The Evolution of Backpacking Gear

Backpacking and thru-hiking gear are experiencing an evolutionary change. Few innovations had occurred in outdoor gear for decades. Thankfully, the new millennium brought about several shifts that have benefited the backpacking and thru-hiking community immensely.

The rise of blogging in the early 2000s, followed by increased social media use in the 2010s, contributed to an increased awareness of some of the lesser-known gear makers in the United States. Suddenly, cottage industry companies like Mountain Laurel Designs, Zpacks, and Western Mountaineering had a platform and a voice.

As backpacking and thru-hiking has become more popular, the chatter around gear has increased. More entrepreneurs are joining the industry every year, and their influence is pushing the name-brand gear companies to innovate and evolve as well.

Suddenly backpackers wishing to drop pounds of weight don’t have to own a sewing machine or dish out thousands of dollars for gear. The industry is booming and we’re benefiting.

Read Next: The Best Backpacking Tents of 2021

Mummy Bag to Sleeping Quilt

Photo: Samantha Olthof

Back in the 1990s backpacker gossip revolved around this crazy guy named Ray Jardine, who was daring to make his own gear and in so doing shed pounds off his back. One of his more widely accepted pioneering ideas was switching from a sleeping bag to a sleeping quilt. Jardine’s argument was that your weight compresses any insulation under you to nearly nothing, making that part of the sleeping bag useless. He designed a wide-open sleeping bag cut narrower and having no zipper–for the express purpose of saving bulk and weight. (source)

Sleeping quilts have now taken the long-distance backpacking industry by storm. According to recent trail surveys, over 30% of backpackers on the PCT and AT are opting for a quilt instead of a bag. The quilts are lighter and more versatile than their zippered cousins and pack down to the size of a water bottle. The most favored quilts are designed and sold by Enlightened Equipment. Well-known name brands such as Therm-a-Rest and REI are also starting to offer quilts alongside their sleeping bag lines.

Top Picks

Enlightened Equipment Revelation

Katabatic Alsek

Feathered Friends Petrel UL 10 

REI Magma

External/Internal Frame to Frameless Packs

While nowadays we praise Ray Jardine’s innovative lightweight gear stylings, it wasn’t always the case. In the early 1990s his ultralight philosophy and designs were so controversial that he was largely scorned and ridiculed. On their thru-hikes, Ray and Jenny would pass other hikers who “were resting, or sleeping, or taking layover days because they were all so tired from lugging those huge packs.” Most of which would have been external frame packs.

Ray Jardine’s ultralight pack was designed without a frame or a hip belt. There were no zippers or fancy stash compartments, just mesh and nylon. Many of the frameless backpacks available from small retailers today hearken back to Ray’s original designs. They feature one main roll-top or cinch-tie compartment, no zippers, basic padding, and large external mesh or fabric pockets. Hip belts are still widely used in the designs, and these newer backpacks are made with strong but light ripstop fabrics. The most popular packs worn by thru-hikers this past season all weighed under two pounds, a significant reduction from the 3-5 pound weight of more traditional internal-frame packs on the market today.

Top Picks

Gossamer Gear Gorilla 

Hyperlite Mountain Gear Southwest 2400


Mountain Laurel Designs Prophet

Polyester to Dyneema Tents

Photo: Lisa Pulsifer

Dyneema (previously known as Cuben Fiber) is the lightest waterproof fabric available and is being used to make stuff sacks, tarps, tents, packs, rope, and more. The first Dyneema shelters were available in and around 2005, mostly made by cottage industry entrepreneurs. Those first shelters were tarp-style, with no mesh or attached floor.

The increased availability of Dyneema, as well as composite fabrics that are waterproof and breathable, has caused a sensational change in the lightweight tent industry. Enclosed tents, weighing in under two pounds, are now available from a handful of small retailers including ZPacks and Tarptent.

Even basic ripstop nylon has evolved and is being replaced by silnylon, a waterproof fabric coated with a silicone/polyurethane layer. While large-scale outdoor gear makers have yet to embrace Dyneema, many are starting to offer silnylon shelters.

