Hand-Me-Down Hiking: How I’m Handling Old Gear Fear
My favorite bag is called Old Yeller. I bought her for $30 at the Gap in 1999. She’s since been all around the world, acting as everything from a college book bag, to a Central American rucksack, to a laundry vessel.
Loyalty and Practicality in Gear
The time has long passed when one could be so lucky as to buy a mall-brand backpack and have its price or quality be considered a jackpot such as this. Anyway, she’s too small to take on the AT. I’m bringing her up to demonstrate two major factors in my gear philosophy: loyalty and practicality.
Loyalty: Is this item loyal? Does it never break, rip, cause pain, etc.? Have you traveled together successfully with minimal fights?
Practicality: Is this item practical? Does it meet your needs in an affordable and convenient way? Would the cost of replacing the item outweigh the burden of the status quo?
I hike all the time. I travel all the time. But a weeks- or months-long LASH is, for me, once or twice a decade. Do you know how much gear advances in five years? In ten? If I wanted to hike with the lightest or the newest every time I set out on a long-term adventure, I’d never be able to afford to go.
In prepping for the 500 AT miles I’m doing this April to June, I’ve spent nearly every waking minute reading about gear, watching YouTube, and even attending seminars at REI and through ALDHA.
What I have not spent is thousands of dollars. And while that’s a positive for the wallet, it has nonetheless caused a bit of anxiety.
Something I have been scared to admit in all the backpacker blogs and forums I belong to… something I am confessing here for the first time as though it is a shameful secret… something that should not make me feel nervous about saying out loud: I am hiking the AT with an external pack.
At the time, it had been six years since I’d done a LASH: Western Virginia with the newest, greatest lightweight pack of 2003—a pack that I hated every minute of carrying and eventually gave away. I spent the interim years between these sections borrowing external packs from friends and finding them far superior to internals. I remember telling companions at the time that I wanted an external for Pennsylvania and being made to feel like I was doing something reckless or irresponsible—even dumb.
But that trek went great. And my Jansport (his name is David Bowie, BTW) has consistently performed well for me ever since. He has no rips, snags, zipper malfunctions, etc. At 4.1 pounds, he’s entirely capable of keeping me at my goal of a 20-pound or less base weight.
Now that the hard part is over, I feel freed up to also state my other sins with ease: splitting a four-pound tent with my partner, hiking in boots vs. trail runners (Adidas at that!), and bringing a 20-year old sleeping bag my dad gave me in high school (purchased with Marlboro miles, God help us all).
For months, in reading all the gear blogs, sites, and forums, I’ve expected to see at least one or two other old-schoolers like me mentioning their vintage setup; but there are precious few resources on this topic.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not suggesting that someone who has dreamed for years of going on a thru-hike, and saved and researched and worked for it, should not reward themselves with all the latest features in modern backpacking equipment. I would too if I were in that situation.
Updating Gear Piece by Piece
I do dabble in modernity. For example, on this trip, I have upgraded to a Thermarest Z-Lite Sol (a massive massive improvement from the Walmart-brand pad I’ve used since 2001). Injinji exists! I bought two pairs! I splurged $40 on New Zealand possum gloves and $100 on Lucy leggings. I have a $45 Sea-to-Summit kettle/bowl combo replacing my (also Walmart) metal pot (although that was a Christmas gift—I never would have spent that otherwise).
Even in typing that last paragraph, though, I feel I’m attempting to legitimize my list to a faceless sea of backcountry enthusiasts who may or may not grant me entry into their exclusive club. After all, I don’t have Dirty Girl Gaiters and I own nothing made by ZPack. I’m admitting this to hopefully encourage others who have budgets, hand-me-downs, or heavy items that this is still a manageable and thrilling hobby-cum-lifestyle. My first LASH consisted 100 percent of items borrowed from friends or purchased at Walmart. My second one only had one Patagonia fleece and two Smartwool socks as its “fancy upgrades.” Nonetheless, it’s entirely possible to succeed at hiking this way if your circumstances require it.
Last weekend, I attended The Ruck, in Cascade Locks, Ore., (on the PCT) and got to demo the ultralight (and ultra-expensive) 3400 Southwest. It looks great! But it’s several hundred dollars and holds half my current pack’s capacity. I don’t feel confident buying a pack first only to realize that my sleeping bag, tent, etc., don’t fit. And I definitely don’t want to break the bank to long and pine for my loyal and practical David Bowie. In my world of gradual progress, getting the individual items downsized first and then pursuing a potential container for them makes most sense.
For me (and I know for others), replacing and upgrading gear piecemeal as we go is more the reality. And—most importantly—knowing for sure that the gear we’re bringing is dependable and definitely will meet our needs is paramount.
