpacking meals for cheaper than you can find elsewhere. Sierra offers an assortment of steeply discounted footwear, clothing, and sleep systems.


5. Only Smartwater bottles are compatible with water filters.

Fit a Sawyer onto whatever bottle you like.

The Sawyer Squeeze is a tremendously popular water filter for many reasons. One of those is versatility – you can attach it to the included soft flasks, make a gravity filter, or screw it onto a water bottle. Many hikers opting for the latter, select Smartwater bottles, sometimes mistakenly believing them to be the only ones that are compatible with the Squeeze.

The fact is that Smartwater bottles and Sawyer filters use a 28-millimeter diameter screw cap. This just so happens to be the industry standard for single-use bottles, just like a Coke or Mountain Dew.

Soda lovers and fancy water haters can rejoice knowing they’re able to save money or buy a tastier drink yet still have a compatible bottle. Other good options are 1L Dasani bottles, which are lighter, or pretty much any sugar drink of your choosing. While almost any bottle will work, it is worth noting that narrow-mouth Nalgene bottles are still slightly larger than the standard size and will not fit a filter.


6. You need to  ________.

A lot of people will tell you that you need to hike the Amacolola Falls approach trail at the beginning of your AT thru-hike. You don’t. Photo credit: Owen Eigenbrot

Backpackers love to tell you how to do things. You need an ultralight tent, you need to bring trekking poles, you need to hike the AT Approach Trail. In reality, the only things that are set in stone are cairns and trekking pole scratches. What works amazingly for one person could be a disaster for another, so when making choices, it’s important to listen to yourself. The classic saying, “hike your own hike,” is so important, so take all advice with a grain of salt.


7. Clothing can be 100% waterproof.

This rain jacket is wetted out, which means it’s not very breathable anymore. Photo credit: Brandon Chase.

Like many things in backpacking, purchasing waterproof gear is a tradeoff. With rainwear, it’s between waterproofness and breathability. This unwinnable balance is important because not only can you get wet from rain hitting the outside of your jacket, but also from sweat on the inside. Sure, a rubber jacket would do a great job keeping water out, but your sweat would have no place to go, leaving you soaked. Because of this, waterproof layers have tiny holes that allow water vapor to escape, while keeping rainwater out.

That’s a lot easier said than done. When it’s very rainy, the immense amount of water pelting your jacket causes an increase in pressure on the outside and eventually saturates the surface fabric. That keeps the breathable layer from doing its job. The vapor can’t escape through the tiny pores, which means that your sweat is trapped inside, resulting in that nasty clammy feeling. This is what’s known as ‘wetting out.’ Every single outerwear product described as waterproof and breathable is susceptible to this. As such, it’s impossible to find a jacket that will keep you dry all of the time.


Find Out for Yourself

Virginia is not flat. It’s a hard lesson that most backpackers need to find out for themselves. Photo credit: Clay Bonnyman Evans

The result of falling for one of backpacking’s tall tales can range from uncomfortable to dangerous. Sometimes the outcome is benign or funny, but when you are hoping to be self-reliant, it pays to do your research. A fact check is always helpful to make sure that your hikes go smoothly. Gather as many opinions as you can, then make an informed decision.

And don’t be afraid to do some experimenting to find the truth for yourself. That means shakedown hikes and borrowing gear to see what works best. Ultimately, you are responsible for your own safety and enjoyment when you step foot in the backcountry so don’t let unverified dogma cloud your judgment. Get outside, see it for yourself, have some fun, and always remember to stay safe. Pretty soon you’ll be passing down bogus advice of your own like the best of them.

Featured image: A SpiceRack photo. Graphic design by Zack Goldman.

Affiliate Disclosure

This website contains affiliate links, which means The Trek may receive a percentage of any product or service you purchase using the links in the articles or advertisements. The buyer pays the same price as they would otherwise, and your purchase helps to support The Trek's ongoing goal to serve you quality backpacking advice and information. Thanks for your support!

To learn more, please visit the About This Site page.

Comments 1

  • Turtle Man : Oct 21st

    Great mythbusting list! Number 1 (you’ll be warming sleeping naked in a bag than wearing something) lives on, zomie like, despite laws of physics and ample debunking. Everything else equal, one can’t be warmer with less insulation.

    Re. pack covers, They’ll “work” for a while to keep water out of a pack, but with extended rainfall events, water will eventually wick in from shoulder straps and whatever moisture find it’s way down your back, even if it’s from sweat. For porous (most non-Dynema) fabrics, they will keep water from shorter storms from soaking up water weight into pack material, which i’d guess is going to be heavier than the pack cover itself. So maybe worth the trade off there.

    One more myth of a sort, “Oh, but it’s natural!” some people will say when trying to rationalize tossing bits of food waste (like apple cores or banana peels) into the woods around camping areas or off the side of the trail. One might expect that most people spending time outside would realize the potential of this to attract and habituate animals to areas where people would do this, with all the problems might create. But, apparently not. I recently caught someone winding up to toss an apple core behind behind a shelter on the Vermont Long Trail. “Hey, bud, what are you doing?” started a short conversation which seemed to dissuade him without being too confrontational.


What Do You Think?