Top Picks

Zpacks Duplex 

Tarptent Notch Li

Leather Boots to Lightweight Runners

Photo: Melissa

The past few years have seen a significant change in hiker’s footwear. Gone are the heavy leather boots cherished for decades by backpackers. Enter the trail runner. Thru-hikers are discovering that less weight on their feet combined with less weight on their back equals more ground covered in a day.

Companies are combining 3D printing technology with new textiles to create lightweight performance-enhancing footwear. Trail runners provide a wide base for the foot and dry quickly. New chemicals are currently being developed for enhanced breathable waterproofing as well as odor-resistance.

One of the big leaders on the trail runner scene is Altra, popular for their zero-drop footbed, grippy sole, and cushioning technology. According to the PCT and AT 2019 trail surveys, the Altra Lone Peak was the leading favorite, worn by over one-third of hikers.

Top Picks

Altra Lone Peak

HOKA ONE ONE Speedgoat

Saucony Peregrine 

Salomon XA Pro

Synthetic Fiber to Merino Wool

Sheep on the move.“Sheep on the move.” by Bernard Spragg is licensed under CC0 1.0

Merino wool has been recognized as a miracle fabric since the first merino sheep were brought to Spain in the 12th century. Merino wool offers a range of performance benefits unmatched by any synthetic textile available today. Hikers have been wooed for decades by synthetic fibers (read: plastic) but are now able to access a wide range of performance products made with merino wool.

Compared to other types of wool, merino is super soft and strong. The yarn and fabric have increased resiliency, allowing for stretchier and longer-wearing garments. The natural crimp of the wool increases the warmth of the garment, allowing for thinner materials. The miraculous fiber moves moisture away from the skin, keeping you warmer when it’s cold and wet and keeping you cool when it’s hot. Perhaps most importantly to thru-hikers, merino wool is naturally odor resistant.

Top Picks

Smartwool Merino 250

Isobaa Merino 200 Zip-Neck Hoodie

REI Merino Midweight Half-Zip 

Icebreaker 260 Zone Half-Zip

Hand Pump to Squeeze Filter

Perhaps the most beneficial gear evolution is the emergence of the squeeze filter. Hand pumping was a chore. It was a time-consuming process that often required a comfortable spot to sit, strong arm muscles, and a partner to help hold the hose and bottle. Don’t even get me started on the pre-planning and patience required for chlorine or iodine tablets, to say nothing of the taste and enjoyment of all the little floaties in the water.

One company in particular—Sawyer—has revolutionized the world of water purification. While other companies continue to offer ceramic filters, Sawyer’s hollow fiber membrane, which is derived from kidney dialysis technology, is the only filter certified for 0.1 micron filtration. Plus, they’ve now developed a filter that can absorb pesticides and viruses.

Top Picks

Sawyer Squeeze 

Katadyn BeFree

Featured image via Elise Ott

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Comments 9

  • Stewart Logie : Jan 30th

    I didn’t think Dyneema was breathable. What product made from it claims it to be breathable? There may be products that include features or other fabrics that offer breathability for the total system, but the Dyneema material is not to my knowledge breathable. Please support your assertion with a reference.

    • Joseph Dragan : Jan 31st

      Breathable Dyneema watch this

    • Lisa Pulsifer : Jan 31st

      You’re correct that a 100% DSM Dyneema fabric isn’t very breathable, but Dyneema (the company) is creating Dyneema composite fabrics that are now being used in gear and clothing. I made a small adjustment in the text to clarify. 🙂

  • baby bear : Jan 31st

    Great article. The focus on lightweight and versatile materials and approaches has totally changed backpacking. Another thing I might mention is the rise of Hammock Camping. Very much in the line of cottage industries mentioned. Going lightweight has made hiking so much more enjoyable and a hammock guarantees a good night sleep.

    • Lisa Pulsifer : Jan 31st

      Hammock camping has definitely become more and more popular. Here’s a great flow-chart for tent vs. hammock

  • Thaddeus : Feb 2nd

    I’m an ultra lightweight hiker. I love to read about the trend/

  • pikachu chu : Feb 27th

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