My Gear Lust. I mean, List.
ADVICE FROM A GEAR JUNKIE
There was a period in my late teens, when I was oh so very cool, that I hung with my friends in the sidewalk cafes on Montreal’s Sherbrooke Street, smoking French cigarettes, drinking expresso, and feeling contemptuously superior to the fit-looking people we saw come out of the outdoor gear shop across the street. “Regardez les gens de plein air!” we would snort, blowing smoke rings. “Ils sont fous!” “Look at the outdoor people. They’re crazy.” But after I fell in with a gang of those outdoor people, a cadre of Norwegian cross-country skiers, I changed my tune. And started frequenting the store myself, albeit somewhat clandestinely. The store was in a semi-basement. Odd that I didn’t realize, the first time I ventured down the stairs, that I might as well be dropping into an opium den.
Let’s get this clear right now. I could get an invitation to leave tomorrow on the AT, or the PCT, or just about any trail not on the polar ice caps or in the Saharan desert, and I’d be able to outfit myself appropriately from my own gear stash. I do not need any more gear. That has probably been true for years, but it has not stopped me from acquiring gear. Just last week, for example, I saw a pair of barely-used waders in a thrift shop for $4. I don’t need more gear and I really do not need more waders. I have neoprene waders for winter. I have goretex waders for spring. I have rubber hip waders for working in wetlands. I have nylon hip waders for fishing in shallow streams. I have spare waders in case someone needs to borrow a pair. But hey, $4? I can wear them fishing the salt in the fall, and not risk ruining the goretex ones. You’re getting the picture, aren’t you? I have always had a hard time resisting gear, especially if it’s a deal. So what’s your prediction? Am I going to assemble my AT gear from what I have, or am I going to look for new stuff?
Well, in truth, I’ve worked out some guidelines for myself. I thought I’d share them with you all, in case they can help you with your own choices.
ALL YOU REALLY NEED ARE THE BASICS
- You need to stay warm at night. You need a good sleep system. Period. There is no way around this. In the daytime, you can generate heat through movement. Doing jumping jacks every hour all night to warm yourself is not fun (but if you do experience teeth-chattering cold, don’t hesitate to get up and do a set).
- You need to stay dry. If you get wet, you are likely to get chilled, and in the East, wet is not immediately followed by dry, like it usually is in the West.
- You need to stay hydrated and fed. Dehydration and extreme hunger make you clumsy and stupid, and put you at risk of injury.
- You need to stay healthy. Clean water, clean hands, clean habits. For years everyone was afraid of Giardia. The bigger danger is norovirus.
- Some gear types are damn-near perfect right now. For example, sleeping bags. Manufacturers can change colors, lighten up the zipper, improve synthetic fill, even add water-resistance to down, but in general, this is not an area where you see huge improvements in usability from year to year. So don’t hesitate to get the best down sleeping bag you can afford, new. Unless you’re opting for a quilt, get the full-length zipper, even if it does add a few grams. On a hot summer night, you’ll appreciate it. Can’t afford the best right now? Get the second best, and wear a solid insulating layer (a down jacket and a hat) inside it. Fill a leakproof water bottle with hot water and tuck it down by your feet. Stick yourself in your sleeping bag and your sleeping bag bottom into your pack at night.
- Don’t bet the farm on products in the development stage. I’d put a lot of hammocks in this category. You could shell out a bundle for a state of the art hammock system, with an underquilt and a cuben fiber tarp and perfect geometry, and in three years you’ll be looking longingly at something much much better. Don’t get the best you can afford when it comes to products in the development stage. Get the setup that meets your immediate needs and can be upgraded (or replaced) as the product evolves.
- Evaluate improvements carefully. Take the Big Agnes Fly Creek tent, for example. Do the two new models (the MtGlow and the HV with higher sides) really represent a significant improvement? Enough that you need to replace your old one? (Probably not.) And if you’re buying for the first time, think about this: what will happen to all the old Fly Creeks, the ones BA still has in stock? Is the price of the new-and-improved one worth it when the basic model is likely to be on sale at a steep discount as soon as camping season is over?
- Sign up for the deal flyers. Every year, I open a new email account with Yahoo or Gmail that is specifically for loyalty programs. I don’t want everyone’s sale flyer cluttering up my personal mail. But the initial discount for getting yourself on a mailing list is usually 10-15% off your first purchase, and it really does help to have advance warning if you want to pounce on something in your size and a decent color as soon as it comes on sale. Really, how many times have you clicked on a likely jacket only to discover the only ones left are 2XXL in fluorescent lime?
