Backpacks and Gear: REI doesn’t know everything about gear

Before I successfully did a Southbound thru hike of the Appalachian Trail, I as most people bought plethora of gear at REI. For many of us hikers, gear is like politics. Gear is controversial.

“What’s your base weight bro?” A quote derived explicitly from cocky North bounders I met early on in my hike.

Gear is controversial. But the most important thing to remember is that you’re the one using the gear, not somebody else. If you are uncomfortable with some of your gear, switch it up, but if you like the gear you use, keep using it and don’t listen to others opinions.

Although others opinions can be very helpful when conversing in a friendly manner. The majority of gear talk I’ve been involved in usually is done in a pernicious dialect (I don’t encourage this, and try to leave any conversation like this) which is the problem, don’t attack others for what they want to carry on their back.

With that notion aside, REI is what I’m here to talk about. Before my first thru hike, like most people I made a 2 hour trip to REI and dropped about 700$ on gear that I would be using for my AT excursion.  I bought a Gregory Baltoro 75 liter pack, rated the best backpack of the year- and let me tell you what, it just didn’t work out. Although I used it for all 2189 miles, I would’ve never bought this pack for a thru hike with the knowledge I have now.

After walking into REI, seeking out an employee and mentioning thru hiking the Appalachian Trail, the employee said “you’re going to need a big pack!”

Wrong, the idea that you need to carry a lot of stuff on the AT because its a 6 month journey misses the point, and also shows the flaw in the REI rhetoric.

The less you carry the less you worry, every morning when you pack your bag you have to find every item that goes in there and for some that can be quick and simple, but for those carrying a hoarders garage, it’ll acquire more time.

This is simply my opinion, but you don’t need to carry a lot of shit on the AT or any backpacking trip unless you’re catering for others (group trips etc.)

You have to walk 2000+ miles!!! Every step is at stake, whether it’s the constant rocks and ankle churning of Pennsylvania or the annoying slippery roots of Maine, the difference in carrying 40 pounds on your back vs 20 pounds can determine whether or not you finish your hike. Imagine this- you slip on a rock and go down with 40 pounds of weight in your backpack, this could possibly end your thru hike. Now imagine taking a tumble with only 20 pounds on your back, that’s half of forty pounds, half the weight on that ankle that is getting grinded up and half the risk!

Weight my not seem important at first, especially if you’re a tough, determined person, but after 1500 miles of walking your legs will be a lot more tired if you’re carrying a lot more weight. And at the end of my thru hike, I was dragging- physically drained because my legs were dead. The last day of my hike I weighed my pack and it came in at 34 pounds, I was extremely disappointed too, and have vowed to cut at least 20 pounds off.

You just don’t need a big backpack to get to the point. 75 liters is too much, you’ll regret buying something that big. Because no matter how big it is, you’re going to fill it.

A 75 liter pack weighs over 5 pounds alone. A 75 liter pack is literally not made for thru hikes, it’s made for a weekend stroll thru the woods,  as seen in this picture, the wide hip belt destroyed my hips, causing infection, bruising and pain.My hips from the Baltoro 75, red, and yellow from bruising. This was taken when they look relativly good and weren't literally "dripping blood"

Constant grinding of the big hip belt destroys hips. The pain was so intense at times while walking I would cry for periods of time.

REI usually misses the point, which is okay-they tend to weekend hikers and have great knowledge. REI doesn’t cater for thru hikers, the backpacks REI supply generally are made for section hiking shorter distances.

The hip belts tend to be too big and wide, which is a major problem! Don’t make my mistake. For more information I’ll be writing another article soon about backpacks made for thru hiking-stay tuned.



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Comments 17

  • John : Feb 24th

    For the sake of maintaining author credibility in a post critiquing other’s knowledge of gear, you probably meant to say Gregory Baltoro…

  • Sean : Feb 24th

    I personally think you’re giving REI too much credit. Their knowledge is marginal and dependent completely on how enthusiastic the sales associate you’re working with is in whatever sport you’re shopping for.

    I lost all credibility with REI when I went in to pick up a can of isobutane for an upcoming trip and had to interrupt the associate who was selling a couple a biolite stove for their upcoming hiking trip that weekend in the hills locally. I explained that a month earlier the national forest and wilderness areas went into fire restrictions which prevented campfires in the back country and any biofuel stoves like the biolite. I explained this was standard in our area, and generally from late spring/early summer through the first rains in late fall or early winter, their biolite would be useless in the area.

    They ended up buying a canister stove, which was permitted.

    I’ve had to explain/argue with associates that I really didn’t want gortex waterproof shoes, that once they wetted out they never dried and it was easier to just have very breathable shoes instead of swamp boxes. I shouldn’t have to explain this. I should ask for a non-waterproof shoe and they either have it and show me or they don’t. Especially if I say I researched and know specifically what make, model, and size of shoe I want.

    I’ve seen associates sell to buyers’ fears and oversell. I get it that it’s a business but still. It’s kind of absurd.

    I’ve seen REI associates with glaring lack of knowledge about the area that they’re in.