Outdated Gear Breakdown
So how am I keeping weight down and the trek overall manageable with old equipment? Here’s the list:
Pack: The Jansport Carson 80 (aka David Bowie) is an 80-liter pack with top- and front-load capabilities. I bought the BV500 bear vault that easily fits in the middle section and am putting the majority of my items inside that bin. I’m not using the side pockets either. So far, in practice runs, the weight is at 16.5 (though I do still have to add toiletries and a rain cover).
Boots: The Adidas Outdoor Terrex Fast X Mid GTX boots are perfect for my needs. I grew up hiking in boots and they are what work for me. I tried trail runners for a few years and I ended up with twisted ankles, wet socks, and more than one slip on the rocks or ice. In 2015, I researched the “best in traction” footwear of the year, and the Terrex won. Since returning to boots, I’ve never felt so confident out on the trails. Granted, boots aren’t for everyone but it comes back to the “loyal plus practical” rule for me, and the security provided here on foot and ankle protection trumps weight or price.
Sleeping bag: Marlboro Adventure Team synthetic (Quallofil) down 0-degree mummy bag. My partner is actually hiking with this infamous relic (this will be my first trip ever with a new sleeping arrangement–a North Face Cat’s Meow 20-degree and the aforementioned Z-Lite Sol). He was initially concerned for all the reasons any rational person would be. As I’ve taken this bag all over the planet with zero complaints, I was able to convince him to save the cash from a new bag and put it toward a much fancier sleeping pad instead.
Simply buying a new compression sack ($12 from Amazon) got the old bag down to the same size as my new one–something I actually never thought of. I’d always just put a garbage bag on it and lashed it to my pack.
Years ago, I ripped all the Marlboro branding off the pack. You’d never know what brand it was without insider knowledge. Voila! Stigma erased!
Lastly, as my biggest complaint when on the trail is cold-induced insomnia, there’s even a chance I may trade it back for that extra warmth factor.
Loyalty + Practicality = Success
Who knows? By the time I get all my individual items down to ultralight sizes, bags may have gotten so small that I can just take Old Yeller on a thru!
What about you? Are you guys hiking with any old gear? Do you name your packs?
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You are fantastic, Jesi!
Many, many, many moons ago, for five summers, I (along with 10 others, okay I will be honest, girl scouts) hiked very long portions of the AT, (weeks per trip) and pretty much every trail, path or deer cut that one could imagine in the V.A., T.N. and N.C. mountains with external packs, purchased from the Sears catalogue and hiking boots that weighed a ton. At the time, no other choice was available. Although much too old to partake any longer, frequently, I long to look to the corner of the room and see that ole, girl scount green, slightly bent left side frame, full of warm memories and remnants of oatmeal, “Hobbie Girl” resting in a place of honor. Wish with all my heart I had kept her.
So, keep that external pack, fill it with memories and oatmeal and NEVER, EVER give two shakes what anyone else thinks! Pack on, pack on, pack on! I’ll be thinking of you on that wonderful trail!
Oh Sharon! This made me tear up! I know I will always look back with fondness at these things! (And hopefully have many more years on the trails!) Thank you 🙂
Enjoyed your story & hope you have a great hike! In 2006, I bought a $200 name brand pack for 5 day/4 night trip, but wasn’t happy with it. It was the correct volume, but hard to get things in & out. In 2010 I found an ancient green pack with a large opening at a pawn shop for $15! I had to replace a $2 buckle and it has become my favorite overnight pack! It served me well on a 3 week thru hike of the Allegheny Trail. It only weighs 2 lbs- my $200 pack weighed 3.5 lbs, so I agree new is not always better.
I love that you found it at a pawn shop! That’s good luck!
Hell yes. I hike with my mom’s old Kelty external frame. I also borrowed an internal and hated it, but people convinced me it was because it wasn’t made for the weight I was carrying. Maybe. But I’ll stick to the Kelty, it works. And I have my Adidas boots, and the therm-a-rest pad my parents got me as a kid! I was hiking with an old LL Bean bag, but the insulation finally stopped doing any good, so I do have a cozy new bag now. I’m happy with my setup except for the 6lb REI tent which isn’t really old, it’s just… I don’t know why it’s 6lbs, lol. I’d like to replace that some time.
I just want to say that I hiked the AT with a JanSport Carson 80. I still love it.
This is such an amazing article. I literally just replaced my 1987 canvas strapped external bag from LL bean that was a hand me down when I was 18. It is almost a totally different bag at this point with all the repairs I’ve done to it. But it got me through the A.T. the long trail the Haute Route to name a few. It is also a conversation starter on the trails as people are baffled how I am able to carry 50 pounds on a two week hike and not complain or give up. It is as simple as the people that made these trails carried this gear and even heavier gear. I still take Ollie out one a 3 day trip every year