Choosing Your Equipment - Pt. 1


Getting the right equipment sometimes feels like the first and most intimidating step in backpacking. This is the first of a few articles that will hopefully help clarify:

  • Getting the essentials — backpack, shoes, sleeping bags, tents
  • General values I apply when choosing gear to buy
  • Why it’s important to take your time when choosing your equipment.

Because frankly, backpacking equipment is awesome. Being comfortable and safe in the backcountry with only what you can carry provides a sense of independence and self reliance. When you have the right gear for the conditions, every thing is super awesome.

Having the wrong gear can make you want to throw all of your equipment into a dumpster and never go outside again. I have friends who don’t like camping because when they went they were uncomfortable, cold, wet, tired, hungry, sunburnt, etc…

When in doubt, borrow before you buy

I highly recommend borrowing gear before purchasing. It’s always better to form your own opinions about what you want in a piece of equipment, and the best way to do that is to borrow something and learn what you like and don’t like about it. Again, every piece of equipment will speak differently to its user. Group text, group emails, and spamming friends is an excellent way to try stuff out before you make a larger investment.

Sometimes comfort trumps lightness

Backpacking is a great opportunity for exercise. People can sometimes over-correct for saving weight. I’ve heard of people cutting off the handle of their toothbrush, or hacking their spoon to be just a nub in order to save a few ounces. It’s true that the less weight you carry, the longer you can probably hike, but my personal preference is that it's sometimes better being comfortable, and maybe getting a little more of a workout during your hike.

Aim to buy for life

My friend Pip instilled an important idea in me. Everything you buy eventually ends up in the landfill. It's our responsibility to increase the amount of time before our equipment becomes garbage. Before buying something, hold it in your hands and ask yourself how long it's probably going to last.

Choose simplicity over fancy

I learnt this one from my Dad. Whenever he sees a piece of equipment with a bunch of moving parts or components on it, he usually comments on how there's just more opportunity for it to break.

The Backpack

A well fitting backpack with the right capacity is like a warm embrace from a good friend.

Qualities to look for:

  • Capacity to carry everything you need.
  • Should sit properly on your body (You'll need to go to a store to get fitted)
  • Convenient place to store little things (like headlamp, map, snack, etc…)
  • Easy to strap things to (snowshoes, trekking poles, jacket after delayering)

Some nice to haves:

  • Water resistant
  • Lightweight
  • Durable

My personal purchases:

I’ve had two backpacks in the last decade. I used a North Face Pivotal 60 on my 1.5 year long trip walking across Canada. It’s well built, and very sturdy. I opted for maximum long-term comfort, durability, and seemingly infinite space over being lightweight. The top pocket of the backpack is excellent to put the things you need to grab quickly, without digging through your entire bag.

Image of Pivotal 60

The second backpack I got was the Hyperlite Mountain Gear 2400 Windrider. JRock has the 3400 and highly recommended it. It’s ultralight, and surprisingly comfortable for minimal structure and adjustability. You have to be pretty careful of how you pack it, so that nothing is jabbing into your back. It’s essentially waterproof, and the simplest backpack you can probably get. The mesh on the outside makes it easy, but sometimes messy to store anything that you can’t fit in the main compartment. JRock also recommended getting a ZPacks Multi-Pack and wear it on your chest. Awesome for snacks, maps, sunscreen, sunglasses, headlamp, etc…

Hyperlight 2400 Windrider Backpack

The Tent

Tents come in many shapes, sizes, and weights. Backpacking tents are usually a little more lightweight and should stand up to the elements more than your typical backyard tent (essentially they're higher quality and cost a little more). They are usually rated by the amount of seasons they are suitable for (3 season - for fall, spring, and summer, and 4 season - for winter).