    I’ve seen one REI associate assure someone that they could totally kayak 36 miles through open ocean deep water shipping lanes to an island.

    I’ve had to explain to REI associates that yes, I really do want 20 pounds of sandbags to put in this pack before I buy it so I can feel how it sits with weight. And then assure them that one ten pound bag isn’t enough.

    REI’s associates don’t strike me as particularly trained beyond any other retail location’s sales associates. But they sure act like they are.

    • JiM S : Feb 25th

      Not to be the proponent of REI but you guys must have worked with the worst REI associates in the company. My local store has a couple people who have through hiked the AT and provide great advice….and REI sells the most popular pack on the trail.

      I am guessing the “cocky” northbounders saw the ridiculously big pack and heavy weight and were trying to help you out to increase your odds of success.

      Stinks you guys had such bad experiences with REI but perhaps the lesson hear is to ask the associate to provide some qualifications……like that they have through hiked and when.

    • Brian : Feb 25th

      There was a turning point about 10-15 years ago, when REI make a “stetigic” move to employ “weekend warriors” to make REI more approachable by the masses of weekend warriors patronizing the stores, since most of their stores were now in suburban areas. This was confirmed with management of REI. They use to employ mostly “hardcore” outdoor enthusiasts, with a lot of experience in long distance/long duration trekking, whether hiking, canoeing, climbing, etc. So they could give real expertise on equipment…Such as how a certain product will hold up after a month in the wilderness. But REI found with their changing clientele, those employees, were overwhelming and intimidating these “green to greenish” suburbanites, who’s only experiences tended to be weekend camping at a KOA…maybe roughing it at a state park in a “hike-in” spot. There is nothing wrong with weekend warriors or how REI morphed into a trendy brand, because being an outdoors person was now cool…but when the inexperienced sales associates give misinformation, in a way that makes it sound like they know what they are talking about, that’s an issue. You should do a lot of research before walking into REI. And yes, there are a few good employees left at REI, but I’ve shopped at REIs throughout the country and this is an issue at ALL REIs, since it was a company wide mandate to “dumb down” their staff.

    • Cal 20 Sailor : Feb 25th

      REI sales people are SALES people, after all, and with their company’s generous no-questions-asked return policy they probably figure “up-sell everything for the credit/commission ’cause the customer can always return it, but some of the junk is bound to stick…” Truly knowledgable fulltime sports enthusiasts are unlikely to work in sales for very long without moving on, which leaves less well-informed armchair/weekend warriors to hold most of the sales positions. Besides, the days when REI honestly catered to real adventurers is long, long past, and their traditional clientele has been replaced by upscale yuppies who more poseurs then outdoor pros…

  • Ruth morley : Feb 25th

    Clayton, thank you for your frank angle on this topic. I keep hearing Hike Your Own Hike, and then am told how to do it. I like your perspective.

    I’ve had great help at REI, and have also had advice that doesn’t work for me. But I always appreciate the profusion of experienced clerks and free workshops. I spread my shopping out between REI and cheaper online sources. I feel the need to support brick and mortar stores and in-person contact and help.

    As a side note, in prepping for my 2017 AT flip flop, I’m finding it very rewarding sewing most of my gear using the kits put out by Ray Jardine. A backpack I made from one of his kits a few years ago (without a hip belt, which he abhors) was a joy to use for a 1000 mile, hut to hut trek in Europe. I have now ordered a kit for a slightly larger one, big enough for my Ray-way tarp and sleeping quilt.

    I look forward to more of your posts. I appreciate your fresh outlook.

  • Russ Bailey : Feb 25th

    CLAYTON BARKER – Got in over your head, were too lazy to learn for yourself so you now blame others. Any of the big companies are providing for their normal consumer – not for niche consumers and any long distance or ultra light is definitely a niche group!

  • David Plathe : Feb 25th

    As with every aspect of living, from health issues to hiking issues you must remain the manager. I love REI, but I know everyone there is not an expert. I listen to what REI has to say and I do research. Most of my decisions have been good and periodically something better comes along to replace some gear. I’ll be hiking my 12th section hike in May and my 13th in September. In addition, I ride my Harley with hiking gear from Minnesota to the AT and home after the hike. REI has been great but remember you need to digest their information and you make the decision. Happy Hiking!

  • Tortuga : Feb 25th

    According to your June 27 post, the pack you selected is “roomy and comfortable”.

  • Gary : Feb 28th

    If you send 20 different people into REI for the same purpose, you’ll get 20 different experiences. I find it a little hard to put weight into an article that is directed at the whole company based on individual experiences with individual sales associates. I’ve had great experiences with REI. I’ve also had to filter for myself what some associates told me, and even to this day, I may go in and seek out a couple associated that I know have actually done a long thru-hike to help me over other people. The coop itself, the ability to return anything and overall convenience of REI will keep me going back. Sorry you had a shit experience, but maybe sticking a fork in the whole business is a bit much.

