There are many great blogs and forums that focus on backpacking equipment, so I don’t intend for that to be the focus of this blog. However, In order to provide context I want to share some basics about my backpacking style and a few general thoughts on gear selection.
My Backpacking Style
In the Southern Appalachians we have wet mild winters with normal temperatures between 20-45 degrees and hot humid summers with average temperatures from 55-80 degrees. Those are averages, and it can be zero degrees in the winter and 100 degrees in the summer, but that isn’t the norm. When I am solo backpacking I usually try to be conscious of the weight I am carrying, but I’m not particularly concerned with which of the various “categories” of weight that I fall into. Each trip is different because conditions are different, the key is not carry things I don’t need. The time it takes to setup and breakdown gear is also very important to me. The more time I’m packing gear the less time that I get to spend on the trail, and on multi day hikes even 5 extra minutes here and there starts to add up. For example, I use two carabineers on my bear bag line and two carabineers on my continuous hammock ridgeline to avoid having to tie knots every night. I would save a bit of weight if I just tied knots, but that would cost me up 2-3 minutes when I setup and break camp.
It’s been said many times before, but I believe everything you carry when backpacking is a balance between weight, comfort, price, and durability. Typically, you can only max out two of these factors for any piece of gear. After that you have to determine which compromises you can make. Which factors you emphasize depend on individual preferences and situations. For me, price and weight are the two most important factors. I value comfort and durability as well, but to a lesser extent.
Most of my gear reflects these priorities. For example, in the winter I carry a 3.5 pound Ledge Featherweight zero degree sleeping bag. It’s certainly lighter than many synthetic zero degree bags, but nowhere near as light as a down bag. But I bought it new for only $45. I wear Walmart trail shoes that weigh 29 ounces per pair. They’re definitely lighter than boots, but heavier and less durable than most trail runners. For me, the $20 price tag was the deciding factor.
In terms of weight, everything you carry is a balance between comfort on the trail and comfort in camp. This is an old principle of backpacking that has been repeated many times over the years but it is still very true. It all comes down to priorities and the type of trips you like to take. When I go backpacking with my wife I carry alot of heavy stuff. Roasting sticks, camp chairs, portable toilet, 8 x 10 tarp, a whole chicken for dinner ect… because I know that most of our time will be spent in camp. But when I go solo backpacking I am looking to cover miles and want to be comfortable walking 8-10 hours a day so I carry less gear. Often, I get to camp right before dark and all I’m really doing is heating water for dinner and going to bed. Different priorities.
Tailoring it to Your Experience
Everyone who does an significant backpacking will develop their own unique blend of these priorities as they determine what factors are most important to them. Everyone has a unique mix of priorities even if they can’t readily articulate it. If a person goes backpacking more than a couple times a year their priorities become evident in their gear selection even if they’re not aware of it. No one blend of priorities is better than any other. Some people can full enjoy a backpacking experience by hiking two miles and setting up camp and others like to hike 20+ miles. Neither experience is better, they’re just different.
Also, this blend of priorities can be different for different pieces of gear. For example, when it comes to a sleeping pad I am not so worried about price because my whole backpacking experience hinges on getting a good night sleep and staying warm. But for rain gear I’m unwilling to spend more than $20 for a whole system. In 8 hours of rain I am going to get soaked regardless of whether I have a $20 Frogg Toggs rain suit or the most expensive waterproof breathable gear. Every piece of gear serves a different purpose(or multiple purposes) and has a different impact on your outdoor experience. Accordingly, every item you carry reflects a different mix of priorities.
Finally, the best way to determine what works for you is to try different things yourself. It’s very helpful to read reviews and compare products, but no one on a forum is going to be able to unequivocally tell you which products will be best for you unless they’re very well acquainted with your backpacking style. I love forums, and it’s wise to listen to the advice of more experienced people, but your experience will ultimately be the deciding factor in choosing the gear that fits you best.