Qualities to look for:

  • Lightweight
  • Water resistant
  • Aerodynamic - won’t get destroyed by strong winds
  • Easy to set up

Some nice to haves:

  • Has a vestibule - a dry place to store your backpack/shoes

My personal purchases:

I currently have two tents, one I use for winter camping, and one I use for all other camping. My winter tent is a MEC Tarn 2, and is just a little hardier and has less ventilation than my summer tent. It’s super easy to set up, has a vestibule for boots and bags, and the fly (the water resistant tarp) comes down almost to the bottom of the tent (some tent flies leave a large gap between the ground and where the fly starts - leaving a lot of space for water and snow to sneak in and get your actual tent wet). It’s also very low to the ground and can survive strong winds.

Tarn 2 Tent

My summer tent is almost all ventilation. It’s the MSR Hubba Hubba. Fun name, very lightweight, easy to set up, has a vestibule, but also has a large gap between the fly and the ground, which isn’t that great for rain and snow.

MSR Hubba Hubba

The Sleeping Bag

Sleeping bags have the potential to take up the most amount of room in your backpack, and can weigh quite a bit. Sleeping bags that have been designed for backpacking are usually mummy shaped to reduce the amount of material, and also provide head warmth. One of the big decisions when choosing a sleeping bag is the insulation material. The insulation is usually either down or synthetic. Down is feathers from geese, is super light, warm, and highly compressible. It’s also more expensive. Synthetic tries to mimic the properties of down, but isn’t as compressible. Synthetic is also supposed to dry faster, which can be good for prolonged winter camping.

Qualities to look for:

  • Highly compressible
  • Lightweight
  • Suitably rated to the climate I’ll be camping in
  • Comfortable
  • Mummy shaped

My personal purchases:

Again, I have two sleeping bags. Both are down (I think the weight and compressibility outweigh the price difference). One is warmer and a little bit heavier. It’s a North Face sleeping bag rated to -18 degrees celsius.

North Face Sleeping bag

My other sleeping bag is great for the other 3 seasons. It’s a Fjallraven Sarek Two Seasons Sleeping Bag rated to -13 degrees celsius.

Fjallraven Sleeping bag

The Sleeping Mat

Your sleeping mat can be the key to a good night’s sleep. It softens the ground and puts a little extra insulation between you and the cold. My dad has been using Therm-a-rest mattresses since the 70s, and is probably still using the same mat. Therm-a-rest also has an incredible repair program, so if you ever do set up your tent on a cactus, they’ll help you out. In the winter, it’s sometimes a good idea to have a foam pad under the Therm-a-rest to create even more insulation between you and the snow.

Qualities to look for:

  • Easy to set up
  • Packs up small
  • Decently comfortable
  • Lightweight

My personal purchases:

I have two sleeping mats, both Therm-a-rests. One long and thin, the other short and thick. The long and thin guy is great for the summers. It’s a Therm-a-rest Prolite regular length.

Therm-a-rest Prolite

The short and thick Therm-a-rest is a Prolite Plus Short. I use it in the winter because it is a little thicker. The extra thickness can add extra weight, so I went with the short version. I usually just stick my backpack under my legs, because they don’t really need a soft surface to rest on, just to be kept away from the cold.

Therm-a-rest Prolite Plus Short

The Boots

This is probably one of the most person-specific pieces of equipment you’ll get. It seems like the delta between everyone’s feet types requires pretty different considerations. I like simple boots that don’t have many pieces sewn together (less opportunity for things to fall apart maybe?). They should be sturdy and decently water resistant. Some people are very prone to blisters, and my best trick is to wear two pairs of socks (one thin liner and a thicker wool sock). The two socks rub against each other instead of against your skin.

Qualities to look for:

  • Water resistant
  • Durable
  • Stiff soul

Some nice to haves:

  • Simple design

My personal purchases:

My main pair of boots are the Mammut Brecon II GTX. They are super solid, probably can handle a pair of crampons, are pretty waterproof, warm, and fit my feet really well. I can stomp through puddles and snow and my feet will stay pretty dry.

Mammut Boot

My other pair of boots are a little lower profile, and again, suggested by JRock - master of gear. They are the Arc’teryx Acrux SL Approach Shoe. They are much more breathable and great for warmer hikes. They aren’t great for wet weather, but they are light and a little more agile.

Arc'terix Approach Shoe

Published by KP