DON’T CHEAP OUT ON THE IMPORTANT THINGS
- Does the thought of shelling out $170 for a full length NeoAir Xlite make you gag? Tempted to save a few bucks and go with the short version? Listen, if you want to go UL and save the weight –a precious few ounces at that—and you’re young and sleep like a rock on wood floors, by all means, do it. Hell, get a Z-pad and you won’t ever worry about punctures. But if you’re any other kind of sleeper, put $40 in a different context – a few microbrews with your friends, an oil change, a shared motel room—and $40 starts to look like chump change, or at least false economy. Shell out for the sleeping pad that will keep you warm and comfortable every single night. Because here’s one place I can predict the future: If you spend $130 for the short one now, you’ll end up with two, a short and a long one, in a couple of years. Any anyway, if you wait for the Fall member’s sale at REI or EMS, you should have a 20% coupon that will help dull the pain.
- Your cousin has a perfectly good pack, lightweight, that she’s willing to give you. Only she’s six inches shorter and 40 pounds lighter than you. Give, she said. Free, she said. It won’t fit, I’m telling you. You will hate life through your entire hike. A pack is one of the important things. Sleeping pads and packs are the two items I have never regretted upgrading when better-fitting, better-balanced, lighter and more comfortable versions have been praised by reviewers, passed the first round of improvement, and turned up somewhere at half their original price when there was a color change. It doesn’t have to be new, but it absolutely must be a good fit.
- Get a decent rain jacket that will withstand days of downpour. Don’t succumb to magical thinking (e.g., “it will dry at night if I hang it.” It won’t. “It probably won’t rain that much.” It will). Rain jackets –any piece of clothing gear, really—are always easy to find on sale on some discount site, somewhere. And for what it’s worth, if you don’t mind a 13 oz, jacket, the Marmot PreCip is a great jacket. I’ve stood outside giving field demonstrations in the pouring rain from 8 am til 5pm in a PreCip, and been dry when I took it off. It’s always on sale somewhere for $60-70. I’m going to go a little lighter myself, but if you’re strapped for cash, that’s your choice.
- Get a Sawyer filter. Two ounces, under $30. I drink most water straight up, always have. But there are water sources you just can’t convince yourself to feel good about. $30 is less than the co-pay at Urgent Care, and way less than having to hole up in some motel until you can function again.
DON’T WASTE MONEY ON THE PRETTY THINGS
- You’re going to lose your water bottle. Don’t start with something expensive. An empty Gatorade bottle will work fine. And no, you are not going to use the hydration bladder in your pack. When your pack is half-empty, you can carry the bladder on top, and maybe, maybe you will fill it up when you pass a water source. If you have to empty your pack to get to it, you’ll pass the water by, and get dehydrated. You’ll fill the Gatorade bottle in the side pocket much more often.
- A basic stove will meet all your cooking needs, because you’ll be less interested in preparing meals than you think. Plan for one hot meal a day, and choose cooking equipment accordingly. I alternate between a cat food can and a no-brand isobutene screw-in element.
- All that other stuff that your friends or parents or children want to buy for you? The things that are so cute and handy and useful? The pop-up lantern? The electronic bug-zapper? The way cool nesting spice set? Ask for the money instead. These things will simply take up weight and space.
Part of the fun of a long hike is the planning for it. Gear companies know this. They’ve created endless resources for you to lose yourself in. So try to find other outlets for your energies. Learn the songs and calls of the birds you’ll run into on the trail. Read up on the history of the places you’ll pass through. See if you can find information about edible plants. Track down all the new distilleries and breweries. Figure out which trail towns are worth looking forward to. Shopping isn’t the only way to immerse yourself in the joy of planning your hike.
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.
Loved this blog! You have confirmed much of what I have already learned on my own, so THANK YOU! I am doing the AT in 2017 beginning at Harper’s ferry. Maybe we’ll see each other!
Good stuff. Hope to see you on the trail next year–(Note* I’ll be the tall guy in the XXL lime green HellyHansen rain jacket I got from the outlet for 70% off…stylin’!)
Great article!!! So what “lighter” rain jacket did you settle on? Trying to figure that out for my flip flop next year. Hopefully see ya down the trail!
..nice article….hopefully 2017 for me