  • Darren Leo : Feb 28th

    I’m a through hiker and a former REI employee. I would never sell you a Baltoro for a through hike. Generally, I talked people out of buying things they didn’t need and focused them on critical items and weight cutting.

  • retired firefighter, Tim Andrew : Mar 1st

    Not only the article is helpfull, but all the replys….the replys R best….. 2018 for me

  • Phlatlander : Mar 1st

    I think the level of knowledge you get from an REI depends on the location. I live in Chicago, for instance where most of the employees are from the city. Climbing is more of a thing here than backpacking. Besides that, people just have different needs and preferences for gear. It all comes down to you seeking advice from other long distance hikers and figuring out what works for you. Yes, there will be mistakes, but no one else can tell you what will work for you, so don’t judge them so harshly. REI is a great company, regardless of whether or not all of their employees have thru- hiked before. I do agree that you should not always take their advice but make your own judgements

  • CW : Mar 1st

    As a current REI employee and 2015 AT thru-hiker, I definitely have a few issues with your sweeping generalization about the lack of knowledge had by REI employees and your lack of accountability for ultimately making your own gear choices. Completing a thru-hike is actually not a job requirement for working at REI (I’m sure it helped me land a job here after I reached Katahdin, but it is not a requirement). We are made up of skiers, boarders, hikers, bikers, climbers, paddlers, runners, bird watchers, photographers, _______. We each bring something to the store. I’m sorry you did not have the opportunity to speak to a thru-hiker, but you can’t blame REI for the things you disliked about your gear choices. And with our return policy, you could have swapped out for different choices while on the trail. We have about 10 thru-hikers that work at my store and we each have a different opinion on what you need for a hike. When I was gearing up for my hike, I did a lot of research. By the time I got to REI, I had either already made my choice or wanted help selecting among a few options. Some of my choices weren’t the best for me and I did have to make some changes on the trail (some big ones, like a different tent and a new pack). But I blame myself, not the guy at REI that helped me pick them out.

    • Pando : Mar 19th

      I thought this was a great point. My first thought was that it seemed more than a little unfair to chastise an entire company because an individual sales associate didn’t meet expectations. I certainly wouldn’t blame the entire Best Buy chain if an associate recommended a blu-ray player I didn’t like.

      But more than that, your point on choices is spot on. I would never walk into ANY store with no knowledge about the product/subject. That’s a recipe for disappointment. And there’s no excuse with all the info available to walk into any REI without having SOME idea of what your’e looking for. I also do the research and narrow it down to several options and simply use the store to confirm proper fit, feel, etc.

      Obviously, if the associate recommended a 75L pack of ANY brand anybody with a minimum amount of research would know that’s poor advice…as would hearing a “5 lb pack.” There really isn’t any excuse for not having some requisite knowledge going in.

      And even assuming the customer knew absolutely nothing about thru-hiking, you’d know pretty fast on the AT (from other people and your own discomfort) that the pack needed to go. So, you get to the next outfitter, pick up a more suitable pack, and send the Gregory Behemoth back to REI. That’s why I go with REI so often. A YEAR to return? Are you kidding me? I often pay a bit more just for that policy alone.

      With that return policy, there is no excuse to live with a poor decisions – whether it’s your own or a less-than-knowledgeable associate.

      On a side note, I live in the Tampa Bay area of Florida. The closest REI is hours away in Jacksonville (soon to be Orlando). I do not expect anyone at that Jacksonville store to know a great deal about thru-hiking or “what baselayer is best for an April thru-hike.” If I were to get lucky, great. But I’m not going in blind.

  • Doctari : Jul 30th

    I like REI, sort of,,, Lost a lot of respect for them a few years ago (OK 1 employee) went to a class advertised as “Introduction to the Sheltowee trace trail” what it was “a introduction to day hiking!” Yes they mentioned the STT, barely (twice actually, in passing) but ALL of the class was silly games, introduction to beginner gear, etc. I Left before it ended in disgust! Still shop the one in Cinti, but only use an associate to ask where something is.

  • Swathhiker : Oct 4th

    I question whether you hiked the trail at all, sorry. First, how have you even SOBO’s the PCT in the record snowfall and trail-death year of 2017? You’d have to ski it. The northern sections were closed for snow, avalanches, and impassable rivers and streams through to like July, but I digress. As for the AT, you make the RIGHT MOVE by going to REI where you can return even used gear for a year, for any reason, which every thru-hiker knows. But then you find the singularly most incompetent REI employee, drop $700 listening to them, and then henceforth REFUSE to listen to your fellow hikers on the trail who want to discuss gear, when they are obviously a better source of information. You then ignore THEIR better knowledge and with ears and eyes closed proceed to pass maybe a dozen REI stores along the 2200 miles of trail where you could have returned that $700 worth of ridiculously heavy gear no problem and gotten more suitable gear, only to consider the heaviness of your pack ON THE LAST DAY OF YOUR HIKE. As you note, 40 pounds weighs TWICE AS MUCH as 20 pounds! An observation you made only after 2200 miles on the trail and share with aspiring thru-hikers here. Thanks. See you on the trail, “on your left.”


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